Thursday, July 22, 2021

Building A Better B-Movie, Pt 2

Last time we talked about how to write a good script for a B-movie. Something cheap but still solid and clever. Something we can shoot ourselves.

Well, now that the script is written—

(you did write it all out, yes? That was one of the tips!)

—we can move on to the next fun phase. The one we’re all more interested in. Yeah, be honest. What we really want to do is direct. But I think first we need to talk a little bit about what directing involves. Yeah, even on this level.

Y’see, Timmy, making a movie is a lot like being in the military. When you think of the Army, most people tend to think of big battles, shooting rifles, driving in tanks, and stuff like that. But if you talk to anyone in the military (and if you’ve been in, you already know this), there’s a huge amount of logistical work. Planning. Scheduling. Inventories. Duty rosters. It’s all that advance work that makes the shooting rifles/ driving tanks moments go off without a problem.

Well, with significantly fewer problems. We’ll talk about that, too...

Filmmaking’s the same way. So much of it gets done before everyone shows up to set on that first day of shooting, and a huge amount of that work is done by the director. Even with numerous department heads doing lots of work for them, the director’s the one making most of the decisions. And at the budget level we’re talking about, I’m probably going to be doing even more as the director.

This isn’t meant to scare or discourage anyone. I’m just trying to make it clear that a lot of what makes a good director isn’t just the flashy stuff on set when I frame shots with my hands and yell “cut!” And if I want to make a good B-movie, I need to be a good director. Some of the stuff I’m going to talk about is going to sound really boring, and more than half of it’s going to happen before the first time I get to yell “action!” Yay! Welcome to filmmaking!

So here’s a few things I should probably have if I want to do a better-than adequate job of directing. Especially at our B-movie budget level.

1) Have Some Experience
This is the easiest one. Not saying I should’ve already shot another movie or some shorts or anything like that. But before I get a dozen of my friends together... I should just play around with the camera a bit. Even if I’m just planning on shooting this on my phone, go spend some time with the phone. Figure out what it can do. Believe me, it’s a lot better to figure it now than when all your friends are standing around ready to shoot a scene.

Easy thing to do? I should think of shots I like in movies, shots I’ve imagined for my movie, and just try to do them. No pressure, no requirements, just see if I can make my camera do the thing I’m picturing in my head. Maybe use action figures or get a friend who’s willing to be my living mannequin for the day and try a bunch of different shots with different angles/ lighting/ costumes. Then look at these shots and try to figure out what needs improvement. Spend lots of time doing this.

Seriously, start doing it tonight. Start doing it right now. Point the camera at the cat and give me a serial killer POV shot—go!

You’ve done that already? For real, you’re not just saying it so you can rush to the next step? Well, okay than...

2) Have the basics down
Okay, in the past I’ve talked about some standard film shots, so here’s a link for those. I want to start thinking of the script in these terms. Visually, what each scene’s going to look like and which shots I’ll need to construct that scene.

I’ll also point you at Krishna Rao’s unwritten rule of thumb—one pretty shot a day. Maybe I want to do a neat POV shot on a slide or outside someone’s window. Maybe I’m going to use a bicycle to keep up with somebody running down the street. Maybe my friends and I figured out how to do a real cool overhead spinning shot. These are all fantastic, but I don’t want to get bogged down in dozens and dozens of them on the same shooting day (I’ll explain why in a bit).

Let me hit you with two more good things to know. There’s a term you may have heard called screen direction. It’s really important, and it’s one of those things we all instinctively notice when its done wrong. Really simply put, pretend there’s a line down the center of the camera frame. Everything has to stay on its side of the frame, unless we see it switch sides on camera. Things on the left stay on the left, things on the right stay on the right. If you’re on the left and I’m on the right, I should be looking left (at you) when we’re talking in close ups and you should be looking right (at me). If we’re both looking the same way it looks.. weird. It goes against the cinematic language we’ve all picked up over the years.

Now, there’s another aspect to this and it’s called crossing the line. Here’s how it usually gets explained. Natasha and Yelena are sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast and the box of cereal's on the table with them. When we shoot our master shot, these things are going to be on one side or the other—some people say it’s with her or with her For example, Yelena's bowl of cereal would clearly be with her, Natasha's bowl is with her. But the box... who’s the box with? Because if we try to shoot it with both of them, it’s going to jump back and forth on screen as it crosses the line. If the camera’s facing Yelena, it’ll be on the left, but if it’s facing Natasha now it’ll be on the right. Make sense? Look, I even included helpful visuals. So we need to make a decision and stick with it (I’m saying the cereal is with Natasha).

When people mess this up, it’s usually because they’re confusing the actual geography of the location—what they’re seeing with their own eyes—with what the audience is seeing through camera. It doesn’t matter where the cereal box actually is in relation to you or me. Even if it’s actually at the middle of the table, on camera, it looks closer to you and that’s how we established it, so that’s how we need to shoot things. As far as the camera’s concerned, it’s on your side, not my side.

A fantastic example of screen direction (done right) is the first swordfight in The Princess Bride. Even with all the leaping around and changing camera angles, Inigo and the Man in Black never switch sides. He’s always on the left, he’s always on the right. The only time it changes is when we actually see them physically switch sides on camera.

Something I touched on above, closely related to crossing the line, is eyelines (this is the second of those two good thing to know). Have you ever watched a movie or TV show and someone seems to be looking off over there somewhere, not at the person they’re talking to? That’s an eyeline issue, and a lot of the time it ties back to crossing the line and/or people thinking more about geography then camerawork. The actors are looking at where their co-star is in the room, not where the camera's told us they are.

ProTip—most of the time if I’m close on Yakko and he’s looking at Phoebe (but we don’t see her), he’s actually just looking an inch or two away from the camera lens. Left or right of the lens depends on which side of the frame Phoebe was on. It seems weird at first, but it looks right when you cut it together.

Yeah, I know. It’s a lot of stuff to keep track of. We should probably be making a list.

Speaking of which...

3) Have a shot list
Okay, up above where I talked about different shots? This is where I need to start figuring out which of them I need for each scene. Seriously—before the first day of filming, I should know every shot I need/want for every scene.

For example... scene one. The walk-and-talk scene outside the office building. Most of it’s just going to be a wide shot of Wakko and Dot walking, but I might want to get some overs for the last third of their conversation. I might not want to go in for coverage yet because (theoretically) tension levels are still low.

But that sword fight in the forest? Well, I’ll probably want masters from both directions, and some overs to get the swords in, plus tight on their faces for a few reaction shots. And this might be a good place for one of those pretty shots—maybe a really big camera move at a good part of the duel.

I need to do this for every scene in the script. Picture all of it in my head—how its going to look on screen—and then figure out what I’m going to need to make that happen. Yeah, it can be a lot of work—I’ve seen directors spend three or four days on a shot list just for a formula television show. I knew one guy who'd block all his shots out with action figures.

Here’s two quick pro tips about making shot lists....

First, I should remember that being in close to someone tends to give us more emotion, so I usually want to start wide to establish things and then go tighter to connect with the characters. There’ll be exceptions sure, but this is a great rule of thumb. It works for scenes and for the movie as a whole. The scenes at the start of my movie should be shot wider and looser, giving me some space to breathe, but they get tighter as the story progresses and tension builds. Seriously—go watch one of your favorite movies and see how many close-ups there are in the first few scenes as opposed to the scenes closer to the climax.

Second, when I print out my script (because I wrote out the whole script, right?), three-hole punch it and put it in a binder. Seriously, movie sets pretty much run off three ring binders. And one of the reasons why is that—if I printed my title page—every page of the script now has a blank page right next to it (the back of the previous page). I can fill that blank space up with the shots for that page, notes to myself, diagrams, all sorts of stuff. Now it’s all right there, right next to the relevant scene.

As sort of a subset to the shot list, I should know how I want every scene to make the audience feel. Is this a scary movie? A funny movie? Should they be thrilled by the action or the romance in this scene? And it doesn’t always have to be big reactions—they can be intrigued or hopeful or kind of sad. But it probably means something if I have a scene and I’ve got no idea how the audience is supposed to feel about it. Or if those feelings don’t really line up with the scenes around them.

4) Have a shooting schedule
So our script has a bunch of locations in it. An office building. A tent. A forest. A meadow. I probably want to make sure I’m listing the inside and outside of places as two different locations, so Interior: Office and Exterior: Office. This can come in handy later.

What I need to do now is figure out the best order to shoot things in that also works with when we can get those locations. Like, I can shoot inside the office during the week after 6:00PM, but it’s a two hour drive to the forest, so we need to that on the weekend. Also, that walk and talk outside the office is during the day, but we can only do that on the weekends, too. Plus, Wakko’s busy on the third weekend of the month, so he can’t be in anything then.

Plus... well, you may remember last time I mentioned a good rule of thumb is that it’s going to take 90 minutes to shoot a properly formatted page. Just to be safe, I should probably double that for pretty shots and/ or stunt stuff. So that page of swordfighting—I should plan on three hours to film that.

What I’m getting at is I also have to factor in how long we need to be shooting at each location. We may need the office for twenty hours altogether. Add in that we can’t get in there until after 6:00... it means we’re probably going to have to spread this over three nights of shooting. But not over the weekend Wakko can’t be there. Unless... we just do the two scenes he’s not in on that weekend.

This is why so many movies shoot stuff out of sequence. Yeah, those four office scenes are all through the script, but it makes a lot more sense to shoot them all at the same time. And the meadow and the exterior tent are almost forty minutes apart in the movie, but... well, is there any reason we couldn’t set up the tent in the meadow once we’ve shot the meadow stuff? We could just turn the camera a bit for a different background and bam exterior tent.

Yeah. It’s a bit of a puzzle figuring out how to make all of this work. It always is. I have friends who are assistant directors and I’ve watched them juggle these things back and forth, trying to make everything line up as best they can. Trying to work this all out will probably be when we’re doing a lot of begging and pleading and desperate promising with various people. Because we’re doing all this super-cheap, mostly off people’s goodwill, so we need to make everyone happy. This is my dream, but it might not be theirs.

Also, now that we’ve got this all these different scenes set down in shooting order, I can see that oh, crap... I’ve got three of my  pretty shots scheduled for Tuesday night. Do I really need all of them? Which one’s going to add the most to the story I’m trying to tell, to give it the most dramatic weight at a key moment? I should probably aim to get that one done and put the others aside for now.

Again, like the shot list, everything will go soooooooooooooo much smoother if we work this stuff out ahead of time. In fact...

5) Have Everything Prepped Beforehand
I’ve really gotten into cooking videos over the pandemic and I’ve basically watched... well, 90% of Binging With Babish at this point. In one of his Basics videos, Andrew talks about having as much prepped beforehand as possible when you’re cooking. Cut all the veggies. Weigh all the ingredients. Make sure all the pots and plates are clean. The less I have to do once the water’s boiling, the less chance there is I’ll mess this up.

I want to be the same with my movie. Know who’s bringing snacks and drinks to set. Know who’s bringing everything to set—if something’s supposed to be there, who’s bringing it? Me? You? Her? Have all the costumes ready to go beforehand—even if they’re wearing their own clothes, know which clothes they’re wearing. Have locations lined up and scouted and confirmed. Have the swords picked out. Any decision I can make before we all get to set is one less decision I have to make there on set.

Because when I’m on set, I want to be focusing on getting this shot from my shot list, not figuring out if Phoebe should be wearing leather armor or chainmail in a scene we're shooting four days from now.

6) Have Lighting and Sound
Okay, so... odds are pretty good we were thinking of spending some money on camera equipment. Maybe the camera itself. Maybe we’re using our iPhone to shoot this and we want to get one of those smartphone steadicam rigs. Or even just some selfie sticks and a few stands to prop it up on.

Here’s what I’d do. Right now, I’d think of the number I was willing to spend on the camera and cut it in half. Seriously, whatever I was thinking of getting, odds are I can find a cheaper version of it online. Yeah, we want good equipment, but let’s be brutally honest—at this budget level it’s all going to be kind of the same.

Then I should take the other half of that money I’d budgeted for camera and spend it on lights and sound. Yeah, I’ve mentioned lights a few times. Trust me, it matters. It will make a gigantic difference, just having a few lights I can aim and throw some diffusion over (diffusion in this case is wax paper, unless we've got access to a theater department and their gel cabinet (in which case, I want a few general purpose frosts)).

The only thing that can make a bigger difference than lighting is sound. So many B-movies these days have absolutely awful sound because those filmmakers try to just use the microphone on their camera and nothing else. But we’re smarter than that. We can just put a recording app on everyone’s phone, buy two or three cheap lav mics, and voila we now have better sound than half the indie B-movies out there. Just remember to clap really hard at the beginning of every take—one clap that all the mics can pick up. Now you’ve got something to sync all the different recordings to when you edit.

Yeah, that’s what the little clapper board’s for. It’s usually a digital sync these days, but for our purposes the old ways work just as well.

Told you this’d be educational.

7) Have a production meeting
Another term you’ve probably heard before. Maybe a week or so before we want to start shooting, I want to get everyone who’s going to work on this together. Not the cast members—all the people who are going to be behind the camera helping with costumes, props, lighting, locations, and well... the camera. And, yeah, at this budget level there’s a good chance some of them will also be cast members, but I’m not thinking of them that way today.

What I want to do is go through the entire shooting schedule page by page, with the script right next to it. If the very first thing we shoot is scene 23, then let’s go to scene 23 and make sure we’re all, so to speak, on the same page. We know where it is, who’s in it, what’s in it, if we need anything special for it (is this that running scene we need the bicycle for? Who’s got the bicycle?). We’ll go through the first day of the schedule, the second day, and so on.

Now, in all fairness, I know a few of my friends who are Assistant Directors will roll their eyes at me about this, because there are those folks who prefer to just read straight through the script and do the production meeting that way. This is an option, yeah, but in my experience sooooo many low budget films and shows had problems that tied directly back to people not being clear that A and B were (or weren’t) happening on the same day. Or that we were going to film Y a week before we shot X. And that’s stuff that won’t come out by just reading the script.

We can do it either way but personally... I’d go with the shooting schedule.

Also have snacks and drinks at the production meeting, even if it’s just chips and bottled water. Have something. All these people are here doing me a favor. Thank them for it constantly.

8) Have a read-through
Guess what? Now we’re going to go through the script in order. Maybe a day or three after the production meeting, I want to get my whole cast together, maybe order a pizza or three, and all of us read the script together. They all read their parts, I read everything else. This is when they get to all play off each other, get a sense of timing, get a sense of how they’re going to play their characters. I can get a sense for how the dialogue sounds, maybe tweak a few lines here or there, perhaps even suggest a few things now so –again—I’m not dealing with it on set. This is also a chance for everyone in the cast to just meet each other (assuming they don’t all know each other already) so they’re a little more relaxed on set that first day of shooting.

ProTip—this is a great time to take a couple random photos of people if my movie needs them. If the script calls for a casual picture of Wakko, or maybe a shot of Dot and Phoebe together for their phones, get them now. They’ll be in different clothes in a different setting, so they won’t look staged or photoshopped. Also, this may be the only time you have some people together who never actually share a scene in the movie (so they’d be scheduled for different days).

And now... we finally get started. It’s our first day of shooting, everyone’s together, and I’m about to take my place in the annals of film history as a director. So here’s two last things for me to keep in mind.

9) Have a Plan B!
Look... things are going to go wrong. Sometimes at the last minute. We’re going to lose that location. That actor’s going to get sick. The guy in charge of bringing the sword is going to forget the sword. It’s going to rain on the day of our big sunny scene. And it’ll rain really hard, believe me, because God hates us, and he hates that we’re actually making our movie while his is stuck in development hell.

While it’s good to have everything planned out, like I’ve said a few times above, it’s also good to have a few alternate versions in my head in case something goes wrong. Because things going wrong is really common at this budget level. It’s unavoidable. So I need to be flexible. Do I really need Wakko in this scene? Is there a way to do it without the sword? If I really need the sword, could this scene happen somewhere else, location-wise? Is there something else that could happen here today instead with the actors we have? Like could this office scene somehow happen outside the office building—or outside a different office building??—and maaaaaaybe one of the... meadow scenes could happen here in the office? We’ve got all the actors to do that, right? See, this is another time a shooting schedule will come in handy. Or maybe Wakko’s really sick so we just do the meadow scene now and the office scene will happen much later inside an... elevator? Parking garage?

And hey—sometimes having that flexibility can be for good things. Maybe things are going great and I’m seriously ahead of where I should be right now—we planned on this taking five hours and it only took three—well, maybe I’ve got time to squeeze in another one of those pretty shots after all.

10) Have confidence
Last thing. Be confident. When you’re making a movie, the director is the captain of the ship. We’re the person in charge, the one guiding everything. Nothing’s more demoralizing for the cast or crew than to have someone in charge who doesn’t know what to do. I’ve been on set when a director just sort of shrugs and looks around for someone to solve their problems. Hell, I worked with one guy who routinely admitted he didn’t know how to shoot the day’s scenes. It’s not fun.

I’m betting most of the folks working on this movie, cast and crew, are doing it as a favor to me. Because they believe in me. So the least I can do is convince them they’re right to believe in me. I can be prepared. I can have a vision. I can keep my cool and adapt when things go wrong.

This isn’t to say I should be a raging egomaniac and ignore everyone else’s thought and ideas and opinions. I don’t want to be that kind of confident. Think of it more like Bob Ross. He knew what he was doing, didn’t beat us over the head with it, and if something went wrong or got messed up, well... that’s just a happy little accident. Let’s deal with it and keep moving forward.


And that’s my ten top tips for being a better B-movie director, on top of ten tips for being a better B-movie writer. All of which should help make a much better B-movie. Which I can then sing the praises of during a future Saturday geekery.

I probably could’ve made this a top fifteen or twenty, but this is already so damned long I may need to take a break next week to make up for how much time I spent on this. If there was some question you were really hoping I’d answer or an aspect I’d cover, let me know down below. I’ll try to respond to the best of my abilities/ knowledge/ experience.

Also... this is SDCC weekend! I know the con itself is online, but I hope you’re doing something fun and geek related. If you’re interested, I’m going to be doing a three-movie viewing party/ live tweet instead of my usual, anonymous Saturday geekery. Everything’s going to kick off at noon (Pacific time) with Man-Thing, then at 2:00 I’ll be starting The Incredible Hulk, and we’ll finish it all off at 4:30 with Resident Evil: Apocalypse. And a few other writer friends may join me for different movies, if you want to follow some hashtags.

(Man-Thing’s free to watch on Tubi and RE: Apocalypse is on Hulu. The Incredible Hulk is the troublesome one—not available to stream anywhere, so if you don’t already own it and want to watch along, you may need to rent it. Sorry...)

And next time here... jeeez, like I said, I may take a week off. Put up a Tom Gauld cartoon or two. But next time... I don’t know. I should tell you what I’m thinking about doing, but I’m not going to.

Until then... go write.

Or direct.

I’m not the boss of you. Just go do something creative, dammit.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Building A Better B-Movie

Just when I thought I was done with making movies, they dragged me back in...

And by they, I mean me. I came up with this all on my own. I think it might be kind of fun.

In a perfect world where people listened to experts instead of YouTube videos forwarded by drunk Uncle Carl, we’d all be fully vaxxed, there’d be herd immunity, and we’d be gearing up for preview night at San Diego Comic-Con tomorrow. Fantastic, right? Alas, this is not that perfect world and SDCC is online again this year.

I’m not doing any panels this time around. Really the only big things I’ve got planned are maybe building one of my larger, long-overdue LEGO sets (you can vote here) and doing one of my big, more public Saturday geekeries (more on that next time). You know, where I live tweet a movie and talk about all the things it’s doing right (or wrong).

For the past few years, I’ve also tended to mark this viewing party with a movie-related blog post. Usually an updated version of my Top Ten B-Movie mistakes list. But this year I decided I wanted to do something a little more positive and maybe even a bit instructional.

So this week we’re going to talk about about how to make a better B-movie. As in, if you and your friends were thinking of shooting a movie together, here’s a big pile of tips and hints. Today’s going to be about writing it, with advice based off my experience as a writer, screenwriter, and entertainment journalist. Then in our regularly scheduled Thursday post, I’ll offer some advice about filming said B-movie. That’s going to be based off my experience working on a few dozen B-movies and TV shows (some of which you’ve actually heard of), and also... yeah, my attempts to shoot a few low budget things with my friends. Which, y’know, you haven’t heard of.

Fun, right? Mildly interesting, maybe? I know a lot of you have no real interest in screenwriting, but I think some of the overall storytelling ideas here might still be kind of useful for you. They have been for me, anyway, in the long run.

So... let’s talk about writing a low-budget, fantastic B-movie.

First off, let’s be very clear on one thing. We’re talking about writing a very specific kind of script, and it’s kind of the reverse of what I talked about a few times in the past. This isn’t going to be a screenplay to enter contests with or submit to agents. It’s going to be a very solid script so you and your friends can make a good, cheap movie. It needs to follow some of the rules, but overall, this is just for you.

Second thing is all of this is written assuming this is a group effort right from the start. We’re writing it, but we already know our girlfriend’s directing, our friend’s going to star in it... or heck, maybe all of these people are the same person. Maybe I’m a writer-director-producer-actor. If that’s not spreading myself too thin... fantastic. Either way, this is the kind of stuff it’s good to know from the moment I start typing.

So...

1) Know What I’ve Got to Work With
If I’ve got a bunch of friends with Ren Faire costumes and armor, maybe I should consider something historical or fantasy. If I have open access to an office building, I should think about setting something in an office. The guy next door has an entire space station set in a warehouse he owns? Holy crap, you live next door to Roger Corman. Why are you listening to me—go talk to him!

Basically, I want to play to my strengths. If I’ve got a bunch of assets, I need to figure out the best way to use those assets. This can be a chance for some great creativity. We’ve got medieval costumes, one decent alien costume, and three or four really nice sci-fi props? Sounds like a spaceship crashed in the woods outside Camelot. Holy crap, was Excalibur really a power sword this whole time?

Also keep in mind—just because I’ve got  something doesn’t mean I have to use it. I don’t want to cram a dozen random elements into my movie just because I can. The goal here is to tell a cohesive story, not to fit in every plot point I think of. Phoebe may have a fantastic pirate costume from that theme wedding, but maaaaaybe the story just doesn’t need a pirate. I know it's hard to believe that, but it's true. Simplicity can be my friend sometimes.

2) Don’t Write What We Can’t Shoot
One of the unspoken truths about screenwriting is it often comes with a list of requirements. Maybe they’re budget things, actor things, studio things, who knows. If we’re making a B-movie, we’re probably going to have a lot of requirements. My scripts are going to be a lot stronger if I start with these limitations in mind, rather than forcing the director to deal with them when they eventually pop up on set.

If we know we don’t have a lot of special effects to fall back on, let’s not write scenes that depend on special effects. If we know none of our friends want to show a lot of skin, I shouldn’t put in a lot of shower scenes and torn shirts. If I live in New Hampshire, maybe setting half the movie outside in a rain forest isn’t the best idea.

Really, this is the flipside of my first point. Know what I’ve got to work with, but also be clear on what I’m not going to have. It’ll make the whole process easier in the long run.

3) Beware of Expensive Scenes
One of the first things people tell you about screenwriting is not to worry about budget. But, we have to worry about budget. We’re making a B-movie and doing a lot of it by calling in favors and debts. We don’t have money to burn on this thing. So if we can eliminate some essentially expensive scenes up front, that’s going to be a win for us.

Thing is, there are certain scenes that are very easy to write and look cheap at first glance, but the truth is they’re very expensive to get on film. I’m going to name a couple and explain why...

-Crowds—big groups of people on film are expensive for three reasons. One is that a responsible filmmaker’s going to give them food and drinks, especially if you’re not paying them (so at least buying lots of pizza and soda, plus enough plates, cups, ice, napkins, trash bags). Two is that you’ll probably need extra help getting them all to do what they need to do. Three is paperwork—if someone’s on film, they need to sign release forms for us using their image, even if we’re not paying them (especially if we’re not paying them). Essentially, crowds burn up a lot of our resources really fast.

-Food—let’s say I’m going to have someone take a bite out of a hot dog in this scene. That’s all. They grab a hot dog at a backyard barbecue, have one bite while they’re talking, put it down. So that’s one hot dog for the master shot, and one for the reverse master (because they’ll need an unbitten dog to take a bite out of). One for each angle of the overs. One for the coverage. So at the bare minimum, we just went through five hot dogs. And that’s assuming we got everything in one take. This one-bite shot can add up to three or four packs of hot dogs and buns really fast. And again—this is just one person having one bite. And we’re not even considering someone’s going to have to keep cooking them, so we’re going to need a working grill, fuel for the grill... seriously, just cut the food scenes.

-Kids and Animals—if we have kids and animals as possible assets to use for our movie, that’s fantastic. But it’s a safe assumption that every scene with kids and animals are going to take twice as long to shoot. That’s the big reason they’re expensive, especially on this level. They use up time we could be using for other things.

-Getting dirty—throughout the course of a story, somebody could get smeared with dirt or blood, maybe get a sleeve torn, get their hair mussed up, something like that. Maybe they just fall in the pool. Heck, maybe they’re just putting mustard on that hot dog. If I see a change like this happen on screen—let’s say Phoebe gets mud thrown on her shirt—then we need multiple shirts for every single take of this (again, I refer to the hot dog). Plus, it’s another time expense as the actress playing Phoebe has to go get changed, maybe clean mud off herself, fix her hair back to how it was. Again, looks simple on the page, but it adds up really quick when you talk about production. I’ve been on shows where they’ve bought four or five matching shirts for gags like this, and it still didn’t end up being enough.

-Night shots—it’s hard to tell sometimes, but exterior night shots in movies and television often use a lot of lights. Dozens. Yes, even some found footage stuff. There’s a real art to making well-lit darkness. That means good night shots require someone who knows what they’re doing and the equipment they need to at least do it passably well. If I have to have a night shot... could it maybe happen in a well-lit parking lot?

Okay, this one got really long, but you get the general idea. I could probably come up with five or six more examples. Thing is at this level, I need to think about how stuff will actually be shot and what that could involve.

Moving on...

4) Know What I’m Writing
Once we’ve juggled all these assets and limitations with our own goals and desires, we should have a pretty clear idea of what kind of movie we want to make. Yeah, it’s a B-movie, but is it a supernatural thriller? Urban fantasy? Holiday romance? Period sci-fi? I should keep this in mind as I’m writing. If it’s a horror movie, why are we spending twenty pages on this whole dating/romance scene?

Also, who is this for? Who’s our audience? Are we looking to make something family- friendly or a little more for the 18-35 range? All these decisions should help shape some scenes a bit.

5) Know Who My Hero Is
I’m mentioning this because it’s always the #1 problem when I’m watching my Saturday geekery B-movies. Like I was just saying about the genre, when we’re hammering out this story together, we need to figure out who our main character is. Is it him? Is it her? Are those three our mini-ensemble? This is storytelling 101—who should my audience be paying attention to? Who should they be rooting for?

Once we know who they are, we need to make sure they’re a good character. And, weird as it may sound, Wakko being our main character means they should be, y’know, the main character in the movie. There should be more pages about them than about Yakko. Or Phoebe who’s willing to wear that tiny bikini on film. The hero is the person we should be spending the most time with. They should be the one driving the plot forward.

6) Be Cautious of Camp
This is a tough one. At this budget level, it’s really tempting to just wink at the camera and make a joke out of how silly that costume is or that we’ve go three people standing under a paper-and-sharpie banner that says “WOODSTOCK.” Trying to hang a lantern on it can seem like an easy way to get around a lot of stuff.

Thing is, this type of comedy wears thin really fast. One of the secrets of camp is that the best examples of it never give the audience that little nudge-nudge, wink-wink. They play themselves completely straight. Too much obvious camp makes it look like we’re not taking this seriously, at which point... why should the audience take us seriously as filmmakers?

If we’re not making a comedy, resist the urge to lean into comedy. Especially as an excuse.  We want to embrace our strengths, not mock our weaknesses.

Speaking of which...

7) Think Big
I know with everything I’ve said so far, it probably feels like our best bet is that old indie standard “three people trapped in a hotel room that looks a lot like the bedroom of my apartment.” But just because we don’t have any money doesn’t mean we can’t have big ideas. We can’t have battlemechs fighting kaiju, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a big concept.

There are so many examples out there of high-concept, low budget movies. Saw is literally just the old bar question of “what would you do to escape this?” asked with some low level special effects. Primer is a time-travel movie where their big expense was some cardboard boxes wrapped in tinfoil. The Blair Witch Project. Monsters. Chronicle. All of these movies are really big story ideas that people figured out how to do in small, low-budget ways. We should absolutely aim as high as we can.

Okay, just a few more...

8) Format It
I’ve talked about screenplay format in the past. Technically, yes, if I’m only writing this to shoot with my friends, it doesn’t matter if I’ve got the format down or not

But... if I do have it formatted correctly, there’s a bunch of really helpful tricks I can use. Like timing my script. You may have heard that one page is about a minute of film time (according to a good friend of mine who's a script supervisor it's closer to 53 seconds on average, but one minute's an easy rule of thumb). So if I’ve got this in the right format, I can immediately look and know this scene is probably going to run long, or that the whole thing is barely an hour.

Another good one. We should generally figure it’s going to take about 90 minutes to shoot one page (again—talking about a properly formatted script). Some may go faster, some slower, but in my experience 90 minutes a page is a good estimate. Which means now I can schedule a shooting day (more on that next time)

It may be a bit of a pain, but there are some serious advantages to formatting this correctly. I don’t even need special software—if someone happens to have it, cool, but I’ve written pretty much all my scripts in Word with a few formatting macros set up. Hell, my first few I just wrote ‘em and then went back through and got all the formatting right.

Yeah, fine, maybe you can come up with an all-new, far-better way to write and format screenplays. You’re not part of the Hollywood machine, churning out IP garbage! You can be the guy to disrupt scripts (yeah, if you’re thinking all this, I’m just naturally assuming you’re a guy). But the thing is do you want to spend the rest of the year developing your new screenplay format... or making a movie?

9) Top Screenwriting Tip—RIGHT NOW
I’ve mentioned this before so I’ll give you a link and not go into it too much here. Because this whole post is getting really long. Super short version, if it’s not on screen right now, it shouldn’t be on the page. Are we shooting backstory in this scene? No? Then there shouldn't be any backstory on the page. No inner monologues or struggles. No character sketches. No notes to my friend (or future me) who’s directing this. What’s on the page should be what’s on the screen right now, and vice-versa. 

I know it’s tempting to put all that stuff in the script (it’s got to be somewhere, right?). But one of the reasons people growl about details like this is because it messes up all those estimates we were just talking about. Because none of this stuff actually gets filmed.

And now, my final big tip for writing a B-movie...

10) Actually Write The Script
Because this is just us and our friends making a movie, it kinda feels like we don't need to bother with putting the whole thing down on paper. I mean, we hashed out all this stuff I’ve been talking about last night over pizza and rum, right? We know what genre this is, who our hero is. The big stuff’s done, we can work out all the fine details on set.

The truth is, a complete script just makes it much easier to tell a cohesive story. The less I plan out, the more things veer off the path. If the actors want to ad lib on set and the director wants to let them ad-lib and the ad-libs are actually useful and germane to the discussion, as someone once said... cool. But until then, I need an actual, finished script. For all those formatting reasons I mentioned above, but also so I can actually plan this out.

Plus, it’s just more professional. True story—I worked on a low-budget TV show and one episode... we didn’t get a script. Seriously. This was an actual, on-television show and they didn’t give us a script. The actors didn’t have anything to rehearse. The costumer and I got called into the line producer’s office to discuss prep and he just said “Get some military stuff.” When we tried to ask what year, what branch, dress or combat, for how many people... he actually got annoyed with us and said we’d have to “think on our feet” for the next episode.

Don’t be like this to your cast and crew. You can be more professional than that. Hell, you can actually be more professional than that professional.


And look at that. There’s ten tips for writing a better B-movie script. And a ton of links to guide you back to some other stuff I’ve said about the process.

Next time, we’re going to give this script to the director (who, granted, might also be us) and talk about a couple ways to make sure this whole filmmaking thing goes smoothly and maybe gives us something we’re willing to show people.

Until then...

Well, go write. 

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Don’t Say It

So, there’s something I was hoping we could avoid talking about this week...

Subtext is one of those things that gets mentioned a lot. In fact, I’d hazard a guess it gets mentioned more than it gets defined, and it probably get defined more than people actually give examples of how to do it. Which is weird because it is so important to good writing. It shows up in prose, it should be all through dialogue, it’s just... it’s everywhere

I think we all get a little nervous around subtext because when it’s done well it’s soooo friggin’ good it becomes intimidating. How many college professors went on and on about it? It’s also one of those things where if I dig deep enough, I can find almost any meaning to anything I want. Which then—through the power of the internet—makes it look the author crafted these twelve layers of intricate meaning when they wrote this chapter and holy crap I don’t know about you but I’m intimidated again.

So what is subtext? It’s the conversation beneath the one my characters are having out loud. Or maybe it’s beneath the conversation I’m having with the reader—that I’m telling you this but we both know we’re talking about this. And sometimes it can be that simple. Subtext doesn’t always have to be rich and elaborate and layered with exquisite meaning. There don’t need to be twelve layers. Or even six.

But good dialogue almost always has some kind of subtext, because that’s how people work. We talk around things more than we say them directly. We have in-jokes and shared experiences and understood context and all these things that let us say exactly what we mean without saying... well, what we mean. Without subtext, it’s really tough to do comedy. It’s almost impossible to flirt.

Here’s a few common examples of subtext you’ve probably seen before. Maybe even used before. They’re really simple and even just using these can bump my dialogue up a notch or two. Also, these are just my own names for all of these. I’m sure there’s some literary or psychological theory that gives them a much more accurate name. But I think you’ll know what I’m talking about, and that’s what matters.

The Friend— Let’s start with the most familiar one. So familiar it’s pretty much become a comedy gag. How many times have you read a story or seen a show where someone goes to the pharmacist to pick up their “friend’s” ointment for... their rash.  Or maybe I know this, uhhhh, person from my book club who got really confused by this one Doom level, and was wondering if you could explain how to beat it in simple terms. For him. And the obvious subtext here is that there is no friend, it’s just the character trying to put some distance between them and the embarrassment of needing that ointment. This is an easy form of subtext, because I’m still saying everything, I’m just pushing all the emotions and thoughts onto a different character—even if it’s a nonexistent character.

A close relative of the Friend is the Hypothetical. That's when we're talking about the accursed book of damned souls and I ask you, "well, just for argument's sake, what if I had read a page of the book out loud? What would happen? Not that I did it, I just want to be sure we all understand the stakes here..."

The Metaphor—This is basic subtext 101. It’s the one I mentioned above, when we’re  talking about X but everyone knows we’re really talking about Y. It’s like talking about my friend, but we’re broadening our palette a bit. I’m talking about cleaning out the garage, but it’s really about letting go of the past. Perhaps my co-worker and I are talking about how much we enjoyed doing this project together when it’s clear we’ve fallen in love. Or maybe the boss is telling his new employee about how much he loves the Klingons in Star Trek, and how in their society you advance by taking out the people above you. Ha ha ha, anyway, welcome to the company. Good luck!

Sometimes an example of this sort of subtext gets repeatedly used so much the metaphor becomes a euphemism—it’s so broadly understood, the subtext has essentially become the text. If my partner calls me up at ten at night and asks if I’m up for some Netflix and chill, we all understand she’s not hoping I’ll sit through the first three episodes of Sweet Tooth (although we may have it on in the background).

The Reverse—Another simple way to use subtext is for my character to just declare the exact opposite of what they really mean. At one point or another, we’ve all probably heard something along the lines of “It’s okay, I really didn’t want the promotion. It would’ve been too much work, anyway.” And we all knew Wakko was lying, but we just nodded and politely agreed with him. Or think of Michelle in Spider-Man: Homecoming, who’s not obsessed with Peter Parker or anything, she’s just knows his class schedule because she’s very observant. That’s all.

Worth noting--a lot of times the reverse can be sarcasm, because sarcasm is all about the subtext. Odds are all of us have made a suggestion where one of our friends has rolled their eyes and said “Oh, yeah, I’d love to do that.”

The Next Step—If you’ve ever read about someone ordering a double at the bar before they break some bad news to their tense friend, you know this method. Or maybe when I know the in-laws are coming for dinner, and I take three or four pictures down from the wall and put up other ones. It’s when a character shows they’re one or two steps ahead. She’s not thinking about now, she’s thinking about fifteen minutes or an hour from now, and planning accordingly. Through their words or actions, my character’s saying “I know where this is going and I know how it’s going to end.”

The Blank—This one’s a slightly trickier way of doing subtext. It’s when my character demonstrates their opinion on something by offering no opinion. Sometimes they do it by ignoring the topic, like when Wakko asks his brother’s opinion on Phoebe and his brother instead pointedly wonders aloud how much the DJ gets paid at this club. Other times he might just dance around it, saying he doesn’t know Phoebe that well or giving a very vague non-answer (“Look, how well can you really know anyone, right?”)


And there’s five easy ways I can put a little subtext into my writing. You’ve probably seen a lot of them already. You may already be doing it—good on you.

It’s worth mentioning that all of these methods need a bit of skill and practice, because sometimes people are just really observant. Every now and then we really do just want to relax and watch something on Netflix. And maybe the boss just really likes Star Trek and I wasn’t supposed to shove Dot down that elevator shaft

Y’see, Timmy, the trick with subtext is making sure it’s clear what I really mean. I can’t be so blunt that my characters aren’t really hiding anything, but I also can’t be so subtle that people think my characters... aren’t really hiding anything. It’s a fine balancing act, and it’ll take a few tries to get it right. Nothing to be ashamed of. I have this one friend and none of his early writing had any subtext in it at all.

Next time...

Okay, so, next week, in a world where everyone had masked up last year and gotten vaxxed as fast as they could this year—in that world, next week is SDCC. Alas, we don’t live in that world, so next week is another virtual con with lots of Zoom panels. Which are fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not doing any of them. In fact, at best, I may do a more public Saturday geekery and watch a couple fun B-movies. Like maybe the MCU Incredible Hulk and Resident Evil: Apocalypse.

I was also thinking about the blog post for that week. Normally I’d just update my “Top Ten B-Movie Mistakes” list (found footage was finally going to get a slot). But that just feels kind of needlessly negative, especially after the past year, and I want this place to be more constructive.

So here’s what I’m thinking about doing...

Next week I’m going to do two posts (Tuesday and Thursday) about how to make a better B-movie. Tuesday’s going to about writing it (based on my experience as a writer, screenwriter, and entertainment journalist) and Thursday’s going to be about filming it (based on my experience working on a few dozen B-movies and TV shows, some of which you’ve actually heard of). It’ll probably just be a “top seven tips” sort of thing, and I doubt anyone from the Asylum will ever see it, but I’ll feel better putting something more positive out into the world. And maybe it’ll help somebody.

Sound like fun? 

Cool.

Until then, go write.

And get your shots!