September 18, 2008

Really easy ways to not make a terrible movie

Friends, as a student at one of the nation's most prestigious film schools, I have seen the next generation of American filmmaking.

It is a fucking disaster.

In one of my classes yesterday, my fellow students lamented the inexplicable surge in popularity of zombie culture at our school, and by extension, zombie-themed movies. The oppressively tangible irony of the situation was that the complaining parties were completely guilty of abusing EVERY OTHER FILM STUDENT CLICHE EVER. They had all made movies with strippers, suicides, murderers, etc.

I deserve medals for the screenings I have sat through. There are no apparent storytelling skills, the lighting sources are obvious, the sound is bad, the acting is overly melodramatic, the themes are ludicrous. And there are lots of penises. Yes, penises. I'll get to that later.

I think part of the problem is that some of the professors are too lenient in what they allow. Some probably feel like they have no right to interfere with their students' visions, but allow me to butt in and say that if their visions are shit, they should be told that, and soon.

Filmmaking has rules. The rules aren't in place to be mean and arbitrary, but rather because they are time-tested strategies that are effective at communicating stories in a non-confusing manner. I am 100% okay with breaking the rules, but not because you didn't know them in the first place. For example, the 180-degree rule states that you should never orbit a full 180 degrees around a character in two consecutive shots, because it is spatially disorienting. In Spike Lee's fantastic film 25th Hour, he breaks this rule left and right. This is okay, though, because Lee studied the rule, employed it in other films, evaluated how it would work in this particular project, and consciously decided against it for artistic reasons. This is a far cry from a spatial mess that is a result of sloppy shooting.

The biggest problems I typically see, however, are thematic. What horrible traumas happened to all of these students as children that condemn them to make film after film of morbid, perverse tragedy? During a final screening of student films last year, I kept a running tally of on-screen suicides. I ran out of fingers to count on. The suicides are all the same, too: 1) shot of gun held against head 2) Black screen with gunshot sound 3) Shot of lifeless face in a pool of blood. For the love of God, if you somehow must involve a suicide, do something DIFFERENT.

There are also virtually no comedies. Everyone has this Really Intense Story that they simply need to share with the world. The few comedies that get made, however, are not funny. One film sticks out in my memory about an old-school actor accustomed to performing in blackface, who naturally cannot find work anymore. This had a slight potential to be funny with competent execution, but as it was it just made the audience uncomfortable.

Sometimes I wonder what I would be like as a film professor. I feel that with a few simple rules, so many cinematic train wrecks could be avoided. I don't plan on becoming a professor, though. So, for the sake of my own sanity, I will throw the following advice up into the air and hope it lands on at least a few aspiring filmmakers. It's difficult to make a great film, but it's also not hard to avoid making a terrible one. If I can make a difference in the creative output of even a single person, I will feel that I have done my part to prevent a potential cinematic apocalypse.

(Disclaimer: I am not, by compiling this list, claiming to be the world's greatest filmmaker or any kind of critical authority. But I do think we can all agree on certain points of taste and competence, such as submitting a colonoscopy for a final project. Yeah. See #5.)

1. Have people act their age (and their look).
Your 20-year-old roommate is not a rogue cop. He is not a serial killer. He is not an innocent 13-year-old boy. He is not a weathered father. He is a 20-year-old dude, and he looks like one. Cast accordingly. If you are not going to put in the extra effort to find people who can realistically portray their assigned parts, then make a movie exclusively about people the age of your friends. Nothing wrong with that.

2. Your dingy apartment is not CIA headquarters.
It's not a police station, or a high school, or a brothel, either. It's your dingy apartment. With some art direction, it could be a few different things, but the audience isn't really going to buy it if your rogue-cop roommate brings your serial killer roommate in for government interrogation in front of a blank wall with the corner of a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas poster poking out. If you think I'm exaggerating, I saw a film where a high school with some brown sheets draped around was supposed to be a cave in Iraq. Really.

3. No suicides.
It's lazy. And no murders unless you give me a really, really compelling reason.

4. No strippers/prostitutes. And better women in general!
The vast majority of film majors are males. The vast majority of males are heterosexual. The entirety of heterosexual males are horny. Also, men in college typically lack a world-weary lifetime of experience with women that is reflected in the films of older male directors. The sad result is that their film projects play out as a fairly straight depiction of their fantasies, fetishes, and desires. For instance, I once saw a (silent!) film project about a high school boy with an attractive teacher. Some Googling reveals that his teacher is a former porn star (of course), so the boy (after masturbating vigorously) takes it upon himself to post a printout of her in her porn days on the classroom door. When the class asked the writer/director why the fuck anyone would do that, he just looked away uncomfortably and said that sometimes people feel confused, leading me to believe strongly that this really happened. A script I read in class recently featured a young and attractive girlfriend character who appeared to have a three-second memory - despite her boyfriend constantly ignoring her and mistreating her, within a matter of minutes after any offense she was pawing at him for sex. I shot this mo-fucker down in class, basically saying that this might be his dream girlfriend, but that shit doesn't fly in the real world.

5. No penises.
There's a running joke every year about anticipating which film at a screening will be The Penis Movie. The motivation for showing a penis in these movies is never, ever clear. One movie I saw last year had the following plot outline: man wakes up. Man makes and eats breakfast. Man smokes a cigarette. Man goes to beach. Man strips down naked and wades into water. Man buries himself in sand up to neck. A cockroach walks by. The end. A more famous example around campus featured a guy masturbating, and at the end he backed his asshole into the camera while spreading his butt checks. Straight-up colonoscopy. The only time I could make a compelling point for seeing a penis would be 1) for genuinely comedic purposes, such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or 2) in the context of a WELL-DONE (emphasis on WELL-DONE) sex scene. Same for female naughty bits, really.

6. Write real dialogue.
Most student films contain dialogue that sounds like it was written by Martians with no knowledge of human interaction. The real genius in crafting dialogue is simply listening to how people talk and communicate. You don't have to write a terse 90 minutes of Tarantino-esque pithy one-liners, and in fact, you shouldn't. Just listen to your friends, your family, yourself. The best dialogue, in my opinion, resonates like something either I or someone I know might have said. Don't try so hard, just listen.

7. Be able to tell a story without words before graduating to words. Words are a privilege, not a crutch.
At our school, we have a rather strange curriculum order. First comes Intro to Media Production, where we make little projects on digital (with sound). Then for film students, there's Film I, which is black and white silent filmmaking. Then Film II, which is color, sound filmmaking. Huh? Kids get so whiny when they can't have their little Tarantinoish dialogue peppering their masterpieces. Well, film was silent for almost 30 years, and they did alright for themselves then. Most students cheat their silent films by filling them with signs, text messages, emails, letters - any kind of type they can, feeling panicked by the silence. If you really think about it, though, you tell people stories all the time that have no dialogue in them. Weird guy following you down the street? Waking up hungover with no idea where you are? A strange dream you had, where nobody talked? There are countless examples. People sitting around and talking is not a movie, unless it's Before Sunrise or Before Sunset (and I am not knocking those movies). One of the best student films I've seen in my time here was about strange cowboy boots that made people so uncomfortable that they died and the sun exploded. And it had virtually no dialogue. It was so out there that it actually worked.

So please. I impore you. Take my bite-sized nugget of alternate film school with you in your journey through life. Remember, you make films for yourself, but also for the audience. If a movie falls in a forest and no one watches it, is it still a movie?