Right vs. Wrong (Re: Writing & Screenwriting)

"Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."

- Neil Gaiman (via Brainpickings).

Read Neil Gaiman's Full 8 Tips on Writing here.

Movie Cliches 101: Plagiarizing Yourself

If there are only six good stories -- or is it twelve? twenty-three? forty-two? -- how many good lines are there?  Clearly Aaron Sorkin thinks there is a limited supply.  Write something good once, might as well write it again, right?  

It's been out and around for awhile but I still find "Sorkinisms -- A Supercut" kind of remarkable.  


Does The World Need Another Decent Movie?

By Julien Favre With the world economy on the brink, the current environment has rarely been so tough for independent filmmakers. To get our films made and, even more so, to see them sold and/or distributed, is getting incredibly challenging. Foreign sales estimates for low budget independent films are a tenth of what they used to be pre-2008, and let's not be fooled by the numbers. We will be happy if we sell at all, even for symbolic numbers. From a filmmaker's perspective, we have entered a dichotomous world: a shrinking pool of independent films do well; most don't make any significant business. It is now as if there is only room for one indie hit per year. If you are not that film that everybody wants, you barely exist and your business footprint will be close to zero.

Now, you can look at this situation in two different ways. One way is to adjust to the market and give it what it wants, or can economically bare. This means making genre films that still have somewhat of a market and will recoup as long as they are technically sound and are made for the right price. You can also continue to make "art house" films (for lack of a better word) as long as you don't spend more than $80,000 making them, since this is what you can realistically hope to net from world wide sales if the film turns out okay and has a decent festival run.

But the other way to look at these dire market conditions is to ask ourselves: does the world really need another decent film? The elephant in the room is that most films are bad or average. Back when the economy was strong and there was a theatrical and DVD market for indie films, decent films used to do well enough to justify the venture from a business standpoint, but not anymore.

Even if no filmmaker or producer sets out to make yet another average film, we would be lying to ourselves if we were claiming that we never went in production on a film knowing full well that the script needed another pass, or praying that an average director would turn a good script into a great film, or that we would be able to cut around bad performance.

But the reality is that there is no room for average films anymore. There isn't even much room for good movies unless they are backed by heavyweight distributors. We can lament about how unfair, how scandalous it is that our labour-of-love films don't sell and nobody sees themt. Or we can accept the reality of the market and raise the bar of what we produce.

A month or so ago, someone asked me WHY i was a producer. I am so used to people asking me WHAT a producer is, but I was taken aback by this very simple question, and I didn't know what to say. Producing is so much part of me that I cannot contemplate doing anything else, but that doesn't answer the question.

But I realized after the fact that the WHY question is fundamental, and even more so considering the difficulties the indie film world is facing today. Since we are certainly not doing it for the money (and in most cases unfortunately not even for our investors' money), then why are we doing it? Not for the hours, obviously. Producing is not the healthiest or stress-free occupation. And from a human standpoint, it is rarely satisfying either. As a function of what we do, we are at the receiving end of all grievances and rarely get any recognition when things do go well because, you know, all is normal then…

So why are we doing it?

Because there is nothing like the experience of watching an amazing film and being devastated, blown away, changed by it. For me, it started with Akira Kurosawa's Ran. I remember being unable to speak for the rest of the day, and trying to find a way to merge with that world, keep it alive in my head, escape in it.

So deep down, this is what has been driving me: I want to hurt the audience with beauty, emotionally wreck the viewers by exposing them to true art. This is the WHY. This is why I want to make movies. But I guess this is very easy to lose sight of this as we struggle with the reality of the business, and making a living, and deal with the pressure of "producing something" to justify being a producer.

In an oft-quoted letter to his friend Oskar Pollak, Franz Kafka wrote: "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? ...we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us."

Of course, creating truly great art is incredibly difficult, and depends on so many factors, most of them beyond our control as producers. It is likely beyond most producers' or filmmakers' ability actually. There are plenty of competent people, but true talent is scarce. And even with the best intentions, the highest artistic integrity, there is never any guarantee of success.

But our responsibility, more than ever, is to try, to be intransigeant with content, to look at our slate with a cold heart and ask ourselves: does this movie really need to be made? And why? Would I honestly go see it if I wasn't the producer? It is so hard to get something made that making something, anything, seems like an achievement in itself. But it is not good enough, not anymore.

And in answering these questions, let's be honest. If what we read is not truly great, not really original, not inspired, if the demo-reel we are watching is average, if the ending doesn't quite work, let's keep working, let's keep writing, let's keep looking for the right creative partners and the right elements.

So rather than lament the lack of opportunities, our response as producers to these dire times should be to try and make better films, make great films, not just good ones. Films that will get seen, and distributed, regardless of the market conditions, the weather, venus' transit or what other movie is being released that week.

There is no room for good anymore, but simply making good movies is not why we got into this anyways, so maybe this is our opportunity to become who we always wanted to be, and do what we always aspired to: make films that break the frozen sea inside.

Julien Favre is a producer at DViant Films, an independent film company based in Los Angeles and Toronto. The company's latest release, Martin Donovan's Collaborator, opens at the Egyptian in Los Angeles this Friday.

COLLABORATOR opens theatrically in Los Angeles tomorrow (Friday, July 20th) for a limited one week run.  Screening times here.

As of this writing COLLABORATOR is 82% "Fresh" at Rotten Tomatoes.

How To Watch Collaborator:

10+ Things To Think About If You Want To Make Better Films

I watch a lot of films. I think I watch about 250 a year. I also watch a lot of films that never come out, that most audiences never get access to. I learn a great deal from the "noble failures", the films that have ambition but just miss the mark fully in execution. I honestly like these films and find pleasure in watching them, but I also know that most people like their entertainment and culture to be in a more perfectly realized state -- even if most of us don't have the resources to bring our work to that state. I think most people's taste is shaped by their training; we learn to like what we get -- unfortunately.

Yet I also think there are some things that always connect and strike a chord with the audience.  These universal pleasures are not story tricks or character traits per se, but  themes we discover in the stories that move us most,  concepts that help people relate and engage with the work we watch.  Yet, since it is summer, the movies that come to most of us are designed to separate us from our wallets; the movies of summer are supposed to be what most people want.  I go to check them out with the rest of the hordes, and I walk away with less than I entered with.  I am not just talking about the loss of money and time either, I have lost some of my spirit.  The filmmakers and the financiers, the huge team of collaborators responsible for getting the work in front of people, all seem to forget some of the good stuff.  Shouldn't we all be asking ourselves what really matters?  I think the answers still can be very entertaining.

Years ago, I had a sit-down with the filmmaker Michael Moore.  I confessed to him that I had formerly been a community organizer and felt a bit foolish sometimes having devoted my life subsequently to getting films made and seen.  I wanted to return to politics and bring about some change.  Michael stared at me a bit confused.  The room was silent for a minute before it reminded me that all my films were political:  that by giving characters respect and depth, by allowing the audience the room to make up their own mind, by demonstrating a commitment to quality and art -- verses just profit and dreck -- I was doing something very political.

I do try to think about the world, about the power of my labor and what I can add to the world.  I ask myself: "what is needed?" Sometimes these themes infect my stories and projects.  Sometimes they effect my polices and methods.  Sometimes they shape my commitments and relationships.  I think they make my films better.  I think they could make your life better too.  I think if we let them into our lives and art and business, we will build a better world together.  At least I am willing to hope that they all will.  And give my life, labor, and love to the effort to prove they might.

What am I talking about?  I am not really sure honestly, but I am happy to give a try to articulating it further.  My list's not in an order, and I am sure to miss some very important things.  I will fail.  I will get it wrong. But isn't that what a conversation is all about: a group endeavor to unearth something greater?

  1. Empathy - Making movies is a privilege.  Our path and those of others could have easily gone a different way with a little bit of influence, good or bad.  There will always be so many good movies yet to be made because all characters can be related to.  Until you can walk in another's shoes, you are not ready to begin the journey.
  2. Justice -Bryan Stevenson's Ted Talk speaks well of the connection we feel when we see and combat injustice in the world.  What could ever be a greater good?
  3. Change/Growth - It is so easy to get stuck in a rut.  It is so easy not to see the forest for the trees.  It is hard to keep a perspective on things.  We can't stand still.  I don't think we can do it alone.  We need to check to make sure we are always moving forward, and are loved ones are doing the same.
  4. Emotional Truth - People forget how to live.  We model ourselves on the world around us.  The surface of things takes precedence over the depth if don't commit to digging deeper. Simple is not what we are.  Go further. Creation requires an acceptance of responsibility for and with what is delivered.
  5. Identity - Who are we?  Who are they?  Why are we unique? Why are we the same?  What's not to celebrate?
  6. Specificity - There is a universal aspect to the culturally specific.   There is freedom in the commitment.  Freedom requires responsibility.  Limits expand horizons.  Make a commitment and embrace it.  Generalities, including this one, are all lies.
  7. Compassion - It is not easy.  It is not fair. No one has earned it.  We make mistakes.  The nature of human kind is to fail.  So get over it and let your heart lead your mind and body.  We can all relate.
  8. Generosity - It is not a zero sum game.  There is more than enough for everybody.  Getting yours does not means they can have more or get their first.  If we reach out and provide, everyone accelerates.  Nothing else feels better than giving it away.
  9. Curiosity - Does it need to be this way?  Could it be done another way?  Why them? Why then?  What lies beneath?
  10. Ambition - We all need something to aspire to and that is the role of art.  We show ourselves and everyone else what we could be.  If we refuse to settle, we lift everyone up with us.
  11. There is no end.  No list will be finished. No film truly completed.  It's an ongoing story with many authors, collaborators,  participants, and proselytizers.  We are mayflies on the windshield of history.  Evolution is the way of everything.

If You Don't Like Your Job, Quit

The Holstee Manifesto:

This is your life. Do what you love, and do it often. If you don’t like something, change it. If you don’t like your job, quit. (continued)

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Hat Tip BrainPickings.org again

AO Scott & NYTimes LOVES "Dark Horse"!

Wow. When you love cinema and know how privileged you are to spend your life and labor creating work you love, how can you not give your all to your films? Even still, when you've worked hard, compromised your fees, dealt with errors and mistakes, problem people and people problems, you don't always know it was worth it. Nothing tells you that it was like a good review in your hometown paper, particularly when your home is New York City. I am thrilled with the love that has been bestowed upon our film DARK HORSE. We open today, at The Angelika in NYC. One screen. Hopefully we will play for months. Hopefully this review will fill the seats. Wow. Wow. Wow.

It's nice when something you've worked years on, sacrificed a chunk of your fee on, that you've chosen to distribute, goes off and gets one of BEST REVIEWS EVER from AO Scott & the NY F'n Times!


"Mr. Solondz brilliantly — triumphantly — turns this impression on its head, transforming what might have been an exercise in easy satirical cruelty into a tremendously moving argument for the necessity of compassion."

The Entertainment Economy Is Completely Different Than It Was

Make no mistake: The Entertainment Economy can no longer be predicated on scarcity or control -- as it has been for the last 110 years.  We need to rebuild it around concept of super-abundance & access.

"YouTubers Upload 72 Hours of Video Every Minute"  That's up from 48 hours a year ago.  At what age do we reach Saturation Point?  I already have: I have identified every film I would like to see -- if I am able to maintain my maximum rate of consumption -- to carry me 5 years past my life expectancy.  The very nature of technology indicates that in less than ten years, a twenty year old cinephile will have done the same.  I expect that to happen much sooner though.  Audiences will have no "need" for the new.  We have so many cute animals and children doing silly things after all.  Who really needs an ambitious and relevant cinema?  So why do anything to preserve it (let alone advance it)?  Let's just bury our heads and try to hold onto what is left of our jobs.  Right?

I am glad there are those that know otherwise.

Francis Ford Coppola Is Here To Teach Us All

FilmSchoolRejects tipped me to this great interview The99percent did with Francis Ford Coppola.  As we started out with Good Machine, only two established players ever reached out to us, David Picker and Francis.  His generosity of spirit and love of cinema is evident in this piece.  The entire interview is a treat and a wealth of knowledge and good advice.  Among it:

When you make a movie, always try to discover what the theme of the movie is in one or two words. Every time I made a film, I always knew what I thought the theme was, the core, in one word. In “The Godfather,” it was succession. In “The Conversation,” it was privacy. In “Apocalypse,” it was morality.

The reason it’s important to have this is because most of the time what a director really does is make decisions. All day long: Do you want it to be long hair or short hair? Do you want a dress or pants? Do you want a beard or no beard? There are many times when you don’t know the answer. Knowing what the theme is always helps you.

Free Directing Masterclass (With All The Best)

The LA Times has been offering a great series of videos in the form of a roundtable with Ethan Cohen, Lisa Cholodenko, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Ben Affleck, and Tom Hooper.  Watch all the episodes and you should be ready to pick up your Oscar.

A Good Way To Prepare For The New Year

Listverse has another great list that I think is incredibly useful.  What better way to end this year than to decide how you would respond to Agonizing Moral Dilemmas?

I personally feel that deciding on the answers will lead to better films, even a better world.  But at the very least, it will give you some conversation fodder for the evening.  Although do be careful: if people disagrees on a particularly issue, you may never see them in the same light again -- even if it is now the true light that shines upon them now!

Check out the list here, and the original one here.

Finding Inspiration In The Lives Of Others

Today's guest post is from filmmaker Peter Sillen.  His documentary bio-portraits will be screening this week in NYC at the IFC.

The kind of inspiration that makes you want to go out and make a film about someone is tough to pin down. It’s definitely not something you can plan. It’s funny that both Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt and I Am Secretly An Important Man were essentially inspired by albums. In the case of Speed Racer, it was Vic’s, “Little”. For I Am Secretly An Important Man, it was Jesse Bernstein’s record, “Prison.” Arthur Aubrey's photo on the cover of the Prison CD got my attention. Steve Fisk's production and sound design was a perfect fit for Jesse's raspy voice. Many things came together on that record but it was Jesse's writing that grabbed me most. 20 years later both albums hold up as well as they did the first time I listened to them.
Both of these films began with a letter. With Vic I got pretty lucky with timing. He was about to go into the studio to record his second album “West of Rome”. I basically used those sessions as a way to enter his everyday life. He was this incredible force just oozing with creativity. Every time we’d turn on the camera it just kept getting better and better. We were all pretty young and figuring out what we were doing. The film is sort of a time capsule of that moment.
The film on Jesse started the same way, with a letter to Leslie Fried, Jesse’s widow. She was open to the idea of a film. The only problem was I didn’t have Jesse to film (he died the year before, just shy of his 41st birthday).  I Am Secretly An Important Man, is a film that has seen many starts and stops over the 17 years it has taken to make. The long process informed the film a great deal. There are subtle themes that I never could have picked up on when I was 26. Although, I never imagined it would take so long to make, the older I got, the more I became in tune with Jesse and his struggles.
For most documentary filmmakers, I think the idea that everything is constantly changing plays heavy on their work. It certainly does for me. I see a person or a place that somehow to me represents this moment in time were everything comes together  (usually against the odds).  They’re really the ones that are documenting their experience. I’m just inspired by the work or the situation to try to help capture that moment for others to experience, because as Vic put it, “they’re fleeting moments and they don’t last forever”.

tuesday night link:
i am secretly an important man in NYC link:
Peter's  website:

Peter Sillen is a New York based documentary filmmaker. Working mainly in 16mm film, Sillen creates portraits of an array of individuals who live and work outside the stereotypical 9 to 5 environments. With a low-tech approach to documentary film and sensitivity to his subjects and their environment Sillen’s work gives an unobstructed view into the lives of a number of uniquely talented artists and trade workers.

SUPER's Rainn Wilson Gets Philosophical (Again)

Rainn gives back in a big way. I am a bit in awe in how generative and generous this man is. There's a reason why he has over 2 million twitter followers and it's not just because he's really funny. He cares about things. He cares about people. He cares about process. He's thoughtful. And he's one of the folks I am thankful for getting to know in this past year.

BTW, if you haven't encountered Brainpickings.org yet, stop delaying. It is where I found this vid and it is one of the best curated sites out there. Give yourself a gift for being so damn good this year and subscribe to their free weekly newsletter. It will make your new year even better.

How To Spot Problems Early: It All Begins In Development

For an indie producer, to engage -- and remain for any serious length of time -- in development of a project is a testament of belief in the project.  The producer works with no promise that the film will ever happen, and generally speaking will have nothing to show of their efforts unless the film actually gets made.  If  the film isn't made, the producer can't use the script to get them future work.  If the film doesn't get made, the producer's reputation suffers -- even if they have improved the project with their involvement. Nonetheless, I find the development process invaluable for a number of reasons.  One of the strongest benefits of development is that it reveals who you are truly collaborating with.  Have you ever worked with a writer and director team and they think the script is perfect and you know it needs work -- and probably a lot of it? How do they respond to your notes? Do they recognize they can take the script further, or do they think you are just pushing them for pushing's sake? Do they think each new draft is perfect until you point out otherwise?  Arguments are healthy, if they are used to bring things closer to the truth, and not just so that someone can feel they've won.

When supposed collaborators don't want notes, when they just want to go out with the script, or get angry that you have questions, or are confused, these are all good indications that you just are not going to get there.  These are good indications that you are not working with people who want to make the best movie, but people who just want to be right.  These are people who are telling you that they are not good collaborators.  These people are using development to let you know that everything that comes next is not going to be an enjoyable process.  They are asking you to evaluate your choice.

32 Qualities Of Better Film

I am thankful for anytime I find more than one of these in the same film.  This list originally ran on HammerToNail, a site I helped found, and one that continues to champion those movies that offer up these elements.  First the list, and then the description.  I would love to hear your comments, too. 1. Ambition

2. Originality

3. Innovation

4. Integrity To The Concept

5. Discipline

6. Truthfulness

7. Joy Of Doing

8. Singularity

9. Communication Of Themes

10. Clarity of Intent

11. Synthesis of Style & Themes

12. Application Of Techniques

13. Reality Of Actors

14. Pleasure

15. A Good Story Well Told

16. Accomplishment Within The Means

17. Awareness & Appreciation Of The World

18. Acknowledgement Of The Limits Of Feature Film Form

19. Consideration Of Effects Of Representation

20. Recognition Of Film History

21. Subversive To The Status Quo

22. Provocation Of The Audience

23. Respect For The Audience

24. Confidence In The Filmmaking

25. Restraint

26. Awareness Or Avoidance Of Pretension

27. Access To The Subconscious

28. Differentiation Among Characters & Environments

29. Leaving Some Things Unexplained

30. Emotional Use Of Technique

31. Depth Of Character / Depth of Characters

32. Impassioned Point Of View


In terms of the filmmakers who create them, some films are challenges; some are proofs. In the Challenges, the filmmaker is hoping to discover things, hoping to learn things in the process. In a Proof Film, the filmmaker is showing the audience what she or he knows. With a Challenge, the audience is aligned with the movie, trying to discern whether the filmmaker will meet the challenge; whereas with a Proof, the audience is dictated to, watching something unfold according to a recognizable formula. A Challenge is involving, whereas a Proof is a passive experience for the audience. Ambition is to go to places you have never gone before with the hope that you will discover something positive in the process – a challenge and not a proof.

There are so many films that have already been made, and made again, and then made yet again. Many films of the past had the opportunity to get there first – to be the first to portray a particular type of character, explore a genre or a style, to tell a story in a particular way. The ambitious filmmaker will never be content to walk in others ‘first steps. It is not enough to simply provide an update. Repeats are just an attempt to provide more products for current tastes, driven by profit, not ambition.

There is always more that can be done — more nuance provided, a different perspective offered. With ambition, one asks how a situation can be read differently, more fully. Ambition embraces the edict to “make strange”, to unlock the oddness in normality. Ambition exposes the wonder in the every day, forbids us to take our situation for granted.

Ambitious film goes beyond the engineering that a Proof is. Emotions and tensions are easily manipulated by an engineered film. It is a challenge to create work that is both surprising and inevitable. With an ambitious film, one that is successful, we are pulled through the unknown only to recognize – to know again – what we inherently know. An ambitious work will make us both know and recognize. An engineered film just reconfirms an unquestioned position.

Ambitious film will do more than just give the audience what it wants. To simply provide is all but to pander. Ambitious film takes us into new ground where we question our place and ourselves.

A great film should be more than proof of what the filmmaker knows. Did the filmmaker reach higher than themselves and then place himself or herself where no planning could guarantee success? This challenge could have been a logistical one or one based on editing or scale of the idea or anything that makes them work without a net – but a challenge, not a proof, a challenge to go where the solution and the result is not yet known.


So many films that are made feel like remakes of other films already out there – and I am not talking about the films that are actually intended to be remakes. Some people might find it comforting to recognize characters, situations, plots, or behavior, but unless it also reveals some new aspect about life, culture, or craft, I find it dullDullDULL. There is a pretty high bar established by the great film artists that show how it is done. You’d think it would shame others to just regurgitate what has already been done, particularly when there is such great original work to consider – but so many filmmakers keep on traveling down well beaten paths. Some of the over-explored themes and techniques can be chalked up to filmmaker ignorance, but that is still not a legitimate excuse. Why would one want to repeat what has already been done?

I am always taken by the filmmaker, who in pursuit of originality is willing to fail, by the filmmaker who risks elegance or perfection in service to taking the audience somewhere new.

There are many directions in which originality may be manifest, but the most common are:

1) Character: Show us someone we haven’t seen before, whether in occupation, attitude, psychology, or behavior; or at the very least, show it in a more complete or nuanced or complex manner;

2) Setting: Show us a part of the world we’ve never been to, a work force that is not normally explored;

3) Narrative Structure or Approach: why tell it linearly? Can we learn something more from a different approach? Does it need to have singular protagonist?

4) Aesthetic: Through the camera work, editing style, or design, certainly there is a way to make it fresh;

5) Subject matter: even when choosing to work within a specific genre, there is so much that still hasn’t been shown. Is the film fully reliant on the dictates of its genre, or is it aiming for new ground? Has this story ever been told before?

6) Inspirations & references: Is the film free of presenting its inspirations on its surface (although, alternatively that could also be its point)?

A filmmaker in pursuit of originality seeks to avoid any reliance on cliché. Culturally we have developed a shorthand so that we can get to a story much quicker or gain access to a complicated emotion.


Innovation, as opposed to originality – which is about content and form, is generally about application of technique. Ang Lee’s THE HULK was innovative in terms of how it found a multi-screen presentation representative of cartoon panels, but the story by the time it made it to the screen, certainly wasn’t original. Tom Twyker’s RUN LOLA RUN was both innovative and original; its fast forward approach to examining secondary characters’ lives was innovative and its approach to a thriller genre tale was original.

Innovation can also extend beyond the experience of watching the film itself. The experience of a film is not relegated exclusively to the time the audience is in the theater or watching the disc. Filmmakers have been making real strides lately extending that experience via preceding or other carefully placed shorts. These can be “additional value” on a disc, or be found on the Internet and extend the audience’s understanding of the film’s universe. Virtual worlds can be created via websites and other materials. Even how a film is presented in a theater is up for grabs, with various artists providing live scores and other forms of expansive entertainment.

Similarly, many film enthusiasts appreciate innovation on a technical level, be it in quality of image, projection, or sound, or in range or experience of the same. It is mistake to think that only the well financed have access to innovation; the flaunting of one’s limitations has often led to innovative work too. In fact the lower budget work can afford to take more risks and it is often this experimentation that leads the way.


Is the movie more important than attracting or “satisfying” the audience? Does the filmmaker avoid pandering to popular tastes? Are the choices made aligned with the content of the film? Providing pleasure does not require compromise of principal, yet this compromise is found in many works lacking true ambition.

There is something counter to ambition in being eager to please. Yet, maintaining integrity to the concept does not require abandoning satisfying pleasures. An ambitious filmmaker will place the film and it’s integrity above the simple pleasures – and this in turn may very well deliver a greater pleasure, albeit a more complex one. Integrity to the concept is the pursuit of a principal that places greater value on the whole than on the sum of its parts. When an individual momentary pleasure in the film is in violation to the film’s central concept, it breaks the relationship between the audience and the screen. It breaks the trust.

Where is this trust in the concept initially established? It generally comes down to what helps us develop expectations. The choice and adherence to a genre and its dictates has a great deal to do with it. Pacing and composition also helps to establish what we think may happen or not. We still can be surprised without sacrificing the film’s integrity; we just have to feel simultaneously that that surprise was derived from the rules that were established.


Discipline might well be a measure of the extent to which a film sticks to the rules it has established. Do all the techniques service the theme? Are the performance style, cinematography, editing, design, and music united behind a common voice, one that was selected via the content? Is the narrative told in accordance with the rules of pacing that it established, never staying with a shot or scene too long or not long enough? Are the aesthetic approaches utilized by the different departments working in unison for the intended effect?

Does all of the content further the story or the themes of the film? Unless self-indulgence is part of the concept, have all aspects of such self-indulgence been stripped away? Unless digression is part of the film’s concept or organizing structure, has the film avoided such digression?

Ultimately, to what degree is all of this done?

6. TRUTHFULNESS: Truth isn’t just about what is presented, it is also about what a filmmaker chooses to not present. To understand a world, you need a whole truth. To leave something out distorts, and a filmmaker has to take responsibility for that omission. When a film makes it look like “evil” is simply an individual choice, and not a symptom of something greater, that distortion grows in prominence with an audience. On a strictly formal level, that distortion distances an audience from the content because we recognize that what looks like a complete world is in fact something else.

A director may make the choice to foreground the performance of his or her actor, and not try to demonstrate naturalism. One could argue that perhaps this is the greater truth as it acknowledges that all we can ever film is someone being filmed, and generally aware of being filmed, but regardless it demonstrates the elusive quality of truth on film.

Yet truth in film is a bit like the court’s definition of pornography: we know it when we see it. Or perhaps we know that it isn’t when we see something other than truth on film. An overdressed set is something we recognize as not being truthful, just like an actor who seeks to convey their emotions in too overt a manner, or when an edit is used to hide time passage or display it with too heavy a hand.


Some films you can look at it and feel the pleasure the team took in making it – or rather think you feel that pleasure, because it may very well have been anything but fun getting that movie done (writing a bit from experience here).

Filmmaking is an investment of a great deal of time, labor, and money – and everyone knows this. Hopefully it is also an investment of a great deal of thought, research, and collaboration. Regardless, it is an unspoken bargain between the audience and the filmmakers that a film will produce more pleasures than what it took to make them. There is a quality inherent in certain films that acknowledge the privilege of making films and the pleasure that comes with getting to exercise that privilege. When a filmmaker is able to get this attitude up on the screen, it is as if the filmmaker is inviting the audience to a party. The early Godard films certainly have this, as do the films and videos of Michel Gondry – you know that both artists really like the ideas they are putting forth and that enthusiasm is contagious. Part of the fun actually comes from not taking the act of movie making so seriously. You could feel this in Richard Lester’s work for sure. Tarrantino’s films overflow with enthusiasm for every aspect he is putting on screen, from the actors to the music; every second feels like a kid in a candy shop.


Does the film feel like it came from a distinct point of view? Does it feel like it came during a specific point in time? If someone else had directed it, would it have suffered? Although personally speaking I find the “A Film By” credit a distortion, I do think the truly talented director puts their stamp on every aspect of the production, they become the filter through which every decision is made. When the director brings the passion for the project, dedicates the time needed to consider all decisions, has the knowledge of the subject, and a real appreciation for the depth of human emotion, one would think that their individual stamp would resonate all through out the film, but it takes something more: they need to have something to say – and it is not just the articulation for the film’s themes. Singularity of a work comes from a filmmaker’s ability, courage, and confidence to contribute their personality into their work, both consciously and subconsciously.


Film is a dialogue with the audience. To work on both an intellectually & emotionally engaging level, audiences need a communication of both ideas and emotions. Audiences appreciate walking away from a film having understood or recognized something about their lives and world better than before. A well-done communication of themes leaves audiences with a clarity at the film’s conclusion. When done well, an audience member can go back and look at how each scene and element helped the theme to not only be expressed, but also to evolve and impact us.

In short, do we get it? Beyond plot, what is the film about? Well-done communication of themes does not mean that a film has to have a message; a theme may just be a subject, like love or the family — but when done well, the audience can appreciate each element as part of a unified whole. Communication of themes allows the take-away from a film to be more than just passage of time or the witness to a story. Communication of themes allows the audience to be rewarded for surrendering their ninety minutes with a deeper appreciation of an idea, an emotion, a time, or a place.

10. CLARITY OF INTENT: I’ve watched so many films that I felt got made mainly because they could get made – a director wants to direct and actors want to act. When something gets done simply because they can, I am left awash in other people’s cynicism. I want to experience something because the creative team had something they felt it was urgent to express, that they were passionate to get out and communicate. Even still when they hit this level, they don’t always succeed in getting whatever it is they have to say across.

Does the audience walk away from the film feeling they understood what the director wanted to say in a full and deep way? To me, this is one of the key qualities to a film resonating with audiences and audiences not getting pissed off. Audiences rebel when they think a filmmaker hasn’t done their homework or taken the tale to its conclusion. If the audience struggles through a sequence unsure of where it is leading or a with a character whom they are not able to anticipate action or sympathize with, audiences appreciate learning why the filmmaker felt the audience needed to take this journey.

A filmmaker does not have to spell it out in its entirety but they also shouldn’t leave key elements within the realm of the unknown. An audience doesn’t require complete understanding of a character’s psychology, but they look for some framework as to why they are being shown and experiencing what is presented.


The alignment of form and content is a form of poetry unto itself. Does the technique reinforce the content or vice a versa? Although there is no right way to judge whether the two forces are aligned well, an audience knows it when it sees it. When there is a true synthesis of style with the content and themes, we know that we have seen a film well told. The attempt to unify these two different strands is itself a pleasure to witness, whether or not the filmmakers have actually achieved some form of synthesis.


Did the filmmaker consider all the tools and methods available to them and utilize them well? Did they inspire their team, and did their collaborators in turn inspire them? Are they thinking about the frame, the light, the way they move the camera, the influence of the design? Are such techniques breaking new ground? Do they demonstrate evidence that they know how such techniques were utilized in other films? Is the application of them aligned with the film’s other aspects?

13. REALITY OF ACTORS: NON-PERFORMANCE, NON-JUDGEMENT OF CHARACTERS: It’s a question of directing, and a question of non-directing, whether the actors are inhabiting their character or performing them. If an actor desires us to feel a certain way about their character, we don’t truly feel, but instead are being asked to judge. A lot of genre-based filmmaking seeks us to know a character immediately and thus actors are often asked to project and let us know whether the character is good or bad, noble or selfish, to be trusted or doubted. It is a whole other type of filmmaking when actors simply present the character and allow their ways and habits to be felt by an audience. It is an easy route to ask an audience to judge from the start; it is a challenge to admit how hard it is to ever know someone, even as truths emerge. A filmmaker demonstrates a respect for individuals, in all their aberrations, and a love for humanity in general, when they require the actors to never judge their characters and let their interior to emerge over time and in details.


What is the delight that we get to experience due to what the film presents to us?

Was the film enjoyable? Has the film taken us to a place that we enjoy? Was the time taken to watch the film worth the investment of the time? Whether they are heady or escapist, we want to have fun of some sort. Films are a unique art form and we delight when we witness filmmakers exploiting that the uniqueness. Sound and vision. Story telling and the passage of time. Passion and pratfalls. All these things that filmmakers can exploit, yet there are many films that seem to ignore them completely.


Is the audience “in” the movie from beginning to end? Do we drift out of the story unintentionally? Do we have to wait until an undo amount of time until we are taken into the story? How quickly do we develop any expectations? Do we accept the logic of the characters’ actions? All of these are questions pertaining to whether a story is well told.

Equally of importance is whether the story itself is what one might call a good story. Are we fascinated but what is portrayed on the screen? Does it move us emotionally? Excite us? But what really makes for a good story? Is it simply conflict or an intriguing character? Exotic locales, romance, adventure, laughs, and tears? It is a harder question to answer although people have tried for centuries. We do know it when we see it, just as we know as well when we have witnessed it’s opposite.


Some films are done in by their filmmakers trying to do too much. Sometimes the frame or sequences are over packed and the audience has too much to process. Sometimes their budget and aesthetic are not aligned and we recognize an unintended falseness to the design. Sometimes an audience can recognize a story or concept’s potential and see the distance from this and the actual execution. When I started out in low budget indie filmmaking, I would tell my directors that they could have a dog or a baby in a scene but never both of them; you have to make sure you can get one uncontrollable element right before you can start adding to it.

As much as some try to do too much, others don’t try to do enough. One doesn’t need a budget to capture emotion or beauty. One doesn’t need time to come up with a new idea.

There is poetry unto itself when one witnesses a filmmaker who not only recognizes their limitations but turns that into an asset. Science fiction is often though of as a genre that cannot be executed without ample funds, but PI, THE GIRL FROM MONDAY, PRIMER, and THE STICKY FINGERS OF TIME not only got by, but also had fun with their limits. I think the combined budgets of these four films are still under $500K!

17. AWARENESS & APPRECIATION OF THE WORLD: Reality is a nice thing. Film can do a remarkable trick sometimes and help us to discuss something about our world that we otherwise might find too difficult. Film can help us understand a situation that we might otherwise only witness superficially. Film represents reality like no other medium and as such can show us a fuller picture of places beyond our immediate experience. Film dates itself in the process of recording and again can not help but call attention to the here and now. A filmmaker concerned with things beyond just entertaining, recognizes this unique power of the medium, doesn’t give us an escape from reality, but a deeper understanding about it. In reacting to a film, sometimes it seems that the filmmaker actively sought to deny the world they live in; an ambitious work does just the opposite, and we the audience leave such a film with a greater awareness of our world.


A traditional feature, made to be watched linearly, and presented on a screen, will always be limited in what it can show or tell. Audiences have been trained to follow the protagonist and follow his or her path. Yet, every other character that we see on the screen might have an equally compelling tale that the filmmakers have chosen to ignore. Similarly our protagonist may experience many dull moments that don’t necessarily further the plot and have consciously been left out of the narrative. Yet, if the reality of these other, seemingly forgotten aspects of the whole picture are not some how acknowledged by filmmakers, audiences are aware that they are being manipulated to focus on a singular path and not choosing themselves what to witness and think about. It is a fine balancing act some filmmakers achieve by opening the presentation up to these “asides” in order to give the audience a fuller feeling of their free will and thus their chosen participation in the events unfolding before their eyes and ears.

19. CONSIDERATION OF EFFECTS OF REPRESENTATION: To a watch a movie is a real choice, even if a lot of the audience might have made it on impulse. As a choice, each choice the filmmaker demonstrates carries real weight. The choices are as much what is not shown as they are about what is shown. A movie that has one gender or race being the bad guys is not considering the effects of representation, and frankly neither is the film that delivers an unrealistic diversity of cast. Making movies is a huge responsibility and there is a definitive pleasure in witnessing a team that has embraced that responsibility to the fullest.


What are a film’s precedents, be it in subject matter or approach? When working on a similar terrain as other artists, a filmmaker is extending that dialogue. How do they acknowledge they are continuing this conversation, and then allow the audience to participate in it too? In this day and age of internet downloads and DVD delivery, it is hard to imagine that a filmmaker wouldn’t do the research and look to see how other people have attempted to solve similar problems or tell similar stories. Not everyone may subscribe to the notion that it is our responsibility to move the discussion forward, but to ignore the past is nothing but lazy.


It is too easy to just give the audience more of what they got last year. Who has the courage to lead us to somewhere new? How little does that actually happen and why is that? We see the world through a fixed paradigm and only the visionary can show us a true alternative. Quite often, a filmmaker will be diminishing their financial prospects, or at least the quick and easy route to them, if they don’t simply serve up more of yesterday’s dessert. It not only takes courage and ambition to subvert the status quo, but it requires real artistry in order to work with current audiences: you just don’t have to do it well, you have to do it so well that people both take notice and can engage in a new language. Frankly, I imagine that a lot of the best work that is done in this area goes unnoticed for some time because both critics, curators, and audiences are trained to see anything but today’s filter. In America, we have a particularly hard time at looking openly at anything that doesn’t reinforce today’s political paradigm other than perhaps when it is delivered by the frequently conservative viewpoint reinforcer of the dystopian post-apocalyptic aesthetic. Even still, it’s easier for American audiences to accept explosive content than it is to even consider radical form. We are spoon fed linear narratives with dominant protagonists one after the other. When will we be set free?

22. PROVACATION OF THE AUDIENCES: It may not be everyone’s idea of pleasure, but film has an uncanny ability to make us squirm in our seat. In a “seen it all” culture, the ability to illicit a squirm or a hand before the eyes, is a talent that should be rewarded.

Film can also kidnap an audience and make them complicit in some sort of previously unarticulated desire, albeit most often the trinity of sex, death, and violence.

Yet, film’s abilities do not need to be limited to the visual. The deep immersion in a world also makes us uniquely susceptible to new ideas and ways of thinking.

Film has the capacity to transform an audience, and an ambitious filmmaker hopes to finish the film with an audience that is no longer the same as when they entered the theater.

23. RESPECT FOR THE AUDIENCE: Film is a dialogue between the audience and the screen, and like an individual, film can talk down to its audience or ignore its audience’s needs. Respect is an equal relationship and in film it is reflected by the creative team indicating that they don’t think the audience is a bunch of fools or unwilling to work for a deeper and richer experience.

After 100 years of filmmaking, most audiences recognize that a handgun introduced in the first act will most likely go after in the third. Audiences know that an overt close-up at the end of a shot sequence means that the subject is important or will be important in an unexpected way. Filmmakers who don’t acknowledge our shared cinematic language demonstrate a lack of respect for an audience.

Since audiences generally have seen many films, to not show them something new, make them feel something new, or think of something in a new way, demonstrates a disrespect of the audience’s time and investment. Movies have to do more than just get made or made with high technical standards; they have to aspire to taking us somewhere not just new, but something that will provoke us beyond the commonplace conclusions of the concept.

Studios and financiers frequently ask filmmakers “who is the audience?” in regards to a project, and they never want to hear “everybody”. They expect to have a clearly defined group whom they know how to reach and communicate with, but even this demonstrates the beginning of a disconnect with the true nature of any community. Nobody likes to be defined as a specific demographic. One of the true joys of cinema is that it speaks to the expansiveness of the human spirit. Sure we have our favorite things, but generally what we initially respond to, are just a few of them initially – film can expose a greater part of ourselves, and filmmakers willing to do this, show the greatest respect for an audience. A movie does not have to be a singular tone. It does not have to fit firmly within the dictates of a specific genre. Great movies do not require that all the lead characters are people we “love” and “sympathize” for. We show audiences respect when we recognize that everyone likes to experience new things and recognize them as part of themselves.


Does the movie lead the audience forward and earn our trust? Today’s audiences ask the filmmaker to prove it to them that the director is a worthy leader; they sit in suspicion waiting for failure until the director does something that inspires confidence and erases doubt.

A filmmaker who is truly confident is also willing to fail; they don’t just prove what they know but are also willing to go out on a limb and try new things. A confident filmmaker knows that he or she does not need to show things in the same way that other filmmakers do; they treat the audience to new angles and sequences but are able to do it in a manner that does not feel like a show-off or pretentious.

When a filmmaker has confidence questions of tone and pacing are often placed on the wayside as the audience recognizes that these more nuanced aspects of filmmaking are fully understood.

25. RESTRAINT: Some many films feel like a recitation of just the high points. These movies live at a peak emotional level and there is no ebb and flow to them. The audience is not given any room to breathe. It is as if the filmmakers felt the audience had no imagination and that everyone is a sensation junky. As much as clarity is something to be praised, an ambitious filmmaker leaves room for an audience to make their way through a film. Whether it is the pleasure of getting to complete a thought on your own and not needing to have it spelled out for you, or the delight in the avoidance of the grandiose, holding things back can be equally as powerful as displaying other things.

26. AWARENESS OR AVOIDENCE OF PRETENSION: Film is an art form that invites the pretentious to participate. Up until very recently it was always conceived of being displayed on the largest of screens in front of large numbers of audiences. The scale of it alone gave it a pomposity that was hard to avoid. Recognition of this inherent phenomenon is the mark of an ambitious filmmaker, regardless of which direction they may chose to go in – but to try to hide it or avoid it demonstrates a lack of understanding of culture, time, and the medium. So many of the Hollywood prestige films try to deny that they think themselves important, but whether it is the moody lighting, the over wrought performances, or the burnished tones to the sets, we know what they want us to feel, even before we hear their score cue us. An alternative is to let it all hang out and let the audience know that you want to be thought of as Art from the get go. I adored Atom Egoyan’s early films for precisely this reason: every aspect of their design and presentation cued us that what we were watching was important and unique. The current trend of overt “naturalism” in independent cinema carries with it a form of pretension delivered by the filmmakers’ disavowal of any pretentious devises – its lack thereof becomes the very thing it runs from, but at least it is directly on the surface and acknowledged by the filmmakers from the start.

27. ACCESS TO THE SUBCONSCIOUS: As film combines so many diverse elements, it has a profound ability to access what lies beneath. We experience emotions and sensations in a way we do nowhere else. David Lynch is certainly the leader among contemporary filmmakers whom attempts to tell a different sort of story. Some filmmakers may chose to dwell on the surface or in other levels of meaning, but since the attempt to explore the subconscious is on everyone’s palate, it is surprising how rare a trait this actually is. You have to wonder why with such a powerful tool at their disposal more filmmakers to stake out this ground. Yet, when such access is achieved, I am always impressed, even when it preys upon that which I wish went undisturbed. Bunuel was such a master at this, for even in his straight narrative features, he would frequently hit below the depths of our daily existence and thus question the order of our world. How many films do that nowadays?

28. DIFFERENTATION AMONG CHARACTERS AND ENVIRONMENTS: Does everyone talk in the same voice with the same cadence and vernacular? They don’t in my world and they shouldn’t in any filmic world either. Does the filmmaker understand or look to exploit this difference, and if not, then, why not? Does the uniqueness of each character, set, and location say anything about the filmmakers’ outlook on the world in general? If a filmmaker hasn’t thought though all of these things, have they truly done their job?

29. LEAVING SOMETHINGS UNEXPLAINED: When did American movies start trying to clarify absolutely everything? What is our national obsession with trying to provide a psychological explanation for all characters’ behavior? If you ask me, I think we have gone overboard. Way overboard. Time to leave that practice behind.

It’s refreshing to see a few films recently start to abandon this practice. Miyazaki’s PONYO did not try to explain the magic (at least in the version released Stateside). Neil Blomkamp’s DISTRICT 9 did not try to explain why the aliens landed here or how people learned their language.

It is fun for the viewer to come up with their own explanations, to discuss these possibilities with their friends. We certainly don’t know everything about our world and leaving some gaps in the narrative feels truer as a result.

David Bordwell touched upon the need for spaces in his great essay “Now Leaving From Platform 1” where he explores the hopes of expanding the narrative (and yes, okay, I am referenced therein). Our storytellers really need to take it to heart. It’s curious that both of these examples come from abroad.

You can even see Bronkamp employing this strategy in the short film that launched his feature: “ALIVE IN JOBERG”.

Neil Blomkamp\’s \”Alive In Joberg\”

30. EMOTIONAL USE OF TECHNIQUE: There is an emotional quality inherent in camera placement and lens choice. There is a similar effect with color palate and fabric texture. I don’t think anyone would argue that editing style and pacing also qualifies for this honor. As certainly does camera movement. Yet, for all of this, I rarely hear filmmakers remark about it.

When we first started working with Ang Lee, I remember that one of James Schamus’, my business partner at the time, first observations of Ang’s unique talents, was that he had an uncanny understanding of the emotional impact of camera placement.

We need to give our characters space to breathe, to live, to feel. We don’t always need to see their faces. We do need to see how they relate to their environment. We need to give our audiences time to put themselves in the shoes and minds of the characters. We need to use the tools we have to do this. I don’t think there is a science to this, but more of an instinct, and we know it when a filmmaker does this well, or more usually, ignores it altogether. Too many filmmakers allow the actors to do all the emoting, and that’s only half the picture.


I don’t like characters to be solely in service to the plot. To relegate characters to this secondary position, values actions over the people who take them. Audiences will not recognize these characters as real people if they feel everyone is there just to drive the story forward. Similarly, if all we learn of a character is what is needed to advance the plot, our imagination will never be free to roam. Films that provide audiences this freedom and openness are generally some of my favorites.

I am regularly impressed by how complex and diverse the people I encounter in real life are, but the opposite more than often holds true for those I find on the screen. Granted we can’t be expected to capture the nuance of any life in 90 minutes, but we can recognize that each life encompasses many worthy stories. A consideration of the depth of each life in a film is nothing short of respect for life in general. The same can be said for the range of characters we meet in a film: is everyone just there to service the plot? Here’s to those that have the courage to show that life is more than just story and how it plays out!

Even from the most practical view, filmmakers should want to give their characters depth and complexity, if only to engage the audience. A feature film is a relatively long-term commitment; audiences are interested in more things than just how a body moves from Point A to Point B. By enriching the character with fears and hopes, quirks and concerns, the desires that both drive or repel, a filmmaker will give the audience sufficient substance to hang onto, to actually want to anticipate what will happen, to wonder how they will react.

Frankly, cinema is not just about story.


Filmmaking should be a scary proposition for anyone who undertakes it. To project your feelings, your attitude, your hopes and your horrors up on a large screen to a big audience is very brave. Cinema is made to be a dialogue with an audience; recruiting an audience is part of the process. If it is not screened in front of crowds, I personally think it is something other than cinema. But what does it mean to get to screen your and your collaborator’s work in front of a crowd?

When filmmakers are given such a chance, only a few somehow choose to actually say something. If people assemble, I think they want to walk away with more than an escape from something. The audience wants to know what the filmmakers care about – this is one of the pleasures of viewing. When film comes with an awareness of the world or a hope for something more, it is taking on more and challenging an audience to come with it. This quality is there in my favorite films.