Archive for the ‘Advice and Warnings’ Category

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2017 Part 3 – Director for Hire: “Making a Killing”

January 22, 2018
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One of these things is more necessary on set than the other…

One of the sad facts about the career of a director is that you’ll spend longer doing collaboration projects and working for free than pretty much anyone else on set. And when you think about it, this makes sense. Partly because everyone else can be hired by several people (the producer, the director or their head of department) whereas you are only ever hired by a producer; but also because directing has a high degree of responsibility- producers are only going to hire directors that they’re confident in and usually that means having worked with them before. Plus, directing is a very desirable position and there are a lot of people who want that chair so it’s a very competitive but very closed market.

Most of your early directing “jobs” will be self-produced. You’re the one leading the project, you’re the one footing the bill, you’re the one with your vision on screen. Effectively, you hire yourself. But there’s a lot to be said for those projects where you’re hired as a director, even if there’s no real pay to speak of. I’ve done a few of these gigs over the years and, if you pick the right projects, they can be great for your reel and a great way to network. Plus, you get to feel like you’ve been hired, which gives your ego a bit of a massage.

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Darrel Draper (Jarad) and Amelia Vernede (Claudia) get a bit messy in “Making a Killing”

Early last year I spotted a directing job on mandy.com, helming a short film called “Making a Killing.” It was a script written by actor Darrell Draper and co-produced by him and another actor, Amelia Vernede. They’d come up with the film as a chance to showcase themselves and hopefully push their acting careers forward. What made this film different from all the other no-budget shorts kicking around though was the script.

It was a comedy that was actually funny.

I know, go figure… It was also well-written in general and this is something of a rarity at the lower rungs of the industry ladder (to be honest, it isn’t that much less rarefied at the professional six-figure-budget rungs either). Less than stellar scripts were something that had deterred me from accepting many other directing gigs over the years. The last thing I wanted was to jump in to the directing chair on a project where the script or story was lacking, because no matter what you do, you can’t turn it into something amazing. As many have said, you can’t polish a turd (even if you can cover it in glitter and pretend it’s gold!) and who wants a turd on their resume?

But “Making a Killing” wasn’t a turd and in fact, had a lot of potential to be a cool little film. The story was a simple, if comically absurd one: Jarad is a wannabe serial killer, but he doesn’t really know anything about it or how to get started so he enlists the help of Claudia, a marketing agent, to help him. The film follows Jarad’s attempts to join the Bundys and Mansons of the world and takes an explorative and satirical poke at people’s fascination with murder and the morality of fame and it’s less savoury cousin infamy. There’s a lot of black humour, a touch of drama and a bit of social commentary- things I wanted a bit more of in my directing career because I believe a good director needs to be versatile with both style and subject matter.

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A couple of weeks before the shoot, I went to London to see the locations we had access to. Most of the action was set in a flat in Hackney and a few exteriors in the surrounding area. The flat was owned by a friend of the actors and although we had free reign there, we had a limited window to shoot in. We had access from 9am to 5pm over two days, which wasn’t too bad, but since it takes a while to get in and set up and almost as long to break everything down at the end of the day, it was going to be a little tight to get everything done. So I decided to plan and storyboard things as best I could. In that regard, the recce was really helpful since I could work out my coverage based on the location. And since the actors were there, we were also able to block out some of the scenes in the flat as well, which helped with picking shots.

I like to think of a film breaking down into scenes and sequences. Scenes are the same as what they are in the script- a chunk of (primarily) dialogue and action set in one location and happening concurrently. They are usually shot using coverage so they can be edited in a variety of ways, although you could use a one-shot if the scene lends itself to that (and you don’t mind incurring the wrath of an editor!). Sequences have to be considered as what they are- a series of shots that narratively progress in one direction and are more of a montage in nature. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to use coverage to get these shots because they’re often specific to each beat of the story, so you’ll need to see it edited together in your head and shoot what you need- which is where storyboards can really come into their own.

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Adam Hudson (DP) and Joe Nichols (AC) set up for the first shot of the film with Amelia Vernede (Claudia)

In the case of “Making a Killing” most of the film was comprised of scenes- usually two characters talking- so storyboarding wasn’t really necessary for those, but I did draw a few just to get the camera placements in my head. But there were two sequences in the film- a musical montage where Jarad’s trying out different serial killer “identities” complete with costume changes and a sequence with Jarad pursuing his first victim.

The former proved problematic even up to the day of the shoot, partly because we still didn’t know the specifics of what was going to happen in the scene costume/character-wise but also because I was unsure how to shoot it. I knew where we would have to stage the scene- in the hallway because it was the only area in the flat big enough- but I didn’t know how I wanted it to go together. Originally, I had the idea of using a time-lapse between costume changes, but this would have been too complex and ultimately too limiting for the sequence. But once we knew what elements were going to make up the sequence (Jarad’s entrances and exits in each costume with a bit of action inbetween, Claudia’s reactions before, during and after each costume reveal and the notebook of possible identities getting crossed out and doodled over), we were able to get the footage we needed so it could be cut together into a narratively valid music-backed montage.

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Darrel Draper gets his stalk(er) on…

The other sequence, where Jarad stalks his first victim, was envisaged as a tense, horror movie-like moment and I planned out a bunch of shots to capitalise on this part of the story. There was also a comic twist at the end of this sequence leading into a dialogue scene, so setting things up right would make that much stronger. Sadly, time was against us. You see, we needed to shoot this sequence and the scene that followed when it was dark and unfortunately, we were filming in August, where night doesn’t fall til gone 9pm. Which meant a long shoot day was going to get longer and we didn’t have the luxury of picking the shots up the next day.

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So we filmed the important bit- the dialogue scene – first and then had to grab a few set-up shots afterwards as we walked back to the main location. As an aside, we were filming on a Sony A7S II and holy hell, that thing can see in the dark! We were filming on a path beside a church and the only practical lights were streetlamps thirty-odd feet away on the main road. We had a few battery-powered LED panels to get a bit of key lighting in there, but it was pretty damn dark and I doubt there were many cameras that could’ve produced a usable result in those conditions. In fact, I think the only reason we got a bit of noise in the footage was because we were shooting S-Log3 (Log modes don’t tend to work so well in low light scenarios and you often can’t adjust the ISO either) but it’s nothing a bit of de-noising in post won’t clear up!

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For the camera geeks amongst you, this was what the A7S II can see post-grade with minimal light, shooting SLog3 in UHD. For everyone else, this is Gemma Tubbs (Rebecca).

Day two was finishing up the flat scenes and it was then that we hit what I like to call the “iceberg scene.” Iceberg scenes are scenes that don’t look that problematic on paper but when you get to shoot them, you realise there’s a massive problem with them that threatens to sink the proverbial ship. The bit you can see is just the tip of the iceberg, but if you don’t take action quickly, that’s going to spiral into a huge chunk of delays, stress and lost goodwill. Mixed metaphors aside, they happen on most shoots and in my experience they usually come from poor planning. In this case, the fault was largely mine…

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Giving actors a sharp prop during an “iceberg scene” is just asking for trouble…

We had quite a chunky scene set in the lounge- an argument scene- and I knew where it was going to take place, but I hadn’t blocked anything out with the actors. And what’s rule number one? Always block scenes out with actors first before picking your camera angles…

But I hadn’t.

So when we started setting up for the master shot, that was when I tried to find business for the actors to do- in this case, Claudia would be sat on the sofa using her laptop and Jarad would be hurriedly fussing around her trying to tidy things up. It was a good idea for the scene- it showed how complacent Claudia had become in Jarad’s home and how Jarad had changed as a person by wanting things to be tidy and impress his new girlfriend. And, had I had the chance (or made the time) to work through the action with the actors, we could’ve staged a very funny scene where Jarad is always tidying where Claudia wants to be and so there’d be this great visual game of musical chairs, stressing both of them out. But instead, the action itself was a little flat and that caused some problems when it came to covering the scene: Claudia’s close up needed to pan to the side in line with her looking space when Jarad crossed the shot, we needed two close ups of Jarad for the different lines of action (both of which needed to be in awkward places within the location) and continuity needed to be super tight as a result of the business the actors were doing.

On their own, these things weren’t enough to derail the shoot, but as I’ve said before, directing is largely about people management and if you don’t have good answers for how a scene needs to be shot, the crew and cast can become stressed, argumentative and worse still, defensive. If they get to this last stage, teamwork can suffer as each member of the cast and crew starts to do whatever they think is best for them, their reel and their career- actors direct themselves, DPs fuss over getting the perfect shot and many others just want to go home. Fortunately, we never got to that stage, but people did start to get stressed. I struggle with these situations because when I find myself with an iceberg scene, I tend to become very pragmatic, fall back on simple shots and coverage and try to get through the scene without pissing people off. The downside to this approach is that although the atmosphere and people’s goodwill is maintained, the scene comes out a bit by-the-numbers. I’ll often see the scene in the finished film and think if only I’d planned this one out better, I could’ve had a much better scene in the can.

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Filming on a busy intersection in Hackney, twenty feet from an all-night Tesco was… problematic to say the least.

So over the last couple of projects, I’ve been trying to push a little for what I want when I get an iceberg scene, even if that means taking a few minutes break to think things through (ADs hate falling behind schedule, but they tend to hate bungled scenes more, so they’re usually on board with this request!). Because once I know what I’m doing, I’m able to lead everyone else again. Directing is frequently a balancing act between pushing for your vision and being open enough to accept input from others- do too much of either at the wrong time and the film can very easily fall apart. An iceberg scene is always the wrong time, so taking a few minutes to get your shit together, come up with a plan (possibly with your strongest on-set collaborator) and communicate it to everyone can get things back on track.

The trailer went up over Christmas and we’ve been giving it a strong push on social media. It’ll be interesting to see how much traction the finished film has- both online and in festivals- but having seen a rough cut, I’m quite happy with how things look and think it’ll do quite well. I also think it’ll be a great addition to my body of work- something I’d like to expand more in 2018. “Making a Killing” isn’t something I could’ve ever written myself, so the underlying voice of the film isn’t mine (much like on any director-for-hire gig) but I helped bring it to life, which ultimately is what a director does.

What was really nice about directing “Making a Killing” was that I was just that, a director. I wasn’t the writer, I wasn’t the producer, I wasn’t the editor, I wasn’t wearing multiple hats. I could just concentrate on the job of directing and let the production worries fall on someone else for a change.

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Some of the cast and crew of “Making a Killing” (from Left to Right: Adam Hudson (DoP), Joe Nichols (AC), me (Director), Amelia Vernede (Claudia), Sophie Marchant (Sound Recordist) and Darrel Draper (Jarad). Absent from the shot are Cal Brown (AD) and Gemma Tubbs (Rebecca).

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Another Year. Another Chance At The Title.

January 2, 2014

Rather than do the traditional end of year summary- it was shit, not a lot happened!- I thought I’d share a mini epiphany I’ve had over the last few days of 2013. An epiphany that I hope will carry into 2014 and make me achieve more with the next twelve months than I have with the last…

You see, I started 2013 in much the same place and state of mind career-wise as I finished it. As I said before, nothing happened. Well, almost nothing. But that wouldn’t make for a succinct, somewhat melancholy lesson-learned kinda thing would it?

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So… yeah… I’ve had a little epiphany. Or a minor and possibly quite obvious revelation of sorts about me, my career and why the former is depressed and the latter is borderline nonexistent. And I thought I’d share it with the people who read this blog. And you, if you’re reading this and aren’t called Vince or Sam.

And it all starts with New Year’s Eve. Like most years, I often wind up at my friend Phil’s house party on NYE. That’s assuming I even feel like going to a party and not working my way through a DVD box set, refreshing Facebook and slowly crying into a tube of Pringles. Okay, it’s never been that bad, but you get my point. Anyway, I was at Phil’s and usually these parties have quite large guest lists- Phil’s a talented and subsequently-busy DoP which combined with our uni friends, his housemates and his housemates’ friends means that there are often lots of people for me to not remember the name of all evening. I tend to go because it gives me a chance to catch up with our uni friends- many of whom I don’t see or speak to very often. Well, once or twice a year at Phil’s parties usually.

I suppose that technically counts as a mini-mini-epiphany, really. That it’s my fault I don’t keep in touch with people and thus have what can only generously be described as an insular social life. That and Facebook, because let’s face it, whose social life has actually improved since that data-mining, sponsorship-and-adverts time-waster poked its way into our real lives and nullified the need to go out and, God forbid, actually talk to another human being using actual words instead of smilies, non-commital clickable affirmations and dubious abbreviations?

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Just me then? I really am a sad old bastard…

Anyway, me being shit at keeping in touch has a root- I avoid these things because I don’t like highlighting to people how much I’m failing. I’ve always feared failure, not out of some Pavlovian parental displeasure (they were always very encouraging!) but out of a sense of who I am and what I have the potential to achieve. Every time I turn up at these sort of gatherings I’m faced with assessing my career and life successes against everyone else’s and, in my own head at least, I always come off worse. I’m also not one to bullshit, so every “how’s things?” is automatically followed with the honest-but-understated “not great.”

The actual mini-epiphany though occurred specifically on this occasion though. A friend of mine from uni has been working his bollocks off this year, not on films but on music. Despite being on the same film course I was, Graham’s passion and skill was always with music. We all wondered many a time over those three years why the hell he wasn’t studying music in some way rather than poncing about with lights and cameras. Seems he wondered that too since after graduation he started pushing forward with his music career. This year, the fruits of his labour started to show- he released his first EP. I would insert a shameless plug and a link to where you can buy Chris Sagan’s EP “This Machine” but I’m not that unsubtle.

Ahem.

Buy this here!

Buy this here!

Soooooo…

Anyway, Graham (aka Chris Sagan) has followed his dream, his skill and his inevitable path. He’s worked hard to get to this point and hopefully will do well from here on. It showed me that faith in yourself isn’t enough. Knowing you have the skills and the potential and convincing others you have the skills and potential aren’t enough either. You actually need to work at something. Put the effort in, sacrifice the things that others get distracted by, take risks and shout about your achievements.

It made me realise that I haven’t got anywhere with my directing career because I haven’t put the effort in. My lack of success is my fault. So it is with that in mind, that I’ve decided that this year I will:

1) Put serious effort in to my career
2) Sacrifice things if necessary
3) Take risks
4) Shout about my achievements

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And in addition, I’m going to try and be happy this year. Tough one I know. Don’t know quite how I’m going to achieve that (Chocolate? Hookers? Chocolate covered hookers?) but I reckon it’ll happen as a result of doing the following:

1) Pushing forward with my production company and making this thing work for me so I can…
2) Ditch the fucking day job. Ditch it like the soul-sucking whore it is.
3) Don’t fall for other people’s half-arsed promises and bullshit, even if I want to. You can’t rely on them for anything except disappointment.
4) Make an impact by getting the sort of directing credit that no-one can ignore. Which really means…
5) Throw caution to the wind, put the hours in, ignore the suffocating (non)advice of the well-meaning faithless and MAKE A FUCKING FEATURE FILM!

Yep. That’s the plan for 2014. Lose the suffocating normal job, earn money doing what you love and do the thing everyone advises you against. By making a FUCKING FEATURE FILM. Because I’m dumb as well as ambitious…

And at the very least, cheer the fuck up. Because I can be a real miserable bastard…

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Of Friends and Benefits

July 4, 2013

This is going to be a ranty post so apologies in advance for that.

Actually, no. Fuck it. I’m not going to apologise for the rantiness of the diatribe here, partly because I think a lot of this blog’s readership come here for rants and also because under the vitriol there is an important point for freelancers to take on board:

Don’t do work for friends.

Actually, let me qualify that. Don’t do work for friends for cheap.

Actually, no, that’s still not right. Don’t do work for friends for cheap when they don’t respect what you do.

Now you may think why wouldn’t they respect what you do? They know you’re a filmmaker or a videographer or some other creative sort who does this for their career and earn a living from it- why wouldn’t they respect it? Because they don’t really understand that it’s your job. You can see it when they introduce you to their friends. There’s that almost patronising tone to things, where they say “Dan’s a filmmaker” but it comes out on a subtextual level as “Dan wants to be a filmmaker when he grows up.” I’m 32 years old, motherfucker! I’ve been doing this shit in some form or another (granted with varying degrees of success) for eight years. That’s longer than you’ve been an accountant or a manager or an engineer for British Gas… yet somehow I’ve got the career that needs humouring. Like I’m a four year old with a foil-covered box on his head, claiming he’s an astronaut.

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So, why, might you ask, has all this bile come up?

Well, over the last few months I have had a few instances of friends asking for video work- sometimes it works out fine (like with a martial arts training video I’m doing and a music video I have in the pipeline) but a lot of the time it creates more problems than it’s worth (in my case, they seem to be wedding videos and no-budget business promos). An illustrator friend of mine has also had the same problems. You see, if a non-creative-industry friend wants you to do some work for them, there are usually two big reasons to avoid the whole shebang:

1) They have all the same quality, time and cost expectations and demands that any paying client has…

2) But they also think that because you’re friends, one of those in particular- cost- is magically reduced, while the others stay the same.

And therein lies the problem. They are just as demanding on your time, want just as many revisions and alterations, want a high quality product and don’t want to pay full whack for it. Just like most clients. The only difference is that they think that because you’ve been to school/parties/the pub together, that gives them carte blanche to take liberties.

Actually, you know what, that’s not right. That’s too harsh. Unless your friends are utter arseholes, they don’t actually think like that. Not really.

But they do have a difficulty understanding the nature of your job.

For most people, their job is a place they go to for 40 hours a week and do the same thing day after day in order to get a regular chunk of money at the end of the month. It’s a hard concept to grasp for them that, as a creative freelancer, your work life is nothing like theirs. They don’t naturally equate it with a money-earning job that puts food on the table and electricity in the Xbox. In fact, particularly if they’ve known you since before you started in this game, they probably see your career as a hobby you happen to be particularly good at. As such, they assume you’d jump at the chance to do their little project. From their point of view, they’re doing you a favour rather than the other way round.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it was a fellow creative looking for a favour. If you have tradeable skills (eg your friend is a graphic designer) then you can probably come to a mutually beneficial skill exchange. But if your friend is a postman what’s he got to offer in trade? That you get your post early and no-one steals your amazon packages?

So, what’s the solution? Avoid working for friends?

Well, that’s probably the safest option, to be honest, even if it isn’t the most practical. After all, work is work and friends and family are probably the first contacts to mine for gigs when you’re starting out. But once you’re semi-established, if you do decide to do favour-grade work, don’t devalue yourself by doing it for free or stupid cheap. After all, if you worked in PC World they wouldn’t expect you to give them a laptop for gratis would they?

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So what do you charge?

As mentioned in a previous post, I suggest adopting a three-rate structure. You have your standard rate- what you charge most clients (in my case £35 p/h). You can apply special rates or bulk pricing to this to give clients a sweeter deal and for most instances, this is the only rate you’ll ever need to quote. Then you have your budget or “friend” rate which might be 20% off the standard rate. Whatever you do, try to avoid dropping below this because it’ll only hurt your worth and damage your friendship if you’re not careful. The third rate is the premium rate- maybe 20% up from the standard- and this would be used to pitch for a higher grade of work or if you know the client is going to haggle you down. Start high so you’ve got somewhere to go…

The other way is to figure out what your friend wants to pay and divide it by your hourly rate so you know how long you’re going to take on it! So if your hourly rate is £25 and they only want to pay £100 for your services, that’s four hours you’re going to spend on it. The downside to doing it this way is that the quality of your work is likely to suffer because you’re rushing or only getting so far with it and not polishing to your usual standard. Most creatives hate this because they’re perfectionists at heart, but honestly, it’s something you really have to learn how to do- push aside your perfectionism and learn to live with a just-good-enough approach to some things. Remember, true perfectionists rarely get paid. Just make sure the client or your friend knows what their price choice means and what they’re missing out on by scrimping. Point them at the quality-speed-cost triangle if need be!

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For those of you who haven’t seen this before, it basically boils down to “you can only have two.” If you want it done quickly and cost very little, then quality has to be sacrificed. If you want it good but cheap, then it’ll take ages. If you want it high quality and fast, then be prepared to pay handsomely for it, arsehat!

It’s tough as a newbie freelancer though if you do tailor your work to their budget, because you have to let the project go at a lower quality than you’d ideally like. It bites, but you have to either be willing to do sub-par work for the low fees or you have to turn down those jobs to keep your standards up. Trying to give a job your usual attention to detail and hard graft when they’re not paying for it is devaluing you- and in this case it would be you doing it to yourself. The client would not be at fault.

So, my advice? Only take friends’ jobs if you’re starting out and need the experience or the credit. Otherwise, by all means give them a discount, but make it clear to them that they are a client in every other way- no liberties, no demands, and a decent wage for you. If they don’t go for it, don’t push it or hold it against them. It isn’t worth losing your friendship over.

And in case any non-creatives are reading this and are still confused as to what the problem is, have a look at this:

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Make sense now?

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Drama isn’t a Genre. It’s a Necessary Ingredient.

May 27, 2013

As the three people who read this blog will know, I’ve been trying to put together another short film. It’s been way too long since I last directed drama that I’m starting to wonder if my directing hat will biodegrade through lack of use. One of the projects I’m trying to push is an action film, another a ghost story- both have their own obstacles to getting off the ground (not least of all that the scripts aren’t finished!). Part of the reason I’m pushing for these genre pieces is because it’s nice to be doing something with its own stylistic conventions and set-pieces rather than just straight drama.

But a recent conversation with a fellow director made me think about that definition. He was also doing a genre piece- a horror flick- and was glad to be “getting away from plain, boring drama.” Now obviously, he meant “drama” as a genre- domestic environments, people arguing/crying, contemporary setting, kitchen sink… In the days of video rental shops there were many genres- colour-coded stickers and cheaply printed signs in Impact proclaiming “Comedy” “Horror” and “Action & Adventure” (a catch-all title if ever there was one), usually with some terrible clipart next to it.

Shit like this

Shit like this

“Drama” was one of these genre pidgeon-holes.

But why is “drama” a genre? It seems that the films shoved unceremoniously into this category are the ones that didn’t fit anywhere else, like the misfit kids who sat in the corner of the classroom, unified only in their social apartheid. Polar opposites David Lynch and Jane Austen would sit next to each other on the shelves- except in our old video shop where the owner’s OCD meant shit was always alphabetical (this also meant that the Adult section was near the front of the shop, which wasn’t a popular decision either…).

Drama isn’t a genre. It’s an ingredient. And as it happens, it’s a necessary one for a film to work.

Every film needs drama. Drama is the conflict and subsequent resolution between characters that forms the backbone of a story’s plot. Without drama and conflict, the audience won’t care about Arnie’s struggle to take down Robert Patrick and save the ever-annoying Eddie Furlong. Without drama (and the inevitable tragedy that a film called “Titanic” hints not-so-subtly at), the romance between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet wouldn’t work. Without drama, audiences won’t care if Jamie Lee Curtis survives Michael Myers’ killing spree.

Drama.

Drama.

All these genre classics that filmmakers like to call “not-drama” are in fact… well… “drama.” With a coat of arse-kicky, boat-sinky, hacky-slashy genre paint but still… At their core, they’re drama.

Which is why I wonder why there’s so much opposition towards drama among filmmakers. Maybe it’s because drama is frequently forced upon you at film school in “History of Cinema” screenings. Maybe it’s because drama isn’t as “big-budget” feeling as action or horror. But a lot of the time, I think it’s because drama is hard.

Most new or untested directors will balk at that, but it’s true. Well, sort of. Good drama is hard, shite drama… not so much. With good drama you need to understand the actors and their processes, know about and plot the change in character objectives, super objectives and arc, understand and utilise pacing and timing and subtlety and inflection. With bad drama you just hand the actor a script and say “just do what it says on the page.” Aka the George Lucas style of directing. And like the aforementioned bearded wonder, the films you direct suffer as a result. You only have to look at the turgid excuse for a romance in “Attack of the Clones” to see where I’m going with that.

"No, it's because I'm so in love with you... myeh myeh myeh.." Fuck off.

“No, it’s because I’m so in love with you… myeh myeh myeh..” Fuck off.

“Oh, but it’s a genre film” I hear these directors cry. “It doesn’t matter here!” I call bullshit on that. Think about it- okay, we’re accepting of badly written and performed melodrama in a space opera or a slasher film but isn’t it better when the drama isn’t so ham-fistedly scrawled and portrayed? “Attack of the Clones” is fucking terrible dramatically, but just look at the series’ high point in comparison. “The Empire Strikes Back” is a space opera with special effects and battle scenes, larger than life characters and almost soapy melodrama- but in this case it works. It’s written (or should I say re-written, since Lawrence Kasdan kept throwing out Lucas’ original dialogue) and performed with an appropriate truth and honesty which, regardless of the genre you’re working in, is the sort of dramatic level to aim for.

Shitty drama and its bedfellows, poor writing and turgid acting, are not acceptable even in the straight to video, low-expectations-because-it-stars-Hayden-Christiansen, bargain bucket, 2 for £10 shelves in HMV. Strive for better in your work. You might not always be able to nail it due to budget or decisions outside your control but you owe it to yourself to try.

A director needs to embrace drama in every script and every film, no matter what the genre tropes or set pieces. If all you focus on is the action scenes or the blood-and-guts murders, the film won’t have the dramatic weight to engage your audience properly. So if you’re a director, aspiring or otherwise, don’t neglect the drama.

Unless your work does sit on the “Adult” shelf, in which case drama, the script and the acting are the least of your worries…

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Highs and Lows

May 26, 2013

You may have noticed I haven’t blogged in a while. And if I’m honest, laziness and being too busy is only a part of it. If you’re expecting actual directing advice today you might as well just hold off til later in the week (I’ve got a nice little post lined up on drama and its place for the genre director). Until then, you’re getting something a little more personal and nigh-on bugger all to do with directing.

I’ve been depressed recently. I bring this up not only to explain the lack of updates (which only three people probably read anyway) but also because if you’re an aspiring creative, some of this might apply to you too.

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First, a bit of background. I started suffering from depression in my early twenties. Like most people in their early twenties I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I hadn’t gone to university like all my friends and kinda felt pressure to do so and choose a career path. Throw in the death of a friend and some problematic relationship choices and you have a recipe for 20-something angst. It had never been officially diagnosed, but I’m pretty sure I’ve always been bi-polar (meaning prone to mood swings and manic depression rather than being attracted to male and female polar bears) since I was a kid, something that really didn’t help.

I eventually got over the worst of it not through therapy or medication but by looking at the things that triggered these episodes and overcoming my own insecurities over them. But I still get recurring episodes, nearly ten years later. And more often than not, they’re career-related. Or more accurately, lack-of-career related.

This recent one was triggered by the idea that I might be doing this all wrong. I’ve been trying to break into directing for years, but haven’t got there. Yet I see other people make inroads into their dream career and it becomes depressing at my lack of progress. Even more so if their target career is also in directing because if they’re succeeding where I’m not then I must be doing something wrong. And have been doing something wrong since 2007 when I graduated.

Six years in the wrong direction. Quite a depressing thought. Couple that with a lot of recent paid gigs falling through and clients taking the piss with work and it was quite the trigger.

Fortunately I’m somewhat analytical by nature and it’s made me think things through a bit. I’ve always blamed the multi-ball juggling of day-job-to-earn-cash, video-production-work-to-earn-better-money and trying-to-direct-drama-to-get-noticed as reasons for my failure. But it should be no surprise that all that is just an excuse, no matter how truthful. The real reason is because I’m not really trying. I’ve coasted through all the major academic scenarios in my life, never tried that hard and still done well. I’ve always believed in myself, but I’ve always just let things happen because in the past, they just have.

And in this highly competitive game, that attitude doesn’t get you very far.

I need to put a renewed effort into things. I need to direct some distinctive shorts- action or sci-fi or… something. I need to direct some stylish promos or music videos to make me a solid hire for production companies or agents. And I need to start treating all this as a professional career and start earning a proper living from it- at the moment I rely on crappy day jobs because my standards are way too fucking low.

And on that note, I’ll leave on the wise words of that oracle of all wisdom and great decision-making, Charlie Sheen:

“As kids, were not taught how to deal with success; we’re taught how to deal with failure. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. If at first you succeed… then what?”

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Rates and How to Pluck Them Out of Nothing

March 30, 2013

SonicandWileE

So… rates.

I’ve wanted to write something about rates and things for a while, but held back because, quite frankly, I’m not sure I’m a suitable expert in the subject. But nonetheless, here’s my thoughts on how to set them and how to stick to them.

You first start thinking about your rates when you enthusiastically take that call or email from your first potential paying client. The conversation goes a little like this:

“…So does that sound like a job you could do?” they ask.
“Yeah, that sounds good” you say, imagining the new kit you can buy with the proceeds.
“So what’re your rates for the job? Can you do us a quote?”
“Errr…”

Sound familiar? So you now have to work out a price for them (when you were kinda hoping they’d tell you what they’re paying) and its hard to decide what figure to give them. Too much and they won’t go for it, too little and you could be doing yourself a disservice (and they might not go for it because you look too cheap!) and you have no idea what sort of rate they’re expecting or hoping for because they won’t tell you. In fact, they probably don’t know either. It’s like the blind leading the blind to an art gallery and one trying to describe to the other what a painting looks like.

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The only thing you can do here is work out what you’re worth, then adjust it for the quote if necessary. But gauging what you’re worth is the real problem. In this industry, just like most others, people don’t discuss what they earn per job and this is because when you quote a number like that, the other person becomes quite judgemental based on it- are you really that good or are you lying/bragging/conning people? How many days of work are you actually getting at that rate? It’s not a pleasant non-conversation to have. The other thing is that there are so many variations on job role, responsibilities, skills and sectors of the industry that there’s no real standard rate to speak of either. Even the broadcaster’s union BECTU struggle to define rates for key personnel.

So how do you work out your rates? Well, here’s my approach- work backwards from what you need to earn. Now, the figures below are all my rates as an all-in-one video producer for corporate and event work where I can essentially set my rates for clients. As a director for drama, it’s a little different, but I’ll get to that. Anyway, to work out your rates, there’s a couple of benchmark figures you need to figure out first:

A) What hourly/daily/monthly rate do you get from a high-end-but-average-unskilled-even-a-monkey-could-do full time type job? ie what would you be earning if you weren’t working in film? This is to give you a base-line for earnings. If you’re worth your salt, you will not be charging anywhere near this low. I took high-end high street retail as my example- £8 per hour (£72 per day or £1387 pcm).

B) How much do you need to earn per month to keep afloat, pay bills and keep a roof over your head? This isn’t what you want to earn, it’s what you need to earn. For me, I can just about get by on £1200 a month after tax, so I’m looking at £1440 as a bare minimum.

C) How much would you ideally like to be earning at the end of the first year? Obviously this is somewhere between the ideal and wishful thinking, so try and be realistic. What would cover all your overheads, allow you to grow both your business and give you a bit of financial freedom? This figure will periodically improve and increase over time, so for the purpose of this bit of maths, ask yourself what you’d like to be earning in twelve months time. For me, I picked a modest figure out of whatever orifice you pluck numbers out of: £2500 per month.

Your basic rate, for the first year at least, is going to be somewhere between B and C, slowly picking up until you get to C at the end of the year. This increase isn’t going to happen necessarily by raising your prices, more by you getting more work as time goes on. For me, I picked a monthly earning of £1750 to start with. Lets call this D.

You then need to work out an hourly and daily rate- which means working out how many hours/days of work you’re likely to get in a month. Without a frame of reference, this is bloody hard if not impossible, so you need to look at yourself, your opportunities and your ability to create opportunities. Look at your connections, your previous work, how many big jobs and how many cheap jobs are you likely to get, put it all together and be honest with that assessment. For me, as a video producer (where I write, shoot, light, edit and liaise), I figured I’d get one big(ger) job and one cheapie per month, where the former requires twice as much work as the latter. So say about 50 hours of work a month? With my monthly gross of £1750, that gives me an hourly rate of £35. An average on-shoot day as an all-in-one producer might be 8-9 hours, so lets say £300 as a day rate including my kit.

From here I can put together a rates list with extras or create package deal rates. I can also work out my minimum rates just by applying the same maths to figure B (roughly £29 per hour or about £260 a day). So now, if a job comes in I know that B is as low as I can go and D is what I’m aiming for. If the client can’t afford B or doesn’t want to pay it, I at least know that if I negotiate a cheaper rate because I really want/need the gig, that I’ll be in a deficit of earnings this month and will need to get another/better gig to balance things out as soon as possible.

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It’s worth getting into this business mindset. If a client wants to haggle you down below a rate your comfortable with, have the strength of mind to say no and hold out/look for a better gig. Remember, it’s fine to do cheapies if they don’t detract from the time you could be earning from bigger jobs but if the client’s going to haggle that low and then drag the work out or be a pain in the arse, it just isn’t worth it. So know your options and chances at any given moment. If you have the time, work. Self-employed professionals frequently have to take the work when they can get it because the busy times are going to cover for the dry spells. That’s part of the reason why hourly and daily rates frequently seem high if your only frame of reference is job A. The other is because you have an uncommon skill. Not everyone can operate a camera or direct actors or edit professionally using Final Cut but pretty much any retard can learn quickly how to sell a TV, pour a pint or make a frappuccino. Not to dismiss or demean those jobs but they are generally unskilled- hence the borderline minimum wage attached to them- and you need to cultivate the belief that you’re better than that (ideally not in a snobbish way) if you want to succeed. So charge what your skills are worth. A good benchmark here in the UK is as follows:

  • Less than £15 per hour- relatively unskilled, no previous training required.
  • £25 per hour- skilled, some specialist training, maybe a relevant qualification, minimal professional experience
  • £35 per hour- skilled (broad and/or specialised), relevant training and/or professional experience- up to 3 years in relevant role(s).
  • £50+ per hour- specialised skills, some might say “talented”, recognition of your peers, professional experience in this role for 3+ years and several more beforehand in relevant roles.

Now those figures don’t come from a book or a trade website- they come from me nosing around and trying to find out what professionals of varying skills in varying industries charge or earn. Freelancers generally charge 30-40% more than their salaried equivalents earn, so that’s another thing to bear in mind. If nothing else, the above rough rates are a starting point for a discussion or rumination about what you should charge.

As a drama director, rates can go into the above £50p/h bracket quite easily if the show has a reasonable budget, but you’ll need recognised talent or experience to snare those gigs. I currently use the same rates for directing as I do for video producing- if only to keep things simple. Having said that, if a decent gig with good credit and exposure came along at £15 per hour I think I’d take it!

Self-respect be damned…

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There in Black and White

February 12, 2013

I’ve said before that I’m not much of a writer. Hence the lack of auteur-ed material in my back catalogue. But when you only know a handful of good writers and don’t want to exploit them unnecessarily, you have to write your own shit and hope for the best. Maybe get them in to rewrite things later, but that usually means writing the first draft yourself.

Hemingway

For a while now, I’ve had this little idea for a showreel-worthy short film fermenting in my noggin. Something that might be my calling card and the thing that kicks my career into touch. So I’m keen to get this on paper, on camera and then on screen. But it’s quite a genre/style blend and certain parts of it are quite esoteric- combining elements from Hong Kong heroic bloodshed movies, crime dramas and film noir. Not an easy thing to get a handle on and I don’t know any writers who’d get it right off the bat. So it looks like I need to do the legwork- write the treatment and in all likelihood, the first draft- so that when I do pass it over to a proper writer, they have something to go on.

So I’ve had to force myself to write a treatment.

I never used to like, or more accurately use, the whole treatment-then-script-then-rewrite process. I used to just dive into the script, start at the beginning then work my way to the end. Which I suppose explains why my IMDB listing doesn’t have any screenwriting credits. Well, proper pro credits- “The Last Serenade” doesn’t count… But I’ve now grown to realise the importance of the treatment- in particular getting the story working there before you start writing the script proper.

As a director, one of my… things… is internal story logic. Character actions and motivations have to make sense. You can’t just fudge things (big things at least) to create the dramatic moment or effect you want- everything has to come from a real place. If you fudge it, the actors will point it out to you on set, the editor will point it out to you in the edit suite and audiences will point it out to anyone who’ll listen five minutes after they’ve tuned out of the film. So it needs to work structurally and that’s what the treatment’s for. Ironing out those story wrinkles and plotholes and getting the important details right.

sonicscrewdriver

The other thing the treatment’s good for is pacing and delivery. Treatments are written in the present tense- as the film unfolds, exactly how an audience experiences it. If nothing else reinforces the director’s role as the audience’s ombudsman, the treatment is it.

So I’ve been writing mine and I’ve found that some things like the general structure (the opening scenes, the plot twist and the placement of the action sequences) were already set in place in my head but others (like the drip-feed like reveals of information and backstory and the logical causes for the moments I had later) were a mystery. This is where the treatment really comes into its own. Each scene is a paragraph- at least it is in my method, other more capable writers probably do things differently/better- so if you know a scene has to go here but have no idea what it is, just write any old shit to fill the space. You can and will change it later. I used to do the same thing when writing scripts- write the scenes I knew or was enthused about and put placeholders in for the ones I didn’t. I found that doing things this way meant I can see the story as a whole and judge how and when to reveal story points better.

And ultimately, fixing the story points is what this is all in aid of. On a related if tangential note, I’ve been seeing a lot of scripts recently that are poorly structured or badly written. I know that at the stage I’m at in my career and the sort of erratic circles I move in, I shouldn’t expect miracles, but these are from people serious enough about writing to call themselves writers. There have been sitcoms and sketch shows that just flat-out aren’t funny, character dramas that make absolutely no sense, genre pieces that have less homages and more full-on uninspired rip-offs and short films that kill the main character off at the end (supposedly for a shock twist, but actually just because the writer has a creation complex and doesn’t know how to finish the film otherwise). I don’t want this project to have those flaws. I want it to work for me as a filmmaker and for an audience.

But if I can nail the treatment, I can get someone talented in to do the rest of the script and I can concentrate on directing the shit out of it instead.