“I could see you fighting yourself to keep from grabbing the controls and doing the editing yourself.”
The struggle in question: watching a somewhat new filmmaker making the exact opposite edits than I would make, on more or less every frame, and dialoguing in my head “if only I could… Why doesn’t he…But he’s trimming the wrong way…”
But, contrary to my colleague’s interpretation, I would never try and take over. I’m a professional. Besides, the guy was working on Final Cut X, and I can’t imagine anything that would motivate me to jump into a project built on Final Cut X.
We’re at a pitch pilot workshop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, brought in especially by FINAS and MyDocs to work with regional talents shooting for the coveted international market, and building their pitch pilot trailers to do that. We have three days to pull four projects apart, and help their creators put them back together; better, stronger, faster. As my colleague put it, it’s about more than just a trailer or pitch, it’s about the film itself.
With no connection to the projects, no stake in them, we come in blind, knowing nothing except what we read in the proposals, and looking for clarity. Which, as is always the case, we don’t get from the first pitches.
“There’s this blind football team and it’s amazing to watch.”
“Great, what happens in the film?”
Or, after a 6 minute pitch that’s full of energy,
“So… It’s about?.. “
Several hundred questions later we got to the heart of his story; essentially about a shaman being stalked by the spirit that blessed him with healing powers, and laying the equivalent of a restraining order on that spirit through a healing process run by another shaman. The kind of project that makes me rub my hands together like a b-movie villain, because nothing gets me going like a story the creator knows everything about but can’t put into words.
Pulling an idea apart to build it back up is a tricky thing; a process designed to help creators make a dynamic story, while remaining true to what they wanted to say in the first place. As my colleague said to the shaman director, ”I’m your worst possible audience. I’m as earthy as they come, and I’ll never believe what you believe.” But that’s fantastic. An opportunity, and a path towards the deeper corners of the story.
One of the first questions I tend to ask is what drew the creator to that project in the first place. In his case it’s because he believes, in shamanism, in spirits, and in his character’s story. However, if he pitched it straight-faced and matter of fact : “this shaman is trying to make peace with the spirit that blessed him with healing powers,” it would be easy to dismiss him as a crackpot.
Our next question: “What happens in this world?” And as he discussed the practice and belief we only got more confused, still unclear about what the character really looks like (he’s shy), or any detail beyond what we imagine in our minds. Time to dive into the material.
We had to push him to show us footage of his main character, because he felt he hadn’t gotten close enough yet, that he needed more time to overcome the shyness. If we hadn’t pushed we wouldn’t have seen his character in the middle of a mad healing ritual, collapsing on the floor along with a bunch of others in a disorienting flow of camera work trying to keep up with the chaos. It’s a jumble, a mess, and a beautiful illustration of the wild, unpredictable nature of this ceremony.
And suddenly we had it.
As a pitch pilot trailer, that scene proved so much; that he has exclusive access to something totally unique, that he knows how to capture that material on the fly, and that there is a cinematic film there to be had. Leaving him with all that to stew in his head, we left him to dive back in.
In the end, he figured out that he still had lots of work to do during the pitch. He clung to the matter of fact strategy in his verbal pitch, without answering the huge questions raised by the trailer. The audience had no idea what the film was about, but they were intrigued by what they’d seen. He had two choices then: to reign in the madness and make a more conventional trailer to better align with his words, or to do what I always encourage creators to do: use the trailer to ask a question, then answer that question in your words.
Pitching is an art, and how you convey information to your audience tells them a lot about how you do it in your films. If the pitch is all about information then it might be interesting, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how your film will be put together. My own approach to this film would have been to frame it as an examination of faith through the story of one man tortured by his own. Acknowledge the skepticism in the room and give it a role in the film. Invite us to a zany place that just might make us question our own cynicism. Let us meet and listen to people who can articulate a faith that we have little to no understanding of. All we can really do is ask the creators questions, and hope that those questions aren’t too leading. They are after all their films.
When we introduced ourselves my colleague and I showed a few examples of trailers that we thought worked well. One of my choices was the one discussed in my last entry, and it got a hell of a lot of discussion going; of how much information to push through, how to use the pilot in a pitch, how to tailor the pitch to the pilot, how to leave the audience hungry for more: how to be an entertainer when you pitch.
At the risk of sounding like a snake oil salesman, that is in one sense what you have to be. You have to take what you are curious about and believe in, and anticipate what others will want to know about it. You need to consider what you think will happen in the story and run with it. Go down the rabbit hole of your story world and mine it for the richest scraps you can. What drives the characters? What flaws do you see? How do you film someone who’s shy? How do you get us to understand what it’s like to play blind football?
If I’m doing my job my well of questions is bottomless. If the creator is doing theirs, they’ll answer those questions and more in the film.