Friday, June 25, 2010

Should You Go to Film School?

From time to time someone will ask me my opinion on whether they should go to film school – whether it’s worth it. Now, if you know my background you might assume I’m biased on this issue. I have a BA in film production and an MFA in screenwriting from USC, one of the top film schools in the world. I also teach screenwriting at Art Center College of Design.

And maybe I am a bit biased. I do believe you can learn valuable things in film school. But I don’t know that film school is necessarily right for everyone.

I went to high school in a very small town in Alaska where I didn’t know anybody who worked in the film or TV business. I read once that George Lucas had gone to film school at USC so I asked my guidance counselor about it. She didn’t even know there were film schools. I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker but had no idea how to go about it. Film school gave me a door to the industry. Someone growing up in L.A. or New York with friends and relatives working in the business wouldn’t have needed that.

One of the arguments people make against film school is that you’d be better off spending all that money (and it is a LOT of money) making a film. You’ll learn a lot more that way, they argue, and have a film to boot.

When I was in high school the Internet, at least as we know it today, didn’t exist. DVDs with their commentary tracks didn’t exist. The explosion of how-to books was mostly still to come. I had a Super 8 camera but no way to edit the film, and a VHS camera that I could roughly edit by connecting two VCRs together. HD Digital Cameras and Final Cut for your home computer were years away.

I couldn’t have made a feature film at eighteen because I simply had no idea how to make a feature film. Film school was useful to me because – believe it or not – I actually learned a lot.

Today of course things are different. There are probably high school kids in small towns in Alaska that know as much about the process of filmmaking as I did after getting an undergraduate degree. (I doubt many of them know as much about the art and craft, though.)

In any case, if you’ve been making films and studying the tools and process for years film school may not be as valuable to you. If you don’t know what a pre-lap is or how to calculate depth of field on a 50mm lens then you will probably learn something useful in school.

Film school also gives you the opportunity to fail with minimal consequence. You can try different things to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s a safe environment. Your career isn’t affected if something doesn’t turn out well. You may get a bad grade but so what? I tell my students on the first day that they will never get a job or lose a job because of the grade they get in my class. The industry doesn’t care about your GPA, it cares about the work you can show.

If you spend all your money making a movie and it turns out bad, what do you do then?

You may have noticed by now that I’ve been talking mostly about film production rather than screenwriting. If you want to be a director or editor or cinematographer or sound designer or production manager the value of film school is evident and quantifiable. For screenwriters the situation is a little murkier.

I obviously believe you can teach screenwriting craft. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be a screenwriting teacher and I wouldn’t be writing this blog. I tell my students that I can’t teach them to have good ideas but I can teach them an awful lot about how to execute those ideas most effectively.

However, that knowledge doesn’t have to come from a university degree program. There are excellent books and stand-alone classes and seminars out there. There are weekend writers’ retreats and conventions. You can get individual consultations from professional screenwriters and coaches (I myself take on clients from time to time, as does my friend, Liar, Liar screenwriter Paul Guay).

These things cost a lot less than a year at film school. The difficulty is knowing which are valuable and which aren’t. Because frankly some of them will do you more harm than good. A screenwriting program at an accredited university is a little easier to evaluate.

And of course you learn the most by doing. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper to write a screenplay than to make a film. Assuming you already have basic writing skills, if you sit down and write six screenplays over the next two years I bet you’ll become a pretty decent screenwriter with at least one good sample screenplay. And it won't have cost six figures to get there. To be fair, you still might not be good enough to make it in Hollywood, but then film school doesn’t guarantee that either.

(Does six scripts in two years seem like a lot? That’s an average of four months per script – though in practice the writing of individual scripts might overlap. That’s very reasonable if you put in the same time and energy that you would to earn a graduate degree. Still skeptical? When I was in school I wrote two feature scripts, a half hour television spec, and dozens of shorter exercises while also making six short films and passing classes in things like film history, acting and the business of Hollywood…all in two years.)

What film school gives screenwriters are structure and deadlines, a (hopefully) well thought out and tested education in the craft, feedback from (hopefully) qualified instructors as well as your fellow students, the aforementioned freedom to fail, and networking opportunities. Most programs also give you exposure to the overall filmmaking process, an education in film history and theory, and some kind of connection into the industry. Is that worth the enormous amount of money it costs? Some say yes, some say no.

(Another advantage is you can get student loans and financial aid for a degree program, and your loved ones will generally respect the endeavor. People don’t seem to have the same respect for the six-scripts-in-two-years, teach yourself approach.)

If you do decide to go to film school, I advise you to think carefully about why you’re there. The goal is to prepare yourself to compete in an incredibly competitive business. This means both becoming the best writer you can be and creating a portfolio of work with which to storm Hollywood.

I advocate doing a little experimenting while you’re in school. You may discover that what you thought you wanted to do – the specific job or the genre you want to work in – is not what you end up loving the most. Then as you start to near the end of your educational career be sure to build up a portfolio of work that demonstrates your voice at its best.

Because at the end of all this the goal is to be a filmmaker, not a student.

Friday, June 18, 2010

American Beauty – Fantasy Sequences and Narrative Point of View

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

There is one narrative device in American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) that I completely forgot to address last time – the fantasy sequences! Several times in the movie we move in to see Lester’s fantasy sequences related to Angela (at the basketball game, the bathtub fantasy, and when she touches his arm while getting a drink from the refrigerator, for example).

There isn’t all that much to say about these sequences particularly. In the film they are often indicated by music and lighting changes (which are indicated in the script). We might also note the use of rose petals in many of these scenes as a visual metaphor for perfection.

It’s also interesting to note how in these fantasy sequences Angela is much more mature, self-possessed and sexually aggressive than in the “real” scenes. This gives us an idea of how Lester sees her and ties into the thematic element of the gap between perception and reality. However from a writing technique standpoint that’s the kind of thing that comes naturally from understanding your character’s mindset.

I think the most noteworthy thing about these scenes is that we only get Lester’s fantasies. In a way, this is a related device to the videos. The videos put us inside Ricky’s head, but in a tangible way, via a physical medium as opposed to the subjective fantasy scenes that put us literally inside Lester’s head. This works hand in hand with Lester’s voiceover. We are seeing this story from Lester’s point of view.

When I use point of view in this way I mean narrative point of view as opposed to a POV shot from a particular character’s visual point of view (as I used it in the last post.) You may recall the narrative kind of point of view from literature classes.

Other than a few experimental movies film is almost always in the third person point of view, meaning that we have an omniscient viewpoint on the proceedings. However the filmmakers do guide that point of view by choosing where the camera looks and what gets included and what doesn’t.

I don’t want to go too deep into a discussion of literary theory here. For the screenwriter, it’s mostly important to note that we can limit this third person point of view. In many films, for example, we only see what the main character sees. This causes us to identify more forcefully with that main character.

American Beauty would be a logical candidate for this kind of limitation, but Alan Ball chose to expand the point of view. We get scenes with Caroline by herself, with Jane and Angela, with Jane and Ricky, inside Ricky’s family – all without Lester anywhere near.

Yet by using Lester’s voiceover and by giving us Lester’s fantasy sequences it seems that Lester is telling the story. Does this work? I suppose that’s a matter of opinion. I think the fact that the voiceover is coming from “beyond the grave” helps. We believe that the ghost of Lester can know more than Lester knows in the story world. It’s really this ghost that’s doing the story telling.

In that way, American Beauty has its point of view cake and eats it, too. It allows Lester to be the storyteller, giving us insight into his character, while also being able to show us scenes that he is not in.

Perhaps the thing to take away from this is that one of the most powerful tools you have as a screenwriter is controlling what the audience sees and when they see it. Narrative devices are all just ways to exercise that control. You should be making these choices consciously in your screenplays.

(Terry Rossio wrote an excellent article on using narrative point of view on the wordplayer website. Favorite quote: when a film is about everything, it's hard for it to be about anything.”)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

American Beauty – Narrative Devices

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

For the most part American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) is told in a straightforward manner. The story unfolds mostly chronologically. But it does employ two noteworthy narrative devices: the video P.O.V.* shots and Lester’s voiceover.

The video P.O.V. shots allow us to see the action from a particular perspective – usually Ricky’s. Often this means we don’t get all the information in the scene, such as when he’s filming the argument between Lester and Jane in the kitchen, or when he films Lester working out naked. The video illustrates the movie’s themes that things are not always what they appear.

The movie opens with a video P.O.V. shot that is unique because it lacks any context. We don’t even know who’s operating the camera. This shot seems to indicate that Ricky and Jane are going to murder Lester. But later when we do get the context we learn that is not the case at all. This again reinforcing the idea that things are not always what they seem. In the original script, it is this video that is used to wrongly convict Ricky for Lester’s murder – illustrating the danger of accepting things at face value. In the final cut we are left to make this connection ourselves.

Then there’s the time Jane and Angela catch Ricky filming them through Jane’s bedroom window. Jane is put off and wants to close the drapes, but Angela poses sexily for Ricky. However in the video P.O.V. we move off Angela and zoom into a reflection of Jane in the mirror. This lets us know whom Ricky is really interested in. The video shots, like any P.O.V. shot, give us one particular character's perspective. Video has the added benefit of being able to show that perspective removed from the original time of viewing.

I’ve already mentioned the use of voiceover in American Beauty in several of my previous posts. Let’s take a closer look at this device.

In this case the voiceover comes from an onscreen character – Lester – implying that he is the one telling the story. Sometimes when used this way the voiceover gives a film an unreliable narrator, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in American Beauty.

In fact Lester doesn’t really narrate the whole movie. The voiceover only appears in three places – the opening sequence, briefly at the beginning of Lester’s last day, and at the very end of the movie. Used this way I see it serving three primary purposes:

First, it helps us to identify with a character that starts the movie largely unlikeable. The wit of the voiceover mitigates Lester’s on-screen lameness. And we learn something about Lester’s attitude about the people in his life in the process, which colors our attitude toward them.

Second, the voiceover advertises Lester’s upcoming death. I actually think this is the primary importance of it in this movie. In the opening voiceover we learn that Lester will be dead in a year, and when the voiceover pops up briefly about two thirds of the way in, it simply notes that this is the last day of his life.

Letting us know that Lester will die adds another layer to everything that’s going on and, along with the opening video shot, sets up the mystery – how will this ordinary suburban story end in murder? This engages us more fully with the story and gives us something to anticipate.

And the mid-story reminder of his impending death comes immediately after we discover the opening video is not what we thought. Now a new twist on the mystery is introduced – who is going to kill Lester if not Ricky and Jane? This advertising pulls us through the story as we build to the climax.

The final voiceover serves a different purpose. It allows Lester to wrap up his philosophy on life from the moment of his murder. Instead of ending with Lester lying in a pool of his own blood we learn how great he thinks his life was. It completely changes the tone of the movie.

And having voiceover at the beginning and end serve to bookend the movie with contrasting impressions of Lester’s attitude. This illustrates his character arc. In the beginning he sees his life as pathetic and trivial and unhappy. But by the end he’s learned to appreciate the beauty of those trivialities and realize how happy he really was.

Some consider voiceover a weak device – and it can be when done badly. But American Beauty uses it sparingly for very specific purposes and I think the result is quite effective.

*P.O.V. = Point of View

(P.S. - I'm starting to study voiceover as a device more fully. If you'd like, please suggest any movies that you think have particularly good or particularly bad uses of voiceover in the comments section.)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Theme/Minor Characters

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

Movies can engage us in different ways. American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) primarily engages us on a philosophical (or intellectual) level. For this to work the movie needs to have a complex theme. If the theme is simplistic or pedantic we will quickly become bored.

The theme of American Beauty has to do with the devastating effect the pressure to be normal has on suburban Americans. Note, a theme does not have to take a particular point of view (see my post on theme and thesis). In this case the movie does seem to have a bias toward the need to be true to oneself, but it doesn't so much advocate that position as explore aspects of it.

For me the most organic way to approach theme is through character. This makes the issues at hand personal. We care about the character so we care about the philosophical issues they're wrestling with. We don't care if those issues are simply discussed in a dry, hypothetical conversation. Let's look at how American Beauty explores its theme through the main character, Lester.

In the beginning of the movie Lester is doing what a middle aged family man is supposed to do in the suburbs. He works at his job, provides for his family...and is thoroughly miserable. Over the course of the movie we see Lester abandon his concern for what others think of him and be true to his own desires. This manifests itself in both positive and negative ways. He quits his stultifying job but there is some question if he can sustain his new lifestyle financially. He gets in shape and starts to enjoy himself by buying a car he wants and smoking pot. But he also pursues an immoral and inappropriate attraction to an underage girl.

Ultimately Lester finds balance between honoring who he is and being responsible. Of course the fact that he is then killed might suggest that the suburbs won't tolerate someone who has found this healthy balance.

You can use the characters surrounding your main character to explore different aspects of the theme. Let's look at how American Beauty does this with the other major characters:

Caroline - Caroline is the embodiment of the suburban image. Maintaining that image has become her entire purpose - witness her carefully coordinated dinners, attention to landscaping and behavior at the realtor event. She becomes unhappy when she fails – such as when she can't sell the house despite doing all the things she believes should result in a sale. Ultimately she indulges in such rebellions as having an affair and firing a gun. But mostly Caroline has happily embraced the suburban lifestyle.

Ricky - Ricky has abandoned any need for acceptance or normalcy. He is an outsider and proud of it. In the original script he goes to jail for murder, though the movie cut that out. In the script it reinforces the idea that society will punish those who don't conform. In the movie Ricky serves more as an example to Lester (and also to Jane) of a different way of life, one they hadn’t dared to consider before.

Angela - Angela is playing the role of a sex object. She constantly talks about her various conquests and sexual experiences. Of course we learn at the end that she's been making it all up. She's a virgin. We also learn that Angela's biggest fear is being ordinary. It's when Ricky insists she is just ordinary that Angela works up the nerve to actually sleep with Lester. It's an attempt to be special. Angela doesn't want to be just another suburban girl, but the pressure to conform has forced her to seek distinction by pretending to fulfill a stereotype. This makes her an ironic figure thematically.

The Colonel (Ricky’s Dad) - Here's the guy with the ultimate secret. He's a moral conservative who condemns anyone who steps outside strict societal norms. In fact, as a military man, he's actually a defender of those norms. But he's also gay – something that he can't tolerate. And it is his attempt to protect this secret that ironically leads to the destruction of any normalcy that might have existed in this little corner of suburbia. The Colonel is a demonstration of what happens when we try to deny our individuality.

Barbara (Ricky’s Mom) - She is a grim vision of what will happen to Caroline if Caroline doesn't protect her individuality. Barbara has lost all sense of purpose in herself, though she adheres to the domestic requirements of a suburban housewife with tenacity. By being simultaneously completely normal and completely empty she reflects the emptiness of suburbia.

Each of these characters approaches the issue of suburban society in a different way. Few of the characters are completely bad or completely good. They’re each just taking their own approach to the question. This allows the writer (and we the audience) to explore the thematic ideas in the film more fully.