For God’s Sake Shoot Something!

Apr 19

Marc directing Star Trek episode

Here’s the article I just wrote for the current issue of WRITTEN BY:

Let me paint a scenario for you that may be familiar:  You’ve been laboring on scripts for some time now.  Some have been great, some not, but you’ve attained a level of professional polish and feel you’ve accomplished what you set out to do on the page.

Maybe some of those scripts have sold.  Maybe most have landed in

development hell.  Maybe you’ve not seen a word you’ve written shot, whether or not it’s been bought.  Or maybe it’s been shot but because you weren’t in a power position what’s been seen by the public has been an unrecognizable mess.

To all of the above I say five words:  “For God’s sake, shoot something!”

Last time I checked my watch it was the 21st Century and it’s a whole new ballgame.  You can buy an HD camera at Best Buy (or any of your other favorite purchasing options), get a Mac with Final Cut Pro, learn to load video on the Internet and you’re good to go.

In short, I want to get you into action right NOW picking up a camera and shooting something that will gain you the notice of the studios, networks and public.

“But that’s not realistic,” I hear you moan.  “I don’t have millions of dollars!  Anything I’d make would have shitty actors, lousy production values and be a piece of crap nobody would ever notice!”

To that I’d respond that you need a better self-image and perhaps years of therapy.  In lieu of that, let me give you some real-world examples of what can be done and what it can bring:

Not long ago I teamed up with a group in upstate New York making Star Trek New Voyages adventures online and, totally without a network or studio, co-wrote, directed and executive produced “World Enough and Time,” an hour-length episode starring George Takei reprising his role as Sulu.  Made for under $100,000 the piece boasted over seven hundred effects shots (thanks to the DAVE School, a special effects training facility in Orlando).  It was seen by millions online, made the front page of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (as well as CNN and other news outlets around the world), gained new fans of my work such as Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman, was nominated for the 2008 Hugo and Nebula Awards and won the TV Guide Award.  Subsequently it turned out that someone also nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards in the same categories was looking for a collaborator on a book he was doing for Palace Press, so now I’m co-writing Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities with (you guessed it) Guillermo del Toro.  Beyond this I’m about to direct Fugitive Space, a feature I just wrote, and no one asks if I can direct – I’ve got a sample.  (A caveat:  as of this writing both Paramount and Lucasfilm allow filmmakers to make Star Trek and Star Wars “fan films” as long as they’re not sold for profit; so you’ll have to accept that your work in this arena will serve as a calling card and not a return on investment.)

Right now, my wife Elaine Zicree is in post-production on The Family Crystal, a comedy web series about an extremely dysfunctional family, which she wrote and directed.  Starring actors from such shows as The Wire, CSI and The Unit, and with a cast and crew made up mostly of friends, Elaine shot two seasons of webisodes (about an hour total) in two weekends.  Most worked for deferred salary under such contracts as the SAG Ultra-Low.  Total budget:  under ten grand.

Mark Gantt of The Bannen Way

My friend Mark Gantt, dissatisfied that he couldn’t get the roles or high-end representation he wanted, co-wrote and starred in a pilot presentation of The Bannen Way.  He and his director buddy Jesse Warren pooled their money to make it for $17,000.  On the strength of this Sony gave them the budget to expand it to a two-hour film that could be aired as webisodes and also sold as a feature on DVD and VOD.  Made for under a million Bannen has been a huge hit on Crackle, YouTube, Hulu, Amazon and iTunes and was subsequently put into development as a network series with a top showrunner.  Now Mark’s repped by ICM, has a hot manager and networks like HBO clamoring to hear his latest pitch.

My pal Neil Johnson’s just completed his feature Alien Armageddon, which has Farscape star Virginia Hey, Claudia Wells of Back to the Future and Marilyn Ghigliotti of Clerks in it, includes alien warships attacking earth, major cities being nuked, big gun battles between aliens and humans, weird biomechanical creatures, cars blowing up – and was shot for a number I’m not allowed to divulge but, trust me, some of my friends have bought cars for less.  And that even included a red-carpet premier in Westwood!

Speaking of sci-fi, director and special-effects wizard Trey Stokes shot a season’s worth of webisodes of a splendid series called Ark on a five-figure budget and delivered production value to match top network shows.  Renee O’Connor of Xena is just spiffy in it.   On the strength of this Trey’s now writing and directing a big-budget feature.

And don’t assume you have to just create features or web series.  Writer-actor-director Bob Gebert’s breakthrough project Beckinfield, in which folks from all over the country can play characters living in a really strange small town, is a multi-media website that allows the performers to submit their own-homemade videos with Bob giving them guidelines as to the continuing story.  (This is after Bob’s previous self-funded feature Eleven Minutes Ago, shot entirely in one day, allowed him to raise millions on his next project.)

I should note that not everyone who makes their own feature or web series does so hoping for fame and fortune.  Jane Espenson already had a robust career with such credits as Buffy, Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones when she recently teamed with Brad “Cheeks” Bell to co-write and produce Husbands, a comedic web series about gay marriage.  Her reason was simple:  to do the show exactly as she and her partner envisioned it, with no network notes and a cast they knew the network would not have approved (which included Bell, Sean Hemeon of True Blood and Caprica lead Alessandra Torresani).

Then of course there’s Joss Whedon, who made a ton of money and won an Emmy for Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and Felicia Day, whose The Guild made her an Internet legend.

Convinced?  Okay.  So here’s what you can do, from soup to nuts:

Steps One and Two – Choose a Project and Gather the Funds to Make It.  Which one comes first really is a chicken or egg proposition, either one viable.  In one scenario, you decide precisely how much money you (or friends and relatives who really like you) have available to put toward this project.  You should also factor in other production-value elements you have readily at hand (an apartment – perhaps yours – that you can shoot in; a car – again maybe yours – that the hero can drive, etc.).  Then you craft your script to suit these factors.

The flip side is first selecting a script (one you write or acquire) then pulling together the funds to make it.  This can be via such sites as Indiegogo and Kickstarter, selling shares to investors, having a yard sale, whatever.

The key to all of this is pulling it together immediately.  Don’t waste ten years trying to raise ten million.  If you’ve got three grand an elderly aunt just left you, make it for that.

Whatever method you choose, the story you shoot should be entertaining (especially to you) and something you can reasonably pull off.  Don’t have it be under-ambitious (two people droning on in one room) or too grandiose (that estimation totally depends on how many friends you have who can do effects).  If it’s comedy it should be funny.  If it’s drama the characters should be credible and connected in some way to reality.  If it’s science fiction or fantasy it needs to have gosh-gee-whiz.  Horror should be scary and, ideally, fresh.

(Which brings us to the side issue of quality.  Often you’ll hear folks – usually agents or studio/network execs – say, “All you need is a great script.”  That’s bullshit.  All you need is something you can shoot.  Remember:  half-assed is better than no ass at all.  Get into action, get moving, do something.  Momentum and commitment make things happen.  Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t strive for quality.  Better is better.  But get to the finish line.)

Step Three:  Plan your PR, marketing and distribution.  That’s right, do this before you shoot your project.  Most folks don’t put any thought into this beforehand and are totally screwed after they’ve moved heaven and earth to make their project and belatedly find they have no clue how to get anyone to see it.  You don’t need every detail nailed down in advance but you should ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the promotional hook to this story that will get the press to run stories on it and the public to be interested?  (For instance, an Afghan War veteran-turned-actor doing a web series addressing the alarmingly high suicide rate among returning soldiers.)
  • How am I going to market this piece so the word gets out?   (Paid advertising, viral marketing on the Net, festivals, etc.)
  • How do I plan to distribute this? (Internet, theatrical, DVD, VOD, etc.)

With each of the above questions, add, “And who do I know with personal experience on this subject who might be willing to advise me?”

Step Four – Get a camera.  You can borrow it, rent it or buy it – but if you buy it you’re not reliant on the whims of others or the availability of equipment that might be rented out when you need it.  The format should be HD.  The Canon 5D is good, uses 35-millimeter lenses (which gets you a film look) and costs about $2,000, but there are many other great options at a similar price.  If you want to go higher end (and you really don’t need to) you can get a Red or an Alexa.  NEVER shoot on film; it’s too expensive and totally unnecessary.

Step Five:  Gather a Team.  Look around you – who’s talented?  Invite them aboard to play.  Make sure it’s win-win, that there’s something in it that serves their needs and ambitions.  And let everyone get their fair share of credit.

Most importantly, make sure they’re not flakes.  Ask people who’ve worked with them.  The last thing in the world you want is for the guy with the sound equipment not to show up on shoot day.

To that end, ask yourself these five questions regarding anyone you plan to work or affiliate with:

  1. Do I like this person?
  2. Do I trust this person?
  3. Do they do what they say they’re going to do?
  4. Do they finish what they start?
  5. Have the previously successfully done what I’m asking them to do now, or do they have transferable skills that make me reasonably certain they’ll be able to pull it off?

You don’t have to be able to answer yes to all five of them, but you should be able to answer yes to at least three.  And you should ask the same questions of yourself.

Keep your crew as small as possible, but make sure it can get the job done.  Feed your cast and crew well, and don’t work twenty-hour days.  You’ll drive everyone into the ground and no one will want to work with you.

In terms of their past credits, anyone from a talented teenager with an impressive reel to an octogenarian who really knows his or her stuff is terrific.  Mixing it up makes for a better on-set vibe.  And a better world in general.

Step Six:  Casting Your Actors.  Whether known or unknown, cast actors who can act.  The quickest way to torpedo your project is to have unconvincing performances.

Here’s what I look for in every moment of every role – that I believe it and it’s interesting.  You can put out the word on Craigslist and Now Casting, but there’s also the Hollywood Show, a convention in Burbank that’s held several times per year with over one hundred celebrities from TV and film signing autographs.  Most of them want to work and are quite approachable.  Meeting them in person totally changes the equation.

Beyond this science fiction conventions are a great place to meet genre actors.  And many actors also are on Facebook and have their own websites where they personally read their email.  We’re not talking Daniel Craig here but extremely talented professionals from TV shows and movies such as Star Trek – The Next Generation, Battlestar Galactica, To Kill a Mockingbird (yes, Mary Badham, the little girl who played Scout, is acting again) and many more.  Often they’ll work for surprisingly low amounts, and it’s a thrill to shoot something with actors you love.

Step Seven:  Should You Direct?  You have two options, the film or TV model.  In the film model, you’re the writer-director and have final cut.  In the TV model, you’re the writer-executive producer and have final cut.  It really boils down to whether or not you want to direct (or put more simply, who you want on board to possibly screw up that part of the process).  Either way you want signed paperwork spelling this out, so everyone knows from the get-go who’s boss.

To become a more skilled director, I can recommend two classes: Jim Pasternak for practice directing actors on-camera and Judith Weston (www.judithweston.com) for learning how to work with actors to draw their best performances out of them.  Dov S.S. Simens Two-Day Film School (www.dovsimensfilmschool.com) is also very good for learning the nuts-and-bolts of film production.

Step Eight:  Do Your Paperwork.  Have signed contracts with everyone.  And remember that the phrase, “I don’t need contracts, they’re my friends,” is just another way of saying, “Why don’t we jump directly to the lawsuit?”

Step Nine:  Shooting the Sucker.  It’s hard work, and inevitably you’ll be blindsided by something.  But keep moving forward until you’re done, and ask for help as you need it.  My mantra while making the Star Trek episode was, “I am made of iron and nothing will stop me.”  Be positive and upbeat, compliment everyone for a job well done – and fire the bad apples when you need to, immediately and without hesitation.  One toxic individual can deep six any production, if left to his own devices.

And oh yes, wear comfortable shoes and remember to eat and hydrate regularly.  And wear a hat when out in the sun (what am I – your mother?).

Step Ten:  Finishing it.  Post-production – especially if it involves special effects — can sometimes take forever.  Be patient and don’t give up.  Take as long as you need to make it good.  Again, ask for help from those who have the skills.   There’s an old cliché that in any production you have money, time and quality – choose two.  If you don’t have scads of money (and odds are you won’t) take the time to get the quality.  And paying a little (some up front, some on delivery) often gets you a good deal farther than trying to get everything for free.

Step Eleven:  Getting It Out There.  Look at who’s succeeded at what you want to do, whether you know them or not, and reverse engineer it.  Go to conventions, trade shows, festivals, anywhere and everywhere you can meet people who’ve taken the journey down the road you want to go.  You’ll find that many of them are happy to answer your questions — especially if you treat them to a meal.  Always have material with you, DVDs and jump drives of your web series, feature, etc.  Have your contact info on every piece of it, in case it gets scattered.  Be friendly and enthusiastic and present, really listen.  And remember that it’s a two-way street.  Ask if there’s anything they need.  Good will has a ripple effect.

Step Twelve:  Ancillary.  Here’s the cool thing about finishing your handmade project – you can generate revenue from the spin-offs.  When my friend Don Glut made his first film Dinosaur Valley Girls (about which I said, “Well, it’s not the worst film I ever saw…”) he also released the novelization, making-of book, comic, model kit, etc.  And now thanks to sites like Café Press with your project you can have the t-shirt, coffee mug, hoodie, bumper sticker, you name it.

Step Thirteen:  Basking in the Glory.  Take the time to really let it in, to enjoy the fact you succeeded.  If someone compliments you, realize that in all likelihood they mean it.  One of my best moments was when a total stranger, a Brit, came up to me on the street in Tokyo to tell me how much he’d loved my Star Trek episode.

Step Fourteen:  Doing the Next One.   Whether or not this project lands you a studio deal or a network show, get started on the next one.  Don’t ask permission.  Ray Bradbury once told me, “Looking back over a lifetime, you realize love was the answer to everything.”  Creating good work and getting it out to a broad audience is a pure expression of that, and will help give your life meaning.

Here’s a few more bits ‘n pieces, in no particular order:

  • If you affiliate with someone famous, you gain their fame.  For instance, if you shoot a Stephen King short story you don’t need to work as hard to get people to pay attention.  This works with famous source material, actors, directors and so on.  Keep in mind that public domain material is free, and that guys like Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells and Jane Austen are still household names.
  • Have good sound.  Hugely important.  Bad sound will wreck good work faster than anything else.  If you have to pay for this (and you usually do) don’t hesitate.
  • How long should it be?  That’s a mighty personal question.  Seriously, webisodes in the past have generally run two to five minutes.  But the new model is five or six twenty-two minute episodes that can be bundled into a two-hour direct-to-DVD feature.  In general, comedy is harder to sustain over a longer running time.  But the real rule of thumb is it should be long enough to get the job done, and not so long as to be tedious.  That answer works in any number of situations.  And remember: a great five minutes is better than a mediocre two hours.
  • Where should it be shown?  The real question is, “Who do I want to impress, and what do I need to create in order to impress them?”  Or put more simply, “What am I trying to accomplish here?”

Most of what we do boils down to two things:  auditioning for the job or actually doing the job.  The beauty part of this process is that you’re actually doing both – advertising yourself and reaching an audience.

When Mark Twain gave his first public lecture the ad read, “The trouble starts at eight!”

Go and do likewise.  Knock ‘em dead.

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Marc Scott Zicree is a writer, director, producer and raconteur.  He can be reached via marczicree.com  or his Facebook page.

 

 

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