Peter Hawley – Educating the Digital Creative Class

Peter Hawley, Dean of Tribeca Flashpoint Academy in Chicago

Peter Hawley, Dean of Tribeca Flashpoint Academy in Chicago

Should I go to film school? Like most vexing questions of our day, the answer is, “Well, it depends.” The “what” it depends on is up to the individual student, the parents, the location, the cost, and a myriad of other factors. There are people who claim that everything a student can learn in a film school can be learned through experience. There are well-known online courses that take a strong anti-brick-and-mortar-film school stance and generate their revenue by advocating this viewpoint.  Some people would rather use their potential tuition money  for cameras, lighting gear, microphones, and computers and just start filming. Others will read books about screenwriting rather than take a class. And some of these people will do very well for themselves in this chaotic media industry that is consuming and reinventing itself faster than we can watch a season of “Rectify” on Netflix. But for people who choose film school, there is a path for them that will definitely make sense in the context of the return on their investment in the form of future career opportunities. And beyond even the instruction and access to equipment, a school like Tribeca Flashpoint Academy provides structure and a main lodge for young people (and  some older ones too) to socialize while offering them the opportunity to share their knowledge, experiences, and perspectives. There they can embrace the fact that they are all members of a tribe known as the digital creative class as they get to know each other and work together in a common physical space.

Peter Hawley, Dean of Tribeca Flashpoint Academy, was starting a new semester as a teacher at a different institution about a decade ago, and he found himself asking the same question about the relevancy of film school; albeit in a different context. He was taking over for another teacher’s class when he came to a troubling realization. After polling his students, he learned that  their knowledge and capabilities with digital cameras and filmmaking techniques were beyond the information listed on the syllabus. Not long after that experience, Peter was offered the opportunity to join a team that was building a digital media school, then known as just Flashpoint Academy, in Chicago from the ground up. For Peter this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Not only was he going to be an integral contributor to the founding of a new school, but the school would focus on the digital tools and education that his students deserved. He joined the group and became the head of the film department and has been a part of the vibrant rebirth of film in Chicago ever since.

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Steve Kaplan Solves the Comic Equation

Steve Kaplan

Steve Kaplan

Over the span of several decades many concepts have been presented with the help of a hypothetical (and other-worldly) alien; also known as Blank Slate. True to form, our little green friend has recently touched down on Earth (interestingly enough in Kansas) and his first act of exploration, after reading TMZ and eating nine jars of Nutella, was to watch a load of pandering sitcoms and comedies having nothing to do with Judd Apatow. Despite his numerous funny-bones (his people are  born with five) his only utterance during his “comedy” marathon was a flatulent hazelnut induced gas cloud.

If our interplanetary traveler would have aimed about 12oo miles due east and a couple of decades earlier, he might have found himself at Steve Kaplan’s Manhattan Punchline Theater laughing his second tukhus off (albeit without “the peanut butter of the gods”). This is the very same theater where Steve honed his comedic tools while developing writers like Peter Tolan (Analyze This), Tracy Proust (Ugly Betty, Will & Grace), and Michael Patrick King (Sex and The City, Will & Grace) among many other soon to be successful writers and producers. His former students really stink up the joint having been nominated to win over 43 Emmy Awards, 3 Golden Globes, and an Oscar for good measure.

“Coincidence?”, you ask. Not even close. Steve applied some serious science for a funnyman and broke down what was working in his comedy shows and why. He developed and refined his comedic tools like “Winning”, “The Non-Hero”, and “Straight-line / Wavy-line.” These techniques were integral to his 40 week masters’ class on comedic performance. And while the Manhattan Punchline Theater and his 40 week course  are no longer around (apparently bills can’t be paid with just laughter) the lessons Steve forged in Manhattan are the foundation of his two-day seminars appropriately titled, Steve Kaplan’s Comedy Intensive. His next class is January 24-25 in Los Angeles.

I really enjoyed my conversation with Steve. His ability to deftly move between his quick wit and the underpinnings of comedy exploration had me engaged from the start of our call. One of my favorite things that he said on the podcast was actually a quote he attributed to John Cleese that I think perfectly sums up the intuition Steve developed about comedy all those years ago in Manhattan.

John Cleese said something like this, “When we started Monty Python, we thought that comedy was watching someone do something silly. We came to realize that comedy was watching someone watch someone do something silly.”

Hey! Who wants to watch me watch an alien eat some more Nutella?

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Linda Seger Loves You and Your Script

International Script Consultant and  Screenwriting Coach Dr. Linda Seger

International Script Consultant and Screenwriting Coach – Dr. Linda Seger

If Dr. Linda Seger was the Wizard of Oz, she would bypass all of the other gifts and only hand out heart-shaped clocks. In the movie, the Wizard tells the tinman,  “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but how much you are loved by others.” And if you only had Linda Seger to love you and your script, your heart would be held in very high esteem.

Linda is a legend in the business of script consulting. She is widely regarded as the person who invented the industry. In 1981 she started her consulting business after writing her dissertation on her method for analyzing scripts. And just like how the Wizard of Oz shared his secrets, Linda has helped people inside and outside the film industry look behind the mysteries of great story telling. Before Linda started her business, many believed that people either did have or did not have the talent for screenwriting. She made it clear that great writing can be taught. It’s not an easy path, and the road is not necessarily paved with yellow bricks, but if someone has enough courage to use their heart and brains, the path to success is illuminated.

She has worked with Peter Jackson, Roland Emmerich, and Ray Bradbury, and she will work with you too. Linda Seger is an accomplished author, having written nine books about screenwriting and a half-dozen more about spirituality. This blended focus of hers is evident when you talk with Linda. She cares about you and your work. Linda is encouraging, intelligent, and she understands the need of writers to be inspired to write something great. This is why she offers a specific one on one session for writers at her home in the Rockies. Linda can also work as your personal development executive if you so choose. She will coach and guide you to write the best possible version of your script and make it ready to shop around Hollywood.

As writers we don’t want our work to be judged because innately we believe it is a criticism of us as human beings, but filmmaking is a collaborative sport. At some point we must wear our hearts on our sleeves, and allow our writing to be judged no matter the outcome. And yes, your writing will be judged on how much it is loved by others. Thankfully Linda can show you what is behind the curtain and give you the gifts you need to succeed in this fairy-tale town.

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The Denial of Corey Mandell Launches a Hollywood Screenwriting Career

Screenwriter Corey Mandell

Screenwriter Corey Mandell

“This script will launch your career.”

Encouraging words from Corey Mandell’s writers group. Corey thought his script was ready to go.

“It’s one of the best scripts I have ever read after teaching twenty years at UCLA.”

Validating praise from a UCLA professor, to be sure. Corey was gliding and he KNEW his script was ready to go .

Corey let the manager he was interning for read his script, almost as an afterthought, as he was leaving to pick out his black 911 Carrera from the Porsche dealership down on Rodeo Drive. The manager read it and told him, “It’s not ready to go. It’s a dirty first draft at best.” 

The manager packaged deals all day long. He knew what was selling and he knew that Corey’s script wasn’t good enough.

The manager continued,“You certainly don’t want to show that to anyone in the industry. You’ve got some strengths and weaknesses, but you don’t know what they are. This script is going to take a lot of work. I’ll help you, but I have to know that you will really work hard on it because I don’t want to waste my time.”

It was at that moment that Corey’s pats on the head stopped and he got a kick in the ass instead. Up until that point he had won awards for his plays and impressed his peers and even some of his professors, but it wasn’t until he was brought back to reality by someone actually working in the movie business, that he knew the hard work was just beginning.  He told Corey to hire three working studio readers, pay them out of his own pocket, and get their coverage. They all came back with a pass. Not as in, “Hey, nice job, you passed the test!” But as in, “There is no way in hell I would stake my reputation on this script!”

Corey put in the hard work over the next year and more and finally got the script to the point where the studio readers all gave it their stamp of approval.

The story continues in the podcast, but (spoiler alert) it doesn’t get any easier. Meg Ryan is attached at one point and it looks like the project is ready to go, but then a change of direction. Corey sells a pitch to Ridley Scott. He works on the script with Ridley in London (on Ridley’s dime of course, or sixpence) and then a change of direction. But at this point Corey has been getting his REAL education. The type of education that teaches anyone who is paying attention and willing to learn, that life and careers are never as easy or perfect as we dream, but as challenging as they need to be until we succumb to truth.

It’s what it took for Corey Mandell to become a working screenwriter in Hollywood over the last decade and a half.

What Corey can teach you in his classroom about screenwriting is about an authentic writing process that utilizes specific professional tools to help you write material that will get noticed. What he can teach you about perseverance and the ability to embrace humility in the pursuit of excellence is his real lesson.

 

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004 – Curious About Filmmaking: Film Producer Barri Evins on Big Ideas, Zen Pitching, and Finger Puppets

Barri-Evins-

Producer Barri Evins

Barri Evins LOVES big ideas. She was molded early in her career by the likes of Ray Gideon and Bruce Evans. You may have heard of some of the movies they wrote and produced; Stand By Me, Assassins, and Mr. Brooks. During our conversation she made it a point to say that she is not a screenwriter and would never want to portray herself as such, she has too much respect for screenwriters and the difficulty they face when completing a script. She can however, shine the light of clarity and insight on writers and their screenplays  as a successful film producer. There is an oft-quoted maxim among those giving advice to would-be screenwriters, and that is. “Write what you know.” And its sister statement, “Don’t chase the market.” These old chestnuts have their truth, but you can’t have former port-o-potty delivery drivers breaking into the film business by following this advice unless you want to see more shitty movies. Barri goes in a different direction and the guidance she gives to writers in her workshops and one on one sessions cuts through the noise.

Barri’s approach is this… start with a BIG IDEA. That doesn’t mean follow in the footsteps of Michael Bay, rather it is a practical and real world truth of a film producer who has not only seen dozens of films packaged and sold, but has done the pitching, packaging, and selling herself. Its important to remember that there are a lot of paths to building a career in Hollywood as a writer, but one of the items you’ll want to check off your list sooner than later is to sell your work. The quickest way, according to Barri, to write and sell a script is to start with what she calls, a “hooky” idea. This is how Barri describes it in one of her blog posts:

A Hooky Idea immediately intrigues us.  It makes you want to know more; it gets you hooked and sticks with you.  In a few sentences, or even a few well-chosen words, a Hooky Idea floods our mind with images and emotions. When you hear a Hooky Idea, you know what the movie will FEEL LIKE.  Right off the bat, you know if this is a movie that you wanna see.

I shared with her the concept of the script by Derek Asaff titled, WHEELMAN to see if she thought it was “hooky.” The gist? A Drivers Ed teacher is forced to become the getaway driver for a group of bank robbers. Listen to the podcast to get her take on it. (And to learn about those finger puppets!)

Barri is a warm, energetic, and insightful person and I can understand why her students love working with her. Her pre-writing outlining methods have worked incredibly well for many of her students in conjunction with her ability to teach them how to break down story structure.

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003 – Curious About Filmmaking: Glenn Benest on How Working with Wes Craven Launched His Career

Glenn Benest

Glenn Benest

Making a living, not a killing, was ironically on writer and producer Glenn Benest’s mind when he decided to pursue screenwriting over being a playwright. His concern about being able to live well and pay the bills eventually led him to writing two high profile screenplays for horror filmmaker Wes Craven: “Deadly Blessing,” starring Sharon Stone and Ernest Borgnine and “A Stranger In Our House,” starring Linda Blair and Lee Purcell.

Having grown up near Los Angeles, Glenn saw the film industry for what it was and is, a business. That’s not to say that his desire to write came from a dispassionate place, rather it was ingrained in him at an early age that it would take dedication, hard work, and connections to start and build a career as a writer in Hollywood. His passion to help others succeed is evident in his private screenwriting workshops where small groups of determined writers meet over a period of weeks to hone their screenplays into work that is ready for the marketplace. Read on to learn more about Glenn’s workshops taken by people like Melissa Rosenberg, writer of the screenplays for the Twilight movies.

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002 – Curious About Filmmaking: Nicholl Fellowship Finalist Karen Lukesh Shows You How to Launch Your Career

Karen Lukesh

Karen Lukesh

I recently had the privilege of spending some time with writer Karen Lukesh. If you are considering becoming a produced screenwriter, she may just be able to help you do it. She has been able to transform an early career in underground sketch comedy writing and performing into one that has garnered her over fourteen screenwriting awards with one of them coming from the Academy Nicholl Fellowship (trust me, it’s a big deal.) To give you an idea about how impressive that is, over seventy-five hundred scripts were submitted to the Academy Nicholl Fellowship in 2014. She now has an agent and is selling her work in Hollywood.

Thousands of people are looking for ways to break into the movie business, and after talking with Karen I am convinced that it is more possible than ever despite the competition, or perceived competition out there. In the podcast, Karen talks about a “chance” encounter with a fellow actor who asked her to start a comedy troupe. Without hesitation she said yes, and started out on an adventure that is still going strong. She mixed hard work with opportunity and set herself on a path to pursue her dreams of working in the movies. She is a dogged person who doesn’t give up on a script, period. She creates characters that she is passionate about and works and works until those characters have a story befitting their existence.

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001 – Curious About Filmmaking Podcast: Robert McKee on Writing Professionally, Screenplay Competitions, Guardians of the Galaxy and Much More

Robert McKee

Robert McKee

Robert McKee’s impact on the film industry is undeniable. Over 100,000 writers have have taken his STORY course (also a book)  which was partially re-enacted during the Oscar nominated film, ADAPTATION written by Charlie Kaufman based on the book ORCHID THIEF by Susan Orlean. Robert’s on screen persona was deftly acted by Brian Cox. His focus on being true to genres and teaching writers how to approach writing as a serious profession is sometimes overshadowed by his infamous reputation as a world-class curmudgeon. I found him to be nothing of the sort. He was gracious, knowledgeable, and funny during our approximately 60 minute conversation and Q&A with over 400 teleconference listeners.

My favorite part of the interview happened during his comments on the box office smash, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. His insights on that movie are alone worth listening to this podcast.

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How to Self Actualize with a Whistle and a Snap

Photo by Elvert Barnes / CC BY 2.0 / Cropped 

 

The other day I had a strong realization. I was watching yet another Kickstarter campaign video with an adorable human or three skipping up and on to their bikes (which were waiting for them in front of a gorgeous two-story brownstone, blissfully unlocked) and then riding off to a design meeting to finalize some amazing new environmentally friendly product. Everyone in the video looked ten times more happy than anyone I have ever met in my entire life (I’m working on my fifth decade.) The team assembled inside, large ceramic mugs in hand. The early morning sunlight beamed through a giant window at the perfect angle to bathe an over-sized re-purposed wooden table (probably made from a treasured old barn door) and the white painted brick loftice (loft + office) walls. And damn it if it didn’t look like everyone was getting along and letting each other have their respective say as they shared their extremely creative ideas.

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Neil Gaiman’s To Do (Or Not To Do) List

Neil Gaiman Commencement speech 2012

Neil Gaiman is a creative force as an author of novels, comic books, and film. His unique creative expression has won fans from around the world. I first came across Neil in his ground breaking work in the Sandman graphic novel series.

In 2012 Neil Gaiman gave a commencement address to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts graduating class. You may have run across the central theme of his speech somewhere else on the web. It is simply and beautifully, “Make Good Art.”  That’s it. Make good art. Just three words. Simple, right? Yes and no. What is “good?” Hell, what is “art?” There are many definitions that provide insight to the artist and to those who experience the art.

I believe that art is an evolving dance of expression of personal truths between others where everyone has a chance to take the lead. Pretentious? Probably. Corny? Absolutely!

But it doesn’t matter, because while art is potentially universal, it is more importantly personal because somewhere it impacts at least an audience of one, even if that “one” is the artist himself.

Neil underscores his idea that art is in the doing; in the making. The making is the message, if you will. In the quote below, Neil humorously focuses on personal tragedy as a catalyst to “good art.”

Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art.

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