NOTES ON ROUGH CUT

Here are my notes on an 8 minute film.

If you have a rough cut that needs fresh eyes, let’s talk.

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Akers notes on SEEMS YOU’RE THE SAME

Written & Directed by A. Riggert

Rough Cut 4.2

TRT 8:09

General Story / Filmmaking

I love that you’re working hard on a story that matters to you. Hats off to you!

An idea that affects you emotionally is so much better than an idea that does not. If it affects you, it has a far better chance to affect others. Without that, a story hasn’t got a prayer of real success.

Clearly you have taken the time to work out an inventive structure. Better to take a risk doing something you believe in than sit back and be boring. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, you’re learning bucketloads that will help you the next time you sit down to write / direct.

The black and white lighting and camera work are very good. Your framing choices are almost totally impeccable. Camera placement is almost always spot on.

“There are only two places to put the camera and one of them is wrong.”

David Fincher

You got a great deal of material shot in a short amount of time and your organization is to be commended. Making your day is an essential aspect of filmmaking and if you can’t, you’re going to be in serious hot water.

You did a good job casting. The actresses playing Maude and Gina are especially talented. The end scene, where she is crying, her performance really works. I totally bought it. Well done for whatever depths of searching you had to go through to find them. The therapist does an excellent job for you, too.

The actor playing the father is not up to the standard of the others, and, as you will see later, I think he could be cut completely without a problem. Not because of his acting, but because without ADR, his role does not move the story forward and can be eliminated without affecting the story or the ending.

The editing is good, but some cuts needed tweaking to actually work. A frame here, frame there. It makes a big difference.

Was this originally a five page script? Are you trying to tell a story that fits neatly into five minutes? Or are you trying to cram a feature film idea into five minutes, thereby being forced to expand to eight minutes?

The editing feels rushed. Choppy. Hurried. Like you were trying to squeeze in far too much story in far too short a time.

The Vimeo opening freeze-frame says: this is a medical story about a young woman with a disease. Is it the absolute best image to tell your story?

Opening frame vs. closing frame. If at all possible, you want to take us on a journey with those two frames. Your opening frame does not feel like it is what your story will eventually be about.

Continually ask: What story are you telling with this script / scene / shot? Does each piece of each scene tell the story you intended? Remember, the audience will be ruthless. They will take whatever meaning from the shot they want to take, whether you agree with them or not, and they will be right.

The underlying story idea is superb, but the journey Maude goes on is not clear. She reaches a catharsis at the end, but I am not clear on the steps in the story that got her to that catharsis.

As the therapist comes into the story very late, it seems that every story point delivered in the therapist’s office could be shown by Maude doing things or saying things to her family here and there during the film. You can’t change it all, of course, but… when possible… show, don’t discuss. We could see the audio diary coming into play throughout, instead of only becoming aware of it halfway through — when the therapist mentions it. We could see Maude arguing with her mother about the problems she is discussing with the audio diary.

You are hampered because there’s no opponent.

No human opponent. Cancer doesn’t count. It’s a story element, but not an opponent. A human opponent gives you conflict. Interior angst gives you interior angst, which the audience can’t see clearly or decipher. Combat with someone else would show us instantly what Maude is feeling.

As there is no human opponent, there is no agent of change for the hero. There’s no one for her to do battle with and ergo learn how to be a better person by the end. This role is sort of taken up by the therapist, but she is introduced far too late to be the actual opponent.

As Maude’s affect is flat through the entire film, it is hard to get engaged with her.

Conflict would help. Right now the only other character in the story who offers conflict is her mother. Gina does not offer any conflict nor does the therapist. But, depending on the scope of your reshoots, Maude’s mother and her sister and therapist could be ripe areas for a conflict which would drive the story forward.

I do not understand what happened in the story. This is a problem.

The idea is that she’s going to try to live as if she’s dying, but after the therapist gives her that suggestion, we do not see Maude find any joy, or, if not joy, a touch of peace or grace. If Maude starts as “sad” and ends up “a little happier,” that is a journey. It can be illustrated.

Right now, I don’t see a journey. You know what her journey is. But, it is not visible on screen and not clear to the audience.

Unfortunately, if the writer / director is the only person who understands the story, it is not a successful story. As my beloved-by-all film teacher* said, many, many, many years ago, “You don’t get to stand next to the screen and explain it.”

An example… the film opens with her staring at her phone. Is she looking at an audio diary entry? I have no idea… You know what she’s looking at. We don’t. It must be clear to us at first glance. At the beginning there’s no knowledge of an audio diary, so the image only means “woman looking at her phone.”

You have to be ruthless when looking at your script, your storyboards, your camera placement, the shot you’re looking at in the editing room… Always ask about the entire script, about the scene you are working on, or the shot… “What story am I telling? What is this about? Is the viewer going to understand what I want them to? Because of my choices, is the viewer going to understand what I hope they will understand?”

You must be ruthless because your audience will be. They have no other choice. You can never cut yourself any slack.

The low level of production design hampers you. There’s too much gap between what we see and what that room would actually look like. This is common in beginning filmmaking, but it doesn’t make it any easier for us to understand the story or feel the emotion you want us to feel. Blank walls do not contribute to emotion. Pretend production design does not lead to an emotional reaction.

All emotion is suppressed. Maude is at flat in every scene except when she cries.

That makes it harder for the viewer to feel anything. When Mom is at the sink, washing dishes, Mom feels bad, but we don’t know it. She doesn’t express that feeling. She doesn’t “attack” her daughter (on any level of intensity from 1 – 10) . That lack of attack does not give Maude a chance to counter attack, which would interest us.

The film is about “choosing to live.” What is your definition of “living”? Do we see that?

The party scene which has music as she walks in a black void through a series of shots, passing people here and there… what are we to learn, to take away from that scene? Might it be useful to hear dialogue? What is the point to the party? What happens at the party that becomes a step in her progression to being able to cry at the end? When the party scene is over, do we understand what you want us to?

What is the point of the short epileptic-ish fit intercut with the party and how does it affect the party? We are never told what that was about or when or where it was happening. Again, I’m sure it fits into a multilayer storytelling style, but on my first viewing, I didn’t understand its meaning. Nor did I on second viewing.

She leaves the party, rides on her bike, is hit by a car and spends the night unconscious in a ditch. What did she learn because of that experience that leads her to the crying at the end of the film? If you cut the car accident and unconscious night, what story is lost? Is any story lost? If you move from the party’s end to her crying in the bath tub, is that better? It’s tighter, which, generally, is better.

Every single scene in a film should be pushing the lead character and the audience clearly toward whatever happens at the end. Does that happen here?

It appears that the MRI scans are happening because she got hit by the car. Is that your intent?

What does the bicycle accident do to affect the crying at the end? What does it teach her about her life or, “living”?

What does the bicycle accident have to do with her medical problem? Are there two different medical questions? 1.) disease? 2.) injury from bike accident? If there is no effect from the bike accident, why have it at all?

What about the bicycle accident makes her cry in the bathtub? What about her crying in the bathtub makes her cut her hair?

I love the shot in the bathtub. It is one of the best in the movie.

You may have seen the clip when the creators of South Park visit a screenwriting class at NYU. If you have not, learn its brilliant game-changing lesson: Every scene should push to the next scene.

When you reshoot, can her medical problem cause any physical side effects, something we can see? As is, it is 100% psychological, not physical. Research the effects of her particular medical problem and show some of them.

Maude seems to live in a total vacuum. Does she interact with anyone? Does she interact with anyone in her family? Where is her sister? Can Gina affect her more? Where is her father? Where is her mother? Where are her friends? These people may exist in her universe, but they are not coming into her orbit. Is that okay?

Because you were (I assume) working to cram nine pages of script into a five pound bag, it feels like everything you did was in a hurry. Rushed is not the way to approach filmmaking.

You had two days to shoot. If you’re trying to accomplish too many shots in a day, every shot will get short shrift. It’s a law of nature. In the first 15 seconds, I noticed that the shots seemed hurried. This may have been a directorial choice, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like way too many set ups to comfortably make your day.

Had you shot a five page script, you could’ve concentrated on taking the time and care to get every detail in the shot correct. And then, when that shot had been accomplished to the very, very best of your ability, you could move onto the next one, and the next, and still make your day.

Finally, in the future, fight hard not to be your own editor.

If you’re a beginner, the worst person on the planet to edit your film is you. Because it’s your story, you may think you’re the best choice to edit. Incorrect. Because it’s your story, there’s no way for you to view it objectively. You bring too much knowledge and emotion to the table, so it’s next to impossible to see an image as an audience will. Which dooms you. If you’re a seasoned pro, not being your own editor still holds true 99% of the time. You need someone to argue with you. It’s impossible to argue with yourself. It’s so easy for you to convince yourself that your choice is correct! “This is a good idea, isn’t it?” “It sure is! You should so do that!” But, if you have someone to say “Why would you make that choice? That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”, you’ll be a lot better off.

If you are basing your story on real life and are editing it yourself, post production becomes logarithmically more difficult for you to come out of the process with the best possible film. Because, if your story is based feelings / events that happened to you, you have no cold blooded editor’s distance and any hope you have of impartiality is thrown out the window. You will want to include an event “because it happened,” when it doesn’t fit in your “fictional” character’s story. I’ve seen it over and over and over again.

Specific Notes on Cut 4.2

How do you want us to feel when the movie starts? Is a shot of a phone on a desk what the story is “about”? The opening frame is very short, less than two seconds, not enough time to figure out where we are or get an emotional response.

00.07

Try never to return to the same set up. It’s lazy filmmaking. It happens of course, all the time. Easier, quicker, and expedient. If you can, however, with every set up always take us someplace new. Spielberg does this almost all the time. Move that tripod. Every new shot. New information. New information. New information.

There is a long pause before she moves her hand. What if you do the pause in the wide, when we see her face and can get emotion? Hands carry far less emotion than faces.

If you do the pause in the wide, and then cut on the overlapping action as she moves her hand, the cut will be much smoother and our eye will be drawn to her hand in the close-up. If you have the overlapping footage, the cut can be perfect.

00.11

You need to change angles when you go to the medium of her face. This is from the same exact angle as the wide shot. You only zoomed in. Almost a jump cut. You need to move the tripod. New information!

00.13

Cutting from her face to the overhead of the phone. You cut out of her face several frames too early. The cut is jarring. Maude had not had enough time to finish whatever she was doing emotionally, and we were still interested, but you cut away to the overhead.

00.14

Same thing. You cut out of the zoom in to the phone, too fast. We were still interested in what was going on, still trying to figure out the content of the shot and you cut away too quickly.

00.15

The MRI slices need to be held a bit longer. Not enough time on screen to get the story of the shot.

The short MRI slice is perfectly timed.

00.30

Maude in a hospital gown against a blank wall. You repeat the exact same shots: wide, extreme close-up. Wide, extreme close up, this time with a tear. Why don’t you just do the wide, and the extreme close-up with the tear? That is the story. You don’t need to tell us the same thing twice. Generally, never repeat anything. Ever. Unless it is for rhythm.

The blank wall feels student film-ish. You can get the feeling of a blank wall yet still have the frame tell a bit of “story.” You could show the top of a hospital chair off to the left side and/or the corner of a medical cabinet to give us a hint where we are instead of floating in a meaningless “I didn’t take enough time to get a real location” void.

See IDA for marvelous black & white cinematography and unconventional framing. Nominated for an Oscar in cinematography.

The void may be precisely what you want. However, there’s little story to be received from a void. Good framing, btw.

Also, cutting from the wide to the close-up, you crossed the stage line. (180° Rule) That may be intentional, but it is jarring. In the wide, we’re on the left side of her face, and in the close-up we have moved over to the right side. Making a mistake with stage line is a sign of hurrying and not nearly enough preproduction. Again, too many pages to shoot in too few days can harm the end result.

00.31

The shot of her crying is excellent.

But, you cut out too quickly. There is still emotion to be gotten from that shot. Let your story breathe. Let us have the time we need to feel the emotion you are trying to get across. Again, I am concerned you were trying to tell too much story in too short a time.

00.34

She is crying because of some sort of medical reason, but I have no sense of the details or what is really going on.

00.35

Great cut! Perfectly done, going from the wide to her grabbing the phone. No one could do it any better.

I would get to the title card several frames faster. She clears frame and then nothing happens. Instantly, the screen goes dead, stays dead, and finally the title card comes up. Almost always, you want to cut with the actor still in the last few frames, not after they clear frame. The frame goes dead soooo fast.

00.43

The apostrophe in “You’re” is too big and the spacing is strange.

I’m not a fan of a black screen. Cut to the shot of Maude by the locker. Or dissolve to it. Anything but black. Black stops story dead cold. Why stop your story?

00.49

There’s something wrong with the cut to the close-up of the phone. You cut out of the wide too soon. If you had hung on a couple of frames longer, the cut would’ve worked.

00.53

I’m not sure about the “interior locker POV.” It looks show-offy. If the locker is not in frame, we get a clean single of her. Does seeing her from inside the (far too tidy = lack of art direction) locker add to the story, or is just a “cool” shot / camera placement?

Is this high school? College? It doesn’t feel like a high school. The frame is bare, devoid of any production design. There are no extras walking around. No “Beat Wilson County High!” banners. There’s nothing to suggest that this is a real school. It may have been your intention to be austere and cold, but it feels like a student film where a location is grabbed because it will “do” but it is not telling the story you hope it will.

01.02

Lose her eye roll, and keep the smirk. Eye rolling is often something you’ll want to cut.

I love the locker door closing. You might only go to the locker POV as she starts closing the door… But, I would not go to black. Have the door close, and pop us to the next scene. Black kills forward motion. You have a great opportunity to cut from the door close to the character wiping frame at 01.05. That would be an excellent cut.

01.09

The family at the table, having a meal… Beginner production design hurts the result. At the next ten meals you eat, take a photograph of the tables at the start, middle, and end of the meal. Start a collection. Look at all the stuff that’s there. Like drinking glasses. Then, reproduce that the next time you plan an eating scene. These people have no napkins. No salt. No pepper. There is no mess on the kitchen counter from the meal preparation. There are no spoons. This is 100% student film production design. You are asking us to “believe” that this is a real family eating. Because you have no money, you are asking us to make an all-forgiving leap of imagination. “Pretend” Production Design… It’s easy to make a meal look like a real meal. All that is required is prep.

Make lists, get stuff. In four words, that’s production design. Research followed by execution.

01.18

There’s a character (male? female?) at the dining table whose face we never see. We see the back of their head. This is very strange. Unsettling. It feels like a mistake. You need to establish all the players as you get on with story. When you plan coverage, make sure you introduce everybody. This lack of coverage is a preproduction error that makes your scene feel weird. A well thought out Director’s Breakdown will save you every time.

The lack of dialogue makes me feel like everyone is angry. What is the mood you want the scene to have? Is that the mood your shots are actually conveying? What story are you telling with this scene? Be ruthless. How does this family feel? Are they happy? Miserable? Because no one speaks at all, which is clearly deliberate, it feels tense and cold. It also feels rushed. Does the scene tell the story you intended?

Remember, the audience will be ruthless. They will take whatever meaning from the shot they want to take, whether you agree with them or not, and they will be right.

01.19

What is that strange rifle shot sound effect?

01.24

It feels strange for Dad to begin his prayer off camera. The natural thing to do, which may not be your intent, would be to cut from the wide of the family to Dad starting the prayer, and then go to our heroine and other characters, listening to Dad pray.

So far, you mostly have 90° side angle shots or frontal shots, little or nothing at a 45° angle to the character.

When we meet someone, we invest in them. We take time to catalogue them. We think, “This person is important. I will remember them because they must matter to the story.” We do that with Dad and then he never comes back.

Father’s prayer. Praying for the food does not help the story move forward. Certainly not precisely what you want to do, but if father said something (far better than), “Please dear God, don’t let our beloved Maude died of brain cancer” that would help us know what is going on. Useful to your viewer who is scrambling for information at 24 (or 29.97!) frames a second. You could start with him saying a sentence or two of what you have, then add new useful dialogue in ADR, played out over everyone listening.

Does the mysterious person at the end of the table make a return appearance? Why did you choose not to show their face? They need to react to the prayer or react to something.

We’re at 01.28, and I have no clue what is happening.

01.34

The short dolly in to Maude and Mom at the sink is excellent. It instantly adds emotion.

If you remove the scene at the table, and go from the locker door closing straight to the dolly in at the sink, it will be a good cut, and you’ll never miss the dinner. If you can add an ADR prayer about Maude instead of food, consider keeping the dinner, but even then…

01.36

Mom and Maude washing dishes after the meal. I could not understand the mother’s dialogue. Unfortunately that crucial line sets up everything but is unintelligible. Because this one line is garbled, the entire film becomes incomprehensible. Get that line clean when you do ADR.

Why is there no coverage of Mom’s face? It feels very strange to see the back of Mom’s head, Maude’s face, and no shot of Mom’s face. When Maude says she doesn’t wanna talk about it, Mom is going to feel something, but we are robbed of that emotion because we don’t see her face.

This is why you do a Director’s Breakdown, overhead, lined script, storyboards, shot list, shooting order, schedule… precisely to keep you out of this sort of trouble. Massive amounts of conversation in preproduction will save you every time.

When your editor said, “You got a shot of Mom reacting, right?” and you said, “Um, no,” did your editor roll their eyes, take a shot of scotch and sullenly go back to work? Preproduction and a comfortable, realistic shooting schedule will avoid that

Either wait until Maude finishes her line, and then go to Mom. Or cut to Mom and have the line finish on her face. Either way would work.

Everyone in a scene is important. Every moment is not always about the central character. And, the mother’s emotion would add to our sense of what Maude is feeling.

A movie is 100% about emotion. Use every possible chance you can to deliver emotion to the viewer.

As there is no story nugget or character nugget in the dinner table scene, you can cut it and open the scene with the dolly in to Mom and Maude washing dishes. Feels like that would work well. Stay on the railroad tracks of your story and nothing else. Tighter = better. Go from 1:03 (the locker door closing) to 1:32 (start of dolly in of dish washing). The film gets shorter by 29 seconds. We won’t miss Dad praying.

1.40

When Maude says, I don’t want to talk about it”, what would happen if Mom says, “Well, we’re going to talk about it whether you want to or not!”, which would lead to conflict.

After Maude’s line, there’s no air in the scene. She just turns away, instantly. Even if she turns away instantly, it’s not going to be this quick.

1.41

Cut out with a few frames of Maude’s torso and arm still showing. It is a much more active way to leave the scene, than lingering (for too short of time) on Mom. Cut out with the frame still active and it makes a better cut.

1.46

After Maude leaves, it would be helpful to have a medium or a close of Mom shaking her head, instead of staying on the wide. We don’t get much emotion from the side angle. Do you have anything like that? Can you get it?

As the story is not about Mom, there is no reason to stay on her washing dishes. Go with story. Get to the mascara quicker… Or, better, give us Mom’s emotion (in a reshoot) and then cut out.

1.49

The close-up of Maude putting on mascara does not last long enough for us to absorb the information. Consider starting on the wide at 1.50. It’s a more evocative shot and you don’t need the close-up for us to understand “she’s putting on mascara.” Might want to add some heads to the shot so you have a moment or two before Gina enters frame.

I like that Gina drops into the frame in the mirror. I did not expect that and it works well. Thank you for staying in the wide and not cutting to close-up of Gina.

I assume Gina was the mysterious person at the dining table.

1.56

I do not understand Maude’s dialogue. Something about “to live.” It is obscured by the mascara being set down.

There’s almost no dialogue so far, and it’s been hard to understand.

On set, all the audio you have to get is dialogue. Clean dialogue. The mascara being set down should’ve been captured as wild sound, not on top of the dialogue. Once it’s there, without expensive equipment, it’s nearly impossible to get rid of it, the noise-over-dialogue-removing scene in THE CONVERSATION notwithstanding. The actress should never have set the mascara all the way down in the shot, or set it on an offscreen folded towel. That’s what rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse is for.

That’s why you must leave preproduction with a non-panic-inducing shooting schedule.

02.00

Gina asks, “Since when?” Maude says, “Since April.” Instead of “Since April.” can you get a line in ADR, “Six months” and drop it over Gina listening? “Since when?” “Six months.” We do not know what month it is, so we have no idea how long ago April was. Remember, what you know is not necessarily what we know. What the characters know is not necessarily what we know.

The fact that she has decided to live would make more sense if, we understood that she had not been “living” for quite some time.

2.01

This is when you want to start showing us the make up mirror. New information!

The cut from the mirror to her walking to the door is perfect.

Why are we not getting any shots of Gina on the bed watching Maude putting on the make up? Or leave?

2.08

I thought Maude walked into a black closet. The music started, and I thought she was in the closet. You might want to go to Gina on the bed, reacting to what Maude said… and then go to the party.

2.10

The party scene. Starting with black and a close-up of her with a strobe light makes me feel this is an LSD psychotic dream sequence. The black void around her face does it. I have no earthly idea we are at a party. So, I begin the party thinking this is a dream sequence, not “It’s a party.” Start on the party. Make it look like a party.

No party is that dark. Shooting in a black void because of lack of the correct location is an example of pretend production design. I see it all the time. It never works.

Do your best to never, ever confuse the viewer. You can give them weird things, of course. But don’t confuse them in the process. “Weird” is very very very difficult to pull off. You have to be in total control. In no way does “weird” mean loosey goosey.

The party scene does not look like a party. It looks like people in a dark void in a dream sequence. Then, after she runs out of the party, we realize it is a normal house so the visual elements of that scene, inside, at the party and outside, on the porch, do not match or connect organically.

2.12

Start the party on the motion of her entering frame. There is a perfect place to cut in, somewhere in here.

2.21

I like the scene of her falling to the floor and shaking, but I do not know what it means. I don’t know if it’s before the party or after the party. Her fall is effective and perfectly shot and timed.

The length of time she thrashes on the floor is perfect. You get out on exactly the right frame.

2.33

I like the pan of her leaving the party and going outside. Works well.

2.40

Something is wrong with the cut from her at the top of the stairs to the one of her coming down the stairs. It’s a jump cut because her silhouette is the same size in both the end and beginning frames. It also may be a problem of which frame you have cut on, vis-à-vis where she is in her turn. Pushing the cut a frame or two either way will make a difference in the cut’s smoothness.

2.45

We are deep into the story and I still don’t know what is going on.

The “I want to live” line is heavily laden with story, but I do not know what the story is.

2:50

Cutting from Maude riding her bicycle down the street at night to the shot of her thrashing on the high school floor is framed exactly like the one of her at 2.53. I like that parallel, but the two shots are so quick, that we’re confused.

2.53

The shot of her on the floor in the hospital gown does not stay on screen long enough for us to understand what’s going on. By the time we realize, “Oh, hey, she’s not on the high school locker floor anymore, what–” we have moved on and haven’t had time to figure out what is happening.

Every shot needs to last as long as it needs to last. Every shot has its own important little life and must be allowed to live that life until the very end. If you cut it off prematurely, it is going to make us sad and uncomfortable because the shot did not get to live its full and complete life. Like a kitten dying.

2.55

I did not understand the scene with her on the bicycle vs. the car. If I’m supposed to think she nearly gets hit by the car, I did not. If I’m supposed to think she gets hit, I did not. That staging was unclear. Therefore, whatever story nugget was contained in those shots, is lost.

2.58

That is not the sound an MRI machine makes, which is knocking, thumping. Not a buzzer. Research would have helped as the wrong sound throws the viewer out of the story.

3.01

I like the shot of the tennis shoe and the spinning bicycle wheel. Well framed.

3.14

I wish you had been able to get her in a real piece of medical equipment.

So, she got hit by a car and has had a brain scan. I get it now. But, why did she fall down at school? If the car caused the need for the MRI, what happened when she fell at school? Does she fall at school after she’s hit by the car? The timeline is not clear.

When you play with time, you must be 100% clear throughout. If you drop your viewer as you are carefully carrying them through the story, it is hard to get them back to the same mental place they were. Like dropping nitroglycerine. A stranger must be able to easily follow your story. Christopher Nolan’s MEMENTO has an incredibly complex structure, but makes perfect sense. TENET has an incredibly complex structure and makes no sense at all.

And what does being hit by a car have to do with her overall disease problem? Does the car accident cause her “I’m going to die” problem? You have a short film with, I think, two medical problems. Are they separate or related? Are they causal? If they are not causal, then get rid of the car hit medical problem as it only confuses your railroad tracks issue of “I must learn to live as if I were dying.”

If her medical problem is not caused by being hit by the car, what does being hit by the car do to her or for her? If you change the nature of her medical problem, the audience will never know what the original problem was. Don’t “stick to your guns” at the expense of making the story clear to the viewer. If you get rid of the car accident and MRI that seems to be caused by the accident, does the story suffer?

If she has had a brain tumor since before the movie opened, and we are worried about her dying from a brain tumor, what is the point of her being hit by the car and having an MRI because of it?

While I am a big fan of “show don’t tell,” sometimes flat out telling is incredibly efficient. You can tell us the problem immediately and we can proceed apace with that information well in hand.

You can save yourself a lot of time if you open the film with V.O. over the main title, with, “Two years ago, Maude found out about her brain tumor. Needless to say, it’s been a crappy two years.”

Good idea? Bad idea? For you to decide.

A short film is about one moment. One thought, one event, after which the character is never the same. If your short is about two things, it’s muddled.

3.24

The MRI scanning. If there had been a way to close the barn doors or black wrap on the light as you tilted it, so a slit of light passed across her face, it would have sold the MRI better. That’s what research is for. The beam of light you have is far too wide. Also, the MRI light is moving too quickly. Mistakes throw the viewer out of the story. Solve problems in preproduction. Tiny details matter. Get your heads of departments to do the research necessary to do their jobs well. Don’t ever think, “We’ll figure that out when we get to set. It’s sure to work just like I planned…”

3.27

More black!

When you do your next cut, a useful approach is to write out the story in one line outline form. In correct time order. Study that outline and see if the story is clear. Once the story is clear in correct time order, then and only then start moving pieces around. But, before you start jumping back-and-forth in time, the basic, underlying story must be crystal clear to the reader. Otherwise we will be confused. Once you confuse us, it’s extremely difficult to un-confuse us.

Here’s PULP FICTION in correct time order. Simple. Makes perfect sense. Once this story worked, Tarantino could reshuffle it and not lose us.

1.) Car/Hotel room. Wearing suits and black ties, Travolta and Jackson talk about Europe, 7:22 in the a.m., kill some drug dealers. Establish. that Marcellus is bad bad. Jackson is saved from being killed by a miracle.

2.) Car. Travolta kills his helper by mistake. 8:00 a.m. Mr. Wolf comes, cleans up the mess, change clothes, dispose of car.

3.) Travolta and Jackson eat at coffee shop. Discuss the recent miracle & Jackson’s retirement. Robbery by Tim Roth & Amanda Plummer. They leave. [opening & final scene in film]

4.) Bar. Marcellus tells Willis to take a dive. He agrees to. Travolta and Jackson show up in tee shirts. Travolta is told to take Marcellus’s wife out to dinner. Travolta irritated by Willis at bar.

5.) House. Travolta buys drugs from Eric Stoltz. Wearing raincoat, black suit and string tie. Shoots up.

6.) Night. Marcellus’s house/Jackrabbit Slim’s, etc. Travolta takes Marcellus’s Wife out to dinner. After dinner, she o.d.’s on heroin, he saves her at Eric Stoltz’s house, takes her home.

7.) [flashback: Young Butch (Bruce Willis) hears from his father’s friend about his father’s watch.]

8.) Boxing Arena. Willis kills the other boxer. Runs away, planning to collect on his bets. Marcellus sends Travolta & Jackson after Willis.

9.) Motel. Meet Willis’s girlfriend. Go to sleep.

10.) Next day: Willis discovers she didn’t pack the watch. Willis goes back for watch and kills Travolta.

11.) Willis runs over Marcellus. First time we’ve seen Marcellus’s face. Pawn shop scene. Willis chooses to save Marcellus’s life at pawn shop.

12.) Willis leaves town with his girlfriend on Zed’s chopper.

Again, a simple, straightforward story. It gets inventive in the rearranging, but remains 100% understandable.

Story confusion is like quicksand. Easy to fall in, hard to get out. Redoing your outline now will guide what you need in your reshoot and next cut.

This is a job for you and your editor. Who, hopefully is not you.

3.37

Maude has been lying in that ditch all night. Several hours, anyway. She got hit in the dark and now it’s light. To be unconscious that long takes one hell of a thump, yet she gets up and walks away with no apparent side effects from being hit by a car. Her being unconscious that long will be a serious problem. Ask a doctor. When you’re writing a script, you must do the requisite research. “Doctor, for her to stay unconscious for several hours, tell me about her getting hit by a car and its effect on her…”

Do we buy that, after it got light and the sun came up, heaps of cars drove by and no one stopped to investigate or call the police? As she did not get thrown into the woods, she’s 5 feet from the road, in clear view. What bunch-a-jerks neighborhood does she live in?

3.40

Great angle of her and the bicycle in the street.

Maude lives at home with her parents. If she did not come home at night, did Mom and Dad not worry? It seems like the parents would’ve asked Gina where Maude is and Gina would’ve said, “She went to a party at Sally’s house.” Why did no one come looking for her? Why did Gina not come looking for her?

Off screen events will happen and you need to be in control of them.

3.59

Nice angle of her walking away. Too spry, though, for having been hit by a car.

The night bicycle scene starts after the party with her riding down the street… if you cut from her on her bike at night at 2.54 to 4:05, you will shorten the film by 1.09. If you cut the dinner table scene, that’s 29 seconds, or 1.38 total. That’s 20% of your TRT. That’s a ton.

4.05

Maude fully dressed and soaking wet in the bathtub is a great shot. This is a terrific freeze frame for Vimeo. And, for a program for a film festival program.

Nice dolly in. It’s amazing how evocative a short push can be.

c. 4.12

The last frame of that shot, with her hands over her face may be a better freeze frame for Vimeo, as it may have more emotion than the opening shot. Also, the towel and toilet are not in it!

4.16, 17 are also good.

4.19

Maude in a hospital gown sitting with her back against a blank wall. I do not know where the scene is taking place. The blank wall tells me nothing. Is she in a mental institution? Is this the same location as the one with the blank wall at 00:30? I assume it is, but playing it at speed, there’s no way to be sure.

4.20

This seems to be the same information as the last shot in the bathtub. Why repeat?

4.40

She does a good job for you. Excellent acting.

4.48

Cutting her hair. I like the hair falling on her feet. That works.

4.49

The lower angle does not work. Adds nothing new. It is the same information as the hair falling on her feet. The story of the shot: she is cutting her hair. Don’t repeat. This is a show offy “Look at me, I’m a cool director” shot. The hair falling on the feet shot already sells the story. It’s late to be suddenly going to angles that seem to be from a different movie — unless it’s to tell us about a new mood.

In Episode 1 of THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, after she takes the green pill for the first time, they suddenly jump to an extreme low angle, looking straight up as she wobbles down the hall, disoriented. At no point in the episode had they used that angle, but it was all about mood shift as she’s on something. So, the low angle worked, and was additive.

4.54

Therapist’s office. Shooting from behind Maude’s bent arm and wrist feels like another, “Oh awesome, let’s do this nifty shot.” What does it add? Why would the camera be there? How does the odd angle add to the story?

It feels late for the therapist to enter the story. We’re more than halfway through and suddenly there’s a new character. Jarring.

The therapist’s line, “You cut your hair.” is obvious. Good dialogue will leapfrog over the obvious and get us to new information. That is what the rewrite process is for, cutting dialogue you don’t need or improving it so it is additive. Also, that is what the editing room is for.

She might say something like, “I like the short hair. How does it feel?” “Like riding in a Ferrari convertible.” Anything to move the story forward. Give the other character something to add to the sauce, not simply Q & A: “You cut your hair.” “Yes.”

Why are magazines on the windowsill? This does not feel like a therapist’s office. Make lists, get stuff. This production design is thin. If nothing else, there would be a clock on the table facing the therapist. She is well cast.

The audio here is unacceptable. I was unable to understand Maude’s line about her hair. The second time I listened to it, I understood. The audience can’t rewind. Because there is almost no dialogue in the film, all of it is crucial to our understanding of the story, but much of it is impossible to understand.

What is that massive room tone around the audio? How far away was the mic? Next time, look into hanging sound blankets from C-stands immediately off screen to cut down on ambient sound.

05.16

“Have you been keeping that audio diary I recommended.” That line of dialogue is for the audience, not for Maude. What would the therapist actually say to the character?

Go to yourscreenplaysucks.com and search for “No One Is Listening In To Your Characters’ Dialogue” Amazing how one moment from THE WIRE has had a massive trickle down effect for my clients.

05.23

Maude says, “What else is there to talk about besides… that I’m dying?” This is the first time I know she’s dying. True, Maude has had a lot of angst. Several strange things have happened. But this is the first time we know she is dying. Because you knew, you may have felt like we knew, but we didn’t know until now, which is very late.

Again, you have to be ruthless and unemotional when 1.) looking at your script: “Is this saying what I think (hope) it does?” Later, when you’re on set, be ruthless and unemotional when 2.) looking at your frame and shot: “Is this saying what I think (hope) it does?” Finally, be ruthless and unemotional when 3.) looking at your cut: “Is this saying what I think (hope) it does?”

If you open the movie with the “she’s dying” information, it will color everything happens after that moment, even if you change not one other frame. Try opening with the therapist scene. What does that do? You can always put it back where it is now. [See same “crappy two years” note at top of p. 13]

See the handout on yourscreenplaysucks.com: The Dye In The River Theory.

If it all possible, add more conflict to the therapist scene.

Storywise, the therapist hands her a Gift — “live your life to the best of your ability.” Maude does not fight, struggle, or do anything to figure out this information. It is just handed to her, free of charge. That weakens her character arc. See Unearned Gift handout on my website.

Can we see her working on her audio diary earlier? Most likely not, because you probably don’t have the footage. But as I am in reshoot mode, that would be my suggestion. Show her starting a diary entry, and then giving up on it in disgust. Or some other emotion… In this cut, at the top, you show a phone, but we do not understand “audio diary” from that shot. We only get: “Woman looks at her phone.” Probably not what you intended.

The audio diary is a great idea!

06.08

In V.O., the therapist tells her, “You may have cancer, Maude, but we both know you aren’t going to die.” Again, a gigantic revelation. Is this the right place in the story for it? I assumed she was going to die. Now I am told she’s not going to die.

If she’s not going to die, why is she acting like she’s going to die?

The therapist repeats information we have already seen, which should automatically tell the director, “This needs to be removed.” We see her cut her hair and the therapist tells us what we just saw. That must go.

When the therapist says, “You’ve been given a second chance,” what if Maude erupts in conflict, arguing with her? As is, Maude sits there quietly and listens.

Question: Did we see her get a second chance? Did it happen before FADE IN:? So, during the course of the film, does anyone think she’s going to die?

Maude is monotone, withdrawn, and quiet for the entire film. She gives us the same note, over and over. When you reshoot, have some scenes where she is either a lot lower or a lot higher. As is, she is lethargic the entire time. She lacks passion. It’s hard to be interested in her.

I don’t understand if she is going to die or not. It sounds like she is, then it sounds like she isn’t. “The life you have left, I want you to start paying attention to it.” that sounds like she has six months to live. For certain. Then she says, “We both know you’re not going to die.” So, I am hella confused.

Is she going to die or is she not going to die? This is a deadly question for the audience to be asking, as I assume you know the answer to the question, but we don’t.

06.17

Her mother left pancakes on a plate by Maude’s bed. Does Maude have a history in this story (or before this story) with breakfast or pancakes and her mother’s love? What did the pancakes mean? Can they mean something?

Low end production design: pancakes. No syrup. No melting pat of butter. No napkin. No glass of milk. No sliced strawberries. No powdered sugar. You run the risk of the pancakes looking like an uncaring mother made them for her child.

Plus, in this family do they eat pancakes with their hands? Why no knife and fork? Maude can choose to eat it with her hands, but it seems Mom would have left a knife and fork and napkin.

Generally, don’t convey story with a handwritten note when you could do it with a person. Mom could hand her the pancakes and say “Good luck at your second treatment this afternoon.” Or something less on the nose. But, the note may work fine.

After repeated viewing, I understand that, at the dishwashing scene, Mom asked about the treatment. Maude didn’t want to talk about the treatment. Now she gets a note about the second treatment and she has the second treatment. I don’t know how she feels about the second treatment.

Before you reshoot, the “cancer treatment story” needs to be outlined clearly, step-by-step… Including off screen action. Things that happen off screen that affect on screen events need to be included in that outline, so you will not leave anything out. What happens off screen matters. Even if we never see those events, we will feel their effect. You need to be in control of that effect.

06.35

Low end production design: cancer treatment room. That chair looks suspiciously like the chair in the therapist’s office.

Speaking of chairs, check out Tony Zhou’s amazing Every Frame A Painting visual essay: “In Praise of Chairs” on Vimeo.

A powerfully instructive essay on production design. Take what he says about chairs and apply it to all things production design.

Read: Designing Movies by Richard Sylbert. And If It’s Purple Someone’s Gonna Die by Patti Bellatoni. Learn more.

A thermostat on a wall does not say, “Hospital.” A hospital says, “Hospital.” Again, beginning filmmaker production design destroys the reality of your story.

And you’re not allowed to say, “Gosh, it was really hard to get a room in a real hospital.” That only means you did not try hard enough. Or start early enough. Casting a location is equally as important as casting an actor. There is either the right location or the wrong location. It’s binary. You either see enough actors to cast the right one, or you didn’t see enough actors. To cast the young girl in BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, they auditioned 4,000 actresses. When the right one walked in, they knew instantly. Those filmmakers’ careers were made because of that search for the Right One.

Location is a character. Treat it as such.

In the working world, failure is not an option. If you don’t come up with the correct 19th century narcotics syringe by the deadline, the person they hire to replace you will.

06.36

Someone at the hospital does something with Maude’s shirt and a plastic tube. I have no idea what happened. It does not look “medical.” I assume this is the treatment, but it was not clear.

06.44

The leaning back on the chair cut could be improved. A few frames this way or that would make the cut smoother.

06.45

ECU of IV drip and her face in b.g. I love this shot. This says, “treatment.” This may be your Vimeo freeze frame. A compelling composition. Much better than the 4.05, as that says, “misery” but says “medical” and “talented filmmaker” in the same shot.

Have you seen BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR? Interestingly filmed, mostly in close up, with almost no medium or wide shots. It works. If you want to sell “cancer treatment” and have no money, the close-up of the dripping medicine does it nicely. That’s all you need. I like the hat.

You could have an extended take of the IV drip in ECU and Maude in b.g., and nothing else in that scene. That tells the story, and we would buy the production design.

06.55

What is her journey? It feels like she’s learning to accept the fact that she is getting treatment.

Most of the film is Maude alone. No conflict with other people. No human opponent. No opponent at all, actually. It’s her versus an unseen opponent, cancer. But with an unseen opponent, there’s so little opportunity for conflict. Lack of conflict limits your chances for an emotional reaction from the audience.

To repeat: Maude is at the same emotional note or same low level of tension throughout the entire film, at least up until now. She never gets angry. She never gets sad. She’s just depressed, all the time. This is a hallmark of beginner films.

I’m depressed. You’re depressed. To one degree or another, all of us are depressed. But, a character who is depressed all the time with no ups or downs is a beginner film cliché and does not make for interesting drama.

07.06

Maude is sitting down to do her audio diary. The entire film has led to this moment. Unfortunately, we do not hear what she has to say or what she’s thinking, and so we are not affected by this scene.

She is recording her audio diary and we hear only hear Debussy. If we do not hear what she’s saying, we learn nothing about her journey. The music gives no story. It enhances mood, but moves no story information across the room.

The writer/director is 100% in control of what goes on the page and on the screen, but they are in 0% control of the audience’s reaction to that material. The audience will react to what they see and hear however the material tells them to, not what the writer/director supposes they might feel.

You must be careful to make certain we feel exactly what you want us to.

07.16

She is now crying and I do not know what triggered it. Something did, but it was not shown to me.

Something massive has happened to trigger this crying jag. But, I have no idea what it was.

07.25

The music is too loud in the mix. The scene is all about the music, not her dialogue. What little dialogue there is, is obscured by the music. The level at which the music is mixed overwhelms the scene. This is an easy fix when you do your final mix.

Whatever that dialogue was, I missed it. It’s the last line of the movie and I did not understand it. I played it three times, and still don’t know. That’s why someone invented ADR.

When you reshoot (or make your next film) and you have a sound-unfriendly location, consider getting wild dialogue immediately after the scene wraps — in a quiet room nearby or a quiet park, quickly, while the actors are still in the moment. Amazingly useful.

I like the idea that she gets to a point where she can cry and vent her pain. Because she only says, “It’s all…”, I have no idea where she is at the end of the movie. What step in her journey did I just see when she is crying on the bed, talking into her audio diary? “It’s all…” is one step too cryptic. I wondered what she said and what it meant. Then the movie is over.

07.38

Clair de Lune is so recognizable that it will bring out emotions in the viewer that you have no control over. I happen to associate it with a piece my son did for NPR. In distant background, Clair de Lune was playing and when I hear that music I am forever tied to his story. Including while watching your credits. When you chose your music, you couldn’t have known I would not be able to disassociate myself from that memory. Try to use a piece of music that is unfamiliar, so the music suggests the emotion you intend, as opposed to an emotion or memory you did not intend.

***

Let’s set up a time to talk. Especially what you’re planning for reshoots. We can discuss SEEMS YOU’RE THE SAME and anything filmmaking!

Use the notes you agree with. Discard the rest. Good luck with your reshoot and upcoming post. Next time you make a movie, use these notes to improve that script, preproduction, your shoot, and post.

*Ken Robinson.

I dedicated both my books to him.