My biggest goal with this story was to start by introducing Adianna as a relatable person. My collaborators wanted to start with the day she went into foster care, but I felt like we needed to see her first as a person that we can identify with and then as the person who faced serious hardships as a child. In the Heroes Journey this is referred to as the “normal world.” It was good that I had this in mind and wrote it into my creative brief because I had to come back to it several times and remind folks to start with her as a normal person. I think having that clear idea really paid off. It was a tool that I could return to and remind us that we needed to see her first as a normal kid facing extraordinary circumstances.
We also started with one editor who took our notes and really just gave us what we asked for literally without using their skills as an editor. Our second editor took what we’d filmed and really brought it to focus. It’s incredible how much of a difference the right editor can make. We'd shot all the footage with a very emotional interview. We just needed our editor to help focus the visual elements.
This was a collaborative effort between our amazing cinematographer, the editor, me the director and our incredible subject who was really honest with her story.
Even though I've collaborated on films my whole life, this project really reminded me of the importance of letting go and trusting the genius of your collaborators. The director keeps the ship moving in the right direction and keeps the story focussed, but it will only become amazing when each collaborator can bring their ideas and craft to the story.
How do you stay inspired in the face of rejection? The Los Angeles Latino Film Festival rejected my short film, Carlos Bravo.
You get back to work. You show up. Steven Pressfield says obsessing over rejection or the outcome is a form of resistance. You fight resistance by Turning Pro. The pro reads the rejection, feels it, and shows up the next morning. Some days I buy that, some days I don’t.
Today’s showing up involves reviewing the photos I took at the Watts IV Head Start early last week. My intention was to find relationships in the photos.
Here are my thoughts on relationships from these photos. There is relationship between two people. The students talking to the teacher or racing with each other. There is relationship with the photographer when they pose for me. And, there is relationship with an activity, like the little girl working with her blocks. They could do all three relationships — one another, with me, and an activity. But I like this as an organizing principle of photos. I’ll explore it further.
I think it was Henri Cartier-Bresson who said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Be careful of taking pictures of children because they’re cute and you can get distracted in cuteness and not make a good picture.” I couldn’t find the quote on Google so I might be remembering it wrong. That said, I get the point. Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau have some wonderful photos of children in Paris. When I go out to take pictures of the kiddos at CII’s Head Start sites it’s so easy to focus on the kids' cuteness. I find that I have to give myself an assignment for the photo session to tell a story.
This past week I went to the Compton Head Start. I tried to look for relationships. I also tried to find lines. I wanted the plane of the sensor to be parallel to the plane of the background. That said, I still struggled to find a purpose. I felt like I was just chasing around the kids and snapping dozens of photos. I felt lost. But when I came back to the office I remembered an article I recently read about a woman who was using her edit process to copy what a Fuji x100v. So I thought, what if I picked a color look and did it to all the photos. I went for a hyper saturated social media look. It’s not a technical term and I can’t 100% explain it but it was a look. Below is what I got. Today I’m going to our Stanford Head Start and I’m going to focus on “connection between children and teacher.” I don’t know what that means…yet.
Lately I’ve been feeling like I need to reflect more on my video and photo projects. It's too easy to rush from assignment to assignment, idea to idea, without thinking about what I've learned from each one and what I want to do next. I realize that what drives me to create is learning craft and exploring ideas. Being focussed solely on finishing tasks detaches me from the main reason I got into this game and makes me feel empty.
So I’ve decided to revisit some recent projects and express the challenges I faced, the lessons learned, and some thoughts for a next project.
The first project to review is the video profile I created for Rosanna Perez. We released it in five chapters over social media, but I have it here as one complete story. I love the interview. She was so honest and open. I love the images of her walking around LA.
This reflection made me think that I want to tell the story of a head start teacher who grew up in South LA, teaches there now but attended LMU or another West LA school. I want to see images of her walking through her South LA neighborhood. Some visual images like colorful neighborhood stores, parks, a residential street. The beaches near LMU. I want to use a gimbal to follow her, a slider to connect her to images of her neighborhood and her. I want some pretty city compositions. I want some really wide shots of the city with her walking into frame.
I do it to discover. At first it was because I wanted to be a wise man sitting behind a desk, in front of a crowded bookshelf, dishing out wisdom. In college I felt so clueless about life. Writers on TV seemed to say such deep things. I thought, “Hell, writers are the ones that know the secret to life.”
But over the years I’ve been humbled to understand writers are not always that wise. Maybe their work expresses wisdom but it’s not because the writer feels all knowing all the time. In fact, most of the time the writer is filled with doubt. So trying to be and feel wise was not a good goal. I realized the part I like about writing is the same reason that I’d want to try a new hiking trail. To discover.
Writing something — a short film, TV show, or screenplay— starts with an impulse, a bit of dialogue, a scene from something that happened to me, a strong feeling from being dumped, or falling in love. I then delve into the story everyday. Right now, it’s one hour every morning. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll discover some wisdom in the story. But it’s never the intention. If I don’t feel like I’m exploring and discovering something new, the story loses its vitality. I’ve seen that happen with a well calculated outline. When I was rewriting But She Wasn’t Perfect for PixL, the executive and I would have long discussions and I’d develop an outline. Then I’d sit down to write and the thing would have no life. Then again, you can’t just sit down and start writing a screenplay, because it does need to have a goal and place to go. But, it also needs to have space for adventure and discovery. And that’s why I write.
When I first started writing Funny Brown People it was titled, Getting to White. I still like that title although few other people shared my enthusiasm. To me, Getting to White meant trying to fit in, trying not to be different anymore. When I took these photos for Funny Brown People's promotional material I was just trying to take what I thought were sitcom family photos.
When I needed to submit some photos for a Perception of Beauty assignment at UCLA, I saw these photos in a new light. If you are Latino, this could be your cousin's family photos. But put these up as movie or TV poster and suddenly it's revolutionary. OK, maybe I'm getting carried away. But at least they're not what you usually see on a poster. This made the whole Getting to White thing seem very wrong. We're not trying to get to white, we're trying to be our version of the American sitcom family.
For the past 19 years I've surfed Bay Street Beach in Santa Monica most Saturday mornings. In that time I've made friends with fellas who frequent the spot. For the final project in my Photography II class at UCLA Extension I decided to point that camera at the boys and their boards. I tried to give very little direction and work with them to make the picture. I used one strobe and a soft box to illuminate their faces. I even took a selfie.
A good scene, a good story, a good script needs escalation. What is escalation? An increase in tension between what the character wants and his ability to get it. It can come from an increase in the stakes or jeopardy or finding out the character has less time. Jerónimo goes to tell his son that he needs to stand up to the school yard bully and as he does, Jerónimo is bullied by his own boss in from of his son. Now not only does he have to encourage his son to stand up for himself, but he himself has to stand up to his boss. The initial goal is replaced by an even bigger, more challenging goal for the hero. It can also be described as a reversal and it’s the juiciest element of drama. We can always revert to chisme, good chisme, for an example.
“You’re not going to believe it, but Hilda’s daughter is pregnant,”
“No me digas. The one who is so involved at the church?”
“Yes, that one. And it gets worse, the father is Hilda’s sister’s husband.”
“The doctor? Dios mio.”
“They met in the church choir. Can you believe that?”
“If her grandmother was alive, this would kill her.”
It's your job as a writer to create characters in a screenplay. Memorable characters are flawed yet have strong wants that propel the action of the story. Memorable characters that come to mind are Alvy Singer, Michael Corleone, Max Fischer, John Ferguson, Tony Soprano amongst a few. As a writer you imagine the character and put him on the stage of your screenplay. The biggest challenge is that once you've created the character you need to let them act consistently. In all my years of reading aspiring writers' scripts, I've noticed that the biggest script flaws are rooted in the writer dictating the characters actions and not the character dictating actions. When you read writer-dictated characters, the story feels false. It's hard to feel empathy when a character isn't acting as we think they should. This is why I've found working with good actors in script development can be very useful. They immediately catch when the character is being false or untrue to the character you've created true nature. I feel like as a writer you always want to see your character in some "cool" situation that will be visually amazing. But this forces the character to act in an untrue way. Writing from the characters perspective is incredibly hard and a talent that I think determines writing success. It's like when an actor feels they need to add some flare to words to be interesting. We watch that and it feels fake. Just being real and in the moment is so entertaining. It's hard to accept that and do it.
When writing a script, it's important that the character arc over one personal issue in the story -- this can be a value or institution like marriage, adulthood, fatherhood, or commitment. It's easy to start with a character who has issues with commitment and then end it with him getting over issues of pride. What you decide as the outcome and how this character evolves over this one issue, is the theme of your story. Why does it have to be one issue? That's what's satisfying to the audience. It came to me while taking my wellness walk around the Historic Filipinotown where I work. I thought, "Here I am walking up a hill and it's costing me lots of energy. That payoff is easier when I get to coast and walk down hill. That's my payoff." If I were to walk up this hill and then time warp -- this is what bad screenwriting does -- to another part of town and continue walking uphill, I wouldn't have earned the payoff for my audience. Hmm, but if I did go to another part of town and I did end up at a downhill or even flat place, wouldn't it be a payoff. Perhaps the metaphor isn't holding up.
The idea here is that an audience feels most satisfaction when it has earned the catharsis. So if a character is dealing with an issue of commitment and arcs on that, the audience will feel satisfied. If however, the character arcs on pride, they haven't earned the change or seen the character deal with pride and so it's not satisfying. The reason this is easily done, if that if you focus on writing to the external goal of the character, it's easy to forget the internal. That is, they might still be going after the same external goal throughout the movie, but arced or changed for different internal reasons. This is when the character arc isn't satisfying to the audience.