Overcoming Writer’s Block

Writer’s block is just part of the game when it comes to writing. It doesn’t matter what you write: screenplays, stage-plays, novels, short stories, poems, essays, etc. You will eventually get to a point when the ideas aren’t pushing forward to the front of your consciousness, and you are left with this helpless feeling: what the hell am I going to do!?

All of us experience writer’s block. Some of us experience is quickly and painlessly. Perhaps, you have a box filled with old ideas and anytime writer’s block attacks you just reference these ideas and let them jump-start your creativity. You still had writer’s block, but it only lasted for a brief amount of time. Others, myself included, will experience writer’s block for a much longer period of time. Days. Weeks. Longer, perhaps. It can be a particularly brutal time, especially if you know certain themes or events you’d like to talk about, but you just don’t know how to formulate these ideas into words, even though you’ve done it a million times before.

There are a few tricks you can try if you’ve come to that point where your creative mind keeps running into a wall. The first thing you can try is free-writing. Free-writing is when you take a piece of paper and a pencil/pen and, without thinking, just write. Pour out any and everything inside your head. Don’t edit. Don’t read it as you write. Just write. When you’re done, go for a walk, or watch a movie. After a little time has passed come back and read what you’ve written. Sometimes you’ll find a sentence or two that works and will help you break through that wall. I do warn you, however, most of what you’ve written will be horrible, and that’s okay. The idea is to find the little bits that aren’t bad, and there will be bits that are good, or at least point to what you are looking for.

Another trick you can do is what I referenced earlier about a box of ideas. Cut up a piece of paper into a bunch of small pieces and write random premises. They can be anything you like. Throw them in a box and the next time you have writer’s block simply reference the notes. Now, if you are currently in a writer’s block you can write out a random premise and write a page or two. What you write may be unusable, but at least you’ll be writing something.

Another thing you can do is stop thinking about the fact you have writer’s block and focus on something else. The problem with writer’s block is that it focuses our attention to the act of generating ideas and inspiration. Most of the time, however, inspiration and the generation of ideas comes naturally when we aren’t thinking about it. When we think about it we ruin our chances of letting it happen.

You will break through the wall, but it takes time, and it takes forgetting about it in order for it to happen. Once you break through, well, the ideas probably will pour out and you’ll have so many ideas for stories you want to tell that you won’t know what to do with the extras.

 

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The Freedom of Art House Cinema

I’ve been known to enjoy art house films from time to time: experimental films that most people balk at and say are a waste of time. I believe quite the opposite, although I do have my limits. There are times when the experimental becomes too experimental, and the art house films because too artsy, but in general I enjoy them from time to time.

I remember taking a film production course in college that was entitled Advanced Video Production. The first day of class our professor told us how the course was going to have us tap into the side of our creative selves which in regular film, and regular art for that matter, we may not always be able to tap into. He explained how anything around us can be inspiration and potential art pieces.

This is where I think the art house cinema is a great thing to consume every once in a while. It allows freedom. Freedom of thought and freedom of action. The filmmakers had some crazy idea and then just went with it. Art house cinema does things no mainstream film would dare to do: consistently strange cuts, abstract montages, surreal color palettes, heightened sexuality or violence, long takes, extremely slow pacing, etc. If the director/writer has a reason for making the film then that heart will show through in the final cut.

It also gives young filmmakers and writers a reason to get a little crazy in their work. Not everything has to be a clear-cut narrative with a happy ending. We can get weird and abstract. We can get extremely semiotic with what is on the screen. We can experiment and see how far we can take something. If anything, it’ll help us reel it in when we do the more traditional narratives.

As with anything, however, it can be taken too far. I’ve seen many art house films that are atrocious and difficult to get through and at the end I’m wondering what the hell did I just watch? Sometimes I won’t even finish it. However, if you get through one and it leaves you thinking and not disgusted for having watched it, then maybe there was something in it that really touched you. Explore what that may be and you may just discover what your art may have been missing.

 

Christmas Movies

It is that time of the year again: the holidays. This inevitably means holiday specials on television, ridiculous consumerism, and Christmas movies. Every year in my family we have several films we have to watch. Each year we have to watch It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and practically every version of A Christmas Carol (specifically the 1984 and 2009 versions). A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) has recently become a tradition as well, and this year I finally got members of my family to watch A Christmas Story (1983). There are certain classic television specials we have to watch too: A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). These are  all films (there are others too), that I thoroughly enjoy watching. There is something about them which are timeless. I believe part of it is because I am a nostalgic person, and these films hearken back to my childhood (most of them anyway). The magic of Christmas as a child can be relived, even if just for a brief time, through watching these movies.

These films are also well made endeavors and elicit feelings of joy when the credits begin to role. It’s a welcomed relief from the heavy drama & art films I tend to watch during the rest of the year. If you ever want to regain a sense of your childhood just pop in a Christmas movie you grew up watching (or, if you don’t celebrate, any film from your childhood that you liked).

Of course, it is incredibly easy to get a Christmas movie wrong. Very wrong. The modern Christmas movies just don’t feel quite right for me. There are exceptions like the 2009 version of A Christmas Carol which I think is absolutely brilliant, but all too often, however, we are treated to silly comedies which rely on cheap jokes, and I just don’t care for that.

Nevertheless, the holiday season is well underway. Let’s cherish the memories of yesteryear;  this is the only time of the year where it is socially acceptable to watch holiday films, so let’s take advantage of that.

The Vault: Volume 7

It has been ages since I last wrote an entry for the Vault, but the time has come! The films in this selection are a little all over the place, but that’s okay. Some of these films you may have seen before, and others maybe not, but each are worth a look at. So, now, on with the Vault!

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

This is a film which practically every student of film has to study at some point or another, and with good reason. This film is from Germany and came at a unique time in film history. This film exhibits German Expressionism. In fact, this film is like a crash course in expressionism. Every scene is created with this movement in mind. In short, German Expressionism was a movement where artists wanted to show what was going on within the minds of a character by representing it outside of the character. What you get are surreal landscapes and architecture, and it works. This is also an early horror film, and one of the first films to utilize a twist of some sort (though I won’t spoil it!). If you love film or art or horror than this is a film for you. (Side-note: make sure to get your hands on a good quality copy so you can experience it in the fullest.)

  • Deliverance (1972)

A couple of months ago I finally got around to reading the novel by James Dickey called Deliverance. I had seen the movie that was based on the novel, but never actually read the novel. If you like to read, then I recommend giving that book a read. But this is a film blog, so let’s talk about the movie! A lot of people are familiar with this 1972 film and are probably familiar with the infamous “squeal like a pig” scene as well. This is a film that is worth a watch. The cinematography is great, and the story really brings home the man vs. nature story-line in a whole new light. This film is more than just that one infamous sequence, but it does form a major plot point, but the journey extends far beyond what happens in that scene.

  • Life of an American Fireman (1903)

An early film directed by Edwin S. Porter (of The Great Train Robbery fame), is an innovative little film. It is one of the earliest American narrative films, and tells a simple story of the rescue of a mother and child from a burning building. It gives some insight into firefighters and the equipment they used at the turn of the last century. If you are a lover of film and of history, then this is a definite must watch.

  • The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

There is a good chance you have already seen this film based off the Stephen King novella, but in the event that you haven’t you really should. Consistently ranked as one of the best films of all-time, it is a film which pulls you in completely to the world it has created. The music (by Thomas Newman), and the cinematography (by Roger Deakins), are both top-notch and add to the charm of this film. This is also a great film to do a film analysis with, but that is for another post!

Writing Loglines

A logline is one of the most important things a filmmaker or screenwriter needs to create during pre-production of their film in order to get it made by a production company. What is a logline? If you’ve ever looked at a movie poster you’ve probably seen a logline. It is essentially that one or two line phrase slapped onto the poster to make it enticing to watch. These movie poster loglines are technically called taglines, not loglines, because they are in fact different, but they serve essentially the same purpose: sum up an entire movie in one to two sentences.

The main difference is that a logline needs to be able to persuade a bunch of producers to spend a ridiculous amount of money to make it; whereas, a tagline just needs to be persuasive enough to get people to watch it (and the poster art is more persuasive than anything written in the tagline), but for the aspiring screenwriter or filmmaker the logline is extremely important, and it is also very difficult to write.

It may only be one to two sentences long, but in those one to two sentences you have to condense your entire story into a bite size chunk without losing anything in the process. This can especially be difficult when your screenplay is complex and has subplots.

Stick to the basic elements of your story. What are the themes you are exploring? What is the major plot-line you have written? In general, what is your film about? Create a list of things and then begin to formulate your logline. Traditionally, loglines are one sentence, but you can get away with two, but make sure the sentences aren’t super long either. It has to be short and concise. Odds are, you’ll have to write several before deciding on the right one.

A couple things to keep in mind when writing a logline: the first, don’t give too much away in your logline. The idea is to give an enticing hook into what the story is about, but not to spoil it. Leave the producers (or whoever is reading your logline) wanting more. Second, don’t be generic. What I mean is, don’t write something like, “Jurassic Park meets Rear Window set in 2022, and chaos ensues”. Sometimes, it can be good to mention films your film is like, but you have to be careful. On the one hand, mentioning films in your logline will let the producers know if your script is marketable, but it could also show them it isn’t anything special. Choose wisely.

The idea behind a logline is to get people to help make your film, so it is crucial to take your time. A sloppy logline could be the difference between your film getting made or your film being filed away.

The Problem with Genres

It is autumn and that means the leaves are changing, the nights are getting colder and the days chillier and shorter (my favorite time of year), and I can start burning autumn scented candles and the holidays are right around the corner. The first holiday? Halloween. Halloween is right around the corner. It’s only about a month away, and with Halloween comes horror films. People love to get scared around the end of September and throughout October. American Horror Story is in full swing on television, new horror films are coming out in theaters, and old classics are resurrected for the next month and a half. I’m not the biggest fan of horror films, but sometimes I think some so-called “horror” films aren’t really horror films at all.

The genre is horror, but what does that mean? It has to be scary? It has to explore fears and the dark side of humanity? These elements can be in a good drama film too. So what’s the difference? Are genres really all that important? (There are many film theories based entirely around genre, so I won’t say genre is completely irrelevant, but it is at least something to question.) Take for example a horror film I like that I really don’t consider just a horror film.

It is “The Exorcist”. I love that film, but I don’t get scared at it. Granted, I will admit it has many elements of a traditional horror film (those exorcism scenes!), but at the end of the day it is really a film about the love of a mother, and the faith of a disillusioned priest. The really scary stuff doesn’t come until maybe halfway through, and even then they are isolated scenes. I think the film is more a cross of a drama and a horror than just a straight horror film.

However, I can definitely see why it was, and still is, labeled a horror film. It definitely takes things to the next level (heads spinning, levitation, etc. etc.), but there are some others that don’t necessarily fit the horror bill exclusively. A lot of these horror films play out more like a drama, but because they feature something supernatural, or something considered “scary” they are deemed horror, and this can turn some people off. I hold a belief that I will watch any movie once, regardless of genre, because every film deserves a chance, but some people run the other way when they hear a film is a horror film. What if they gave them a chance and saw that these films were drama films with some trace elements of horror? (Or they could get scared out of their wits because its one of those films which is definitely just a straight horror film, but I digress.)

This doesn’t have to apply solely to horror films either. (There are some horror films, I will admit, that could not be categorized as anything other than horror, but that’s a different article for a different time.) How about comedies? Aren’t there many comedy films out there that play with your heartstrings and could be considered a drama? Or what about a drama film that can get pretty funny at times? Couldn’t you classify that as a comedy? A dramedy?

And then you have the films which are marketed all wrong. Take for instance, “The Village”. Now, the film itself is extremely flawed, so I won’t even go into that, but it did have potential. The problem (well, one of the many problems I should say), with that film was how it was marketed. I still remember the marketing for this film back when it came out. They made it look like a straight horror film. The website they had was creepy as hell with red marks on doors and those sounds of the woods and all that. People went to go see the film. There was no horror. Maybe a scene. Maybe. But that was it. The film is really a romance, not a horror, and not really a thriller either (what defines a thriller?). People went in thinking they were going to get scared, and when they weren’t scared they trashed the film. Now, like I said, the film has many things going against it, but I think if it was marketed as a romance it may have been slightly less trashed. But who knows.

You see this all the time (“The Rite” was labeled as a horror film, but it is really a drama about lost faith), and I think that is where genre fails. I think most films could be categorized into two or three different genres. Very rarely does a film fit solely into one genre. It’s extremely difficult. All genres share traits of each other and it creates this massive grey area. What defines a comedy from a drama from a thriller from a horror from a western (isn’t a western just a drama that takes place in the old west?).

I am oversimplifying some of this, but the point is the same. How can we label a film? Labeling a film can help it, and it can hurt it. I haven’t really provided any answers in this article, but let me close with a thought: instead of defining a film by its genre, why don’t we look at a genre label as a poorly drawn road map to what the film may be? This way, we go in with open minds, and know that the film probably has, at the minimum, the elements which define the traditional genres. Read the reviews. Watch the trailers with caution (they can be misleading!), and watch the film for what it is, not what you were told it was.

 

Learning by Doing

A lot of industry jobs require you to know specific programs. This is true for even entry level jobs in the industry. Some programs include Final Cut Pro, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premiere, Adobe…let’s just say every Adobe program there is, plus some other lesser known programs. Now, there are internships you can try and get which will give you the skills you need for these programs, but in my experience sometimes these internships want you to have a working knowledge already of these programs before you apply. Knowing a specific program or two is very beneficial (and crucial) if you want to break into the industry.

Learning a new program can be very daunting. Going into it you may think that it’s impossible. The best thing, however, of learning a new program is that the best way to learn is to just use it. Online tutorials can give you somewhat of a foundation to build off of, but sometimes these tutorials just make you more confused than before. I think that online tutorials are better for when you already have basic grasp of a program and just need a little push in the right direction.

So, let’s say you want to learn Final Cut Pro editing software, but you have no idea what you’re doing. Perhaps you’ve only used IMovie, or other consumer grade editing software. Fret not! Once you get the program (Final Cut Pro is a one and done deal. Adobe you have to subscribe monthly), import some footage. Anything. Film the trees in your backyard, or Great Grandpappy’s 100th birthday bash. Just get footage you can work with. Once you import it, which should be pretty straightforward since it works the same on most software, then you can learn the program. You may have to look up how to get your footage into the timeline, but after that, it’s up to you. (Well not really, you can always look up how to do things on Google.)

You will slowly, but surely, start to pick up how to use the program, and rely less and less on online tutorials. Learning by doing. One great thing about this method is that you don’t necessarily need that internship to teach you these skills. You have the power to teach yourself and put it on your resume that you have a working knowledge of a program. I should mention, however, that knowledge of a program doesn’t guarantee you a job at all, but it’s a good start. Hard work, experience, networking, etc. These are things that will help you land that job. Just keep on keeping on!