Storytelling with Tom Schlesinger

by Dominica Malcolm

Tom Schlesinger will be in San Francisco this weekend for his two-day workshop, The Heroine’s Journey: Storytelling through Myths, Dreams and Movies. He answered a few questions for us about storytelling and the workshop.

DM: You’ve worked with people with various creative professions, not just writers, or filmmakers. How are you able to tailor lessons in storytelling that can work so well across the board like that?

TS: Whether you’re working in fiction or non-fiction, telling the story of your company, or the story of your life, stories are an ecosystem of the storyteller, the story and audience, all connected through universal themes. I discovered this when I first started studying with Joseph Campbell and became fascinated with the creative process. I realized that the emotional journey we take when creating stories actually runs parallel to the emotional journey of our characters. And if we stay true to our creative journey, this is the same journey the audience will ultimately experience.

For example, all stories begin with characters leaving their comfort zone. This is also what happens when we begin writing a story. We can feel the same anxiety and fears as our characters when our inner voices challenge us by saying: “Who are you to write this story.”

Leaving the comfort zone is a universal experience that connects the storyteller, characters in the story and the audience. The Heroine’s Journey is a brilliant way to map the arc of these universal experiences.

In the workshop, we also explore the seven ways that all stories function. Stories, like humans, have a common anatomy based on how they function. For example, one way that stories function is through dilemma, where a character has to choose between two things that both have positive values. This is typically a choice between an outer passion and a relationship desire.

Most storytellers experience this kind of dilemma every day in their own lives when they try to find the balance between their creative work and their family or relationship responsibilities.

So all stories are part of an ecosystem, and they all function in similar ways.

DM: Your upcoming weekend event, The Heroine’s Journey: Storytelling through Myths, Dreams and Movies, sounds like it has a feminine focus. Can you explain a little about that, and why you feel it’s important to delve into that side of storytelling?

TS: There’s an outer and an inner reason for exploring the feminine in storytelling. The outer reason is that we are finally seeing a number of stories driven by complex female protagonists that range from Carrie in “Homeland” to “Jackie”. Since female protagonists function in unique ways, it’s a mistake to apply the Hero’s Journey or generic rules of dramaturgy to them. In the workshop, we see how the focus is not only on outer actions but on the inner emotional complexity, as revealed through relationships.

The inner reason for exploring the feminine in storytelling is based on the Jungian view of feminine energies like empathy, listening, sharing, intuition and instincts. These are the very qualities we need to create compelling stories and these are the very qualities that are suppressed in our patriarchal society. In the workshop, we learn how to acknowledge these values within us, and create stories from this place of the deeper feminine. Mythologist Maureen Murdock wrote the seminal book about this called The Heroine’s Journey.

So you’ll not only learn how to chart the character arcs of female protagonists, but also how to write these kind of stories. Keep in mind, however, that Heroine Journeys are not always gender specific. Billy Elliot is also a Heroine’s Journey.

DM: What are the major elements that you think are important to consider when telling a compelling story, that you’ll describe in more detail in your workshop?

TS: Another key element in storytelling that covers a lot of narrative territory is that meaning comes through contrast and opposition. If you’re trying to make a point like all corporations are corrupt, then there’s no opposition and you’re not telling a story, you’re making a one-sided argument. The notion that meaning comes through contrast and opposition relates to the outer worlds of the story, the orchestration of your characters in the character web and the inner world of theme or what the story is about. In Erin Brockovich there is an outer contrast between what is justice, and how the system of justice functions; Erin’s dilemma is that she is torn between finding justice for the victims of PG&E’s toxic water spill and being a responsible mother; and there is an inner contrast between her instinctual drive to help people and to mother her children.

DM: Without giving away all your wisdom, can you mention a couple of films that you like to use as examples of good storytelling?

TS: Erin Brockovich and Little Miss Sunshine are two films that I use; The Good Wife and Homeland are two television series that I use. With these examples, we can explore the different ways that female protagonists and male protagonists achieve their goals but more to the point, the unique way that transformation and change takes place in these stories.

DM: Is there anything else people might be interested in knowing before signing up for your workshop, that tells them why they should learn from you?

TS: After writing two successful screenplays that were sold but not produced, I experienced writer’s block and depression. This began my journey into exploring the relationship between the creative process and the stories that we’re telling, with brilliant guidance by my mentor, mythologist Jean Houston.

What I learned from Jean is that stories are in our DNA, in our cells and in our bones and that it is our job to allow them to be expressed. How do you do this? In the Heroine’s Journey workshop, you actually experience what it’s like to go on the journey. We do this through storytelling, watching film clips, experiencing harmonic sounds and creative imaging exercises so that you have a bodily felt experience of the journey.

This suggests other key aspects of our inner feminine when creating these stories: allowing and receiving.

In this way, receiving becomes an act of creation.


If you’re interested in taking Tom Schlesinger’s two-day workshop, The Heroine’s Journey: Storytelling through Myths, Dreams and Movies, you can sign up through Eventbrite. It’s on Saturday Dec 31st 10am-6pm and Sunday Jan 1st 10am-5pm at Victorian House in San Francisco. For more information about Tom, or if you can’t make the workshop but you’re interested in learning from him in the future, visit his website at www.tomschlesinger.com.

Tom SchlesingerTom Schlesinger has taught storytelling seminars at Pixar Animation Studios, Lucasfilm, the Esalen Institute, the Red Bull Media House, the American Film Institute, the Mill Valley Film Festival, the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America, and the Saybrook Institute.  Tom was the story mentor on the female-driven Academy Award-winning Nowhere in Africa and Academy Award nominee, Beyond Silence; he was the writer/consultant on the HBO documentaries A Small Act and Prom Night in Mississippi, featuring Morgan Freeman, and was Creative Producer on Shirley: Visions of Reality, which premiered at the Berlinale and has been shown internationally.

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Featured Artist: Rind-Raja Picture Company

by Dominica Malcolm

The next Bay Area Film Mixer will be featuring a music video and demo reel screening from Rind-Raja Picture Company, run by local filmmakers Roth Rind and Jay K. Raja. They kindly and jointly answered some questions about the music video and other projects they’ve worked on.

To check out the screening, head to PianoFight on Tuesday August 30th, 7-10pm. REGISTER your attendance online now for free!

Rind-Raja Picture Company
DM: Tell us a little about the inspiration behind the music video that will be featured at the upcoming Bay Area Film Mixer on August 30th.
RRPC: ‘Open Eyes’ was an evolutionary process; it started from a simple concept of doing silhouette play with dancers and grew into a much bigger visual piece as well as a very personal project for us. We wanted to do something that would show our struggle between appealing to commercial interest and expressing ourselves artistically. The visuals of the video were shaped around this idea, and we were very enamored with the pairing of the personal themes with Adara’s distinct vocals and music.

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DM: You’ve worked on many different types of productions, including music videos, as mentioned above, as well as narrative film, commercials, and so on. How do you manage switching gears between productions, especially when the projects are very different?
RRPC: Every project is the same in the sense that we’re always trying to tell a story. It helps being committed to the ideal of strong storytelling because it’s such a strong guiding force in putting together a video. Even the most corporate of videos benefits from a well-told, cohesive narrative – it helps connect a video with the viewer’s emotions, whether it’s for selling cell phones or taking us on an interstellar journey.

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DM: Watching Rind-Raja’s demo reel, it looks like you’ve worked on some pretty incredible locations. Tell us about one or two of the more challenging locations you’ve worked with.
RRPC: We completed a film earlier this year called Spec 9 that was just as much about car racing as it was about family. The main location was a old barn that housed a vintage race car that Jennifer, the main character, finds and ends up restoring and racing. The challenge was finding a barn that would serve all our needs, which ended up being two separate locations for interior and exterior. To top it, we required pick-ups from the interior location which was no longer available to us, so we ended up reconstructing a set on stage to match the original interior location perfectly. All in all, three separate locations shot on three separate days are cut between each other seamlessly in one scene.

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DM: Film production is such a collaborative process. How have you gone about finding talented cast and crew to work with, and what have been some of the advantages of working with Bay Area based cast and crew?
RRPC: It comes down to finding flow with other people. That feeling when you can anticipate each others’ creative needs as well as get along on a personal level, which is of course important when you’re spending 12 hours a day with someone for weeks on end. And this is only achieved with consistent work and open communication – it took us a year or so from when we started to really assemble a crew where everyone respected and liked each other, as well as worked hard and well together. Now, we have an always growing A-team that we can call upon when we have a show, and it feels like a family reunion every time. That’s something I think is really only possible in the Bay Area, where the community is smaller and so genuinely in love with filmmaking.

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Rind-Raja Picture Company Bio:
What do you see? It’s a question with seemingly infinite possibilities that we ask all of our clients and artists. What we’re looking for is the seed of inspiration that sprouts an artistic venture. Whether it’s an image, or a character, or sound, a vision starts with something that strikes a chord in our creative selves. Started in 2013 by Bay Area natives Roth Rind and Jay K. Raja, the partnership formed from a mutual pursuit of strong storytelling in motion picture. Along with a sense of humor and a mutual love for Jurassic Park, Rind-Raja has grown its network of talented collaborators and is proud to enable the visions of its clients and fellow artists.

Come watch the ‘Open Eyes’ music video, Rind-Raja’s new demo reel, and meet Roth Rind and Jay K. Raja of the Rind-Raja Picture Company in person at the Bay Area Film Mixer at PianoFight on Tuesday August 30th, 7-10pm. Let us know you’re coming by registering your attendance online now for free!

Vincent Cortez: Prolific Filmmaker and Eternal Student

As interviewed by Lara Henerson

If you’re involved in the Bay Area filmmaking scene, it’s likely you’ve met Vincent Cortez at some time or another. I had the pleasure of talking to this self-proclaimed eternal student about his production company’s origins, his various projects, and his favorite parts of the filmmaking process. 

Vincent is just one of the working filmmakers who has attended the Bay Area Film Mixer. Our next event is at PianoFight on Tuesday August 30th, 7-10pm. REGISTER your attendance online now for free!

“It was strange for me, directing a whole crew for the first time. I had to get used to not doing everything myself. While I’m still very hands on, it makes things go much smoother when people each have roles with a very specific purpose.”

I was born and raised here in Oakland, and we shot films all over Oakland wherever we could when we were younger. It was always a couple of friends and my brother and cousins playing different characters. Back then I was always like a one man band. I would shoot everything myself, then later try to edit, using two cameras connected to each other, like deck to deck editing. But Mitchell Street Pictures didn’t actually start until about ten years ago, during the last year of my education, at San Francisco State.

We essentially made a George Romero-esque zombie film, for school credit. It was actually a study where I got three units for basically spending the semester working on a project, so it wasn’t within the boundaries of a specific class, which was nice. That was the first time I could say Mitchell Street Pictures had a more official project, instead of just myself and my wife Sofia attempting to shoot something by ourselves. It was also the first time we had an actual crew with specific roles on set. It was strange for me, directing a whole crew for the first time. I had to get used to not doing everything myself. While I’m still very hands on, it makes things go much smoother when people each have roles with a very specific purpose.

I stayed local with my education for film, mostly because it seemed to have the best mixture of some of the hands on technical aspects, with a lot of the theory, and to be honest, a lot of the duct-tape shoe-string kind of mentality of, “You’re probably not gonna have a giant budget, but you may have something, so here are some resources, and how to do stuff economically.” I think that aspect helped me a lot personally, because they were very open to teaching you a little bit of everything. I know a lot of the big film schools tend to bring people in on tracks, like, “Okay, you’re a writer, these are the writing courses. You’re a director? Here are the directing courses.” Meanwhile, I was able to take editing classes, directing classes, new media classes… There were a lot of things I could learn, and nothing was off limits to me, given that I enjoyed editing, writing, directing, producing… I was able to take all the classes that I wanted to take.

It’s hard to pinpoint my favorite part of the process. I think I like specific parts of both production and post-production. In pre-production I like screenwriting; when you’re developing a project, that’s its own strenuous mountainous journey, but once you get over the mountaintop, and you’re going down the other side, that’s the exciting part. There’s a lot of work in developing a concept, whether you’re being influenced by a real life story or you’re just trying to make something up and establish conflict or characters. And then there’s this point where you really have things set up and it’s like you’re tuning into a radio station back in the old days, and it’s just clear. Even if I’m not done with the script itself, everything I need to write has already lined itself up, and it’s almost starting to write itself. The characters exist fully in your head. You may be going back to revise here and there but its all lined up for you to just put on the page.

“Whether it’s a feature or a short film, there comes a point where it all works out. The collaborative nature of it all is really exciting.”

As far as the production side of it, it’s nice when you finally lock into working with a team, and there’s that moment when people just gel. Even if you have a lot of intensive shooting left, and even if there’s still a heavy part of production to go, and there’s an understanding when the crew and cast know how to read each other and work together, things kind of line up. Whether it’s a feature or a short film, there comes a point where it all works out. The collaborative nature of it all is really exciting.

One of the most exciting things to happen to us lately was when the El Rey network picked up our film. That’s Robert Rodriguez’ network that was launched two years ago, and that was really cool. Probably the coolest form of validation I’ve ever received for my own work, because festivals are great, and we’ve definitely played at them before, but this was awesome because I’ve always been a big fan of his work. As a kid I remember watching “El Mariachi”, which was his first feature, at a theatre in Berkeley, and being blown away. It was also one of the first times I remember seeing a last name that looked like mine on a screen. As I got older, the more I started to learn about the business, the more I started to respect the work he was doing as a business person. So, when his team selected our film as one of six films to show, and my wife and I got to meet him when we were down in LA, and got to talk to him, and just get his kudos, which was really cool, him encouraging us to keep on the same path and keep doing the work we’re doing. It was a form of internal validation I couldn’t quite quantify. It really was a milestone.

“Pitching is a tricky thing, especially in a film market setting. I used to think pitching meant talking about what inspired me and what influenced me, but that’s not necessarily what sells the film.”

Another exciting project for Mitchell Street Pictures was this psychological thriller feature we worked on very closely with another company. We shot a lot of it here in the Bay Area, out on the water, on a boat, and even though it was still low budget, at that time it had a bigger budget that anything I’d ever worked on, and we were able to sell that film at the American Film Market at the end of 2014. I’d been down there years before with another film, which I hadn’t really known how to pitch to the distribution realm at the time, so this time I was much more prepared for the film market, and I knew more about how it worked.

Pitching is a tricky thing, especially in a film market setting. I used to think pitching meant talking about what inspired me and what influenced me, but that’s not necessarily what sells the film. It’s different than saying, “Hey, It’s like sin city with ghosts, and here’s a poster that shows that.” What the distributors want are recent, trending, comparable films. The first time I went down there to pitch, I got a lot of people contacting me back from these meetings saying, “It’s a cool film but we don’t really know how we’d define it. It’s playing with a lot of genres, you might wanna try with foreign film markets, they like that kind of thing… Good job, but its not something we can work with.” So when I went with the partner I had with this other project, from day one, I was like, “How are we gonna sell this movie?” We cut a trailer that represented exactly what we wanted to show them, and we met with this distribution guy who was very open and cool, and we connected with him and what he was looking for right then and there. He saw the potential that was in it based on the way we presented it.

Right now I’m finishing up a short film that we’re gonna do our best to get out and get festivals. We shot it a little over a year ago. I was producing fulltime for KQED so I didn’t have a chance to finish it up on the timeline I’d been hoping for, but it worked out because I was able to spend time thinking about it, and when the time stretched out, things hit me and I was able to tighten things up. It’s a short film called “Dad,” and I got to shoot it with a great friend of mine. My daughter, who was six at the time, plays his daughter in the story, and it’s about a father and daughter going through their day, and the daughter trying to reconnect with the memory of their mother. My daughter did an amazing job!

“That’s one of the things I love about Mitchell Street Pictures. Not just that my wife produces, but I’m fortunate and blessed in a way that I have a lot of family and very close friends that are constantly willing to help and be part of our projects.”

Vincent Cortez

That’s one of the things I love about Mitchell Street Pictures. Not just that my wife produces, but I’m fortunate and blessed in a way that I have a lot of family and very close friends that are constantly willing to help and be part of our projects. So when we’ve shot things in the past, my father had jumped in as a production designer. He’s got a background in art and he’s a huge film buff, so he has an encyclopedic knowledge of older films and some of the newer ones, so he’ll help out.

I’m also crossing my fingers about a potential feature project I’m trying to get off the ground, because I’d love to bring my own feature back to the Bay Area and Oakland… It’s like a sci-fi horror, apocalyptic drama. That’s probably as much as I can say right now. It’s something I’ve been working on for a long time, and invested a lot of energy into, and I’ve been able to get feedback from some screenwriters and people who have done bigger projects in the past, and I’ve had a lot of guidance, and I feel like it would be a great time to tell this sort of particular story.

I thought the Bay Area Film Mixer was awesome. I’d been aware of them for a little while but I’d never been able to line it up with my schedule until recently. It definitely didn’t disappoint. I had some great conversations. There was a socializing, networking element that carried throughout, but there was also a very platform for people to talk about specific parts of their work, or even showing a whole short film. It gives people opportunity to kind of stand in the spotlight for a little bit. In the Bay Area, even though it’s a small filmmaking community, chances are you know people through other people you’ve worked with, so it’s nice to be in the same space and kind of share what you’re working on.

“I would definitely say that if you’re going to be a filmmaker, you should always be a student. The second you consider yourself an expert or a master, is probably the second you’re not willing to learn the smallest thing.”

The Bay Area is not the same as LA in terms of the infrastructure, but I try not to compare them, but there tends to be a lot more, because of the resources aren’t quite here, in the sense of the narrative stuff, as opposed to documentary. There’s actually more grants for documentary work here, and I’ve actually been working on a couple of documentaries recently, which is really great. The narrative projects around here have smaller budgets, but there’s also a lot more passion behind them in the projects, because people are willing to do what the have to do to try and tell the stories.

I would definitely say that if you’re going to be a filmmaker, you should always be a student. The second you consider yourself an expert or a master, is probably the second you’re not willing to learn the smallest thing. It all goes back to the collaborative element of working together. Learning together is just another way of framing that!


For more information about Vincent Cortez, visit his website. Also, don’t forget to REGISTER to come to the next Bay Area Film Mixer where you can network with other filmmakers like Vincent Cortez. It’s happening on Tuesday August 30th at PianoFight, 7-10pm.

Improvising with Marcus Sams

by Dominica Malcolm

Over the past year, I’ve heard a lot about how important it is for actors to have improv skills, both in auditions and on film sets, especially in the Bay Area these days. That’s why it’s great that the next Bay Area Film Mixer workshop will be taught by actor and improvisor, Marcus Sams. It’s happening on Saturday July 23, 12pm-3pm at Ninth St Independent Film Center, and tickets are available now on Eventbrite.

Since April 2015, I’ve been training with Marcus Sams on an ongoing basis in his Two Play class, so I can vouch for how great a teacher he is. Marcus has kindly answered some questions for me, so you can find out more about the workshop, and some of the benefits of improv training.

DM: Tell us about some of the benefits actors can get out of improv training? 

MS: Honestly, anyone that gets good at improv is giving themselves a human software upgrade. Ha! But seriously. The skills that it takes to be good at improv are the same ones it take to be a good human and artist. You need to be able to listen, have empathy, be present, trust, teamwork, and the list goes on.

Let’s do a quick deep dive into the first item in that list. Listening. Listening is one of our senses and yet many of us have never been taught how to do it. We have taken all sorts of classes but not that one. Why? Because we take it for granted. And not just listening to the words someone says, but to all the information being given. The way someone says something, the words they choose to use, the location of the inflection. In improv all of these things matter. I like to say that “Anything is Everything” in improv. As adults, we are worse than teenagers. We have it all figured out. Because of our wealth of life experience we often assume we know what’s up and are oftentimes compelled to jump to the end of whatever “it” is so that we can get onto the next thing. Perpetually looking for the shortcuts, and bypassing the details.

Now to tie this into the question… Art is in the details. As an actor you MUST dive into the details of EVERY moment. How many times have we heard of actors playing the end of the scene? Every moment is important to an actor because without them, we would never see the end of the scene, play, or film. By examining this one thing, listening, and then honestly reacting to what we hear, see, feel, and experience, leads you to the truth of the moment. At its core improv teaches you to be present and in the moment. It teaches you the immediacy of NOW.

One more very important thing that improv teaches you about is yourself. This couldn’t be more important for an actor or a human. If you think about it, we cannot nor should not ever divorce the character that we are playing from ourselves. No matter what character an actor is playing, we need to see their humanity. If you are just playing a character to play a character then it will most likely come across as a caricature and you are faking it. The audience, no matter what the medium is, needs to be able to connect with the character on a human level. Think about this for a moment. If you do a lot of improv and you play 20 different scenes in a months’ time, you have played 20 different characters in different situations.  Let’s define a character as an individual in a situation that has a particular point of view on a situation and that is in pursuit of a goal. By that definition every single one of us in real life could be considered a character. If you are playing your characters from a place of honest emotional truth and you are staying connected to the character on that level, then you yourself have been in 20 different scenarios in which there was a part of you that was reacting to the given circumstances. Getting good at knowing who you are and how you would react to situations improves your level of confidence when trusting your own acting instincts.

Above I only dove into two things I think improv is good for and how it relates to an actor. There are so many other reasons of why improv is good that I could write a book. Maybe that is why I am… But for now, I will give a short list of some of the other the benefits.

  • Allows you to find character quickly
  • Improves confidence
  • Increases your level of imagination
  • Visualize and create the room or place you are in so you have more to work with onset or in auditions.
  • Makes you more flexible when directors ask for something different
  • Increases the level of connection that you have with other actors
  • Helps you have more fun and be less stressed
  • Minimizes the fear of the unknown
  • & many many more…

 

DM: How might other types of film professions benefit from improv, even though they don’t have to act? Directors, writers, etc?

MS: As mentioned above improv helps with so many aspects. I also teach corporate improv workshops. On my website I say that improv can help in the following areas:

  • Teamwork & collaboration
  • Listening & observation skills
  • Idea generation without judgment
  • Improves public speaking
  • Increase creative & innovative thinking
  • Create a positive work environment
  • Consideration and support of ideas
  • Adapting and adopting to change quickly
  • Presence & mindfulness to reduce stress

And with a list like that, you can see why improv might be good for anyone. But in answering your question about why it is good for writers, it helps you visualize the situation better and helps you learn to speak from your characters voice. Improvisers that are good are the writer, director, actor, and editor all in real-time. If you can learn to do this, the words just flow.

 

DM: How have your improv skills personally helped you in your professional acting career?

MS: In my personal career, it has made me a fearless actor. I don’t get nervous on set, in front of the camera. It’s easy for me to talk to everyone from the director all the way to an extra. Improv has given me the ability to commit 183% to any choice that I make as an actor. Another thing that it has done for me is made auditioning a whole lot easier. Back when I started acting, my dyslexia would really kick in when I had a script in my hands. The words would become harder to read and then my hand would start to shake. After that, the audition was pretty much over. Improv taught me the importance of dealing with the world of the script and it gave me little bits that I could do. By putting my focus in the other person or the imaginary world I had created in my mind’s eye, it took a heap of pressure off. I was even able to then find interesting ways to mask the word soup on the page by taking action in the scene. Now I am so confident with improv that you can throw just about anything at me and I will be fine. Because of that, now the dyslexia affects me far less often.

 

DM: What types of common mistakes do you see people making that you seek to address with your Effortless Improv workshop?

MS: I have a Love/Hate relationship with Whose Line is it Anyway? Whose Line is short from improv and it is all about big characters and laughs. Don’t get me wrong, I love funny improv, produce funny improv, and perform funny improv. But I am never directly going for the joke. I am going for connection, realism, and honesty. There is nothing more funnier than honest humor. The reason is because the audience can relate to it. The biggest mistake that I see is that people come to improv because they have seen funny improv or Whose Line, and they want to be funny. As a result, they waste quite a bit of time trying to be funny. They will play big characters that don’t have any truth to them, which then turns into a caricature. A caricature will only take you so far. You need to go deeper with the character. Learn who they are, what they want, and what is at stake. You know, all the acting stuff they teach you in acting school. If you can learn to do this and keep your characters grounded, then you can play that character for a long time and the audience will be able to relate to them. It is even better if the audience cares about them.

Another common mistake that I see is people just trying too hard. The fact is, all you need is what is right in front of you. If you are connected to your scene partner and you look them in the eyes, you can tell if they are Happy, Mad, Sad, or Glad in an instant. This is valuable information. Pair this with what has already happened and you will have an opinion about the situation. You then just need to react how you would naturally react. That is improv at its base. Yes, we can attach bigger than life characters and add voices, and play with comedic bits, but those are layers placed on top of the foundation. You know, that is actually a great metaphor for what I see people doing. Many people want to throw a comedic house party when a foundation has not even been built.

In my Effortless Improv workshop, we play a bunch of games and do exercises that helps you shed the need to try so hard. We work on being present and getting out of the way of the improv. If we are present, and in touch with our emotions the improv will just flow. The heart is our strongest muscle in this art form. If we listen, the heart knows what it wants. It is our brain that will mess us up every time.

 

DM: You have a pretty full schedule teaching improv in the Bay Area. Tell us about some of the other classes people could take with you, if they’re unable to attend the Bay Area Film Mixer workshop.

O0h, this is where I plug? =) I am very excited to say that I just recently built my new website. From there you can see all the offerings that I have. I have a really great duo class that has been in existence for two years. Many of my students in that class have become national/internationally performing improv duos. In the class I not only teach the craft of improv but I also teach the business side of the craft and help set you up for success. Being that I have performed in over 47 national improv festival shows, I might know a thing or two about that. =)  I also have 4 hour improv intensives that are deep dives into different areas in improv that I teach every 3rd Sunday of the month and that is called Improv Sunday School. I also do private coaching for groups. One thing I am very excited about is what is in store this winter. I am planning on launching an improv for actors training program that has 54 hours of curriculum that I have custom written.

If anyone is curious to know what this style of improv looks like, check out two of my nationally touring duos, Liss n’ Sams and Shades of Grey. Also be sure to check out www.improvwithmarcus.com.


Does Marcus sound like a teacher you’d like to learn from? Sign up for his Effortless Improv workshop hosted by the Bay Area Film Mixer on Eventbrite. Happening Saturday July 23, 12pm-3pm at Ninth St Independent Film Center.

Marcus SamsMarcus Sams is a full-time improv teacher and professionally working actor in San Francisco. He has taught for CSU Chico, Pictoclik Film Festival, Endgames, and currently teaches for Leela, and at improv festivals and schools across the country. He has a degree in Theatre Arts, is a professionally working actor, and his improv has been forged by the teachings of David Razowsky, Susan Messing, Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, as well as many nationally known teachers. His teaching style combines theatrical craft, systematic approaches, empathy training, and leading with the heart. This combination yields truthful, grounded scene work that is fraught with honest hilarity and, from a theatrical standpoint, technically polished performances.

Sams has performed in over 45 shows in national improv festivals and in 2016 had the honor of opening for Joe Bill and Mark Sutton’s BassProv at the Chicago Improv Festival’s Secret Show. He has taught for Gainesville Improv Festival 2011, California Improv Festival in 2014 & 2016, Improvaganza: Hawaii Festival of Improv 2015San Diego Improv Festival 2016OC Improv Festival 2016, and San Jose Improv Festival 2016.

Featured Filmmaker: Evan Weidenkeller

by Dominica Malcolm

Evan Weidenkeller’s short film Dreams We Share will be featured at the next Bay Area Film Mixer on June 13 at PianoFight (RSVP for free on Eventbrite). I got to have a sneak preview of the film, which looks incredible. It’s beautifully shot, and the actors have a great connection with each other. Evan kindly answered some questions for me ahead of the Film Mixer, and will be available to answer some more after the screening at PianoFight.

DM: What was the inspiration behind the story in Dreams We Share?

EW: At first it started out when Angel Onchanthorn and myself were talking on the couch one day about how nice it would be to make a simple film about two people discussing their dreams and memories with each other. And a couple months go by and nothing came from it. Until, one day while sitting in a park I saw two people across from me talking amongst themselves. Enjoying their time in the sun and I realized I knew nothing about these people nor the world they lived in. I knew nothing of their past, nothing of their future, and all I could ever know about them was what I could see at that moment in the present. And I realized then and there, that was how I wanted to treat this story. I wanted to tell a simple story about two people and by the end of the film we learn something beautiful about them. Something we could only learn by watching them in the present. So I ran home and sat in my pitifully dark room for two weeks and the film you see today was the end result.

DM: I really loved the cinematography, sound design, and editing in Dreams We Share. How did you go about assembling your team to work with?

EW: After I had written the script, I sat down for days on end, drawing out every single shot and composition. I knew right off the bat that this was going to be a visually dominant film. The look and direction I was aiming for, to say the least, was a little unnatural at times so I was definitely going to need someone who could trust my judgement and trust that what I’m asking for will make sense in the final outcome of the film. Angel Onchanthorn was the perfect fit for this project. He basically knows what I want before I can even speak. We have this connection, this mental bond when it comes to making films. We understand each other and he can trust in my direction without question. It’s because of those qualities that we can work so well together.

DM: Are there any writers or directors that inspire your work as a writer and director? 

EW: My love for other writers and directors never seems to end. I’m constantly admiring the works from Alex Garland, Denis Villeneuve, Guillermo Del Toro, Danny Boyle, Alejandro Inarritu, and the list goes on and on while at the same time constantly changing and growing. In this particular moment in my life I’m finding myself to be deeply inspired by the works of Tom Hooper whose visual style and direction is exceedingly beautiful far beyond any words can describe.

DM: What types of stories are you drawn to in film?

EW: I truly believe that the strongest films out there are the films whose visual style perfectly coincides with the tone and story of the film. Films that are basically talking heads, jumping from scene to scene, always lack an emotional connection with the audience. A connection that can only be understood through visual storytelling. It’s like the old saying goes, don’t tell me that the characters are happy, show me that the characters are happy. And it’s those films that I find myself constantly drawn to, like the works from Sicario, or The Danish Girl. Those films are perfect examples of how to use visuals to enhance a story.

DM: Where are you at with your next film project, and are you looking for anyone new to collaborate with?

As of now, I’m currently in pre-production with my next project, another short film. But it is going to be the biggest film I’ve ever made in my career so far and I think it’s going to be the stepping stone I need to help jump start myself into shooting my first feature film. However, at this time, I can’t openly discuss what that project is but what I can say is that I will be looking for a Cinematographer who has a keen eye or familiarity with early Impressionist paintings. That’s all I’ll say.


Dreams We Share poster; directed by Evan Weidenkeller

Evan Weidenkeller studied filmmaking while he was growing up in Long Beach, CA, and moved up here to finish his studies and to continue making narrative films. His goal now is to create one more short film before moving on to filming his first feature film up here in the Bay Area.

Dreams We Share follows two girls, caught in a war, discussing dreams and memories with each other while the war draws in closer towards them.

Remember, you can watch Evan Weidenkeller’s short film Dreams We Share at the next Bay Area Film Mixer on June 13 at PianoFight. He’ll be there to answer any additional questions you may have after the screening. RSVP for free on Eventbrite!

Garrett McDonald: Location Sound Recordist and Sound Editor

As interviewed by Lara Henerson

Since the mission of the Bay Area Film Mixer is primarily to create a sense of community for local filmmakers, what better way is there to do so than to showcase the broad variety of talented individuals in our midst? Introducing Garrett McDonald, a Navy veteran from Kansas, who has settled in San Francisco and now works as a location sound recordist and sound editor.

“I really connected with the work, because it reminded me of that same sort of military energy.”

I was born in California but I spent most of my childhood in Wichita, Kansas. I had a lot of different interests growing up. Eventually I joined the Navy, but it’s only been in the past four or five years that I’ve really honed in on what I wanted to do.

After the Navy, I enrolled at the Academy of Art University to study music production and sound design, on New Montgomery, here in the city. While I was there I started making friends with some people in the motion picture department, and they always needed somebody to help them record sound on set. I would just rent the equipment from the school and try to help my friends out. There really seemed to be a demand for that kind of work, so I decided that I might as well invest a good amount of money on some gear, and try and get some gigs.

I found myself really loving working on set. I really connected with the work, because it reminded me of that same sort of military energy. Everyone’s upbeat, on set running around and trying to get stuff done. And I just really jive with that type of energy. It’s very fast paced, and you have to think quickly. It’s always a challenge at the time, but then afterwards it’s a real rush to know that you still made things happen under those crazy circumstances.

“The tech industry is pretty much what pays the bills. I know a lot of people probably oppose it, but I think it’s pretty cool because it allows filmmakers to actually make some good money and survive around here in this expensive city.”

I’ve been working professionally now for just a little over two years. I started working while I was still in school. I had an internship at Studio Trilogy for about six months, and then at Polarity postproduction, all while I was going to school. I’ve had some work down in LA too but there’s a pretty vibrant film scene up here, and its really growing. There’s a ton of stuff happening and people are always looking for help. I’ve only been here about six years and I’ve already seen a major growth in the film community.

At the moment I’m working on a pretty cool prank video this Friday, for Lyft. The tech industry is pretty much what pays the bills. I know a lot of people probably oppose it, but I think it’s pretty cool because it allows filmmakers to actually make some good money and survive around here in this expensive city. It allows you to work and live here, and makes you comfortable enough so you can work on the films you’re passionate about. I actually think we’re really lucky to have that corporate industry up here, because otherwise it would be a lot more difficult for us to make art on the side.

Personally, I love working on short films specifically. I know there’s never a whole lot of budget for it, but it’s more fun to do than just shoot talking heads all day, you know? I like to be sold on a project. I want to know that my time is going to be invested in something that produces well.

“It’s so important for everyone to get together and talk about the work that they’re doing, and when you’re in the industry, you need to show people your face!”

The first Bay Area Film Mixer I went to check out was last October. I had a great time. Then I went again this year and I was like, Whoa, holy crap, there’s way more people here now! The industry is really expanding, and I love it. And the Mixer’s a great place to look for work. I got hooked up with a really passionate director and filmmaker from SF State. We started talking, and he wanted to get me on this project but I was unavailable at the time. But then a few months later he reached out to me again, and got me on this cool little short film called “The Dreams We Share.” We just actually wrapped that up yesterday. I’ve been out there working with him a lot, and I think it’s a pretty cool relationship.

I think the Bay Area Film Mixer is a really important place for filmmakers to come together. It’s so important for everyone to get together and talk about the work that they’re doing, and when you’re in the industry, you need to show people your face! Go, talk, have a good time, and let people become familiar with you. Let them decide whether they want to spend twelve hours on set with you!

To find out more about Garrett McDonald’s work, check out www.amplifilm.com.

You can make your own connections at the Bay Area Film Mixer! The next event is on Monday June 13th 7-10pm at Piano Fight. Register online at Eventbrite for free.

Screenwriting Principles with Dave Moutray

by Dominica Malcolm

Dave Moutray is an accomplished screenwriter and director, with two feature films and various shorts to his name. I took a screenwriting workshop with him last year, and came away from it with so many ideas about what I wanted to write. I felt inspired. Dave will be teaching the Bay Area Film Mixer’s next workshop on writing for the screen. It’s coming up Saturday June 25, 12pm-3pm at Ninth St Independent Film Center. Tickets are available from Eventbrite.

Dominica: What are some of the key topics you’ll be covering in your workshop?

Dave: How to write a screenplay with only your toes. That’s right, I’ll be teaching keyboard yoga, from the lotus position (okay, none of that is true, plus I don’t really know what the lotus position is. Isn’t lotus a flower anyway?).

In all seriousness, I’ll be covering a number of the obvious topics that need to be discussed to tell any story that has a chance of being good (effective dialogue, structure, pre-writing techniques, etc), but beyond that, I’m excited to cover something I don’t think is covered enough at the script development level: writing for a budget. It’s one thing to write your story, it’s another to write it as something that can actually be produced.

Dominica: Who have been your biggest screenwriting influences?

Dave: Terrence Malick for his sense of character composition through V.O., Aaron Sorkin for his insane ability to write crisp and poignant dialogue, Joss Whedon for story-weaving with strong, vibrant characters, and Richard Linklater for the pathos he layers into his characters/stories. At a personal level, Matthew Jacobs (Emperor’s New Groove, Dr. Who, Paperhouse) has mentored me through my early writing career and is a large influence even still today. My first feature, Losing Her, was inspired by Matt’s first attempt at an indie feature (Your Good Friend) — it made me believe that I could do more than write features, but I could produce them as well. We are now on our second feature, and it all started from watching Matt tell a wonderful tale of a rabbi and a pornographer wanting to create a kosher porn website on an indie budget in San Francisco.

Dominica: What would you say are the biggest differences between writing shorts and features?

Dave: Besides one being longer than the other? There really isn’t that much difference in terms of storytelling — you still want a solid three act structure. Personally, I prefer writing features because you can dig deeper into characters and the world you build for them, but on occasion, a story I’ll discover is best told as a short film, so I’ll write it that way. That’s another facet of screenwriting — knowing the right format for your story to be developed in. I know some writers who will try to cram an idea into a short that really should be a feature, and others who will try to stretch an idea best suited for a short into a feature. Know the limits/potential of your story before you commit to a format.

Dominica: What kind of feedback is good to solicit from other people on a screenplay? Is it a good idea to talk to people before, during, and/or after the first draft is finished?

Dave: Noooo!!!! Only talk to yourself in a mirror. And scream at your monitor. Okay, that’s obviously not something I really believe. I caution moderation with sharing your story — pick a few that you know will be honest with you. The problem with talking to friends/family about your ideas is they tend to lose objectivity and will just tell you how great you are. Through the development process, talking to friends is fine, but rely more on those in the business. As you write it, join a screenwriting group and submit pages for feedback. When you have your first draft, submit it for coverage through respected services (Blue Cat, Scriptapoolza, etc). And develop a thick skin, because the feedback that will help you the most is usually the most painful to hear.

Dominica: Are there any books you recommend for screenwriters?

Dave: One thing that aspiring screenwriters often don’t consider reading is other scripts. You should read as many as you can. Connect with the format, the structure, give yourself a chance to get to know the style (how beats work with each other), and find your style of writing within the successful scripts you read (you can find a number of scripts here, legally: http://www.script-o-rama.com/).

As far as books go, I can’t recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder enough. The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier is a must-have as well — one of the pitfalls of a screenwriter is not adhering to industry standards — there is no easier way to get a producer to stop reading your script, no matter how good it is, if your script looks like it was written by an amateur.


If you’re interested in learning more about screenwriting from Dave Moutray, sign up for the next Bay Area Film Mixer next workshop on writing for the screen. It’s coming up Saturday June 25, 12pm-3pm at Ninth St Independent Film Center. Tickets are available from Eventbrite.

Dave MoutrayDave Moutray, an award-winning Director and Screenwriter, has a M.A. in English and an M.F.A. in Screenwriting, and is co-founder of Crux Jinx Productions, LLC in San Francisco, CA. After winning awards for his short films, he tackled his first feature film, Losing Her, which won Best Feature at the Noor Film Festival in Los Angeles and the Golden Ace Award at the Las Vegas International Film Festival, and is now in post-production on his second feature called Lost in the Sun.

Dave has been trained by Matthew Jacobs (Emperor’s New Groove, Dr. Who, Paperhouse) and Robert Keats (head of Screenwriting department at Academy of Art University), and wholeheartedly believes as Alfred Hitchcock did, that “[to] make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script.”