From just an idea to reality…

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One of the biggest misconceptions about doing anything creative is that it relies only on inspiration. The truth is, if that really was the case, then very few people would come up with anything good, or at least, they wouldn’t do very often.

While we need inspiration, it isn’t the only thing required. For that, we’re going to need that h-word: hard work. If it sounds like a cliché, it’s because it happens to be true. Except, there are probably times when we’d like to think that isn’t the case. That all it takes to make anything creative, whether it’s writing a script or a novel, making a film or composing music, is that flash of inspiration and then – boom – the idea arrives in our brain, fully formed. No more work or effort needed, 100% complete. Finished before it’s even started, and absolutely no rewrites needed.

If you’ve ever attempted to create anything, you’ll know how far removed from reality that is. As enjoyable as writing a screenplay is (and that’s not to say it isn’t difficult) you can’t just write when you feel inspired to, or just simply when you ‘feel’ like it. To put it another way, imagine in any other line of work, going to your boss/manager and saying something like, “I’m sorry, I can’t work today. I don’t feel like it.” What sort of a response would you get? If you are serious about making a living writing (in fact, doing anything at all creative) then that means treating it like a job, whether you’re actually getting paid or not.

If you are getting paid, and especially if it’s your sole source of income, it must be treated like it. If you don’t write, you won’t pay the bills. Basically, if you don’t act like a professional writer and take it seriously, regardless of whether you are yet, your chances of becoming one are reduced.

We’re back to hard work, again. An idea may have lots of potential, but as long as it stays an idea, that’s all it has – potential. Before it can become a finished product, it has to be worked on. Ideas are unruly things. They need taming. For example, that idea for a screenplay might sound original at first, but with a bit of research, it could be that it isn’t as ground-breaking as you first thought, and in order for it stand out, it will require more development.

Another reason to work on an idea is to get the most out of it that you can. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a film or TV show where the concept sounds amazing on paper, but the execution falls short of what it could be. It can leave the audience with the impression that the writer(s) have played it safe, when they could have challenged audiences in some way, maybe even pushed a few boundaries.

So how can we make sure we get the most out of our ideas? How do we get past the dreaded the dreaded ‘writers block’? Below are a list of tips that I’ve found useful, and continue to do so, when writing:

* Ask yourself why you’re writing the story in the first place – what are you trying to say? what is your motivation? This can be especially helpful in keeping the narrative on track.

* Document the research process, especially how you came up with the idea. This will help keep the story grounded, especially if you get lost during the writing/re-writing.

* Give your characters backstories. Chances are you won’t use most of this, but it will help audiences feel they’re watching real people, with emotions and histories. It will also determine your characters goals, and how they will react to the events of the plot.

* Make writing a discipline. Write when you can, but not just when you feel like it. Even if most of what you write on those days is never used, write something. It can be edited later.

* Always remember why you started writing in the first place, what/who it was that inspired you. So on those occasions when you’d rather do anything other than write, this will hopefully remind you why you’ve chosen this career ahead of anything else.

Many thanks for reading. Please feel free to add a comment : )

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Batwoman, Ruby Rose and casting controversies…

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This week saw the release of the first image of Ruby Rose as DC’s Batwoman. The picture was concept art of the Australian actress/model, and was released ahead of the forthcoming Arrowverse crossover event, ‘Elseworlds.’

For the uninitiated, the Arrowverse is The CW’s Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl. It will be the character’s first live action appearance, and naturally fans have strong opinions about how Kate Kane and her alter ego of Batwoman should be portrayed.

Fans have already being weighing in on the subject, with debate still ongoing about Rose’s casting. Even the suit itself was generating some controversy. In fact, Rose’s casting has provoked such a backlash amongst certain fans that the star was forced to close her Twitter account. Some of that backlash centred on her abilities as an actress, with one view being that she has neither the talent or the range to carry of the role.

The fact that a live action adaptation of a comic book character should provoke such heated reactions should come as no surprise. Of course, it’s sad that the response in some quarters was such that Ruby Rose felt she had to leave Twitter. There have been a number of examples of celebrities withdrawing from certain social media sites because of negative comments from members of the public. It should go without saying that, no matter how strongly you might feel about a subject, personal abuse is never justified.

Aside from the predictable hysteria, one of the things that stuck out to me about this whole situation is how some fans are pleased with Rose’s casting as Batwoman because of her sexuality. Batwoman is a lesbian, and therefore some felt that a lesbian actress should play her, rather than Rose, who identifies as being gender fluid.

Whilst I can understand that diversity and representation is important, and casting a lesbian actress in the role of such a prominent lesbian comic book character means a lot to certain fans, I still find the insistence interesting.

It cuts to the heart of what acting is about: an actor or an actress pretending to be something that they’re not. Yes, they will find ‘ways in’ to connect with their character that will help with the performance, but ultimately we’re watching people being something, and someone, that they’re not.

The sexuality of the actress playing Batwoman shouldn’t be an issue. What matters is whether she can convince as both Kate Kane and her costumed alter ego. That’s really the most basic box for any actor or actress to tick: do you, as the audience, believe they are who they’re pretending to be? Does their performance convince you or not?

The CW has also cast gay actors to play heterosexual characters in its Arrowverse shows. For example, John Barrowman, Colton Haynes and Wentworth Miller are (or were) respectively Malcolm Merlyn/The Dark Archer, Roy Harper/Arsenal and Leonard Snart/Captain Cold. All three are openly gay, but their characters are heterosexual.

The reverse is also true, as Caity Lotz plays the bi-sexual Sara Lance/White Canary, despite not being bi-sexual. The same goes for Katrina Law as Nyssa al Ghul. In other words, Barrowman, Haynes, Miller, Lotz and Law are all acting.

So Ruby Rose’s sexuality shouldn’t be an issue. It obviously shouldn’t disqualify her from the part, but it shouldn’t be what qualifies her either. If Rose is to be a good Batwoman or not will rest on her ability to portray a vengeful, highly trained vigilante, who’s also a member of one of Gotham’s richest families, as well as being a former soldier. That, and not Kate Kane/Batwoman’s sexuality, is the part of the role that will be the biggest stretch, and achieving it (or not) will probably determine whether her casting will be seen as a success.

Obviously, there will be occasions where only certain actors or actresses are appropriate for a particular role. However, my fear is that we’re expanding that to cover an increasing number of roles, and in the process limiting the potential pool of talent available. As well as also forgetting the point of acting in the first place.

I’ve seen some comments online to the effect that, even if Ruby Rose lacks the acting skills for Batwoman, she can be saved by good writing and directing. I disagree. Writing and directing are vital roles in film and TV production, but they’re only part of the jigsaw puzzle. Every role and every aspect of the production matters.

I remember once hearing or reading that a large percentage of the success of a film (or TV show) is casting, casting, casting. Although that’s an oversimplification, it nevertheless speaks to the importance of getting your casting decisions right. Put simply, there’s not much you can do to disguise a miscast role.

You could have a multi award winning director, and a similarly award laden screenwriter (or screenwriters), but even they won’t be able to compensate for an actor or an actress that does’t have the talent and/or range to play the part. That’s not something that you can direct or write your way out of as a filmmaker or screenwriter.

None of this is to say that Ruby Rose won’t be a success as Batwoman. I’m a huge DC fan, so I hope very much that she will be, and that we get the potential Batwoman series as a result. And as with every comic book adaptation, I also hope they do justice to the character and the source material. As to whether Rose is the right fit for the part will depend not on her sexuality or gender label, but on her talent as an actress.

As ever, if you have any thoughts or opinions, please feel free to comment : )

Keeping It Brief

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If anyone reading this is following me on social media, then you might be aware that the main project I’m working on right now is a short film entitled ‘Runner.’ It’s a thriller, and is currently at the pre-production stage.

It’s also under five minutes long, and as such it represents a strategy that I’m actively pursuing to develop short films that are truly ‘bite size’ in length. Part of it is pragmatism, in that a shorter running time is more accommodating for a smaller (or no) budget. The thinking is that if you only have restricted funds, then it makes sense to scale as much back as possible, including the number of characters, the locations, and, of course, the running time.

However, if I ever thought that a shorter script would mean it’s either easier to get the project off the ground, or even to come up with the idea in the first place, then I was wrong! Filmmaking is a challenging business, especially when you’re at the micro-to-no-budget end of the scale, and that’s true even when your screenplay is only a few pages long.

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is sticking to the scaled down approach that I’ve set myself. What often happens is that I come up with an idea, I start jotting down a few notes, and before long the potential of the concept has grown, with more possibilities, more characters, locations, etc.

This is why discipline is an important skill for a low budget filmmaker. You have to set the boundaries in terms of the scale of your project, and stick to them. Be realistic. I find it helps to remember that it’s far better to do a less ambitious idea well, than do a more ambitious idea badly. The latter means you don’t do your idea justice. Worse still, it means your work, and that of your cast and crew, is wasted.

Another effective strategy is to look at what you’re trying to say, and see if you can distill your idea down to the bare essentials, but without losing any of the strengths of the material. That’s a common problem that all low budget filmmakers face: how to truly do justice to the material, but be pragmatic when it comes to knowing not just what you want to do, but what you can do.

I once read that the best scenes are like parties: arrive late and leave early. I try and remember this when I’m writing, and on a smaller scale project like ‘Runner’, I apply it to the whole screenplay.

This means I approach the project as I would a longer short or a feature, except I then try and tell the story in far fewer scenes. Of course, there are some elements that might have to be sacrificed along the way, and it’s hard when you’re emotionally attached to a project to make those cuts, but they’re necessary if your project is to ever get to the production stage. You have to be realistic, and appreciate that even in the realm of big budget Hollywood blockbusters, there are challenges and limitations. It’s part and parcel of filmmaking.

Being adaptable is a useful skill for anyone involved in filmmaking, and doing shorts is a good way to develop that attribute. Even more so when you add in a low budget. As hard as it is to make these tough calls about what to leave out, it doesn’t have to mean your short film project is any less ambitious. There are feature length films that have very little ambition despite their running time, so a small running time need not mean a film is low on ambition.

There is even the chance that you may be able to gain enough funding to allow you to ‘scale up’ the project to match your most vivid imaginations of where the story could go. As with every creative decision though, don’t do it just because you can. Everything must serve the story.

As well as this, a really short film could be expanded to a longer short, or even a feature film. Another possibility is that your short film could form part of a larger, connected story. I’m actually at the very early stages of another project that does just that. I’m still having to reign in my imagination at times in order to match the means that will likely be available to me, but that’s not dampening my enthusiasm for telling these stories.

That’s because the most important thing, regardless of the money you’ve got to spend, or the equipment you have, or the flashy effects you add in post production, is your story and your characters. A brief running time doesn’t have to mean a diluted story, because a good story is a good story, whether it’s told over three hours or three minutes.

Henry Cavill is still Superman. Or not…

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So, Henry Cavill as Superman – is he in or out? That’s been the big DC-related question doing the rounds this week. The answers – yes, no or maybe (or variations thereof) – depend on which sources you believe. Some are saying the British actor has hung up the red cape, others (including his manager, Dany Garcia) are saying no, he’s still very much in the role.

At the time of writing, nothing has been confirmed either way. Warner Brothers released a statement, saying “While no decisions have been made regarding any upcoming Superman films, we’ve always had great respect for and a great relationship with Henry Cavill, and that remains unchanged.” Make of that what you will.

It all comes amidst stories of a protracted contract negotiation between, on the one side, Cavill and Garcia, and on the other, Warner Brothers. Cavill is said to have been demanding significant money to extend his Superman contract, a sum that would put him in the A list price range.

WB is also said to have been less than pleased that Cavill was unavailable to film an expected cameo in the forthcoming Shazam! film. This, supposedly, was the final straw for the studio.

This could all just be gossip and rumour, but, if it’s to be believed, then it appears Cavill and Garcia played hardball with WB, and lost. They made their demands, the studio wouldn’t budge, and now, potentially at least, Cavill is no longer the DCEU’s Superman.

Losing a role (arguably his biggest to date) like Superman would be a blow, not just for Henry Cavill and his career, but also for Dany Garcia and her reputation as an manager. Does she really want to be known as an manager who helped to negotiate her client out of his biggest role?

I’m not laying all of the blame on Dany Garcia, however. If both Cavill and Garcia tried to get a bigger and better deal, but it backfired, then they’re both potentially guilty of overplaying their hand.

That’s not to say I’d be glad to see Henry Cavill leave the DCEU. I enjoyed Man Of Steel, and I think Cavill has given us an interesting, modern take on Superman. I want to see where this interpretation of the character will go, especially as Justice League allowed Cavill to bring a lighter side to his take on Kal-El. Replacing him now could damage that development. I also think Cavill, as well as Amy Adams as Lois Lane, deserve, at the very least, one more sequel to Man Of Steel.

Whilst it’s possible to have enjoyed Henry Cavill as Superman and want him to continue, it’s also equally possible to be pragmatic about the whole thing. If Cavill and Garcia want to press for a better deal, but the studio won’t give them that deal, then it looks highly likely that, without a compromise, we’re going to be seeing a Cavill-free DCEU in the future.

Now with the utmost respect to Cavill, it would be stretching things to say that he’s an A-list actor at present. That’s not saying he’s a bad actor, as there are plenty of talented actors who wouldn’t be classed as A list names. It’s just a realistic assessment of where Henry Cavill ranks alongside his fellow actors right now.

There’s also a strong case to be made that Cavill’s DC universe co-star, Gal Gadot, might be in a better negotiating position, should she ever want to agree a contract extension with WB. The warm response to her portrayal of Wonder Woman, especially in the character’s solo film that was released in 2017, should guarantee her a lot of goodwill from WB executives. Unfortunately for him, Cavill’s not in as stronger a position.

Even then, Gadot, much like Cavill, doesn’t have a great track record at the box office outside of the DC films. Yes, there’s more to a good film than mere cold, hard cash, but box office appeal can be quite important in deciding how much an actor or actress gets paid for a role.

But wait, didn’t Cavill just co-star in Mission Impossible: Fallout, the most successful entry in the series so far? Indeed he did. Except, Cavill joined an already commercially and critically lauded franchise, so for anyone to claim that MI: Fallout’s box office is down to Cavill alone is stretching it.

Put simply, at this stage in his career, Cavill probably needs Superman more than WB needs him to continue playing Superman. No matter who’s playing the part, no actor is bigger than the role of Superman, one of the most popular comic book characters of all time. The truth is, if Cavill can’t or won’t pull on the cape anymore, there won’t be a shortage of actors who can.

I wonder of this was part of the thinking behind the announcement of a Supergirl film, to be set in the DCEU. It could be an attempt by the studio to show Cavill (as well as Garcia) that the DCEU will always need a Kryptonian in a blue and red costume, it just doesn’t have to be Superman. In other words, the Last Daughter of Krypton, rather than its Last Son.

So what should Henry Cavill and his manager do? What, for that matter, should WB do? Well, despite the deadlock so far, I believe there’s still room to reach an agreement. Cavill and Garcia need to remember the great opportunity he’s been given in the form of playing Superman. It has boosted Cavill’s profile, and provided him with guaranteed work.

Cavill should make time to do the Superman cameo in Shazam! It could further whet the appetites of the many fans who’re desperate for another Superman film. This could easily convince the studio to move ahead with a Man Of Steel 2, if not further sequels.

They also need to be realistic regarding Cavill’s wage demands. If he wants to strengthen his hand in the negotiations, there are better ways to go about it. Build up your CV. The Netflix The Witcher series is a start, but try experimenting with different genres. Do some indie projects. Show your range. Work with an auteur. Do something like this, and WB may be convinced that they’ve got a talent on their hands who’s worthy of big money.

For their part, WB should be willing to accommodate Cavill’s schedule when it comes to filming his Shazam! cameo. Find a time that works for both parties. Maybe even consider having Superman appear for an extended cameo in the Supergirl film.

And above all, drop the ridiculous idea that you can have a DCEU without Superman. You can’t have a shared DC universe without one of its biggest and most loved characters. You also can’t replace Superman with Supergirl. That’s an insult to both characters, as it implies that they’re interchangeable.

This whole situation, as frustrating as it is, is actually quite useful. It serves as a lesson for everyone involved in the film industry, from A list stars to those just starting out on their filmmaking careers: Never think you’re bigger, better or more famous than you are. And, should you ever find yourself reaching those lofty heights, then make sure you keep your feet planted firmly on the ground. Even if the day job occasionally involves putting on a cape and pretending you can fly.

Crossing The Line?

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When James Gunn, the co-writer and director of the first two Guardians of the Galaxy films, was fired in July by Disney (owners of Marvel and its Cinematic Universe), the news prompted a strong reaction on all sides.

Gunn’s dismissal came after some decade-old tweets of his were uncovered, tweets that contained jokes about rape and pedophilia. Some felt that the director had crossed the line into poor taste, and that the right decision had been made. Others felt that Gunn had been treated harshly, even suggesting that he’d been made a scapegoat because of his political views. But more on that later…

The tweets were offensive, and Gunn apologised for them, saying that he’s changed since making those comments.

Even now, the effects of Gunn’s firing are still causing the rumour mill to churn, with talk of Dave Bautista (Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 1 and 2) wanting to leave the franchise in protest at Disney’s treatment of Gunn. The main Guardians cast actually released a statement in support of their director, although without defending the content of the tweets themselves. There are even reports that Gun will defect to DC, and join their cinematic universe. He’s been touted as a possible director of the Green Lantern Corps, or the Flash solo outing.

My biggest concern though, isn’t what Gunn’s next project will be, or how his departure will affect the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise or the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. What worries me is that this sets a precedent, where the social media histories of those in the industry can be used against them, even many years down the line.

Critics of Gunn may say that if something is offensive, then it doesn’t matter how long ago it was said. On that point, I’d agree. Gunn’s tweets were crude and inappropriate, and for many, in making jokes about serious subjects like rape and pedophilia, he went too far.

Gunn himself would agree with this, seeing as said sorry for his comments. He didn’t attempt to defend the jokes, make excuses or engage in “whataboutery.” He held his hands up, admitted he was wrong and apologised.

It should also be pointed out that these tweets date back to before he directed Volume 1 of the Guardians franchise, which was released in 2014. I would argue that this makes it highly questionable tot claim that his ill judged tweets were having a negative impact on his work for Marvel.

Some also tried to claim that, if you supported the firing of Roseanne Barr following her racist tweets, yet defended James Gunn, then this makes you guilty of hypocrisy. I disagree. It would only truly be hypocrisy if their tweets concerned the same subject matter, and you supported ABC’s decision to fire Barr and drop her sitcom, but were defending Gunn.

This brings me on to another important difference between the Barr and Gunn situations. Barr’s tweets were unquestionably racist, in comparing Valerie Jarrett, an African American former Obama adviser, to an ape. Making jokes, even tasteless ones, about rape and pedophilia doesn’t make a person a rapist or a pedophile. However, making a racist comment does make a person racist.

Barr’s tweets were also current, whereas Gunn’s were not. That’s an important difference. It’s far harder to claim that something isn’t representative of who you are anymore when it’s contemporaneous. Just as crucially, whilst Gunn apologised, Barr offered nothing except excuses, and even then her explanations changed.

It’s really a question of where we’re happy to draw the line. Should a person be punished for offensive social media posts made many years in the past, perhaps at a time when they were less mature? If the answer is yes, then I think that’s a dangerous road down which to travel.

What happens if those past comments were political in nature, and when they come to light, those of the opposing political view demand that person be fired. Wouldn’t that be an example of wanting to punish someone, just because they hold views with which you don’t agree?

This brings me back to Gunn’s political views. He’s made no secret of his dislike for America’s current Commander-in-Chief, and there are some that hold to the view that this is actually what got him fired. They can point to the fact that the Chairman of Marvel, Ike Perlmutter, is a close friend of Donald Trump. Obviously, firing someone for their political views would be hugely controversial, but those old tweets may have given the Marvel/Disney bosses the perfect excuse to get rid of James Gunn.

We’re also forgetting that people are allowed to change. I’m sure we can all look back at our past behaviour – on and off line – and we’ll find things that we shouldn’t have said and done. I know I would.

People will make mistakes, and will continue to make errors of judgment. If those mistakes are criminal in nature, then of course, they should be dealt with according to the law. But we should always leave room, where appropriate, for rehabilitation.

It’s also interesting, and more than a little sad, to note how some people seem more offended by the misguided tweets of a filmmaker than they are by some of the things that come out of the mouth of the current occupant of the Oval Office.

These days, I think it’s less about what’s being said or done that’s offensive, and more about who it is that’s saying it. This is a classic example of situational ethics, and can help explain why Trump supporters were mortified by Michelle Wolf’s act at the White House Correspondents Dinner, yet jump through hoops to defend Trump when he says or does something outrageous.

It looks as if James Gunn is being held to a higher moral standard than the President of the United States. It truly is a strange time we’re living in where offensive jokes made over Twitter a decade ago will cost you a role directing a film, but offensive tweets (or comments caught on tape, to give just one more example) aren’t seen as indicative of personal traits that should make you unfit for political office.

Offensive material can say much about those responsible for it, even if they do go on to change their ways. However, offence is taken as well as given, and what we choose to get offended over, as well as what we tolerate, says a lot about us, and about the world we’ve become.

As always, please feel to leave your comments below : )

Titans Versus The Internet…

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I had been planning to write a couple of (so called) DC Extended Universe themed entries recently, being both an aspiring filmmaker and a DC fan.

However, there’s been a slew of DC-related news lately, as well as other industry news worthy of comment, so I was forced to change my plans. Then, just as I was ready to return to the subject of DC on screen, low and behold, Warner Brothers released a trailer for Titans, the first new series from DC Universe, the company’s just-launched streaming service. Cue another change of plans.

So what interested me about the trailer is less what was in the trailer itself, and more the reaction to it. If you wanted to be charitable, you might say it was a mixed response. A less charitable examination of the various tweets, Youtube reaction videos and comments, as well as other message boards, will show that the reaction was overwhelmingly negative.

For Warner Brothers/DC, it must have been groundhog day. A similarly cool response greeted the leaked set photographs that merged earlier this year. The pictures showed the Titans characters Starfire, Raven and Beast Boy. Fan ire was directed at their costumes, with Starfire in particular coming in for some heavy criticism.

The main cast tried to reassure fans, saying that they weren’t representative of their characters or their costumes. Some fans even generously speculated that the photographs could be a scene where the Titans were going undercover, or even on a night out.

Well the trailer proved that’s not the case. In fact, that could be a major reason for much of the disquiet amongst fans. Although the rather steep subscription price for DC Universe ($74.99 a year) might also be a factor.

Of course, you might say that disgruntled comic book fans are nothing new. And you’d be right. There is seemingly always some amongst the fanbase of various characters that are unhappy with some element/s of an adaptation. Are some of those reactions over the top? Absolutely. Do some cross the line, embracing things like racism and sexism? Sadly, yes, and those reactions should be condemned by all right thinking and rational people.

All that being said, we shouldn’t dismiss the impact that a negative reaction from genuine fans can have, particularly in this era of social media. As we’ve seen with Titans, thanks to the internet, negative feedback travels.

I’m not saying that the growth of social media platforms like Twitter, as well as sites like Youtube, are what cause fan anger. Rather, I believe they make it easier for those fans to share their views, both positive and negative, to a much wider audience. In the manner that a megaphone amplifies the sound of a voice, social media has expanded the potential reach for online content.

Before the advent of social media, we’d be limited in how widely and quickly we could share our opinions. Nowadays, these thoughts can be shared with people we’ve never met, thousands of miles away. The immediacy that such platforms afford means that a committed Youtuber or a dedicated tweeter can have his or her thoughts on a leaked set photo, casting choice or new trailer online within minutes.

This is both good and bad news for film studios. If the reactions are positive, then a film or a TV show will trend for the right reasons. If it’s not, you can be sure that the negative reactions will be shared online, meaning that a film or TV show might start trending for all the wrong reasons.

There is the old adage that no publicity is bad publicity. To that received ‘wisdom’, I’d direct you to some of the comments that the Titans trailer generated. A trailer is a film or TV show’s opportunity to attract potential audiences and viewers. To do that, you need to show your project off at its best. I fail to see how a “well at least they’re talking about it” approach, as a result of an unenthusiastic reaction, is a good strategy.

The negative feedback to the Titans trailer reminded many of the similarly tepid response that greeted the first official photograph released to promote Marvel’s Inhumans TV series. On this occasion, fans were also unimpressed with the main characters’ costumes, and weren’t shy in venting their views online. The show never really managed to shake off the negativity, and it was cancelled after one season.

It’s not hard to conclude that the poor reception afforded to the Titans trailer might also act like a millstone around the show’s neck. Having the costume of one of your main characters (Starfire) compared to a prostitute and someone going to a disco in the 1970’s isn’t what you want for your new show, especially when said show is being used to sell your fledging streaming service.

It’s said that the thing about first impressions is that you don’t get another chance to make them. Negativity can stick, and the first impression that this Titans series left wasn’t a good one. Beloved characters misrepresented, poor costumes, cliched dialogue and bad lighting were just a few of the things highlighted. It’s going to take a lot to bring those fans back around.

The worrying thing for Warner Brothers is that the chilly response to Titans isn’t happening in a vacuum. It’s yet more lukewarm feedback to a live action DC project. Only Wonder Woman has been seen as both a critical and a commercial success, and it makes you question if all of the bad publicity is putting off potential audiences.

There is some good news for WB/DC, though. Both the first trailers for Shazam! and Aquaman met with a warm response, especially from fans. Of course, in order to capitalise on this, both films will need to actually deliver on the early promise. Because you can spend millions on a flashy advertising campaign, but if the product behind it all isn’t up to scratch, none of it will matter.

So a studio can try and seize the narrative, controlling the release of information about a project in the hopes of countering any negativity, but sooner or later a trailer will have to drop, and official stills will be published. And that’s when the internet will have its say, for better or worse.

It can’t have been easy for those involved with Titans to see the reaction the trailer created amongst some people. However, if you take risks with fan favourite characters like Dick Grayson, you perhaps shouldn’t be surprised when those fans aren’t too pleased.

This isn’t an argument for fan-driven content that takes no risks. What I’m saying is that all of these tweets, comments and reaction videos tell us something. Amidst all of the breathless hysteria and over-the-top outrage, there are thoughtful fans who care about their favourite characters, and these reactions are a red flag, a sure sign that the diehard fans aren’t happy. And when the fans turn away, who else is left?

All About The Profit?

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At the time of writing, the latest entry into the MCU (or Marvel Cinematic Universe), Avengers: Infinity War, is smashing box office records like the Hulk smashes through…well, pretty much anything in his path.

None of this is especially surprising, given both the MCU’s box office and critical reception thus far, as well as all of the hype surrounding the third Avengers film.

What’s becoming increasingly clear is that we’re well and truly in the era of the tent pole blockbuster, big budget movies racking up big numbers at the box office, and breaking numerous records in the process.

However, the reverse is, sadly, also true, with some recent high profile ‘failures’: where films performed below their predicted box office takings. This is enough, it seems, to be regarded as having failed in the age of the billion dollar gross.

Amidst all of the talk about which films will make however much money, and which records will or won’t be broken, there is a danger that we’re missing an important question: is this a good thing for the film industry, and for its audiences?

Of course, at this point we have to acknowledge that the film industry is just that: a business, and businesses need to make a profit to survive. Some might say that if studios earn millions from their blockbuster franchises, it allows them to channel these profits (at least in part) into smaller, less commercial fare.

Now, I’m not one of these people that thinks blockbuster automatically equals lowbrow entertainment. Not only am I a fan (especially of comic book adaptations), I think these films are subject to unfair and elitist criticism from some quarters. A great film is a great film, no matter the genre.

There have been a number of intelligent, thought provoking blockbusters in recent years, films that combine action thrills with weight themes. The Dark Knight trilogy, Captain America: Civil War and The Planet of the Apes reboot are just a few examples.

What does concern me is how, more than ever, what makes a film a success, is how much money it makes, rather than its creative and artistic value. Even whether it’s actually any good.

My fear is that we’re in danger of treating films like commodities. Yes, films need money, both in order to get made and in order to justify that budget. Surely though, that can’t be the primary goal of any film?

A film isn’t a product in the manner of a chocolate bar, a soft drink or a mobile phone. Good art should carry messages, and be made with a sense of creative vision, even if it is intended for a mass audience.

To aim for the bottom line at the expense of creativity is to run the risk of producing cookie-cutter films, made according to a template, designed to minimise risk and maximise profit.

Whether any multi million dollar film can ever be described as risk free is debatable, when even seemingly sure fire hits don’t do well. Situations like that, though, only increase the likelihood of films that look like they’ve been assembled on a production line, made to tick boxes by risk averse studios.

The problem isn’t blockbuster films, or big, crowd-pleasing franchises. The problem is when these films are made primarily with profit in mind, resulting in features that will very likely make their budgets back – and then some. Films that will break box offices, but won’t stretch the mind.

The price will be things like diversity of content, artistic merit and daring, creative voices that defy mainstream classifications. When that happens, we’ll all be counting the cost.

The Write Stuff

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Recently, I’ve been looking back through my old blog entries, and I was reminded of how many were about scriptwriting. It got me thinking again about how many books and articles there are, each one claiming to have the perfect formula to writing great scripts, and then selling those scripts. My blog entries are clearly just a tiny drop in the very large ocean of opinions on the subject.

It can actually be quite daunting, starting out as screenwriter (or a writer/director) and seeing all of this advice on the how’s and how-not-to-do’s of crafting a screenplay. What, if any, of it should an aspiring screenwriter take on board? Are there even any surefire ways to writing a sellable script? What about one that will be made into a box office dominating blockbuster?

The simplest answer is that it’s often hard to predict what will succeed in the film industry and what won’t. Many films have failed that looked on paper like they’d be huge box office successes. The filmmaking business is something of a lottery, so offering any kind of guaranteed strategies for success is at best naive and at worst irresponsible.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be open to advice however, no matter what stage we’re at in our filmmaking career. Everyone involved in the industry benefits from honing their craft, and listening to wise advice is part of how we grow as artists.

My hope with this article (and my blog as a whole) is to encourage people in similar situations, through advice that’s based on my own experiences.

At this point I should insert a disclaimer. I know that in writing this article, I’m joining (again) the cacophony of voices on the do’s and don’t’s of how to write a script.

However, what follows is a more of a practical guide to approaching screenwriting. You might find some of it works for you, and some of it doesn’t. That’s because every writer is different, and so what suits one might be a bad fit on another.

As always, I’d appreciate your thoughts and opinions in the comment section below this article.

Write something as often as you can. I know that life gets in the way, especially of best-laid plans. That’s even more of a reality when you’re having to fit your writing around another job. What I’ve found helpful is to set realistic, achievable goals. Try and write a bit each day. I’m currently re-writing one of my screenplays, and rather than trying to tackle large sections all at once, I’m focusing on a few scenes, or specific issues at a time. I try and think of it like this: even if I only write one scene today, at least it’s one more scene than I had yesterday.

Some writers prefer writing during the day, whilst others find they work better at night. Often you may have to organise your writing around other things, but make the most of the time that you have.

One area where I’m trying to improve is writing at regular times. For some, that would create too much pressure to come up with something good at the time. However, I think it’s important to try and set up some kind of schedule, even if it’s pretty fluid. If we only write when we want to or feel inspired, then we probably wouldn’t write much at all.

Find your place. For some, this will mean locking yourself away in your office or bedroom. For others, they enjoy writing in a public place, like a coffee shop or a library. You could be either one of those, or, alternatively, you might like to mix it up.

Are you sitting comfortably? It might sound trivial, but if you’re going to be spending lots of time writing at your desk/table (or wherever you choose) you need to be comfortable. Aside from it being a hindrance to your writing, it could damage you physically if you’re not seated correctly.

Take regular breaks. Opinions may vary as to the length of time, but make sure you take a break to rest your eyes. Yes, your writing is important, but your health is even more so. So try and schedule a break every now and then.

Invest in some screenwriting software. This doesn’t have to be expensive, as there are free options out there, such as Celtx. This is the software I use, so I can say that even a free to download option gives you more than enough to compose a script. It will make your work look professional, and they’re available for both PC and Mac computers.

Speaking of which, desktop or laptop? I write my scripts using my desktop Mac, but a laptop (or Macbook) will give you the advantage of being able to work on your script away from your desk. What option you choose may depend on budget or personal taste.

The sound of music, or the sound of silence? Again, this will be a matter of personal choice. Some people will find that listening to music while writing is distracting. Others find that some subtle background music helps, especially if it fits in tonally with whatever they’re writing. Ultimately, you should do what helps you write to the best of your ability.

Finally, do something with it. Setting deadlines are useful motivation for the actual writing stage, but it’s just as important to set a target for what you’re going to do with your script when you’ve got a finished draft that you’re happy with.

Are you going to submit it somewhere, perhaps to something like the BBC’s The Script Room, or a screenwriting competition? Or maybe you’ve got friends who are involved in filmmaking, and you’re all going to produce it together?

The point is that a promising script that never even gets seen, never mind made, is a missed opportunity. So take the plunge and show your script to someone who you trust, and who can help move it one step closer to getting made.

Joss Whedon, Batgirl and the question of diversity…

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So Joss Whedon’s move from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the DC Extended Universe looks to be over, for now at least. Whedon announced yesterday that he will no longer be directing the upcoming Batgirl solo film, citing a failure to come up with a story after a year working on the project. Reports are suggesting that the studio is looking for a female director to take over.

It’s easy to speculate that Whedon’s involvement with Justice League may also have played a part in his decision. It’s no secret that JL performed below expectations at the box office, and for some people, that might taint Whedon’s involvement in DC’s cinematic universe. At the very least, it probably didn’t strengthen his case, especially given the shake up at the top of Warner Brothers/DC following Justice League’s box office takings.

Some have also suggested that, as a male director, Joss Whedon would have been under greater scrutiny helming Batgirl, a film with a female lead character, than a woman directing the project would face. That this film would be coming out in the aftermath of the gender pay gap and Time’s Up debates that are ongoing in the film/TV industry, only makes this more likely.

It certainly raises some interesting questions, and for me, questions that go right to the heart of what diversity truly means. These questions are even more important now, given that they’re being asked against the backdrop of those aforementioned campaigns for gender equality.

Greater representation for women, both in front of and behind the camera, is an issue that certainly needs addressing, although it’s more than a little sobering that we’re still having this discussion in the 21st Century. It’s one of the reasons that this year’s Academy Awards nominations were so welcome, with nods for Greta Gerwig for directing and Rachel Morrison for cinematography (the first woman to be nominated in that category.)

Of course, the issue of diversity is complex, and a few award nominations, welcome though they are, don’t go anywhere near addressing all the problems women face in the industry. As the issue is so important, however, we must be clear about what diversity is. It might sound obvious, but it’s worth asking what we mean when we use that term, and call for more of it.

A male director making a film with a male lead character, or a woman director doing the same for a project with a female main character, might look diverse to some, in the sense that the woman director in question is making a film, filling a role in which women are still underrepresented. It would also have a female lead, which is also still a rarity.

I wonder, though, if this diversity might also be achieved by a different scenario. Imagine if WB/DC announces a sequel to Man of Steel, and that the director will be a woman. Maybe even that the screenplay will be written or co-written by a woman, or that there will be a woman in the role of DOP or editor.

There haven’t been many examples of women directing comic book films that have a male in the lead role (I can only think of one, Lexi Alexander, with The Punisher: War Zone. Please correct me below if you can think of any others), so this would be a long overdue and noteworthy thing to happen.

It would make it clear that gender is truly no barrier when it comes to hiring anyone in the industry, and that gender shouldn’t matter. Now I’m not suggesting that someone like Patty Jenkins was only hired to direct Wonder Woman because she’s female. What I am suggesting is that I don’t believe that there should be such a thing as a ‘man’s film’ or a ‘woman’s film.’ In fact, I think when a film like Wonder Woman comes out, or a notable release like Ladybird, then there’s every reason for men to see it, in the same way that it’s important for white people to see Black Panther.

This is because stories, in whatever form they take, are important, and the messages they carry should be heard by as many people as possible. As a filmmaker, you should also want to explore stories involving all people, and not just people like you. To me, that’s true diversity

This doesn’t mean I think Warners is wrong to replace Joss Whedon, or look for a woman to direct Batgirl. I just worry that, inadvertently, this actually makes the gender of the director more of an issue, when it shouldn’t be at all. Instead, it should be factors like their talent, their vision for the story, their enthusiasm for the project and their experience that matter.

There are many talented female writers and directors in mainstream and independent cinema and television who would be a fine addition to a franchise like the DCEU. Would they be a good fit for Batgirl or any of DC’s other female characters? Absolutely. But they’d also do a good job with one of DC’s male characters as well.

For example, Ava DuVernay has shown a strong political slant to her work, which would be perfect for the socially and politically conscious Green Arrow. Kathryn Bigelow’s talents would be perfect for the gritty tone that is a big part of the DCEU, whilst the futuristic world of Altered Carbon is a great showcase for Laeta Kalogridis’ talents for science fiction. Talents that could be well utilised for the upcoming Cyborg or Green Lantern Corps films. If anything like this were to happen, that would be a big story.

On second thoughts, maybe we’ll all know when gender and diversity are becoming less of an issue, and that progress is being made, that when this does happen, it isn’t a big story.

As always, please feel free to leave your comments below.

 

Finding your style…

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First of all, apologies for my absence. The past few months have been a bit busy ‘off camera’, hence the lack of updates. However, with my short ‘Runner’ in pre-production, I’ve been thinking a lot about the look I want it to have, and how I might visualise the other projects I’ve got planned.

That has led me to think about style, and how a director finds her or his own voice enough to stand out. Then, how this is affected by such things as camera and lens choice, angle, lighting and so many other things. More than once, I’ve come to appreciate how it feels like picking up a whole new language without words, or a ‘visual language.’

Now when you start learning any language, your command of the grammar is basic, as is the range of your vocabulary. You know what you want to say, but you don’t have the knowledge to say it yet.

It’s the same with filmmaking and the ‘visual language.’ You have all these ideas, all these things that you want to say and stories that you can see in your mind. The problem is that you lack the technical knowledge to bring those ideas to life. As with that beginner language student, you know what you want to say, but you don’t know how to say it yet. At least, not in a way that will do it justice.

Running alongside this is that, when you’re a beginner, you tend to wear your influences very clearly. A big reason for that is what I covered above: as a novice, you don’t have the breadth of technical know-how to turn your ideas into reality. You are then more likely to be more of an open book regarding the people who’ve inspired you.

Of course, it’s not wrong to have influences as a filmmaker. It’s part of how we end up developing our own artistic voice, as well as being, at least for some, a major reason that they got into filmmaking in the first place. Then there’s the fact that the people who inspired us would also have had inspirations of their own.

But how do we stand out, and develop a voice of our own? It’s an important question, especially so given the competitive nature of the film industry, and how difficult it is to break through.

I have to confess that it’s a question I’m still wrestling with myself. One thing I’m discovering is that watching so many films and television shows can actually be counter productive if we’re not careful, in that we can end up as little more than a collage of our various influences.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t watch films or television shows. If we love the medium enough to want to make a career of it, then it would seem strange to avoid watching the work of others. As long as we’re not deliberately copying ideas from other filmmakers, then an interest in the art is important. Not only will it stop is from being excessively focused upon ourselves, it will also open us up to new techniques, styles and ideas that will help to contribute to our development as filmmakers.

The simple answer to avoid becoming little more than a tribute act to our favourite directors, writers, cinematographers etc, is to have something to say of our own in the first place. It’s like that novice learning a new language again, dropped in the middle of that country and needing some help: they know what they want to say, but not how to say it. Now think how much harder it would be for anyone helping this person if that individual didn’t know where they wanted to go. If, in short, they had nothing to say?

As a rookie filmmaker, you will have gaps in your knowledge. Leaving aside the fact that every filmmaker is learning throughout their career, the more inexperienced you are, the bigger those gaps. But you must still have something to say to audiences, even though you’re still finding your voice.

That means that, along with our stylistic and creative influences, we have to be interested in people, and in the world around us. We must have ideas to share. The technical expertise will grow, and eventually that individual voice of our own will emerge. However, if we truly want to stand out, we have to make sure that when it does, we’re saying things that matter. To us, and to our audience.

 

As always, please feel free to comment below! : )

Another casting controversy

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You wait for one controversial casting choice, then another one comes along straight after.

The internet was still in fits of hysteria following Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the 13th Doctor, when Disney announced the leads for their live action version of Aladdin. It hasn’t gone down well.

Joining Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Will Smith as the Genie is Naomi Scott as Jasmine. Scott, star of the recent Power Rangers film, is of British/Indian heritage, a fact that has upset some fans. Although the setting of the story is the fictional city of Agrabah, it’s still accepted that it is meant to represent a Middle Eastern location.

All of this means we’re having to discuss the issue of race-swapping characters again, and when – and if – it’s ever acceptable to do so.

On the one hand, it’s often done to update certain characters and stories for a modern setting. For example, Jon Watts, the director of Spiderman: Homecoming, wanted his cast to better reflect the racial diversity of 21st Century New York.

As laudable as those ambitions are, however, there is the view that altering the source material to that extent alienates some fans, who want to see their favourite characters on represented on screen as they are on the page.

Of course, there is a big difference between altering a character’s race in order to increase diversity (and doing so in a way that serves the story), and doing so in way that actually limits diversity.

Princess Jasmine’s race is important to the story in the sense that Aladdin is set in the Middle East, and therefore it’s logical that the characters will be a reflection of that setting. That is surely true of any fictional film: the characters are a reflection of the setting of the story in which they are taking part.

None of this should be read as a critique of Naomi Scott’s acting abilities. However, the casting is a disappointment for two main reasons. The first is that it’s rare to have a Hollywood film with leads of an Arabic or broadly Middle Eastern background, so in making this casting choice for Jasmine, Aladdin has missed the chance to fully embrace the opportunity for diversity that this film offers.

Secondly, the underlying implication (intentional or not) is that Hollywood sees all non-white actors, especially those with brown skin, as being more or less the same, and therefore interchangeable. It doesn’t matter what your actual background might be, if you don’t have white skin, then you’ll fit any non-white role.

The result is a kind of race-swapping that has the worst possible outcome: it denies a certain section of society a voice and representation. on screen. The fact that it’s happening to a group that is often under and miss-represented just adds further insult.

We make and watch films for many different reasons. One of those is surely to give a voice to people and subjects that need it, so that we’re all better informed. In denying a voice to anyone from any group or community, the film industry is failing in this most basic and fundamental of its obligations.