Mark's Newsletter Articles, Interviews and Blogs

This is an archive of all of Mark's articles and interviews from his very popular MarkWTravis.com Newsletter. The most recent is first. Enjoy.  

The Story Within: An Interview with Pen Densham

Pen Densham is an award-winning writer-director-producer of such blockbuster hits as Robin Hood: Prince of

Pen Densham

Thieves (1991), Backdraft (1991), Moll Flanders (1996), and The Outer Limits (1995-2001), just to name a few. While I was attending the University Film and Video Association Conference in Chicago, I met up with Pen and we discussed the importance of writing the story within.

Mark Travis: One of the things I feel passionate about as a storyteller is that I can only tell the story within me, not the story that the system wants or some demographic wants. Why do you tell stories? How do you come up with your stories?

Pen Densham: Let’s go back to very primal things. There is something to do with the death of my mother that caused great pain. It forced me to look at the world through a filter. I knew from childhood that I wanted to work – to do, what I call ‘cast spells’ with a camera – which is to be magical, that there is some importance to being alive, that it all somehow means something.

It’s interesting. I’ve gained a certain perspective about writing from the root stem. I frequently felt like I was stealing time and I felt guilty because I thought I should be working on something to sell to a studio. When I snuck away and wrote something personal, it always seemed foolish, but those projects seemed to get made more frequently. I noticed there were patterns of depth to them, they seemed to have more strong creative language in them. There’s a sort of channeling when we’re writing purely; it’s almost like unleashing your brain and something comes through it. So, somehow, when I wrote those more personal stories, they had a more magnificent value system, they were different, they attracted actors and as people looked at the writing, they wanted me to write more things for them. That writing was so unique and the things that were in them impassioned me immensely so I found it hard to give up on them.

I let things flow through me on a faith base, operating from an instinct of “I know this is going to come”. I get very upset when people say you have to define everything before you do it. There is no right way. Some things don’t come logically. When I wrote Moll Flanders, I wrote it in five weeks in my spare time, every night at midnight and, dare I say it, it was like I was having sex with my computer through language because I was so impassioned to write it. It came out of me like an infatuation. I would love to write like that more often. It’s the Holy Grail and it’s what I would love to help others find as well. That script ended up getting made, with very few changes, within about 18 months.

Three studios told me that Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was the stupidest idea they’d ever heard, that men with guns was the only thing audiences wanted to see. We were three-quarters of the way through the script when we heard that Fox had green-lit another Robin Hood. I was told there was no point in finishing the script and I said we had to finish it because I’d already abandoned one story that supposedly didn’t have ‘studio value’. I knew that if I abandoned Robin Hood, it would mean I’d essentially gone over to the studio system, that I essentially belonged to them – whatever they wanted, whatever they chose was going to be the way I would live my life instead of fulfilling the things that came out of me. So, we finished Robin Hood as a gesture of completion, knowing that it was never going to get made. Of course, it did end up getting made. The script I abandoned, I’ve been working on it for over 20 years now. It’s about self-worth and how that is connected to self-fulfillment. It’s a script that makes me tingle every time I pick it up.

MT: It’s very encouraging for me to hear you say you’ve been working on a script for over 20 years. It usually takes me 8 years to complete one of my scripts; the first 5 are really about getting to the heart of the story, figuring out what it’s really all about. My feeling is that important stories take that long because it takes that long for them to reveal themselves. My writing process is that there’s a story rumbling around inside and I have to find a way to let it come out. I talk about writing as more of an archaeological metaphor: I’m dusting away the layers to reveal what’s down underneath, but I have to be gentle with it otherwise I may destroy it.

PD: Right, and you might find that things aren’t quite what you thought or where you thought they would be as the dust and layers clear. I use the term “being ripe” and the advice I give to people is take it because it feels like it’s always going to be there and then it evaporates. Get it down and not just as a note, especially with dialogue, because the way it comes out first is often much better than trying to re-calibrate it later. The most organic, natural writing – this channeling writing – is closer to a finished result than trying to calculate your writing.

I call the first draft the “Lewis & Clark because, as I say, any way to the coast is absolutely legitimate because how can you blame yourself for doing things inaccurately when you’ve yet to discover where you’re going? And then, once you have written it, always cheer yourself on and celebrate your completion. After it’s finished, you can look at it objectively and see what you were trying to write.

MT: So, what I hear you saying is that many of your stories start out as impulses, things that have to be written. Even if you’re not totally sure what the story is in the beginning, there is a source from which you are writing, a feeling that something important is there, something that’s driving you.

PD: I call those “life scripts” and I think it’s because they’re going into things that are inside your subconscious that you’re still struggling to put a kind of perspective on. Somebody said to me once, after I’d handed him a script, “Oh, good. I love reading your scripts because I always cry at the end.” Most of my scripts end with emotional reconciliations between separated people whose coming together is joyously happy and it makes you cry. I hadn’t even realized I was doing that. I also see now that I have a sort of schematic that I frequently write that I have no idea why I’m writing it our how I’m writing it. It goes something like this: a man, who is damaged, goes into a world in which he has no tools he can use and he always goes into this world with a woman who doesn’t yet like herself and wishes she was someone or something other than what she is. The two of them go on an adventure and help each other in ways that are honorable and without any sexual relationship between them. I’ve written this over and over again – in war-torn France, as a Knights of the Round Table fantasy, as a detective working with the Navajo in New Mexico. It’s the same pattern – I’m writing to my nature, so I simply let them happen.

There’s such imprecision in this process and such uncertainty and sometimes our impulses seem so unlikely in terms of marketability, but then, somehow, it works. And the truth is, I have dozens of scripts that haven’t worked, things that I haven’t written well – these are just as important as those that have worked. I want to share the negatives as well as the successes because the imprecision of success is about constantly finding ways to get your material to people who just might be able to make it happen. It’s not that I made a shot at it and succeeded because that’s so, so wrong. I want people to understand, particularly creatives, that 10-20 years working on a project isn’t stupid, it’s practical and not giving up is what counts.

MT: What’s that Einstein quote you said the other day?

PD: As I understand it, it goes: “It’s not that I was smarter than other people, I just worked at it longer.”

MT: That’s fantastic. So, one last question: what advice, suggestions, encouragements do you have for writers – for all storytellers?

PD: Write a piece of crap. All writing is re-writing. Just let it spew out. It doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are or what kind of creative you are, really. All artists suffer from the critic in the brain that tells us we’re no good. All of us. You are not alone. Don’t limit yourself. Just let it fly.


FIVE SOLO SHOWS IN ONE MONTH

FIVE SOLO SHOWS IN ONE MONTH

Just a couple of days ago I suddenly realized that five (that’s right FIVE) solo shows that I have worked on, developed and even directed are all playing in the month of October. I am not sure what this means (sometimes I can see psychic or spiritual relevance in events such as this, but not this time) but at the least I feel it means that I should take a moment, honor all of these shows and then share this news with all of you with the hope that maybe you might be able to get to see at least one of them.

And, most ironic, is the inclusion of TIME FLIES WHEN YOU’RE ALIVE (Paul Linke) which is being given two performances only in celebration (hold on) of the its 25th Anniversary. That’s right. This was the first Solo Show I ever developed and directed.  And 25 years ago, TIME FLIES WHEN YOU’RE ALIVE opened in Los Angeles and rocked the theater world (“Mark Travis has created a new theater genre” said the L.A. Times) and ran for a solid year, sold out and was filmed for and HBO Special.  A very humble beginning for a journey in the world of autobiographical storytelling that has consume and influence a major part of my life for 25 years!

Okay, here are the Five Solo Shows in October.

TIME FLIES WHEN YOU’RE ALIVE written and performed by Paul Linke

October 13 and 14, Ruskin Theater,

3000 Airport Avenue  Santa Monica, CA 90405

(310) 397-3244

http://www.ruskingrouptheatre.com/current/45-show3/63-time-flies-

 

HOOKED written and performed by Bailey Mason

Plays Sundays only at 7:00 pm.  Oct 7 – November 11

Secret Rose Theatre

11246 Magnolia Boulevard

North Hollywood, CA 91601

http://www.hookedagain.net/

Reservations: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/268023

 

STRONGER THAN THE WIND written and performed by Alice Manning

October 18, 19, 20

Electric Lodge Performing Arts Center

1416 Electric Avenue

Venice, CA 90291

(310) 306-1854

Reservations: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/272741

 

SHE’S HISTORY written and performed by Amy Simon

Sunday, October 21st at 7 pm

The Lounge Theater

6201 Santa Monica Blvd (at El Centro, East of Vine)

Hollywood, California

http://sheshistory.com/site/

Reservations: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/273278

 

LITTLE MISS PERFECT written and performed by Mary Kincaid

Saturday, October 13 at 6:30 pm

at Bo Eason’s Personal Story Power Event Showcase

Sherwood Auditorium at the

The Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla, CA

Showcase is only open to event participants.

Event details at http://www.boeason.com

 

 


Increasing Your Film’s Production Value: An Interview with Ken Mader

It is my distinct pleasure to introduce to you award-winning filmmaker and one of my dear friends, Ken Mader. A self-

Ken Mader

described ‘mutant-hyphenate’, Ken does it all. From writing to producing, directing to editing, Ken’s multi-faceted understanding of the in’s and out’s of film are unmatched. I caught up with him during a rare bit of down time between projects to discuss the importance of production value, particularly for the low-budget filmmaker. 

Mark Travis: Your work consistently has the look of bigger budget projects. What drives you to squeeze that much production value onto the screen?

Ken Mader: Blame it on being raised on Hollywood movies I guess.  I’ve always been fascinated with the filmmaking process and tried to push the envelope, make whatever I shoot look like it cost 10x its actual budget.  From the time I was 8-years-old with my first Super-8 film camera blowing up model spaceships in my parent’s backyard, to my first feature where we built an entire bio laboratory set in their garage, I’ve just never understood the concept that just because it’s low budget it has to look low budget.  Especially now with all the tools we have available, why wouldn’t you want your film to look and play amazing?  Unless you’re making the next BLAIR WITCH or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, striving for quality and production value for me has always been a priority.

MT: How would you define production value?

KM: Production Value to me is simply when something looks professional.  It’s not necessarily about car chases and explosions (though that can certainly add “production value”) but rather when a filmmaker puts a focus on the quality of the image, sound and storytelling.  It can be somewhat difficult to quantify since artistry plays a major role, but runs the gamut from a well-developed screenplay to quality production design, lighting, sound, wardrobe, makeup, acting, directing, editing, music… every craft is important to help elevate the quality of the work.  Finding talented people to collaborate with in each discipline is optimal, but there are also some simple techniques that can be learned to help lift your project above most others.  Let’s face it, craftsmen and women have spent decades perfecting the art of storytelling on film (and now on pixels).  I feel it’s incumbent upon all of us as filmmakers to at least learn that language and the inherent rules before we start breaking them.

MT: Why is the production value necessary for the independent filmmaker? 

KM: Whether movies or TV (dramas not ‘reality’) audiences have been conditioned to expect a certain level of quality and standards of professionalism in their entertainment.  The same holds true for executives and producers who are in the hiring or “green light” position.  Simply put, amateur quality takes the audience out of the story.  They begin noticing the poor production values rather than being engaged in the storytelling and characters.  Low quality will unconsciously make your audience focus on that lack of quality.  It’s distracting when you’re used to looking at the best of the best every day. Further, executives can rarely see beyond the screen or what you show them in your showpiece or demo reel.  If you present them something that looks low budget, you will be pigeonholed as a “low budget filmmaker”.  They will think if they give you more money for your next project that you will make it look like that.  So unless low quality is part of the conceit (again ala BLAIR WITCH or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY) it’s always best and will serve you well to try to raise the bar as high as you can.  We have a slogan at my demo reel company: “Look like you were paid for the work on your reel, not the other way around.”  I’d say that holds true for independent filmmakers as well.

MT: What are the easiest ways to increase production value, particularly for low or no-budget films?

KM: First and foremost is lighting.  Regardless of the camera you shoot with, proper lighting is key to making your film or reel look professional.  Find a DP who knows how to light, or if you can’t afford one, learn the basic fundamentals yourself (this is a good thing regardless, as it will help you communicate with a DP once you have the budget for one).  Don’t assume that just because you’re shooting digital on a low-light sensitive DSLR that basic principles of lighting do not apply.  Or conversely if you’re lucky enough to be shooting 35mm or RED that you don’t need to light.  Even shooting in natural light situations you will usually need to augment the light in some way, be it with a bounce card or reflectors or face fill, etc. Study films that are similar in genre to yours.  See how they did it.  Really examine and analyze how they lit the scenes.  Where is their key light sourced from?  Are they using rim light, edge light, top light, back light?  Then use all that info to inspire your own visuals.  Steal ideas if you have to (don’t worry, we all do it) then incorporate them into your own original work.

Here are a couple of quick tips to get you started:

1. – “Shoot the Shadow Side”  Meaning, key light from the opposite side of the “Line” whenever possible (and if you don’t know what the Line is, look it up.  It’s also referred to as the “180 Rule”.  It will save you from looking like an amateur and your editor from going prematurely bald for pulling his hair out trying to match directional continuity – not to mention your audience getting dizzy watching your film).

 2. – When outside in daylight, put the sun behind the actors; or in early morning/sunset use it as a side light.  Never ever use the sun to light faces.  It’s simply too bright and not flattering for the actors (washes them out).  With the sun at their backs or side acting as a hot rim light, use a bounce card or reflector to cast some of that light back up into their face.

 3. – Put the camera on a dolly (even if that means sitting in a shopping cart) or use a stabilizing system like Steadicam or Glidecam.  There’s nothing worse than making an audience nauseous with radical hand-held shaky-cam (unless again it’s an aesthetic choice to shoot “shaky-cam”).  And if you do shoot handheld with a small camera, get a shoulder mount or some rig that will give it the look of more “weight”.  Otherwise it can look like you shot it with your smartphone intended for YouTube.

By the way, probably my biggest pet peeve besides bad lighting is “crossing the Line”.  I see that basic Filmmaking 101 rule broken all the time in low budget indies.  

MT: So how do you employ these techniques in your own work?

KM: I try to keep all these things in mind every time I shoot.  After awhile it just becomes second nature.  Sometimes you may need to adjust the blocking of a scene to accommodate the better lighting situation.  Other times you may need to cheat the light a bit to paint the prettier shot.  In any case it’s about making it look the best it can be in any given situation.  For example, when I shoot and direct scenes for actor’s demo reels, they consistently get asked by casting directors and producers, “What show or movie is that scene from?”  That is the highest compliment I can be paid, and I’m very proud of that achievement.  Plus it’s a great conversation starter for the actor.  They look like a professional because the work looks professional, not like it was shot for their reel.  And as a result they tend to book the job more frequently.

At the end of the day, the better your material looks and plays, the better the audience will experience it, the wider appeal it will have.  And isn’t that the ultimate goal for all of us as filmmakers and storytellers?

******

You can find Ken on the web at www.kennethmader.com and his demo reel company at www.perfectreel.com  He is offering a 15% Discount on all demo reel services for Mark Travis students including RED Camera shooting, as well as special deals on RED Camera Rentals and Production Value Consulting for Mark Travis Filmmakers prepping their next project.


The Hollywood Black Film Festival: An Interview with Tanya Kersey

This year’s Hollywood Black Film Festival runs October 25-28, 2012 in Hollywood, CA. Dubbed “The Black Sundance”,

Tanya Kersey, founder of HBFF

HBFF is an annual 4-day celebration of black cinema drawing together established and rising filmmakers, popular film and television stars, writers, industry executives, emerging filmmakers, writers and actors as well as diverse audiences from Southern California and around the world.

I had the privilege of sitting down with HBFF’s founder, Tanya Kersey, to discuss the benefits of film festivals and HBFF, in particular. 

Mark Travis: You began the Hollywood Black Film Festival in 1998. What inspired you to start it?

Tanya Kersey: I was running an entertainment trade publication called Black Talent News, and I had been doing a conference called the Infotainment Conference as a standalone weekend event for a few years at Loyola Marymount University.   I had also hosted panels and workshops at other film festivals so I was very familiar with what a film festival was.  HBFF grew organically from the conference.  I thought I was putting on a small, local conference and it turned into an international weekend event.  The filmmakers started asking when I was going to start screening films and a light bulb went off.  There wasn’t a Hollywood-styled black film festival in the LA area and I thankfully had strong connections in the industry that helped me jump start the festival and launch it at USC School of Cinema-Television.  I was inspired by the need to fill a gap and offer black filmmakers an opportunity to have their works seen.

MT: What are the benefits to submitting work for screening in a film festival?

TK: If you get accepted, you have the opportunity to have your film screened in front of a diverse audience.  You have the possibility of attracting a distribution deal, attracting an agent, networking with your colleagues and other industry professionals, seeing your film in front of a paying audience and gauging their reaction, getting press attention and reviews that you can build momentum on, and building buzz for your film. If your film gets accepted by a major film festival, that’s validation!

MT: What benefits, in particular, does HBFF offer filmmakers and writers?

TK: HBFF is focused on fostering and developing the vision of independent filmmakers and writers by bringing their films to the attention of the industry, media and public through an exhibition and competition program.  There aren’t many opportunities for the creative Black Hollywood community to come together to share in our collective creative energy, watch films, attend panels and workshops, network, make deals, develop business relationships and create partnerships.  HBFF is the perfect storm for Black filmmakers and writers in Hollywood that have few other avenues to be inspired, empowered and educated, and to take their careers to the next level.   But HBFF IS NOT only for Black filmmakers and writers, the information and opportunities that the festival offers can enhance the career of any filmmaker and writer.

MT: Oftentimes it remains a mystery why some films get chosen to be showcased in film festivals while others are passed over. How do you choose which films make it into HBFF?

TK: The films that we choose are based on exceptional stories.  It really comes down to story.  Story drives everything!  No matter how good the acting is, and how big your budget is, or how experienced your creative team is, if the story is not tight, the film won’t be right!  I always implore filmmakers not to rush to shoot a movie from a script that hasn’t been vetted.  It takes at least six months, on average, to develop a good script in terms of dialogue, character development, tone, continuity, and storyline.  Before you go before the lenses make sure you invest in professional coverage.  It makes absolutely no sense shooting a movie based on a script that isn’t ready.  All the tricks in the world can’t make a bad script good and if you invest before you shoot, you stand a much better chance of producing a film that will be a big winner on the film festival circuit.

MT: HBFF isn’t just about screening films. What other activities are available for filmmakers and writers to participate in?

Cast from “A Million Colours”, HBFF 2011

TK: Panels and workshops with leading industry professionals where you can learn about the business, refine your talent and development new opportunities.  We have a pitchathon where you have an opportunity to pitch your film project; and a monologue slam where actors do a monologue in front of a live audience and get comments and critiques from a panel of casting professionals.  The parties and receptions are, of course, great networking opportunities.We attract such stars and industry insiders as Academy Award® winners Sidney Poitier and Forest Whitaker, John Singleton, Bill Duke, George Singleton, Cedric The Entertainer, Ice-T, Anthony Anderson, Blair Underwood, Sanaa Lathan, Rockmond Dunbar and Loretta Devine. The festival has become a hotbed for the Black Hollywood community.

 This year’s festival runs October 25-28, 2012 in Hollywood, CA.  The festival website is http://www.hbff.org.  You can find out all about the conference panels and workshops at http://www.hbff.org/infotainment-conference-2012/.


An Interview with Al Watt

Al Watt, author of The 90-Day Novel, The 90-Day Re-Write and his award-winning novelDiamond Dogs, and I sat down and chatted about his process for unlocking the subconscious when we write and “trusting the story that lives within.” 
 
Al’s upcoming classes include the 90-Day Novel Telecourse (begins Monday, September 10, 2012) and the 90-Day Screenplay in-person workshop (begins Wednesday, September 19th) For more information on these courses or to register, please go to lawriterslab.com

Mark Travis: It seems these days that many writers are driven by the idea of selling their scripts over really telling a good story. You mention in the introduction to your best-selling book The 90-Day Novel, that we need to “make the story more important than the result.” I think this is very true but I’m curious, how have you been able, in your own writing to keep yourself focused on the story and not on the possible or potential result?

Al Watt: Well, let’s face it, we teach what we need to learn. I had an epiphany on March 23rd, 1998. I remember the date because I wrote it in my journal. I had been writing for years, mostly screenplays, and was not selling anything. I was a writing client at one of the biggest talent agencies in town, got lots of meetings, but nobody was buying my scripts. My epiphany was this: I realized that I was a mediocre writer. Seriously. I did the math. If you write every single day for thirteen years and sell nothing, you’ve got to have a problem. But here’s the thing; I loved writing more than anything. I knew I was going to be a writer for the rest of my life whether I liked it or not, and so I decided that I was going to write for myself. I let go of all ideas of what the marketplace wanted, ideas of what was commercial and what people might like and wrote this dark little story that had been in my head for years. I wrote it as a novel, even though I knew nothing about the publishing world. I didn’t even think I would show it to anyone. Of course, you know what happened… I ended up selling it for a fortune, it won a bunch of awards, and then I got hired to adapt it into a screenplay. The point is, when I let go of having a screenwriting career, I got one. Now, the challenge for me, and it never ends, is to continue to return to that beginner’s mind. It’s humbly to accept that I’m really just a channel for the story that wants to come through me. When I try to control the process, my writing is mediocre at best. When I let it rip, anything can happen.

MT: You were asked once when you were on a panel at Festival America in Paris what you think the author’s role in the modern world is. How did you answer that question then, or, how would you answer it now?

AW: I mumbled. I can’t remember what my answer was. I was embarrassed that anyone expected me to have one. I think it’s different for everyone. I could give you a lofty answer about we are to reflect the times in which we live, which is probably true, but I think if anyone actually set out to achieve that goal their head would explode. I write because the physical act of putting my ideas on a page keeps me sane.

MT: One of my favorite quotes by you is “trust the story that lives within”. It seems such a simple concept, but not necessarily an easy one. How did you arrive at this idea? And how have you been able to connect with and trust the story within in your own writing? And how would you advise any of us to reach that place of trust?

AW: I believe that our subconscious is the seat of our genius. Genius is available to everyone. It’s a willingness to tap into our primal selves. That can be really terrifying. When I work with writers, there is no question that they have a brilliant story to tell – every single one of them – the challenge is in allowing it to emerge. My job is to create an environment that allows them to feel safe enough to explore, and then to teach them the questions to ask of their subconscious so that the story can emerge. I will never tell a writer, “you should do this, or you should do that.” It isn’t my story – it’s their story. Trust isn’t a goal that we reach, it is the result of accepting ourselves, both good and bad. If a writer aspires to confidence, he will never write anything, but if he accepts his lack of confidence, what he writes will likely be truthful and engaging.

MT: Another of my favorites from you is “the desire to write is connected to the desire to evolve”. Absolutely love that. How do you see story as necessary in our evolution, whether as individuals or as societies? And how do you feel that you have evolved as a result of your own writing?

AW: I think story is the most powerful way to explore a theme or idea, because story holds characters accountable to universal law. If you’re in a theater with a thousand people and a character on the screen does something that you don’t believe, chances are 999 other people think it’s bullshit too. You can feel it in the theater the moment a movie goes off the rails. The energy shifts.

As writers, when an idea comes to us, we tend to get very excited about it, and then as we begin writing, we see how this idea is actually a setup. It demands that we confront aspects of ourselves that we had not anticipated. A key ingredient in evolution is shedding what no longer serves us. If you think of evolution in psychological or even emotional terms, story demands that we shed our old idea of who we are for a larger more noble idea. Unless, of course, it is a cautionary tale, in which case he who refuses to adapt succumbs to his Darwinian fate.

MT:  You advocate writing the first draft – whether a novel, screenplay, play, memoir – in 90-days. What’s the benefit of that approach? When you wrote Diamond Dogs did you do the first draft following the 90-day approach? Or has this been developed since that work was finished? And how has this new approach affected your own writing?

AW: I actually wrote the first draft of Diamond Dogs in forty-four days while I was on the road doing standup. That experience was the genesis of The 90-Day Novel.

The point is to get the first draft down fast, and to outrun our logical mind. Many professional writers, from Stephen King to John Steinbeck have discovered that when you write your first draft quickly you tend to bypass all of the left-brain critical voices that prevent the story from finding its way onto the page. The irony is that what was impossible to achieve in ten years becomes possible in three months. By letting go of the idea that it has to be perfect, or even good, we make room for our subconscious to do its work. Ironically, that’s when the work springs to life. The fact is, we have a tendency to confuse perfectionism with excellence. The two have little to do with each other. One is a disease, while the other is a process. The 90-Day Novel process involves marrying the wildness of our subconscious to the rigor of story structure. There are key universal experiences in the hero’s journey. By exploring these experiences in the world of our story, images appear and it actually becomes possible to move beyond our limited idea of our story to a more vivid and dynamic version. The truth is that our idea of our story is never the whole story. Writers tend to get stuck when they either rely solely on their subconscious, or solely on “plotting.” I teach story structure as an experiential model rather than a conceptual model, which is a fancy way of saying that we can reduce any transformation in our life to a series of experiences. There is nothing formulaic about this approach. I tell writers that everything we can imagine belongs in our story if we’re willing to distill our ideas to their nature. And that’s what I teach. I teach writers how to ask better questions of their subconscious in order to understand their story in a new way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Actor/Director Relationship

As far as relationships go, I think the one between actors and directors is the most   challenging. It is simultaneously demanding and misunderstood. Think about it. A director gets a script that is full of complex characters and he needs actors to portray those characters. Okay. That seems easy enough. There are thousands of available actors from which a director can choose. But, once the selection has been made, the trouble begins. The Actor/Director relationship is kind of like trying to dance a waltz and both parties are trying to lead. Or, perhaps more accurately, the director thinks it’s a waltz while the actor is convinced it’s a tango (and we won’t begin to discuss what music the writer or producer thinks the band is playing!)

The unfortunate truth is that actors expect most directors to be ‘result’ directors, meaning that they expect the director to communicate only how he wants the scene to be played as if actors can flip switches and push buttons until the prescribed performance comes out. The reason most actors expect result directing is because most directors are result directors. Hey, it’s the easiest way to direct. It’s like going to McDonald’s: I tell you what I want and you put it in the bag.

Not to mix metaphors, but this ‘marriage’ between the actor and director is dysfunctional (and curiously co-dependent) from the start. Not because of any malicious intent but rather because the two species have never really learned how to communicate effectively with each other. Take a look through all the literature on acting and directing, search through all the finest acting and directing schools and see how little is written or taught about the communication between actors and directors. Yet it’s very clear that actors and directors all have the best of intentions for making this relationship work. I have not met a director who did not have a clear idea of what she wanted. And every actor I have worked with has an intuitive instinct for their character and how a scene can be played. Why then does this relationship so often begin to fall apart when actors and directors begin talking to each other? The answer is quite simple: different languages and different ideas of how this relationship should or could work.

What’s missing? The missing element is the understanding that if this process is going to work there must be collaboration. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “We do collaborate. We do work together. We do talk to each other.” And you’re right; of course you do. But are you clear on what the job is and what each of you bring to the table?

Way too many directors think that it is the director’s job to “tell the actors what you want” and too many actors believe that their job is to “give the director what he/she wants”. This is their collaboration. And with this co-dependent formula the final product is destined to be limited to the imagination of the director and most of the potential creative input from the actor will never be exposed.

So, what is the shared goal of the actor and director and what is it that they are missing?

In this challenging relationship there is a third entity – the product of this union, the child if you will – the character. In fact the primary reason for this ‘marriage’ is to create the offspring. Can you imagine raising a child when you and your partner have two totally different ideas of how to nurture it? One of you (the actor) wants to infuse the child with certain emotions, habits, attitudes, fears and dreams. And the other (the director) has very clear ideas how that child should behave under certain and specific conditions. And who is there to advocate for the child? Is anyone even listening to the child? Is anyone truly interested in what the child might want, what the child might need? Or how the child thinks or dreams? What about his fears or desires?

The essential job of the actor and director relationship is to create a character of such depth and authenticity that it can be ‘released’ into any scene without prerequisites of ‘acting’ or ‘performance’. What the director or the actor believes the character wants or needs pales by comparison to what the character truly wants or needs. How we believe the character would behave under certain circumstances may have little to do with the character’s own intuition and instincts. Create the character and then let the character breathe.

Here’s a thought. What would happen if directors stopped ‘directing actors’? By this I mean, what if directors abandoned the idea of demanding a certain performance, or controlling the behavior of the actor/character? What if the director actually allowed the actors, as the characters, to find their way through each scene?

And, what would happen if actors stopped ‘acting’? What if they gave up the practice of shaping, defining and controlling the behavior of their characters? What if they just allowed their characters to exist authentically and purely? What if they let their character carve his/her own way through each scene, through each moment of the character’s life?

Imagine it  – no more ‘directing’ and no more ‘acting’

Imagine a world of storytelling where each character is free from the constrictions and restrictions of actors and directors.

Imagine the actor/director relationship evolving into a creative relationship full of wonder, joy, creativity and parental pride.

It is possible.

All it takes is the willingness to explore new ways of working together. All it takes is the courage to relinquish those old, traditional controls and immerse yourself in a world of exploration and discovery.

This is my mission. One actor at a time. One director at a time.

 

 


An Interview with Actor William Sutton: The Power of the Travis Technique

William and I have been working together for the past 7 years. We first met when I was teaching at the Binger Filmlab in Amsterdam. William was one of the professional actors called in to work with the directors. In this interview, William shares his experiences and insights into my unique way of working with actors: The Travis Technique.
The Travis Technique is based on the philosophy: ‘Stop directing the actors; start directing the characters.’ In the Travis Technique, the director takes on the role of the Interrogator, a directorial persona that interrogates the character using a Socratic approach to building the character from within by using only questions. These questions stimulate and ignite the inner world of the character and in the process of answering those questions, the character emerges.
Mark Travis: William, thank you so much for taking time away from your family and your busy schedule to do this interview. I want to talk about your experience with the Travis Technique. As you know, this technique establishes a profoundly different relationship between the director and the actor. For my own edification, and for the benefit of other actors and directors, I would appreciate if you could share your experiences with us.
William Sutton: My pleasure.
MT: I am keenly aware that when I am directing you, when I am accessing the character through my interrogation process (an essential aspect of the Travis Technique), that you are experiencing profound changes within you. I can see it and feel it. But what I am not really aware of is what, exactly, you are experiencing during this process.
WS: Great question. Difficult to answer. For me, it’s an incredible shortcut to the realm of the character. What happens is that I shut off William’s set of questions and I turn to the character’s set of questions. I lose the mental clutter of my own questions, of perceptions of myself. That all disappears and a space opens up for the character. And then I allow myself to be loaded up. The Interrogation Technique loads me and then the scene starts. And then I’m into the scene. And what happens is not repeatable. And I think to be repeatable is not the desire.

MT: Do you mean it’s not a repeatable performance or it’s not a repeatable experience?

WS: It’s not a repeatable process. You’re not just replaying the scene because you the actor know how to ‘act’ that scene. You re-experience the scene each time, and with something slightly different each time. As the character. The actor isn’t there.

MT: I’ve always felt that the richness of this process is that the character is totally naïve; he doesn’t know what he is going to experience in the scene.

WS: Exactly. And that’s what keeps it from getting boring in any way, shape or form; you never know exactly what is going to happen. You see, the problem is that actor’s brains are programmed to go ,“Oh, well, that’s neat, I’ll do that trick.” But the people who have seen enough acting go, “Oh, yeah, I know, you’re just following that basic actor’s instinct”. And what the Travis Technique seems to do is just brush all of that away. That actor’s process can’t take place because it is not the actor who is sitting there. It’s the character sitting there. And the character needs to interact.

Very early on you were directing me and Misha (I think this was one of the first times we ever worked together) and you said, “Look, as soon as you’re saying the words of the character, you are the character. There is no acting necessary. You are that character.” And that was like a thunderbolt to me. And I’ve applied that idea ever since to all my characters. I mean it just saves me so much hassle as an actor. I used to think I’m this because of this and this.  But I’m not, I just am that person.

MT: Once the interrogation is done and once the character is ‘loaded’ as you say, what is the experience as you go into the scene?

WS: What I experience is kind of a curiosity. I’m intrigued by the thought, ‘What is this guy (the character) going to do? How is he going to react?’ There is always some kind of watcher or observer; it’s not me the actor, but just me, William, the curious me. I’m somewhere between acting as the character and observing the character and not knowing which way the character is going to go. That’s the bit I like about it. There’s a freedom there. It’s like, ‘Which path do I want to take?’ and then it happens and then I’m onto another moment. And there’s this unfolding matrix of reasons why.

I read a DeNiro interview where he said he creates a web of obstacles for himself. And some of them are contradictory to getting to the goal. And that’s what this method seems to do for me, personally. It introduces this web of contradictions and then I’m set loose into the scene. And then of course there are the other actors, the other characters, who are making their demands on me. The response (of my character) seems to come off as much more realistic. That’s what happens. And then, later, it feels like it’s a shame that we’re only doing this one scene because the scene is only a small part of where we are going. And I want to go on the whole journey.

MT: Sorry about that. It’s a workshop.

WS: I know. And that’s one thing that I’ve always noticed about your workshops is that I get this emotional charge. And since catharsis is a part of our business, if you only do one scene you don’t get a chance to release. And at the end of the day that can be very draining because you’re left with all of that character lurking inside you wanting to get out.

MT: During the interrogation process how do you perceive the person who is doing the interrogation? As just a voice? As an individual you know? You know you can’t perceive this person as a director because your character doesn’t have a director.

WS: To me the experience of being interrogated is … well, I forget the person who is interrogating me, unless they don’t interrogate me well. If they are not leading me into the open spaces or taking me down blind alleyways, that’s when I get pissed off at them. But when they are leading me into those spaces and down those alleyways, I don’t care who they are. I really don’t. I mean, the rest disappears and it just becomes a voice. It’s a voice that’s poking my character. It could just be that internal committee that’s allowed to say just about anything. One thing I know, they have to stay on the character’s path and not go down the actor’s path. And I want this voice to keep taking me to the final question or to find out if there is a final question. Find out what it is that tips the character over.

You’ve talked many times about filling the character up. And that’s what this process does. And then the character is left with needing to get rid of or resolve something internally rather than the actor needing to show what the character is thinking or feeling.

MT: So, there’s no room for the actor anymore?

WS: Right. The actor says, “I’m out of here. You (the character) take care of this. I’ll just watch. I’ll give you the lines you need, remind you of staging, but other than that don’t come to me.”

MT: What would you like to say to any director who is considering learning and using these techniques.

WS: Do it! Do it! Learn it. Apply it. It is shorthand to the character. It’s a short cut, cutting the actor out, a short cut to the characters. And actors will love you for it. You’ll have an actor on your side when you’re talking to the character, and then you’ve got a short cut into your character. If you give result oriented directing, then that’s what you’re going to get. You’re going to get a cardboard cutout of what your result is rather than a fully fleshed out character and a fleshed out result. I believe that.

MT: And what would you like to say to actors?

WS: Learn it! Learn it. Learn it. Learn it. Absolutely. You need to 100% turn off your actor brain and get into your character brain.

Over the years, I’ve been looking at the process of acting from many sides and I enrolled myself into the Method type of acting from the beginning and now I’m going towards Mamet, towards simplicity, cleanliness. Just cut out all the bullshit. When you say the words of Hamlet, you are Hamlet. You don’t need to act Hamlet. Hamlet has to act through you. And that’s what I think this technique brings. We’re at a crossroads. Now we’re at a place where you can just drop into being the character. Of course you need to study your circumstances, you need to be intelligent and aware of what you’re doing, but you can do without a lot of that ‘actors’ stuff. “Just say your lines and don’t bump into the furniture” is already pretty good advice. I like Mamet’s On Acting and this technique is Mametian in its usage. The fact is now you cut through the shit and create shorthand, a shortcut. It works. It works. Try it. It’s beautiful.

 


An Interview with Signe Olynyk: The Great American PitchFest

This year we celebrate the 9th installation of the Great American PitchFest. Started by Signe Olynyk and Bob Schultz as a way to bring writers and industry execs together, GAPF hosts 120 industry companies and roughly 2,000 writers. Boasting a series of master classes, private consultations and free panel discussions, GAPF is a great opportunity for writers, beginning and seasoned, to hone their craft, strengthen their pitching skills and engage in that all important Hollywood skill: networking. Click here for schedules and more information.

Mark Travis: I have a sort of love-hate relationship with pitching. As a storyteller, I love engaging people in the nuances of the story, so I have trouble with the formulaic feel of a pitch. Everyone seems to stress the concise structure of the pitch. Why must pitches be so short?

Signe Olynyk: It’s not so much that they need to be short as they need to be succinct. They need to be very focused. When you’re pitching, you need to take that 110 pages of script and get down to the bare bones of what your story is. You need to convey who your protagonist is, what their goal is, what the obstacles are in the way of that goal and the overall lesson learned by the end. And you can do that, believe it or not, in a sentence. Some people are really good at it and some people aren’t. Unfortunately, pitching is a necessary evil. The trick is knowing your story so well that your pitch doesn’t sound rehearsed. But you also have to be able to deviate from it, to be able to answer questions, because the minute the executive you’re pitching starts asking questions, it means they’re engaged. It’s a really good sign. The best pitches are a conversation. It’s like telling your best friend about a movie you’ve seen or a book you’ve just read and you’re describing what happened in that story. That’s really what a pitch is. And including the ending is really important – what do we take away from the story? Because that’s what the audience is going to take away from the movie – that lesson that enriches our lives. It’s the reason we go to the movies in the first place.

MT: So it’s the matter of the writer really knowing what they’re writing about.

SO: Absolutely. Just like a story has to have a beginning, middle and end, so does a pitch. Your beginning is where you describe who your protagonist is and what they want. The middle part is the obstacles that are in the way and the ending really is what happens and what lesson they’ve learned as a result.

MT: You’ve said that two or three times – what do they learn? I think that’s really important. I’ve heard so many pitches where the writer will say this is what happens and this is what happens and then it ends. As I listen to that story, my reaction as a director is that I understand what happens, but I don’t know why the story even exists. I don’t know what the protagonist learned from his experiences. I think that’s what’s meant by the question: what is my story really all about? Being able to tell me what lesson the protagonist has learned. When I teach directing, I always tell directors to ask themselves this question: when the film is over and the audience is going home, what do you want them to be feeling, thinking about, talking about as a result of your movie? That’s where the power of the movie lies – in how the story continues to resonate with you long after you’ve left the theater.

SO: That’s exactly right. That’s why we go to movies: to feel something. To get carried away, taken out of this moment in our lives and inserted into another world. We want to feel what these characters are going through, to experience the changes they go through as they progress on their journeys because in some small way, we experience change as well. Movies help us in our own evolutions.

MT: In terms of pitching, is there a difference between pitching directors, producers, etc?

SO: There is somewhat of a difference. What I mean by that is, you have you to know the bones of your pitch no matter whom you’re pitching. You also need to know whom you’re pitching. For example, if you’re pitching a producer, you’ll pitch them the bones, but then you’ll also pitch the expanded version of your pitch. You may talk about co-producing. If you’re pitching a funding organization or an investor, you’ll include how you’re looking for development money. You may be looking for an agent or a manager, so you’ll have to tailor your pitch to that. Let them know you’re looking for representation. You’re not just pitching your script. You’re pitching yourself. If you’re pitching a studio exec or a director, you might also be pitching the schedule or key crew members, budget, financial plan, etc. in addition to the bones of the story. That’s why it’s so important to know whom you’re pitching, what their needs are and then tailor your pitch so you are fulfilling their needs. I can’t emphasize this enough: when you’re pitching, you’re not just pitching your story, you’re pitching yourself and at the same time, fulfilling the needs of whomever you’re pitching. That’s all part of the relationship building.

MT: You have a lot of teachers at the Pitch Fest. They’re all talking about pitching and my experience is that they all have different takes on it. What’s your advice on how to take all this wonderful information and bring it together in ways that are useful?

SO:Well, all the teachers are hand-picked for their expertise. They may have different advice on how to ‘make it’

in the film business, but as far as pitching goes, they all teach the correct structure. There is value in their varying opinions about how to break into the business even though I don’t always agree with them. For example, there was one teacher who said that if you’re going to make it in this business you have to live in Los Angeles. I don’t think that’s really true anymore, except maybe when it comes to television. I live in Calgary and I’m still able to make my movies. Another speaker tells his students to give their pitch, to give those bones and then when the producer or whoever asks what’s next, the correct answer is “you have to read the script”. That’s something I strongly disagree with. If you have someone asking about your script, it means they’re interested. If you are not prepared to answer their questions, telling them instead that they have to read the script, then you’re basically shutting the door. It’s also quite disrespectful of that professional, in my opinion. So, you will learn different things from different people, but you have to weigh that against your own experiences and intuition. It’s just like in any community – there will be a variety of opinions and you have to sift through those and figure out which ones resonate with you.

MT: My first reaction when people tell me, ‘well, you have to read the script’ is that I get annoyed. That response also throws up a bunch of red flags for me. I don’t trust that the story has a good ending.

SO: My producing partner calls those scripts BOSH scripts: Bunch of Stuff Happening. Unfortunately, there are a lot of BOSH scripts out there. You can tell them by the pitch because when you’re hearing what those obstacles are and how the protagonist overcomes them, hopefully you’re also hearing how those obstacles are escalating in terms of becoming more and more threatening or dangerous to the protagonist. If you’re not hearing that, then you’ve probably got a BOSH script.

MT: I know one of my pet peeves when listening to a pitch is when the person tells me how brilliant the writing is and then the pitch descends into five minutes of self-adulation. I don’t want to be told how to feel about the script. That’s for me to decide. It’s one of my ‘don’t dos’ when it comes to pitching. In your opinion, what are the 5 indisputable rules of pitching?

SO: Well, in addition to the bones, you need to identify the title and the genre. Five rules … hmmm … there are so many, it’s hard to distill it down. Okay, five rules:

(1) Don’t confess that you’re a beginner, that this is your first script. No one cares and right away they’ll label you. Deal with your insecurity about that on your own. Sit down, be a professional. You’re hosting the meeting and that means getting your story across, selling yourself, showing you are a professional.

(2) Try not to be terrified. You have to have confidence in your ability. You’ve written this brilliant script and now you’re ready to bring it into the world. Be confident in what you’ve created and go into the meeting feeling that way. If you’re too nervous, it will come across.

(3) Don’t be desperate. Everyone wants to be the next big thing. Remember, if you remember nothing else, that this is about relationships. Selling yourself as someone industry execs want to work with is the primary goal. Selling your script is secondary.

(4) Control the meeting. You’re the one who is hosting the meeting and driving it forward even if the meeting is being held in someone else’s office. Be prepared to answer questions even in the middle of your pitch and then be able to return to your pitch. Know your pitch that well.

(5) Once they’ve requested the script, end the meeting. You’ve achieved your goal. Stand up and thank them then end the meeting before they change their minds.

One last thing: always be respectful. Especially at Pitch Fest. When you’re standing in line waiting to pitch your project with Lionsgate for example, behave professionally. You don’t know who’s standing in line with you. Also, if the person you’re pitching isn’t interested in your project, don’t get angry. Use the time to find out what that particular company is looking for in terms of genre, budget, etc. You’re also scouting out the company you’re pitching. It’s not just about them wanting to work with you. You want to make sure this is an organization you are comfortable working with as well.


An Interview with Randal Kleiser: Filmmaking in the Digital Age

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with Randal Kleiser and we discussed filmmaking in the digital age. We also discussed his upcoming International Digital Cinema Workshop which will be held July 8-28, 2012 on the campus of Cal State San Bernardino.

Randal Kleiser

Mark Travis: As filmmaking moves firmly into the Digital Age, how do you see digital technology supporting our efforts to tell more effective stories?

Randal Kleiser: Because digital capture is something that can be done without cutting, the world opens up to a new way of shooting. Instead of having to shoot and reload, with digital technology you can keep right on going, keep the actors in the right frame of mind. You can get the actors’ best performances because they’re not distracted by scenes stopping and starting according to the needs of the camera.

Another benefit to digital technology is it gives everyone a chance to tell their stories to the world. In the past, you had to have money to rent cameras, sound equipment, editing equipment, etc. Now, anyone who as an iPhone and a laptop can shoot their stories and edit them practically for free. Then, they can showcase them on YouTube instead of being at the mercy of distributors and film festivals.

MT: Has digital technology affected how you tell stories as a director?

RK: Oh, yes. I’m now looking into a new type of filmmaking that I never would have thought of before. It’s very low budget, which happens to coincide with the economic difficulties we’re all facing – it’s extremely hard to get a film financed right now – and with digital filmmaking, I can look at stories that cost less and therefore can be made as opposed to getting a big movie off the ground through a studio.

Along with the advances in digital shooting technology, there has been a dramatic drop in the cost of visual effects. Most movies today have visual effects and they don’t have to be monsters stomping on a city. The effect can be something as simple as changing a sky color, taking a day that’s overcast and making it sunny or adding locations that you can’t get to. For example, let’s say your story is taking place at the Vatican. You can’t get to the Vatican to shoot because it’s difficult to get permits. So, you go with your still camera and get all the background shots, then shoot the scene on a green screen. These are some of the ways technology can help us tell good stories, very big looking stories that are not terribly expensive. In fact, I saw a student film just last night about a rock star who thought the world revolved around him. It was shot in Germany and they way they shot it, they were able to have digital helicopters flying around, digital crowds and the like. It was a student film that looked like a hundred million dollar production.

MT: Could you tell with your experienced eye that the effects were done digitally?

RK: On some parts, but then there were other parts where I just wasn’t sure. For example, I didn’t know if they’d actually gone to a Madonna concert and shot extras or if they had cloned people digitally or if they were using software that created extras. But that’s today. Maybe next week we’ll be unable to tell the difference between what’s digital and what’s not. I fully believe that this is where we’re heading – we’ll be able to fool anybody with anything and won’t know how it was done – if it is real or digital or what.

MT: Do you think all these endless possibilities that digital technology allows is helping storytelling or could it possibly be hindering it simply because the focus shifts to “look what I can do with the technology” rather than on telling a solid story?

RK: That has to do with how good a storyteller you are, what story you want to tell and how badly you want to tell it. If you have a good story and you want to tell it badly, you will. If you are obsessed with telling a story well, you won’t fall into the trap of focusing exclusively on the technology. A lot of people do get carried away, but those are the ones who aren’t focused on telling a good story.

MT: Years ago, a friend of mine was directing a huge Broadway show. I asked him how it was going and he said, “Terrible.” When I asked him why, he said the budget was so big he could have anything he wanted. It was throwing him off because he was so used to working with restrictions and boundaries and lack. Lack can stimulate creativity and that creativity sometimes produces a scene or moment or idea that is extraordinary.

RK: You’re absolutely right. Years ago, in the late 70s, Philip Noyce was starting out. He was shooting in Australia and there was a sequence in which he needed a flooded town. He had no money. In Hollywood, we would build a town and flood it. Noyce took three flats of the tops of buildings and put them strategically in a river. He shot from one angle where it looked like a vast set, sent a guy in a rowboat rowing through the ‘town’. There’s an example of something that looked huge and cost next to nothing.

MT: My concern is that the seduction of all these new digital tools will hamper part of that creative process. If Noyce had had all the technology we do now, he’d have created that whole flood scene digitally.

RK: That’s why education is really important – we still need to know all the tools that are considered ‘simple’. On Honey, I Blew Up The Kid, which had a lot of size differential, I went back to the way they did Darby O’Gill and the Little People, which had a lot of forced perspective. We built part of a set that was small and part that was big, put the baby in the foreground, the parents in the background and the studio was wondering why I was doing it this way instead of on a blue screen. I told them I thought it would look better, and it was cheaper. So, it’s about knowing when to use the digital tools. That’s one of the things that will be taught at the International Digital Cinema Workshop July 8-28 at Cal State San Bernardino. Susan Zwerman and Chuck Finance wrote a book called The Visual Effects Producer. They will be doing a six-hour workshop that explains every possible technique you can use for visual effects from the beginning, simple stuff to the most complicated CGI. They’ll be talking about how you can go back to those simple ways of creating effects rather than always relying on the more complicated ones.

MT: That’s great. The problem is, every time I hear about these classes, I want to take all of them! There are a lot of techniques we’ve all learned or that have been explored and then abandoned – like matte painting – that are very effective. It’s important to know what these techniques are because, under pressure, they are tools that can still be used. Filmmakers need to understand all the options at their disposal. Now, this workshop runs for twenty-one days?

RK: Yes. Twenty-one days. Morning, noon and night. People can opt out of certain parts, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The way we have it set up, we’ll be showing a movie the night before and discussing it the next day. So, if Jonathan Sanger is lecturing on a Wednesday, we’ll be running The Elephant Man or Vanilla Sky the night before. The next day, participants can ask questions about what they saw.

MT: Playing the Devil’s Advocate, why do filmmakers need to learn all this digital stuff?

RK: Well, anyone who doesn’t learn it is going to be left in the dust because this is the direction filmmaking is heading. The entire industry is turning this way. We’re heading into a digital world where, if you don’t know the tools and how to use them, you’re going to be left behind. People who are only shooting on film are like those polar bears stranded on an ice floe that’s melting, getting smaller and smaller.

MT: The global warming of film. In these twenty-one days, there are also some field trips in addition to the lectures and seminars. Can you talk a little about those?

RK: Sure. We’re going to visit the Smart Stage at Universal which has been designed for doing moving cameras and green screen. We’ll also visit the USC Institute of Technology’s light stage, which is what was used to scan actors for Avatar and Benjamin Button.

MT: So, motion capture technology?

RK: Motion capture and also facial capture. Scanning people so they can become avatars that look real. This will become standard practice in the future when working with big stars – capturing all their facial expressions digitally.

MT: But with facial capture, the expressions, does that mean in post-production, I can go in and change the facial expression?

RK: It’s been done. When Marlon Brando refused to smile per Frank Oz’s direction, they ended up digitally putting a smile on Brando’s face in post-production.

MT: I remember seeing that at the last Digital Day at the DGA. It was definitely Brando’s iconic smile. Which raises an interesting thought: It’s possible, then, with all the digital technology that an actor can get an Oscar for a performance he or she never gave.

RK: Yes. Anything is now possible.

MT: So, there’s the possibility of changing performances in the audio realm, too, then. I could go in and put pauses in, slow down dialogue, change the line delivery digitally and totally change the performance.

RK: Oh, sure. George Lucas has been doing this for ten years. He did this on all the Star Wars movies. He cut and pasted performances, took heads of characters and put them on other bodies, inserted characters in scenes that were never there when the scene was originally shot.

MT: Wow. That’s fascinating and frightening at the same time. So, this International Digital Cinema Workshop is three weeks that focuses on digital technologies in film. How much of that time will focus on just the basics of storytelling – those critical non-digital aspects that lead up to the digital moments.

RK: About half. We have four days of a hands-on acting workshop based on the Nina Foch course that’s going to be run by her former USC teaching assistant and protege, James von Tempo. He’ll be working with student participants. Diane Baker will talk about her experiences working with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Jonathan Demme and how their techniques differed. Jonathan Sanger will be talking about directing from his point of view, working with Mel Brooks for so many years as well as working with Cameron Crowe and David Lynch. John Badham will be talking about how he approaches directing and how to adjust for episodic television. He’ll also be talking about storytelling. So, the workshop has two tracks: the digital track and the directing track with each taking up about half the time. It’s very exciting. It will be a great program.


An Interview with Cyrus Nowrasteh

Cyrus and I have been friends for years and I have had the distinct privilege of working with him on several of his film projects including The Day Reagan Was Shot and The Stoning of Soraya M. For the better part of an hour, we discussed his process for preparing to shoot a film, including our workshop process of staging scenes even before the production team has been determined. Here’s what he had to say …

Mark Travis: Different directors have different methods for prepping their films. What’s one thing you like to do?

Cyrus Nowrasteh: It’s not really one thing, but rather a combination of things. Perhaps, most importantly, I feel like I have to get inside the script I’ve written. One thing I’ve learned through this whole process is you can write a script and not really dig out of it everything that’s there. Sometimes you need to sort of re-imagine or re-think it and that happens in the process of workshopping, like you and I have done: re-examining the material and the characters by getting the scenes up on their feet before any casting’s been done, before the production crew’s been assembled, before any of that.

Early in my career, as a first-time director, my preparation focused primarily on camera. It was a beautifully shot movie, nicely lit … and nobody gave a damn, least of all me. That’s the worst feeling, to sit in a screening room and realize you blew it. I told myself never again. So, I took a bunch of workshops – including yours – and decided I needed to focus more on performance and script analysis – I call it ‘live script analysis’ because there are actors there – you’re there, I’m there and we’re all peppering each other with questions and ideas. I call this my ‘pre-prep’. I want to have a pretty clear idea of how these scenes play and what new discoveries there are to be had in the material. The scenes will usually organically become something else, usually something better, but we have to find it. So, I workshop the entire movie, the scenes as written up to that point. We play around with them and I record it all. I start very loose, have the actors read the scene, stage it loosely, see how it all plays out. Then, we ask questions – What does the character want? What’s getting in his way? What’s he doing to get what he wants? We shape it and maybe an hour later it actually starts to play like a scene. Sometimes we’ll find little things that need clarification or tightening in the script, little re-writes. I record all of it, number the discs, and before shooting, I’ll watch the process again. I want to see how we got to where we did.

MT: During the process of workshopping the scenes, what is your experience regarding the effects of staging on a scene, whether in terms of the physical environment or the way the characters relate to one another?

CN: We’re in a visual medium and visual medium doesn’t mean just what you see through camera. It’s how people are interacting within a space. Let’s say we’re shooting a scene, the interior of a kitchen, exterior desert, it doesn’t matter. We’re watching people interacting within a space and how they interact tells a story. How they interact also affects performance. I find that literally putting someone in a particular position, with their back to a person, being approached from the side, or whether there is a one-foot or fifteen-foot distance between characters affects how we interpret the scene. It also affects how the actors interpret the scene and then how they play it. This is something one probably learns in working in theatre, which I have not done, but the principle is the same for film. Staging, coupled with how you decide to shoot the event, basically tells your story to your audience.

MT: Preparing the scene ahead of time creates an authenticity in a scene and actually helps the actors better understand the scene.

CN: Sure. I don’t think we realize how much of visual storytelling is about staging and people interacting. I don’t think that’s even been mined yet. And the thing is, knowing how an event will play out makes determining the camera shots easier, allows you to see how to use the camera to tell the story in a way that we feel like we’re inside the scene, passionately inside the scene, totally engaged.

One of the most gratifying experiences on the whole Stoning of Soraya M. journey was this film festival that very much wanted to show the film. We sent them an advance copy, but a mistake was made: we sent them a version without subtitles. They watched the whole thing, not understanding a word that was said. Later they told me, “We got it. Just by the way they talked to each other and the way they interacted, by their performances.” I workshopped that entire movie including the stoning scene itself. I worked with how people were entering and leaving and facing off with each other. It was all very carefully done in pre-prep. The movie ended up 80-90% as we did it in the workshop. Any changes that were made were usually because of location or those that came from actors’ suggestions that did make the scene work better. If a scene can stand on its feet in pre-prep, imagine how it’s going to be during production – it’s got a real chance to fly.

MT: When you get into production, how do the actors and crew respond to your level of preparation?

CN: I’ll give you an example. On The Day Reagan Was Shot, I had workshopped a scene which is at the front of the movie, takes place in the Oval Office. The President is seated behind his desk, his cabinet members are seated in chairs around the room and in the process of the workshop, we had the main character of the drama, Alexander Haig, standing and pacing. In the workshop we had determined that in his mind, Haig was more capable, more experienced, and smarter than everyone else in the room, so, in his own mind, he was running the meeting. On set in Toronto, I’m shooting this scene with Academy-Award winning actor, Richard Dreyfuss. It’s his first day of work. I’ve started to stage the scene, knowing where I want it to go, where to nudge it because we’ve done all this in pre-prep. I still want to leave it open for talent to make suggestions from their perspective, but it’s pretty much the way we ran it in workshop with Haig pacing. Then Richard asks the question, “Why am I standing and pacing and everyone else is seated?” Remember, it’s the first day I’m working with this actor, this is the first scene we’re doing. I say to him, “Because in Haig’s mind, he’s running this meeting and they’re all seated and looking at him.” From that moment on, I had Richard’s complete trust. He was a gem to work with and he delivered a great performance. I think it’s because I had done the pre-prep, done the workshop, asked the questions and when those questions came up in production, I was in the position to answer them.

Here’s the thing – Directors have to be able to answer those questions whether they’ve written the script or not. What putting a scene on its feet does is mine it out, dig it out further, bring up those questions in a way regular script analysis can’t. In workshop, characters are no longer just letters and names on a page. They’re real people interacting with one another in a room.

MT: In pre-prep, you’re experiencing the scene, the scene is telling you what it’s about.

CN: Yes. The scene is telling me, the actors are telling me, whoever I’m workshopping with is telling me. We’re discovering together that there’s more here than meets the page. I have found it of immense benefit. It also gives me more confidence as a director. My senses are sharper as a result of workshopping. I hope I never make a movie without it. It immeasurably enhances performance. Let’s face it, making a movie is about time management. We’d all like to have 2-3 days to do a scene, but we don’t have that kind of time. This process really helps that.

MT: You and I collaborate a lot. We’ve workshopped 3 or 4 projects together. Not all directors are open to collaborating with other directors. What’s your experience with being open to other opinions or interpretations of scenes during the workshopping process?

CN: Well, look. It’s about sharing ideas and I’m the beneficiary. I get to take all the good ones and use them. If you’re working on a project and you’re open, you’re going to get some good ideas. I’m careful who I select, though. Collaboration of this nature requires people who are fully engaged, generous, and won’t get upset if I don’t go with their ideas. I’ve spent more of my career as a screenwriter-for-hire. You don’t survive as a screenwriter-for-hire if you’re not willing to incorporate other people’s ideas or at least be willing to consider them. What I’ve found is that other people have really good ideas, which make you look better. It’s part of the process. At all stages of production, including pre- and post-, your film is going to change because it’s being shaped by all these people and ideas. I teach young filmmakers at Chapman University this: Your film isn’t going to be what you started out to make, how you pictured it in your head. You have to allow this process to happen. One of those ways is to keep your eyes and ears open to what the actors, cameramen and production designers bring.

MT: What final words of wisdom or advice do you have for someone reading this interview?

CN: Bring actors in and stage the scene, put it up on its feet, go through the workshopping process. If you don’t know any actors, get your friends. It is so beneficial and will so enhance your film. I do this with my Chapman students. I hand them some pages, set the stage, and we’ll find the scene together. The energy is palpable. It’s great. Ultimately, that’s what we’re doing as filmmakers – bringing scenes to life.