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Creating Characters

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Creating characters is one of my favorite steps when writing an original script.  Movie characters must be thoroughly developed if they are to be authentic and convincing.  It is a great responsibility for every writer.

A list of physiological, sociological, and psychological character traits is often where I start.  Attributes like bodily care, friendships, sex life, and intelligence are ascribed.  Here is a snippet of my main character’s traits thus far.

Follow My Film Character Traits Sample

After ascribing character traits, I simply type away and create their lives, beginning with who their parents were, all the way up to the beginning moment of the script.  It is crucial that I not stop and edit myself during this phase.  I simply need to go with my instincts, allowing the character to unfold as I type.

Most certainly, my characters are an amalgam of people from my past and present.  I rarely think of a particular person when brainstorming a character.  My method is to let go and connect with the character as I type, allowing them to determine who they are and what they do.  Again, it is crucial that I not stop and edit or be critical in any way.   I simply must type away.

 

 

If you’re a writer, please comment and share some of your methods to developing a character.  I’d love to know…


Disgust and Anger

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Nine times out of ten, when I tell someone I’m writing a film script, they instantly ask: “What’s it about?”  This question has become the bane of my existence as a filmmaker.  No one ever asks, “Who’s it about?”

Most people are conditioned to think that movies are primarily stories.  At a recent party, I suggested that a film can be something other than a story.  Aghast, a visual effects editor shot up in his seat and challenged, “What else would it be?”

When one crafts a “story,” the most important element is it’s plot, i.e., a sequence of events with a beginning, middle and an end.  And to make it entertaining, which is often the point, there needs to be conflict with twists and turns along the way.  Inevitably, other elements simply become a device utilized for the story.  Characters become no different from the cars they drive or the music they listen to.  They are mainly there to propel the plot forward and make it interesting.

In the audio commentary of a critically acclaimed American film, the writer/director blatantly admits that he killed off a character because he needed a “device” to move the story forward.  I can’t begin to express the disgust and anger I felt by that comment.  Humans are sacred, whether in flesh or in fiction.  To kill one off for the sake of story is murder, plain and simple.

My approach is entirely different.  I often begin with a human being in a particular situation.  I then brainstorm who they are and what their situation is.  My primary goal is to explore this person, rather than concoct a story.  Writing in a stream of consciousness way, I meditate on the person, allowing them to determine what they do or not do.  This organically leads to more circumstances and more characters.  It is the character, the living being, who paves their own way, not me.

As a filmmaker, John Cassavetes is a great inspiration to me.  His first film, Shadows (1959), was groundbreaking in both content and methodology.  He states:

Follow My Film The Script Disgusted and AngryAn excerpt from Cassavetes on Cassavetes (2001) by Ray Carney

Here’s a rare clip of John Cassavetes in a television interview.  He begins by talking about his film Opening Night (1977), which follows the life of a stage actress.  After a couple minutes, he gets fired up and rants about movies and Hollywood.  There is text in the middle of the screen, but it’s worth watching!

 


Introducing My Characters

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After weeks of development, I can now introduce the primary characters of my film:

Bethany, a potted flower content with an occasional drop of water.  She deserves better, but won’t allow it.  Her greatest desire is to be loved, desperately hoping her ex-boyfriend, Rob, will return.  She is only 30 and already a top-notch hair stylist.  But she is stuck.  Rather than cultivate herself and go forth, Bethany ponders unanswerable questions.  Does he love me?  Is it my fault?  Should I call him?

Rob is a hunky Texan living in LA.  He can’t stand sushi and would never get a pedicure.  At age 33, he is the youngest sales manager for a booming Texas-based company.  There is no doubt Rob will one day be a millionaire.  His country boy charm off-sets his shrewd business sense.  Southern hospitality resides in his blood; he enjoys helping people with their needs, though he has no patience for whining or laziness.  He likes Bethany and enjoys being with her, but he does not desire the type of relationship she wants.

Alex is 35.  His dream is to be the Wolfgang Puck of hair: salons across the country and his own product line.  Clients love him.  Not only is he a master with the shears, but generous and kind as well.  He adores Bethany; they are the best of friends.  And since Alex is gay, romance has never come between them.  They work at the same hair salon and plan on owning one together someday.  But when the perfect opportunity arises, Bethany hesitates, clutching onto Rob.  Should Alex pressure her to move on or should he patiently wait for her?

Any thoughts, questions or comments???  I especially would love to know if you resonate with these characters or if they remind you of situations others have been in.  Please share…

 


Abbas Kiarostami

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In 1997, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his film, Touch of Cherry.  Regardless, Kiarostami remains relatively unknown in America to this day.  I fortunately heard about this great filmmaker through my friend George, who urged me to watch his films.

The Taste of Cherry DVD (Criterion Collection, 1999), includes videotaped interviews of Kiarostami.  His candid words deeply inspired and encouraged me the other night.  He emboldened me to follow my instincts and make the film I want to make.

What I don’t like, you don’t see in my films.  But in all, I don’t like to engage in telling stories.  I don’t like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice.  I don’t like to belittle him or burden him with a sense of guilt.  Those are the things I don’t like in movies.

I think a good film is one that has a lasting power, and you start to reconstruct it right after you leave the theater.  There are a lot of films that seem to be boring, but they are decent films.  On the other hand, there are films that nail you to your seat and overwhelm you to the point that you forget everything, but you feel cheated later.   These are the films that take you hostage.

I absolutely don’t like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them.  I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater.  I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater.

Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake me up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.  Those are the kinds of films I like.


 


Werner Herzog

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Sunday night, I had the immense honor of meeting filmmaker Werner Herzog at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  Not only was he a true gentleman, but an immense inspiration as well. During the Q&A that followed the screening of his film Stroszek (1977), he discussed his script writing technique .

The conventional method of writing a script demands countless hours of character development, research, plotting, and rewriting.  Ultimately, the goal is to create an entertaining story with multi-layered characters who evolve.  Mr. Herzog often abandons this convention and writes from instinct and personal experience.  Rather than spend countless hours following convention, he simply writes whatever he wants.  The result is a highly original script written in a relatively short period of time.

Whereas traditional script writers are analogous to naturalistic painters, bound by rules, tradition and realism, Mr. Herzog resembles the expressionists, like Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh.  Though based in reality, expressionistic art let’s loose and allows the artist to interpret reality in a personal, emotive way.  Neither method is better; the point is simply that another approach to script writing exists.

I’m excited to let loose and allow my instinct and experience guide me!  My script is about a young woman trapped in an on-and-off relationship with a man.  I’ve personally had hundreds of conversations with women in such circumstances.  That is my source of inspiration, my so-called research.  I’m going to write instinctively, from what I know.  I’m going to paint my main character’s portrait like an expressionist would, from the gut, emotive, and deeply personal.

Below are some expressionistic paintings and a must-see TV interview with Mr. Herzog.

Vincent van Gogh, Landscape with House and Laborer, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, The White House at Night, 1890

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893

Edvard Munch, Golgotha, 1900

For more on Werner Herzog, check out this great DGA Quarterly Magazine interview.

 


Writing Like Cassavetes

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When I have a question regarding actors or acting, I often call my friend Sarah.  She’s an incredibly talented actor with tremendous experience.  More importantly, she truly understands the craft of acting and what actors need.

Traditionally, a script is finalized before actors are cast.  Though some revisions are made, actors generally have little control over their lines and action.  On the other hand, filmmaker John Cassavetes thoroughly discussed and workshopped his scripts with his actors, resulting in countless rewrites.  Contrary to popular belief, actors did not simply improvise their lines in a Cassavetes film; they definitely used a script.  However, through collaboration with Mr. Cassavetes, they were integral in developing and creating their characters and dialogue.

I met with Sarah last week and discussed my interest in approaching my film similar to John Cassavetes.  I believe beginning with a loose script and workshopping it with actors is the way to go.  Sarah agreed.  She recommended I outline my plot and hone in on my characters.  Then, once I develop a first draft, she encouraged me to go forth with casting.

Thanks to Sarah, I have fully committed to this approach and hope to begin auditioning actors within a few short weeks.  Rather than abide strictly to a previously contrived script, most dialogue and action will be collaboratively developed with my actors.  And stay tuned: I will post audition and rehearsal videos, so you can partake in the collaborative process as well.

Below are some relevant thoughts by John Cassavetes in Cassavetes on Cassavetes by Ray Carney (2001, pg. 216):

I love the last line and couldn’t agree more, though at times being “locked in” might be a good thing…  What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

 


Meet Cassidy Brown

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I am elated to announce that Cassidy Brown has agreed to play the role of Bethany!

After giving her a chance to read the script, we met Tuesday night for a final meeting.  I encouraged her to interview me as much as I needed to interview her.  It was a blast.  We discussed the different ways we like to prepare for a film and found that we have a lot in common.  My primary goal was to determine whether or not Cassidy and I will collaborate in a productive and creative way.  So after an hour of lively conversation, I was confident that we will work very well together and offered her the role.

Now that I know who will play Bethany, I will make a decision about the role of Rob.  I wanted to cast Bethany first to determine who would be the most suitable to play Rob.  I’m hoping to make a decision regarding Rob within a few days and will share the news immediately.

Cassidy is excited to join in on this blog, so you’ll get a chance to know her a lot more.  I’d like her to share a bit about the audition process and what her approach was.  Additionally, we are both looking forward to posting rehearsal videos and other elements capturing our work together.

I’m very fortunate that Cassidy is on-board and know she will embody Bethany in a genuine and powerful way.  I can’t wait to start rehearsing!

 


Meet Chris Ivan Cevic

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Chris Ivan Cevic as Rob.

Cassidy Brown as Bethany.

The role of Rob has now been cast! He will be played by Chris Ivan Cevic.

After Cassidy Brown agreed to play the role of Bethany, I immediately set my eye on Chris as Rob. He is an incredibly strong and focused actor, and I believe he is an excellent fit opposite Cassidy.

I spent a couple of hours with Chris yesterday discussing the role of Rob and it was quite encouraging. He is a very intelligent and insightful man with vast life experience. Like me, he discovered his passion for film at a somewhat later age and abandoned a lucrative career path to follow his heart.

I’m very excited to work with Chris and can’t wait to see what he brings to the role.   Even during our brief conversation yesterday, he shared some incredible insight, which boosted my confidence in him that much more.

He will join Cassidy and I for rehearsals next week, so stay tuned for photos and videos of us working together.  And, in case you missed it, you can read about  the characters Bethany and Rob HERE.

Thank you again so much for the support!  The next two months are going to be really exciting…

– Christopher

 


Our Footage Looks Great!

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For some reason, after I’m done filming my movies, I wait awhile before reviewing the footage.

In the past, with my short films, I waited as long as three weeks before watching the footage.  I’m not sure why I do this.  Perhaps it’s nerves or maybe I’m just tired.  Nonetheless, I have begun watching our footage from Girlfriend 19 and I am very, very excited to say it looks fantastic!!!  Led by my cinematographer, Gavin Fisher, and production designer, Macha Suzuki, my team did an amazing job and I’m looking forward to showing it off…

Check out some snapshots of our footage below.  And please note: I will be posting a lot more in coming weeks along with comments and discussions regarding why I filmed the scenes the way I did.

Chris Ivan Cevic as Rob with Cassidy Brown as Bethany.

Bethany during one of five scenes at the park.

Bethany alone at night.

Danielle Louie as "The Other Woman"!

Cassidy Brown as Bethany taking a moment...

Guillaume Dabin-Pons as Alex during a dinner scene.

Cassidy Brown as Bethany during a morning scene.

 


The Grunt Phase of Writing

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In the last couple years, I’ve come to realize that I thrive most during the tweaking phase of the creative process.  I’m talking about the phase after the initial set-up, when there are concrete elements to play with, add upon, and tweak.  

For writers of original works, there is nothing more foreboding than a blank screen.  Like God himself, we must create something out of thin air; and speaking for myself: I ‘aint no God, so it’s tough.  In fact, I now refer to the beginning of every creative project as the grunt phase. 

What helps me most during the grunt phase is to avoid perfectionism.  The beginning stage of creativity is not the time to edit; you simply need to put your nose to the grindstone and write away.  Then, once there is something to tweak, you can dive more deeply into the creative process and make it better.

The important thing is to give yourself something to work with, just churn it out and trust that you will make it much, much better.  You will feel much better about yourself, rather than get stuck in front of a blank screen thinking of the perfect idea.

 


Let’s Make a Film Together!

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As I considered post topics for this week, my gratitude for all who loyally follow my blog arose; thus, I thought I would take a moment to THANK YOU!

FollowMyFilm.com has definitely been rewarding, especially when I hear back from readers.  I admittedly don’t do a great job inciting conversation with my posts, so comments and feedback are always a treat.  That is why I’m going to make an effort to write more conversational posts from now on.

Rather than primarily make statements via posts, I’m going to think out loud and ask questions more often, especially as I work on my newest film project, which I will post about next week.  Your thoughts and insight will not only be helpful, but exciting to hear as well.

For instance, I’m going to ask for feedback regarding the characters and plot in my script.  Then, when it comes time to previsualize the film for directorial purposes, I’d love to hear your thoughts on cinematic elements such as costuming, color scheme, and camera work.

The more I work on films, the more I realize that I absolutely love the communal aspect of the art form.  So I want FollowMyFilm.com to be a way in which I can connect with other cinephiles and create together!


New Film Synopsis

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I’ve been eluding to my next feature film project in recent posts and now it’s time to share what the heck it’s about! 

Our film is a love story that explores the beauty and enigma of two people being drawn together as they help one another overcome personal fears.  The main setting is a thriving Indiana grain farm where its lone occupant, a gruff widow named Eugenia, is bedridden due to a stroke.  Her estranged children leave her in the hands of Bernadette, a live-in caregiver who is as gifted at baking, as she is caring for the sickly woman.  Bernadette soon discovers another presence on the farm, Shane, Eugenia’s loyal, yet withdrawn farm hand.  As Bernadette and Shane work alongside one another on the farm, they discover that love is a phenomenon beyond their control, one that chooses them as much as they choose one another.

So there you go!  As I mentioned before, I recently completed the first draft of the script and am now rewriting.  I’m excited to share the process of making this film with you, everything from writing, to directing, to editing.  I’ll be posting a lot more frequently with questions, thoughts, and concerns you hopefully with comment on.

Here are a couple of photos visually exemplifying why I wanted to make my next film in Indiana…

Indiana Country Road

An Indiana country road in August. I have a few scenes in my script where characters ride along country roads...

Eagles Theatre, Wabash, Indiana

The beautiful Eagles Theatre in Wabash, Indiana, recently restored by the Honeywell Foundation. Not only is there a scene in my film set at the theatre, we also hope to premiere our film there in 2014!


Stay the Hell Out of the Way!

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The most exhilarating part of writing a script is when “your” characters begin to speak on their own and do things on their own initiative, demanding that you get the hell out of their way!

Such has been my experience lately while writing my current feature film script.  Don’t get me wrong, I end up in the way quite often, but more and more, I am able to observe and notate my characters rather than dictate, manipulate and contrive.  

In many ways, this process is much like a spiritual discipline, where the faithful submits themselves to a higher power, following its lead.

My higher power?  In the case of screenwriting: the characters!


Embrace Emotional and Spiritual Murder

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Establishing oneself as a professional artist is excruciatingly difficult in the United States.  The American social system does not support nor does it encourage artistic aspiration.  This is mainly because of capitalism, i.e., there is no monetary value in a novice work of art, thus, it is not invested in.

As a result of this resistance toward artistic aspiration, most striving artists suffer socially, economically, emotionally, and spiritually, which typically leads to an abandonment of dreams.  I used to think this is tragic and unjust; it upset me and made me mad.  However, the more I give filmmaking a go, the more I realize this resistance is a good thing.

When I decided to go to law school in 2003, I was socially, economically, emotionally, and spiritually supported.  It was easy; everything fell into place.  All I had to do was sign-off on student loans and show up to class.  People were proud of me and encouraged me.  And I felt spiritually grounded because I was comfortable.  However, when I decided to drop-out and pursue a more personal passion, filmmaking, the support pretty much dissipated.  I went from a top-tier law school student to a 31-year-old substitute teacher who wants to make movies.  I was questioned, mocked, and humiliated.

Most people lack vision, so they will attack, criticize, and ridicule artistic aspiration.  Rather than focus on the honesty and courage it takes to create, most look at the imperfect final product and devalue its creator.  This is immature, selfish, and hateful.  It’s a form of emotional and spiritual murder.  But that’s how it goes and I doubt I’m going to change that.  Rather, I have learned to embrace this injustice and see its benefits.

Resistance towards artistic aspiration has many latent benefits.  First, it weeds out the hacks.  Many dream of being a famous artist, but few really have the talent and the discipline, so they give up.  Most are not called to be an artist to begin with and it’s a good thing that they give up; it’s good for us and for them.

Second, resistance builds character.  Hate, discouragement, and indifference are like weights; you are forced to muscle them, which can build you up or kill you.  If you keep on pumping those weights, you will become stronger and more resilient yourself.  In fact, the more “famous” you become as an artist, the more resistance you will face, so the weights just get heavier, hopefully leading to greater character and better work.

Third, resistance forces you to become a better artist.  Although it may be deeply painful, you are challenged to improve your work.  In most cases, an artist is ignored because his/her work is not good, full of cliche, cheap mimicry.  A mature artist will acknowledge this reality and strive to improve, to be more personal.  Sure, even great art is often ignored due to subjectivity, ignorance, and fear; however, there will always be appreciation somewhere for good art if the artist continues to persevere.

Most importantly, resistance toward artistic aspiration leads to more authentic relationships.  As the aspiring artist evolves, so to will his/her priorities, values, and perspectives.  Superficial, vain, and unhealthy elements in life will no longer matter to the artist, thus, they will be drawn to and attract similar folks.  The artist will be inspired by their new community of courageous, bold, and beautiful human beings.  And though it may be painful, some people in the artist’s life will reject them and ostracize them, but that’s okay because these people are toxic and need to be distanced if the artist is to thrive.

Resistance sucks.  It is often brutal, unjust, and, at times, evil.  But if it is embraced, resistance can lead to beautiful things.


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No-Budget Film School a No-Brainer

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I rarely promote stuff on here, so when I do, I mean it!

The NO-BUDGET FILM SCHOOL will be held this weekend in LA. I have personally attended twice in the past and it is worth every penny. It is the single most effective event an aspiring filmmaker can attend.

And the following weekend, May 18th & 19th, No-Budget Film School presents CINEMA LANGUAGE, which I have also attended, twice! It will teach you to take the nuts-and-bolts of the No Budget weekend and apply it cinematically, with purpose and meaning.  Cinema Language is a visually driven seminar with a ton of movie clips and an amazing teacher.

Sign up here: http://nobudgetfilmschool.eventbrite.com/#