Writer’s Block? Maybe you need a PUSHER

(Cross-posted with permission from Chick Flick.)

So Shanbone and I have been to some writing groups and those stories could be their own blog. (I’ll leave that task to Shannon; her memory is way better than mine. Why doesn’t her brain react to Diet Coke and age like mine does? Scientists: please weigh in.) We are in a group that Shannon started of her own spirited volition, and for which she deserves some serious credit – cos it’s a useful, successful, fun, genuine, productive, challenging, tasty (people bring food, y’all) and enjoyable writing group (haha, I wrote ‘enjoyable writing group’ and meant it) replete with the coolest chicks I’ve come across in my expansive lady search. Bitches Who Write should run a country!

So it got me thinking: What makes a great writing group?

WORK CAUSES WORK.
The first thing you need for a great writing group is a PUSHER. The PUSHER is the organizer. She pushes the drug. The drug is satisfaction of work. The high is completion. If you don’t have a good pusher, you’ve got no group and you ain’t getting high. Shannon’s a perfect pusher because she’s passionate about women writing together and making each other better. How do you find her? If you’ve got a vagina (or just want one – like really have made the effort), then join our group (shannon.bowen@gmail.com).

YOU NEED A PROMPT.
Get out of your head. Ask someone to direct you. You can’t do everything yourself: Writer, director, producer, editor, actor, critic and consumer. Ask for a prompt. Be challenged. You have no ideas? You have no stories? ASK FOR ONE, THEN WRITE ABOUT IT.
(I can’t come up with shit. OK, not true. I come up with some half-cocked joke or idea or recall a random story from my past that might work written down, but honestly, IT’S THIN IN THERE. But I do know when I’m inspired or just give myself the space and time and make the effort, I can come up with something worth reading. I think. Who knows. Judge me.)

WRITE.
The Pusher makes you write in silence for 30 minutes. 30 MINUTES. No TV. No music. No blah blah blahing with your girlfriend. No dishwasher. No day job. No Salvation. It’s you and the page for a sweet 30 minutes. When is the last time you did that? Yoga hustlers make time to mediate for 30 minutes every day (I might be making that up). David Lynch, that friggin’ transcendentalist, he does it. Then he writes for like 4 hours. So just do 30 minutes. Everyone around you is doing it too.

SEEK & HELP.
Read it out aloud. Seek criticism. Seek ears and brains that aren’t yours. It’s not the only way you’ll get better, but it is one way. OK, NOW I’M GOING TO CONTRADICT MYSELF SO STOP READING IF YOU CAN’T HANDLE IT.

[CAVEAT: YOU BETTER FUCKING KNOW WHAT YOU NEED FROM PEOPLE. This is important and probably worth its own website or like its own internet. (That would be such an annoying internet). I’ve been to many of these meet up groups for writers and for as much help they can yield, be wary of the dreaded opinion. These groups draw from all walks and experiences and TALENT and SANITY LEVELS. Ignore the idiots. You get better and better at it. But first off, just realize that there are tons of idiots and they must be ignored or you’ll be driven crazy by an idiot. WHEN YOU HEAR A COMMENT THAT RINGS TRUE TO YOU, YOU’LL KNOW IT. Also, don’t be the idiot. When someone reads their piece, be really thoughtful and honest.]

Listen. Just as you edit your own writing, edit your comments. Don’t self-indulge. Be helpful. And if you’ve had too much to drink THEN DON’T TALK AT ALL. LISTEN.

Now, read your shit. Do it. Be brave. Be humble. And when you read, if you hear a laugh, be proud. If you wrote drama, quit writing drama.

If you don’t live in the Bay Area but need writing support, follow @JaneEspenson or @jeannevb on Twitter who are two rad screenwriter ladies who organize writing sprints.

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Staying True to Yourself: An Interview with Beginning Filmmaker Mahogany J. Slide

 

MJ Slide discusses a shot with Location Manager Stuart Sabin.

BIO: Mahogany J. Slide is a 17-year old independent filmmaker and native of Greenville, South Carolina, who  just recently embarked on her directorial career.  Inspired by a lifelong fascination with art, writing, and self expression, she took the plunge into the world of filmmaking, both feet forward. She’s a self proclaimed nerd, lover of classic and modern science fiction, and has a passion for quality filmmaking well beyond her years.

Her Film: Why do you love film?

Mahogany J. Slide: I love film simply because it unites my two favorite artistic mediums, photography and writing, like nothing else can.  At my essence, I’m a storyteller, just ask my parents.  I know in this generation there are so many more people who will watch a movie then read a book and so therefore I can reach those audiences with the same great stories and concepts through making films. I love the ability to express myself, experiment and constantly learn about people, myself, and the world that surrounds me.

HF: How long have you been writing and what are your goals as a new filmmaker?

MJS: I’ve been writing for a little over a decade now. The funny thing is before the age seven getting me to write was like pulling teeth.  It was a real challenge but my mom worked hard to build my passion for words.  She made me read – a lot – and then I started reading all by myself and realized I had stories of my own I wanted to tell, so I did.  I began with novels and short stories.  I didn’t really get into screenwriting until I was thirteen.  People kept reading my work and saying “it reads like a movie” and they were right.  It was as if I had been waiting for a writing format to come along that gelled with my minimalistic style, and screenwriting kinda fell in lap. My goal as filmmaker is to learn everything from the ground up, all the facets of production and be well rounded but true to myself as a writer.  I think like any writer our goal is to write what we get excited about, our passions, desires and our thoughts and perceptions of the world around us.

The Saving promo poster

“I love the ability to express myself, experiment and constantly learn about people…”

HF: Describe the process of writing and directing your debut film The Saving. Why is this story important for you to tell?

MJS: The inspiration for The Saving came from one line in one my favorite novels of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird.  The basic idea was there are many different ways of turning people into ghosts.  To me, that statement sinks into my mind like this:  people in general don’t have to be dead or in some form of limbo to be ghosts.  When we get so wrapped up in our troubles or tough situations that life throws our way we become only a shadow of who we really are, letting our problems define us.  We become ghosts.  It’s that concept that really is backbone of The Saving and then how does humanity remedy that?  Who’s our hero?  Who’s gonna save us?  Sometimes people ask why I decided to tackle such a heavy theme in what is my true debut short film and the reasoning behind it is simple — everyone on the planet has lost someone who’s been close to them or knows someone who has.  It’s a common experience for all mankind.  Our reactions are all very different but at our core we’re bound together. How do we handle it? What’s right and what’s wrong?  What is truth?  These are some of the questions I wanted address.

I wrote the first draft of the screenplay in a weekend and then let it sit for several weeks but it was never far from my thoughts.  I finally went back and decided this is a film I know I can make – it was as simple that.  I wanted to make the movie and I was gonna figure out how to make that happen.

HF: You’re very young — 17 yrs. old!  Who & what are your influences as a filmmaker?

MJS: Oh heavens, my influences are on all sides of the spectrum.  I pull a lot from classic American poetry and literature:  Shakespeare, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Cornelia Funke, C. S. Lewis, Phillip Pullman, and I’m also a diehard sci-fi fan, so Issac Asimov and Phillip K. Dick have a huge effect on the more science fiction areas of my writing.  For those who are not familiar with the indie filmmaking scene, my greatest mainstream influence is the shooting and directing in M. Night Shyamalan’s earlier films, barring The Happening and The Last Airbender.  It’s actually his film Signs that made me want to be a filmmaker. That was the “ah-ha!” moment for me as a beginner.  I love the fact he keeps his successful stories well contained (such as The Sixth Sense and Signs) and they’re not these vast, sprawling, epic films which I think anyone in the indie film biz can appreciate.  I also admire the fact of how little he cuts between angles in scene, he holds himself accountable for the shots that he takes, not allowing them to detract from the characters and what is going on in the story.  He doesn’t normally do things strictly for the shock and awe factor – every angle has a purpose.  Which brings to my one of my favorite films,  hands down.  No matter how cliché and overrated people think this film is, I love Citizen Kane.  Orson Welles had it all in that movie:  minimal cuts, powerful lighting, a stellar script, and an unrelenting passion that drove the whole storyline.  As far as writing goes, I liken my style to sci-fi guru Joss Whedon, at least in dialogue and pacing.

HF: You have an experienced crew and a production company.  Describe how you made contact with your crew and the biggest challenges you’ve faced as you make the film.

MJS: Three words:  Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo.  Social media was the way to go for what I needed for this film.  It’s a great way to establish your local and international contacts and simply to meet loads of creative people and build friendships with other in the arts. I found my mentor, Chris Jones, who is an author and a director shortlisted for an Academy Award, through twitter, along with my executive producer and composer, and my director of photography on facebook.  Social networking is not a piece of cake.  Like any good collaboration it’s gotta be built on a relationship which takes time and motivation.  My cast, crew and myself have poured all that in and it’s paying off, although a lot of people assume it hasn’t really been all that difficult to pull together a crew of professional because of my age.  It’s actually been a large part of my success.

Passion is contagious and I don’t think anyone could ever claim I’m not passionate about The Saving and the art of filmmaking.  It also helps that I have a pretty killer script. It won a lot of people over and for me, that’s how it should work.  It’s not about the money, it’s about the storyline – is it worth telling or not?  The biggest challenge I have and I am still facing is balancing my normal life while running a production company.  Finding the time to meet with my crew, work with my actors – it’s definitely a divide and conquer type situation.  My family have been real troopers throughout this whole experience and I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without their constant support.

The stars of the film, Patrick Hussion as "Paul Connel" and 16-year old Stephanie Ibboston as "Skye Mattheus."

HF: What are your hopes for The Saving (fests, distribution, etc.)?

MJS: My hopes for The Saving, well I wanna get it made for starters.  We’ve scheduled a release date for the film to premiere (hopefully) at a local theater that is partial to independent films, on February 5, 2011. Then if all goes well, we’ll ship it off to several film festivals within the area, just to test the audience.  Of course, every indie filmmaker dreams of Sundance or Slamdance and I won’t say I don’t have my eyes on those festivals, but I’m not gonna be totally heartbroken if The Saving isn’t accepted.

I plan on going for self-distribution through a website I set up for anyone interested in purchasing a DVD, but for the most part distribution isn’t a major point of focus.  Short films can’t really snag a major distro deal simply because…well…they’re short films.  People don’t generally want to pay twenty-something dollars for twelve minutes of movie and those who do are usually art house types (which is completely fine by me).  The whole point of making The Saving is for me to have the experience of directing a decent sized film, building my skills on all levels, and getting my name out there.

HF: What are you working on next?

MJS: I’ve actually got a few other short films in the works, most notably my In Protest of Twilight with the working title Bleeder.  It’s a vampire story but it’s not.  Feel free to be confused.  I’ve also got a feature script up my sleeve I’m in the process of writing entitled Jersey Noise. I’d describe it as The Great Depression meets X-Men.  Depending on how well The Saving is received,  I’d really like to bang my first feature before I’m 21. That’s the goal.

HF: How have you raised funds and how is the process working out for you as you prep for production?

MJS: All the money we’ve raised so far for The Saving‘s production budget as been through this really neat crowdfunding site called indieGoGo .   It took a lot of prep work to get the page set up, with the pitch, teaser trailer, backer incentives, etc., but as far a micro-crowdfunding goes, IndieGoGo is really working for us. We still need help to secure the $3,500 we need to shoot The Saving and we’ve got to raise $2,700 in less than three weeks.  We’re working all routes, both local and online to get the word out about this film. I had an interview just yesterday with our local newspaper and we’ve been plastering posters and handing out postcards all over the place in hopes of garnering more local interest and support for this production and the independent film scene in my home town.  It’s a lot of work but I truly feel it’s paying off.

Visit The Saving online.

Become a fan on Facebook.

Follow MJ Slide on twitter @MJ_Slide.

Read the blog at Junto Ink, MJ Slide’s production company.

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Thanks to MJ for doing this interview via twitter and email.

Interview: Stephanie Law, screenwriter

We’re kicking off a “rapid-fire” interview series this week with Stephanie Law, a young screenwriter whom I met while at the Summer Institute of Film and Television of the Canadian Screen Training Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in spring of 2009.  Sadly, SIFT/CSTC has since closed down due to major funding problems in a very tough Canadian economy.

Stephanie was taking a writing workshop while I took a producing workshop.  I think we both agree that SIFT was an amazing program that allowed us to learn so much from the working professionals in film and television who taught the workshops.  It was also a great opportunity to meet interesting people in film/TV taking the workshops alongside us!  It had a prestige all its own and many connections with, and support from, renowned filmmakers and show runners.  The late filmmaker, Anthony Minghella, in particular, was an early and active champion of SIFT and also taught on the program.

Stephanie Law was kind enough to do this interview via facebook email!

On to the interview…

BIO: Stephanie Law is a Toronto-based newbie screenwriter, ex-serial intern, eternal optimist/ cynic, and recent participant in the CFTPA’s National Mentorship Program. You can find her rants on her mini-blog ImagineStories, or even more mini rants on Twitter @sphinxmagic.

Q: What are your thoughts on the state of Canadian film and TV today?

A: Not good! The English feature film business in Canada (Quebec is a whole other ball game) is tough. The process is slow (there are no big studios, just independent producers that tap into funds, tax credits), and when you factor in all those years spent developing a film—keeping into account that it may never be made—the writer makes very little, and certainly for the majority, not enough to live on. Hence, the day job! In addition, films need a great first weekend to keep their theatrical run alive. If nobody goes to see it, it’s gone (until the DVD comes out). One of the big problems for finding an audience is publicity and marketing—big American films spend millions (sometimes even more than the production budget of the film itself)—but in Canada, we just don’t have the money.

The TV industry is complicated, and I have less experience with it. I will defer to veteran TV writer Denis McGrath’s excellent blog Deadthingsonsticks.

Another great resource for all things industry and writing-related is the amazing Ink Canada (on Facebook) [and Twitter], an online writing community led by screenwriter Karen Walton.

Q: What is the single best thing, and the single worst thing, of being a screenwriter?

A: The best and worst thing of being a screenwriter is one in the same: you. You depend on you. It can be marvellous and freeing because all you need to do your craft is your brain, a piece of paper, and a pencil. Okay, screenwriting software helps. But it can also be frightening and anxiety-inducing because you have to the discipline to push yourself, to face yourself, your doubts, your fears. If you don’t write, it’s on you.

Q: If you could decide your own fate as a writer, what would your career trajectory look like?

A: Muhahaha… I would love to end up on the staff of a TV show before I hit 30. Ambitious, yeah. At the height of my career, I’d love to be co-run a series—but that necessitates finding the perfect creative partner (because it would be that much more fun). I haven’t found that person yet, but just you wait, we will rule the world! I also have a soft spot for features, but short of going to the U.S., I don’t see much of a future here for the big budget stuff I write (hey, I grew up on Disney and blockbusters).

Q: What films, TV shows, webseries inspire you (the good, bad and the ugly) and why?

A: Stories with heart inspire me. Not that I don’t love technical and plot-driven stories– but if they don’t have characters that I care about, then forget it. I end up feeling hollow even after surrounded by the latest, greatest special effects, or whatever. It’s like watching a product, or feeling the plastic around the box. Yuck. Pixar is great at transcending the blockbuster status and money-making of their animated films, because at the heart of it, they care about story and collaboration. I’d bet my money on those two things anytime.

Q: Why will you make it as a screenwriter?

A: In all honesty, you have to believe you will succeed beyond all reason and logic. Because the smart thing to do would be to get a full-time, 9 to 5 day job with benefits and job stability. But I am a stubborn person. If I set my mind to it, I won’t stop until I figure out the solution, or figure out that it’s beyond me. For instance, when I was in high school, I wasn’t the best at math, but I spent hours trying to solve sometimes just one problem (be it physics or calculus), trying to understand. Sometimes I just didn’t have the knowledge or the skills yet to solve the problem (maybe the advanced material was to be covered in the next unit), but I kept at it. And because of that, I did well. That’s the stubborn perseverance that I hope will allow me to succeed and become a professional screenwriter.

Oh, I still hate math.

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Many thanks to Stephanie for doing this interview!

-Kyna (Her Film creator)