In The Cinema: Fabergé: A Life of Its Own

Fabergé: A Life of Its Own

Fabergé: A Life of its Own

February 2011, I was living in London and I’d fallen into a job working at a documentary production company called Mark Stewart ProductionsI’m still of the opinion that it was one of those divine intervention moments – I sent off my CV to the company on Tuesday, got an interview on the Wednesday, had a second interview on Thursday and was offered the job on Friday. MSP had done a lot of varying projects – many F1 themed – and so I started work as their office administrator and slowly began to familiarise myself with the way the world works when you’re working in a boutique production company. The main thing I noticed was that the slate of films is particularly diverse but incredibly fascinating – each project an insight into a world I had previously known nothing about.

One of these was a long running project about Fabergé. It had been in production for a few months when I started – the first week I was there coincided with the first week of shooting in Russia. I think one of the first things I had to do that directly related to the project was transcribing the interviews. Transcription is a job some people hate, but I actually really enjoy it. What it did allow me to do was to start to get a picture of the world the documentary was traversing – and I did begin to become enticed into this world of jewels and death, wealth and poverty.

I’d been working at MSP for a few months when the main director there, Patrick Mark, discovered that I had skills in production. I hinted at the fact that if he ever wanted a hand on set, I would be more than happy to oblige. It wasn’t long before I was being taken on nearly every shoot with him on several projects that were running concurrently at the time. But Fabergé was Patrick’s big project and it stretched itself comfortably out over the entire eighteen months I worked there. I went on a trip to Russia to explore secrets in Smolensk, Moscow and St Petersburg. I got to see up close these amazing, astonishing pieces that had been created over 100 years beforehand. I spent time in Sotheby’s, I met people with impossible amounts of knowledge about Russian history and jewellery. I also got to model one of the pieces which is featured in the documentary itself!

That's me wearing Fabergé!

That’s me wearing Fabergé!

I left after eighteen months working there because my visa ran out and I had to leave the UK to return to Australia. But even when I was back in Australia, Patrick asked me to review cuts of the film for feedback, to make sure the story was working, that it all made sense. It seemed that, for awhile, the film would be in a kind of perpetual production!

That is, until earlier this year when I found out that the documentary had been picked up by Arts Alliance for a limited theatrical release. There was no confirmed date as yet, but I was assured it would be a global release. I just missed the UK release by a matter of hours – I was on a plane on my way back to Melbourne when it was initially released. However, lucky for me, the Australian release was delayed until last weekend.

It’s hard to describe what it was like watching the film in the cinema. It was a full house, so that in itself was pretty amazing. I wasn’t hugely nervous as I wasn’t the writer or director of the film – but I really wanted it to be well received. The film has a special place in my heart and I just knew that all the shots covering the detail of the pieces would look astounding on the big screen.

And they did.

But the thing I noticed the most was the audience reaction. The film has a really strong emotional thread running through it and the audience responded really strongly to the story – there was laughter, there was shock, awe; even involuntary gasps of surprise. It reminded me that it doesn’t matter what story you’re telling, your audience is key. And the best way to get your audience in is with a strong hook and an emotional line that arcs and changes with your story and with your characters.

There are still some screenings of the film around the world, so check out cinema times and dates here!

AP

Tell You What I Want?

I’m not ashamed – I’m going to go right out there and say it.

I watched three movies this weekend.

Three.

Sure, the sun was out. Yeah, I probably had housework to do. But I swung by my local Blockbuster and got a bunch of DVDs to watch instead.

You might say lazy. I say research.

And I don’t say that lightly. I genuinely learnt a lot from watching all three movies. They were all a range of genres – romantic comedy, drama, comedy; they all had different kinds of lead characters; they were all captivating for different reasons.

But there was one thing that failed in two of them. Right at the beginning. And it was really frustrating to watch the rest of the film because I knew what I was supposed to be feeling, wanted to be feeling it but wasn’t. At all.

It was because I didn’t like the protagonist and didn’t understand why they were doing what they were trying to do.

This isn’t to say that your protagonist always has to be nice and friendly and happy. I mean, some of the most loved characters in film (and literature) are people who have skewed moralities. Severus Snape from Harry Potter is a perfect example of this. And (I’m being deliberately vague, although I’m not sure if there’s such things as spoilers for Harry Potter any more) he’s not a nice guy. He bullies his students, he’s mean, he’s got an agenda against Harry – but people love him. Absolutely adore him. There have been polls and polls and polls on the most popular character in Harry Potter and Snape almost always comes first or second. I’m sure that there would be millions of people who would pay money to watch or read more stories about Snape.

It’s about giving your protagonist a moment in the beginning that allows the audience to get on their side. It’s a ‘save the cat’ (terminology courtesy of Blake Snyder). If your protagonist is an arrogant, womanising, highly successful man whose world starts to fall apart at the inciting incident – we need to like him. We want to sympathise with him, not enjoy watching his downfall. We’re going on this journey WITH him, we’re going to need to find something in this guy we’re spending 90-120 minutes with that we understand and like.

We always want to invest in the characters we’re watching on screen.

It’s the same with on screen relationships. If you’re putting them together to tear them apart, make sure we want them to get together. We need to invest it this. We see that they complete each other, we think it’s agony when they’re apart. We probably know they’re going to get together in the end – but it looks so difficult so how on Earth can they possibly do it? Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. But make us WANT it.

We WANT the protagonist to succeed. We WANT the protagonist to achieve their goal and live happily ever after.

So make sure that’s what we want to do.

What Makes A Good Film Good?

I had an email from a friend of mine, Jase, who asked me a question I thought I’d write a blog post about.

I’d be interested to hear from you, perhaps as a blog post subject, as a filmmaker, what makes a good film good, and a bad film bad? Are there times when you may be writing a script, and you just have to give up, cos it’s not good? If you’re almost through shooting a film, and you’re suddenly not happy with it, do you just cut your losses and quit, or keep moving and finish it, having a final cut you don’t like.

Obviously no-one goes out to make a flop. What happens through the whole process, and at what point do people decide to either give up, or continue making the film?

This is almost an impossible question to answer. I’m sure much smarter, much more experienced people have tried and also failed.

The thing with this is that movies are completely subjective, so there’s no right or wrong answer to this question. I don’t like Napoleon Dynamite, yet it’s a massively popular film. I wasn’t totally convinced by The King’s Speech, yet Oscars abounded. That’s not to say that either of those are bad films – I enjoyed The King’s Speech, but wasn’t overawed by it. Napoleon Dynamite is a slightly different story.

I think the answer to Jase’s question is that you have to trust your instincts. And to trust your instincts, you have to hone them. Read scripts. Watch movies. Don’t just read films you like, read films you don’t like. Figure out why you reacted negatively to a film. Why do you want to turn it off? Why did you love it? What was it about the film that sucked you in and kept you watching? Figure out what makes you tick as an audience member and you’ll start progressing as a filmmaker.

Be prepared to be your own worst critic. But don’t be afraid to acknowledge if your work is good. If you get excited about your work, chances are there’s something in it. If you’re struggling to write it, figure out what it’s missing. But don’t depend on your own opinion. Talk to other people about it. This is so important. These other people are your audience. Find out if they like your idea. Pitch the idea to other people and see how they react. If their eyes light up and they want to know more, there’s a sparkle in the idea. If they nod politely then change the subject, then maybe you need to work on the sparkle a little more. There’s no point in making a film if you aren’t thinking about the audience.

If you stop believing in your project, stop working on it. Put it to one side, let it rest in a drawer and move on to something else. The more work you do on something you don’t believe in, the harder it becomes to fix. You remember the hard slog it was to get it to that point and become reluctant to undo your work. Give it breathing space. Let your head clear. Come back to it later when you’re refreshed.

It’s rare to get to the point where you’ve nearly finished shooting a film and realise that it’s rubbish. It has happened though. In Hollywood, actors will get fired or the whole movie will be reshot. In low budget filmmaking world, that’s not an option. But, in low budget filmmaking world, if you’ve managed to inspire enough people with your words and script and vision for the film to come on board and help you make it, then perhaps that shine is coming through again.

Once you’re in post production, it becomes almost impossible to let go of something if it’s not working. I’ve lost count of the amount of productions I’ve worked on where editors, sound designers, visual effects artist, almost every department in post complains about how dire the project is. How awful the film is. But they’re going to make their element the best it can be for their reel/for money/for pride. Post production often feels like the final stretch. If you can just get through this bit, then the film will be done and finished and reap all the prizes at every festival known to man.

It doesn’t always work like that, of course. It would be great if it did.

You just need to remember why you wanted to make the film in the first place.

I think the elements of what makes a good film good come down to this:

Good script.
Good director.
Good producers.
Good actors.
Good heads of departments.
Good rushes.
Good sound.
Good editing.
Good music.
Good visual effects (where required).

You put all of those in a jar and shake them up, you’ll most likely end up with a good film. They’re not all that hard to find, either, you just need to know where to look. Reverse them and you get the elements of a bad film.

But me, personally, I always aim for great films. At the least. That way, even if I make buckets of mistakes along the way (which I always do), I’ll always end up with a film that’s good and a whole bunch of lessons for how to get even closer to great the next time around.

Writing Short Films

Hey gang, I’m currently on restricted internet access for the next week, but I promise I’ll finish off my posts about auditions and introduce you to the cast I settled on really soon!

For now, I decided to gather together all my posts on writing short films and short film structure in one place, so that you guys can either give yourselves a crash course or reacquaint yourselves with my brilliant suggestions and ideas for writing shorts (if I do say so myself).

Here are the links!

Short Film Structure: Story Models
Short Film Structure: The Beginning
Short Film Structure: Characters
Short Film Structure: The Ending, Part 1 – The Twist
Short Film Structure: The Ending, Part 2 – No Twist
Short Film Structure: Audience 
Short Film Structure: Pace

And last, but not least:

Short Film Structure: THE STORY

Enjoy! Throw me any questions you’ve got and we’ll see if we can work out the answers!

Think About Your Audience…

Rewrites. 

A word that sends a shiver down the spine of most writers.

Not me. But I’m a bit weird like that.

I’ve just done what I hope is the final rewrite on With A Little Help From Our Friends. I’m not planning on doing any more until I’ve locked in what’s actually happening with it, but for now, it’s pretty much good to go. I read it for the first time in a few months and realised that something was missing. It took me awhile focusing on other things in the script – and, admittedly, a lot of the notes I made were more directorial than writer-focused which was an exciting twist on the usual process – before I realised what it was.

I was putting the audience in the wrong position in the beginning.

When I get to a certain stage in a script, I find it really helps push the story to think about who the audience is going to click with and who you want them to click with. For instance, if you’re writing a mystery film, you’re NOT going to reveal the killer in the first scene and so the audience clicks with the detective character. If you’re writing an action flick, you want them to click with the hero, not the villain. Or perhaps the damsel in distress character and then the hero comes in and sweeps her/him off to safety and they race away together.

In most scripts, there is a character who is essentially representing the audience. It isn’t always the same character either – it varies. Shakespeare did it: the character who identifies the characters, who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on, the one who is in the same position as the audience and asks the questions they can’t. In movies, it’s often the protagonist – they discover the rules of the world at the same time as the audience. It has become a lot more subtle (usually) since Shakespeare, but consider how you want your audience to feel in each scene and push that emotion as far as you can.

The audience is the most important thing you’ve got to focus on as a filmmaker.

After all, if you’ve got no audience, you’ve not really got much of a film.

Things I Learnt This Weekend – Guerilla Filmmakers’ Masterclass 2011

Hola! It’s Tuesday and I’m currently in the aftermath of a jam-packed weekend following the Guerilla Filmmakers’ Masterclass. I find that after big events like these, it always takes a few days to get back into the swing of things, email all those people whose business cards you snagged and deal with reality which has this habit of charging ahead whether you want it to or not.

The weekend was fantastic. Chris Jones really knows his stuff – get your hands on his Guerilla Filmmakers books or his online short courses if you want to hone your low/no budget filmmaking skills – which I knew anyway, but he’s a great speaker as well. I think it was a bit of a wake-up call for some people as to exactly how much effort goes into making a film but sometimes I think that’s the best bit. You get to test your commitment to the project. If you’re not fully committed, it’s going to fall over.

As for the things I learnt, I learnt a lot. A lot will become relevant as I move through pre-production, production and post (oops, spoilers!) so I won’t touch on too much of it here. As is likely to happen over weekends like this, I met other filmmakers and other people interested in moving into becoming filmmakers. With a project hanging in the balance, I offered it up to see if anyone would be interested in coming on board to help me out and see if we can’t get ‘Friends’ up off the ground again. And there was definitely a bit of interest floating around. So I’ve sent the script off to see how we go. Watch this space.

For now, I think there’s too much to cover in one blog post, so I’m going to cover the top three things I got out of the weekend that I think is important for a filmmaker in any capacity to know. If you want more info, Chris makes everything REALLY accessible via his website, so follow the links and learn from his wealth of experience!

Top Three Things I Learnt This Weekend At The Guerilla Filmmakers’ Masterclass:
(in no particular order)

1. Films are all about audience connection.
You’re in the cinema. Munching on popcorn. Whispering to your mate as they screen the trailers of films that you’re only half interested in. Then the lights fully dim and you fall silent, your eyes lock onto the screen and there’s that moment of silence where absolutely anything is possible, anything could appear on that screen in the first second of the movie you’re watching. And no matter what it is, you’re willing to go with it, to see where it takes you. That moment is the beginning of the film’s connection with the audience. The audience will always want your film to be good. Chris pointed out that in that moment, your film has exactly the same chance of success of a James Cameron film.

So whatever you do, don’t sever that connection. Make sure there’s no plotholes to make your audience trip up, don’t push the story into ridiculousness so that they stop believing in what’s happening on the screen. What happens in front of them in that cinema is a universal truth – for two hours, the projected light on the screen is the ultimate truth and the audience will always believe it. But push them too far, the connection gets broken and the audience gets disgruntled with the story. And no-one likes a disgruntled audience.

2. Make a film that is honest.
Remember what I said up there two seconds ago? Movies hold a universal truth within them. The audience respects that. Make a film that is honest and it will instantly connect with people because they recognise the truth.  Be true to the story, be true to yourself as a filmmaker and that truth will emerge on the screen. That’s not to say that the characters can’t be liars, theives, manipulators – not at all. Don’t force it to be something it’s not, don’t try to be something you’re not and that truth will shine through.

3. Why?
The big question of the weekend. Why do you want to make films? No, really, why? If you’re in it for the money, you’re going the wrong way about it. Become an actor – but even that’s a hard slog. Really examine why you want to make films. And even then, do you want to make films or do you have to make films? Understand who you are. Understand what drives you. Understand what you want, not what your ego wants. Then you might be ready to be thrown into the deep end.


Three points don’t really feel like enough – I filled at least ten pages with notes and Chris was racing through the slides like we were running three hours behind schedule (which we might’ve been!). Like I said, a big chunk of it is more production based which I’ll come to once I’m further into production with ‘Friends’.

One last piece of advice, if you don’t know anyone film-orientated but want to get into making films, definitely go to an event like this near you. It’s too much of a waste not to and let yourself be inspired then harness everyone’s enthusiasm to make something great! Then you can call yourself a producer! For every person I met who had experience making films, there was someone else who had come just to get a feel for it. Most of all, don’t be afraid to talk to people! You never know who you’ll end up meeting. This time around I met several people I knew from Twitter, a handful of Irishmen, a bloke who directs the German Lord Voldemort and a guy who plays the double bass. How can I complain about that?

Links:

Chris Jones’ Website