Phillip B. Conrad

April 20, 2009

The 48 Hour Film Project

Filed under: Uncategorized — phillipbconrad @ 11:47 pm

I’ve read that a great way to learn about writing characters is to take an acting class.  That was a little bit too serious for me, but when a co-worker approached me last year, offering me a role in his 48 Hour film, I had to see what it was all about.  I had a very small role last year and essentially just delivered a couple of lines that were not particularly interactive.  This year was different.  I had a role that was almost a lead.

The first thing you come to realize working on a small film is how little control you have, as an actor.  The screenplay may have obvious holes or points where it just makes no sense at all.  The director may have some some terrible, clumsy props he wants you to use.  The cinematographer will certainly have limitations to what is possible with his hardware.  Sometimes all these issues are bundled within a single person, other times they are actually spread out out over several folks.   On top of that, you may have serious differences with how the other actors are working.  No matter what though, your say is minimal.   It’s a very different world than the prose writer’s world of total control.  Thankfully, the insane deadlines keep the disagreements from festering too long.  There’s just no time to bicker, you need to get that film in the can.

This year I was in three big scenes that involved a lot of back and forth with two different characters, both far more skilled actors than myself.  I had to do physical comedy, work with props, blend action and dialogue as realistically as possible, and eat up a lot of screen time acting with only my face.  It’s a heck of a lot harder than it than it looks.

There’s a theory of writing, pioneered in the book Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.  It’s the theory of motivation and reaction.  Essentially, you build fiction entirely from action, then a reaction, then either a new action or a reaction to the reaction.  It reads like a over-simplification, perhaps a nice theory, but certainly not a law of the writing universe.  My recent acting experience leads me to believe that is is, in fact, a law of the fiction universe, as real as gravity is to physics.

Quite simply, acting with somebody else is the clearest illustration of how this works, I can imagine.  There you are, standing around in somebody’s living room watching intently for a cue, either verbal or acted, to do your part.  Actions don’t just come from out of the blue, except the first one in the scene.  Any doubts you might have had about applying this theory in your writing dissolve when faced with experiencing it as an actor.  If you have an action that gets no response, it’s painfully awkward. It’s equally uncomfortable to try and pull a reaction out of nowhere.  No matter what it says in the script, things have to happen for a reason.  Actors have to fill these holes with something, even in a situation of minimal direction.

Another unforeseen benefit of acting as a means to study character is that it really adds a reality check to what a character will or will not do.  This pops up in books a lot.  Some character does something with no apparent motivation that just seems way out of character.  It happens in movies too, but you can be pretty sure the actor was well aware of being forced into actions that make no sense.  Often times, there’s nothing an actor can do about it.  You have to pick your battles, and actors start in a position of weakness, unless they are super-stars.  Fighting with the director over why your character does something is probably not the best way to advance your career as an actor.  Nevertheless, they feel it when they’re forced to do or say something that just doesn’t make sense. Prose writers need to keep this in mind, as they are essentially tasking the reader with providing the acting for the story.

When The 48 Hour Film Project comes to your town, and really it goes everywhere, I strongly suggest you get involved.  No matter what role in a production you take, you’ll learn a lot about the movies, fiction and specifically character interaction.

April 17, 2009

The Value of an Writer’s Manifesto

Filed under: Uncategorized — phillipbconrad @ 1:44 am

I’ve been reading a lot about manifestos on the web these days.  Almost all of them seem to have some burning need to convert people to their way of doing things.  Perhaps they are just worded emotionally for the sake of convincing the creator of the manifesto to stay true to it, I’m not sure.  I don’t want to demean the great collective artists’ manifestos of the past, like the Bauhaus movement.  I don’t have a problem with people gathering under the flag of artistic ethic at all.  After half a lifetime of working in various companies toward collective goals, I’m not anxious to emulate that experience with my writing.  I see writing as uniquely personal.  It’s one of the last great pursuits where one person controls nearly all aspects of the art.  I consider an artist’s manifesto to be entirely personal.  I will not detail mine here.  It’s something you have to develop yourself.  Although you do not absolutely need one, a personal manifesto is very helpful in keep you on track.

When you are in the heat of a project, the ideas, and your fingers, are flying.  Suddenly, you have to make a choice.  It might be a serious choice, or a trivial one, but you have to stop and think to decide which way to go.  Without a manifesto, you have to stop and ponder the choice.  You might lose your rhythm and run the risk of hitting a block or following some odd distraction off into the land of the unproductive.  However, if you have a robust manifest that you have developed, you quickly decide and keep writing.  Obviously, you can’t possibly have a manifesto that covers everything, but you’d be surprised at how many of these blocking moments can be totally avoided by logging some thinking up front about what you want to do with your writing.  Naturally, you will want to update your manifesto as you learn new things, but for the course of a single project, it’s probably best to stick with one set of rules.  At least, when you are in one phase of a project, say the vomit draft, you’ll benefit from having some basis for making quick decisions.  The idea is to have a set of rules to fall back on when you get stuck, not to paint yourself into a corner.

There’s really no limit on the kind of stuff you might want to put into your manifesto.  I try and keep mine focused on ideas that will help keep me moving forward, staying in the zone.  For expample, for a project I’m working on now, I’ve laid down a few rules on viewpoint, nothing earth-shattering, but not the kind of stuff you want to have to ponder when you should be producing words:

1.  I am using intimate third persons perspective
2.  A change of viewpoint characters is noted by at least a section break, but preferably a chapter break.
3.  The first sentence of the new viewpoint will always contain the viewpoint character’s name.
4.  The vast majority of all writing will fall under the viewpoint of the Protagonist, followed by the Protagonist’s Ally, and the Antagonist.  Any other required viewpoints should only be used if absolutely required.
5.  Anything goes in the prologue POV, in the service of providing a viable hook.

It’s easy to where this set of rules could be used for a writer’s entire career.  However, if you wanted to do a first person story, you’d have to shelve most of these rules.  Never throw away your old rules, just put them aside, because you may want to bring them right back into play for future projects.

Besides simple mechanical uses, the personal manifesto can relate to the nature of your fiction world.  If you want to set up some hard-boiled rules, you might want to include that in your world there can never be honor amongst thieves.  If you do, you won’t be writing the Godfather, but it’s a perfectly sensible building block of a more freelance crime environment.  Rules like this can help you direct your story.

You can also build in rules for your own personal work ethic:  I will write 2000 words a session, and then enjoy a Scooby Snack.

The best thing about building a manifesto is that almost all of the work in creating it can be done it time you couldn’t have been writing anyway.  Actually compiling the rules is far easier than it is to come up with them in the first place.  If they seem to contradict each other, it’s obvious and you just need to shelve the ones you aren’t using right now.  Throw a mark on them or something to indicate that they made the finals.

Although this may sound overly formal, It helps me make the most of my writing sessions.  I don’t think there’s any worse feeling than showing up for a writing session and failing for being blocked or disorganized and sloppy.  If you just pump out words to meet your quota and get that feeling that you’re going to cut those words later, it’s very depressing.  Usually, it’s not as bad as it feels, but just that feeling can slow you down, and leech the joy out of your writing.  Holding yourself to your own set of rules, can increase your efficiency and make you feel more confident at the same time.  Careful evaluation of the success or faliure of these rules, can really help you hone your craft.

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