Friday, September 22, 2006

RSICA: Something Big

I just got back from New York where His Majesty King Abullah announced The Red Sea Intitute of Cinematic Arts. This is a film school for the Middle East, and it will be in Aqaba. It's a 3-year MFA program done in partnership with the USC school of cinema and will be modeled after USC and AFI's approaches to teaching filmmaking. This is a dream becoming a reality. As a child growing up in Jordan, I always wanted to make movies. Now kids can grow up with such goals that can be attainable in Jordan, learning from industry professionals from around the world. The first class will beging in September 2008 as the facility has yet to break ground. You have to start somewhere, and there simply isn't a better place in the Middle East than Jordan.

Oh, and it was really cool to finally meet the big chief.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Cuckoo's Nest

Just writing to say how much I love this film, "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest". I saw it when I was in high school, and I watched it again tonight. Milos Forman directed this 31 years ago, before he gave us the other amazing classic, Amadeus. Jack Nicholson, Louis Fletcher, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd. An incredible masterpiece of filmmaking. Just a reminder that you don't need special effects in movies. You need good stories, good performances, and good story-tellers. That's what it's all about. The human experience. Love it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Writing Movies

Not that I'm a good cook or anything, but just the idea that creative writing is like cooking rings very true to me. You know, the whole idea of creating a story, structuring it for a visual medium (film) and creating an opportunity for the multiple layers of this medium to communicate the story you want to tell in the style you want to tell it... it's all too much fun. And I think it requires lots of brain energy. You let so much cook on an unconcious level, then you sit with that paper or keyboard and you start writing.

So my process is typically like this: I have an idea. I sit with a clear new notebook and I start handwriting the concept, scriblling possible characters, writing possible tones I could approach the film in, and I start constructing a general storyline. Then I start expanding the idea on a new page with a general outline. I always write down questions. What am I trying to do here? What does this guy need? Why does he do this or that? I keep writing questions so that I can guide myself to the answers that tell the story.

So once I have the outline, I start a new page and write the story free-hand. Stream of conscious writing. Just spilling out what comes to mind. Then once I have that whole story down, I come back to it and start transcribing it into my mac and cleaning it up. Expanding dialogue, combining scenes, clarifying details... things like that. This process goes over several days or weeks, depending on the size of the film.

Now here's the "craft" aspect of screenwriting... how can you tell each scene in the most effective way without the use of dialogue? I like to focus on point of view. Who's point of view is this scene told through? Why? What can I communicate through the actor's eyes instead of dialogue? I usually write in beats, and often I find myself replacing an entire line of dialogue with one word like "hm..." And I love it, because the less the actors have to express through words, the more effective their performance can be. Emotions are often kept internal. And you can engage the audience more if you let them try to see that emotion through the actor's eyes instead of being told what that emotion is through a line of dialogue. I think that's generally the difference between good movies and bad movies... and bad TV just the same.

Anyway, so after I've spent all this time working my ass off writing the script, I'm done... or so I think. The most painful, yet most rewarding aspect of screenwriting is the process of re-writing. You need to step away from the script for a while so that you can come back and read it with a fresh set of eyes. You have to see it through the eyes of a brand new reader. And when you do that, you discover that so much of what you wrote in the first draft is full of cliches or assumes that the audience understands what you're thinking. So you start rewriting.

What I like to do is re-outline the entire script from page one so that I can clearly see the big picture, the beats of the movie.
And by the way, I think humour is soooooooo important. No drama works without some humor, even if just on an intellectual level. Show me one example and I'll give you my left shoe. Anyway, so I re-outline the script and then start shuffling scenes or expanding a new treatment of the story. And, as painful as it sounds, I start writing the entire story on a brand new white page.

I don't do that until I'm ready to go into a new blitz of obsessive writing. I mean the kind of writing where you sit in a coffee shop and you write for seven hours straight without getting off your ass. The kind of writing where you're living inside the scene and all you're doing is transcribing what's going on in front of you. That's the most powerful feeling in the world because at this point, you know who your characters are and you know where the movie is going. You have to know where you're going to end up, and if each scene serves the grand theme of the film, then you have a tight script. So I love that feeling of getting lost in the world of the movie, being unaware of your surroundings.

I feed off the energy around me at coffee shops. And I just write. I write and play God for a while. I erase characters, I change their social status. I give them friends. I depress them. Put them through pain and torture. Give them a sense of hope sometimes. It's too much fun.

Anyway, so I felt like sharing with you my thoughts about writing. As I'm re-writing my thesis film right now, I'm exploring the different tones I could play with. I'm on my fourth draft now. My first three drafts were absurdist surreal comedy based on behaviour. This new draft will focus more on the psychology of the writer and less on the plot points and twists and turns. I figure the most effective way to make a short film is to explore strong characters. With features you have more time to play with plot. With shorts, I think it's better to have a character study.

So anyway, here are the first few pages from my thesis film as it is now... I give you "Morning Latte"


The orange sun shines through the windows of this uniquely trendy and colorful cafe. Sign reads “Morning Latte”.
Hands fill up coffee machines...
Pour milk into containers...
Fill sugar packets into bins...
Arrange pastries in window.
When suddenly, a hand bell rings.
All hands stop.
His thundering voice commands the room.

Who put the brown sugar packets in the cane sugar bin?

This is GEORGE, 40, the slightly portly manager, defined by his red cheeks and intimidating pointy goatee. His clothing references Samurai. In his hand, he holds a Pavlovian bell.
He stares at his three shaken employees across the coffee shop.

We don't do that. We don't put the brown sugar packets where the white sugar packets belong.

He walks up to them holding the bin filled with brown sugar packets. Stops. Stares at the three.

We don't do that.
We don't do that.
We don't do that.
We don't...
(long pause) that.

He inspects his employees up close.
He moves up to LUCY, 25, freckled red-head, big optimistic eyes.

I know it wasn't you, Lucy. You care about this place too much. You take pride in your work.

She smiles, relieved.
He walks to ROBERT, 35, terrified.

Robert... No. No no no no no. You don't have it in you.

Robert relaxes.
George steps over to WILLIAM, 30, tall, defiant, handsome.
They stare into each other's eyes.

Why William? Why do you do this to me? Why do you do this to you?

Not a flinch from William.
George flips the sugar bin over, dropping the packets on the ground and all over William's shoes.

Clean it up.
He walks away to his office in the back as the bell rings in his hand.
William gets on his knees and picks up the sugar packets. Lucy gets down and helps him.

Did you do it on purpose?

It's just a stupid sugar bin.

William, you know better than that. Why William?

Because... because... it felt good. When I sell my screenplay and I'm outta this hell-hole, you'll understand.

Just then William looks outside and sees a beautiful girl, PENELOPE, 26, walking towards the glass door.
He quickly jumps up on his feet and leaves Lucy on her knees cleaning up alone.
He gets behind the counter as Penelope walks in.

Good morning Penelope.

Morning William.

How's your liver.


My liver?

Wasn't your... didn't you... Weren't you having liver problems?


'Cause I swear I thought I heard you telling someone you were having issues with your liver.


That's why I thought you didn't come in yesterday.

Awkward silence. She stares at him.

How's the screenplay coming?

Uh great. Actually, I... I've been meaning to tell you.

He stares at her, smitten.


Uh... I named the heroine after you.


I... I... I named her Penelope.

Silence, then a slight smile from her.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

AFI Year 2: The Final Frontier

So we've started our second year at AFI. Yesterday we had the directors of "Little Miss Sunshine" (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) come in to talk about making the film along with cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt (an AFI alumn himself). That was followed by a screening of the terribly bad film "The Wicker Man" along with a Q&A with writer/director Neil LaBute, better known for his plays and films like "Nurse Betty" and "The Shape of Things".

It's interesting because Little Miss Sunshine is probably the best movie I've seen this year, and The Wicker Man is the absolute worst. And you can learn from both just as much. It was great listening to Jonathan Dayton say that although he made a lot of music videos before this film, his first feature film break (Little Miss Sunshine) didn't come until he was 48 years old. It's a matter of perseverence. They talked about the writing process and tweaking scenes to sustain a certain tone. It's very cool listening to directors talk about writing because I write almost everday and I think of myself as a writer/director, not just a director. So much of screenwriting is in structure and tone. I'll write a separate blog about that one.

Then Neil LaBute talked about his writing process, which is basically sitting in front of the computer and not knowing where he's going to get... and just writing. Personally, I like to know where I'm going. I like to cook the idea without committig to one specific approach, but definitely letting the idea cook in my head on an unconscious level for a while. Then sitting down and writing a general treatment by hand. And then expanding it as I transcribe it onto my computer. And I like to do that in coffee shops early in the morning, feeding off the aroma of coffee and people walking in and out of the place. There's a certain focus I enjoy when sitting in a coffee shop. It's funny because I can be completely unaware of my surroundings, yet really need the noise and traffic to keep me focused.

Anyway, so this is going to be an exciting year. We have calsses on improvisation, advanced directing actors and camera, scene workshop on-camera, feature film screenplay development, international film studies, and thesis development along with our thesis productions of course. I shoot my thesis in January. We have to raise $54,000 for that film and AFI gives us $11,000 (from our tuition, which is $38,000). So anyway, it should be a fun crazy year. Are you excited? I am.