By: Amelie Tsoungui
Writing can be a drag, especially if you have a lot going on. But it is something that is a stress reliever once you start doing it. I started writing not only because of my major but because I found that the world that I was creating was a safe space for me. I put my heart into writing because it just really clears my head, no matter how complex the idea I have might be. Having encouragement from others as well is something that I live for. Knowing that people are rooting for me and just putting pressure on me to write what I want is something I live for.
the first draft
One of the best parts of writing to me is the first draft. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to finish a draft and then read it right after. It opens your eyes to the holes in the story and makes you expand on your idea. Another part of writing that I enjoy is the first feedback you get. It can be nerve-racking, but that is where I really thrive. Writers can’t always see what is missing with the story, so getting input from a peer is what drives me to write an even better second draft.
I won’t lie I am currently in a writing slump. I can’t write because I am in school, and I am overwhelmed with work. I like writing when I’m freer and when I have time to let my brain process ideas. It has been difficult thinking about writing because life just seems like it is kicking my ass. But this is all worth it. I needed this break; everyone needs a break. As life continues to get a little bit rougher, I have to soldier on, we all do.
So, keep your head up and fill it with ideas, when you decide to give yourself a break, write!!!
what's your favorite part of writing?
We want to know! Comment below!
There comes a time where you look at, you’re writing and say…what is the point of this? Who am I writing for? I do that daily. I think it is just a daily reminder for purpose. What is the purpose behind your writing, why do you care so much about writing? With every story comes a wild experience in my life. With every story comes the answer to every question.
I write for my friends and for me. My best friends and I have experienced a lot, and it is from those stories that I get my feature film ideas. There is no way that I couldn’t write about them just because these stories are meant to be told, no matter how much they are watered down. Now look, maybe not every story is important, but it stems from one of the fears I had growing up and how I conquered them.
These stories are really about me conquering things I thought that I never could.
No seriously, sometimes I think about what if I never got into writing, would this all be worth it? Probably not, but here’s the thing, I can’t spend too much time focusing on the “what if’s”.
I have to focus on my future and on my writing. My love for writing is deep, and I’m glad I found something that has helped me talk about what I have been through.
Plus, there is nothing more pleasant than a story that humbles you so much you can’t get it out of your head!
So, what is your purpose? Why do you write what you write?
Comment below! I'd love to hear your perspective!
This is YOUR sign to start.
Get those feelings onto the page and
discover the magic within!
My skin is so precious, but do people see me correctly? I always wonder why I have not seen too many people like me on my screen. It troubles me; it worries me. I cannot go on anymore racking my brain because I feel that I am not scared about or looked after. I feel that as a black woman I am continuously disrespected because I am not well represented. It is like my word does not count. As a lighter-skinned black woman, I am aware of my privilege.
I feel the need for my representation and the representation of darker black women because I feel that even though Hollywood has come a long way, there are still many things that need to be worked on.
Here are some stats from the diversity report released by UCLA. Learn more here!
Less than 2 to 1 among film leads (27.6 percent), Less than 3 to 1 among film directors (14.4 percent), Less than 3 to 1 among film writers (13.9 percent), Less than proportionate representation among total actors (32.7 percent), Greater than 4 to 1 among studio heads (9 percent). This is what I mean by Hollywood still has a long way to go.
Look I do not need validation from the film and television industry, but I do need accurate representation. Seeing yourself being portrayed inspires many. As much as we want to be known, we want to be known for positive things. I have seen too many black characters on TV be overwritten or not well understood because writers felt that they needed to be “ghetto” to get the point across about black women’s personalities. As I said, things have changed, we are seeing more black characters on our screens and the industry is putting out more movies with minority characters that are leads but the battle is far from over. I plan on emerging into the industry making sure that minorities are represented whether it’s behind the screen on in front.
The best way to do that is to start on paper. I plan on making sure that my characters are the best representation of the people who are in my life. I plan on writing for all the black women and girls out there. The stories that I tell stem from my experiences as a black woman so doing that through characters play a big part in my work.
By Meg Moore
Julio Macat breaks down filming stunts in Home Alone and how beginners should focus on their shots. Bridget interviews Julio Macat cinematographer and DP of Home Alone, Ace Ventura Pet Detective, and Pitch Perfect.
“In our industry, the people who don’t survive are the people who are washing dishes with lukewarm water.” (on being passionate about cinematography
Can you talk about your process of creating a visual design for any film and the relationship between a director or a DP?
It’s so important and few people realize what a director of photography does. It’s a big title and sort of mysterious, but when you’re making a movie the basic elements are the script, then you have a director who theoretically will have a vision and an idea of what they’re going to do with that story, with that script, and then you have a specialist in photography who tries to be the therapist of the director and really draw out what they’re truly trying to say with the story.
Often times a director will know what they want but they won’t realize it until they see it, and that’s where we come in. We bring in photography in order to tell the story. Photography for us as cinematographers is composed of three main elements. The composition side of it (the way you frame a picture), the movement of the camera; which helps convey the story – if you’re trying to convey a lonely moment you can have a little boy sitting at the end of a corridor and the camera slowly pulling back – and to your heart that says, “oh he’s alone”, and lighting which is arguably the most important because lighting sets the mood and it sets up a situation. If the story is about someone being very sad about to commit suicide, you wouldn’t have this happy lighting in that scene. You would convey it by having tones of light that are on the cooler side or misty.
As cinematographers, we bring that to the party, then we hire a crew of about sixty people, lighting people, grip people, we oversee the art department, and I like to think of ourselves as the gatekeeper of the image. Literally there’s a gate in the camera and a picture is coming through the lens and we’re the last person who can say “hey do this, do that, fix that, tweak that” and try to get the image to be the best it can to tell the story.
With Home Alone, there were times where the film was funny and light, but there were times where it was supposed to be scary too. When the kid goes down to the basement it’s supposed to be spooky, the house is supposed to scare him, and the main guy’s shadows on the walls and stuff like that. You have to ground the story you’re trying to tell with the photography, that’s what a director of photography does.
What was your creative process for Home Alone ?
It was my first movie that I ever photographed, that was sizable – I had done one other little horror film that nobody saw before that. I had done a job in what’s called a second unit to a bigger film because the director who liked me said, you do all the action photography to this specific film which was called Tango and Cash, and they liked what I was doing, so they thought oh, here’s and up and coming guy, I was almost 30. The studio which at the time was Warner Brothers said let’s put him together with this young director who had done a couple of films, Chris Columbus. They introduced us, and we hit it off, from that moment on it was about trying to do something special.
It was a story for kids, we kept referencing other movies of what we wanted it to feel like.
A Christmas Story was something that came up a lot, we wanted to do something that was entertaining and for the kids and have a vibe of the feeling of Christmas. So, we just hit off each other, and I showed him visuals that I really liked, and he liked those, so that’s how our creative process started. You have a script, you have a director that tells you what he’s trying to do, and then you bring stuff to the party that helps the director realize what he thinks he wants. The interesting thing about making movies is that you never really know what you’re going to get until you’re doing it. It kind of builds as it goes. What happened with home alone is that it was one of those convergences where every aspect of the movie helped the other aspect of the movie. It was a great script, it had a director with a vision, I brought the photography to the party, we had John Muntos who was a great production designer, and we were really fortunate to have Raja Gaznell who ended up directing movies afterward – he edited the movie, and then how lucky could we get that we get John Williams an iconic musician, used by Spielberg, to see a rough cut of the movie and loved it and came up with these tunes that were majestic and elevated everything. It was one of those cases where everyone was firing on all cylinders and everything just converged.
What visual references did you use? I know in an interview you mentioned Spielberg and the crane shot.
That whole church sequence was really inspired. We were filming in the church, but we were trying to do the shot of the outside of the church (it’s still one of my favorite shots I’ve ever done) and you always emulate – you don’t imitate. In photography, it’s weird, you can’t even imitate yourself. Sometimes you do a shot, and you have to come back the next day and do exactly the same shot, and it’s never exactly the same. There’s always these variables that change everything. So, a tip of the hat to Spielberg and all the wonderful shots that he’s ever done where the cameras down low – on a big beautiful shot and as the person walks away the camera slowly rises, that’s sort of a classic thing to do that’s proper for the moment. I think everybody is influenced by everybody else. Not to rip off things exactly because it’s never exact, but if you’re going to imitate someone imitate Spielberg.
When you shot Home Alone did you have a specific color palette you worked with?
We did, it was so important to me because it was my first movie. I wanted to make sure that everyone in my crew was on board with the things that we had been talking about which is something you normally don’t do, but I was going by instinct – so I wanted my whole crew to know what our color choices were, what our influences where, so I wrote this two-page mission statement and I just wanted to get everyone excited about it. I haven’t done it since, but I think it’s a really good idea especially on a smaller production where it’s all about the heart and the passion for getting everyone on the same page.
Obviously, the Christmas colors were important but also, we talked about the colors of when the family flies and goes to Paris, how that would be a different world. We used a lot more blues. From the minute, they land at the airport to the apartment they’re in. we went for a much cooler feel to separate the family in a cool environment and the boy in the very Christmassy reds and greens and golds. We stuck to it pretty well. When you start controlling color, and you start doing things a certain way – when a weird color comes into the mix, it stands out – like no this doesn’t belong. It’s something that once you start controlling, it takes a life of its own.
John from Chicago asks about the scene where Kevin wakes up alone and sees flashes of his family members saying horrible things to him, it looks like the actors were saying the lines directly to the camera. How and when were the shots conducted since it clearly wasn’t part of the original scene?
It was in the script. It was in his imagination. What’s interesting is that 30 years ago when we did this visual effect were not as great as they are now, so everything has sort of a milky feel to it, and that’s because the visual effects dissolves they would do were not as good but they kind of worked to the favor of the fact that it was kind of dreamy-ish and felt it like a memory so we kind of went with it instead of worrying that they were kind of shitty visual effects. That goes to show you that sometimes you land on accidents that work. It was definitely shot during the movie, we wanted to distort it because to me and the director when you think of a memory it’s never clear.
It’s sort of distorted, so we used distorted lenses. It was a 14-mm lens and the lighting was cooler and slightly different from the rest of the movie. Everyone was going over the top because of the idea that a kid remembers things in an amplified way. It was an over-the-top memory and that’s how we approached it visually. He’s sitting at the table and he remembers all of this and then he shifts from being afraid to being like “hey I’m alone, screw my family” and you see it in his face shift over. From there he’s happy to be by himself and jumps on the bed.
Mariah from Texas asks, because there were no Go-Pros back then, how did you film the POV shots of Kevin sliding down the stairs?
I found a tiny camera the size of this (holds up a newer Polaroid camera), and it was an Ari2c camera, they made a body that was tiny that they used for medical purposes, they call it the medical 2C camera, and it had a short spool, a 100 ft spool which was less than a minute. The magazine was tiny, and we used to call it bonus cam. I call it the chicken shit camera because I was so scared when we started, it was my first movie and I wanted to make sure that we got everything. We had two cameras rolling most of the time, and then we had bonus cam which was this tiny little camera which I had gotten used to using from doing stunts. I would place it close to the car driving by and interesting spots where you couldn’t really put a camera, but you could put bonus cam and then plug it into a battery, and it would just roll and get whatever it got. It was usually a good cut for an action sequence.
When we started doing stunts I had bonus cam and I started putting in a place where I was afraid that something would happen in decent, and I wouldn’t catch it because both cameras would miss it. So, I would use the bonus cam as a wide and stupid shot of the thing. Just to have it, and make sure we didn’t miss it. At first, we put it on a stick and would fly it over like a boom microphone and just have an aerial which was usually a 16 mm lens. Or when Peschi was going to fall on the ground we’d just put it wherever we could and accidentally great things were starting to happen. Peschi would fall right in front of the lens or near it, and because it was so little no one even knew the camera was there. We started to see at dailies that bonus cam was getting some really cool shit. We were like oh my God bonus cam is cool! We love these shots, so then we started to think, what else can we do with bonus cam that’s kind of nutty and fun?
We put it on a rope and would throw it down things, like when the iron come down. We threw bonus cam down on the rope and that became the point of view of the iron hitting him. Bonus cam became the star of the show, and we started to think about where to put our “go-pro”. Bonus cam helped to design a style of the things we were doing of big and wide and close and then translate it to other things we were doing, including the boy running up to the camera and going ahhhhhh and running away. Those were because we saw our “go-pro” was working and we started using it as a stylistic piece of what we were doing.
Have you used that bonus cam on other shoots?
Absolutely, when you learn something like that, any time there’s a stunt that’s going to happen, for me there’s a bonus cam somewhere. It draws you into the action.
Steve from Australia wants to know what challenges did you face filming Home Alone? Was snow a problem or was it all fake snow?
Snow was a problem, but like any problem you try to take it to your advantage. The very first day of filming we shot a sequence where the boy goes into the pharmacy, and he gets a toothbrush and the old man comes in, and he runs away. WE shot that whole sequence when there was a massive snowstorm outside to the point where we laid our cables and then the snow storm came in, and we couldn’t find our cables. There was a foot and a half of snow, it was crazy we had to leave the stuff behind. There was snow when we didn’t want it sometimes, but we adjusted to it, but after the big snow fall we went ahead to do the big day exteriors where we needed the snow outside, and then we couldn’t get all of our work – so when we had to continue doing those exteriors we had a machine that’s like a tree chipper, and you throw blocks of ice in it, and it shoots out little bits of ice that look like snow, so in the foreground of the scene we had real ice chipped snow and in the background of the scene we had potato flaked snow. Which is fake mashed potatoes that they blow and looks like snow.
We also used foam, which looks like snow, but when the wind comes up in Chicago, we had these bubbles blowing through the shot which is ridiculous. Those were the three different types of snow. When we did the church sequence, which is my favorite sequence in the movie, it had been snowing, and I remember going to the church, and we were all waiting for the snow to stop. I remember saying a little prayer, I remember talking to the priest he was excited that we were filming at the Trinity Church, and he may or may not have given me a glass of wine, but we won’t get into that. We walked out, and the snow stopped. The first AD said we have Jesus on our side! The snow stopped and we shot it.
It was a magical moment. That’s where film Karma comes in, for all the good things you’ve done in the past, you get thrown a bone, you get the right cloud, you get snow stopping, things like that.
If you had to choose only one lens to use for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Either a 35mm or a 32mm. You’d have to think about the story, you know one’s a little bit wider and a lot of people think, including Hitchcock, when you go like this (cups hands on the side of face) and you look out, and you’re trying to see something that’s very much what your eyesight is seeing without distortion, a lot of people think the 35 is that milliliter. When Kubrick used to shoot location photographs, he would insist that all of the shots be done with a 35 mm at a certain height, I think it was 8 feet. So, you had to be on a ladder with a 35 so as to not distort the location, so you can judge it just for what it is. It’s a lens that can work for a close up, and it can also be far enough back and work for a wide shot. I’m not sure 100%, but you know the movie 1917 which used pretty much one lens, it was a version of a 35 mm, and spherical, but they shot it in a 4k format, so it was close. It was close to a 35. I don’t want to say in spherical it would probably be around a 29 mm. What my friend Roger Decans shot that film with.
Do you have any advice for beginner DP’s?
If you’re calling yourself a DP, somewhere on that path to where you are now, you photographed something that really made your soul come to life, you did a photograph or a picture or a moving image and went “oh my god I love this”. It’s the equivalent of in the old days where you take a roll of film you shoot all these pictures, you didn’t know exactly what you got, you took it to get processed, it came back, you looked at it and there were three great surprises. Three photos that make you go “oh my god, I can’t believe I photographed this! I shot this, these are good”. That feeling that you get of accomplishment and excitement, and the fact that you captured a moment that’s passionate that says something and that made you glow, this is why you’re a cinematographer. My advice is to try not to lose that.
I’ve worked with a lot of first time directors and young cinematographers, who ask me, and I always say, “you can do a lot of shots for a scene. You can do Steadicam , 360, you can run around, but if you had to tell the story and pick one shot, one millimeter, one position, if you had to tell that story in one angle, what would that be?” It’s an interesting exercise because you’re going to be in one place and often times you want to be in that place at the beginning of the scene and at the end of the scene there’s a better place to be in, but often times you want to pick the place that tells the story in one shot, and that’s the master shot. When you pick that spot, it just makes it all work.
You’ve succeeded in transforming that passionate moment you had interpreting the story into a visual. That would be my biggest advice, to not lose track of the one shot that tells a story, and be passionate about it. Do ordinary things in an extraordinary way. That same shot could be as simple as a door is open and people far away are talking, and you’re seeing it from this perspective and that could be a shot that tells a story, or, there could be a keyhole, and you make a bigger keyhole, and you put your camera through it, and that’s looking at the scene in the other room. It’s a similar shot, but it’s two completely different things. The real fun of being a cinematographer is picking those little things that changes the way you tell a story. That’s the exciting thing about what we do. A lot of it can be technical, there can be a lot of time and energy thinking about what camera you’re going to use, what lens, and that’s all well and good, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. You can shoot it with your i-phone. What matters is the shot that you’ve created that tells the story. Rather than get crazed with resolution, 2k, 4k, it’s the shot that matters, and it’s what makes us special in storytelling. Don’t lose track of that passion that makes you make that one shot.
You want to have something that feels professional, I understand that but it’s amazing that Canon makes these SLR type cameras that really do look professional, but be guided not by the equipment, the equipment is just there to record. I worked with Antonio Banderas one time, he directed his first movie called Crazy in Alabama, which is another one of my favorite things that I’ve photographed, he’s a very passionate guy. I remember one time we were doing a scene and things were late, and they didn’t have the right items and there was chaos on the set – which happens a lot on student sets, I’ve witnessed it, everyone’s running around with their heads cut off and everyone’s a director. So we do this and then “roll the camera roll the camera!” and you mark it, and then there’s a silence, and then the scene happens, and then maybe some magic happens, and we cut and Antonio comes over, and he says to me in broken English, “Aren’t you glad that the camera doesn’t have any feelings?” and I looked at him and go “what do you mean?” and he goes “yeah it’s crazy, it’s insane up there, all kinds of hell is breaking lose but the camera just records what’s on the frame, it’s not affected by the fact that everyone’s in a bad mood, it just registers it”.
It’s interesting that often times you can just have your recorder guided into what you really want to do and not the madness of everything else that’s going on outside of it. That’s why it’s really important for us as cinematographers to feel like the gatekeepers. The keepers of the image. There to make sure there’s not a tag in the wardrobe or an imperfection in the makeup that’s terrible, we’re there for that and that’s our responsibility. That everybody’s job, the costumes and props, everything is ruined unless the keeper of the image says hey hey hey look at that, is that what we want? Without embarrassing anybody, but things happen on a film set. That a fun part of it.
The pandemic has impacted a lot of the film industry, set protocols, movie theaters being shut down, streaming, and everything else, what do you think the future of filmmaking is?
Being on a film set, you’re always adapting. You’re always changing to get to the other side of the problem, we’re problem solvers by nature. Of course, we’re going to figure out if everyone’s wearing masks and everybody’s testing we should be able to get back on set and be safe. We’re safe when we’re doing stunts, were safe when there’s 20 gallons of gasoline and there’s going to be a tremendous explosion, and you have four cameras in the vicinity of it you’re going to figure out how not to kill people – so it makes sense that we would be smart enough to try to get around it. I’ve had three different projects fall apart unfortunately because of COVID-19 and it’s sad, but we will come back to normal eventually. I’m dying to get back to the theater and see something as it was meant to be seen, on a big screen. I hope that people don’t forget that experience, because when we’re making a movie we’re creating the experience not to sit at a monitor or a little screen – it’s not the experience that we love sitting in a movie theater. We’ll get back to it in a year or so. We have to shoot for that though. We can’t all of a sudden become these Quibi people that are going to watch our work on a cell phone. I hate that, an image is meant to be projected, and meant to be shown in all its glory. Everyone’s effort from the wardrobe to the makeup to the hair stylists to the set design, all of it is appreciated on a big screen. We shouldn’t lose strike of it, and we’ll get back to that, but it’s going to take some time.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know, I’m reading a script now, and it’s possible, we’ll see. I don’t want to jinx it. It could happen in March – I’m kind of gun shy because I prepared three movies and then the week before, one of them the actor didn’t want to commit to it because of COVID-19, the other one it came to the conclusion that it was too expensive to do all the proper COVID-19 testing and the budget couldn’t accommodate it, and so I’m open. Maybe you guys will write something amazing and send it to me.
Anything is possible, shoot high. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. If you’re going to send a script to someone make sure it’s the very best script you can write. That person could say, yeah I’ll read it. It’s got to be good because that’s your shot. MY other recommendation to other filmmakers is before you roll that camera before you finish your project, ask yourself “have I done everything I could possibly do to make this something that excites me or that I would want to go see?”. Don’t just do it as an assignment, do it as if it means everything, because it does.
If you want to be in our industry, the people who don’t survive are the people who are washing dishes with lukewarm water. It’s the people who have to work with hot water – you want to go for it, you want to make a statement. You want to make it count you want people to remember your work, so it shouldn’t be half assed, it should be the very best you can possibly do. The beauty of this industry is you have 100 years of history of amazing movies, you could go back to every movie that won the Oscar for the next 50 years and really from those there’s something that’s going to speak to you. Whichever movie you picked, there’s a reason why you loved it and there’s a reason why that may have something to do with your taste and developing your taste. If you love that, maybe do your version of that. Look at all the great stuff we have as background research. The American Society of Cinematographers is 100 years old. 100 years ago some dude figured out that you can pass film quickly through a gate and get an image and here we are trying to do the same thing. Well it better be a good picture, somebody worked their ass off to figure out how to make movies.
Set your sights high on your projects and I think that we’re all storytellers and the more that you’re influenced and the more passionate you are at telling your story the more that you’ll be guided in the right direction.
Does anyone else get super nervous when it is time to put all your work onto that Final Draft document? C’mon I know I’m not alone. See I’ve been having a hard time trying to put my body into starting this feature film idea that I have but I’m nervous. Nervous to write? Yes, that’s a thing. You know what’s crazy, it’s that I have already written two feature films, two. So why is this 3rd one so hard to write? Motivation, at least that’s what I think.
Something that always stumps my creativity is motivation. If I have none then I cannot get work done. I’m the type of person who does not need to be motivated to write at all, but I think that quarantine has changed that for me. Being home all the time is something that I never thought would happen a senior year, but it did, so I have been doing a lot regarding school and work and my writing. But overall, I am coming around to that especially after watching a bunch of movies that inspired my movies.
I am a neat freak in life. I like to spread that to my writing because it helps me evenly lay out my story, at least my first draft. I like to develop a lot, there is nothing more satisfying than having a plan for what you’re going to write. I’ve searched the internet to listen to all these famous screenwriters talk about their writing process but in the end, it made me feel like I was doing something wrong. Not that what they were saying is wrong but it’s just like I felt obligated to try to write like them. The motivation was not there but I did learn a great deal from some of the best writers.
A piece of my outline for my script While in Tennessee, my first ever feature film !
where do you begin?
My experience with writing a feature is always one that I enjoy. The first draft is the hardest because for the first time you are putting words down on paper ad what if it doesn’t match up to what you’re expecting? It is ok, it’s always going to be hard to navigate yourself through a story but that is the best part about it, it’s your journey.
How you lead yourself is how you will finish no matter how you write. The motivation should come from within and focus on getting your characters to the finish line. Just remember it’s you writing it, but it is their story.
So, don’t feel bad if you need to take some extra time for yourself before you start a writing journey because when you do, you’re going to have to give it 100%. Taking your time when writing is vital. Some of the best moments come to us when we are taking our time to carefully plan something and sometimes that’s not the case. Either way however and whenever you write, be confident because you’ve brought your story that far and it’s time to take it to the next step.
By Meg Moore
Bridget interviews Amanda Hanna-McLeer, the Post-Production Supervisor of 'Broad City' and 'High Maintenance', who also writes and directs in her free time about mental health in the film industry and protecting your boundaries.
I just wanted to say how grateful I am for someone to be finally writing about this, 14-hour work days and overnights definitely have an effect on one’s mental health. Thank you for joining us.
That’s something I’ve been wanting to write for a really long time, and it’s difficult to write something like that while you’re working. You don’t want to offend anybody, you don’t want to rock the boat too much because you know, in this industry especially, that your job security relies on who you know and networking. I had written drafts loosely of something like this in the past, on particularly bad jobs, and then when the pandemic hit, I thought I have no one that I’m accountable to right now. This is the perfect time, especially because I had a feeling with the pandemic that we’d be asked to do things that were not safe. I’ve been asked to do them in the past, I’ve been asked to overwork myself and give up personal time for my job, and with the pandemic that can only be exacerbated. I felt it was really crucial to get it out at the time that I did.
I had actually written it early in the pandemic in April and I had been pitching it, sending it out to people and it didn’t get noticed in Current Affairs until June. Even then it was still timely, I still had things I had to adjust. We were seeing as I mentioned in the article, that film crews and film workers were being used as guinea pigs for how to go back to work, and that’s unacceptable to me. It was the perfect time to start to talk about it, think about it and reflect on it. I had coworkers who were always very career driven, and I am myself, but I also would try to steal people away for lunch and I live in New York City, so I’d say “Let’s go to Bryant Park for Lunch, get away from your desk, that is so unhealthy” and some people were really hard to convince, but when all of this happened those same people reached out to me and said “oh my gosh I’ve completely realigned all my priorities, and I’m so glad I’m seeing what I was missing out on when I was working those 12, 14-hour shifts”.
You discussed in your article being over worked for someone else's enjoyment was normal before the pandemic, do you think executives and showrunners will change their perspective on these horrendous conditions after the pandemic?
I would hope that they too benefited from some free time to reconsider their priorities because they are also over worked. It’s this hierarchy, there's the studio, there’s the showrunners, and everyone has to answer to somebody else. It can be difficult, especially when timetables are crunched, with our short attention spans, the prevalence of fast media everyone wants to get things out really quickly. I think it’s more likely, in order to change things for the working class of the film industry, people that represent most of the industry that keep it running, like myself and my colleagues, that if we set the standards, with the help of unions, but also with solidarity and letting each other know that this is no longer acceptable, communicating with one another and then putting the pressure on our employers to do that, because I think it’s really hard to wait around and expect somebody who’s not on the ground with you every day, or with you in your apartment when you’re waking up at 9 in the morning and answering emails on your phone or with you in those late nights, it’s really hard to convince them that things need to change.
Also considering that people who are higher up have been in the industry for a really long time, and they’re accustomed to the way things are, and they don’t really have any incentive to change it because they’ve benefited from it. It’s challenging to get them to shift. That’s the thing that’s really important to remember, there’s this yearning to go back to “normal”. It’s a very scary time for a lot of people, they’re either unemployed or they’re working in conditions that are not ideal, so they’ll yearn for that normalcy but it wasn’t really normal before. Normal wasn’t really working. I’m hoping that when we do get past the pandemic, people remember that they enjoyed spending more time with their family, or finding hobbies to rehabilitate or find new ones. I hope people will strive for a better work-life balance.
What do you think us as filmmakers can do about this?
The big thing that I’m working on right now is unionizing. If you’re not part of a union, try to look into ways to unionize, it’s really essential, our labor union has been gutted for the past few generations, you can date it all the back to the red scare, the black lists; I think it’s important to find community and reach out and talk to people. One of the issues I had when I was working on these shows and working crazy hours is you feel pretty lonely and you just assume that everyone else is doing it and that you’re the only one that is having an issue with it. But once I started talking to people it was miraculous, I talked to other supervisors like myself, and they were feeling the exact same way. I not only had an outlet to vent, I also had another person to go “hey I’m getting paid this on that show, that doesn’t seem right. What are you getting paid?” and they would say “Yeah that doesn’t seem right, I’m getting paid this”.
It’s about sharing that information and not creating this culture of fear or nervousness about pay transparency, we have to be transparent about what we’re being paid in order to move forward and demand better rates and conditions. If we don’t, we’re just kind of in the dark and we think what we’re going through is acceptable, so that’s a huge thing, community building and talking. Weirdly social media has been really wonderful in connecting me to people who are not just in my inner circle in New York, but all over the country. That’s the biggest thing, just talk to your fellow humans.
There’s a lot of inequality with women getting paid vs men in the industry.
Absolutely, and in post a lot of the administrative positions are filled by women, so it’s a bunch of women who have been taught to accept what they’ve been given, not question it too much, but there’s also power in that kind of sisterhood you can have and I’ve seen that on several shows. But all issues of pay disparity affect everybody, I’ve talked to several coordinators and supervisors that when I ask how much are you being paid, we're being paid way under what I thought they were on major network shows and so really it affects everybody.
You brought up that most filmmakers are non-union, meaning they have zero benefits, but they have longer hours that they don’t get paid overtime for, what do you think is the solution to this?
I think people should go and see if there has been union efforts in the past for their specific role and look if they can start up one, I think in the meantime if you are not unionized you have to start advocating for yourself and advocating for your colleagues. I had an interview recently and I asked for the rate that I thought I deserved, it was more than I had gotten in the past but when you start negotiating that way that means you’re setting the bar higher for the next person that comes up for that job interview and if you’re then transparent if they're going in for that interview, you can tell them this is what I asked for this is what you need to do. There’s plenty of things we can do, even without a union to protect ourselves.
For post supervisors, we typically have 60-hour weeks which is insane, it makes no sense, you’re supposed to have a 40-hour week, how are we at 60? The thing I learned recently is that it's not required, I can negotiate that when I go into an interview. I can ask what the hourly requirements are, they can say 60 and I can say, well that’s cool, I want 50, and even 50 is above the 40-hour work week we’re supposed to have. Knowing things like that, educating yourself on labor movements, the history of them and what has happened since then. A union is wonderful but people find loopholes around a union. I’m fighting for one now but I’ve seen abuses on union sets, so it’s really important to have a union and use it and to make sure that your voice is heard within your union and to have backbone in asserting those things.
It can be hard because this is an industry where you get your job based on how well you do on your last one and you have to network in order to know the right people, so you never really want to cause too much of an issue - but you have to do it for yourself and think of yourself within the larger community.
Where does one begin about joining a union?
There are people who have been in the industry for a really long time who are not union, there are editors fighting to be a part of the Motion Pictures Editor Guild, and it can be really hard if you don’t have those contacts to get on a union show. Some shows I’ve heard in the past flip union and then the people who get into the union that way are extremely lucky, it rarely happens, otherwise it’s connecting through the right people. It can be really challenging. Post supervisors don’t have a union, so when I wrote the article one of the things I called for was that we need to be unionized. There were some options, you can either create your own union that is unaffiliated but that’s really challenging, it’s a lot of work, or you can look into an existing union and ask, would their union benefit from my membership, and how closely aligned are my duties and responsibilities with this union? For my role I oversee editors and assistant editors, I couldn’t do my job without them, and they couldn’t do their job without me, so I had to think about that when I was appealing to the motion pictures editors guild and for me that made sense to start this effort and appeal to them. That isn’t always the case depending on what you’re doing in the industry but in that case it made the most sense to do it that way.
It’s all an uphill battle, it takes a long time, organizing takes a really long time. At the beginning of it you don't know how efforts are going to go. We’re appealing to the motion pictures editors guild, we’ll see how that goes, but it just felt really important to do at this specific time because no one’s going to advocate for us, we have to start advocating for ourselves so that maybe someone can take on our cause.
What can filmmakers do if they are experiencing burnout? What are healthy ways to deal with stress?
I’ve run the gamut of trying to find the answer for that over the past couple of years. For me it’s exercising, for a lot of jobs in the industry you’re stuck behind a desk all day staring at the same thing, you need to take breaks. If people won't take a break for lunch, that's the first thing they can do. If someone’s working right now, and they’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, take the break for lunch, leave the office. There’s this culture on some shows I’ve worked on where everyone sits together and eats lunch together in the office still and that boggles my mind because everyone just starts talking about the show and the job and then lunch breaks and you’re back on the job - so it’s not even a break, you’re entitled to that time. Whether it’s 45 minutes, whether it’s an hour, you need to give yourself that break, you’re not accountable to anyone in that time so you can do whatever you’d like. That’s huge. Green space, getting into a park, anything, is super important also. I would drag my coworkers to Bryant Park and just sit for a second, it’s so funny because some were with it, and others would check their phone, terrified that they would miss some email, some call, from someone. If you can’t take this hour when you’re working all day, what are you doing? Breaks.
Also, putting your foot down when you’re not getting paid to do extra work. Don’t do the extra work. I was talking to someone recently who’s a production assistant who’s also a coordinator who was doing two roles for one rate, which is obscene, and they’re working on the weekends without getting paid, and it’s so common that it happens, but it’s unacceptable, and I was telling them don’t do the weekend work, you get an email, ignore it. That’s what I did, I would get emails on the weekend all the time and I would ignore them, because that’s not their time, this is my time, especially when so much of my time is taken by that throughout the week. I explained to this person that despite doing that, despite setting those boundaries on the weekends at a minimum, I was still asked back to shows, I still was able to secure jobs on prime time television. It’s not something that is going to threaten your future work opportunities.
The same goes for the weekday, it’s unacceptable that we’re still going home and sending emails until the middle of the night, or that anyone would expect that of us. On some shows I would wake up and before even getting out of bed I would check my email because there was some urgent thing that I would need to resolve before I even got up to brush my teeth. That’s not a life, we can’t do it. Put your foot down, don’t work when you’re not getting paid. It’s one of those things where it’s like “obviously I wouldn’t work and not get paid” but it happens so much, and especially for people that are starting out in the industry and are eager to please and get their foot in the door. It’s tough.
I read that your primary goal is to become a director, we need more female directors in the industry of course. What’s next for you?
I think the figure is somewhere around, 8% of the top grossing films are led by women directors which is crazy. That’s the thing, as much as these companies say that they’re committed or these productions say that they’re committed to hiring female filmmakers, I don’t know how they deliver. They don’t always deliver on that. It’s challenging to get your foot in the door and get recognized. Some of the things I’ve done is, I made a film, Brighton, I fit that into a two week span where I had some free time in between post jobs, writing on the weekends, that’s the thing! You need that time on the weekends to do your thing because post was just my job, I saw it as just a job.
My real focus was directing and writing, so yeah, just fitting in that time was really essential. I made Brighton, I’m pitching a series right now that I wrote, a 10 episode series that I’m very excited about. I was accepted into IFP in 2019 for. IFP is an independent filmmakers project, it’s like a speed dating for filmmakers where you can pitch your project to producers in the industry. I’m working on that but the pandemic of course throws a lot of that stuff. I’m trying to find my footing again with that, but finding work when I can, writing because I don’t need a full film crew for that so that’s really nice.
Last year I had a really wonderful experience, I’m on a New York Filmmakers group for women, and someone had posted about a project that was being shot in Amsterdam and New York and I thought this was surely fake but I’ll apply to it anyway and it ended up being a very real project, and it was my first time directing anything episodic, it was a web series. I flew out to Amsterdam, and we flew back to New York. We got to work with Catherine Curtain from Orange is the New Black which was really cool. I try to find directing opportunities whenever I can. They’re really hard to come by, it was the first project that I hadn’t paid for myself or written myself and put all that producing time into. That’s why it was a really interesting experience. That’s kind of where I’m at right now.
Those opportunities don’t come by that often, so I do hope that we can pave the way for more opportunities like that.
Where can people find you?
If anyone wants to reach out DM me.
If you’re going through anything, if you’re having a tough time at work or you feel like you’re being exploited at work please reach out to me, I am very open to talking about that stuff and figuring out a way to help you take more control over your workplace.
By Amelie Tsoungui
Why do people write?
Some say that it's in us and others say that when you get inspired to do something you just do it. See, anyone can be a writer, but it takes some time to find yourself writing correctly. Where some of us born to write? Yes. Does that mean that other people cannot write? No. Jump into the deep waves and put your pen to that paper. Now you may be thinking...
how do I write?
For me, it is fairly simple. Most of the time I am writing in a journal all day, so that is a little personal. When it comes to writing for film or television, I am always prepared. I have notes that I use to help me figure out what directions I want to take a show or film. I am always confident that you can never get something on the first try that is why I keep all of my notes.
Writing should be able to help anyone who decides that they want to do it. Writing is not easy, but getting yourself to sit down and do it without any pressure is the first step. Writing will help you get a lot off your chest. I find that when I sit down to write, it helps me unload everything that has been in my head. It is necessary to write so that you get a break from what is going on around you. Whether you write in a journal or write a screenplay, do it. Writing will only help you.
how to be confident about your writing
I’m not going to lie it can take quite some time to be confident in your writing and even in sharing your work! The best way to be confident in showing your work starts with what you write. Write things you are comfortable writing and talking about. Make sure you do your research on what you are writing so that when you do share it, you’ll know what to say. I know it sounds crazy, but trust me, it helps.
Last but not least, just be yourself and reflect that through your writing. Your work should reflect you, and that will make you more confident in what you are.
writing for your career
When it comes to writing for your career, for me it has always been about being confident in your art. Sometimes we might feel like the great idea that we have is not the greatest, and that makes us want to give up. I say do not give us until you have exhausted all options. We need to trust ourselves more when it comes to being proud of our work. Work until you have completed your work. It might take time, but you will get there.
Check out our podcast about how to make your writing stand out!
Written by Meg Moore
Bridget is joined by a new co-host, Jade, to interview Anna Biller, writer and director of the Love Witch. This California Institute of the Arts graduate has directed two feature length films and plans on creating effective female centered horror movies.
What was your inspiration behind The Love Witch?
I wanted to talk about my life as a woman and I wanted to talk specifically about heartbreak. I wanted to use metaphors and symbols. The symbol of a witch, misunderstood women have always been designated as witches. Most women feel different, they feel like they’re not the norm, the man is the norm and the woman is weird. You feel weird and you feel like a witch and you feel like there’s something wrong with you. That is until you get a little older and you start talking to women out of high school or a mature type of setting where you realize that actually, I’m not weird, I'm just a woman. 51 percent of the population has made you feel bizarre about you, and that’s such a universal feeling. I wanted to talk about women being persecuted as witches and also what it is to be a witch on the inside. Kind of a feeling of crazy but also an affirmative feeling. Feeling great about being different and being a woman. I wanted to talk about heart break because I had an experience of heartbreak and I wanted to put that emotionally on the screen.
There’s been a lot of talk about how this film has been sabotaged by male crew members, can you talk about that and your on set experience?
I don’t like to be negative, I was actually kind of sorry I wrote those tweets because I felt like people who were really great on the crew didn’t know how to differentiate themselves as if I was talking about the whole crew even though I was careful to say it was only some of the crew. I want to first say that I had some great crew members and that they were amazing, I don’t want to talk about them negatively. I do feel that being a female director, not just in this film but with all of my films has been a struggle because I think you get into this dynamic with men sometimes, where they really can’t deal with having a female in charge. You can tell it’s an emotional, very deep issue with them so you don’t want to brush against it too hard, but on the other hand you have stuff that needs to get done. One kind of experience I’ll have, is I’ll tell someone to do something and I dread in terror that they might do it wrong, and not because it’s so inconvenient for me if they do it wrong but that I can’t tell a man that he’s done something wrong because what happens if you tell a man he’s wrong, that he did something wrong, or got a fact wrong, he will just go berserk. Not even necessarily on the outside, but he might go berserk on the inside. If you get even one crew member feeling like that, the whole set can turn against you. How do you run a set without being able to tell someone to re-do something that’s actually really important, a crucial thing that somebody needs to know? So you just hope and pray and beg that the men on the set don’t do anything wrong. Half the time I won’t tell them, I just clean up the mess and don’t tell anybody. I’ll even absorb huge costs.
One guy on my film damaged a truck, “You ran into a tree and didn’t tell me?”. And I was in terror of telling him, I had to pay thousands of dollars in insurance, and I didn’t tell him. I thought, if I tell him, and if it gets around to the male crew that I criticized him, then maybe the whole crew will turn against me. It’s better to pay a 2500 deductible then have the whole crew turn against me. It’s this male female dynamic that gets kind of weird. On a short film, one of the carpenters was fine taking instructions but the other could just not take instructions from me. So he’d put a wall in the wrong place and I had to tell the other guy; I couldn’t tell him. The other guy would tell him. That is sexism and it’s very dressing because you’re trying to run a set, but literally you can make one comment on the first week and that’s it for whatever person of the crew is geared to feel that way about women, which is usually at least half.
Do you consider your films feminist?
No, no I don’t, I think that very few films are feminist, I think that politics is something that doesn’t often enter into entertainment films. What I’ll say is that my films are feminine on purpose, they're from a female point of view. You don’t get a female point of view from just being a woman, you get a female point of view by consciously being very specific and honest with yourself about how your thinking might be different from that of men. How your experiences might have been different from that of men, and then trying to create characters and situations and stories around that, but you have to be conscious of doing it. Most people just copy other people’s writing. Most of the movies and culture are made by men and most people copy other people’s work and most people including men aren’t really that self reflective and introspective in their writing. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I’m just saying it’s a different way of working. I have a consciously female way of writing. Is that feminist? That’s up for interpretation. It is consciously differentiation itself from a masculine way of thinking.
A question from Amelie from Chicago - do you have any advice for first time directors?
Make sure that when you’re making something, you're making something that you really want to make. That you really like and that you’re willing to live with for many many years. Make sure you really prepare, think about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and who it’s for. Mostly for yourself, but also try to find a universal thing so that other people can relate. Think about who your audience is, and if you love what you’re doing, then other people are going to love it too.
You played a role in your self-made film Viva, what impacted your decision to not also play a role in the love witch?
To be honest, that was a terribly difficult thing to do, to be in front of and behind the camera. I did it on the short films and it wasn’t that hard because they were just a weekend here and there but then doing it in a feature was terrible. Part of it was that I couldn’t really move the camera, we didn’t even have play back, I didn’t want to have this huge surprise of what it was going to look like when I got the footage back. I’ve had DP’s move the camera in ways that were really offensive to me in the past. I tend to not let the DP move the camera, I don’t have camera
movement and that was kind of obnoxious. I had some dolly shots when I wasn’t in the shot, but it was really hard.
It was also hard to go back and forth between the mode of acting and directing. I had to really blank myself out when I was acting, but I didn’t have the internal space to prepare for the character, so I felt like it really hurt the performance. It would have been so much better if someone had just been dedicated to performing. It was terrible being in the makeup chair while I should have been directing. I’d be in a different room and I would come back and it would be all wrong, the camera would be in the wrong place and the setup would be wrong, and they wouldn’t have followed my storyboard, and they'd have to relight it. I need to be out there by the camera at all times not in the makeup room, and then the makeup artist refused to do my makeup on set. He said “no because you’re moving your face too much and you're moving your mouth too much, you’re talking your looking” and I had to be still.
The other reason is I didn't enjoy performing as much after that. I felt very objectified, I objectified myself as an experiment and I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like having the camera on me. I want this kind of image of female beauty and I don’t think I fulfill it. When I was doing it as an experiment in an art film it was more about the discrepancy between my own image and what I was aspiring to be, and then I didn’t want that discrepancy anymore, I just wanted to pick a really gorgeous woman, where there wouldn’t be any issues with the looks.
Can you talk a little bit about your new film Bluebeard?
I’m so excited about Bluebeard. I had a lot of problems about getting it off the ground, I’ve been working really hard on it, it’s just a new territory for me, doing a film through a studio or through regular financing channels and I’ve never experienced it - even though I have a really good agent, I have problems navigating that world. I had it set up and then the places fell through, and then finally I had it set up in a new place where it really seemed like it was just about to go, and then the pandemic hit. Now nobody can film and all those independent companies are going under, and they’ll probably be gone by the time this thing ends. It’s really sad.
The movie itself, I’m so excited by because The Love Witch was kind of visually inspired by these 60’s pulp novels with witches on the covers, sexy witches, and then Viva was visually inspired by ads and cartoons from playboy magazine and this one is inspired by those vintage romance pulp novels with women running from castles with their hair blowing, wearing an incredible night gown or a beautiful dress, very gothic. It’s just hyper hyper gothic. I was mainly inspired by these old Hollywood movies like Gaslight, Suspicion, and Rebecca, and all these movies where there’s a scary husband and you don’t know if he’s trying to kill you or the love of your life. Those are some of my favorite movies, so I wanted to emulate that through the Bluebeard fairy tale.
The Bluebeard fairy tale is the archetypal fairy tale that your husband wants to kill you. Those classic movies about that are called Bluebeard movies. The whole gothic romance concept comes from Bluebeard stories. A dangerous man, you know wuthering heights, in a castle, you find him very hot and sexy yet you’re afraid of him. It’s a metaphor for any type of dating, relationship, or marriage, where you never know whether the man is safe or not. You can be sucked into falling madly in love and marrying someone and having their babies before you realize that they’re a psycho killer. You think about horror, and they always say draw on your worst fears, I think for many women that is their worst fear, to fall madly in love with a psycho. You’re giving them your life, your love, your feelings, and your time and get so involved that you can’t get out. For straight women I guess.
What route do you plan on going with Bluebeard one it’s done? Do you plan on putting it in festivals? How did the pandemic affect your decision on this film?
I think this should go straight to Cannes, that’s my dream. I’m going to skip past Sundance this time, even though I’ve never actually gotten into Sundance. It’s such a European type of film, it’s such a British film. I would definitely like to do festivals and hope for some kind of theatrical release, because it has the potential to be kind of a cult film, because so many women are interested in these themes and I’m planning to make it a very beautiful type of color. The issue with the pandemic is that I can’t shoot, or even finance or cast right now. In the meantime I’ve written another script, and I might then write another script, depending on how long this goes on. These scripts are cheaper than Bluebeard and might be easier to finance and so Bluebeard might not be the next one I do. Everyone has less money now to invest in movies, so that’s one reason why I’m writing cheaper things. I’m really hoping I can make Bluebeard next but it might not be the next one.
You tweeted something about how naked bloody women screaming in horror films is not feminist horror, would you ever make a slasher film where this wasn’t the case and how would you change these stereotypes in the horror genre?
That’s one thing I was kind of interested in doing with Bluebeard and this other horror film that I just wrote, is this idea that you can have a horror film and you can have women getting killed and you9 can have it be a slasher but it’s not from the killer’s point of view. The old --- movies were never from the killer’s point of view, it wasn’t until 1960 that you ever had a movie from the killer’s point of view. Psycho and Peeping Tom both came out in 1960, and they were the first movies that did that, and ever since then, most slasher movies are from the killers point of view. So what I’m trying to do with Bluebeard and this other medieval horror movie that I just wrote and whatever slasher movies I may write, is I want to take it back to the female point of view. You’re in the victim’s point of view. In the female's point of view, the ten discarded female bodies before the final girl survives; you couldn’t have that because each one would be too sad. You can’t just throw away female bodies like that, it doesn’t matter if there’s a final girl at the end.
If you’re doing it from a female point of view, you can't just discard that many women, maybe one or two women could die, but they would have to be tragic. In filmmaking, you want to create a feeling. I feel like filmmakers always try to create the most extreme feelings in the audience by having the killing be more extreme, the violence be more extreme, but if you want to elicit more emotions from an audience, create a character that people care about, that will elicit strong feelings. If you feel like you know that person and that person dies, that’s going to give you more feeling than if the gore is just a little more fancy. It’s the idea of making a more effective horror movie.
The reason Psycho is more famous than almost every slasher movie is because of how expertly the characters are drawn. It wasn’t about the gore, it was in black and white, you couldn't even see the gore that much. It’s not about the thrill of the shower scene, it’s not about the sexualized violence, the majority of people who tried to copy psycho, get it wrong. They’re copying the things in Psycho that aren’t the things that make it great. The important thing that Hitchcock always did, even in the thirties and the twenties, was have great characters and create empathy,pathos, humor, good, writing, and good editing. That’s what makes it an effective movie.
Is Hitchcock one of your inspirations?
More and more so, the more I study him! He’s kind of incredible because even in the 30’s he was doing really sophisticated stuff with the relationship between men and women. Between married couples and his understanding of both male and female psychology surrounding relationships and love was very deep. I think the writers in a lot of the early thirties and forties movies were women, but a lot of the male writers and directors learned how to be extremely empathetic to women as well because women were really driving the box office so there was a need to create great female characters. Once the censorship codes exploded and the new Hollywood aesthetic kicked in, everything has been about men ever since. This has been 50 years now. Not that I’d like to go back in time, but we can go forward in the future with having great female characters.
Both of your parents were in art and design fields and you do design all of your sets; do they have inspiration in that? Do you think you would still be doing it if they weren’t in those fields?
Probably not. One thing about growing up with artists, you tend to learn about life through your parents and what is possible. I saw them making stuff all the time, like my mom made these beautiful dresses, she was always the best dressed and had the most incredible clothes and all of her friends were wearing her clothes that she designed. So everyone was wearing her clothes. We didn't have any money, we were poor, but she had the best clothes. My dad too, he just made everything, swing sets and bunk beds, and we never bought anything. We didn’t ever have a bed that we bought, it was a slab of foam rubber on a board and cinder blocks, everything was sort of weird. It wasn’t ever about money, it was just about making stuff, so I just grew up with the mentality that if you want something you have to make it. I guess that was really ingrained in me.
After I went to UCLA, I went into the art department there, I went to New York and I worked in photo studios. I happened to get this job as a photo assistant, I was assistant to the stylist and I helped her create sets. They were shooting wallpaper catalogues, so we had to create rooms. Just a little corner of a room and it was super hoaky because it would be this wallpaper and it would match the fabric of the couch and it was amazing to me because it would remind me of those little technicolor movies where everything would match. I learned how easy it is to fake wallpaper, a few pieces of wood, fake upholster a couch, fake do this and fake do that. I would lug the extra rolls of wallpaper and extra bolts of fabric home on the subway and I would create these little sets in my basement apartment, and I started making super eight movies. I would make this Victorian dress for some girl in front of the wall, and that’s how I started making movies. I would drag furniture from the street, and it was like a railroad apartment, it was 7 feet wide, it was super long, like 40 feet long so when you get the camera back. Very weird.
How old were you when you started making films?
I started making videos before that. When I was at UCLA in the art department I started making videos when I was about 19 or 20.
Another question from Amelie from Chicago - how many rewrites did you do for The Love Witch?
So many that I can’t even count them. They wouldn’t necessarily be full rewrites, I would change some of the dialogue in one scene and I’d save it as a new job and I’d tweak a little bit more. I didn’t really completely change it, I just kept tweaking it for years. By the time I was done with it, it was quite different from when I started, but I didn’t actually ever do a full rewrite. I was teaching myself how to write. I didn’t really know how to write, because Viva was kind of a weird script. I wanted to write a conventional script and for some reason it was very hard for me to do that whale also keeping my themes in the front like I wanted, and keeping the visuals like I wanted. I didn’t think that way. I thought in terms of sets and visuals, in scenarios and taboos, I didn't think in terms of a script so it really took me a while. Now I love writing, my new scripts are better and better because I know what I’m doing a little bit.
[In the Love Witch] When Elaine is taking off her clothes for the first man and it starts getting really colorful like a kaleidoscope, did you use a lens for that or was that post-production?
It was a lens, but here’s this company named Koken, and in the 70’s they made all of these filters, and they were super psychedelic. The filter made something like that lens. You rotate the lens, it’s a rainbow filter. It creates rainbows whenever there are lights, so it created rainbows for the chandelier and the candles and any lights that you would see. All the effects are in camera.
Is that how Bluebeard’s going to be? Just strictly in camera effects instead of post-production?
I’d really prefer it. When you’re trying to emulate a period look, that’s one of the main things that makes it look period, if you do your effect in camera. You don’t do CGI. It doesn’t have the same depth. Jurassic Park is so impressive the way the dinosaurs look, but they don’t have the depth of a Ray Harry Housand movie. Like those claymation sort of monsters and they look so 3D, so real even though the movements are kind of jerky. They’re kind of scarier because they are really in the space.
What’s one major goal or dream as a filmmaker that you want to achieve in the future?
I want to make my fricken Bluebeard movie. I want to make that and then I want to make more movies. It’s just my dream, my dream is to keep going. To get financed and to keep going, and to get distributed, that would be amazing. So that more people see it.
Written by Amelie Tsoungui Messina
Remember when the world shut down for at least 3 months? We were all locked in, completely shut out from each other. It was during that time where many of us sought comfort in things we could do online and in person. For us writers, it was either a creative time or a real slump. Writing and articulating the ideas that fly around in our heads is already hard enough, but it can be beneficial to us if we are “forced” to go on with it.
What I mean is that as a writer you constantly have to be on your feet thinking about new materials, so quarantine was a good time to develop our millions of ideas. In college, they always tell us, your best ideas come from when you go out and experience things, well we were shut down, so that was not possible. See not everyone is alike, so many people, like me, felt inspired, but there was so little inspiration for others. If being in a pandemic taught me one thing, it is that humans think more alike than anything. We saw a burst of pandemic inspired shorts/scripts come up, and different ways that projects were being made.
Here's one short that I watched during quarantine and is about the pandemic.
The way I stayed inspired during the pandemic was virtually through my friends, music, and dreams. I am a weird thinker and I follow a very strict routine. Any time that I step out of that routine, I fall apart. I know that sounds horrible, but quarantine tore my routine to shreds, so I decided to turn to friends and music to help me with ideas. I would listen to a song and imagine a movie for that song. My friends would tell me crazy stories and I would find ways to think about how to write a script about it, that lead me to write my first feature film! I stayed very active during quarantine and it has pushed me even more!
In a way, it was a physical setback for the industry but a creative push for many writers. I cannot help but think about how many tries during the months before quarantine that I spent trying to come up with ideas that I swore would be the project that “makes” my name. I usually ended up not developing the projects deep enough and therefore discarded them. That is until I took a class that helped me find a way to place my ideas. See the most difficult part of being a screenwriter is the development process. It takes a long time to figure out what makes your screenplay move forward.
Another short I watched during quarantine!
Though we all have the passion that writers do it can be hard or even easy when you are locked in with nothing but your thoughts and the same news cycles about Coronavirus running 24/7.
What are some ways you've been finding motivation to write? Comment below or show us your workspace on IG. Tag us @dtdproductions
By Meg Moore
“SEE PLOT AND CHARACTER AS ONE THING” Pietro Schito shares on this week's podcast. Dare to Dream Productions Host Bridget Johnson interviews Italian screenwriter, Pietro Schito, on the animation writing process, how to make your own writing more universal, and breaking into the film industry.
Pietro began with behind the scenes videography and built up to his success of optioning scripts and being a high demand writer for animation projects. He works in both the Hollywood and international film industries, and owns a production company in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Schito’s interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What is it like being a professional screenwriter working with a variety of studios? Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how to break into the industry?
I started when I was a little kid, I love to grab the family camera and started telling stories with my ninja turtle action figures and what not. When I was at University, when they invited a screenwriter from Disney to give a course on screenwriting. It opened up an entire world for me, it was really something that stuck with me. I discovered all the principles behind a good story, there was a narrative, there was a craft to it, it’s all from human nature. We have the possibility to create stories, it was like, “that’s what I want to do”. Since then I’ve been writing, and I got a scholarship to the New York Film Academy of Los Angeles where I was really forced to write, because it’s an intense program. It’s very practical we wrote two feature films, multiple short films, T.V. pilots and more.
The way I was able to break into the industry was by connecting with people at film school and doing my internship where I was offered to get my first feature film produced. I got an option on that and then I came back to Mexico where I started connecting with people in the animation industry. The local animation industry is very active, there’s a group of directors that are working in different types of animation; I started writing for them as well.
How to break into the industry? I think if you ask 1,000 people they will give you 1,001 different answers. Everyone has something different. My big experience of being on a big set is doing behind the scene videography for a feature film that was filmed in the same lot where they filmed the Titanic, here in Mexico.
The takeaway for me is that you need to put yourself out there, do not be afraid to show your material to people and also to find unconventional ways.
Nobody gets through the front door, they all get through a window, so find your window, find something you can do in the industry that will put you closer to other people. So for me, doing behind the scenes videography, meant going to each department of the production and connecting directly with the prop master or academy award-winning actor that I was interviewing, so I got a feel of how the industry works from different points of view. It was a great experience for me. That’s how it started.
You focus mainly on animation, what is the difference between animation and narrative writing?
We might think that the narrative style is different, but it's not really a different structure that you have to implement in animation, there’s still the same --- structure that you use in any movie. What’s different is you have to be a little more direct, especially if you’re writing for kids. If it's an animation directed to kids there are some things that you can and can’t put into an animation. You’re able to be a little bit clearer with what you say, with what the character wants and needs, and they can express it a little less subtly then you find in a feature film. What’s interesting and allowed me to learn a lot from animation was the cycle and the way they produce these movies. If any of you have ever seen a documentary or behind the scenes about a movie from Pixar you learn the process they use, which are reels or animatic, they are like the storyboard of the film with temporary voices. You can play a whole movie, you can write the draft of your script and the story artist brings it to life through rough sketches, and they are edited together so that you can sit down and play your entire story in a rough version.
We say in screenwriting, there is nothing better than being able to sit down and see your first draft and hit play and basically watch your movie. Once the reel is completed everybody watches it, and they give feedback. At Pixar, they call it the Brain trust, they get into a room, they do a projector and everyone in the room throws out their notes, they break the story apart and then it's the director’s job to collect the pieces and try together with the writer to make a better version. So it’s a cycle, once you finish one draft, you go right on to the next one, and you watch the animatic.
For me it was a big learning experience to be able to, from the time you write, you can sit down to watch your story come to life it’s a long time, and then to be able to write something and then see - sometimes if it’s a specific scene it can be days later, you can see the joke you thought was funny, is not funny, or something you thought would work, a clever line of dialogue of something you wrote into the script, you realize that it’s not working, so you have this great opportunity to work and fix before the movie gets into production. A director friend of mine says “In animation we shouldn't have bad movies because of the animatic, because of the process, you're able to watch it from beginning to end before you get into production.” If it’s not working there, it’s never going to work when you actually go into production. If the scene is not emotional, you can add all the strings and violins you want, but it’s not going to be emotional because of the music. If the animatic works, then everything that is brought in like production design, sound, the actors, everything and the beauty of animation will bring that story to a higher level to connect even more.
They do that in advertising as well, if you're producing a quick 30-second ad, it’s still a big production. I remember when I was little in Italy I used to go to this focus group, they would show the animatic for the ad. Recently an agency asked everybody to grab their iPhone and draw some sketches and use their own voice to tell the pitch for the ad. More and more live action productions implement something similar. I invite everybody to try experimenting with this for live action projects. Whatever you can make that’s close to a storyboard - even if it’s your laptop piecing it together -so you can see it from beginning to end. It’s going to be very rough but it will give you an insight to the story that you won't have in any other way.
A lot of filmmakers have talked about struggling to find the motivation to write during these crazy times of the pandemic, or even just hitting a writer's block.
How do you overcome this?
Writer’s block is something that strikes and then for example, in a project if there are specific plot problems, if I am unable to crack the plot of the problem. Sometimes it goes on for weeks or almost months and you're still stuck but I try to think as if writer’s block doesn’t exist because your work is to write and what do I do when I feel like I have no idea? I would do anything else but writing, I still sit down and write. Those times when you’re staring at the screen and the blinking cursor is looking at you and you have no idea what to put on the page - I believe that those afternoons, those long hours of not writing are actually very important. The hard thinking and trying to figure out the story will pay off later.
The key to overcome writer’s block is to write a bad version. It’s going to be bad many times before it gets good. It’s humbling because you know it's going to be bad and it’s gonna hurt when you read it, and it’s terrible, but to be able to sit down and write the embarrassingly bad version of your idea - helps you to put things on the page. Then you write it again and again, that’s one way to deal with it. Also, trying to think about what won’t solve the problem. This will never happen in my story. Okay, write it down somewhere. You need to play with the material and to move it, do not stop writing.
If you have multiple projects maybe you can explore another project for a little bit. I don't believe in hoping you can dream about the answer, I think you need to sit down and do the work. It helps a lot when you can talk about your story with somebody else. Especially if it’s a plot problem, the right question, even if it’s the worst possible idea that you put on the table - somebody else can give you their take and can somehow get you unstuck. That’s why I love working with director’s and being able to collaborate. The simple act of being able to express the problems of your script can really help you. So if you have a writing group, friends, a mentor or somebody who can help you, listen to you, or even talk aloud. If you’re able to read your dialogue aloud, try to, try to write it down, write down what you feel when you’re stuck, but don’t stop.
an article from a newspaper, I collect it in the Magic Box folder. I have other folders for other ideas and I try to write it down. You need to write down the bad ideas too, something you think you have no use for, sometimes you might get back to later and find something hidden that was there.
Have you heard about story dice? There are some apps and dice with icons on them that you throw and force yourself to write a story with those elements. When you have a blank page and you want to find inspiration, I think the best way is to constrain yourself and say I am going to write about this and that. A palm tree and a car accident, setting, Los Angeles, and you try to write a story like that. An exercise I do with students is to bring a black bag and take out random objects from it and then ask people to write a story. Sometimes this constraint seems like it’s limiting you but it’s actually freeing you to have a very interesting idea come out from something that is totally random.
How do you make your scripts stand out?
What’s unique about the story is you. The more the story comes from yourself and has a deep connection with you, the more personal it is, the more universal it will be. Let’s do an exercise with the people that are listening and watching. Write down the 5 movies that you would watch over and over again. Even if it’s a movie that’s not artistically acclaimed. It’s important to do this exercise without thinking about ourselves as filmmakers. If it’s a guilty pleasure, put it down. We will get back to this and see how it relates to what you write.
What are the essential elements of creating characters?
Something that I’m learning is that the more you write, the more you understand the character and plot are the same thing. Character is plot and plot is character. The plot is a consequence of who your protagonist is. Sometimes we have the whole plot figured out, and then we do not connect with the protagonist, and that is horrible, because you could have the most interesting story but if there’s not a connection with your main character then you don’t feel as interested. The writer of Finding Nemo and other films says “make me feel”. He has a great TED talk about it. Following the Nemo example, why do we feel for Marty? We start understanding that empathy is not just checking marks, like “okay, something that is really heartbreaking to overcome”. It’s really integrating the concept of the entire movie, what do you want to say? What is the truth that you’re seeking to understand in the movie? Why does your main character believe a lie? Something in their life is not true, but they believe it.
In the case of Finding Nemo, they’re taught that the ocean is a dangerous place. I remember from listening to the talks and analysis of the movie - for a lot of time they had it start with an accident where a barracuda eats the wife and all the kids except Nemo. They used to have that spread out throughout the movie but then they decided to put it at the very beginning - that’s something to represent the reason for him to believe that lie. They call it the ghost. It’s a very strong moment in the protagonist's life that makes him see the world in a certain way. Then you have two battling ideas. The idea of freedom, letting go, risk, that’s represented by Dory, and then you have this character that has this real struggle, we have empathy towards this character. What is the worst that can happen to somebody like him? His kid gets kidnapped, and not only that, he needs to cross the entire ocean. So we start understanding that the plot of the movie is not something separate from the main character, but it’s a reflection of his journey, his own arc.
On my YouTube channel we have a video analyzing The Joker, and we see some specific elements to create empathy. But that’s only one aspect of it, you can find injustice toward your character or see your character do something good for somebody else, which is the premise of the book, Save the Cat, it invites you to have the character save a cat in the beginning. It’s okay, you can add those things on a superficial level that can help you a little bit, creating empathy, but then you need to understand what is the movie about and why is the story happening to this character? The more you see plot and character as one thing, the better off you will be creating an empathetic character and a movie where the audience can really connect to the character.
Think about your own struggle, because that’s real, if you can connect a question that you have or something that's really unique or intimate about your life, then it’s going to be universal. You can have a wonderful film in terms of visuals and style, action scenes and what not, but as you say if they don’t connect then nothing else matters.
What are the next steps after you have a finalized script?
When you feel like your story is ready, there are two things you should do. One is to start writing the next project, because I see over and over people get a little too attached to their first project but you get to be a good writer by writing project after project. Maybe you already have multiple projects and you want to promote one. Many people finish the script and now what, what can I do with it? How do you find an agent? How do you find a manager? And they're emailing everyone to try to get a connection. I suggest that you go on a different route that is more real personal contact in friendship and getting to know people that are working in the industry. You’re a writer trying to find a producer, help them with their script, - you’re a director, try to find writers and actors.
Second, get your work out there, don’t be afraid of people stealing your work or if it's not good enough. Put it out there, create a page and put it on YouTube, make a website out of your screenplay with visuals and try to get it to as many people as possible. The agent, the manager, they will come, when the project already has the attention. There are a lot of scripts out there, but there are very few good stories. So if you think you have a good story it will find its place. But if you keep it in secret and you only tell a few friends and you’re hoping to get an agent out of the blue, that’s unlikely. It can happen, but I think your best shot is to know that you’re more creative than one script, so you can always come up with new ideas, so if you’re detached enough you send it out much more. You can go to contests and pitch festivals but there’s nothing like a direct connection with somebody. Nowadays through Facebook and social media you can get to many people and sometimes you think they will never get back to you but I’ve been surprised in the past where I will contact A list screenwriters and they’re able to sit down and chat and give some mentorship to me. I used to think that they would never answer, and then I started contacting them. You might be surprised.
What makes a successful pitch?
Try to see the core of your story. Have a killer logline, really work hard on your log line, and try to tell your story as if you're telling a friend about a good movie. Try to structure it so it reflects the structure of your movie and spend a lot of time creating empathy towards the main character. Even if the beginning takes a little longer than the rest of the movie, you want to make sure that you have this connection. You want to have something that hooks you with the character, not trying to impress with a clever plot. Rehearse a lot, try to tell your friends.
For me, I'm an introvert it's really hard for me to go out there - but i know friends who are writers and when you see them pitching it’s like oh that's how you do it! But try to tell your story in a way that you feel what you're saying, in a pitching situation keep it short and rehearse. During the pandemic there’s a lot of pitching being done via Zoom, there’s almost no in person pitching in Los Angeles right now. I see people starting to do video pitches, where it’s not live, it's pre-recorded, and they're able to add a little bit of art and music. The person to person connection in the pitches is what you need, to make sure the other person is paying attention. Sometimes the producer is having a bad day, and they're distracted, it might have more to do with them than with your story. Don’t get discouraged. It’s similar to casting, you need to do it often.
A suggestion for when you’re practicing your proposal, sometimes depending on the situation it might be good to like with TV, do a pitch for your movie. Have a document that sums up the movie, it’s way easier to read one page. If you can't reduce it to one page then your story has some problems. The full treatment and the script itself will be a lot more, but it will help you first to realize the important blocks of your story. The document normally has a logline (the movie in one sentence), and the rest of the page you fill with the synopsis of the film and then it has your contact. It’s really easy to read and then pass to somebody else - it’s better to have multiple one pages than to have a single script that is finished. If you have ideas, especially for TV, it's better to have multiple TV bibles and maybe one episode that's written then try to have one tv series and write all the episodes. Because, many things can change between pitching your story and getting the green light from a production studio.
What was a real breakthrough or realization you had that helped you succeed?
There’s a lot, I consider myself as someone who is learning and relearning, you never finish. A breakthrough would be the moment where you realize the writers I admire, they have the same struggle when it comes to sit down and write. Sometimes we feel like we are not good, and we should focus on something else, maybe we feel like the material is horrible, and we have those days when you have self-doubt, imposter syndrome, it creeps in and basically tells you to stop. But then you realize that, even the great directors and writers with multiple awards and series of movies one after the other, they still feel that every day. To sit down and write is painful, and they would also do anything else instead of it. Hearing it from A-list writers and seeing that that is part of the craft, that is what you choose to be when you write, and those are the frustrations that will never go away. It’s similar to when you start exercising, you want to get better, you know it's going to hurt every time. It gets easier but it's still an effort, and multiply that by one thousand when you try to write.
It helps you to write every day, try to stick to your schedule. It helps to understand that we analyze movies and scripts once they're finished and produced. So when we read a screenplay we think this is a masterpiece it's going to take me forever to get to this level, but we need to remind ourselves that that’s the final product, that’s the final piece of art, and we never get to see the many rewrites that they went through, and sometimes you hear from directors that every movie is bad in the beginning. It was hard for me to believe that until I got into direct contact with some of the people I admired. That’s what everybody goes through, so don’t give up when you feel like your material is not good.
Earlier you mentioned the five movies?
You don’t have a project and you're thinking of starting something from scratch, you have the blank page and you don’t know what you should write about. The worst thing to do is chase what is popular, because by the time you write it and the time the movie gets made and released, everything will change, but most importantly it's not connected to yourself. This exercise allows you to see which the films resonate with you. If you look at the list you created with your five films, and if you analyze them through the eyes of the protagonist and their struggle and journey then there's something that connects with you maybe it's a guilty pleasure or it's not artistic but there something about that story that moves you somehow and usually people find out that there is a theme between these 5 movies and that its very informative. Sometimes it's surprising what the stories have in common, but maybe you can write a story with those themes. It’s an exercise that is not always so revealing but I’ve seen people crying after doing it, discovering something about themselves during the exercise. Especially before getting into making them - we think we like them because of the special effects, or the action but there's always something deeper.
What’s next for you?
I’m in the middle of writing three animated feature films, and rewriting a short film that is going to be a combination of live action and CGI created characters. We’re waiting for some feedback on some of the projects, and they are very close to production. It’s something that’s good news for me, at least two of the three are very close to production, so I'm focusing on that and I hope to be able to tell you more very soon about those.
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Bridget Johnson is the president and co-founder of Dare to Dream Productions. She writes and directs thought-provoking films that inspire others to follow their dreams.
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