Category Archives: Short Film

Casting is Everything

Casting is everything. Cast your movie right, your troubles are mostly over. Don’t take the time to find the perfect actor, everything after casting will be a waste of time. For you, your crew, and, Heaven help you, your investors.

Beginning filmmakers have no concept how helpful a superb actor can be. If you’ve never worked with excellent actors, you have zero basis for understanding their importance. 

When I was at Vanderbilt, I taught a class where we made short films. The students crewed. I wrote and directed. Because the scripts were good and the university paid a professional location sound mixer and cinematographer, the best actors in Nashville would be in the movies. The shoots were four days and we fed them exceedingly well.

Once, we made a film set in 1904, about a man who had multiple mistresses and died during the opening credits having sex with one of them. Most of the story was his funeral, attended by his wife, daughters, and mistresses.

Most of the students had no faith in the project. They thought the period dialogue (written by me and Don Jones, who played the lead) was silly and stilted. Unrealistic. Impossible to deliver. They thought it sounded stupid — and therefore the movie would be equally as stupid.

The first scene we shot was in a room too small to fit anyone except key crew and Don. The first shot was a close up. He delivered a long speech straight into camera. So the pooh-poohing students could see, I had a monitor set up in the hallway.

Don Jones is an incredibly gifted actor. After the first take, when I came out in the hall, the students were staring at the monitor in stunned amazement. They had had absolutely no idea the setting and dialogue and wardrobe and story and everything would spring to vivid life when Don spoke.

Until that moment, they’d assumed the project would be a big fat waste of their time. Suddenly they realized it was going to be good.

Until you’ve seen it in person, you cannot understand the power and importance of talented actors. It makes all the difference.

Beginning filmmakers are easily satisfied. 

An actor” is what they’re looking for. Once they find “an actor”, their casting days are behind them. What is nearly impossible to get across, which my students in the hall understood as well as they would have understood how it felt to be struck by lightning, is that casting “the actor” is… everything.

Until you make the monumental effort to find, not “an actor” but “the actor”, and see how that time-consuming search affects your film’s quality, your filmmaking will never rise to the level of professional or film festival acceptance.

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Filed under Actors, Filmmaking, Short Film, Uncategorized

Got a film in progress you need notes on?

Up top, I added a new page. NOTES ON ROUGH CUT.

I’ve directed a dozen shorts and have been teaching filmmaking for a long time. A rough cut of a film is a lot like a screenplay… there’s story and character and pace and clarity and everything else. Filmmakers need help just like writers.

So, if you’re in need of someone from outside your editing room (or your own personal head) to give you notes, I’m throwing my hat in the ring.

Take a look at the notes I posted and, if you think I can help, let me know.

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Filed under Criticism, Editing, Filmmaking, Short Film

Cut the Mom’s Head Off with a Sword!

Whatever you do, don’t be too protective of your idea or script. Don’t worry about bad guys in Hollywood stealing your inimitable idea and sailing to the Maldives. The odds of that actually happening are extraordinarily limited, but the odds of a producer thinking you’re paranoid and running like blazes are quite real.

So, quick advice: tell your story to anyone who’ll listen. Saying it out loud will help. A ton.

Once upon a time, I was directing a short film and, the day of the last shoot, was having breakfast with a friend. He asked me what my story was about and, not being paranoid, I told him.

As I described the climactic confrontation between the heroine and her oppressive mother, I realized, to my shock, dismay, consternation, horror and amazement! that I had neglected to include that oh-so-critical final confrontation in the script and, therefore, it was not on the shot list! and was not going to show up in the editing room! ARRGGHHHH!!!

I quickly wrote a titanic battle between daughter and mother on the steps leading to the girl’s bedroom. My image was two Arnold Schwarzenegger types with broadswords hacking their way up and down blood-soaked stairs until finally, the exhausted daughter slices off her mother’s head and is victorious.

It was a useful way to write an argument.

Which brings me to a couple of thoughts…

1.) However you define “mortal combat”, it has to happen at the climax between your hero and opponent. That face off must be as intense as your story’s tone will allow, yet still be believable.

But you have to have it!

We waited the entire movie to get here! Don’t be stupid like I was and forget that, at the end, you gotta have a slugfest.

Happily for me, both actors were superb and the mother cried when her daughter announced she was going to live her life free from her mother’s shackles. That’s not what she said, but you get the point.

2.) Telling my story out loud saved the movie. Because I was speaking, my mind operated in a different way than had I been writing. Jiggling your brain around will work miracles for your story.

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Filed under character, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Short Film

PODCAST #4!!! Your hero better want something… and badly!

Click up there at PODCASTS and hear the latest in a series of conversations between me, author of Your Screenplay Sucks! and Kelley Baker, author of The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide.

We went to film school together (AFTER the invention of electricity, I’ll have you know) and have much the same filmmaking sensibilities. Kelley has written, directed, produced, or done sound on A LOT of movies. I let him do most of the serious talking.

This week, give a listen as we talk about why the hero in your move needs to WANT something. If you don’t know anything about your character but what she wants, you’re well on your way to a successful film. Hope you enjoy the podcast and hope you learn a lot.

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Filed under character, Screenwriting, Short Film, Writing Process