Who is God? The Writer vs Director

We’re going to keep this chicken and egg debate between the Writer and the Director. Before you chime in with alternate answers like “The Producer”, or “The Advertisers” (both valid) I want you to think of your immediate impression of who is God in the world of film.

Now lets break it down…

The Case for the Writer…
He created the story. He gave life to something that didnt exist before. The world. The story within that world. The characters within that story. The words coming out of the characters’ mouths.

The writer created everything… the very definition of God.

Case closed, right?

 
The Case for The Director…
By definition, he directs the story. So doesn’t that “trump” the writer’s role as God?

The writer who believes himself God hates the director who alters a single word of their genius. But why should the writer be the only artist in the entire process who isn’t directed?  In fact, the writer has no power over any other cast or crew member. So the Director is God.

Case closed, right?

 

I am deeply grateful for all that I have learned from my former acting school, the Beverly Hills Playhouse (BHP) under the tutelage of the late great, Milton Katselas. One of the things he said regarding story-telling was
“The Writer is a genius until proven otherwise.”

This is important for actors as well as directors to keep in mind when interpreting the author’s work.
To take it a step further I had another BHP teacher tell me that a writer shouldn’t direct their own work. As someone who fancies himself a writer/director, I was understandably miffed at this proclamation.

Their perfect example cited was the film and play collaborations between Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan on works such as “A Streetcar Named Desire”, “Camino Real”, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, and “Sweet Bird of Youth”.

These brilliant pieces of artistry came from Williams slicing truth from life and Kazan using his own life experiences to personalize those truths, which inevitably evolved the writing. They are nothing without each other.
I would argue that Williams is the quintessential writer who doesn’t direct, while Kazan, one of the finest directors of last century, TRIED to write but couldn’t.

But where does that leave the writer/director…? The single visionary auteur who sees the entire picture in his head and uses the script simply as a means of translating that vision to the other collaborators on his film…?
As someone who values everyone from Woody Allen to Christopher Nolan, I had to find my own path.

It was clear my beloved Katselas (as an artist who studied under and assisted Kazan for so many years) favored the Director-as-God mentality. He was also the same man who brilliantly reworked “Romeo and Juliet”, arguably creating one of the greatest adaptations of Shakespeare ever. Katselas’ entire philosophy of instilling classic material with real flesh and blood beings with modern issues can be summed up with one line…
“Fuck Iambic Pentameter.”

To Katselas’ credit, and to every producer who loathes having an author on set, there are some screenwriters who think everything they write is gold and that an altered word could upset the very core of their genius construct.
When it comes to filmmaking, that writers needs to observe…

 
The 3 Phases of Story-telling


PHASE 1: Script

 

This is where the Writer has creative reign to play God and invent the story he wants to tell. At this point, everything the writer creates IS Gold…

(until he shows the script to a producer of course.)

 
PHASE 2: Production


This is the point when actors step in front of the camera and breathe life into words that formerly only existed on a page; all of which is orchestrated by the Director.
It is immediately before this stage when the writer is often abandoned by the Studio, left at home wondering how fresh the on-set Red Vines must taste. This is probably due to the disgruntled purist writers who have complained over the decades about their words being altered. They may have real merit to complain about in some cases but, then again, they may not understand the magic that can happen when real actors get on set.

PHASE 3: Editing


This is where you have the ability to re-imagine everything you did up to this point and transform it into a comedy or horror, fast-cut or slow-paced, etc.

This is the final stage where both writer and director can be at fault for falling in love with their work in one or both of the previous phases and deny the ability to tell an evolved story.

 


Hitchcock vs Coppola

Hitchcock was credited as previsualizing his stories to such a degree that he would actually look through the lens, call action and walk away, assuming his storyboards would communicate everything the cast and crew needed to know at that point.

I’m guessing this reputation was over-simplified, but the point was that he certainly didn’t need some writer to be giving him suggestions along the way; Hitchcock already had everything in his head and communicated via storyboards.

But then there’s Coppolla who sees every moment as a collaboration and is rewriting scenes on the hood of a car moments before shooting.

From what I’ve heard he, to a large degree, had a “we’ll figure it out when we get there” mentality, which I also assume was somewhat exaggerated.
Regardless, I think the ideal scenario is a combination of these two methodologies; where the writer and director become one being… the way I imagine Kazan and Williams worked on a film.
Lets assume…  you are a director (not the writer/director) and lets also assume the writer is still alive to collaborate with.

 

The Ideal Writer/Director scenario



PRE-PRO
a) Writer completes their version of script.

b) Director comes on board, interpreting what writer intended, while personalizing the story from his own perspective.

c) Writer AND director rework script together, to tell this “new story” combining writer’s original intentions with director’s personal experiences. (Hopefully, if the writer found the right director, these stories will not be “different”- yet “evolved”.)

PRODUCTION
d) Director works with EVERY CREATIVE ENTITY on set to make sure they understand the vision of the project set out by him and the writer.
While shooting, the beast of the story can/will change. The Director is trained to roll with these changes. The writer should be ready to rewrite anything that can strengthen this new interpretation.
Arguably the most important elements other than Director and Writer are the actors and the DP, mostly because they all have to be aware of every potential moment when “magic” could be happening.

POST-PROD
e) The Director should closely collaborate with the editor. At this point the writer is done, unless the director needs clarification; but hopefully he knows the story so intimately, as well as the footage captured on film, that his job just becomes translating that to the editor.

Lets face it- the real God is the story.

In its purest form the story should be inevitable, a perfect mirror of our lives. Art imitating life, imitating art, imitating life.
The writer (hopefully) saw something illuminating to our lives and captured it with words. And the director (hopefully) understood the writer’s intentions and used their own understanding of life to see it all the way to the hearts of the audience.

But then again…

The best art makes artists out of those who interpret it.

When we, as viewers, watch art we’re seeing a representation of ourselves. Its our job to constantly redefine what life is… which gives filmmakers fodder to create.

So maybe God… is us.

~ JW

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What is a Web Series?

My goal with this post is to create a compelling argument for a valid definition of a web series…

read on.

As a member of the IAWTV (International Academy of Web TV), and as an artist spawned from the beastly new media womb in general, there has been a lot of discussion over what constitutes a “Web Series”.

Since we’re all cowboys in the digital Wild West we have the ability to design how the future will view new media projects. Many want to set parameters which, in a way, rob us of the spirit of possibilities the web promises; yet they’re simultaneously necessary when trying to monetize this budding industry.

Lets address some of these parameters…

  • Series length
  • Episode length
  • Studio vs Independent
  • Original Distribution Platform
  • Format

SERIES LENGTH

Its important to define the word “series” here.

se-ries

noun

“a number of related things arranged or occurring in succession.”

By definition a series is as many as “infinite” and as few as “two.” Some may object that a series could consist of as few episodes as two but unless we have a good reason to define another number I don’t see why we should set a boundary.

It was suggested at one point to define 6 episodes as the minimum to warrant a “created by” credit. I argue that this is arbitrary and unfair. What if a show had 5 twenty minute episodes- does that mean no one deserves the “created by” credit? So why not make 5 episodes the minimum? Then again, what makes 5 so much more valid than 4? Admittedly, it gets increasingly more ludicrous as we descend but again, why not 3…?

Which brings me back to the very definition of a series being at least 2 episodes long. I really don’t think we should redefine this area unless we have a compelling reason to do so.

EPISODE LENGTH

TV episodes are mandated due to advertising and range from either 22-30 minutes or 44-60 minutes depending on the advertising needs of the network or cable station.

The web has no restriction because there’s no reason to constrict what is possible at this point. A few years ago some important suit-wearing executive at some important company decided that attentions spans of laptop viewers should be around 3-5 minutes per episode.

Over time this has increased as its proven that people are willing to watch features on their phone; literally, 2 years ago an agent at UTA laughed at that ever being a possibility.

When we distributed The Bannen Way on Sony’s Crackle site, they were mandated to keep the episodes under 7 minutes because they would have to insert a commercial otherwise. I don’t believe there was any minimum but we aimed to keep them between 5-7 minutes.

The Independents don’t have to answer to advertisers, so if it makes sense creatively for their story-lines to be 45 minutes in length, who’s to prevent them from trying it out. Which brings me to…

STUDIO vs INDEPENDENT

We got some heat for Bannen because it was a “studio” project. As this was my foray into directing I didn’t see myself as part of the “Big Bad Monster” that many envisioned Sony as for trying to swoop in and dominate the web.

I think there will always be a place for Independent projects on the web, by the sheer nature that anyone can post something on the web and be their own distributor; but I don’t think we should refuse the potential for creating an industry out of this medium. We need money to do that. Whether that capital comes from a studio- or investors- or your little sister’s piggy bank [dick] makes no difference.

All revenue models should be welcomed. Even if an official web format surfaces due to advertising money that still doesn’t hinder you from picking up your camera and throwing a video of you getting kicked in the nuts on the web- unlike TV and Film where you have no access unless you have a ticket into the party.

ORIGINAL DISTRIBUTION PLATFORM

Sometimes web series originate on the web and later that same material is repurposed as a feature or as episodes of a TV series…

And sometimes its the other way around. The hot scam right now is arbitrarily cutting up features and throwing them into bite size chunks to be consumed on the web.

I’ve heard objections in both direction from purists who want to keep web projects within “web jurisdiction”. But whether you like it or not- how can you say a feature film that is cut up into a web series isn’t a web series. It may piss you off but it is what it is.

When creating The Bannen Way, since there was no limit to the number of episodes allowed on the web, we decided to structure our series as a feature, in hopes we could justify getting a larger production budget since we could potentially sell the project on DVD.  It worked- Sony was willing to take a risk on what has now become a standard new media model.

Would I classify our project as a web series- or a feature…?

The answer is both. We shot and edited it as a feature first (for obvious budgetary reasons) but we distributed it as a Web series first. Since it premiered on the web I think it clearly classifies it as a Web series whether or not it eventually became a feature film.

How could a web series retroactively be disqualified as a web series because it was later distributed in other ways?

FORMAT

There are many types of entities that exist on the web. The Streamy Awards recognize live-action, documentary, hosted, animated, etc. But why not dating, shopping, or photo sites…?

There are two obvious answers: there’s no “narrative” or “video” quality to these entities. We could argue semantics further by pointing out the video elements to shopping sites or dispute how narrative a hosted news show is.

When we break it down Format seems like a gray area. To further prove this point, I’d like to offer another sacrifice for the alter…  “gaming

True, there’s no way playing Solitaire or Words with Friends should be considered a web series- lacking narrative and video, among other, obvious qualities. But then again… what about “video gaming”? There’s definitely a narrative story inherent in any single player campaign these days- arguably more intricate and nuanced than many Hollywood movies. So why disqualify online Video Games from being a web series?

Right- because of that word- “Series”. Lets assume we’re not satisfied with World of Warcraft 2 suddenly becoming a web series because two related things are strung together. But what if someone created a narrative video game where you could play through a storyline, online, in 3-5 minute increments…? And what if tomorrow there would be another “episode” that you could play through? Does that not qualify as a web series…? Why not…? Because its too interactive?

In order to settle this ongoing debate I think we need to first establish the guideposts- the unchanging structure that everyone can agree on- and build from there.

For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume everyone is okay with two components…

  • Web
  • Series

WEB

The term “Web” potentially refers to two things.

  • How content is consumed
  • Where the content originated

Content Consumption: If you’re watching a video on your computer, iPad, or mobile phone and you’re connected to the web there’s a god chance its a web series… but not necessarily. You can download a feature on the web and watch it on your iPad. You can also watch “web content” on your television these days.

So I’m going to have to disqualify this definition, and move on to…

Origination of Content: If you’re watching a series that originated on the web there’s a good chance its a web series. I don’t see any way to dispute this. Even if the same material becomes a feature film, if it was broken up into episodes on the web first its definitely a web series.

SERIES

I already defined series as “a number of related things arranged or occurring in succession.”

This, to me, means 2 or more. Period.

With everything considered…

And until we have a compelling reason to think otherwise…

In the spirit of creating a fair classification of a web series, I propose this simple definition…

“A Web Series is… 2 or more related episodes of video content that originate on the web.”

~ JW

The Necessity of Narcissism

They say when an individual is afflicted with Narcissism its everyone else who suffers…

As true as that may be, if we were to magically eradicate that ugly disease from existence, where would that leave the world of art?


I propose that after

1) Possessing actual talent

and

2) Being “connected” in your given industry

that

3) Narcissism…

is the next most important trait for having a successful artistic career.
To illustrate, lets play a little game. Its called “Narcissist or Artistic Genius”… Ready…? Here we go…

  • Salvador Dali
  • Michael Jackson
  • Tom Cruise
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Madonna
  • Stanley Kubrick
  • Leonardo DaVinci
  • Peter Sellers
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The answer of course to all of these highly successful people is that they’re both. And I know what you’re thinking…

YOU: “C’mon, Jess- are you trying to say that only narcissistic people are successful?”
JESS; “Yes”
YOU: “But what about Meryl Streep? She’s a lovely person.”
JESS: “She is a lovely person… and a narcissist.”
YOU: “What about Oprah? Don’t you dare say anything bad about Oprah?”
JESS: “I wouldn’t specifically classify her in the artist category but I would say she is highly successful at whatever she does- and yes, she’s a narcissist.
YOU: “I hate you.”

I will try to win back our friendship by clarifying that being a narcissist doesn’t have to mean you have borderline personality disorder. Lets see how the dictionary defines it.

nar-cis-sism
– noun
1. excessive admiration for oneself.

Bingo! I know this is a huge button for people. They don’t want to see Meryl Streep or (god forbid) Oprah as a narcissist; they’d prefer to replace that ugly word with “confidence.”  However, I argue that being confident is not enough.

con-fi-dent
– adjective
1. having strong belief or full assurance; sure.

I believe this is the general impression you want to leave on the masses.  But here’s the important difference between “Confidence” and, I’ll alter it, “Artistic Narcissism.”

Confidence- “I believe I can do this.”
Artistic Narcissism- “No one can do this better than me!”

Before answering, imagine you’re Jon Landau and you’re producing the next $800 million movie called Titavatar (yes, Titanic meets Avatar)…

and lets assume James Cameron retired from directing to do philanthropy…

Now, Mr Landau, which director do you want to give the job to…?

But wait- before you answer still- let’s explore the opposite side of the spectrum; I present to you the most misunderstood word in the history of Webster’s definitions- a disease that most people mistake as a “noble trait”.

hum-ble
– adjective
1. not proud.
2. low in rank, condition, etc
– verb
3. to lower in status or condition.

Would you trust your precious $800 million Titavatar in someone who was “not proud” or was “low in condition”? (whatever that means! it sounds really bad though).

Before we debate semantics or assume I’m a Scientologist lets just agree that no matter how humble you think your favorite highly successful artists are I will bet that secretly they believe that no one can do what they do better than him or herself?

Why…? Out of necessity!

…because if I go around talking about how much greater everyone else is than I am as a director, the proverbial producers will go ask THEM to do it. Sure, I can praise Nolan, Fincher, Tarantino, etc; they’re too busy to steal jobs from a lowly, bright-eyed director like myself.  But there’s a way that I can be supportive of my fellow artists while projecting to said producers that they have found the guy for their project.

“Oh man- [This psychological thriller movie I wrote]- I know it so well! I dream about how I would direct this every night. No one on the planet has the insight into this character like I do.”  Or…

“Thank God [this movie about an olympic athlete trying to win gold] came up because its perfect for me! With my professional running background, only I could possibly understand the intricacies of an athlete’s mind frame”. Or…

“Holy shit! [random made up movie about someone who stubs their toe] You’ll never believe this- it just so happens that I stubbed my toe so bad when I was in junior high that it left this indelible impression on my brain and I have always been wanting to tell this story- must be fate!”
You get the point. I am certainly not suggesting you go around being a dick, talking shit about other people, insisting on getting chicks’ phone numbers because you sat in the same restaurant as Mel Gibson. But I am saying “Fuck humble.” You must believe that no one can do it better than you.

Lets be honest, Picasso didn’t start movements by being humble.

I have no idea how he was as an individual but I am sure he felt that whatever he painted was gold and I’m certain his shit didn’t stink.

This is probably the same reason Salvador Dali walked around town ringing a bell so everyone knew he was coming. I assume most of the peers within these two artistic geniuses’ circles dismissed them at the time as narcissists; however, despite social pressures to act as common-folk, these highly evolved artists maintained their disposition… not only to convince others of their ability but also to continually convince themselves.

When pitching the original concept for The Bannen Way around town with my partner before anyone really knew (including us) what a web series was, we had an idea to structure these five minute episodes as a feature; yet neither of us had any real credits to prove ourselves worthy of investors. My IMDb page had an episode of CSI and a day-player role from Brothers Solomon. No one understands or cares that I got a late start because I was a professional runner.

What, now “Jock-boy” thinks he can direct a feature film?

I literally had someone say to me “This is a good idea, but you’re no Soderbergh, Jess, so why do you expect anyone will give you money to do this?”

We realized eventually that we’d have to shoot two episodes to prove we could. And if I had listened to the tapes that I gathered over the years from nay-sayers, “friends”, etc I may never have decided that this is my project to direct- that no one else can do this except… well… okay, lets be honest- Nolan, Fincher, Carnahan, would have blown it out of the water- but dammit, I stake my claim on this land. This is my ticket into the party. I can not only “do this”- I dare say “No one can do this better than me!”

And you better believe that was the attitude I continued to project to Sony when we got our offices on the lot. Fear permeated throughout the halls as the corporate suits’ jobs were riding on some kid who had two episodes under his belt and a belief that “this is going to be the biggest thing to hit the internet.”

I guess the humbler alternative was “Geez whiz, mister Sony, sir. Sure, there are more capable directors than myself but, golly, I sure wish you’d give me a chance because, who knows, it could turn out neat.

And even the compromise- the sweet-spot- “confident” version may not be enough. “I believe this could be a successful venture. Despite my lack of experience I think the end result will compete with other projects.”

Um… okay…?

That may seem like a safer version of the Artistic Narcissist- but its not the kind of mind-frame that gets you Titavatar.

~ JW