Thursday, February 6, 2014

Father's Grace

At the start of this week, I found myself in a moment of deep personal conviction, brought on by the Holy Spirit after a dark afternoon. I ended up sending my Dad, who works at the same church I do, overseeing the bookstore, an email about it Tuesday night on my iPhone before driving home.

This is the picture I attached.
I felt so stupid asking for this. I don't know why. Well, no, I take it back, I do. I didn't want to ask, because I didn't want to admit my reason for asking. It wasn't because it was $53 - honestly, I could figure out the money and probably even arrange payments. Because my Dad's cool like that.

No, the reason was that I was teetering on the line of being spiritually bankrupt. Writing an Easter play was the thing God used to open my eyes to how much I had once loved spending time in the Word, the Story, and how I had now become a "nice Pharisee". I don't mean that I'm being judgmental of anyone or what have you - I mean I'm walking around with this stupid "pastor" title and feeling completely ridiculous. And it's not spiritual warfare, not in my case. It's that I've been so focused on pleasing humanity (even if it's Christians, I still care more about what they think than what God thinks) that I've lost sight of my own faith.

And then all my old ways of thinking kick me in the gut - anger, cynicism, envy, pride, self-righteousness, lust of the eyes, paranoia, laughing whispers.

There's a strange part of me that rejoices when a believer who's struggled with the Faith decides to call it quits and leaves it. I rejoice because I see that as God's mercy, taking them on a (sometimes long) journey to re-discover Him, or perhaps find Him truly for the first time. I hold that hope for every one of my friends who are presently on such a path. No fear, no "tsk tsk" or shaking of my head. Rather, thank God that He is pursuing them enough to send them away, to let them go. That they might come to Him in a year, or a decade, with a story that is truly their own.

But you know what's dangerous? Quiet spiritual bankruptcy. Here's the thing. I know what I'm capable of. I am a master of the mask. I am an emulator. If I speak with you for more than five minutes, I will begin to shape my external persona around yours, or seek to compliment it somehow. It's not intentional - it's just what I do. This doesn't mean I will just agree with you, but your mannerisms, your smile, your laugh, I'll start to wear them. And then, just like muscle memory, I'll pick it up in a flash when I see you. I have a different smile and laugh for almost every one of my friends. Not intentional, that's just what I do.

I could teeter on this line and probably never completely collapse. It's a scary thought, but it's a reality. If I'm not intentionally pursuing Christ myself, I can just go through the motions, and even feel it genuinely when I'm around others who are in His presence. But that is not enough for me.

And that's a terrifying place to be, when you stop and think about. Because if I'm that good at balancing, then no one ever has to really know. And I can keep putting on the show. And nothing changes. Stagnation. A still... slow... death.

Thankfully, in the midst of it all, God's Voice still shakes through me like a powerful wind. And He did so Tuesday night. He asked me if I hungered for the Word. I stopped, listened, and felt it. Almost physically, in my belly. A hunger. Pain. A need to consume. And I needed to hold it. A touch screen wouldn't do it. I needed to hold the pages.

It still felt like cheating to ask my Dad to just "have" the Book. But as I looked at the email I typed out and sent, I saw the words I heard from God - "Pay if you will, ask if you want." And it hit me. If I paid for the book, it would be my will pushing forward, as always. And if I couldn't humble myself enough to ask for something I truly couldn't afford, how much did I really want this anyway? That I'd rather swipe a credit card than ask for grace?

Do I even understand the Gospel?

But I asked. And I received. That Bible was on my office desk the following morning. This is what my earthly father, acting as my Heavenly Father's ambassador, wrote on the first page.
As I held the book in my hands, it felt really good. And here's what God said, almost immediately:

"Two things. First, don't make this book an idol. Focus on the Word, not the pages."

"Second, I'm not interested in your 'discipline' and your 'study'. Just be present with the story. Stay in the story. Swim leisurely. No reading plans for you, no benchmarks or goals to hit. Don't chug it. Take a sip every day, and like fine wine, hold it over your taste buds before swallowing. Savor it."

My sip this morning was short, but rich, and I've been holding it over my tongue all day. No deadlines, no pressure - just presence with His grace.

Thank You, Lord. (And thank you, Dad!)

Friday, January 31, 2014

On the other side...

This morning as I was getting ready to go to work, God reminded me of a moment back in 2011. A friend told me of another friend who had seen a video of me talking about "MARK OF THE VEIL" when it was only a dream and hadn't even been fully cast yet.

What the friend of a friend said was, "How is Brandon possibly going to do all that?"

And here I am on the other side of it, almost three years later, and MOTV is a thing that exists outside of my brain. It's been shot, edited, and it's presently seeking to find a film festival. The journey's not over - but it exists.

I didn't make that happen all by myself. God was with me, I believe. It was an ordained learning experience, and it happened. There is still much to learn from it, but it happened, despite all the odds.

Here's to many more adventures...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

January Script Exercise: "Present Courage"

In December, I read the book "Screenwriting 101" by FILM CRIT HULK! It gave me a freeing, focused look at narrative and its purpose that I desperately needed.

I had been processing my last film effort, a feature called "Mark of the Veil", which had taken several years of my life to write and produce. Consistent feedback on it was, more or less, "Brandon, you're great with the camera, the editing, the production. The actors are well directed, it sounds great, and it looks fantastic. Can't make much sense of what's happening, but it looks fantastic."

I started thinking about acts, plots, beats, choices, all that stuff, and realized how much of the art of narrative I've yet to grasp. The fact is, my biggest self-critique (and it resonates with the constructive criticism of others) is that, in terms of story, I was doing too much with too many characters and concepts, and it became more of a murky world building adventure than a story with a concrete conceit and purpose. (And this was AFTER "Save the Cat!" gave me direction to initially get MOTV's script written... More thoughts on that book, but another time.)

FILM CRIT HULK! actually discusses the problem of "world building" over "story telling" in his book, and it really challenged me to go back to the basics of narrative (or perhaps visit them for the first time). As such, I have set a New Years' resolution of sorts to write one short film script a month.

The purpose of these short scripts is not to quickly speed through a writing session so as to film something (though I can't lie, I am looking for material to produce), but rather to focus on constructing solid narratives. That's what I'm going to be doing with this blog, now - each month, you'll get to see it all. Because the reality is, most all of what this produces will probably be garbage. And that's okay. I like rewriting. (And rewriting. And rewriting. I'm actually kind of OCD about it. I'll change a line of dialogue 50 times before just scrapping it. Then re-introducing it. And then scrapping it again.)

(Seriously, I should probably get counseling or something. It got so bad that on the MOTV set, I ended up revising each scene at least five to ten times, right up to the shoot, and then would tell my actors to just more or less improvise because I still hated my dialogue.)

Anyway, the problem with being an auteur indie filmmaker is that you only write as much as you think you should before you can get to the FUN thing, which is firing up the camera. There's no one to say, "No, I don't think we're ready for pre-production. No, I don't think this is ready to cast. No, I don't think this is ready to shoot."  So this is me saying to myself "WAIT!!" to my camera craving instincts. The camera must wait. (That actually sounds like a cool if not terribly indulgent short film title or something.) This is about me re-educating my tastes to have a higher standard for the quality of my narratives.

With each of these exercises, I will be answering six questions as I process my journeys. Here we go... 

© Copyright Brandon Freeman 2014. All rights reserved.

1. In one or two sentences, what is this story?
At the behest of his ailing father, Tom leaves town to emotionally survive the impending death in the family. But when Tom's car runs out of gas, a one-of-a-kind woman with a unique insight shows him how to be present in his father's suffering.

2. What compels you about this story?
When I started developing the theme and concept, what called to me was this idea of a character with a goal of fleeing their present pain, while their motive or abstract desire conflicts with the surface goal, in that they want to be a better person than they are presently. The external obstacles that slow or stop the journey, then, have somewhat of a love/hate relationship with the character.

Also, the question of, "How do you deal with dying loved ones?" is always near and dear to my heart. Sometimes it's almost harder to see someone you love suffering than to be the one suffering, I think. That's a sort of suffering all its own. I wanted to explore that by showing someone who couldn't handle it - or at least didn't think they could handle it.

The other thing that I really enjoyed was having more than just a simple "love at first sight" story. The love aspect, while hopefully a powerful element, plays second to Tom finding the courage to honor his father's wishes and live beyond the tragedy.

3. What was your developmental process?
I used a number of tools that FILM CRIT HULK! mentions in "Screenwriting 101", but the best part about the process was, unlike "Save The Cat!", HULK urges the writer to own their narrative. No page counts, no "themes to be stated by page 5" silliness (even when I was subscribing to the STC! method, I bristled sharply at the "this has to happen by this page number or your audience won't connect with your movie" mentality). HULK's whole point is, your audience won't connect with your movie if you aren't AWARE of WHAT you're DOING.

(The other nice thing about owning my own process - which you can't in STC! - was not waiting for some cool title and synopsis. I'd still be sitting at the ceiling waiting for the perfect pitch otherwise, because my mind doesn't work that way. I have to find my characters and theme first. Interestingly, as soon as it came time to write the script, I had a great two word title in two minutes, and a perfect synopsis as soon as I needed it. Seemingly magically, if you KNOW your NARRATIVE, it makes "pitching" it a heck of a lot easier.)

In the beginning.
First I just jotted some random facts down. Characters. Theme. Possible scenes. These changed rapidly over time (and I would delete the old thoughts to keep things from getting too confusing). Originally the main character was a woman and she had a female best friend, a male love interest, and a broken down car in the middle of nowhere, but as I worked and molded the characters and concepts, I realized I didn't really want two women needing to be saved by a good looking man who's great with cars. Kinda boring.

So I switched the protagonist's gender (realizing I was wading into dangerous "whiny lost mid 20's male finding himself - ugh! barf! gag!" territory), ditched the broken down car (out of gas was simpler, and more relevant to the story), got rid of the best friend (this journey needed to start out as a lone one), and replaced the boring hero mechanic with a gorgeous but very strange woman who claims to hear Jesus' voice. (Every story I write, Jesus gets in there somewhere, even if it's just with crazy people, because He's the most compelling force in my life.)

The Five Things
Next, I charted out the protagonist's "Five Things". (These changed a number of times, and as of this post, the "five things" charts still need to be updated.)

Separated out relationship beats
After that, I used a piece of HULK's own "Multi-Act Flow Structure", the charting out of individual relationships.

Staring at the relationships chart, I realized that the cleanest way to proceed and blend all this information around one singular theme was to map out the narrative using a simple "BUT/THEREFORE, never AND THEN" system. Basically, I just told the story beats, and every event had to either be a direct result of a previous action or an opposing interruption.

I knew, even as I hammered out the beats, that I wouldn't be telling the story completely chronologically - I wanted to use the first half of the story as flashbacks in order to emphasize how lost in thought the main character is, and how oblivious he is to the soon to be empty gas tank. But for the BUT/THEREFORE approach to work for me, the skeleton had to start out in order.

Finally, just as I started to write the first page (and boy, was that an exciting moment!), I realized that the other characters should have their own "five things" as well.
One last thing. Actually 20 last things.
And the writing began...

4. What surprises did you encounter?
The biggest surprise was the fact that Tom doesn't say anything for the first several pages. I hadn't intended that as I wrote, and suddenly I just realized that everyone in Tom's flashbacks is talking FOR him, and it added this great dynamic to the family conflict. A nice mild co-dependent vibe. Tom's first line in the film, a vulgar explosion at his older sister for calling him "Tommy", and the unintentional slap to his father, was a beautifully poignant moment, and the whole story played out with clarity from there.

5. What obstacles did you have to overcome?
My biggest obstacle was my original intent to have a robber crash the gas station and ultimately get Tom shot. It made sense on paper, and the aspect of Tom's near death experience giving him fresh perspective on his family was interesting, but it was too... much. Too dramatic, too theatrical. Or, as my wife told me when looking at the beats, "Too predictable." Thankfully (sorry for those of you who don't do the 'God' thing) I found fresh inspiration during a church worship event. I was just singing in the moment, and I felt God start to shift things around and whisper, "You don't need the gun." And it was awesome, because the rest of the movie became very, very clear at that point. And my fingers itched to write!

A big "effect" of this "cause" was that much of the "five things" for the supporting cast, as well as the intended relationship beats, weren't featured. But I'm a big proponent of the notion that you do your homework to throw it away. (But you HAVE TO DO YOUR HOMEWORK.) If I hadn't played around enough with the theme, characters and plot up front, I probably wouldn't have ended up here. (I probably wouldn't have written anything more than three pages and then would've quit, because that's what happens when I write without doing the work beforehand.)

6. What do you think the next draft will change?
I've already done a second draft (that's what's posted here), and I really focused on trimming and consolidating Giana and Tom's initial interaction. In future drafts, I'm still gonna look at that. The tension is, I don't want to rush their moment, but if I can simplify lines and give more breathing room for the chemistry between them to just be unbearably strong, I'd like that. I want there to be such a magnetic pull between Tom and Giana that everybody is like, "KISS ALREADY!" I don't think it's there yet, but I'm gonna let it breathe before going back to it again. And it's not that I want it to be all about sexual tension, it's more so about the fact that these two very different people REALLY connect, in multiple ways. Ultimately, it's an answer to a dying father's off screen prayers for his son.

UPDATE (1/25/14): I've now done two more drafts and have shaved it down to a cool 15 pages, my original intent. I ended up reworking the opening flashback scenes with the family to simplify them a bit, and also melted down the first Giana/Tom scenes to their cores. I did end up removing the "hearing Jesus" bits from Giana's dialogue, as it started feeling forced - that will be a little piece of back story that we can play with, that sense of Giana seeming to be having a separate conversation (or two) in her mind. Overall, though, the dross is being separated, slowly but surely, from the gold. Can't wait to see what happens with draft five...

(Many thanks to my friend Mark Vashro for providing INSANELY invaluable feedback. Mark is a great actor, writer, filmmaker and friend, and I hope to be working with him on projects 30 years from now.)

So there you have it. If you made it to the end of this, I'd love your thoughts! What do you love? Hate? Or worst of all, feel "meh" about?

P.S. Oh! And I have to throw a huge shout out to "Fade In Professional Screenwriting Software". As an aspiring screenwriter, I started in Celtx years ago but was always frustrated by having to constantly "render" the page to see it, then jumped to Adobe Story but didn't like how laggy it could get. Now I've found Fade In, and it is by far my favorite. It's fast, doesn't lag, lets me see the page, and gets out of my way. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Punch the Cat!

Watching an action movie today, I suddenly realized something. There must be a beat sheet to action movie fight scenes. 

Here's how I see it, in a proper 15 beats:

1. Armed bad guy gets the jump on good guy.
2. Armed bad guy doesn't use gun right away but stabs/punches the crap out of good guy.
3. Wounded good guy throws bad guy into a wall.
4. Wounded good guy disarms bad guy by:
     A. Punching bad guy's face.
     B. Slamming bad guy's gun hand into wall/floor (three times before release preferably).
     C. Punching bad guy's face twice more.
5. Bad guy waits patiently for end of last step then lands five blows on good guy.
6. There is now blood on both faces.
7. Surrounding furniture is now employed.
8. Shaky camera as good guy gains upper hand and strangles or otherwise constricts bad guy.
9. Bad guy breaks free, three more gruesome blows that knock good guy into precarious position.
10. Bad guy strangles/constricts good guy.
11. All hope seems lost until random prop just out of reach shows up.
12. Good guy fights against bad guy's hold to get to prop.
13. Prop reached, bad guy knocked out/killed.
14. Good guy walks away - lots of blood on face and gasping breaths.
15. Bad guy isn't really dead and we're back to one until writer is bored/satisfied with page count.

Dang, now I want to write and film a fight scene. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

More Story Thoughts

I should be sleeping before a big drive tomorrow. But the brain is working on my recent thoughts on how to structure a film around character choices, with theme and plot being subservient to them instead of driving the characters.

(Of course I wrote them out, and of course I'm posting them.)
It's a work in progress, but I think I'm onto something... Maybe? Anyway, here goes.


What would a story look like if its Acts were recognized as being driven solely by choices made by characters instead of plot points to advance a pre-packaged moral?

Character VS Theme/Plot

Most current popular film story structure theory seems to be driven at the root by theme. This however makes it easy to create flat characters who make choices only because they must.

Plot's Purpose

The purpose of the plot or theme is to sensibly arrange the many choices (or acts) of the characters. But if we make it simply about a message or moral, the characters cease to matter - and so does the film.

The Act(ion)s must precede the Plot. A re-orientation is required - before seeking structure, we must first seek the characters and their intended actions - THEN we can determine order (Plot).

A Synopsis For Each Act(ion)

When determining an Act(ion), start with one sentence that is the logline or pitch for the entire act(ion). It must be character driven. Let the character PUSH the plot.

"John fights the school bully." VS "A school bully forces John to fight him."

Even if John is passive and forced to fight, an early clarification will affect how we write this act.

Act(ion) Elements

1. Background
2. Desire

3. Obstacle

4. Choice

5. Fallout

These are not numbered for the sake of sequence necessarily. They will probably overlap. Also, one Act's "Background" is a previous Act's "Fallout".
Shared Acts

It is foreseeable in a story with multiple main characters that two or three acts might run simultaneously, and even intersect and affect each other. One's obstacle could be the other's desire.

This is where theme and overall plot are helpful in designing a cohesive story, but the foundational elements must be character based, not thematically driven.

Shared Act Labeling
In the event of a shared act these could be labeled as (for example) Act 1A (Bob), 1B (Larry) and 1C (Alice).

The shared act would seem to require a greater clarification of theme and plot. BUT, the characters must nonetheless drive.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

"I have something for you"

"I have something for you."

That's what I heard as we kicked off a night of worship at Vineyard Boise. Pastor Andy, before starting the night, said that there was prayer ministry in the back of the hall if folks needed it throughout the 90 minutes of singing and dwelling in God's presence. 

He also said that there was a team of artists in the back who would seek the Lord's heart for people and create prophetic art. And my heart leapt. 

"I have something for you," God said to my heart. "But wait until 7:30pm. Then go to the artists, and I will give you a message."

So I waited. I worshipped. It was so nice to be in a service that had no need of me as a staff person. I could just be with God's people. No agenda. No timeline. Just praise and prayer. Nothing crazy. Nothing theatrical. Just authentic worship. 

During my worshipping, I was tempted to guess what the message was. Was it about my desires (and fears) of my filmmaking future? Was it God saying, "No movies. You have it all wrong." Would it be critical? Correctional? Encouraging? 

I didn't care, I just wanted to hear His Voice. 

"Shhh. It's not 7:30pm. Worship Me, no guessing."

At 7:28pm, I went back to the artist area and kept worshipping as I waited. About two minutes later, a table opened. I sat down. I told the artist, my friend Dottie, that God told me He had something for me, and to not put any parameters on it. 

She began praying. I closed my eyes and continued worshipping. I heard pencils moving, clinking and scratching. I set in my heart not to watch, but to surrender to God completely. 

I said in my heart, "God, I want Your Will. Take away what isn't mine to have. If it's the movies, take them. If I'm to stay with Vineyard Boise's staff in this role for the rest of my life, give me peace to obey. If we are to stay in Boise, let it be so. If I'm completely wrong about everything I've heard, let it be so and I will obey!"

The sounds of sketching continued. My eyes flickered open for a second and I slammed them shut again. I would wait. And worship. 

Then, Dottie stopped sketching. She told me it was ready. She said what she first saw was a bright, bright light bursting out of a dark tunnel. I was a part of the light. 

She drew this, and felt the need to include the message that went with it. 

"Don't be afraid when the track disappears."

It took a second for that to sink in. The track wasn't just appearing one piece at a time. There were only two more steps, and then the track... is gone. 

I don't think this is just for me. I think it is about my film stuff, it is about an upcoming change in my professional life... but it's so much more. 

Life's about to get crazy. No more rules of how things should be done. No more training wheels. No more clear plan, no more steady 9-5 living. 

And I have no idea, really, what that means. 

But here we go. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Soul, Structure, Screenplay

I blog in spurts. I Facebook consistently much more.

But sometimes, I record verbal notes with my phone. Today was one of those days.

I was processing an ongoing discussion I've been having in my head and with others about the merits of the Save The Cat! structure versus focusing solely on character actions and choices driving the plot forward.

Save The Cat! is what got me out of a major slump three years ago. I wanted to make a feature film, but I couldn't get a screenplay that worked for everyone involved. The story ran out of steam after 60 pages. But after reading Blake Snyder's books, I had a gust of inspiration and was able to complete a 110 script that I was very proud of - and got a lot of excitement from my actors. (I finished that movie, by the way.)

Yet there was always this nagging discussion that I'd have with other writers that STC! is too plot driven, too formulaic, too predictable. Snyder addresses some of those critiques himself in the books.

Like I said, STC! worked for me and got me out of a jam. But as I started to form another big story, my initial thought was to go back to STC! and brush up. And then an uneasy feeling settled in. A feeling that maybe it was time to take the best of STC!'s method and move on to new pastures.

A friend gave me a link (language advisory) to an article by FILMCRITHULK criticizing most people's concepts of what constitutes an "act", and how everyone just assumes there are a set number of acts (three) that MUST be in every story. This article heavily destroyed the notion that the "beginning, middle and end" of a story are "acts". And it got my wheels turning.

A few days later, processing that article, I got the notion to change my own personal verbiage. Instead of "acts", perhaps I should call them "actions". They are the big "actions" made by characters that push the plot forward organically instead of "acts", or "sections" of a story that drag a character along and dictate when he/she must hit his/her mark.

Indeed, to treat a film as a thing with "sections" is, arguably, to put more of an emphasis on what happens TO the characters than what happens BECAUSE of the characters. And that's boring.

So, this has all been circulating in my head for weeks, now, as I've been brainstorming on a new story. And then an epiphany hit me. I don't claim to be smart, but it was a big moment for me that I had to walk through out loud to fully grasp.

If you can stand to hear me madly rambling for sixteen minutes, give it a listen and feel free to give me your thoughts.