Screenwriting Basics #5: Scene Description

I want to spend time showing examples, so very quickly here’s what goes into scene description (also called action lines):

Elements of Scene Description:

  • tells you what the characters are doing in the scene
  • describes the setting
  • details what can be seen or heard in the scene
  • sets tone and pacing or rhythm that informs the edit
  • uses ALL CAPS to highlight important things (use sparingly)
  • avoids camera direction (don’t use “the camera dollies in…”)

We’re going to look at pages from three very different scripts: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, Zodiac (2007) by James Vanderbilt, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) by William Goldman

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse (2018)

This animated film balances humor, pathos and a coming-of-age story in a superhero origin film. It is excellent, and for that matter, so is the script.

Into the Spider-verse has a narrative told through a comic book filter, and for that reason the script has to show this comic flair as clearly as possible. That includes scripting out the comic thought bubbles and things that appear across the screen. Note that the pivotal moment “EVERYONE KNOWS” is played up for comic relief — the script has it appear in giant letters behind Miles, the last period landing with a resounding note.

Later in the script, when Miles is trying to help Peter B Parker hack into a computer they have to work around the Head Scientist Olivia Octavius. This fun exchange happens:

That “organize your desktop, lady!” line got big laughs in the theater, and that’s partly because of how starkly we’re shown the “BAFFLING DESKTOP FULL OF FILES” right before that. So relatable. If that moment hadn’t been scripted out, it wouldn’t have played to such laughs.

Zodiac (2007)

Lots of good feelings from the first example. Let’s go down a darker path.

Writing horror, thriller, suspense… they come with other challenges. How can you communicate that a scene is scary? Get out this page from Zodiac, the movie based on the real story of the Zodiac Killer.

Look at how the car following Darlene and Mike, soon-to-be-victims, is characterized. Like a hungry lion. It’s not literal, and yet it works to get the point across.

What was interesting when I looked up this example was the fact that the script I lfound and the resulting film were very different scenes. In the script, this car has been following Darlene and Mike for miles, resulting in a car chase and eventual car trouble. In the movie, things are quite innocent until the killer’s car pulls up behind them.

An early draft could look totally different from what you eventually see on screen. Why this car chase scene was skipped over was possibly two-fold — the car chase scene took too long and detracted from the rest of the movie, and possibly because it wasn’t true to what really happened. This is a real killer this movie is based on, so some attempt at reality should be made.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

In the opening of this Western, we’re introduced to our main character Butch Cassidy. The scene descriptions give us a good idea of what type of man he is and how he should be portrayed.

William Goldman is a very well known screenwriter, and he could get away with some tricks that you probably shouldn’t do in your first scripts. For one, he’s scripting out a lot of stuff that cannot be seen, like how Butch speaks and that he’s been a leader of men all his life. For the most part, if you can’t see or hear it, you should think twice about writing it in your action lines.

The format is also a little off from the norm, or at least what we see today. A MAN is separated from the rest of the description. This could be very intentional rhythm illustrated for the scene, having the director and actor take their time letting this introduction play out before the camera. Nowadays, write the subject in the same paragraph. William Goldman can do all this. We can’t. Yet.

I also want to note Goldman’s use of “CUT TO:” between each segment here. This is a stylistic choice — it’s not necessary. Sometimes this can give a sense of pacing. Personally I find script pages to be prime real estate — I might need to hit very specific page counts and I find the CUT TO unnecessary because…well, what else are you going to do? If you’re jumping to another scene, you’re gonna cut.

Sources:

The Magic Bullet: Action Lines – ScriptMag.com

5 Ways to Write More Effective Scene Description – The Script Lab

Screenwriting Basics #4: Dialogue

One way to get me interested in your script: Have really compelling, interesting, and/or funny dialogue.

Writing dialogue is hard. Heck, writing at all is hard. It takes years of study — reading everything you can get your hands on, practicing at your craft, sucking at the first few scripts you try, doing better with each draft and receiving constructive criticism that leads you down the right path.

First, let’s understand what counts as bad dialogue.


*snore*

Is anyone else bored yet? I know I am. Dialogue like this, although similar to how we talk in real life, does nothing to advance a plot and frankly bores the reader into a stupor. Authentic dialogue does not mean word-for-word small talk. Authentic dialogue is more simulated reality.

Another example:

If some kid scares off some robbers with his, um, karate skills? Wouldn’t you want to see that happen?

Here’s where we remember the cardinal writing rule of Show, Don’t Tell. It’s much more interesting to see action scripted out, happening before us, than to have some character explaining it. Johnny’s dialogue here becomes an info dump — blurting out a series of events in an unnecessarily long rant. It is so dull to hear a character explain things that should have just unfolded on screen.

Another fun, yet difficult one to learn. On-the-nose dialogue.

On-the-nose dialogue is when characters say what they actually feel in the moment or describe things that are obvious. It’s the opposite of subtlety. This is where subtext comes in, and that’s a tricky subject.

Subtext is the implicit meaning of a text—the underlying message that is not explicitly stated or shown. Subtext gives the reader information about characters, plot, and the story’s context as a whole.

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-subtext-learn-the-definition-and-role-of-subtext-in-writing-plus-5-tips-to-better-incorporate-subtext-in-your-work

A character’s feelings, or even the situation at hand, can be described using visuals, settings, character body language and more to be conveyed. Sometimes, a character will say the opposite of what they mean, but we as the audience can see the truth behind it. Humans lie a lot. Your characters could too.

Yeah. Johnny isn’t happy.

Your characters can say a lot without really saying much. Trust the actors to do the acting. Body language coupled with dialogue can change an entire meaning of a line.

Great dialogue is, of course, subjective. Beauty is in the ear of the beholder. But there are a number of films out there that many folks agree has good dialogue. Check out this scene from The Shawshank Redemption. Spoilers if you haven’t seen this famous film from 1994.

“It always makes me laugh. Andy Dufresne… who crawled through a river of sh*t and came out clean.”

– Red

This scene comes at the end of the movie. Andy Dufresne has already escaped, and Morgan Freeman’s character Red laments his loss. It’s expositional. It’s telling, not showing. It shouldn’t work but it does. It wraps things up beautifully, told in the unique voice of Red.

“I’m Mad As Hell and I’m Not Gonna Take This Anymore!”

– Howard Beale

This scene from Network is a great one to study. A news anchor losing his cool on national television! But the story behind the scene is not that he’s mad about current events… it’s truly about his anger over the fact that he’s losing his job. Subtext!

“That ain’t no Etch a Sketch. This is one doodle that can’t be undid.”

– Convenience Store Clerk

I really like Juno. The characters all have very strong, individual voices. Even the bit parts, like the clerk at the convenience store, are interesting characters for an actor to play.

You want to be the type of writer who could attract someone to any part in your film, and screenwriter Diablo Cody became quite the Hollywood darling after this film premiered.

Sources:

How to Avoid Writing On The Nose Dialogue – Screencraft.org

15 Movies Screenwriters Should Watch to Study Dialogue – Screencraft.org

What is Subtext – Masterclass.com

Screenwriting Basics #3: Character

Unless you’re writing the type of artistic film where you only show time lapses of moss growing or something, you’re likely going to need characters to populate your script. They may be a hodgepodge group of high schoolers or even anthropomorphic cars.

The most important of which is your main character. And they should do more than just go through the motions.

Your main character needs to be interesting. Infuse them with details, quirks, dialogue that makes the reader, and eventually audience, enjoy going on this ride with them.

How do you do this? Start thinking details. Are they funny? Smart in a really unique way? Do they see the world in a way others do not? Do they have a personal struggle and you can’t help but root for them?

Do they have a general disdain for humanity but also the propensity for curing everyone’s ills?

Lookin’ at you, Doctor House.

You want to avoid stereotypes in your main character. Instead of having a genius doctor, you have a genius doctor who lacks a bedside manner, has a physical disability which leads him to a dependency on narcotics.

So let’s talk round vs flat characters.

“A round character is deep and layered character in a story. Round characters are interesting to audiences because they feel like real people; audiences often feel invested in these characters’ goals, successes, failures, strengths, and weaknesses.”


https://www.masterclass.com/articles/round-vs-flat-characters-in-fiction

Round characters are more interesting and make your reader and audience more invested in the story.

“A flat character is a two-dimensional character lacking depth or a real personality. Usually, flat characters have just one or two perfunctory traits. Often considered “stock characters,” flat characters can often be summarized in one word (like “bully” or “love interest”) and never digress from or transcend their role.”

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/round-vs-flat-characters-in-fiction

A flat character lacks the great detail that makes a compelling character. They fall into stereotypes — the distracted professor, the overworked single mom, the ditsy cheerleader… we’ve seen these time and again. It’s fine if they populate the rest of your world a bit, but for the characters we follow? We want more.

How to write a round character:

  • Character Traits. What are their character traits, both good and bad? What is the flaw your main character possesses that might cause them grief later in the story?
  • Details. What are their likes/dislikes? What is their appearance? What sports do they play? Where do they work? You might not use all of these, but it will help you make more informed decisions on how your character will act.
  • Believability. Your main character has believable reactions to events based on their character traits. A generally mellow person won’t just blow up at a minor inconvenience. It wouldn’t fit their character. Don’t lose your reader, and later your audience, by making your character behave strangely.
  • Conflict. Give them an internal and external conflict. The main conflict may be the fate of the world ending, but the internal conflict may be a father regaining the love of his estranged daughter.
  • Dialogue. Your character has a voice, and it should be a distinct voice. If you cover up the names of all the characters in your script and read the dialogue, you should be able to tell who is speaking. Don’t let everyone sound the same.

Building a really interesting main character is one part of writing that great first script.

Sources:

https://blog.reedsy.com/round-character/

https://www.indiewire.com/2013/11/screenwriting-101-5-tips-for-writing-better-characters-into-your-screenplay-33156/

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/round-vs-flat-characters-in-fiction

Fear Street and How to Elevate your Horror Film

This post is going to be VERY spoilery for Fear Street 1994, Fear Street 1978 and Fear Street 1666 on Netflix. I recommend you watch them first. There’s some great surprises in this story you’re going to want to experience firsthand.

I read some of these Fear Street books as a kid. Each one began with a yearbook. Each one crossed out these pictures as the teenagers were killed off. The story that stuck out the most though was woven throughout the Fear Street and Fear Street Cheerleaders books: Sarah Fear and The Evil.

Sarah Fear was like “I woke up like this.”

The movies are loosely based on these. In this case that’s a good thing — the movies elaborate and elevate the campy horror I loved as a kid to something I really enjoy as an adult. Not only is it good horror, it’s smart.

There are many themes touched upon in the Fear Street movie series. I noted:

  • Racism/Classism (Shadyside vs Sunnydale. Even the names show a clear distinction in their fortunes, but Sunnydale’s good luck is at the expense of Shadyside’s sacrifice)
  • The Societal Harm of Misogyny (Literal witch hunts. Women who spurned the advances of men are accused of witchcraft – sentenced to death for the mere act of denying a man.)
  • Homophobia (The plot begins in 1666 with Sarah and Hannah accused of witchcraft since they love each other.)
  • Legacy and The Choice to Bear it or Break it (The Goode Family continuing their “traditions” to ensure their good fortune at the expense of others).
  • Reversal of Expectations (Goode = Evil. Fier/Fear = Innocence. Sunnydale is full of dark secrets, while Shadyside is innocent.)

I find that good horror, the stuff I want to watch again and again, isn’t just full of cheap scares. Good horror is about something.

My favorite horror movies are in the realm of It Follows, A Quiet Place.

Fear Street decided to be more than just a trio of slasher flicks. It’s clear depiction of classism separates and destroys people. Because one man, Solomon Goode, decided he wanted power over others, he doomed an entire town for generations. “The sun will shine on us yet,” he says, prophesying not that his crops will grow, but that he will be among the chosen few, at the expense of whoever is sacrificed.

Shadyside is plagued with gruesome murder and people being trapped in the town due to financial reasons. “Nobody ever leaves Shadyside” is a poignant line spoken from despondency. Sunnydale is the cookie-cutter perfect town. As long as each generation of Goode sacrifices someone to the evil forces that Solomon summoned, they will remain prosperous and carefree. Who cares if some teenagers die? Or a church full of children? Power over all becomes the ultimate evil here. The pulsating blob of malevolence in the caves is just a personification of that.

Forcing the Shadysiders to kill each other? That’s the whole dog eat dog mentality that plagues the working world. Step on someone to get ahead, that’s what the corporate bigwigs do right?

Nothing like someone over analyzing horror movies to ruin the mood, amiright guys?

But our Shadysiders make the ultimate decision to fight this. Our main characters band together to take down the evil. They fight against expectations and they honor the memory and wishes of Sarah Fier. The truth sets them free, and follows Goode to the end of his days.

When Deena and Sam emerge from the evil caves at the end of the third movie, they emerge in Sheriff Goode’s house. It’s beautiful, perfect, and full of mounted and taxidermied goats. Goats, of course, being a symbol of the Devil. The girls go out to the street, bloody and bedraggled. A neighbor spies them as he’s backing his car up, which causes him to be flattened by a passing truck. Sunnydale’s good luck is over and that is due to the actions of the Shadysiders.

If you are writing horror, you’d do well to take a page from Fear Street‘s book-to-movie adaptation. Making your movie about something other than just an axe wielding serial killer will capture your audience’s imagination, bring to light societal problems in the real world… and possibly lead to a few sequels. Anyone can write about some murderer picking off teenagers, but to make that story more than scares elevates your writing to the next level.

It’s been many years since I read the books, but I believe The Evil was originally Sarah Fear’s revenge personified. I distinctly remember her dying on her passage to America, cursing her sister or somebody for making her go on this journey. The movies decided to go deeper, and the revelation of the real evil was a great twist that made for excellent commentary on classism, misogyny and more.

I’d totally watch more of these, Netflix. Please continue giving Leigh Janiak the chance to direct them.

Film Job Scams and How to Avoid Them – Take Two

I’ve written about it before, and I’ll likely write about it again — there’s many people out there taking advantage of folks desperate for work, a large percentage aimed directly at those trying to break into the film industry.

I actually had to push back on publishing this blog as more and more scams were outed daily on Facebook. Here we are going to look at some examples and discuss how to tell a job offer is actually a scam.

General Advice:

  • Actors should never be charged for a role or an audition. Never.
  • Actors do not pay to be represented by a casting agency. A legit agency makes money when you book roles. There is no upfront cost.
  • Anyone: If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is.
  • Beware of jobs offering weekly rates instead of day rates.
  • Be cautious with a job that seems to put the wrong duties on a job description (like a PA being expected to run sound or do payroll).
  • Do not trust someone who tries to send you a check before you do the job.
  • Be very cautious of anyone offering a big position above or below the line without seeing if you meet qualifications (I.e. Director of Photography job being offered without them seeing your resume or reel first.)

Check Cashing Scams

One of the most common scams we see in this business is the check cashing/phishing scam. In this one, the fake job provider sends you a check BEFORE the job in order for you to purchase equipment, pay other crew, or something similar. Usually this is aimed at production assistants and people new to the industry.

Nobody will send you a check before a job and nobody will expect a PA to purchase equipment or personally pay crew. The scam only serves to empty the unwitting person’s bank account, usually of thousands of dollars.

A play on this scam was posted on a Facebook group by Randy Swieca, adding in the New Coke flavor of Bitcoin to the mix. An applicant to the job said he was sent a check in the mail and told to deposit it in his account and send bitcoin to an undisclosed location. As the Facebook poster explained, money matters are a production accountant job, not something a PA is expected to do. The would-be applicant rightfully determined it was a scam and immediately posted a warning on the group where he saw the original post.

The Trying-Too-Hard Scammer

Zach Barry posted about a scammer going by the name Ann Gendry who sent an enormous block of text via e-mail.

For your sanity, I detail the red flags in the e-mail with this bulleted list:

  • Bad grammar examples: “I will like to thank you.”
  • Claiming the job will lead to a long-term opportunity. How?
  • Production assistant job that includes A LOT of duties that aren’t typical PA duties like check processing. She claims she is doing a short documentary, so it’s hard to believe she’ll need travel booking, making/distributing copies of scripts (for a documentary, remember), getting approval of copyrighted clips/music, assisting with pilot logistics (wasn’t it a documentary a minute ago?).
  • “Run errands such as purchasing supplies, props and other necessary items for the project.” This part is the check cashing scam. They will claim you need to purchase things and you will be reimbursed or they’ll send a fake check. YOU are the one out the money.
  • “Basic wage is $900.00 first two weeks preparation period and after which you will be paid Rate: $200./10hr on set.” No. You will not. This is not normal.
  • Then my favorite, the “About Me” section. Gendry claims “I have been short movie producer director in many places in Europe…I will travel a lot, hence the reason why I need an assistant to handle affairs for me on the home front when I am away on business which is usually quite often. This position is home-based.” This is very similar to a car selling scam on Craigslist where the scammer pretends to be abroad or in the army.

The Copy/Paste Scam

I’m calling it that because I’ve seen the exact same scam e-mail with only names and titles changed. For instance:

“I’m Vincent TONG I’m a producer for Reforma films I saw your profile posted on film production directory, I want to inform you about a upcoming short film project coming up in your area Titled ( Grateful ) Start date: May ‪25-30-2020‬, pay is $1800, I’m in search for effective FIRST CAMERA ASSISTANT kindly reply with your updated resume for more information and consideration thank you.

Kind regards
Stay blessed”

Vincent TONG (make sure you shout that last name!) e-mailed me May 4 2020. But then there’s also:

This particular scam usually comes in via e-mail, though I’ve seen it in a text message before as well.

The red flags in this “job offer” are:

  • film production directory (for some reason a lot of scams reference this vague nonexistent service)
  • Bad grammar/spelling/awkward wording from a non-English speaker
  • “Stay Blessed” and “Kind Regards” are often used to sign off on scam emails.
  • Unusually high pay for a position (especially for Production Assistant)
  • Job offers for jobs you don’t do — I’ve gotten this same one for Makeup artist.
  • Weekly or lump sums (“pay is $1800”) instead of day rates.
  • Scam emails will sometimes steal famous peoples names and production company names to try to sound legit.

Casting Scams

Alan Baltes

A community member in the Atlanta Film Production Group recently posted about Alan Baltes, a scammer who is well known for casting scams.

Alan gets his own heading because he’s made it a point to be a jerk scamming prospective actors time and time again. Baltes has previously tried to con people by pretending to cast for Jurassic Park: Dominion and sequels to Crazy Rich Asians. You can read about his exploits here in this article related to his Crazy Rich Asians scam. Now he’s focusing on John Wick 4.

Baltes claims he’s casting for movies while insisting on a $99 fee to submit, ironically to his own Cash App.

Actors — you do not PAY for casting calls or auditions.

NDA

Another similar scam popped up on a Facebook group where someone said they were asked to pay for an NDA (non-disclosure agreement). Again, that’s not a thing you pay for.

You can read further on how to avoid scams targeting actors here. And another helpful Backstage.com article on identifying scams here.

Modeling Scams

Vina Kent shared screenshots of a modeling scam that targeted her family and probably many others. Screenshots are attached and we’ll touch on a few details that mark this an obvious scam.

  • Models are asked to pick the date of the shoot
  • The locations for the job hasn’t been determined yet
  • A “modeling coach” could be provided for new models.
  • Weird hourly rates
  • A depot of $500 will be sent before the job (possible check phishing scam)
  • Weird wording/bad grammar
  • Giant block of text with no breaks

This one is clearly aiming to scam aspiring models out of their money.

So…How Can I Tell if a Job is Real?

Use your best judgement. If you’re uneasy, do your research. Google whoever is contacting you, the company, the producer, whoever you can. If someone has worked with them before, ask them before getting into a potentially dangerous situation. Keep in mind that scammers often steal the names of real production companies and producers. Chances are that Steven Spielberg won’t be contacting you personally for a production assistant gig, sorry.

Usually, legit jobs are really basic and to the point. For some reason many scammers send giant blocks of texts overexplaining everything. You could see that in the modeling scam and the email bullet point summary by Ann Gendry. They’re backpedaling. They’re trying to overwhelm you and get you to let your guard down.

Many of the gigs I’ve gotten boil down to this: “Are you available July 23-28? We need a cam op for a reality show.” I respond with my availability and then we discuss specifics like rate and job specifications.

Scammers try really hard to get your money. Don’t let ’em. Come across a scam? Feel free to post a screenshot on social media and inform your friends in the industry. A well informed community is safer because of it.

Special Thanks:

To everyone who allowed me to use screenshots and their personal interactions with the scammers to write this blog: Zach Barry, Vina Kent, Cyntoria Mccarroll, Alexandria Denise.

References:

Fake Production Assistant Listings

Crazy Rich Asians 2 Scammer Responds, Claims He’s the One That Got Scammed Movie Web

13 Signs of an Acting Scam – Backstage.com

How to Spot a Casting Scam – Backstage.com

“It’s a F–king Scam”: Beware the Hollywood Con Queen – Vanity Fair

Common Film Job Scams and How to Avoid Them – Bridget LaMonica

Making the No Budget Horror Film

Around 2016, I approached Lindsay Barrasse and David Corigliano of Voyager Video  with a script I wanted to shoot.

The project was the short horror film The Road Less Traveled, and after a couple years of pre-production, re-writes, rescheduling, etc — we brought it to reality. Not just that, it’s also been accepted to over 20 film festivals and won 3 awards: Best Suspense at Con Carolinas Film Festival, Best in Show at the Sands Film Festival and Best Director at the Highlands Film Festival.

rlt poster

 

Genius poster design by Des Z Graphics. You can see more of her work here.

Here I will go over the basics of putting together the no-budget short film so you can apply similar principles to your own film making exploits.

I’m keeping some details vague because I want you to see this film at a screening without being spoiled.

Script

Even a short film needs a good script. The Road Less Traveled (originally Hunted and something a little more spoilery) went through about 15 total drafts.

The Road Less Traveled versionsAround 15 drafts in 3 different screenwriting programs

I wrote the very first, very rough draft in 2014 while I was still at SCAD. In it, a girl named Mia is abandoned at a bar by her friends, and is captured by two bad men in a badass car for nefarious purposes.

I had my dear friend Masha T. Jones, a fantastic writer, critique the first early drafts. She gave me great pointers. Eventually the story shaped into what it needed to be for me to present it to Lindsay to direct.

With Lindsay’s creative mind attached, we added a scene with a gas station attendant to set up our story’s main antagonist, Clyde.

Thanks to the helpful critiques of my fellow creatives, the script morphed from a thing with too many locations and characters to a road movie with a new destination. And that destination came about because of location issues.

Locations

When RLT was submitted to Screencraft’s Short Film Production Fund Contest, we were in the running for a 10K budget, but only managed the semi-finals. We could no longer afford to rent the slaughterhouse location we originally envisioned. After several location scouting days driving around rural Northeast Pennsylvania, Lindsay quite by accident found a client who said he had an old creepy barn he’d be willing to let us shoot in. Ronald Augelli of We Talk Shirty invited us to his property to check out the place, and after I took some location pics, we knew we found the right place where Clyde might take his victim.

The Crew

The core crew consisted of myself, Lindsay Barrasse, David Corigliano and Desiree Zielinski. We all wore multiple hats.

We all worked on separate aspects during pre-production. Lindsay and Dave were the producing team, bringing all the elements together. Desiree was off doing amazing production design, I built the monster.

The reason this all worked was because we’ve all worked with each other before, multiple times. But we also broke up the filming into reasonable chunks and worked around people’s schedules.

The best piece of advice to keep a crew happy? Make sure they’re fed. Lindsay and I split up craft services duties — we always tried to have coffee and snacks and beverages on set at all times. At the end of two major shoot days I bought everyone dinner at a local diner. A fed crew is a happy crew.

Practical Effects

We did not have the budget to hire someone to do VFX. That left one avenue for production — all practical effects.

Our fog machine broke the day we needed it, so we ended up asking Dave — such a sport — to vape-pen throughout a scene outdoors at night so we could get that lovely texture in the air. (Don’t do this, just get another fog machine!)

Our monster at the end of the story? I’ve been asked at several screenings how I did the VFX on that. There wasn’t any. That monster was created through several awkward trips to Jo-Ann’s Fabric and Michaels in Dickson City. I actually put some detail into it — moving mouth and eyes, realistic teeth and claws — but it looked a little goofy so I told Lindsay, “Let’s make sure we only see this thing in silhouette.” Sometimes the Jaws approach is best when you don’t have a professional making your monster.

Equipment

I was luckier than most, because Voyager Video is a full on production company. Lindsay and Dave came complete with lighting and sound gear. We used my Sony A7S and one of their cameras along with basic light panels.

BTS RLT 3

Scheduling and Problem Solving

Our biggest hurdle was probably scheduling. This short film, though only about 11 minutes long, took us about 2 years to produce. That was because 1. we were shooting at the tail end of fall when the leaves are giving up the ghost. and 2. we had to work around everyone’s schedules.

The caveat of filming and asking everyone to work for free is you need to be very reasonable with their time. Everyone had work, different projects, plays and events to be a part of that couldn’t be put on hold for this film. So we filmed it in pieces when we could get people together. We literally had to stop filming at one point because it snowed soon after.

Some of the drone flying shots were done by Jonathan Edwards in January. Let me tell you, driving a ’67 Impala with NO HEAT in the buttcrack of winter is not fun. I was wearing a heavy winter jacket, a blanket, and several conveniently placed Hot Hands to keep me from freezing while I drove the car.

Separating that filming time caused other unique issues. One, Casey Thomas, our Clyde, misplaced his trademark green jacket before we were done with it, so we replaced it with another, similar looking one. Camille’s (Mia) red dress got a rip from running around a previous shoot day, so we avoided seeing that part of her dress the next time. Camille had also gotten an extremely different haircut, so the hair you see in the final moments of the film is actually some faux extensions she added back in. Movie magic!

1967 Impala at NEPA FFThe Impala visited the Northeast Pennsylvania Film Festival earlier this year.

Working with an antique car means you might have some surprises, as I did when I tried driving it to set one day and it petered out on a hill. I became a bit of an amateur mechanic that day, sleuthing what the problem might be. Water in the gas? Bad connection somewhere? When my Dad returned from vacation we found it was power related and replaced the alternator, spark plugs and spark plug wires. After a little tuning, it ran fine.

Plan for any and every eventuality on your own film — and you’ll still be surprised by something. It happens on every set, but being able to work around small issues will be pivotal in making your own short film happen.

Film Festivals

We submitted to very specific film festivals. We picked genre specific film festivals and festivals connected to conventions. Since our subject was horror, and we had a geeky Supernatural homage in there, that was our best bet.

Upcoming Screenings for The Road Less Traveled

NEPA horror film festival other posterOctober 13th – Dickson City, PA
  • October 13, 2019 — NEPA Horror Film Festival

It’s at a drive-in movie theater! The Road Less Traveled will be screening during the local films block. You can also see Enoch, a film I did the Steadicam work on. Tickets for the film fest are $10 online, and $14 at the gate.

See our event page here.

sick chick flicksOctober 12th – Cary NC
  • October 12, 2019 — Sick Chick Flicks Film Festival in Cary, NC.

Let us know if you can make it! Passes start from $20. See details on the website.

See our event page here.

  • October 13 – The Hobnobben Film Festival in Fort Wayne, IN.

See the film festival site for tickets and schedule here.

pa indie shorts.jpg

  • November 2, 2019 — Pennsylvania Indie Shorts Film Festival at Pocono Cinema and Cultural Center in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

An internationally curated short film festival, right in East Stroudsburg. Say hi to my alma mater ESU for me!

  • November 19-22 – The Great Northern Creative Expo at The Media Factory Kirkham Street Preston, Lancashire PR1 2XY (The UK).

See our event page here.

You can follow our ongoing journey at our Facebook page.

Find us on Instagram: theroadlesstraveledfilm

Grab the Audience’s Attention: Opening Shots

When my DP Tery Wilson told me a particular Steadicam shot she wanted in the feature film we worked on, it struck me as important. And important it was. “This,” she said, “Is the beginning shot of the whole movie.” No pressure!

It struck me how big and weighty the first scene — and really the first shot — in a movie is. It sets up story, character and tone. It has to hold your attention from one moment to the next. The first minutes of a film are prime real estate. If you’re not hooked, you might bail. Next movie on Netflix. Next attempt at entertainment.

We are far too impatient as a modern audience to sit around for setup that takes too long.

Pace is influential here as well. Although It Follows is similar in structure to an old school horror movie — slow mounting dread throughout the story — it gets to the meat of the matter right away. That’s something I always thought the old horror movies back in the day had trouble with.

The screenwriter has to catch the attention of the first reader through to the first audience who see the film and can recommend it to their friends.

Having a bombastic beginning also relates to my earlier post about title sequences. You don’t always see flashy title sequences in movies but when you do, you better believe they are doing an important job. You can see that post on title sequences here.

It Follows

That first shot in It Follows is not just a great beginning, but also an example of fabulous shot design. The shot doesn’t break away into any edits as the girl runs from the house, is chased by an unseen follower, and eventually rushes away from the home.

What’s genius about this shot is how it follows the first person you see, establishing the horror element of an unrelenting terror. We first see the girl run out of the house, track alongside her as she runs down the sidewalk, then we become the mysterious follower, never taking our eyes off her until she flees the scene. This shot never stops moving, perfectly simulating the monster of the story.

The Dark Knight

You can see a fantastically simple yet effective opening shot in for The Dark Knight. It’s truly brilliant in its simplicity, as the very first shot doesn’t show any people, but succeeds in building tension and expectations of sudden violence to come.

An extreme zoom into a building as a window suddenly explodes outward tells us everything we need to know about the upcoming scene: stuff is going down, and it’s going to be shocking. The whole film is a slow boil to an epic, explosive showdown. It’s only fitting that we see that echoed in the very first, seemingly innocent cityscape shot.

And that whole bank robbery scene is so engaging that you can’t help but be hooked — ready for the ride.

Make it your goal to master creating a beginning – and especially opening shot – to your film that not only captures your audience’s attention but says something about plot and tone. You’ll be more likely to get an opportunity to make another film and then we’ll be studying your film making choices.

The Boys is a Modern Day Watchmen (And That’s a Good Thing)

The Boys is an answer to the movie theater dominance of superheroes, and a true “what if?” scenario if super powered individuals existed in our world. Supernatural and Timeless creator Eric Kripke brought the Garth Ennis story to the screen in an eight episode run on Amazon Prime, and it’s unlike anything available in the multiplex or on The CW. 

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Watchmen is the Hugo Award Winning graphic novel (published first as 12 separate issues in 1986-87). It’s widely held as the best graphic novel of all time, and ushered in an era where comics could be considered for grown-ups as serious literature. It contained deep themes and stakes hardly seen in comics before. It was truly not meant for kids content-wise, but featured important narrative commentary on vigilante justice, the arms race and even one’s own identity when faced with an ugly truth.

watchmen

Watchmen was revolutionary for its time, and continues to make its mark on the world of comics. The Watchmen movie adaptation by Zack Snyder came out in 2009. A run of “Before Watchmen” comics series came out in 2012. A Watchmen HBO series is projected to premiere October 2019.

The Boys is the Watchmen of the current decade, daring to go those extra steps further in ways that have hardly been tread since Alan Moore’s masterpiece graphic novel. 

Familiar Faces (Imitation as the Sincerest Form of Flattery?)

Most of the superhero group The Seven are obvious analogues of DC heroes: Homelander is Superman, Queen Maeve is Wonder Woman, The Deep is Aquaman, and A-Train is The Flash. Besides the powers, that’s about where the similarities lie. These are not heroes striving for truth and justice in a cruel world. These are power-hungry people who are scary to all who meet them, and casually sweep accidental deaths under a corporate rug. 

We meet this world through two sides of the story: Hughie, a normal guy, who is accidentally swept into the world of supers when his girlfriend is murdered. He is recruited into “the Boys” a group of people who actively work against the supers. On the flip side is Annie aka Starlight, who is inducted into The Seven. Her wish of being a famous superhero comes true, only for her to see the seedy underbelly of the Vought Industries superhero enterprise. 

Watchmen also had familiar characters – Nite Owl is a slightly more chipper Batman, Doctor Manhattan is the ultimate Ubermensch or Superman, Rorschach could be The Question.

With Great Power Should Come Greater Accountability (Especially for Supers)

Watchmen’s most iconic phrase is “Who Watches the Watchmen?”  It asks where the line exists for vigilantes. It’s a theme that’s revisited in the mutant registry of the X-Men films, the superhero ban in The Incredibles and even in the aftermath of the Sokovia accords in the Marvel movie universe.

Image result for watchmen comic who watches

The Boys shows how the superheroes are protected from any backlash by corporate cover up, where people are paid off so the truth doesn’t come to light.  We see how scary an unchecked Superman (Homelander) can be. Vought International is an analogue of Veidt Industries, the company run by Adrian Veidt in the Watchmen storyline, right down to the superhero action figures and the fingers in every proverbial pie. 

Sexual Assault in the Workplace (#MeToo with Costumes)

Another theme that both Watchmen and The Boys explored was sexual assault in the workplace. 

From here there be major spoilers. You’ve been warned.

The fact that the assault on Starlight is used as an impetus for her to grow bolder as an individual is a refreshing break from the idea of perpetual victimhood. Yes, she’s seriously affected by the encounter, but she takes steps to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else. 

There’s also a parallel scene where The Deep, her rapist, has a similar experience with a creepy, rabid fan. It should be a moment for the audience to cheer “You got what you deserve!” but the way the scene is handled…vengeance does not feel good.

Vengeance! (Not all it’s cracked up to be)

This is yet another theme that Watchmen and The Boys handle exceptionally well. Hughie is set on a dangerous path when he seeks justice — at any cost — for Robin’s death. It’s clear after his decision to join The Boys he’s in over his head. Vengeance comes up later for one of our “heroes” when seeking the truth about an origin…though this person doesn’t seem to have the capability of caring about consequences. 

I didn’t think I’d like The Boys as much as it did, but once I got over the initial shock of the events of the first episode, I was hooked. I’m going to need a season two.

Searching…An Innovative Way to Tell a Story

Searching sets up a story we’ve seen before — a parent searching for their child — but does it in a uniquely technical fashion while cleverly setting up red herrings and clues along the way.

What makes Searching unique is obvious — the story is told through screens, on computers and cell phones. It could have come across hokey and gimmicky, much like found footage films, or by what I assume Unfriended was received (has anyone seen that movie? Let me know)

The father, played by John Cho, does 90% of his sleuthing online, digging through his daughter’s social media, searching terms he’s unfamiliar with (#parents am I right?) and communicating via text, messenger and FaceTime. This creates a story that wouldn’t be better told in a traditional format. The discovery and the unearthing of Margot’s secrets is through her social media, so why not present the film in such a format that can take great advantage of that?

The animations and screen captures were smooth, transitioning from search results to videos and FaceTime conversations in a manner that reflects a person’s frantic search online for answers.

Searching pic 1

We’re introduced to the storytelling convention in a less frantic sense, in a sort of Up-style montage of moments that detail this family’s life on the computer. There’s an incredible amount of character development told through the Windows startup page to the photos and videos that document this family’s journey.

As details about the case are discovered and Cho’s character delves deeper into the mystery, clues are simultaneously revealed to the viewer. Eagle eyed observers might even note key plot details before Dad finds them, but it’s done in a way that doesn’t make you anxious for the characters to catch up with your conclusions. The twists are really well done and the ending features a spectacular 180 reversal.

It’s a really well done movie from both a technical and a writing standpoint. If you’d like to delve more into the making of the movie, check out the special features (available on the RedBox rental, so no excuses) and read this article AFTER you’ve seen the movie (be warned: spoilers). With this movie, the viewer’s search for the truth should coincide with the father’s.

Make it or Break it in the Atlanta Film Industry

So, you’re looking at starting out in the Atlanta film industry, and don’t know where to start?

Disclaimer: This is primarily directed at those looking at the crew side of things, but there are a couple resources that actors can check out as well.

Whether you’ve gone to school, attended a workshop or are a completely new person in the industry — you’re likely going to start from the bottom up. To better prepare you for the long road ahead, I’ve put together this post to point you in the right direction.

film school meme

I’m allowed to post this because I went to film school and still had to PA…just like many of my peers.

Be the Ideal Production Assistant

A production assistant is universally recognized as the entry-level job on any set.

What are the qualities that make a great production assistant?

A production assistant may be in charge of many tasks on a set. You might print and distribute scripts and callsheets, drive crew and actors to and from set, set up pop up tents and crafty, lock-up streets or areas to prevent people walking into set, go on runs to pick up supplies or equipment, or become a human sandbag.

I’ve been a human sandbag. Do not recommend.

The ideal production assistant is humble, eager to help and able to anticipate the needs of a crew without stepping out of the bounds of their position. You have the fortitude to withstand 12+ hours worth of production, sometimes with nothing to do for long periods of time, without complaining.

When you apply for these gigs, you will follow whatever guidelines are in the job listing. Trust me, that alone will make you stand out. Bonus points if you research the production company and their previous work.

Alternate: Be an Extra

Those with zero film experience might want to get their feet wet by working as an extra. As an extra, you’re exposed to the long hours of a film job (though not as long as the crew) and can see firsthand how things are run. You can get the feel for the job without actually running around doing PA duties.

So where should you start looking for jobs?

Job Sites

*paid subscriptions

A note on Help Wanted Hotline: Jobs for films and TV shows are posted here, and you’ll see some big names here. Certainly add this to your list of things to check regularly, but please note that I’ve not heard of anyone getting a job through here. More often than not it seems jobs are posted here later than in other places.

Stage 32 is probably better for networking because I see a lot of people “trying to break in” and not a lot of people actually hiring.

Facebook Groups

For work, advice, encouragement, hilarious memes!

  • Atlanta Film Community
  • Paid Only Georgia Film Crew Group
  • Atlanta Film Production Group
  • Production Freelancers – Producers, Coordinators, PA’s etc…..
  • Georgia Production Assistants
  • Greater Atlanta Film Community
  • Women Working in Reality TV
  • **Movie Set Memes

**You know you need a laugh during the job search.

Other useful groups for info, advice and the very occasional job: Atlanta Film Production Group, Georgia Production Assistants.

This is just a sample. Look for what you’re into and join up. Some groups are more spammy than others, so I didn’t really want to add groups like Georgia Film Industry Circle and because it skews towards being more spammy, but sometimes get lucky.

Actors and Background Facebook groups

Another way people might survive the long in-between calls is by working as an extra.

  • ONLY Speaking Role Casting Calls (Southeast US)
  • Central Casting (Georgia USA)
  • Actors Access
  • SAG – AFTRA (for those serious about this acting thing)
  • SCAD Film & Television (Please note, any gig posted on a student group WILL be for VOLUNTEER ONLY. Students can’t afford to pay and simply need the practice of working with crews/actors. Be considerate of this.)
  • Background Artists
  • Casting Atlanta
  • CAB Castings
  • Casting All Talent
  • Casting TaylorMade
  • Casting TaylorMade Miami
  • Central Casting Atlanta
  • CL Casting
  • Cynthia Stillwell Casting
  • Extras Casting Atlanta
  • Hylton Casting
  • Marinella Hume Casting
  • New Life Casting
  • Southern BG Casting
  • Tammy Smith Casting- Atlanta
  • The Extra Bad Group
  • WSA Casting

The Atlanta SAG page has a list of legit agents for actors (something you should consider if acting is your thing). You can find agents and managers elsewhere, but beware, there are many scams afoot. Legitimate agencies will not ask for money upfront (the exception is Actor’s Access, but that’s different). Places like John Casablancas will make you fork over $1000+ and are definitely scams.

Volunteering

Here’s the thing. If you’re new to the industry in general, or new to a place like Atlanta, working for free on a couple projects can actually be beneficial. Hear me out.

You need to make connections in the area, people who live here and can in turn recommend you for actual paying jobs in the future. People who might volunteer to work on your next project. It’s a give and take.

Don’t volunteer on just anything. Vet your options. If a production sounds fishy, keep your distance. I had my own protocol for what I would volunteer on and you should too.

I volunteered my services on a short film once after watching the director’s previous content and negotiating when I would work. That film ended up at San Diego Comic Con.

no pay

That being said, definitely don’t be a volunteer forever. Even if you’re a total n00b to the film industry, once you’ve gained skills through volunteering, you need to value yourself enough to be paid for your work.

Networking Events

Last year when I was fresh on the Atlanta scene, I went to a couple of networking events to start meeting people and see what was out there.

Just check out this list of networking events for film people in Atlanta! Just don’t go to Atlanta Film Hub. I’ve heard bad things about them.

Women in Film and Television Atlanta is a great way women to network. If you don’t want to pay the dues, they have a monthly open mixer. The next one is set for February 07. Non-members pay $15.

Something like Film Bar Monday is not networking per se. It’s more a casual hang out for filmmakers to do. This is held on every Monday at various bars around Atlanta, including Decatur. The rules state no business cards, no obvious desperate ploys for employment. But meet some people here, get talking and you’ll see where your next lead might come from. There’s also a Film Brunch Sunday!

Production Gear Rental

Maybe you’ve got the skills for a certain job, but don’t have the gear yet?

For those who say “I just need this one thing and I have $30.” The first two are the Uber of production rental — i.e. renting from regular people in your area:

The following are the more professional ones:

Film Industry Resource Map

This is a handy interactive resource put together by Tatem Spearman.

Click here to access the map.

What You Need to Do RIGHT NOW

  • Update your resume, website, and various job board accounts. Reflect any new additions, new skills or anything that might apply to production jobs.

Tailor your resume to the job you want. If you sometimes apply to sound gigs and sometimes to acting gigs, have separate resumes for each.

  • Clean up your social media of anything that might appear questionable to a potential employer. You laugh, but I’ve actually had employers say during an interview, “We looked at your social media and think you’re a great fit.”
  • Business cards. Maybe seems antiquated to some but can’t hurt.
  • Professional email. Nobody is going to hire ButtDeeemon13XXX@hotmail.com. No one. (Dear Lord please don’t let that be a real email address) Some variation of your first and last name or your production company name (if you have one) is fine.

But most importantly:

atl meme

No, not that.^
  • Don’t give up. 

Making it in the production world, whether in Atlanta, Los Angeles or Narnia will require a level of commitment and stubbornness not found in other professions. You might find yourself networking and putting yourself out there for months without work.

Have a savings. Have a plan. If you put your best foot forward, keep making those connections, honing your skills and doing the grunt work that does come your way, people will notice. And that’s what you want.

Did I miss anything?

If there’s anything I can add to these lists, please let me know by emailing bridgetlamonica@gmail.com. Contributors will be credited.

Contributors to this post

Tatem Spearman, Alex Collins, Arthur Groves (updates for BG Casting list).