Why TV has become more culturally significant than film

(This is a piece I wrote some time ago)

In a recent interview Steven Soderbergh observed that movies may no longer be as culturally significant as television. Lots of people have commented on this, using shows like Breaking Bad and Mad men as examples of how television can cater to a much longer, more involved narrative capable of greater nuance. There’s some truth in that thinking but it also misses a larger point.

Culture helps shape our view of the world and our shared experience of it connects us to other people. Television requires a greater commitment from the viewer than a movie and so says more about us: just because someone you meet at a party broadly shares your enthusiasm for Jaws or The Godfather or The Matrix it doesn’t necessarily mean you have that much in common with them. I like Taxi Driver, so did John Hinckley; I don’t think we’d have been friends.

The commitment required from television, however, speaks of broader common ground. If we both loved Friday Night Lights, it means we have both devoted roughly 55 HOURS of our lives to watching the show. To have lasted out that commitment we surely have similar tastes in character, narrative and theme and we likely share the same overall sense of morality that forms the show’s foundation.

If we both loved a show like that, we probably have other things in common. At the very least, we now have a solid, secure base from which to explore other areas of shared experience.

Netflix, iTunes and the box set have made watching television a much more active endeavour than it was when it was broadcast-only. As a result, television drama is now a more powerful medium than it ever has been and the shared commitment to bingeing on episodes and hoovering up whole extended narratives has strengthened the cultural significance of TV over film.

Anyway, get back to work…

How to make a music video for £85

“Lisa’s asking if there’s any coke.”

“What?! No, it’s not that kind of shoot.”

“No, I think she means–“

“It’s not that kind of band, even.” 

“No, I–“

“Apart from that one time…”

“Coca-Cola.”

“Oh. I see. No, there isn’t any.”

“Or chocolate.”

“Chocolate?”

“She said maybe a Yorkie?”

“Do they still make those?”

“Any kind of chocolate.”

“There’s water and there’s some sandwiches, tell her.”

“Right…”

“Because this is no-budget. That means no chocolate and no coke. This isn’t The fucking Avengers.”

This is Day One of what will end up being a three day shoot for Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s “Archaeology” video. We’re in the dilapidated Sergeant’s Mess at the recently vacated RAF Uxbridge, which we have been given use of as a favour and which is unbelievably cold. The aforementioned sandwiches and bottles of water have been bought at a service station on the A40. Over the course of the shoot this “catering” will cost around about £85.00, bringing the total budget for the entire video up to a grand total of… around about £85.00.

I started doing jobs like this a few months ago, as a way to take a break from the big machinery of TV production. On a video like this one, I use my own kit (in this case, a Nikon D800, a set of lenses, lights etc) and no crew, unless you count volunteers Jim (spent the day feeling ill in the car) and Mat (shot the bare-bones of a making-of documentary that would have confused the shit out of Salvador Dali). 

The last few years have seen the means of video production become cheaper and more accessible to the point that you really can make a short film or music video for next-to-no-money. I’m certainly not the first person to point this out, but it seems rare that anyone actually explains HOW they did it, so, at the risk of boring the shit out of you, I thought I’d take the opportunity to do just that. 

First off, though, here’s the video we made, so we all know what we’re talking about:

It may be that you’ve just watched that and now feel that £85 represents something of a horrific over-spend. If not, here’s the essential breakdown of how we did it:

THE IDEA: I’ve never been the most prepared director in the world but even I know you’d better have a rough idea of what the fuck you’re doing before you turn up on set. In this instance, the band and I threw some thoughts around until we came up with the concept of the ghosts as a way to represent the song’s central theme of memories and regrets. We figured the band needed to be unified as ghosts and that we’d therefore need someone outside the band to be our protagonist; someone who doesn’t know she’s dead and needs to be helped to the “other side” by members of a British electro-folk band (TOP TIP: It’s a music video, not Citizen fucking Kane). My first choice for this ghostly guest star was…

 LISA FAULKNER: Another top tip; your friends don’t need paying. If you don’t know Lisa Faulkner, it would cost you an arm and a leg to get her to schlep out to a disused airbase on the M25 and tit around for days pretending to be unaware of her own demise. If you DO know her, it costs you a bottle of Coke and a Yorkie and, as previously noted, even this payment can be deferred. The point is surprisingly valid, though. You know someone who can act, or you know someone who knows someone. That someone that someone knows might even be someone famous. Or they may know someone famous. The mantra that is core to making something ike this happen, and is relevant to every aspect of the process is:

 IT NEVER HURTS TO ASK.

 THE LOCATION: RAF Uxbridge is a disused MoD base which is now used as a film location for shows like Silent Witness, New Tricks etc etc. Those shows all pay good money, sometimes thousands of pounds a day, to use the place. However, many locations like this will charge a lot less, sometimes nothing, if they know that you have no money, are going to cause no disruption and are able to work around their schedule. Again, it never hurts to ask. On a previous promo (Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s “Joyful Reunion”) we were able to get the Phoenix Cinema, the oldest purpose-built cinema in London, to let us have their auditorium during off hours WITH a projectionist on hand AND the use of their cafe for a tiny fraction of what they would charge a “proper” production. Even I didn’t think it would be possible until I finally just picked up the phone and asked.

 EQUIPMENT: And here’s where it gets a little sticky because on this video I was using a Nikon D800 which is about as good an HD camera as you can get for realistic money. (It costs nearly £3000 so by “realistic” I mean it’s cheaper than the £100,000+ cameras we use on TV and film). The lenses I use were mostly bought second hand on ebay, but they’re still not necessarily cheap. HOWEVER, you don’t HAVE to use an expensive camera. With the right handling and with some creativity, you could shoot a pretty damn good short or music video on a domestic camcorder, a Flip or even an iPhone. The key to doing this is…

 LIMITATIONS: Specifically, knowing what your limitations are an exploiting them. The Nikon, in common with most DSLRs, doesn’t like to pan fast. It has something called a “rolling shutter” which makes panning shots judder horribly. There are software fixes for this, but none of them are very elegant. The solution is simply DON’T PAN. In the same way, the Nikon is a pig to operate and focus at the same time, or at least I can’t manage it; I can’t have someone walking directly towards camera and keep them in focus the whole way. That’s a hard thing to do and very talented people are paid very good money on film sets to do just that. I can’t afford to have a professional focus puller with me on a shoot like this, so I adopt a similar solution to the one used in the panning problem; I don’t pull focus. You see those shots of Lisa walking towards camera where she only comes into focus when she arrives at her end position? Well guess what, I can’t pull focus so we make a virtue out of that and call it “art”. 

 EMBRACE THE LIMITATONS: With a camcorder and a few actors, you can’t make “Avatar”. But you CAN make “Paranormal Activity” or “Rec” if you use the limitations to your advantage.

 LIGHTING: For me, lighting has always been the scariest discipline. Standing on a TV or film set as a director, peering at a set of monitors, I’ve always been confident in saying what I do or don’t like about the lighting but I had NO IDEA how the effects were actually achieved. To try and fill this gap in my knowledge, I got into shooting stills a couple of years ago and that taught me enough about f-stops, exposure and histograms (don’t ask) to provide some sort of foundation of knowledge. I’m still barely scratching the surface of what I’d need to know to be even a bad Director of Photography but I can kinda sorta get by. One thing I’ve learned shooting these low-budget bits and pieces is that, if it doesn’t quite look right on the day, it’ll look even worse when you get it into the computer. Spend the time to tinker and get something that looks halfway decent. 

 Wherever possible, I shoot with available (natural) light. It’s just easier to position people where they’ll look nice in the room than it is to light them single-handed. RAF Uxbridge has no electrical power, so it wasn’t possible to put big lights in there without a generator, which we couldn’t afford anyway, so once again, we embraced our limitations and I brought along three battery-powered LED lights. These things are generally frowned on by professionals because they’re so cheap (only £25-35 each. Weirdly, you can buy pretty much the exact same thing for £1000 a piece and apparently THOSE ones are perfectly aceptable – whatever) but the simple fact is that they work, they provide enough illumination to stop your shadows going complete black and plonked on a stand or on a shelf high up somewhere (in our case, sellotaped to the top of a door) they provide a perfectly acceptable backlight. In the video, there’s a shot of Lisa in silhouette, walking down a corridor. As she gets close to camera, the light from a doorway catches her and lights her up really nicely: that was one of these battery-powered lights, propped up on a broken chair. 

 A mix of natural light and these same LED video lamps was used on this video for Piefinger. I mention it here because it was shot on a much cheaper camera than the D800 but I think it still looks good:

And that brings us to…

BLACK AND WHITE: Given the limitations we have in terms not just of lighting and camera equipment but also make-up, costume and production design, it’s generally a BAD IDEA to shoot colour if you want to be able to control the look of what you’re doing. Colours clash with walls, lipstick clashes with nails; it’s all horrible. More to the point for us cheapskates, colour temperature is a problem when you shoot colour; daylight rates around 5600k (nearly white) while a bedside lamp will be much warmer (more orange). Light doesn’t usually mix very nicely in colour. HOWEVER, colour temperature is NOT RELEVANT when you shoot black and white which means that you can light the thing with a mix of daylight and any household lamps/torches/whatever and it will still look good as long as you give some thought to positioning of lights and subject and exposure etc. 

 CAMERA MOVEMENT: Unless you have money to burn, don’t spend thousands of pounds on some kind of steadicam rig for your camera. The money buys you the equipment, not the ability to use it; professional steadicam operators get paid a fucking HUGE daily rate on movies for a reason. Most of the “Archaeology” video was shot on a tripod, partly because the ghost effects we were doing need the camera to be “locked off” to shoot background plates (shots of the empty room) that could them be composited together with the shots of the band. The tiny bit of handheld work was done on one of THESE, which costs about £20 and does a pretty good job. Again, embrace the limitations and don’t try to pull off fancy camera moves if you don’t have the equipment or know-how; you’re much better off framing a nice shot on a tripod.

 What else? Oh yeah…

 PLAYBACK: Music videos normally need to have people lip-syncing to a backing track. In the professional world, that means a sound man, equipment, digislates and all sorts of peripheral bullshit. Luckily, we’re enthusastic amateurs and we can make do with an iPod and speakers or a laptop doing playback. The ONE BIG TIP for this, though, is to have playback loud enough that the microphone on your camera will pick it up clearly. Even though you’re going to replace it in the edit with the real track, that recording on your camera will allow any number of different editing programs to sync the audio waveform from the camera recording to the clean track and low-and-behold, you have perfect lipsync without breaking a sweat. 

 Okay, I’m bored writing this, and I can only imagine that the three of you still reading must be suicidal by now, so I’ll save editing and post-production for another post if people are interested.

 If you take nothing else away from this, PLEASE remember the mantras:

 – EMBRACE THE LIMITATIONS and plan your shots accordingly

 – DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK, for locations, for actors, for equipment; you’ll be surprised at how many times you’ll hear “yes”.

 Okay, wake up. I’m done. It’s over. Go make something. 

 

 

The Art Of The Script Meeting – How Not To Let Your Ego Get In The Way Of A Good Idea.

For the last few days, I’ve been reading Creativity, Inc. The book is about how Pixar works, how they maintain a culture of creativity whilst still fulfilling all their corporate ambitions, and it’s written by Ed Catmull; the guy who started the company and runs it to this day. I highly recommend it (not running Pixar, the book, although running Pixar would also be cool) but this isn’t a book review…

One of the central features of the book, and of Pixar itself, is the “Brainstrust”; a collection of the company’s leading directors, writers and story experts who gather to view work-in-progress and to offer advice, steers etc. Every director working at Pixar, from top to bottom, has to submit their work to the brainstrust. This ought to be nerve-wracking, like standing in front of the class while the teacher marks your homework but the directors all seem to welcome it and find the experience incredibly valuable. Why? Because Catmull learned a lesson from countless unproductive, adversarial notes sessions with studio execs and he introduced a concept that makes the Pixar system work: the Brainstrust has no authority. Let’s look at that one more time: THE BRAINSTRUST HAS NO AUTHORITY. You don’t have to take their notes, you don’t have to pay any attention to a word they say.

Except now you will because they have no authority, they’re just there to help you make your movie better.

I remember screening my first movie for the American exec from the company who’d funded the thing. I was really nervous, my head filled with stories of iconoclastic directors battling unimaginative studios for control of their masterpieces. The screening finished and sure enough the guy had some notes. He was worried about a particular character, I think, in a particular scene and he wasn’t sure it “played”. Predictably, I dug my heels in. I even got pretty shouty as we debated his notes. Eventually, believing I sounded like Sam fucking Peckinpah, I issued my ultimatum: “If you want this changed, you’re going to have to ORDER me to change it.”

He frowned, looked at me like he was suddenly concerned for my mental health, and said, “Dude, it’s your movie. You’re free to do whatever you want and we’ll release it. That’s the deal. I’m just asking you to consider something.”

“Right then… Sorry… What was it you wanted me to look at?” It turned out the guy had some good points to make and, because I didn’t HAVE to follow them, I gave them proper consideration. His notes made the story clearer and so the editor and I sat down and implemented them. They made the film better. The fucking thing bombed anyway, of course. Sorry if you were hoping for a happy ending.

These situations are pretty unusual in screenwriting. Far more often than not, we walk into a room to be given notes by producers and execs who do have authority, who can insist on changes we may not agree with. This can make for an adversarial situation, one in which the writer is on the defensive before the meeting even starts, where even useful notes can be read as “interference” from non-creatives.

William Goldman famously used to enter these meetings, sit down and ready his pad and pen; putting the execs on the defensive, pressuring them to “come up with something smart”. To the beleaguered screenwriter, this may seem like a brilliant plan. It is, in fact, a massive dick-move. I don’t care if you wrote All the President’s Men, you just started a fight you have no chance of winning because these people pay your rent. They might be intimidated (they probably won’t) but they’re certainly going to think twice before employing you again.

The Goldman manoeuvre assumes that status can be taken. It can’t. Actors know this; status cannot be taken, it can only be given. You can’t go on stage and “act like the king”; the other actors have to behave deferentially to you, they have to give you status. Most execs aren’t going to give the writer status in a meeting. More likely, the writer will give the execs status, and often the wrong kind…

I’m reminded of an exec who once confided to me that she sometimes walks into edit suites where she knows full well that she’s the “enemy” before she even enters the room. She said that the level of hostility to her notes, before she’s even given them, is such that she becomes defensive and authoritarian; delivering her notes as straight-up orders that can’t be questioned or discussed because “if they’re casting me as the bad guy, I’ll be the fucking bad guy”.

So how do we deal? I believe it is possible to turn almost any writing meeting into a version of Pixar’s brainstrust, you just have to change the dynamic of the room. First off, as writers, we have to change our attitudes; we probably ARE too close to the script — the chances are we only finished the draft a few days before this meeting. This script ISN’T the best it can be and we may not be the best people to see that or have the best fixes for the problems. This isn’t a defence of execs. Someone said recently on Twitter that writers were unfair on execs, that they had “never met a stupid one”. Oh really? Allow me to arrange some introductions. Of course there are bad execs, just as there are bad writers (or bad accountants, builders, dentists etc.) Hopefully you have smart execs, there are plenty of them about. But even a bad exec has a perspective on your work that might be useful (even accidentally) and you’re not going to benefit from that if you close down.

We may not be able to completely banish the idea of executive authority, because these people can fire you if you are uncooperative, but we can adopt the attitude going into that room that you are not working FOR the execs, you’re working WITH them (if they could write the fucking thing, they would have done — they do need you). Try to remember that everyone wants this script to be better (and it can always be better) and everyone wants this meeting to go well because they’ve invested in you and they genuinely want this all to work out. So level the playing field; be pleasant, be open, be happy to talk about anything. The exec may propose some fixes that sound dreadful. Don’t just shut down, try to identify the problem the exec is attempting to solve. The fix may not be great but the problem could be genuine. Nine times out of ten “This needs explaining to the audience” is a shit fix but it’s a fix to the problem of “I didn’t understand this” and that’s always a problem worth addressing. Rather than just take the note and offer the standard grumpy nod in response to it (it amazes me sometimes how many writers are afraid of dialogue), try digging into the problem; encourage the exec to open up and talk through their thinking. I can almost guarantee that you’ll change the tone of the meeting this way. Once you’ve acknowledged the existence of the problem and demonstrated your understanding of it and your willingness to address it, you’re going to find that the exec abandons their solution and instead trusts you to come up with whatever you think the best fix is for the next draft. You’ll also find that you’re suddenly no longer faced with a bad note, but with a potential improvement to your script.

Dodge the solution and get to the problem. Then it’s up to you to solve it the best way you can. Everyone goes away happy, the script gets better and you work again because the execs actually felt good about the meeting because they weren’t treated as the Philistine enemy for once.

Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects, talked recently in an interview about how his career had been floundering and how Tom Cruise took him aside and told him that his (McQuarrie’s) problem was that he bore grudges against execs who had long since forgotten the cause of the grudge and that he was seen as too defensive in meetings. McQuarrie tried out Cruise’s suggestion of entering meetings with the attitude of “how can I help you make the show you want to make?” This, apparently, changed things around for him almost instantly.

The crucial thing here is engagement. With my director’s hat on (I actually have a hat) I’ve sat in meetings with writers who were obstinate and unwilling to entertain a single suggestion about their script. Those are bad writers with bad scripts that stay bad. But I’ve also witnessed writers who would change anything you asked them to without question. They were also bad writers with bad scripts but their scripts actually got worse draft-on-draft because they were doing everyone’s fixes without ever understanding the underlying problems. (Again, I’m reminded of an exec a long time ago who told the composer that the music needed to be “louder but kind of quiet” — never take the fix until you understand the problem). There needs to be cut and thrust; it needs to be a conversation, neither a battle nor an immediate surrender.

Can you always change the dynamic of the writer-exec conversation? No. There are some execs who aren’t open to a conversation of any kind, either because they’re just total fuckheads or because they have some ulterior agenda (often because they’re delivering notes from higher-up and are scared of their boss, who is an uber-fuckhead who won’t talk directly to the writer). I’ve been in this situation a few times and the only advice I can give is to walk away. No good can come of this. Suffer through to a delivery point, ie. get paid for your work to date, then bail. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’ll get better, it won’t. And don’t think quitting will damage your career; becoming bitter, miserable and, inevitably, defensive will do far more harm.

Pick your battles. Fight your corner when you need to but don’t presume that someone is your enemy just because they have a salary and an office. And don’t presume, even if they are the enemy, that you can’t learn from them. Give no shit, take no shit. You’re here to tell stories and it’s supposed to be fun.