Posted tagged ‘Destin Daniel Cretton’

Time Flies

November 12, 2014

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.

Blacklisted: Blood Moon Revenge!

October 8, 2014

To paraphrase Heidi Klum on Project Runway: One week you’re down, the next week you’re up when you are a writer. In my last post, I expressed my disappointment that the spec script I wrote for the Industry Insider contest (Sheldon Turner round) didn’t win the whole shebang or seem to garner any attention when results were announced. But in my heart, I felt it was good work — so I took another shot at the Black List. If you aren’t familiar with it, you can click here for background info.

Aside from the Nicholl Fellowships competition, the Black List is one of the best ways for unrepped or unproduced screenwriters to get their scripts read by legit industry professionals — managers, agents, producers, development execs. However, on their 1-10 rating scale, you need at least one evaluation score of 8 or higher from their paid readers to really get noticed. Two paid evaluations at $50 apiece can put you on their Top Lists page if the average score is over 7. Of course, a dynamite logline and catchy title can generate downloads by professionals even before you get your paid reader’s scores.

I had submitted other scripts before, and the best I did were 7’s across the board for my coming-of-age dramedy, LOST IN THE SUPERMARKET, which made the Nicholl quarterfinals in 2013. (I bring that up because I attended a University of Hawaii weekend workshop with the writer/director of SHORT TERM 12, who won a Nicholl Fellowship in 2010 — which inspired me to resurrect that old LOST script because of his success. More on that workshop in my next post!)

To be honest, I was half-dreading what the Black List readers would grade it because I had just gotten an e-newsletter from a screenwriting “consultant” who proclaimed that you should never have flashbacks, visions or dream sequences for any characters in your script other than the protagonist. In this consultant’s view, it would “confuse” the reader and shift the focus from the hero. But what if the hero isn’t really a “hero” in the usual sense, and perhaps the secondary characters’ backstories are equally essential to the story?

That was the case in my BLOOD MOON draft. One of the big takeways I got from working with a Writers Store story specialist as part of the Insider contest was the need to develop my characters more fully. Normally, I don’t like using voiceovers, flashbacks or dream sequences. To me, those are kind of cop outs. Yet more and more, I’ve noticed in good TV series and many films that those techniques are being used to tell non-linear story lines that eventually merge together in the present and can deliver a powerful payoff when used right. Admittedly, it was a bit risky to give my supporting characters equal flashback/dream sequence time in the script since I was challenging the reader to see the parallel plot lines between the protagonist and antagonist(s).

My first Black List evaluation came back with the 8 score that had eluded me all this time. The second reader’s comments were in some ways even more positive and could be seen as a “consider” or “recommend” (excerpts from both below) but came in at a 7. Those two scores put it on the Top Scripts page for awhile, which has gotten me about a dozen pro downloads in the past week. No contacts though, so maybe nothing will come of it. However, it does illustrate how subjective this business is. Even the Black List evaluations can be puzzling when the reader’s scores don’t seem to match their comments.

For example, here’s quotes from the “Strengths” and “Prospects” comments by both. Guess which was the 8 and which was the 7 rating — and remember, 8 is a reader saying they recommend industry pros take a look at it…

Strengths: With its neo-noir setting, flashes of deadpan wit, and spring-loaded plot, this is a terrific script with lots of potential. Above all, its characters are excellent. Michael McVay, an opiate-addicted detective in perpetual withdrawal throughout the story, makes for an excellent hard-boiled-style protagonist, one whose cynical demeanor masks his underlying decency. The other characters – Jack, Willow, Benjamin Mori – are equally good. Benjamin Mori makes for a complex villain whose motivations are not so cut-and-dry as to be entirely unsympathetic… Prospects: The prospects for this script should be quite good. Although it may be old-fashioned in certain ways (for one, it isn’t spectacularly over-the-top in its gore or its premise), it never feels irrelevant or outdated, but merely modest in its ambitions… It would be quite cheap to produce, and with the right cast and director something extremely good could come of it. Although there is still plenty of room for improvement, this is a terrific script that deserves to be given a close look.

Strengths: This script pens an evocative modern Film Noir. Its strong characters and moody world tie an equally strong premise, plot and dialogue into the tight and requisite story rope that makes for a very compelling film outing. Yet MICHAEL’S goal to solve the Yakuza-cursed murders simultaneously unfolds as a personal road of redemption; both his gritty past and tragic losses finding a spiritual rebirth in his fulfilling the Blood Moon curse…albeit through death. The material also does a masterful job of creating an intricate tableau of humanity where good guys turn out to be bad and perceived villains leave one breathless with a surprising good turn. Prospects: As penned, this script connects and executives/producers alike will be drawn to its story locale and cultural interplay. Additionally, this script stands as an excellent writing sample. If an outright spec sale does not materialize, a writing assignment may emerge. This material comes across solid on both fronts and collaborators can revel in this accomplishment while moving onto another project, knowing that they have their “calling card” script already in the bank…

Both readers pointed out weaknesses and made some good suggestions — which also contradicted each other. To me though, that’s a positive since they both saw the potential to go in different directions. And keep in mind, I wrote over 50 pages of the first draft in one week in order to meet the contest deadline. Anyway, the first comments were from the 7 rating and the second one gave me the 8.

They both focused on the characters more than the plot or hook, and I have to credit my story coach from the Writers Store for hammering that into my head during our weekly phone sessions. Which just goes to show that even old dogs like me can learn new tricks if they keep an open mind. Speaking of which, in my next post I’ll share some things I picked up this past weekend from Destin Daniel Cretton, the Nicholl Fellowship winner and writer/director of I AM NOT A HIPSTER as well as SHORT TERM 12. It may change the way you approach screenwriting.