Conversations with actors

One of my new favorite places online is the SAG Foundation‘s YouTube channel. Founded in 1985, the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, is meant to “enhance the lives of performers by investing in programs which help them in their professional endeavors and the communities in which they live.” Fortunately for us, not only do these events happen often — sometimes multiple events in a day — but the bulk of them are published here. No SAG card needed.

The pieces range from a series called “Conversations” — wherein an artist, or the cast of a production (from Portlandia to Broadway’s Something Rotten!) — take part in a moderated solo or panel discussion — “The Business” which focuses, not surprisingly, on the business aspects of production, as well as many pieces on casting, independent film production and distribution, marketing, auditioning, etc. It’s really a great resource, and the best part (for me) is that it’s not another run-of-the-mill panel that talks surface layer plot devices. Because it’s geared at actors and industry-heads, it gets down to the minutiae of production, casting, storytelling and loads of other behind-the-scenes moments you don’t typically find anywhere else.

Here are some favorites:


On McKee’s Story Seminar: The Meat + Everything Else

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Last month, I flew up to NYC for a few days of walking, waiting and writing; three things I seem to do most frequently when I’m in the city. I travelled up to attend Robert McKee‘s infamous STORY seminar, a 3-day intensive on the design and structure of storytelling. It seems like people are finally starting to realize and value the art of storytelling and not just in traditional methods (novels, movies, songs, etc.) but in everything. Some of the best, most efficient advertisements go viral because of their unique takes on story. All of that to say, this is a great seminar for anyone who looking to sharpen their skills.

Before I go too far into this, I want to say that I don’t think McKee necessarily advocates one specific avenue for success in screenwriting. If you’re looking for the right way to do it, you should stop and reëvaluate what you’re getting into. The way we watch television and movies, the types of content we consume is evolving too quickly for there to be one exclusive route to success. What McKee gets behind is story. Read his book, listen to the audiobook, or go to the seminar. You’ll benefit from this course if you take the good and leave the bad. It’s as simple as that. Don’t expect to agree with everything, and don’t expect to walk out after three days a brilliant screenwriter.

I’ll also preface by saying I felt a little douche-y and unqualified for going to this. What type of person goes to these things? According to McKee, John Cleese has been to the seminar four times. Will I need to go four times? When I signed up, I got an email with a long list of recommended films to watch, films that McKee would mention at some point. I’m not going to lie, that part was a little thrilling. I spent a couple months going through as many as I could that I hadn’t seen, re-watching a few that I had, missing the important ones I felt should be included. The email also included a schedule which showed what I already knew: the seminar is essentially Robert McKee talking for 10-ish hours straight, for three days. Whatever kind of dread you personally associate with sitting in an auditorium for 10-ish hours a day, for three days, I empathize.

But ultimately, I loved it.

I researched the seminar quite a bit before I left and I didn’t find the kind of information I wanted: like, the meat. Here are a few things I picked up and/or wanted to know before I spent the time, effort and cash.

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First & Final Frames

“What can we learn by examining only the first and final shot of a film?” – Filmmaker and cinephile, Jacob T. Swinney posted this video called “First and Final Frames” to Vimeo back in March, and since then, it has garnered some 1.6 million views.

Swinney says, “This video plays the opening and closing shots of 55 films side-by-side. Some of the opening shots are strikingly similar to the final shots, while others are vastly different–both serving a purpose in communicating various themes. Some show progress, some show decline, and some are simply impactful images used to begin and end a film.”

Here are a few of my favorites:

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Though I come primarily from a writing perspective, beautiful cinematography has the ability to say a lot with no words at all and has always been an area to which I’ve been drawn. It’s fascinating how much is conveyed in just these few brief moments, not only the individual scenes but their placement in the film and the impact these moments have on the overall story. Seeing the first and final frames side by side adds a new dimension – how about that Gone Girl section?

Check out Jacob’s work, including other great pieces analyzing film techniques and/or explorations including: Tarantino’s Close-ups (the second, in a four-part series) and The Evolution of Batman in Cinema.

Ava DuVernay // 2015 SXSW Keynote

I love Ava DuVernay. I haven’t met her, so maybe this is weird and forward, but I do. I love her attitude and humility; the way she talks about her projects and collaborators; wins, losses; good weeks, bad weeks; the struggle to get where she’s at now and what it’s like when Meryl Streep wants to talk to you about your film.  (Here’s a Tumblr you can obsess over, if you’d like). We all struggle with life and “the process” and I don’t tire of hearing how people overcome their personal and professional challenges, or when they’re in a bad mood and want to stay in bed all day. For better or worse, those people encourage me.

DuVernay is an award-winning director, writer and producer of independent films like I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere (for which she won Best Director at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival), and most recently, the phenomenal Selma (becoming the first black female director to have a film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards).

Last week, she gave the keynote address at the annual SXSW Film Festival, an address she admittedly wrote only hours before. It’s a little over 20 minutes long, but it is packed with stories, insights and advice she’s learned along the way.


In typical fan-girl fashion, I really want to write it all out and tape it to my front door so I can see it every day, but I’m editing all week so these are just a few of my favorite moments:

Give your attention to your intention. “It’s so big for everyone, but especially for artists and creative types like us. [. . .] Whether you are conscious of it or not, your intention is the cause that produces the effect, which is your life. So if you are not paying attention to your intention then your life is a bit of a hot mess. That is what I’ve found.”

“Serve the story. You have to.”

There are dreams out there bigger than you even know how to dream. Don’t limit the dream with the small stuff. You have to open up and let your intention be beyond yourself because if your dream is only about you, it’s too small.”

On the Academy Awards: “It’s cool, it’s very cool. [. . .] But my work’s worth is not based on what happens in, around, for or about that room.”

There’s a Q&A portion at the end, which is equally enlightening as DuVernay answers questions on everything from how women were originally portrayed in early Selma scripts to the lack of studio interest in producing films featuring people of color. “Obviously,” she says, “The studios aren’t lining up to make films about black protagonists. Or about freedom and dignity as it pertains to black people and people of color being the drivers of their own lives.” And to diverse filmmakers wanting to see their stories told: “Stop asking people who don’t care about the work and do the work.”

Also: Check out this short posted last year by Academy Originals on DuVernay’s “creative spark” — It’s one of my favorite in the series and a good look into her pre-Selma creative process.

The Numbers are Dismal, Let’s Illuminate

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been following the response to screenwriter Julie Bush‘s post What It Means When a Producer Says They Don’t Hire Women Writers. The post was referenced in Danielle Henderson’s Fusion article Women Working in Hollywood: The Numbers are Dismal, and expanded upon by Bush in another post, Women in Hollywood: A Shit Show. If the titles of the preceding posts aren’t clear as to their collective subject, I’ll just say this: it’s hard out there for women. It’s worse for women of color. And these posts are illuminating.

These are not opinions, as the second article I linked to pointed out, these are quantifiable facts. There are numbers and charts and graphs and people with functioning eyes who indicate the arts and entertainment industries are decidedly male and decidedly white. This is likely status quo for most industries, but it’s a hard fact to come to terms with when you’re starting out in a particular industry, are within that industry trying to move up and feeling stuck, and it’s hard for women who have achieved levels of personal success but find themselves surrounded by many versions of the same person man.

The arts and entertainment industries are collaborative arts. It just makes sense – you’re better when you’re constantly learning and evolving and opening your eyes to new perspectives. If the industry is ever going to be more inclusive, it will be because it is saturated with people who do this. I’m actively seeking inspiration and motivation, and in my future posts, you’ll see the fruits of that effort. Here’s one:

The interview below is with screenwriter/director Susannah Grant. It’s fantastic. She’s written the screenplays for Ever After, 28 Days and Erin Brockovich (the latter of which she was nominated for an Academy Award); she’s directed episodes of Party of Five and the film Catch and Release and yesterday, it was announced that Grant will be penning an Anita Hill biopic for HBO Films, starring Kerry Washington, tentatively called Confirmation. I saw the link to this “lecture” in an article this morning and was sucked in for the 25-minute duration, which includes a brief presentation and a fantastic Q&A.

“Failure is constant, for everyone. And I mean it. Everybody fails at this all the time. Not just screenwriters, but I think anyone who tries to illuminate the  human experience in an authentic way. [. . .]

The popularity of your unique voice is not what matters. What matters is staying true to it — writing the voice that is uniquely yours.”

This iStorytelling Thing & the Future & Stuff

At the Sundance Film Festival this year, indie writer/director Sean Baker became the first filmmaker to show a film — Tangerine — shot exclusively on an iPhone 5s.  In February, the ABC sitcom Modern Family debuted an episode called “Connection Lost” filmed entirely with iPhones, iPads and other Apple products. With smartphones grabbing about 76% of the U.S. subscriber market, the potential for amateur filmmaking has been exploding for years (see: YouTube, Vimeo), but now that technology is starting to catch up, talented storytellers with non-existent budgets are able to create high-quality pieces that could, arguably, be the future of the industry.

Or, at least, have a future … in the industry.

Here’s an ABC News piece (also shot w/ iProducts) – covering the Modern Family episode. It’s always fascinating to me when what you see on television and film or how you think it’s being shot, turns out to be a much more complex process. Of course it is, it always is.

I want to look at this area of innovation a little more in the coming weeks. I’ve already come across several pieces shot exclusively on iPhones, some of them edited on the devices through apps and with a variety of iaccessories, and others brought into a more complex editing and coloring system.

Let me know if you have any favorites.