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John Kilik's advice to filmmakers

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This topic contains 2 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by  Shaula Evans 1 year, 6 months ago.

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    Shaula Evans

    …Many people have predicted the end of the film business. (…) It hasn’t happened – what has happened is that we now have more ways to make movies and more ways to get people to see them than ever before.

    So my advice to us, all of us, from film students to Spielberg, Lucas and Soderbergh, all of us who make human movies that we care about, my advice is to ignore the prophecies, DON’T RETIRE, and keep on making films and showing films by any means available. Build and they will come.

    …Yes it’s true that movies have become a crass commercial commodity at times and studios have crowded these spectacles into theaters at a disproportional rate. But it’s also true that sensitive, brave, personal, and courageous work is being done everyday. For every tent pole being built pixel by pixel in a Hollywood Laboratory, there is a young filmmaker like Benh Zeitlin going into the bathtub of New Orleans with a small cast and crew and a 16MM camera to create a uniquely personal vision. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” found its way all the way to the White House and to the Oscars. For every sequel that’s being churned out, there is something new and original fighting to be born. It’s never been harder and it’s never been easier. I guess it’s been like that all along.

    I’ve been lucky to work with a great number of talented directors. All of them have made the film for themselves first, and the audience second. That’s not out of vanity, or because they don’t care about the people who see their films. It’s because they know the only way to truly connect to an audience is to be as personal as they possibly can and share that piece of themselves onscreen.

    …I’ve been talking to and advising up-and-coming filmmakers for a long time. Over the years, I’ve always given what I thought was some valuable advice, which is this: “Listen very closely to your inner filmmaker, be true to your own unique, distinctive voice. It’s all very well and good to study the craft and the history of cinema, but once you’ve taken all that in tell your story through your lens, through your unique perspective as an artist – and THAT is the definition of cinema. That is what sets cinema apart from mere movies.”

    I’m a film producer but I know NOT to value a movie based on budget. Story is what is important. In whatever form you choose to tell yours, you have the opportunity to challenge the status quo, provoke thought, shine a light on an event, a condition, a time and a place, give a voice to those who have none, or simply make a love story, a comedy or a genre film. Tell your story. The work will outlive the format.

    …In film, if you don’t have a vision for something it doesn’t happen. You’ve got to believe it to see it. Eventually you will find your audience or more accurately they will find you.

    …So it isn’t true that cinema is dead, it’s actually a very healthy industry and as Soderbergh pointed out, it’s one of the few American exports that continues to do very well. But we can’t ignore that one particular sector of the market is getting squeezed and must be protected – the midrange budget drama – movies about HUMAN BEINGS.

    But despite that squeeze, many talented filmmakers, young and old, have overcome the challenge and made a large quantity of quality independent dramas that are coming out this year. I have never seen so many high quality films entering the main stream.

    …Studio executives are not our enemy. Especially today with more women and growing diversity. I have found execs – to a person – as hardworking and courageous as their filmmaker counterparts. They are passionate and educated in film history and often put their job on the line to help a filmmaker get what he or she needs.

    And finally, I want to leave you with a quote from one of the most inspiring speeches I have ever heard. It was at the 73rd Academy Awards. I was fortunate to be there with two independent films: “Before Night Falls” and our Best Actor nominee Javier Bardem, and “Pollock” with our Best Actor nominee Ed Harris and Best Supporting Actress winner Marcia Gay Harden. The speech came in a different category but it struck deep and I never forgot it. It went like this – “I want to thank anyone who spends part of their day creating. I don’t care if it’s a book, a film, a painting, a dance, a piece of theater, a piece of music, anybody who spends part of their day sharing their experience with us. I think this world would be unlivable without art and I thank you.” That was from Steven Soderbergh, Academy Award Winner, Best Director, March 25th, 2001.

    — Excerpted from the transcript of producer John Kilik’s September 15, 2013 IFP market keynote address; full transcript at the link [bolding added]

    I want to pull out some of Kilik’s key points that are relevant to screenwriters:

    • The film industry is changing but not dying.
    • Filmmaking is both harder and easier than it has ever been.
    • In addition to (often derivative) blockbuster/tentpole/franchise films, it is possible to make original, personal, creative work. This is happening. People are making these films every day.
    • Great filmmaking is honest and personal.
    • Tell your own unique story.
    • Have a vision.
    • Studio executives are not the enemy.
    • The creative work of screenwriting, filmmaking and storytelling is critically important.

    I hope that those of you who struggle to find the courage to tell your own stories will find inspiration in Kilik’s remarks. (And isn’t that all of us at some point?)

    What if you dug down deep to tell a story that was personal, compelling and honest? What if you aimed for greatness?

    Update Check out Scott’s take on Kilik’s remarks at Go Into the Story: Maybe the Sky isn’t Falling.

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    Great precis of the keynote Shaula, thank you.

    Aspiring to greatness takes courage. It’s a hard road to walk. And being original means walking it alone (in the sense that the bravest filmmakers purposefully seek to make their project stand out from the crowd). But the rewards at the end of the hard road are also the greatest.

    For all of us Black Boarders that means writing scripts that are original, that reflect how we view the world. Screenwriters aspire to greatness by opening the doors to themselves for the world to take a look inside. That takes courage. Greatness is not bestowed or achieved easily.

    Write because you’ve got something to say. Not because you just want to say something.  


    Shaula Evans

    Write because you’ve got something to say. Not because you just want to say something.  

    Sutinder, your words brought a vivid example to mind from my editing background.

    A few years ago, I was working with some friends on their non-fiction business book (doing editing and content development). To make a long story short, in the early drafts, most of the chapters were outstanding but the quality of a few others was drastically lower. When we got digging into the weaker chapters, I finally asked: “What are you trying to say?” And the answer came back: “We don’t know. We put the chapter in because we thought it should be there. But we don’t really have anything to say about the topic.”

    Gee, there’s the problem.

    I’ve been acutely aware of the “nothing to say” phenomenon in writing ever since. When a piece of writing loses the thread, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction, including screenplays, in many cases it’s pretty clear that the author doesn’t have anything to say.

    I’m pointing a finger back at myself here, too; I’ve had a few NaSkeWriMo sketches go off the rails, because I started writing before I worked out what I was trying to say. And hey, it’s NaSkeWriMo: I’m okay with that. But I’d definitely need to work out whether I had something to say and what it might be before I could get anywhere with rewrites on them.

    With screenwriting, I need to know what I think about this storyworld, these characters, and their dilemma before I can start writing. I need to know what I want to say and what the story is saying. This is a very conscious part of my prep.

    The book story has a happy ending: some chapters got axed, some were pirated for parts to merge with other chapters, and a few got rewritten from the ground up once we’d done the prep work and come up with what the authors did have to say on the topic. The final book was excellent.

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