Hard to believe this year is almost over! So many things I wanted to write about here in this blog, not to mention script and book projects that I haven’t had time to finish due to other priorities. I don’t like making excuses for not writing, but as I get older there’s just so much I can do in a day… and I have to be realistic about what I can achieve before time runs out.
In fact, the theme of time and aging pervades most of my life now — what I choose to do or not do, how I respond to movies, books or TV shows, who I hang out with or avoid. For instance, it’s tough listening to a much younger person talk about their success in the movie business after writing just one or two screenplays while you’ve been working at it for years. You wonder, why them and not you?
Rather than suck on sour grapes though, I actually try to learn from those younger success stories — up close and personal when possible. Last month, I took a weekend workshop with Nicholl Fellowship winner, Destin Daniel Cretton, who wrote and directed SHORT TERM 12, a highly-regarded indie film that landed on some Top 10 Movies lists last year. ST12 began life as a 21-minute short that made it into Sundance, and was based on his experiences as a staff worker in a group home for troubled foster kids who were aging out of the system.
Destin is a very humble, soft-spoken guy from Maui, with a very clear idea of who he is and what kind of films he wants to make. The University of Hawaii workshop was supposed to be about going from making shorts to features, which makes sense if you think about it. Yet that doesn’t seem to have been a conscious strategy on his part. In film school, he made some shorts on real film that got into some film festivals. The ones I saw were, well, what you might expect of a college student. Quirky, imaginative, obviously trying to make a statement about not succumbing to expectations or being like everyone else… and that’s his attitude towards life, I think.
The ST12 short is a big step up and much more mature in theme and technique. It’s easy to see why it did well at Sundance. He said he hadn’t thought about turning it into a feature script until after the short was done. That screenplay won a Nicholl Fellowship in 2010. I asked if he got a lot of meetings out of that. Surprisingly, he said no. Perhaps, it was because ST12 is a coming of age drama and didn’t fit the high concept mold that agents, managers and producers prefer.
However, that fellowship money allowed him to write and produce his first indie feature, I AM NOT A HIPSTER (available on Netflix instant streaming) which he says was the real turning point. And he made it for a grand total of $65,000! Because he had enlisted talented people who believed in his vision and project, they agreed to work for practically nothing. The payback came later for them when he was able to hire them for other projects. So that’s the first lesson I learned: find like-minded people with talent who are willing to work with you because they believe in what you’re doing as much as you do.
HIPSTER got him an agent at WME — I know, you don’t think of the most powerful talent agency in the world as being indie-friendly. Yet Destin says the WME agent he signed with understood him and hasn’t pressured him to take projects he wasn’t really interested in. That said, he did meet with people like J.J. Abrams at Bad Robot, and eventually landed a deal to write/direct THE GLASS CASTLE starring Jennifer Lawrence (after telling the producer what he felt was wrong with the script they had — and them passing on him initially). He also met with Matthew McConaughey, and described it as a somewhat surreal experience.
The biggest takeaway though is the simplest: find a way to make your own film. Start with a short, or a very short short if that’s all you can afford. My biggest regret as a writer is I didn’t pursue that angle from the beginning. I’ve got a lot of well-written scripts that will never see the light of the day… unless I try to make them myself. Now that digital cameras and editing software are available to anyone who wants to make movies, it’s much more doable even if you haven’t gone to film school or have little technical know-how. Heck, make your own movie trailers to show your vision and bait producers or agents into asking to see more!
Getting back to this blog theme, two recent movies I recommend — and one I don’t — all involve time and aging. I liked CHEF because it’s about a middle-aged guy who rediscovers his passion for cooking by leaving the restaurant biz behind and going on the road in a food truck with his son and a buddy. It’s a bit different too in that it doesn’t follow the usual 3-act/Save the Cat beats structure. And the ending is a little too tidy. Still, it was refreshing to watch something that was heartfelt and didn’t involve anyone shooting or killing each other for a change.
The other movie I really enjoyed was BEGIN AGAIN, which is similar to CHEF: Aging “has-been” record producer rediscovers his passion for indie music and bonds with his daughter in the process. Oh yeah, like CHEF too he gets back together with his ex-wife at the end… which isn’t very realistic, but gives you the warm and fuzzies. There’s a scene in the beginning that I loved: the drunk producer has been fired, stumbles into a bar where a young women is performing on stage solo. She’s shy, her voice is fragile… vulnerable. The crowd tunes her out —
But he sees something, hears something in her voice and words that no one else does… and we see what is going on in his head as instruments on stage start to play themselves in his mental song arrangement. The quiet little tune becomes a potential hit right before our eyes. That’s what a movie or music producer does. That’s what we do as writers/directors too. We see things and hear things in our head that no one else does. That’s what art is.
As for the movie I hated, it was that big budget high concept sci-fi aliens war movie, EDGE OF TOMORROW. I’ve written here before why I hate time travel movies/stories so I won’t rehash that rant. Suffice it to say, watching EDGE was like being stuck in a boring video game that makes you replay the same scenes over and over until you get to the next stage. If your main characters keep “dying” every couple of minutes, who cares when or if they really die at the end? Hell, I’m getting to an age where real death — aging relatives, friends, mentors — happens with more frequency each passing year, making what time I have left more precious. I don’t want to waste it on things that have no meaning to me.