Saturday, June 04, 2016

Peter Russell Workshop with Writers Guild of South Africa and KZN Film Com.

On the 12th May, Durban was delighted to host Peter Russell, Hollywood Script Doctor and writer, to the offices of the KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission in Musgrave, to share his invaluable advice and experience. Peter Russell was brought to South Africa by the Writers' Guild of South Africa and they kindly sponsored three tickets for AFDA Durban, two for staff and one for a student. Head of screenwriting Janet van Eeden, screenwriting lecturer Rudi Steyn, and third year writing student Amanda Dlamini, were treated to a day of new insights about what really goes on behind closed doors in Hollywood.

Russell's theories on the hero's wound that needs to be healed threw light on the tired old Hero's Journey theories which have been doing the rounds since the 90s. 

One of the most insightful pieces of information he passed on was that every Hollywood story has a hero/ine who is wounded. As Russell puts it, Hollywood films are about “a wounded hero who is offered a chance to heal by learning a truth about life. That’s all. Every time."

AFDA Durban would like to thank WGSA and KZN Film Commission for sponsoring this event. They wouldn't have missed it for the world. 

Here is Peter Russell, with myself and and KZN Film Com's Ziyanda Macingwane.

Here is Peter again with 3rd Year Screenwriting Major at AFDA Durban, Amanda Dlamini.

Peter Russell below with KZN Film Com's Teboho Petersen, Ziyanda Macingwane and AFDA Durban's Head of Post Grad, Janet van Eeden.

 Peter Russell with AFDA Durban's screenwriting lecturer Rudi Steyn and unknown delegate.

Peter Russell with Dr Mikhail Peppas and Sanabelle Ebrahim from the Bunnykats on the Run project.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Shot the Short in Cannes

It's not often I find myself dancing around to Pharrell Williams' song "Happy", playing on a loop in the early mornings before I go to work. But that's exactly what I've been doing these past few weeks. It must be something to do with a long-time dream coming true. 
When I started the journey of becoming a script writer some eighteen years ago I had no idea how arduous a journey it would be. It's a gruelling path to say the least, and not for those who expect overnight success. One of the things in my favour was my stubbornness. I'd had a dream - literally - about writing and making feature films and I was not going to give up. No matter how long it took.
The dream is paying off big time. Just over a month ago the short film I'd written and produced, a Shot at the Big Time directed by Stephen de Villiers, was selected for the Cannes Short Film Metrage. Cliches don't begin to express my feeling on hearing the news. This was the big time, for real. My most frequent expression over the next few days was that my mind was completely blown. The dream and reality had become one and it was an overwhelmingly positive experience.
So it was that I found myself in France at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. This is the most prestigious of all Film Festivals and I felt completely at home being there. Walking through the crowds who gather to see the stars arrive in all their splendour for the premiere on the red carpet outside the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès I couldn't stop myself from smiling. I loved the enthusiasm and the stars really gave the crowds something to talk about. One of the most spectacular events was the cast of The Expendables arriving in an open top limousine to the delight of thousands of adoring fans. There they were in their slightly wrinkled flesh: Mel Gibson, Sly Stallone, Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes and the rest. So close to a-list stars: mind-blown.
But the real festival is not only about star spotting, although this is part of the attraction of being there. You can't dismiss the fact that you can listen to press-conferences on screen outside the press venues where the stars are being interviewed and then watch as the likes of Hilary Swank, Tommy-Lee Jones, Julianna Moore, John Cussack, David Cronenburg, Luc Besson and others walk right past you as they go to their next appointment.
The real festival is about being part of the larger international communities which gather in the international Pavillions where each country hosts visitors with its most nationalistic fare, both filmic and gastronomical. Here talks and seminars are held throughout the day discussing the states of co-production agreements between the UK and South africa for example. The same Pavillions turn into party palaces at night where national film bodies host parties for invited guests. I spent most of my time at the UK and the Sa Pavillions talking to people I've grown to know over the last ten years who have now become friends. Deals are made in here and let's just say I made some invaluable connections will definitely bear fruit in the future. The fact that these tented pavillions are stretched along the beach with the azure Mediterranean lapping on the shores makes these meetings literally out of this world.
When The Hollywood Reporter mentioned me as one of only four filmmakers from africa to show a film this year at Cannes I realised even more how big a deal it was to be there. The press in South africa had been exceptionally generous to me too in the weeks before the festival with one newspaper even running the slogan "Durban Film's Cannes Triumph" on their billboards for a day.  This recognition again was beyond my wildest dreams.

When I think back to my first night in Cannes, finding myself on the Promenade de la Croisette thanks to the generosity of Executive Producer of the short, athol Williams, I realised what all these years of relentless hard work have been for. I've earned my stripes. I've paid my dues. and now the dreams are coming true in a way I could never even have imagined. Finally this really is my shot at the big time.

First Published in Sunday Independent 8 June.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Towns Like Mother Boards

Flying over the Eastern Cape recently after a conference which explored the Legacies of the Apartheid Border War, I stared down at the white, winter-dry earth beneath me. In between the harsh scrub land, every now and then, a little town became visible amongst the hills. Seeing a town from an airplane window has always fascinated me. Looking down on humanity going about their tiny lives from a great height gives one a sense of being a god, at best, or an omniscient narrator of a bad novel at worst. Either way, being able to see the big picture from above does give one a detached point of view. What struck me most this time as I flew a mile above the ground was the apparent orderliness of the lay-out of the towns. Everything seemed neat and preordained. Roads squared off, hugging little houses into safe geometric forms. Areas for growing vegetables exploded into patchworks of pregnant green; industries clung together wheezing smoke into one another’s lungs. The appearance of the town from above was of a perfectly designed organism, planned to be the best it could be, to give the inhabitants a thoroughly sorted-out and predestined experience of life on this planet. The tiny towns seen from above sparked a memory of the hard-drive I’d recovered from my dead Dell laptop just a few days before. In the same way as the circuitry of the hard-drive was laid out in neat, colourful rows feeding into a central processor, so the towns followed a pattern of apparent order and design. Just like the hard-drive, each bit of colour and circuitry contained lexicons of stories, all marinated in lifetimes of history, each able to fill a library with particular and personal narratives. Every house contained a family. Every family contained its stories. Every story had a backstory. Their histories traversed back in time until memory was no more, yet each little dwelling was as profound with meaning as a tiny bit in the hard-drive. Perhaps this realisation struck me so forcibly because of the conference I’d just attended. People from around South Africa had come together to speak about their experiences of the Apartheid Border Wars. I’d been there to show the short film I’d made about my brother’s death on the border when he was barely 21. Others had come to speak of the trauma they’d suffered after witnessing man at his most inhumane in the heat of senseless battle. Even more were ready to fight for their rights, 30 years after they’d started, as they still felt their voices had not been heard. Stories came from spies who’d worked for the government; from young black academics who found the experience of white conscripts excellent food for research; from hardened freedom-fighters who’d built their own bombs and lit tyres around the necks of so-called sell-outs, all in an effort to make the country ungovernable. Each small bit of human energy I'd encountered at the conference was full of profound memories. We seemed to be on a predestined path. Was it mere chance that we'd met up in a conference room at Rhodes University eager to share different facets of an apparent truth almost twenty years after the war was over? Was this conference already planned when my brother stood on the border of Angola and contemplated having to kill someone he did not hate? Was this same spark of intelligence in the match which lit the tyre which the Amabutho placed around a “traitor’s” neck? Was this awareness present when a girl was blown to pieces by a bomb in a bar? Did the universe plan for her mother to talk about the loss of her daughter to a senseless war thirty years after she’d died? Were we predestined to share every uncomfortable experience and then comfort each other for our losses, whether of loved ones, or of innocence, or even of our sense of purpose? Did it all make sense from a distance far above us? I couldn't help wondering whether we are simply bits in a hard-drive, part of the orderly workings of a very large mother board which has a well-designed plan for each of us in the end. Forgive me if I hope that we, like the little town below me as I flew above the Eastern Cape, have a purpose greater than we are aware of in our daily lives.[_id]=106152

Monday, April 16, 2012

Whose film is it anyway!?

A friend of mine wrote on his blog recently about essential films every cinema fanatic should see. See the link above. Although his list is excellent, it isn’t comprehensive in my opinion. For one thing, where’s the category for Screen WRITING? This vital foundation of any good film is usually overlooked, but one thing is certain: without a good script you can never make a good film. It is written.

To correct the imbalance a little, I thought I'd add my favourite films from a scriptwriter’s point of view. The films I will mention will obviously deal with the writing aspect of film, especially the uber-meta aspirations of Charlie Kaufman’s Adapatation, which deals a distortion or two of Writers dealing with Writing itself.

Charlie Kaufman takes this same theme a step too far in my opinion in his directorial debut, Syndechdoche, New York, which I enjoyed to some extent. It should be watched by serious film writers just as an experience of how to almost lose the plot. However Adaptation is a much stronger film in my opinion, dealing as it does with a single episode of writing to meet a deadline.

Short Cuts, the Robert Altman early 90s film, deals with a multiple-protagonist script. It was one of the first films to attempt a multiple-protagonist story in quite such a self-conscious way. It doesn't quite pull it off as it takes far too long to reach its conclusion. But it's a fascinating experiment into the multiple-protagonist genre. Crash, the Paul Haggis film a decade or so later, succeeds far more in maintaining the inner dynamics of a self-contained plot with a multiple-protagonist masterpiece dealing with a single theme: racism. Crash may be accused of being a bit obvious at times, but hey, you can't have everything.

The Player is another piece of Robert Altman magic, and in this one he doesn't overindulge in endless takes with celebrities. Okay, he does a bit, but his strong storyline about a writer who is ditched by a studio exec is brilliant. There are all sorts of in-jokes, starting with the opening 8 minute shot which is a homage to Orson Welles' 3 minute plus super-obvious set-up opening shot of A Touch of Evil. Film buffs will love it, as will writers who will enjoy seeing that sometimes even a callous movie exec can be outsmarted by a clever scriptwriter.

Speaking of Orson Welles, one has to mention Citizen Kane. So I've done that now. Let's move on.

Now for more modern films in which the scriptwriting is quite simply sublime. Little Miss Sunshine is a joy from the first frame to the last. It’s also a superb example of the multiple-protagonist genre without beating the viewer over the head with it. This script was written by Michael Arndt. Who, I hear you cry? That's what I'm talking about! Scriptwriters seldom get the credit they deserve.

Then there is Alan Ball's equally sublime American Beauty. Seldom have so many depths been plumbed in so short a time. No pun intended. This film consists of absolutely brilliant writing, creating characters which stay with the viewer forever. A modern classic if ever there was one.

Lastly, I'm going to end with two biopics which explode the genre of biographical film making. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is a work of sheer genius. Based on the book by Roger Lewis, screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely create a surreal, yet terrifyingly real, portrait of a man without a character of his own. It is quite exceptional and the film is a masterfully written one.

Another biopic I think is superbly well-written is La Vie En Rose. Written by Olivier Dahan (the director - oh and I can bet, from my experience with a “hands-on” director, thereby definitely hangs a tale) and screenwriter Isabelle Sobelman, this film recreates the world of a human being's psyche in an extraordinary way. The flashbacks and flashforwards are done so unobtrusively that one feels as if one is living the life of La Mome's herself. It is simply another modern classic.

Finally I'll end with a screenwriter's director. David Mamet's name is synonymous with films such as Glengarry Glen Ross and Oleanna but for me, his take on being a writer in Hollywood reaches comic proportions in the film State and Main. See it to know what it's really like to be a scriptwriter on a big Hollywood blockbuster. Brilliantly funny and extremely well written.

There are a few older classics that deserve mention. Forgot to say that Casablanca is one of those beautifully scripted films which endures and doesn't date. Thanks to scriptwriting brothers Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, from a script by Howard Koch and Casey Robinson who remained uncredited.

And we can't leave out North, by Northwest, written by Ernest Lehman. Actually, this opens the door for all the Hitchcock films, such as Psycho and others. That makes me think of more perfectly written films from that era and I might go on forever. But I'll stop here and just say that it's such a pity that the names of the writers of most of these films, unless they are directed by the writers themselves, remain unknown to the majority of movie-goers.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Crowd-sourcing campaign for SA film

Crowd-sourcing campaign for SA film

Great article on Screen Africa today about the campaign on IndieGoGo. Last four days left!! Make sure you become part of this historic venture.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Crowd-funding - what in the IndieGoGo am I doing?

Crowd-Funding/Sourcing – Is this the new way to make your movie?

I was lucky enough to encounter Peter Broderick at the Producer’s Forum at the Durban Film Mart this past weekend. He was talking about crowd-funding/sourcing. Peter is President of Paradigm Consulting in the United States, which helps filmmakers and media companies develop strategies to maximize distribution, audience and revenues. He has been an advocate of the ultra-low budget feature film movement and is a passionate advocate of digital film making.

The following piece is put together from notes I made during his impressive presentation at the DFM.

Crowd-sourcing/funding is a concentric way to make money but it is vital that you think of your AUDIENCE before you start you funding campaign. Remember that you have to do everything you can, use every marketing tool in the book, to create AWARENESS of your project. Broderick quoted some examples of how to do this:

• One producer incorporated a number of educational grants into his funding campaign so that the charity aspect of his drive could be emphasised and used to generate goodwill.
• Another successful group put their trailer online and invited people to remix it.
• A woman who wanted to fund her around-the-world yacht trip offered different rewards for certain amounts of money. If people donated $10, she promised them a Polaroid photo taken along her journey. $50 earned them a coconut sent from one of her destinations, and so on.
• Jennifer Fox, who crowd-funded her very personal project called My Reincarnation, sent personal thank-you letters to every single person who donated funds, from the smallest amounts of money to the largest sums.
• Some producers offered Co-Producer Credits for a certain amount of Euros.

What is most important, however, is that the website you create to raise funds has to be FUN and encourage people to come back to the site. The more visitors you attract, the better your chances of raising funds. Don’t fall into the trap of making your website nothing more than a press-kit. NOTHING is more boring than the unchanging dynamic of a press-kit site. Broderick emphasised that it is imperative you keep the following in mind when creating your crowd-sourcing website:

• Fewer words, more PICTURES
• Rich VISUAL content relating to the movie
• Content must be constantly UPDATED – i.e. it must be dynamic
• Harness VIEWER’S INPUT in some way – people want to contribute
• Website must be PERSONAL and written in the first person
• A good VIDEO documenting the journey of the project is a must
• HUMOUR wins the day every time
• Utilize SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES to create awareness of your project

The filmmaker must give actual information about the project on the site. Remember, piracy isn’t your prime concern here but obscurity is. Broderick showed a video example from a Spanish project which raised its funds through crowd-sourcing. The project was called The Cosmonauts and used humour and youthful energy to introduce the genesis of the film to the future audience. He also quoted an example of Neil Gaiman’s The Price which used social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, especially utilizing the #BoingBoing hashtag to create awareness and to raise funds for production.

Broderick referred to a project created by self-confessed Finnish “nerds” who wanted to make a feature which was a spoof of Star Trek. They wrote a rough outline and put the rough draft online. This soon attracted a writer. They then asked for people to contribute special effects skills. In the end, 3000 people across 300 countries contributed to this project which resulted in a 108 minute feature called Star Wreck. 30% of all the images contributed to the film were donated by people around the world who were happy just to be associated with the project. They all received screen credit. The project cost 23 000 Euros in total. The makers of the film knew their audience. They appealed to a niche core audience of like-minded “nerds” such as themselves who would be delighted to contribute to a project they believed in. The final product is free to download but the makers of the film earned 20 times their original budget in revenue through DVD sales. Remarkably, even though everyone could download the film for nothing, people still wanted to own their own copies, especially if the film contained their names listed in the credits.

Another production which used crowd-sourcing successfully was an animation feature produced in Australia about global warming called Coalition of the Willing by Simon Robson. Twenty different companies produced different segments of the film which was made in thirty different sections. Even though each section has a different style, the film fits together as a cohesive whole.

Broderick emphasised that the best way to get people to support a project is if they contribute to the making of the project in some way. It allows them to feel part of something as large as a film.

Broderick spoke at length about host websites such as and both of which provide a platform to host crowd-sourcing/funding projects. Both sites set dates for budget targets to be reached. Kickstarter takes a certain percentage of the income as payment but IndieGoGo doesn’t.

Advice for a successful crowd-sourcing website:

• Write the website in the first person to build awareness of the film
• Create a vision for the website that may be bigger than the film
• The website must take on a life of its own
• Make things you can sell that relate to your film
• Create some sort of payback for visitors either through allowing them to download video streams or buy DVDs to related topics or even buy books on your site if they are of similar topics. (Broderick suggests you buy goods wholesale that you can sell retail on the website)
• Try to come up with give-aways or incentives to encourage donations
• Remember your objectives for the site are to build AWARENESS of the project and to RAISE MONEY. Bear this in mind at all times.

Broderick closed the seminar by referring to one of the first ever cases of crowd-sourcing. The first Oxford English Dictionary was a literary example of the crowd-sourcing. People came together from all walks of life to contribute words to this enormous literary work. It is almost certain that none of them was paid.


Monday, December 05, 2011

Daily News

Daily News

Fantastic post - the lead story on The Call Sheet!

Shot at the Big Time is going great guns!