Writing is maybe the most difficult of all creative pursuits. There is no momentum. In fact, there are many things actively resisting anything resembling momentum, starting with that looming blank page. William Goldman once said, “The easiest thing to do on earth is not to write” and he was absolutely right.
Seattleites Casey Warren and Danielle Krieger are the creative duo behind the production company Mindcastle and the new film From 1994 (one the first ever to be shot with the MōVI and Alexa M together). And really, “creative duo” doesn’t do them justice. These two finish each other’s sentences. After meeting in high school, they started their own photography company to avoid getting summer jobs. Since then, they’ve gone on to create videos for the likes of ESPN, HBO, and Disney. And on top of all of that, they’re an absolute delight to chat with. Here is our conversation with Casey Warren and Danielle Krieger.
What makes a short film a short film? If you asked us a month ago, we might have told you that a short film’s defining characteristic is, well, its shortness. But not anymore. For the past few weeks, we’ve been trading emails with Dr. Richard Raskin, a professor at Aarhus University in Denmark, and one of the most brilliant and active short-film theorists in the world. Not only does Dr. Raskin make short films, teach short films, and speak around the world at conferences about short films, but he also edits an academic journal about short films called, appropriately, Short Film Studies.
For the past two weeks, we’ve been consumed with A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin, a nearly 600-page conversation between the legendary (and infamous) filmmaker Werner Herzog and editor Paul Cronin. While Herzog comes from an older generation of filmmakers, his rogue approach to cinema strikes us as being particularly timely today. Not just timely, actually — but challenging. At 72 years old, Werner Herzog is still ahead of his time.
Since launching the Musicbed Community, we have interviewed dozens and dozens of filmmakers and artists from all around the world. We’ve flown to Paris. We’ve Skyped to South Africa. We’ve G-Chatted to Spain. And during all that time, we’d like to think we’ve not only gotten better at interviewing people, but that we’ve learned a few practical lessons along the way. We’ve written them down here.
It’s impossible to say what makes a film great. Useless to prescribe any rules, since often the best films break them anyway. A more helpful discussion, then, might be to talk about what makes a film bad — and what can be done about it (this is the helpful part).
Matthew Porterfield, a 39-year-old filmmaker from Baltimore, Maryland, has written and directed four feature films, including Hamilton, Putty Hill, I Used to Be Darker, and the soon-to-be-released Sollers Point. His work has been screened at acclaimed festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, and the Berlinale. And in 2010 he was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. It’s an impressive CV for any filmmaker, let alone one who claims, for the most part, to lack ambition.
It was tempting to open this interview with some sort of dog cliché about learning new tricks or letting them out or barking up the wrong tree. But the truth is, any cliché used in relation to Animal Studio’s web-series-turned-TV-show, Downward Dog, would be tone deaf. The show is the opposite of a cliché. It’s a fresh, dark, genuinely funny spin on what could easily have been a farce: a talking dog named Martin. “I got Samm [Hodges] involved, which is ironic because he thought it was the worst idea in the world,” writer/creator/director Michael Killen told us. “We landed on this very self-involved, Millennial-toned dog who’s looking back on his life and trying to decide whether or not he mattered. That gave it this dead serious tone, which is actually what makes it so funny.”
Three recent design school graduates are sitting in a room somewhere in the Netherlands, listening to an album. The record skips. They think: Did the record just skip? Or did we travel through time a little bit? It’s the kind of bizarro question that will become common for these three. Jump-cut 10 years into the future, and this seed of an idea has become the Oscar-nominated animated short film A Single Life, created by the now-renowned animation studio Job, Joris & Marieke.
Dylan Allen’s The Privates manages to tackle sci-fi, indie-rock, group dynamics, and merge them into one brilliantly thoughtful short film. The ideas in the ensemble comedy transcend filmmaking: waiting for your big break, struggling through creative differences, grappling with the drive to create something so great it melts faces. But despite all of those highly recognizable elements, the film has a wit and through-line that is totally original. That’s probably due in large part to the work Allen put into making every single role in his cast of characters strong enough to stand out from the background noise.
Creativity is full of paradoxes — not the least of which is the fact that having absolute creative freedom is often highly uncreative. It’s a phenomenon called “paralysis of choice.” The more options we have, the harder it is to choose anything. So we do nothing. When everything is an option, somehow we find ourselves optionless. Which is why almost every artistic medium develops its own limitations over time.
It takes a lot of different skills to be a good filmmaker. That’s probably why it takes so long. You have to be a storyteller, an entrepreneur, a problem solver, a marketer, a networker…the list goes on. It’s a very hard job. So it might seem strange for us to say that of all the skills you could be practicing every day, writing is probably the most beneficial. And it will sound especially strange if writing isn’t something you particularly care about doing in the first place. But hear us out. The discipline of writing often is not about becoming a better writer (although that could be a cool bonus, if you’re lucky). It’s about becoming a better thinker ⎯ maybe even a better person.
Eliot Rausch likes parables and has a habit of turning them into beautiful and thought-provoking, albeit highly ambiguous, short films. On the surface, the form might seem outdated. Parables aren’t data-driven. They’re not timely. They’re not easily retweetable, shareable, likeable, loveable, Snapchat-able. They don’t contain takeaways. All reasons why it would be easy to write them off. And all reasons why we need them now more than ever. “Our time is limited and our attention spans are really short,” Eliot told us. “There’s something incredibly beautiful about passing on these short parables to future generations.”
Why wait around for the perfect script to come your way, when you could spend time writing a script of your own? Probably because it’s a lot easier to have someone else do it. But with that strategy comes some serious risk. Mainly that the script never comes at all. The smarter, if much more painful, option is to take control of your creative destiny and write it yourself. Which is exactly what commercial director Lloyd Lee Choi is doing right now: hacking away on a feature-length script in hopes of breaking through the creative ceiling he’s reached while creating 30- to 60-second spots. We called him recently to see what he’s learned about writing. Here’s what he said.
The “based on a true story” trope is equal parts appealing and daunting for a filmmaker. An amazing story rooted in some sort of reality can feel like the perfect creative storm. But how do you do it justice — especially when it hits close to home for a community in the wake of a tragedy? That was the challenge facing Evan Ari Kelman, director and co-writer of Where There’s Smoke, when he set about exploring the transformative nature of the tragedy that occurred one night in 2005 when three FDNY firefighters lost their lives — otherwise known as “Black Sunday.”
If you gave five different filmmakers the same prompt, you’d get five different films. That’s because every objective element of the process (plot, characters, story) passes through the most subjective filter of all: our perspective. What results is an infinitely nuanced version of reality, with all of our biases, opinions, and values attached. This perspective is what makes films unique and it’s defined by our first-hand experiences, which is exactly why U.K. Director Charlotte Regan’s films are successful — she writes what she knows. Nothing more, nothing less.
“Every story worth telling in some way mirrors our lives…” That’s how David Corbett opens his now canonical book The Art of Character, and after chatting with him, we understand why. According to David, our ability to understand the characters in our stories is directly related to our ability to understand ourselves. He calls this “the intuitive bridge.”
Whatever your feelings about Hollywood, it’s impossible to deny its influence on all of us. Even though many purposefully disregard Hollywood’s conventions, methods, and structures, we’re still affected by them. And to be honest, there’s a lot we can learn from them. We’ve recently been digging into Blake Snyder’s classic screenwriting book Save the Cat! And while much of it is as “Hollywood” as you’d expect, there’s a lot of gold in there too.