screenwriting

The Music by Chris Weigl

I always start work on a new film with an idea of how the opening and closing sequences are going to sound.  When I wrote the first treatment for This is Flyball the only well-articulated idea I had down on paper was the opening sequence.  The cold open of the film is meant to draw the audience into the world of flyball slowly.  The opening sequence is about five minutes long but it shows all the little details that go on before a flyball race.  The idea here is to achieve a feeling of immersion by the time we hit the opening credits sequence and the only audio the audience has heard thus far is barking. 

Music is critical to the art of filmmaking.  Stanley Kubrick thought of 2001: a Space Odyssey as “a sort of machine ballet.”  The music in the film reflects this.  The first ideas I had about the music for This is Flyball revolved around blues music.  If only we could get Joe Bonamassa to score the film.  Ah, we indie filmmakers can dream, right?  I thought the slide guitar element would fit in well with the slower editing strategy that I had in mind for the film.  Once I started breaking the film down second-by-second however I had to change course completely.  Blues music doesn’t move that fast.  Moreover, it wasn’t a sense of sadness or longing that I wanted my audience to feel.  If anything – as we spent more and more time in the field filming – it became apparent to me that I wanted something a little more upbeat.  That’s when it hit me: we need ‘80’s music.

It can’t be ‘80’s music from the ‘80’s though.  People would wonder why a film released in 2016 had a soundtrack that sounded like the 1980’s.  That’s when my co-founder and Producer Heidi came to me with the idea of having a band write the soundtrack.  I have to admit, at first I wasn’t that excited about the idea, but then I thought that if they performed ‘80’s covers that were well done this could be a unique advantage that our film would have.  I mean, who else is going to have a soundtrack filled with 18-20 legit ‘80’s covers?  So, I sat down and looked at the sequences I had filmed and how I wanted the music to impact the feeling of the film.  What I kept coming away with from the editing room was a sense that the music had to have an edge.  It had to be almost rugged like rock n’roll with a little industrial sprinkled in it.  That’s when the soundtrack started to articulate itself to me.

I still have no idea what song I want to use for the opening credits.  Ideally, we’d use a version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Ramble on’ or Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Bulls on Parade.’  The more I think about it the more I like the idea of ‘Bulls on Parade.’  It’s badass in a way you can’t quite identify kind of like the sport of flyball itself.  The only thing about that song is that we’d have to use the original Rage Against the Machine version because no cover could ever do that song justice.  That could – unfortunately – be a financial impossibility.  The next sequence is what I call a regression to the mean.  We opened with an action packed sequence, so after the credits we need to establish what everyday life is like in the world of a flyballer.  Three short sequences introduce us to our main players.  The music: ‘Brandenburg’ by Black Violin along with covers of ‘Just like Honey’ and ‘Steady as She Goes.’  Yeah, if I don’t have your attention now I’m never going to have it.

I wanted to focus on covering the music of three bands in particular: Talking Heads, Fleetwood Mac, and the Eurythmics.  A mix of ‘Rhianon’ and ‘Say you Love me’ make up the next sequence followed by ‘Secondhand News.’  Now, this next part is where things get interesting.  I wanted to use some covers of Britney Spears because there is a badass edge to some of her later music.  ‘Hold it Against Me’ and ‘Do Something’ mark two of the plot points in the film.  It is in these points that having a sound strategy that is largely dominated by – but not limited to – ‘80’s music really pays off.  A nice cover of ‘Go Your Own Way’ transitions us into the second half of the film.  After that we’ve got a nice blend of ‘Burning Down the House’ and ‘Who’s That Girl.’ I like the idea of having a string quartet or even orchestral covers for key points in the film.  I’d like to do a version of ‘Pumped up Kicks’ and ‘Just a Dream” for the climax of the film.

I’ve been debating if we should attempt some covers of Fall Out Boy in here or not.  I think ‘This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race’ would fill in nicely towards the end of the film and ‘Centuries’ packs the right kind of dramatic punch to finish out a middle sequence nicely.    Of course we’ll be using ‘The Chain’ in the third act and ‘Take me to the River’ at some point as well.  I think the Allman Brothers’ ‘Midnight Rider’ would sound good in the film as well, but I’m not sure where I’d put it.  Other notable songs without a place include the Eurythmics’ ‘Missionary Man’ and ‘Sweet Dreams.’  Then there’s the question of whether I want to incorporate some Peter Gabriel into the mix.  I’d like to honestly, but not having all the footage done yet I’m not sure where I’d put the stuff or how exactly it would fit.  I’ve always been a big fan of ‘Games Without Frontiers’ and is there any uplifting segment that can’t be improved with a nice version of ‘Solsbury Hill?’ 

I wish I could say that these ideas just came to me overnight, but the reality is that as a filmmaker you need to sit down and give this stuff a lot of thought.  The nice thing about doing a documentary or rather one of the things that doing a documentary does for you is change which decisions you have to fret over.  Were this a feature film I’d be concentrating on lighting, blocking, set design, and working with my actors, but because this is a documentary I don’t have any control over any of that, so I get a little extra time to think about things like sound design.  When you’re doing a sequence heavy film like we are the soundtrack can make or break the film.  That’s why it’s so vital that we have awesome covers of the music we’re using.  Simply using the original music wouldn’t add any value to the audience’s experience.  They’ve heard the music before and they’ve probably seen dogs run around before.  The goal that I have as a filmmaker is to bring everything together in a way that makes the act of viewing the film more than just another trip to the theater, but an experience that will stick out in their minds as a memorable time at the movies. 

Slight Adjustments by Chris Weigl

Anyone who’s ever gone on a film shoot knows that you never get it right the first time.  Even if, by some miracle, you did get your perfect shot executed during the first go around chances are that the director is going to want to see it from another angle or with an actor saying a different line.  Maybe if you blocked the actors a little differently you could have a little more soft light on your subject even if that actor has already moved onto the next scene.  Hollywood is that rare place on Earth where perfection is frowned upon.  Through a producers eyes you probably missed something inconsequential or better yet something that even they know can be cleaned up in the editing room.  Everyone has problems in life, but just because they exist does not mean they need to be fatal.  If there is an issue with a camera where there isn’t a clean shot and you failed to pick it up when reviewing your dailies you’re going to have to reshoot.  Nothing in film is perfect and film shoots are about the furthest thing from perfect that you’ll find.  Finding ways to adjust to your imperfections can mean the difference between a successful shoot and a world full of problems for the filmmaker and this is where the magic lies.

You have to make adjustments before, during and after a film shoot.  It’s just the way life is.  We work in a subjective field and whenever you work in a subjective field no one is wrong because everyone can be right.  How about that for a juxtaposition?  When you find yourself in such a situation everything turns into a cost/benefit analysis.  Whether it’s asking a crew member to change a lens or making a suggestion to enhance a scene, someone can always second guess you and if you let them they can slow your production to a halt.  It’s a major problem.  What we do to avoid this kind of thing is cut down on the size of our crew.  We don’t work with crews bigger than five or six people.  We don’t need anything more than that.  If we need more than six people I’ll break things down into teams so that I don’t have too many people trying to over-correct every shot.  Some directors move people out of the room and just talk to their principals.  That’s fine, but those other crew members feel like something is going on behind closed doors (usually because the doors are literally closed to them) and then the gossip starts.

You can’t win on a film set.  If you’re aiming for the perfect shot then you’ve doomed your shoot already.  The perfect shot to you is not the perfect shot to someone else.  The perfect is the enemy of the good on film sets.  This is why some people ban writers from their sets.  I find it annoying, but I understand why some people do it.  You don’t want someone interrupting to tell you that this isn’t their “vision” for the shot.  The director has a schedule that they know they’re going to run over, the producer has a budget that they know they’re going to run over and the crew is already exhausted from the set-up of the damn thing.  You’ll always find small problems looming on a film shoot.  Lighting is usually problem number one and going through the shot by shot rotation of how you’re going to film a sequence will usually prove too taxing to the technical folks on your set who survive because they know something about the electrical that you don’t.  The single biggest problem on a film set however is boredom.  No matter what you’re doing in life; if it involves repetition people will get bored.  That’s the way life is and film is very repetitious.  Good directors know how to get people involved in things they know certain people are interested in.  Others will try to change things up and make small adjustments to make sure that everyone is still awake through most of the shoot.  It’s a challenge.  Balance is the key to a good shoot though and if you don’t have it you’re going to have a lousy shoot. 

If you know what you're doing then you can usually overcome your production issues and make it to post, but post-production presents it's own set of unique problems.  We don’t have a huge team of highly skilled editors who can put everything together perfectly.  Most of the smaller production companies don’t have a huge post-production team that can fix every little problem.  As a production company we work with what we have.  If we had someone with the potential to be a great editor I’d sit them down on set and have them work with the boom mic operator because the number one thing that your editor needs to look for is fluid continuity and you know who needs to understand continuity like the science it is?  The boom operator.  If you want to get a director real riled up find someone who has no idea what they’re doing and put them in charge of the boom mic.  There is nothing more devastating – save maybe a fire that destroys all of your cameras and equipment – than sound that doesn’t work in post.  If you’re going to skimp on a set don’t do it at the boom operator position.  That person will save your life someday. 

I used to keep a lot of money left over from my budgets for post-production because there is always some little problem that needs to be dealt with.  What I’ve been doing lately is monitoring the situation and re-shooting when necessary.  It’s not the end of the world on a cash-strapped shoot to have to re-shoot ten or fifteen seconds of footage.  It is the end of the world if you can’t get your video released because of a ten second sound gap in the middle of your footage.  Sure, you could cut it down so that gap isn’t there and deal with a video that is nothing like what you were attempting to film, but do you want to sacrifice the integrity of your script because someone screwed up the audio on a couple shots?  If you’re on my crew the answer better be: no.  This is where people get antsy though.  No one wants to re-shoot anything.  When you wrap filming everyone thinks: “great, we’re done!”  Usually you’ve got to go back at some point and fix the little things that go wrong because no matter how good a film shoot goes it never goes perfectly.  It's all part of the process.  No one loves the process, but those who understand what's required to get to the endgame are willing to endure a little pain if it means a superior product.  This is what makes us professionals.

The Problem With Perfection by Chris Weigl

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

That’s a very important expression both in art and in life.  Artistically, I am a perfectionist.  Being an artistic perfectionist can be a good thing; my writing is top notch, but when it comes to others areas of the production process being a perfectionist can get in the way of producing good content.  We had a weekend shoot that went very well.  Judging from the dailies it was about as close to a perfect shoot as you’re going to get.  When you get home from a shoot and analyze the footage is where you find out if your team over-performed and got you everything you needed or looked like superstars at the time, but ultimately turned out to be human like everyone else. 

We had two important shots that were not executed the way I would have liked them to be executed.  The reason (or excuse depending on how you look at it) is that I was in front of the camera and directing the crew based on what I was seeing as an actor and not based on what I was seeing as a director.  Being both in front of the camera and behind the camera is a physical impossibility, but we often see stars like George Clooney who are able to pull it off.  Truth is that – at least in my mind – these folks are masters of their craft.  Being able to execute two operations at once while maintaining the integrity of the script is a spectacular feat that doesn’t seem that hard, but logistically it really is.  I looked over the dailies from my shoot and found a couple issues that were fixable, but when I looked at the footage in its totality I realized that I had made several large errors in terms of continuity and basic direction.

As someone who prides themselves on their worth ethic, it is toughest for me to analyze these shortcomings and come to a sensible solution because there is such a pervasive feeling of failure that accompanies these basic lapses in filmmaking.  I’ve been in the business long enough that I should know to look for these errors, but at the end of the day we’re a small operation and that works great for lining up shots and executing the shoot, but it also means less eyes on set and fewer people to scrutinize shots and the quality of the shoot.  I’ve found that it’s less likely for a crew member to speak up when there is an issue because we’re a close team and no one wants to let anyone down when you’re doing well.  It’s tough to admit a mistake and sometimes we get so caught up in what we’re doing that we simply lose track of everything that we need to look out for. 

It seems like it should be easy to fix these basic problems on set.  The truth is though that thinking something through, planning it; and executing it are three different things.  It’s nearly impossible to do all three things correctly when you’re the one in charge of all of them.  I’m not sure how to prevent these problems from happening other than to re-dedicate myself to what I’m trying to achieve behind the camera.  I’m not used to being on camera so adjusting to that alone was difficult, but hopefully I won’t have to direct anything I’m in for a while because I need to focus on being a better, more detail-oriented director.  The truth is that sometimes you simply can’t get the perfect shot.  Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good.  This proves to be especially true when you’re the writer, director, actor, producer, and editor.  That’s just too many hats for one person to wear, but sometimes it’s necessary in order to make the production happen at all.  In such situations however it is advisable to remember the simple slogan that begins this piece.


Location, Location, Location! by Chris Weigl

You’ve written a good script.  You know exactly how it’s going to look.  You’ve got your actors, most of your crew and it seems like you’re ready to shoot.  There’s only one problem: you have no location!  One of the first questions any good producer is going to have is: where are we going to shoot this?  In order for a producer to get an idea of what they’re making they need to have a visual.  As a writer, one of the biggest favors you can for yourself is have a couple locations in the back of your mind that you could shoot at right now.

A good question to ask yourself during the revision process is: is this so simple I could do this myself?  The more you ask yourself this question the more direct your writing will be.  Some writers think they get some sort of bonus if they make their script cryptic.  They think it adds suspense for the person reading it, but remember this one rule: if you can’t take the scene out of context and still understand what’s going on then you need to re-think the scene.  Think of your script like a maze.  You don’t want it to be too easy or the reader will feel like it wasn’t worth it to get to the end and don’t make it too tough or they’ll give up before they get to the end.

If you’ve written a story that feels like a maze and has an ending that makes it feel like it was worth the journey then you’ll need to get the right people on board.  The right people need to know it’s geographically possible for them to get involved.  Our studio is in the Midwest, so if there are writers that we’d like to work on a project that live in LA then they’re probably not going to be able to be a part of this project.  It’s usually too expensive to fly in your talent unless you’re dealing with actors or anyone on the crew above the pay grade of a writer. 

The other thing to consider when assembling your crew is to make sure you have interesting locations.  Do you have any idea how a grip feels sitting on set for twelve hours?  If you’re making movies you should not only know how it feels, but understand the feelings of all your crew.  They may not say: “I love you” at the end of the day, but if the call comes and they’re asked whether they’d work with you again you’ll get a positive answer if you take them into account.  A smart producer does their homework on writers just like they do with all other cast and crew that are worth paying.  They’re going to know how easy or how hard their lives are going to be and you can open a lot of doors for yourself by putting in the time to find good locations.  Now, you may be wondering: “what constitutes a good location?”  Good question.

A good location has something unique about it, but is also serviceable for food, water, and storage space.  How much space you need depends on the crew you’re working with, but a good gaffer isn’t going to leave their equipment exposed in the sun.  The best thing you can do when looking for a location is to do what you do best: think like a storyteller.  What makes for the best story?  If shooting at a supposedly haunted house for a couple days seems like a possibility imagine the story that it will make for the people who worked on your set.  They’ll be able to tell people they worked in a haunted house.  Not everyone gets to do that and that will make your shoot memorable.  At the same time, you also need to make sure that the traffic coming through or around your location isn’t too large.  Shooting at a mall on the weekend just isn’t going to work.  Trust us, we’ve tried.  You may be able to do some exterior work on the weekend provided you stay away from the parking lot, but aside from that good luck. 

The most important consideration when looking for a location is simple: does it serve the function that the writer intended for it to serve in the script?  That’s a question that only the writer can answer.  This is why it’s best if you think through the locations first yourself.  That way if there’s a problem you’re there with a backup or if something happens and you need an alternative location you’ve got something serviceable.  The more resourceful you can be, the more value you bring to a production crew and that’s what the crew needs when they’re shooting: resourceful people.  Do your best to be one of them.

Writing an IndieGoGo Campaign by Chris Weigl

The first script that I wrote for our IndieGoGo campaign was a single spaced outline that ran a little over two pages.  Everything was scripted and we stuck to the scripted outline which I wrote in Microsoft Word, going against my initial gut instinct that it’s bad to write scripts in Word.  Always trust your gut as a filmmaker.  If something looks off it usually is.  That outline turned into an all-day shoot when we went to film it.  The video that I cut from that shoot ran almost seven minutes long.  It was atrocious.  I was embarrassed that I had written it and I could barely make it through the editing process to show to me colleagues and crew.  We didn’t post that anywhere (thank God!)  I did learn my preferred shooting style from that shoot however and because I learned that the shoot was totally worth it.  We may not have created a video that was ideal for what we were doing, but we did shoot a video that I learned a great deal about production from.  What’s most important about that shoot is that I learned a lot about how I want to operate from that shoot.  You as a filmmaker are different than your idea of yourself as a filmmaker.  That was an important lesson that I had yet to learn going into that shoot.  I was glad to learn the things I did when I sat down to write our second attempt.

I had to do some soul searching after that first shoot.  I realized that the content – in and of itself – was not that interesting.  We needed a way to shake it up.  I started brainstorming ideas and we went through some minor tweaks and things, but nothing got me excited to shoot the next video.  Finally, I was trying to think up a way to get people interested in the video and I thought: “well, what if we tar and feather something.”  Tar and feathering was very big during the Revolutionary era in America.  Someone told me that there were racial connotations to tarring and feathering so that basically killed that idea.  My mother however came up with another idea.  She proposed that we break a TV.  Just walk in with a baseball bat or a sledgehammer and smash the things to bits.  I thought that this was the kind of attention getter that we needed and was genuinely excited about it.  The business-minded braintrust of the company was not amused by the “joke” as they kept putting it.  I didn’t view it as a joke, but as more of a statement.  I didn’t expect people to laugh, I expected people to root for the TVs destruction thus striking an emotional chord with my audience.  As a filmmaker that’s vital to making quality content.  You’ve got to connect with your audience, but again the business folks thought it was “offensive.”

It was hard for me to fathom how the business types could be genuinely excited about pitching our business model and five year plan.  I always associated five year plans with communist government because every communist government institutes a five year plan to bolster industrial growth.  Communism is economics, so that’s what their governments are focused on.  I didn’t want to send the wrong message to businesses with this talk of a five year plan, but there seemed to be genuine concern over whether or not we would be viewed as a legitimate entity.  As my dad told me: “people want to make sure you’re going to be around six months from now.  There’s no point in going into business with someone who has no idea about the future.”  Point taken.  I had a problem on my hands.  I couldn’t destroy a TV for a number of reasons.  First, apparently it’s really bad for the environment.  Second, some TVs have components that contain lead and mercury.  You can’t really expose your staff to those chemicals and expect to stay in business very long.  Third, it was tough to find a place that would let us destroy something.  Nobody wanted to be associated with the production team that wanted to break something.  I chalked that up to no one wanting to take a risk and I think that actually was the big concern.

Our issue with Hollywood is that no one is willing to take a risk anymore.  Where are the original concepts?  Where are the original stories with original characters?  Heck, can you name a film you’ve seen this year that HAD original characters?  It’s a serious issue that no one seems ready to address.  Well, here we are with tons of original content and we want to address the issue head on.  The problem is that we needed to do it in a way that got people’s attention and sustained their attention for the duration of our video.  That’s how the final draft of our script came about.  I started thinking: “who says we have to destroy anything?”  Sure, as a filmmaker I wanted to break something because it makes for an awesome shot, but if it’s not going to serve a purpose I’m not going to destroy something just for kicks.  My challenge fell back to how to get and keep audience attention and that’s how I came up with the idea for our video.  I initially thought back to all the hoopla surrounding Lebron James’s “The Decision,” but then it was pointed out to me that few people (outside of die-hard sports fans and disheartened Cleveland fans) remembered the huge spectacle.  I still liked the idea though.  So, I thought: okay, we’ll put a TV and a cable box up on a ledge and we’ll debate the pros and cons of destroying them.  The audience is interested to see whether we break something.  That gets them interested and keeps them interested.  The only problem was that in the end, if you don’t deliver, then they’re not going to be all that happy with you and that’s why I picked the ending for the video that I did.  I hope you check out our video and support our campaign to bring change to the film and television industries.