Best Psychology in Film

Kat Marshall Woods

We love them. We hate them. We’re vexed by them. We’re terrified by what they might do next. Whether the characters in movies and television shows melt into our hearts or get under our skin, there’s no denying that “reel life” psyches leave an indelible imprint on our “real life” perceptions. In her new book, Best Psychology in Film, author Katherine Marshall Woods, Psy.D. shares her expertise regarding exploration of the psychological dynamics found within Oscar winning and nominated films. Whether one is behind the camera, acting in front of it or sitting in the audience watching the finished product, the book’s takeaway value on what makes a compelling film “tick” is priceless.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: What attracted you to psychology as a profession?

A: From early childhood I was attracted to psychology. I recall asking my mother what profession would allow me to sit and listen to an individual’s problems and help people. From that time on, psychology was my focus with the goal of being an integral part of people’s healing. I believed it would be an honor to hear individuals’ stories that ranged from happiness to pain and allowed the opportunity to be trusted with such intimate information. I have not been disappointed; it has been my honor to serve my patients in what I hope has been as meaningful to them as it has been for me.

Q: Given the diversity of specializations in this field, what types of experiences have been the most influential in shaping your career?

A: What a difficult question! I feel that all of my work has influenced me to become the professional I am today. Whether I provided services within academic settings, mental health hospitals, outpatient treatment programs, private practice, or the Middle East, or teaching university classes with doctoral students, I can easily track how each of these experiences have honed my professional skills and developed my professional self. With the array of experience I have been afforded, I feel now well equipped to apply what I have learned to screenwriters who are in the midst of developing themes and developing their characters as it pertains to psychological dynamics and interpersonal interactions.

Q: Psychology and film make for an interesting combination. How have you connected these two fields?

A: My main interest has been to share what psychology has to offer to those naturally interested in the field and in a manner that is inviting to those who give little attention to psychology in an effort to spark curiosity. Using film, a source of entertainment, to illustrate psychology in a welcoming way has been ideal to marry the two fields.

Q: You also have a background in media. Tell us about it.

A: My first employment included working with children and building a semester curriculum to teach a class. I chose Cartoon Education, a class for children to view cartoons together and discuss the morals found within the episodes. Thereafter, I became employed as an intern at a national insurance company within their visual communications department. There I learned how to perform numerous media activities, teleprompting, editing, etc. Since becoming a psychologist, I have been frequently asked to be the talent/expert. Stepping onto the set always feels like coming home.

Q: What inspired you to develop Best Psychology in Film?

A: For several years I wrote for American Psychological Association’s journal, PsycCritiques regarding psychology and film. In an effort to share these ideas, I began contributing with The Huffington Post and Medium. For the last years, I have continued to contribute to Medium and now Thrive Global. Best Psychology in Film became a way to share these ideas with my readers who wished to think deeply regarding the films they enjoyed.

Q: What governed your focus on films which were nominated for Academy Awards and those that won within a specific year?

A: The Academy Awards is a time of the year when people congregate to films. Whether it is for the fashion displayed on the red carpet or an interest in the films deemed as extraordinary; these films have been most likely viewed and discussed. Because these films were recommended by such an esteemed organization with many viewers support, I felt Best Psychology in Film might capture those works that would be able to include many people in the discussion. Otherwise, it is suggested in Best Psychology in Film that one might view the film prior to reading the associated chapter to personally relate to the book.

Q: What chapter/film was the most enjoyable for you to conceptualize using psychological theory?

A: Chapter IV: La La Land. This film was surprising to me. Though I very much enjoy musicals, I admittedly lacked excitement to view this film. It was also a film that I initially lacked a clear link to the psychological theory that would be best suited to explore. However, after multiple viewings, I found myself seduced by the characters’ passions, determinations and support of one another. I was hooked; singing and poorly performing dance routines in my home! Once the dancing began, the psychological theory was soon to follow.

Q: What are your three favorite films that you remain most intrigued by psychologically?

A: The Shining (1980) as this film highlights the presence of psychotic symptoms budding in an individual (Jack Torrance, performed by Jack Nicholson) and the presence of an early onset of psychosis in his son (Danny, acted by Danny Lloyd); Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) that depicts the hardships on a single mother providing for a child and four elderly grandparents made light by the hopes and inspirations of a young boy who wins the opportunity to view paradise in fantastical chocolate factory and The Color Purple (1985) that illustrates the effects of generational and cultural trauma.  All of these films, I could watch a million more times than I already have only to learn of additional psychological theories that apply.

Q: Does Art imitate Life or does Life imitate Art?

A: Honestly, I think both occur. The beauty of art is that it documents life, what it has been and what it is presently. In concert, art also offers possibilities of what life can be. And when art makes suggestions regarding how the world can be, it has the power to inspire its viewers and support change; allowing life to imitate a different reality, one that art proposes as an alternative.

Q: What do you believe is the takeaway value of Best Psychology in Film for readers? And for Hollywood?

A: I am hopeful that readers will take that psychology is an unavoidable aspect in our lives. Psychology is indeed the study of individuals and the way in which we navigate our world. If this is agreeable, I believe the art of film that strives to visually share individuals in their most natural and complex states can benefit from considering the psychology within the themes and characters to create richer productions.

Q: Despite the fact there has been no shortage of crises, tragedies and conflicts throughout the world in recent months, the Los Angeles Times gave much more front-page ink during the month of May to the final season of Game of Thrones than to actual news. In your view, what has driven the obsession of fans to care more about the fate of fictitious characters in fictitious realms than events transpiring in real life?

A: Consistent, structured investment. Game of Thrones has been a collection of narratives that have included the intensities of human nature. Using fictitious realms, animal and human-like creatures have allowed for the stories to become a vehicle to engage the adult fantasy mind. This series has been an outlet for many to feel similar as the characters and wrestle with similar conflicts (typically less intense than depicted in the series) of love, faithfulness, loyalty, humiliation, torture, war and rage. Being based in fiction allows for the viewer to engage in such conflicts and primitive raw behaviors in the safety of our own living areas while being entertained.

Q: Briefly, what was the process that led to your being hired for film projects?

A: Initially, I was requested to be an expert psychologist upon documentaries and was asked to take the role of a psychologist in a scripted series. Thereafter, I was asked to review scripts for writers, provide a psychological perspective upon the work, ensure the representation of psychology and interpersonal exchanges represented a realistic experience and provide set accuracy when there was a psychological scene (i.e. ensuring a therapist’s office appeared accurate). Since, I have offered my services through PsychMinded Media, a business created to house this work.

Q: As a psychologist, do you limit your consultation to films which have a psychological aspect?

A: Absolutely not.  I am a strong believer that psychology is all around us. It is within every interaction we have with others and when we are taking part in our own solitude.  Because psychology is ever present, I have had the privilege to consult on films that do not have an overt psychological aspect.

Q: When you’re not writing and consulting, what do you do for fun?

A: There are four activities I faithfully turn to for enjoyment: quality time with my husband and dog, visiting my neighboring organic farm to harvest and take in nature, exploring unfamiliar places and resting with a Vogue magazine for inspiration!

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: Currently, I am consulting on a number of short film productions, offering psychological perspectives of films upon panels pertaining to cinema works and conceptualizing my next book publication.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Cinema and media works have great power to display individuals in a manner that captures the richness of the human condition. It has been amazing to be a contributor in this industry while using my love for psychology to offer greater authenticity to the work. I am hopeful that I will remain as fortunate in the future!

 

 

Off-Screen with Loretta Swit

SWITHEART

It’s a fact of life. At 79, there is no one on the planet who can rock a tube of red lipstick better than Loretta Swit. Although she’s well known by many for her roles in stage, film and television productions (most notably Major Margaret Houlihan in M*A*S*H), it’s almost eclipsed by her passionate talent for painting and her international reputation as an advocate for animal rights. Art and activism find a happy marriage in the release of her new book, SwitHeart, a coffee table edition of 65 full-color paintings and drawings, 22 photographs, and anecdotes about the furry and feathered friends that inspire her.

As she confided in our recent interview, “The toughest part of the book was deciding which images to use. My publisher, Mies (Hora), and I have concluded that we’re just going to have to do another one so as to fit everyone in!”

Proceeds from the book (which is available at SwitHeart.com) are donated to her ongoing campaign to end animal cruelty and suffering across the country and around the world.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: You first discovered your passion for painting when you were six. How have you sustained that passion for all of these years?

A:  By painting, of course, you silly twit! If I’m sitting still, I’m doodling. Constantly! I had a touch of insomnia last night and was thinking about the latest painting I’m working on. I was up until 3 am. Sometimes things just happen. They occur. It could be a stroke or a color or even a background that suddenly makes a painting pop in a way it wouldn’t have in any other context. It’s an incredible journey for me and I sustain my love for painting … by painting! If I’m away from it or if I’m busy traveling, as soon as I can I get back down to it, it’s the first thing I want to do. It’s really not anything regimented. I see something, I’m moved by it, and it becomes my next project.

Q: After you won your first prize for art at such a young age, did you ever think of making that your career?

A: Looking back, it was kind of a cartoony sort of thing. I stalked my mother through the house until she finally agreed to submit my drawing. The next thing I knew, I won! My prize was a cute little pirate’s chest bank. I kept it for years—it was really adorable. It was thrilling for me at six years old to be recognized. As for thinking art could be my career, though, no. Never. Art is something I do the same way I breathe or sleep and it will always be a part of my life. But I also always knew I wanted to be an actor. This is what I wanted, this is what I’m doing and I can say that I’m living the dream. Other people go on vacations. What I do is my vacation because I love being there so much. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to combine wonderful travel with my work. When you’re doing evening work like being in a play, you have time during the day to paint and that’s where you’ll find me.

Q: How does your approach to painting compare/contrast with your approach to acting from a preparation and emotional perspective?

A: For me, they’re different but they both require craft. For instance, I’m a self-taught painter and I’m a hard-working, craft-oriented teacher. I believe in having a strong foundation of craft for your method, for your approach to whatever work you’re doing. There’s nothing mystical about acting but it’s infinitely interesting to me because it’s the study of human behavior. You never really know yourself inside and out because there’s always some new discovery for you. You evolve, you change, you’re affected. When it comes to painting, I very often feel that a higher power reaches out and guides you. For example, I only paint in watercolor and I feel that with watercolor you need the discipline to step back and quit. Otherwise, you can muddy and actually ruin your painting. Not so with oil painting where you have lots of do-overs.

I have had the almost spiritual feeling of something being produced by inspiration and intuition, tweaking colors here and there and then saying, “Did I just do that? That’s really good.” That said, I’m a very harsh critic of my own work. Maybe more lenient as I get older but I’m always taking into consideration that I am self-taught and have learned quite a lot over the years. I think if you’re earnest and committed and it’s a sincere effort, there is always even a small part of every painting that will speak to you and affect you. I compare this to movies. Maybe the movie overall isn’t that great but there’s a moment in it—even a small moment or scene—that stays with you long after it’s over.

Q: Which do you feel is more of a challenge – to act in a live play where there are no “do-overs” in front of an audience (no matter what goes wrong) or to act in a TV series where storylines are not only shot out of sequence but the same scenes are done multiple times as well?

A: They’re both challenging and they both have different rewards. I prefer the stage because I love the size of it. I love the feeling that I’m shot out of a cannon! I love to journey with the audience and feel that we experience all of those moments together and for the very first time. Therein lies tremendous challenge because even if you’re in a long-running show and have been saying the same lines over and over, the people in those seats are seeing and hearing something that’s brand new to them. What you’re creating is an intimate love story that invites them to get to know your character and witness how that character grows and evolves from start to finish.

In film, you’re shooting a character’s growth and feelings out of order, and it’s a huge challenge to know how it all works out without betraying that knowledge in the flow of nuance and energy the camera is capturing. Really good actors also don’t rely on the fact they can shoot a scene over and over until they get it right. I remember a story about Joanne Woodward where she was shooting a particularly emotional scene and something went wrong that required that entire scene to be reshot. She groaned about having to dig down to her toes and pull up all the energy again to re-deliver this highly-charged, high-voltage piece but that’s just what actors do. She was good, she was brilliant, and she was faithful to her craft.

Let me give you another example about attitude from a brilliant actor. Alan Alda. Alan and I were doing a scene we thought was really good. We finished and looked at each other, cheering about the moment of completion. Except something technical went wrong. We were directed to take the scene over again from the very top. We were so sure it was perfect. Arghghghgh! I couldn’t believe this was happening. Alan nudged me with his elbow and said, “Great! We get another chance to do it even better!” Now that’s a winning attitude I appreciate and I try to apply it to everything I do. You can always, always do it better the next time around.

Q: Actors are often warned against acting with children and animals because they will be ruthlessly upstaged. What, then, was it like for you to be a guest on The Muppet Show?

A: It’s like I died and went to Heaven! Seriously, the creativity was so thick and amazing that you couldn’t help but have a wonderful time. They flew me to London, put me up at the Dorchester, and I got to sing and dance around with a bunch of pieces of fur and felt and have the time of my life. I could rave about them forever.

Q: Favorite play you ever acted in?

A: It’s always whatever play I’m doing at the moment. Isn’t that what every actor says? Well, it’s true. I’m very fickle about that. I have a list of favorite plays, things I’ve loved that I completely adored. There are roles like Shirley Valentine that I went after before I had even closed the script. It’s a remarkable piece of theater written for a woman. I also loved doing Same Time, Next Year. Bernard Slade, in fact, wrote the first film I ever did so he really had me pegged to do the play. I loved the female character in it and, at that time, the play was very current in its notions about marriage and relationships. Too much has happened in our world since then to have the play current now but as a timepiece it’s an absolute jewel.

I also played Sister Aloysius in Doubt and Agnes Gooch in Mame and you couldn’t have had two characters farther apart! I think the more you have to stretch in different roles, the more fun it is for both you and the audience. I enjoyed doing Love Letters and The Vagina Monologues and Love, Loss and What I Wore—all fun stuff that was a joy to do and that I’d do all over again. It goes without saying that I loved M*A*S*H, too, because it was like doing a sweet little play every week with writers and actors I adored. It gave me the opportunity to work on a single character for an awfully long time and fortunately I had visionaries as producers who allowed me to continue to grow within that character. It was the first time in television that this actually happened, that Margaret continued to evolve, mindful of reruns and the order in which viewers would be catching the episodes.

Jeff and Loretta

Loretta at a Southern California book-signing with friend and actor Jeff Maxwell (aka Private Igor, the 4077th doofy cook).

Q: Had you seen the film version of M*A*S*H prior to the audition that won you the role of “Hot Lips?”

A: No, and it’s a funny story actually. I was in Hawaii at the time working with Jack Lord on Hawaii 5-0. By the time I came back, a lot of the flap about casting the TV version of M*A*S*H had already died down and I didn’t know they had already seen 200-300 women trying out for the part of Hot Lips. My then-agent called and asked me if I had seen the movie. When I told him I hadn’t, he said, “Great. No problem. Doesn’t matter.” He set up an appointment for me to meet Gene Reynolds, Larry Gelbart and Burt Metcalfe. He told me there wasn’t anything to prepare for or read and that it was just to show up.

My agent, meanwhile, had an offer for me to do a film with Olivia de Havilland which put me in orbit because I had always admired her. Out of courtesy, he called Fox to tell them he had had an offer for me to do a movie and that we were going to go for it if I didn’t get cast in the show because there was a conflict of dates.

Gene Reynolds told him, “Oh, we were just going to call you. We’ve decided to go with Loretta.” Anyway, I’ve been told that our series was closer to the book in terms of characters and episodic and, thus, closer than we ever were to the movie. After I got cast, there wasn’t really any reason for me to watch the film. Now and again I’ll be channel-surfing and catch what looks like the 4077th but it’s not really my M*A*S*H and I keep on going.

Q: In addition to an endearing ensemble cast, top-notch scripts and an artful blend of comedy and drama, M*A*S*H has the distinction of lasting longer on the air than the actual war it was depicting. Well over 30 years after the series finale, it’s still possible to channel-surf on any given day and find it playing in syndication. In your opinion, what accounts for the longevity of the show and its ability to resonate with viewers of all ages (even those too young to have watched it the first time around)?

A: Well, for one thing, the writing was superb and it just kept getting better and better. They also never repeated themselves. They kept coming up with one luscious idea after another and matching some of us together to see what would happen. Next came the extraordinary group of actors who also loved each other. You can always work on friendship and politeness but love is something that’s either there or it isn’t. It happened so deeply that, to this day, it’s the closest family I personally have ever had. We have always been there for each other. On the sad occasions when one of our own has passed away, we mourn them just as we would a flesh and blood family member and cry and hug and share favorite stories. That bond came across very clearly and without working at it in every episode we did. And audiences knew that.

There were also the core values the producers put forth, timeless values that hit people at just the right time and mindset to produce synchronicity. They were ready for a show about peace even though the backdrop of M*A*S*H was about war. Integrity, love, friendship, ambition—M*A*S*H had all of these things. It was about experts—expert doctors and expert nurses—doing their very best under the worst of circumstances. To be able to laugh at their clowning which was a relief for them and at the same time get a lump in the throat when things went wrong—it was a beautiful balance. Families could watch this show together because they trusted us and they trusted the writers to deliver something that was real, that was authentic and that reinforced the message we are all human.

Because we were on the air for so long, the children in those families grew up, got married, had children of their own and yet M*A*S*H is still a family thing. Our fan mail always reflected that. Little girls, for instance, who grew up to become nurses after the years of watching me play-act. For all intents and purposes, M*A*S*H was a sitcom—and I hate that word—but it was so much more. It was a slice of life and its own category that audiences trusted because everyone involved was giving their heart and soul.

It’s also funny that occasionally when I’m channel-surfing and I come across an episode, it instantly seduces me. I can sit there and recall in amazing clarity everything we were doing that day—whether I was needlepointing a pillow or Alan was playing chess with Mike. Sometimes I’ll even call my fellow actors and say, “Wow! Guess what I’m watching! Was this a great episode or what?” It’s almost like I’m seeing everything again for the first time and appreciating it even more.

Q: When actors play a particular role on TV for a long time, they can become so closely identified with their fictional personas that it can be challenging for audiences to accept them as anyone else. As the iconic “Hot Lips,” for instance, you were starring on Broadway in Same Time, Next Year at the same time M*A*S*H was on the air. Did you ever get a sense that the audience was murmuring, “Does Frank know about this?”

A: Never. Ever. Ever. And I can point to several reviews that support that. I remember one in particular—and I have to mention I was never someone caught up in reviews of my work—where a gentleman came up after a performance of Shirley Valentine and said, “I understand you don’t always read reviews. Well, I’d like you to read this one.” And it began, “If you’re headed to the theater in the hopes of seeing Margaret Hot Lips Houlihan, you’ll be disappointed in that way but joyous in being riveted for two hours and fifteen minutes by an actor on stage bringing so many different characters to life.” He took exception to people liking to come to the theater to see a television icon, but this goes back to my own relationship with the audience. If I believe in the character I’m playing, an audience will be swept along and believe it, too. If I do my best, the audience will respond to it.

Q: Speaking of painting, let’s talk about the gorgeous animals that fill the pages of your new book.

A: Yes, let’s. Enough about me. Let’s talk about them.

Q: Since furry and feathered subjects can’t sit still for a studio portrait like their human counterparts, tell us a little about the process you go through to capture their essence.

A: It’s a number of things, actually. It’s memory, it’s imagination. It’s doing a sketch of something I’ve seen, as well as working from photographs. Sometimes I’ll start a new project based on friends’ snapshots of their pets. Other times, I’ll draw inspiration from a picture in a calendar. Every painting in the book is accompanied by short stories about what inspired them.

The cover of the book, for instance, is my painting of a Jack Russell. He was a rescue pup from BIDE-A-WEE, which is the oldest animal rescue organization in Manhattan. I just can’t say enough good things about the remarkable work they do. Anyway, I was the recipient of five lovely little “mistakes” by two uneducated youngsters who knew nothing about spaying and neutering. Believe me, they know now! I took them to BIDE-A-WEE and they were fantastic in terms of giving them their shots, socializing them, and happily, placing them in forever homes. They scrutinize every adoption request thoroughly. In fact, it’s probably harder to adopt a dog from BIDE-A-WEE than it is to adopt a child from Russia.

Q: I’m assuming you had beloved pets when you were growing up?

A: I did indeed. My first little dog was named Cheetah. Seriously. Today I share my home with my little Yorkie and two 15-year-old cats. I was told the latter were littermates. My vet thought this was hilarious and said there was no way that cat parents could have produced a Siamese and a black and white tuxedo. I call Nubie—the black and white—my Velcro cat because he attaches himself to me and likes to just hang there while I walk around.

Q: Your love for animals and your passion to advocate for them go hand in hand. In general, how are we progressing in the fight to stop animal abuse, and if you could change any one aspect of this issue, what would it be?

A: First thing on the agenda would be to erase every single puppy and kitten mill off the map. It’s as disgusting as a bloodsport and a boil on the complexion of our society that we continue to allow these places to exist. Whenever we hear about one, we shut them down. Just as quickly, though, they pop up somewhere else. I have a friend who adopted a Yorkie that had been in a puppy mill. For the first couple of years, this poor little thing kept walking around in circles. They realized she was walking the perimeter of the cage she had grown up in through her whole ordeal as a baby machine. It’s a horror and the conditions are even more horrible.

Laws also need to be more stringent on what’s done with the “discards” from breeders, the dogs that don’t meet all of the standards to be show quality. This also goes along with the elimination of “backyard breeding”—another horrible and sad practice. Professional breeders have to pay a license to breed dogs but, of course, this doesn’t stop people from doing this in their basement and trying to make a profit from excessive inbreeding.

We need to step up in terms of educating people about the important of spaying and neutering. On top of that, if we can’t reach people on a compassionate level, it’s also costing tax-dollars every time an animal has to be euthanized. Multiply that by the millions of animals we put to death every year. We also need to ban the practice of selling dogs and cats at pet stores, many of which have come from mills. There’s no vetting of strangers who come in off the street and want to buy a live animal from a shop at the mall. Will those owners be responsible or will those “purchases” end up dead through no fault of their own?

Q: Tell me about the concept behind SwitHeart Animal Alliance and how your partnership with Mies Hora came about.

A: I absolutely adore Mies, mostly because he never disagrees with me! He’s a brilliant designer and editor and publisher and we couldn’t be prouder of this book. Funny story—Mies is Czech but for some reason I always assumed he was Dutch. Through the course of getting the book out there, I introduced him as Dutch. Well, he let me do it a few times and finally one day he said, “You know, I’ve been meaning to tell you that I’m actually Czech.” Down the road we were working on some marketing ideas and very mildly arguing about whose idea was better. “As a joke, I said, ‘you know, I think I really liked you better when you were Dutch!’ and we laughed and everything was fine from there. It has become our running gag and whenever we hit a roadblock, I tell him that I wish he was Dutch.

As for how it began, we met on a private plane on the way to Florida where I was receiving the Red Cross Humanitarian Award. I had my iPad out and he happened to notice some of my paintings. He asked if he could see it. He really loved them, we got to talking and everything just sprouted from there. The whole process took about a year—to me, it really doesn’t seem that long—but every bit of it was exciting in picking, choosing, writing, and defining what we wanted this book to say. Work is in progress on a second edition and—like the first one—proceeds from sales will go to give a voice to those who can’t speak for themselves.”

The Guerrilla Rep: American Film Market Distribution Success on No Budget

Guerilla_Rep_Front_Cover

In 1909, the first feature film produced in the United States was a four-reel production of Les Miserables. Producers, however, didn’t think that the American public could sit still for any movie lasting more than an hour and, consequently, released it that year in separate one-reel installments between the middle of September and the end of November. Over a century later, movies continue to captivate us…and that’s without even knowing the multiplicity of elements that not only go into getting those films made in the first place but also getting them in front of an audience. Ben Yennie, author of The Guerrilla Rep: American Film Market Distribution Success on No Budget, gives us a peek behind the magic curtain of modern cinema.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: When did you first know that you wanted to play a dynamic part in the making of movies?

A: Despite the fact that I’ve always loved movies, movie making came to me in a very roundabout way. For most of my high school years, I wanted to be a Special Education Teacher. I had spent a lot of time volunteering with the kids in the high school’s program and I thought that was the direction I wanted to head in. At the time, my high school required every senior do a senior project. I had taken a video production course at the beginning of the year and decided that I would do a video on how to take care of one of the kids who was transitioning into a nursing home. While I was editing the video, I realized that I liked the process of filmmaking more than I liked the subject I was making the video on. So, I decided to go to film school.

Q: Did you originally see yourself as an actor, director or producer?

A: As with many others who enter film school, originally I saw myself as a writer/director. I had a knack for writing scenes, but pretty shortly into film school, I realized I was a really talented producer. I loved the social end of producing, and enabling creative people to be creative. As I went further into film school, I found that I understood finance very well for a filmmaker. The processes behind distribution and finance fascinated me. With that in mind, I transitioned more towards the deal-making end of producing. One thing led to another and eventually I ended up as a Producer’s Rep.

Q: Who or what were the influences that crystallized the choice for you?

A: One of the biggest influences was my first producing teacher, Bill Brown. He was also the person who got me to go to the American Film Market the first time. It was really under his tutelage that I took those first steps towards being a producer. There really aren’t many people who go to film school to be a producer. It’s not all that surprising, given most film schools’ producing programs aren’t all that good.

Q: What’s the best industry advice anyone has ever given you?

A: It’s cliché, but it really boils down to this: the film business is really about who you know more than what you know. The film industry relies heavily on social capital. If you are well liked and have good relationships with powerful people in the industry, you’re going to be far more likely to find success. The reason you go to the American Film Market is to meet the people you want to know and establish relationships with them. But remember, while you want to know a lot of people, the real trick is knowing the right people. In order to know the right people, you need to build a good reputation.

Q: So tell us how you made the transition from filmmaker to entrepreneur.

A: Well, if I’m honest, it’s not much of a transition to make. Filmmakers and entrepreneurs have a lot of the same skills. They’re both able to assemble a team, lead that team through long hours, and overcome any obstacle to create a product. However, filmmakers often lack a thorough understanding of marketing, sales, or financing. I happen to be fascinated with these aspects, so the transition was pretty natural. After putting in some time at The Institute for International Film Finance, I was able to see where the existing educational system was lacking and help to create a company that enables filmmakers to pursue a career independent of the studio system.

Q: What do you know now that you didn’t know then?

A: There are two things. The first, success is not a sprint, nor is it linear. It’s a long journey with many ups and downs until eventually something takes off. You just need to keep going, keep trying, and do whatever you can to pursue your goals. It’s not about your daily progress, or even your weekly progress. It’s about your monthly, quarterly, and yearly progress. The most important thing you can do is keep your long term goals in place, and try to move them forward a little bit every day. You can get discouraged if you don’t feel better off than you were yesterday. If you keep building, you’ll grow a little bit every month and year.

The second thing is that as you go, you’ll realize your own imperfections and want to change them. If you really want to move past them, then just decide to do so. Committing to massive behavioral modifications overnight is unlikely to stick. It’s far better to focus on being just a little bit better every single day. Even if you’re only 1% better, it will accumulate over time into massive, sustainable transformation.

Q: Tell us how you ended up as a producer’s rep and what, exactly, does this involve.

A: I have a few relatively rare and highly valuable skills in the film industry. Agents tend to like me, as do many of the distributors I’ve worked with. When it comes down to getting the film in the can, there are thousands upon thousands of details that need to be sorted out, and I lose interest. So, I focus my efforts on helping filmmakers navigate the waters that are generally choppiest, and require a highly specialized skill set that I happen to have a knack for. There are plenty of filmmakers who can make a great film, there are far fewer who understand how to market those films and help them actually make some money.

I shifted focus to enable people to create films and get them distributed. And that’s what a producer’s rep does. He or she’s essentially an agent for filmmakers and films, helping them get packaged, funded, and distributed. I’m still new to this, so I concentrate on packaging and distribution over financing. Financing is a place I’d like to move into in a few years though.

Q: Since you focus on distribution and finance, do you ever miss making films?

A: I do occasionally. But, honestly, I’m more interested in episodic content at the moment. I think that’s the way the market’s heading and I have a few ideas that I’m currently developing. Nothing will be ready for prime time for quite a while, though.

Q: Why did you decide to start going to The American Film Market?

A: I started going to AFM on a recommendation by a friend and mentor, Bill Brown. It took a few years, but eventually I took his advice and booked a greyhound bus ticket to LA. I stayed in a shared bathroom hotel with my then producing partner, and did it on as tight a budget as was humanly possible. The next two years I attended were even more successful. By my fourth year, I had 55 screener requests for the 5 films I was repping. Success builds upon itself.

Q: This month marks the debut of your first book: The Guerrilla Rep: American Film Market Distribution Success on No Budget. What inspired you to write it?

A: A lot of the inspiration was from some continual good-natured ribbing from another good friend and mentor, Tony Wilkins. I attended a workshop of his, where he spoke of how he wrote his first book and then encouraged me to write my own. After a few months, I finally decided to write it. Now, just under a year later, I’m a published author!

Q: So where did the name for it come from?

A: I was on the floor at AFM introducing myself, and I met a fairly powerful series creator who ran a fairly big crime show on Fox. I introduced myself as Ben, and said I was a Guerrilla Rep. He loved the name, and we entered into a bet on who could make money with it first. Well Tony (different Tony), I win.

Q: Give us a brief teaser of what readers can expect to find inside its pages.

A: My own ego aside, the most useful things in the book are probably the parts I didn’t write. The contributions from the 6 distributors and the extended interview with Daisy Hamilton are the best part of the book. It’s practical advice on distribution straight from the horse’s mouth. The first 16 chapters are relatively in depth pieces of practical advice on how to find success at the American Film Market, mixed with some personal anecdotes and advice garnered on the floor of AFM. However, the really useful information is the tips from the distributors and financiers.

Q: What did you learn about yourself over the course of writing the book?

A: I had a fair amount of detractors when I started writing who said that there’s no way I could add anything useful to a book. I almost caved to them. What I learned over the course of writing the book was that I really do understand the subject matter, and on this particularly narrow field, I am something of an expert. It’s definitely a bit of a transition to that role, but it’s an exciting and rewarding one. There’s an excellent quote by Flannery O’Conner that says “I write to discover what I know.” Writing this book allowed me to discover that I know a lot more than I thought I did.

Q: The film industry is really tricky to break into. What motivates you to keep going?

A: That’s a really good question, and I honestly wonder myself sometimes. There’s this sort of compulsion some people have to create. Storytelling is just in some people’s blood, and some of those storytellers gravitate towards the tools that only visual media have. Personally, I love the feeling of being plopped into a sensory deprivation tank and being told a story with moving images, and being a part of that is really exciting for me. I think within every filmmaker lies a dreamer, and it’s the dream that keeps us all going. For me personally, I love being someone who helps people’s dream come true. There’s a certain magic in that.

Q: What qualities do certain filmmakers have that make you want to represent them?

A: There are a few qualities I look for when considering whether or not I want to represent a client. The first is honesty. If you lie to me, I’m not very likely to work with you. If you continually misrepresent yourself, then I’m not likely to invest my time in you either.

The second is stamina and dedication to a project. Filmmaking is a marathon, not a sprint, and if I’m repping you, I need to know you’ll be there to help us promote. The world of filmmaking is becoming more and more about building a community and a fan base around yourself, and if you want to have success, you need to make yourself a part of it.

The third, and the holy grail, is some sort of talent and creativity. Just because you have the tools to say something doesn’t mean you have something to say. However if you have this in spades but not the other two, I can’t help you. This is a business, and business relationships rely on trust.   I need to be able to trust you and know that you’ll deliver on what you say you will. So while you need to have all three of these things for me to work with you, talent and having something to say is not the be all and end all of my search for good clients.

It’s surprising, but it’s not always the best film that lights up the festival circuit. It’s the one that can generate the most buzz. This factor needs talent and creativity, as well as hard work and dedication.

Q: If you could change anything about the industry, what would it be?

A: Honestly, I hate the current power structure. The fact that the industry functions on back room dealings at restaurants and film festivals is far from desirable. The general lack of transparency is alarming, and keeps new money from entering the business at the rate necessary for sustainable growth. If you don’t have an in to the industry, it can be very difficult to break in. I really don’t like the fact that if you piss off the wrong guy then your whole career can be kaboshed. I suppose this is true in any industry, but it’s particularly egregious in the film industry. One of my life goals is to disintermediate the industry, even by just a little bit. If I can do that through my ventures, then it’s a career well spent.

Q: Where do you think film production will be in the next 10 years?

A: At this point, even three years out is hard to predict. Ten years is nearly impossible to estimate, even for the most involved in the industry. But, since you asked, I’ll give a guess in broad strokes. If current trends continue, I think the really quality content is going to shift towards the episodic format and there will be an ever increasing focus on mobile and home based viewing. I think that finding success as a filmmaker will involve getting listed on some of the bigger aggregators and growing your own personal fan base to the point that you can build a stable income stream from selling your content to your fans. Then, the filmmaker will need to continue to grow by getting listed in festivals, larger aggregators, host community screenings, and work primarily independently of the major studio system.

Success will require filmmakers to build a cult of personality around their work, even more so than it currently does. The really difficult part will be rising above the ever-increasing level of white noise and oversaturation that’s flooding the market. In essence, the most valuable asset any aggregator or promoter will have is a truly engaged list. I think community and niche market distribution will be increasingly important, and a new realm of community screenings in atypical screening locations will become prevalent. Screenings in the backs of restaurants, schools, anywhere with chairs and a projector will be more and more common, and it will be on the filmmaker and promoters to spread the film.

Q: What would people be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: I’m absolutely addicted to Karaoke. I’m pretty far outside the standard demographic for it, but it’s probably my biggest vice. In fact, the launch party for The Guerrilla Rep will have karaoke. Just because I like it.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: Quite a lot. We’re really stepping up the game at The Producer Foundry, and I just got promoted to Vice President of Sales at Taal, a mobile app that enables employers to take video interviews on any iOS or Android device. I’m also still repping films, running a blog, and starting to develop the next book. I’m really excited about all of it, but less excited about the lack of sleep it’s sure to lead to.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

A: I’d just like to thank everyone who made this book possible. I’d also really like to thank you for interviewing me. I’m looking forward to reading Office For One. *

 

Interviewer note: Ben is one of several dozen experts who contributed fantastic chapter content to my upcoming business book targeted to today’s sole proprietors.

Your Screenplay Sucks

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For every movie that has ever been made, there are 14,023 writers who think they can pen something better. All right, maybe I’m exaggerating about that number but I’ve done script coverage on more than enough that have made me want to respond with the exact phrase William M. Akers so aptly snagged for his latest book. Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways To Make It Great is clearly one of the best checklists for aspiring screenwriters I’ve ever encountered. With 20 years of studio and network experience behind him, three films produced from his scripts, and 15 years at Vanderbilt as a screenwriting instructor in addition to globe-trekking workshops and story consulting, this consummate professional was enthusiastic to share his insights with aspiring screenwriters on how to hone their craft.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: When did the movie bug first bite you and what do you know now that might have been helpful to know at the beginning?

A: I went to graduate school at USC. One afternoon, I was sitting in the chairman’s office and he came out, having no idea who I was, and said, “Are you a screenwriter?”  I said, “Yes.”  He said, “Come in here.”  A producer had called and wanted one of his top screenwriting students to write a script. I got paid $1,500 to write a screenplay. It didn’t get made, but I was pleased to get paid. For my second script, I adapted a book that had been read to me in the third grade. That film did get made. It’s called The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It did nothing for my career, other than be able to say, “Hey, I got a movie made!” Three days before the film came out, the releasing company went bankrupt.

Basically, all I’ve ever done for money is write movies, teach screenwriting, and do script consulting.

What I wish I’d known then was how to be the writer I am now. There’s a conundrum.

Q: Which movie in your youth left the most indelible memory on you?

A: Sorcerer written by Walon Green from the novel by Georges Arnaud, and directed by William Friedkin. That’s the movie that got me into the movie business. It’s about guys hauling dynamite (that had sweated nitroglycerine) through 200 miles of jungle to blow out an oil well fire. The sequence where he drives the truck across the swinging bridge in the rain is still one of the finest pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. I saw it at the Green Hills theatre in Nashville, which had the largest screen of any theatre in the city. Friedkin has a documentary filmmaking background, and the movie seemed more real to me than anything I’d seen. When it was over, I felt like I had to go home and take a bath. I remember thinking, “I want to do that!”  My screenplay, 105 Degrees and Rising (and which Jon Amiel is attached to direct) is the closest thing I’ve ever written to that kind of material.

Were I to remake Sorcerer, I’d go back to the book’s title, The Wages of Fear and cast Benecio Del Toro for the Spanish hit man. I’d want Amidou, again, for the Arab terrorist. Thierry L’Hermitte would play the French financier and the lead, the American gangster, would be Robert Downey, Jr. We’d shoot in Mexico, end up great friends, and buy villas next to each other in Puerto Vallarta.

Q: Who were your mentors as you developed your craft and what were the takeaway lessons that you learned from them?

A: Wish to God I’d had one. Well, that’s not true. Ken Robinson, my USC filmmaking teacher, is someone I still go to with questions. Far and away the greatest teacher I ever had. I dedicated my book to him. Naturally, USC, in their immense wisdom, fired him.

Q: If you were stranded on an island (with electricity and all other amenities, of course) and could only take three movies with you, what would they be?

A: Hmmm. Do I want to tell the truth or do I want to look fancy-pants brilliant? Well, naturally, it would be My Ain Folk directed by Bill Douglas, Floating Weeds by Yasujiro Ozu, and Trains by Caleb Deschanel. “What an impressive list!” you’re saying, “I’ve never heard of those movies!  That Akers guy must be killer smart!”  And you’re no doubt correct. Okay, now the truth. Let’s assume I’ve got a 70 foot screen and my own projectionist, not just a DVD player and 52″ plasma TV. Ergo, Sorcerer, Lawrence of Arabia and Les Uns Et Les Autres.

I’ve seen Lawrence at least 10 times in theaters, in 70mm, and it always delights. Amazing everything – acting, editing, story, camera, character, scope. It’s my favorite movie and always has been. Les Uns Et Les Autres is the only movie I went to see two days in a row. I saw it on the Champs Elysées in Paris and it blew me away so I went back the next day. The fractured story style, told over generations, really works. I saw it in my twenties and was thrilled by every single frame. It’s not high falutin’, but it works for me.

Q: What are the three biggest mistakes wannabe screenwriters make when they set out to pen their first script?

A: They write something they don’t care desperately about, so when the going gets tough, they don’t have the yearning required to take the time to get it right. They underestimate the appalling competition, so they don’t realize how much honing it takes to get it right. They think this stuff is easy and don’t take the time to get it right.

Q: Somewhere along the wayside, people of all ages have lost sight of the importance of having good manners and/or thinking that rules apply to everyone else except them. Tell us about some of the protocols that absolutely have to be observed by writers if they’re serious about breaking into the business.

A: Everything your mother taught you, basically. Thank-you notes. Be polite. Don’t think you’re special and that the rules don’t apply to your screenplay. Understand that these days, silence means “No.”  Don’t bug people who are doing you a favor. Don’t get irritated at someone if they take six months to read your script. They’re doing you the favor, and you must never forget it.

Q: Where do good ideas come from and how do you really know if you have one that’s commercial?

A: If I could answer that, I’d live in a much bigger house.

Q:  Are certain genres easier for new screenwriters to break into than others? If so, what are they?

A: Beats me. New writers should write in genres they like to see in the theater. If you like to watch heist movies, write three or four of them. Because you understand the genre, you’ll know when you nail it.

Q: Which is worse – describing a character or setting in too much detail or leaving the reader to wonder?

A: What’s  the worst is being confusing. What’s the worst is making people read any words they don’t have to. Using too much detail in scene description is the #1 mistake beginning writers make. Tell us barely enough, and move on.

Q: Define “good clean writing” and what steps or exercises writers can do to achieve it.

A: First, start with poetry, or the Alien screenplay by Walter Hill and move in that direction from whatever style you’re using now. In my writing workshops, I’ve learned that too much detail is the bugaboo of all beginning writers. They see the movie in their head and want to put it on the page, which is admirable but wrong. Good, clean writing is:  If you take out one more word, the reader won’t understand what you’re trying to tell him. To clean up your writing, you have to go through it over and over with a red pen, reading it aloud, having other people read it aloud to you, until you can’t take anything out.

When I first started writing, I’d read a page out loud three times in a row before I’d move to the next page. If I made a single change, even a comma, I’d start over and read it again three more times. If I was on the third read and changed a word in the last line, I’d start over and read it three more times. It was unbelievably tedious, but I certainly tidied up my writing and sold the script, and it got made. So, gosh, it must be a good hint!

Q: Tell us about your book and what inspired you to write it.

A: Because I critique scripts for money, I read a lot of scripts. I found that most people made the same mistakes repeatedly and I began to feel bad telling people repeatedly not to have character names that rhyme, etc. The idea is that the client reads the book,  performs the checklist, and then sends me a script that’s in way better shape. We can then discuss plot, character, and story construction, as opposed to cutting the flab out of their action description.

Q: With so many sequels, prequels and remakes being churned out by Hollywood, it would be easy for writers to think that producers prefer to play things safe and not pursue anything fresh and original. What are your thoughts on that?

A: I can only write what interests me or what someone pays me to. What producers pay other writers to write affects me only when I go to the movies. Some producers (though fewer these days) still want interesting material. It’s never been an easy business. If you want it easy, marry money and divorce before you have children.

Q: Technology is shrinking the globe in terms of access to film production. Do you think it’s inversely expanding the opportunities for new screenwriters or making the playing field that much more competitive?

A: There are only so many slots in theaters. There are only so many movies people will find online.

You can use a flip cam or you can shoot in Super Panavision. Just because everyone can use a pencil to draw, doesn’t mean there are heaps of Michelangelos. No matter what, it all comes down to the screenplay. No matter how low the production cost, it’s still, on some level, expensive. If your script blows and you decide to make a movie, you’re about to waste your investor’s money.

Q: What do you love most about this business?

1.)  Writing is a wonderful way to pass the day. I spent last Saturday hauling creek gravel in a dump truck. While I waited for the truck to be loaded, I sat in the cab and line-edited a script. How great is that!  

2.)  That I can retire and have health insurance for the rest of my life. Yay!

3.)  Working with talented people is the greatest thrill there is.

4.)  That so many stunning women want to have sex with screenwriters.

Ah, well… three out of four’s not bad.

Q: Given the youth-oriented emphasis in Hollywood, does anyone over the age of 30 really have a chance of getting their script sold and produced? Why or why not?

A: I’m over 30. I just finished a rewrite for a producer and that film stands a good chance of getting made. When it goes out to talent, the actress may say, “This is a piece of garbage. I won’t be in this.”  What she will not say is, “This is fantastic material. I never get stuff this good to read. I can’t wait to be in this movie, cause– Oh, look. Wait. Ewwwww. The writer is over 30!  Forget this project. Next.”

At least, that’s what I tell myself. Do keep in mind, they shouldn’t be able to tell how old you are when they read your script.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m finishing up a romantic comedy around the world of ballet during the Cold War. I’m starting a children’s novel about a wicked third grade teacher. I’m finishing a YA novel about a boy who accidentally brings pirates back from the past, and I’m part-way into a screenplay about a young couple who just can’t get ahead and come up with a novel way to earn a living that doesn’t go quite as they had planned. Helps to have different stuff cooking on the griddle.

Q: Any last bit of advice you’d like to offer aspiring screenwriters (besides, of course, buying your book!):

A: Get good at sales and marketing. Make movies, don’t just write them. Writing a great script is half the battle. Nobody tells you that. Final advice: Your first idea may not be your best one. Spend a lot of time coming up with the idea you’re going to take time to write and make sure it’s something someone is going to like and that, in theory, will be easy to sell. Don’t write something if you’re the only person in the world who wants to read it. This sounds like the opposite of the “write your passion” cliché, but if your passion is completely unsellable, maybe you should be a poet.

Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways To Make It Great is available at Amazon as well as Michael Wiese Productions (http://www.mwp.com).