Thursday, February 25, 2010

Juliet Landau Takes Flight

Juliet Landau is a renaissance woman. She acts, writes, directs, produces, edits and for all I know, dances a mean tango, too.

So when Gary Oldman agreed to direct a music video shot entirely on Nokia cell phones for the Jewish Hip Hop band, Chutzpah he realized his three-day odyssey needed to be documented in a behind the scenes “making of” video. With that in mind, Oldman turned to first time director, Juliet Landau to capture his unique vision.

"Juliet Landau is an exceptional talent! I entrusted Juliet to make a documentary film about me and I am thrilled with the results! TAKE FLIGHT is a special film that shows me in a very different light. I will work with Juliet again without hesitation."
                                                         -Gary Oldman

What began as a five-minute behind the scenes “making of” film quickly morphed into a 25-minute documentary that is at times oddly transfixing, very insightful and mostly a joy to watch.

So why are we talking about a documentary in a blog that’s dedicated to writing? Because films don’t happen in a vacuum. Dramatic screenplays don’t write themselves and documentaries aren’t just cut together without a lot of pre-production.

Documentary filmmakers, like their screenwriting counterparts, endeavor to tell strong character-driven stories with tension, and a narrative arc that keeps the viewer engaged from the beginning to the end. Unlike writers of fiction, documentarians can’t invent characters and plot points, so it is incumbent upon them to instead find these in the subject they choose to shoot. In many ways editing a documentary is very similar to editing a first draft of a script. The struggle to decide what to include is as equally important and difficult as deciding what to omit.

In a documentary, shots, scenes, and sequences help to convey narrative information about time, place, events, people, emotion and point of view. Obviously the better you know your story before you shoot, the better prepared you’ll be to find those key moments as they occur.

In the weeks leading up to the release of TAKE FLIGHT, Juliet engaged in a whirlwind of interviews, marketing strategies and updates via social media, all the while editing a viral campaign in hopes that it would be ready in time for its target release date, February 25th. Juliet was kind enough to take a few minutes out of her busy schedule to discuss the process of creating a first time documentary.

Jeffrey Berman: Prior to shooting TAKE FLIGHT, how did you approach the story you wanted to tell and did the final product reflect your initial concept? If not, how did it differ?

Juliet Landau: Well, first of all, Gary Oldman was about to direct a music video for the Jewish Hip Hop band, Chutzpah, which he was shooting entirely on cell phones. He asked me to direct the “making-of.” After I agreed, I realized that although I have been in many a “making-of,” I had never actually watched even one. I buckled down and watched tons of film “making-of’s,” music video “making-of’s,” documentaries and director commentaries. I made notes about the elements that I found most interesting and riveting. The thru line of those elements began to emerge. It became clear that I was interested in seeing an artist at work, being a party to his/her process. I knew that I was going to have three cameras, and while I would catch all of the action, I was certain that I would stay on Gary as much as possible. I had 50 hours of footage that I condensed into a 25-minute film, which includes Gary’s music video at the end. I watched all 50 hours three times through. Gary operated one of the “cell-cam’s” which afforded us an extremely rare POV. It’s as if the viewer is inside his head, seeing through his eyes. It was while watching the footage that it evolved. I asked Gary if I could make a short documentary and he gave me his blessing to do so.

JB: What was the development process like on TAKE FLIGHT? What kind of shooting outline or detailed treatment did you write to serve as a blueprint for the documentary?

JL: I made a timeline of all of the shots I wanted to be sure to get. But, I also wanted to be open to go with the surprises as they presented themselves. While I did shoot some direct to camera interviews, I always felt it would be more in the vein of verite filmmaking. My outline was two pages long. I would check stuff off as we got it, for instance, having each of the girls sing the Red Rover song. It was always my intention to try to capture Gary’s incredible sense of humor.

JB: How did the editing process affect the story you initially set out to tell with TAKE FLIGHT?

JL: Initially I thought I’d cut the cell phone footage in here and there with the HD footage being the basis for the timeline. But when I saw the unique perspective I had with the phone footage, I decided it had to be the reverse. I intercut it in the following way: first we get peppered glimpses, then longer, more expansive pieces, and by the end, the viewer is completely released into Gary’s view. While it all cuts seamlessly and fluidly, I decided to keep the cell footage 4X3, and everything else 16X9. Not only does it preserve Gary’s framing, it makes it clear to the audience when we are “looking though his eyes.” The music video is very cutty. I wanted to linger on and relish the beauty of those shots. The film starts as a chronicle of the shoot, but it becomes something more. There is a point where Gary says, “I’m just trying to find the right moment…” I think that is the pursuit of every artist, searching for the moment where everything gels, and takes flight.

JB: How involved were you with Gary Oldman as he was shooting his video? Was there any discussion with him prior to shooting about shots you wanted or were looking to get? 

JL: He basically gave me free reign so I was really nervous when the day arrived to show him my cut. I went to his house with my computer, the hard drive and a thick spiral notebook, to get his notes. I thought sitting there while he watched it was going to be the most interminable 25 minutes of my life. But I started the film, and low and behold, it was fun! He was completely engaged and laughing throughout. Afterward, I had my pen poised, ready to take copious notes. But he only gave me one note. A note about moving a sound cue, one of his comments, to a bit later, and that was it!

JB: As a first time documentary writer/director what did you learn from producing TAKE FLIGHT and how will this affect the next project you decide to shoot?

JL: Just like with acting, and with life for that matter, it is good to trust your instincts. They always lead me in the right direction. I was lucky to work with incredibly talented, skilled people, which I absolutely will do on my next shoot. Also, preparation is key. When I co-directed the HERO music video for Godhead or with the viral campaign I am putting together for TAKE FLIGHT, preparation makes all the difference in the world. I prepare for everything I work on, whether it’s acting, still shoots, directing, you name it, and it always pays off. I find the more prepared I am, I have a fluidity and ease to flow with the unexpected. I’d like the next project to have a real budget. It is hard to work around people’s paying gigs when you are pulling in favors. The process gets protracted and tiring. But either way, in the end, it is amazing to have a vision and to bring it to life!

You can watch Take Flight at Juliet’s official site.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

From Batman to Star Wars: Writer Steven Melching Gets Animated

In many respects, animation writing is the bastard step-child of TV and screenwriting. When it comes to the act of writing there is absolutely no difference between writing a script for an animated half hour series or that of a live action sitcom. There just isn’t. Any way you twist the glass it’s still writing. Yet for all the strides the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has made towards protecting TV writers, they still don’t cover animation writers. There is no reasonable or logical explanation for it; it’s just a fact of life. Becuse of this the majority of animation writers are denied the same benefits as their cousin live action writers (with the exception of some prime-time animated series). Most animation writers receive no residuals, spotty health coverage and often times little or no recognition for the job they do to entertain us.

And yet, knowing all that, given the opportunity I would like to write an episode of an animated series somee day. It’s practically the only genre of screenwriting I have yet to tackle. I’ve written feature scripts. I’ve written TV movies, spec’d a few sitcoms and even wrote a rom-com pilot. But I’ve never written a script for an animated series. The reason lies partially in the reality that as low as feature film screenwriters are on the Hollywood totem pole, and believe me, we’re pretty low, animated writers are at the bottom of the totem, deep beneath the ground.

It’s probably for this reason I’ve never had an agent or a manager push me in that direction. But I’m still a kid a heart and I still love cartoons. So to be able to write one would be a fantasy for me. Not something I would do for the money and certainly not for the fame but something I would do for love of the art. I might not be able to retire on it but you can bet your bottom dollar I’d be as proud of it as anything else I’ve written.

The beauty of writing animation is there are very few limitations. Anything the writer can imagine can be filmed without fear of changes due to cast or budget limitations because there simply aren’t any. Of course, it would probably help if I had more contacts in the animation world.

I have one now. Steven Melching . Some of the more recognizable series Melching has been associated with include: X-MEN, GODZILLA, AVENGERS, MEN IN BLACK, THE MUMMY, LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES, two different BATMAN series and the crème-de-le-crème, STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS. In the world of animation Melching is one of my heroes.

Jeffrey Berman: How is writing for animation different from writing for live action TV?

Steven Melching: That’s difficult for me to answer, because I haven’t written much live-action television. But I think there are more similarities than differences, especially given how sophisticated animated television has become in the last 15-20 years in terms of storytelling. It’s no longer strictly for children. There’s been an explosion of animated series for the adult audience, and even shows produced primarily for young audiences have strong followings with teenagers, college students, and beyond. Any stigma attached to watching cartoons after a certain age has evaporated.

There’s a misconception that you can “do anything” in animation, that the only limitation to the storytelling is the writer’s imagination. While there is some truth in that, the fact remains that animated series have budgets and schedules, just like live action. Speaking parts still have to be cast and actors paid, and even though actors can perform as many as three voices, we can only afford to hire so many. Each new character, prop, vehicle, and location has to be designed by an artist, which costs money. And some things are just very difficult and/or expensive to animate convincingly, so we try to avoid them. Things like crowd scenes. There might actually be more differences between writing for cell animation versus computer animation than between animation and live-action. Or between writing gag-driven animation versus action/adventure animation.

One thing we tend to do in animation is “direct on the page,” which is discouraged to varying degrees in live-action. Sometimes it gets as detailed as describing every single shot in a scene. So animation scripts are generally much longer than live-action scripts. For example, a script for a 30-minute action/adventure show is usually between 32-36 pages long, but written in the same single-space format as a live-action movie.
And I’m really only talking about half-hour “story driven” animated series. Other cartoons don’t really even have scripts at all. They start with an outline, but are “written in storyboard” by the story artists and director.

JB:. How has your style of writing changed from early in your career when you were writing for The X-MEN to today where you’re currently working on BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD?

SM: If anything, my style has gotten looser and more readable as I got more comfortable with the medium. I think my craft and confidence has improved to the point that I can use fewer words to say the same thing. (Not that you can tell by my long-winded answers to these questions.)

When I started on X-MEN, I loved to write the action sequences. I took great pleasure in plotting out the mayhem blow-by-blow. But as the years pass I find that stuff less and less interesting to actually write. Don’t get me wrong, I love action. I love dreaming up an inventive setpiece. And I love figuring out how to advance story, explore character, and illuminate theme through action, but actually sitting down to type it all up is sometimes tedious.

JB:  How much freedom do you have when it comes to story and character development for a series like STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS? And what, if any, are the limitations? 

THE CLONE WARS is a unique case. I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on shows based on beloved properties with long histories and devoted fandoms (X-MEN, BATMAN, HE-MAN, TRANSFORMERS), but never one where the original creator was actively involved. I mean, George Lucas is personally involved in every stage of the process, from approving (and often generating) stories, giving notes on scripts, supervising the design, to shaping the final episodes in the editing room (which can involve a lot of rewriting and restructuring). Also, the director is king at Lucasfilm. That’s just George’s filmmaking philosophy. In large part the script serves as a means to generate film to edit, which then illuminates what elements need to change. It’s a fascinating process.

As a writer for CLONE WARS, I can’t say I had much freedom in terms of the big picture, for several reasons. George Lucas and supervising director Dave Filoni have very specific goals in mind for the stories. And since the series takes place between two movies, there’s only so much development that can take place, at least as far as the major film characters are concerned. Where there is latitude is with the supporting characters, as well as the ones that were created for the show. As a writer, my challenge is to capture that very specific STAR WARS tone, find fun ways to keep the story moving, and invent new little details that are surprising.

JB: In animation what comes first, story or plot? And why?

SM: Story, for sure. To me, story is the broad strokes, the beginning-middle-end, the journey of the characters. Plot is the logic and mechanics required for the story to track and make sense. With some shows, CLONE WARS in particular, a third element is very important: theme. In fact, that often came first. What is the story really about? The answer to that question informed every other aspect of the writing.

JB: Can you break down your writing routine on a typical episode of BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD?

SM: It always starts with a call from producer/story editor Michael Jelenic. He tells me what heroes and villains they want to use, and which ones they don’t. Sometimes he has an idea for a story for me to flesh out, and sometimes he asks me to pitch him ideas. Once we hone in on a story we’ll get together with producer James Tucker and we’ll try to break the story in the room. Throw around ideas, and come out of the meeting with a strong idea of what the “A” and “B” stories are, how they relate, and what the character arcs and relationships are.

Then I go home and write it up in a few pages. Michael and James will give me their thoughts on that premise, and then I’ll either revise it or flesh it out further into a 10-12 page outline that lays out the story scene-by-scene. Then it’s back to Michael and James for another round of notes. Unless we discover major problems with the story, I don’t usually rewrite the outline. I just keep the notes in mind as I write the first draft script. Then another round of notes and another draft. Hopefully the script is in pretty good shape at that point, and Michael does the final polishing himself.
A couple weeks later comes the best part, the cherry on the sundae: the voice recording session! It’s always a blast to go into the studio, see the cast and meet the guest stars -- and we get some GREAT guest stars. One of my favorite memories is seeing comedian Fred Willard in the booth with German horror actor Udo Kier. It’s really satisfying to hear the script come alive. As the writer, I am sometimes asked to clarify things for the director or actors, and write new dialogue on the spot. 

JB:. What is the best advice you can offer to someone who wants to break into the world of animated series as a writer?

SM: Make sure it’s what you really want to do. Don’t think of it as “slumming,” or as a way to earn some quick and easy cash, because it’s neither. Producers can smell that attitude a mile away. It’s vitally important to love animation, and understand its strengths and weaknesses.

Aside from that, I’d give the same advice to someone who wants to break into live-action. First, write a spec animation script (or two) for a current show in the genre you want to find work in, like action/adventure, action/comedy, comedy, or pre-school. Then make contacts with producers and executives any which way you can. Ask them to read your stuff. Or better yet, put yourself in a position where they ask to read your stuff. Get a job at a studio or network, or on a show as a script coordinator or producer’s assistant, so you can move in the right circles. Learn the world and the players. Read animation scripts and watch animated series. Animation is a rather small and insular community, and it can be very difficult to crack, so you have to be patient, and above all, persistent.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Neil Gaiman, Literary Rock Star and Me.

Let's be honest, there's really not much I can say about Neil Gaiman that hasn't already been said by someone else, somewhere else.  So instead of wasting time heaping praise upon the literary world's first iconic "rock star," I'll simply recount my two encounters with the widely read author and then I'll let Gaiman speak for himself.
The first time I met Gaiman was in a little comic shop I used to frequent in Sherman Oaks, California, called Forbidden Planet (sadly, it's no longer there). The Sandman had been in print less than a year and Gaiman was several years off from becoming the superstar he is today. Thus, I found him seated alone at the back of the store, making his rounds, promoting the book from store to store, city to city and God knows where else. There he sat as the rush of comic collectors wound their way around the store pawing through the week’s comics deciding which ones to buy and which they were just going to just read off the rack.
Being an avid comic book reader, I had stumbled across The Sandman when it first hit the stands earlier that year so I knew how prolific that guy in the dark sunglasses and leather jacket was. I headed home and retrieved my back issues, and then made my way back to the back of Forbidden Planet. Gaiman and I spoke for several minutes, then he signed my books.  On my way out I picked up a copy of Sandman # 8 that DC had sent along with Gaiman as a giveaway.  Apparently there was a misprint in the run and they were earmarked to be destroyed. Rather than waste them, DC decided to give them away for free.  I’m told its quiet rare.  Only 800 were printed.  I got one.
My other cool Gaiman story took place several years later. My wife at the time, (which is code for my now “ex-wife”) knew I was a fan of The Sandman books so she wrote to Gaiman and asked if he would draw a sketch for me as an anniversary gift.  Needless to say, he did.
I’m guessing it’s probably rare too.

Gaiman was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for The Write Blog.  If you don’t know who he is, you’ve led a very sheltered existence. Back when he first created The Sandman he was simply know as an English comic book writer. These days he is referred to as an author of science fiction and fantasy short stories and novels, graphic novels, comics, audio theatre, and films. He has won numerous awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker, as well as the 2009 Newbery Medal and is the author of Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book. And of course, his most notable work to date remains The Sandman series.

Jeffrey Berman: I read that you once said, “I'm not really an adult novelist, or a short story writer, or a screenplay writer, or a poet or a comic writer or a radio play writer or a playwright or a children's author. If I'm anything, I'm a storyteller.” What do you see as the difference between a writer and a storyteller?
Neil Gaiman: These days most storytellers are writers; not all writers can (or do) tell stories. I think what I was trying to get at there was that for me the story is the most important thing. The medium for the story is less important, except as far as it makes the story shine, like a setting for a jewel.

JB: In what way does your writing differ now from earlier on in your career?
NG: It's less exciting and less scary. When I started out there were a lot of things I knew I couldn't do, and a lot of things I only found out I couldn't do by going and doing it. And no-one was watching and nobody cared. These days there are a lot of things I know I can do (but I don't want to repeat myself) and too many people watching.

JB: Myths play such a big part in your work.  What is it about the “old stories” that appeals so much to you? What is their importance to you as a writer?
NG: I don't know why I love them (do we ever know why we love?) but I do, and they make me happy, and I try to pass on that happiness.
JB: You spent ten years crafting the mythology that went into the Sandman. What kind of research did you do before you began writing it and how much more was required on your decade long journey with Morpheus? Did you always know where the story would end or was it something you came upon as you were writing it?
NG: I knew where it would end. The research was a combination of 26-36 years of reading everything I could, combined with mad cramming whenever I had any story that demanded historical accuracy.

JB: How do you decide what medium is best suited to tell a story when you begin writing it, whether it’s a screenplay, a novel or a comic book?  Is one more challenging than the other and if so, in what way?
NG: They're all challenging. It's just a different set of challenges each time. I tend to pick based on gut feeling and what I would like to see. Sometimes I'm wrong. I kept starting ANANSI BOYS as a movie and stopping, and eventually wrote the novel and was happy.

JB: Can you share any writing tips or techniques that you use or have developed?  For instance, I’ve read that music is a big part of your writing ritual.
NG: Anything that keeps you happy and writing is part of my writing ritual: I like music, so I tend to have it playing in the background. But if I'm interested I can write in an airport waiting areas. The biggest tip is just to do it. Put one word after the other until you've made something that didn't exist before.

JB: How do you know when something you’ve written is finished or at least good enough to let go?
NG: I start thinking about the next thing. That's how I know the last thing is approaching the end.

If you’d like to know about what Neil Gaiman is up to you can follow him on his weblog at