Overhyped/Underappreciated in 2011

A completely unrelated but pretty image
An somewhat unrelated image that somehow captures my feeling about film viewing in 2011

My film-going experience in 2011 was a mixed bag. Some of the films everyone loved left me cold; others that I really liked no one seemed to care about. In very short order, here’s my list of the underwhelming and under-appreciated:

The Underwhelming

Marcy Martha Mary Marlene – … was interesting, but I never quite connected with it emotionally. It may have been the mood I was in that night, or that the cult seemed so obviously fucked up that it was harder to believe that people would fall into it.

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows – all the inner gayness of the Holmes/Watson relationship came out, which was great. But it was a criminal waste of two really terrific actresses (Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams), and there wasn’t a lot of detecting going on.

Thor… was fun. But I didn’t buy the romantic relationship between the leads, and the film looked murky as hell (still not a big fan of 3D, sorry).

Black Swan – Yes, I know this came out in 2010. But I saw it in 2011. Apart from some really good, creepy monster/swan stuff, I didn’t really get what the fuss was about. The Red Shoes from 1948 is a much better film, with more to say about identity, objectification, reality and desire.

TinTin – After eight years of motion capture-based human animation, I think we should just use the technology for non-humans and call it a day. I liked the film’s aesthetics, but I forgot about it as soon as I threw out my empty popcorn bag.

Crazy Stupid Love – I liked the performances and the direction. But the underlying message of the film was rather conservative and ultimately uninspiring.

Super 8 – J.J. Abrams could have made a great film about a movie-obsessed boy reconciling with his father after his mother’s death. Or a fun monster movie. Instead he tried to mash them together. But unlike Cameron’s Abyss or Spielberg’s Close Encounters, the result was less than the sum of its parts.

The Under-appreciated

In Time – This is a terrific sci-fi ‘B’ movie with real social relevance, by the same guy who brought us Gattaca and Lord of War.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Justly praised for its overall intelligence and for Andy Serkis’ performance. What was under-appreciated, however, was the work of John Lithgow and Brian Cox. Without these two – especially Lithgow, whose plight is in many ways the driving force of the plot – the film wouldn’t have much heft. On a contrary note, when will screenwriters figure out how to integrate female characters into their plots (see Sherlock above). Freida Pinto is stuck with absolutely nothing to do in the film.

Certified Copy – Abbas Kiarostami’s understated, tricky film about a relationship (or is it relationships) – possibly fictional, possibly real, perhaps both – was just wonderful to watch, especially after ingesting a series of overdone CGI hamburger helper.

The Tree of Life – This film should get a medal for giving a big middle finger to everyone out there with short attention spans (and all the technologies that service them). Most of the people who complained (to me, anyway) about the slow pacing, ambiguity, and near-plotlessness are the same folks who text while walking down the sidewalk. This film demands patience and a serene state of mind. But while it’s not a perfect movie, it has a lot to say and can wrap you in its beauty, if you let it.

Mumbai Diaries / Dhobi Ghat – This did well in India, but is unknown here. And that’s a shame. This is a beautiful look at Mumbai, through the eyes of four interconnected people who each have very different professions, classes, and outlooks on life.

This year also marked a turning point in my own viewing habits. I watched films, tv shows, and webisodes on almost every type of screen and using a variety of providers, without really thinking about it. The quality of streaming video often leaves something to be desired, but after about two minutes I stop worrying about it and just watch the film. The main reason for picking one delivery method over another had more to do with my mood at the time (impulsive, festive, social, etc.) than anything else. The big entertainment companies are running scared, and for good reason – with the consumer in the driver’s seat, they can’t dictate the terms. This is not necessarily good news for film professionals, but that’s for the next blog entry.

Script Analysis/Acting Resources

So in the last post, I promised that I’d tell you about some of the resources that have proven invaluable for me in the area of script analysis. So without further ado, here’s a combination of techniques, books and films that will help you get to the heart of your script and be able to communicate it better to your cast and crew.


There’s a lot of pressure to get it all right on set. The clock is ticking and the money is leaking out of your pocket faster than you can think. So take time NOW, when things are relatively calm, and get down to it. And DON’T expect all the answers to come right away. It’s taken me years for some of the things I’ve learned to really soak in, and the biggest thing I’ve learned about film making is how much more I have to learn.

Take Some Acting Classes

Go to Adrienne Weiss’ Directing Actors website. She’s a really good director, and taught me a hell of a lot about how to talk to actors. Adrienne is bi-coastal, but if you can’t get to her, find an acting group, play, or something going on in your town.

Get some experience, however you can. Even just watching rehearsals helps.

Get Physical

No matter what an actor’s training is, I think that the best way to boost a performance is to give them something to do. This doesn’t have to be an “action” in the running-away-from-an-explosion sense. Look at Ozu’s Tokyo Story (or frankly, almost any of his work). There’s not a whole lot of action going on – no one’s getting shot or stabbed, or thrown around. There’s a lot of dialog. But the performances are incredibly dynamic, at least in part because the actors are always DOING something. They’re packing to go on a trip, eating dinner, fanning themselves, cleaning up… I don’t know what Ozu’s directions to his actors were. But by getting your actors to move around, do things, play, walk, or anything aside from sitting down, you get their energy focused on something outside of their heads.


Judith Weston has written two really good books about directing actors. Of the two, I think Directing Actors is the most accessible.

I found The Film Director’s Intuition very slow going. I’m not sure why – it may be because of the mood I was in when I read it. But once she gets into script analysis techniques – and illustrates them with three really good examples – the book takes off and all the material in the earlier chapters comes together.

William Ball’s Sense of Direction is a nice, slim volume that really gets to the heart of directing actors pretty fast. There are some skippable chapters (it was written for stage directing), but it’s worth picking up.

Cathy Haase’s Acting For Film is geared towards actors more than directors – and for this reason it’s actually a valuable resource for you. It’s very practical, written very clearly, and is also very brief.

I’m still reading Tony Barr’s Acting For the Camera, but so far it’s a very clear guide to how to act for film; again, a very good book for you to read.

Finally, pick up a copy of Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. It’s aimed at actors who have to audition. They have to analyze a play based on a small scene and find a way to the heart of both the scene and their performance, all in a very short period of time. Sounds a lot like film acting, right? Yup. As a writer, I found the “12 guideposts” Shurtleff posits to be absolutely essential to figuring out why a scene works or doesn’t work. Similarly, I use the same guideposts to help me figure out the subtext of the scene, or prepare some playable direction to give actors.

Watch Films

Watch films with an eye towards editing and performance. Look past cinematography and production value/design as much as possible. It’s not that that those elements aren’t important – they very much are – it’s just that in many ways those decisions are made by you AND others (the director of photography, mixer, production designer, costume designer, etc.). The part that’s really YOURS on set has to do with working with the actors. The results usually manifest themselves later in the editing room as the editor (with your input) tries to build the drama from the different takes.

Some people have said it’s good to watch a film without the sound on – so you don’t get too sucked into the story. Others have suggested watching films in black and white (either watching a movie shot in black and white or turning the saturation down so that the picture is effectively monochrome). I don’t know if I buy either of those techniques whole-heartedly, but they’re there, and maybe they’ll work for you.

Floorplans, Shotlists, Storyboards, etc.

It wasn’t until I was storyboarding Caleb’s Door that I realized that I could cut big chunks of dialog out of certain scenes. The reaction shots would communicate plenty. Something about working with my hands, drawing my silly stick figures (I’m not a really good illustrator), made connections in my brain that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. During the reshoots I adopted a looser style without storyboarding but my DP and I went over the script and I did make notes on it that resulted in a shotlist and a floorplan.

Some people will argue that a floorplan done while on the shooting location is more useful than a storyboard done months before. I say whatever works for you is good. Just don’t skip this step. Anything you can do to pull the script out of two dimensions and into three in your head is a good thing. It will also help you figure out where the camera should be, what should be in front of it, and what’s important to hear – all those things that your crew needs to know too.

Okay, that’s it for now. Actual real news about the film is coming soon, I swear! In the meantime, I’m chugging away on a rewrite.

If you like this blog, visit the IndieGogo page, and express your thanks via a donation – every contribution, no matter what size, helps the film come to life.

Script Analysis – Don’t be Scared

Some news: Anthony Viera, sound mixer extraordinaire, is coming aboard the film! I’ve worked with Anthony on about 8 or 9 projects, and it’s always fun. Ben and Anthony have worked together on about a dozen projects as well. These guys understand the indie vibe and aren’t scared by it.

Working with actors still scares me sometimes, however. I’m not sure whether it’s because I haven’t done a whole lot of it, or whether it’s just endemic to the work. In a way, working on technical things is very easy for me. I understand the problem space and can nail a solution. Directing actors is about expanding on solutions, opening up more pathways – really going out on a limb.

I think this aspect of the craft turns off a lot of directors. I see their eyes glaze over as the actor asks them questions. Or I see them hit the actors with a ton of information when all they need is a sentence or two. So this past week I’ve been digging into my script analysis, hoping to get a jump on this type of situation.

The first thing I do is print out the script, dig out a pen, and go through each scene, looking for:
* Scene beats and transitions. These can be loosely defined as changes in subject. The transition is the space in between each beat. Sometimes it’s an unspoken, unwritten thing; sometimes it’s a bit of blocking or the entrance of a character; sometimes it’s a line.

* Sensory data. This includes images and sounds; also possibly textures, smells and tastes that are implied (like people eating dinner, or dressing in a certain way). Sense data are a type of fact, and facts are good to work with.

* Ambiguous lines or actions. These give you and your actors something to work with – since they could mean more than one thing, they’re like an opening into the character’s inner life.

* Facts / Backstory. Facts are always good. They can’t be judged. An actor can start with a fact and generate an emotional response more effectively than if s/he starts with judgments, opinions, gossip, etc.

* Tension/Stakes. Does the script fall flat in the middle? Does it ratchet up the tension? Does it need more or less “stuff” to get there? Since I’m working on my own script, I have the luxury of adding new stuff or taking it away at will.

From these things, I can glean the following info. This stuff I write down on a separate worksheet (I’ll post it up on the IndieGogo site).

* Thru-Line of each character for each scene. This can roughly be defined as what the character wants FROM the other character. It has to be verb-based, and it’s helpful if it includes an emotional response on the part of the other character. For example, Steve wants humiliate John can be too limiting. Steve wants John to feel humiliated opens up more possibilities for action.

* Moment Before. What happened just before the scene started. This is sometimes in the script, sometimes not. It’s very important to establish since films are shot out of order. One of my biggest failures as a director was not reminding an actor of what had just happened before a small transitional scene. The scene, which would have gone unnoticed, was instead really flat, because the actors didn’t carry the tension from the moment before into the scene with them.

* Questions. These are things I can ask the actors or myself. Sometimes a good question can open up a scene.

In the next blog I’ll get into more detail on this stuff, and post some links to some good books on the subject. The key thing is to take this stuff seriously, and work on it as early as possible. When that rollercoaster goes over the first hill (see my last entry), you’ll find yourself waist-deep or higher in production goo. Better to do your prep when things are calm.

Until next time…