Staring at a blank page wondering what to write is an obstacle that screenwriters face often. Thankfully I only have to come up with 700 words or so for this column. James Griffin managed to turn that imponderable into Australia’s highest rating drama in 2015 with 800.
I was related a story on the weekend about a writer/director who, on seeing a linear assembly in the edit room of the footage he’d shot for his feature, told the editor that the writer should be shot. The editor though is in seventh heaven with the possibilities on offer. POV was important here when it came to perceived difficulties.
At a meeting this week I was discussing Directors of Photography and the choices and compromises they have to make in the execution of their craft to get the best results they can with the challenges they face. Without money, the big budget items usually have to go, yet the audience still views the results critically. The cash saved shooting The Revenant with only natural light didn’t help that budget, though.
I guess what I am rabbiting on about here is creativity, excellence, and the attitude to problems in our way as we take an idea to reality on screen.
Innaritu was unrelenting in pursuit of his vision and is unrepentant. The budget and schedule blew out, the main producer and some of the crew were blown off. Yet the film, whether you love it or hate it, delivers on screen — shades of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which are considered classics. Major festival awards obviously create leeway for auteur directors. Innaritu just blew through the obstacles.
But what about the rest of us? How do we deal with them?
There’s nothing like success in the screen industry to help get you over complications. Critically acclaimed. Box office smash. Rated its socks off. These things matter because people love winners. And they help to diminish the issues.
Then there’s the self-funding route. When you are the one and only investor, paying for everything, you can do what you want. The big difficulty here is convincing others to do what you want.
Foresight is a good one. See the problems before they occur and avoid them if you can, or come up with good solutions to apply when they strike.
Even with the most meticulous planning, though, unexpected issues still arise in our business as we all know. And there are limits to what you can do, no matter who’s in charge, how talented you are or how much money you’ve got.
And it’s those limits that guilds like the Directors & Editors Guild of NZ are interested in whether a project is self-funded or not. The Revenant is the exception not the rule. And I am confident that crew contracts on that film were sufficiently rigorous to deal with what occurred — possibly contributing to the blowout from $60 to $135 million.
Innaritu’s attitude to crew he wasn’t happy with was: “As a director, if I identify a violin that is out of tune, I have to take that from the orchestra.” (Innaritu is credited as a producer, too.)
Health and safety concerns on the film were also a major issue that he downplays. Such “obstacles” still matter even in the relatively free labour market we have today.
Whenever I get a call from a member who has a beef about their treatment on a short/web-series/documentary/TV series/feature film, the first thing I ask them for is the contract or agreement they have in place for that project. You’d be surprised (or not) at the number of people who say they don’t have one. Or, they signed it without getting someone to look at it.
All the guilds have their own agreements for use, are willing to review an agreement for you, or can point you in the direction of discounted legal advice. This is worth the price of guild membership alone. Sometimes, we are there to save you as much from yourselves as from others.
And there’s a very important “obstacle” coming up that you should all be aware of.
From the 1st of April, New Zealand will be subject to revised Health & Safety legislation that exposes individuals to fines of up to $600,000, companies up to $5 million, and jail time for poor health and safety work practices. The New Zealand Advertising Producers Group is leading education on this and is holding a special screen industry safety compliance information night on Tuesday 9th February. Get along to make sure that you understand the significant impact this will have on you and your work environment. And to avoid looking from the inside, out.
Everybody in the screen industry should be dedicated to creativity and excellence or he or she shouldn’t be in the business. Guilds are there to ensure such enthusiasm isn’t an abuse mechanism. Or worse, fatal. Returning from the dead generally only happens in the movies.