As a filmmaker I love watching movies in a crowded theater. There’s something magical about being surrounded by strangers and having a shared experience together. It’s amazing to see what jokes land and there’s a palpable energy that sails through the air when a great action scene is really hitting home. I might start doing movie reviews on this blog (and perhaps even start a youtube channel). There’s definitely a way writers and directors watch films that is different than a critic who is just a fan (even if they are articulate about the craft). But until I do start a proper review section of this site I decided that whenever I watch a film and see something that inspired me I would write a blog about it.
The Scope of an Epic
One of the greatest accomplishments, at least for me, about Black Panther was how epic they made the hidden country of Wakanda feel. Sometimes in Marvel films the CGI just gets to be too much for me. On the list of my favorite films of all time none of them are hugely fx driven (with the possible exception of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). I find myself drawn to stories where audiences spend more time looking into the eyes of a character than they do digital cities or synthetic vistas.
I remember scenes in Dr. Strange and Avengers where characters are literally in space and I could not be more bored. I just can’t relate as person to someone hanging around in an endless vastness of space without a danger that is relatable to me. It’s fine if it’s something I have a point of reference for – I understand the dangers of actual space so I can feel for Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity – but when Dr. Strange is negotiating with an infinite god in some weird time loop where matter seems to break rules I just get too lost in the philosophy of it all.
I find myself drawn to stories where audiences spend more time looking into the eyes of a character than they do digital cities or synthetic vistas
Why Was Black Panther Different?
What made Black Panther different was that the director didn’t spend a lot of screen time exploring the digitally rendered cityscape of Wakanda, but rather focused more on the actual African landscape that surrounded the hidden city.
It was quite beautiful to watch the space shuttle zip and zoom over deserts and mountains. Once they penetrated the little bubble and entered the prosperous (and totally CGI) city of Wakanda I lost a lot of interest – but thankfully the shots didn’t last long.
Even when key scenes took place in Wakanda they were either set indoors on sets that were definitely sci-fi but still familiar in their feel, or in outdoor arenas that connected more to the tribal nature of the Wakandan people then the digital gadgets. I actually think that one of the least exciting scenes of the film, unfortunately, was the climax at the end because of how it was so reliant on futuristic suits, a silent underground floating subway, and anti-vibranium fields (makes no sense if you haven’t seen the film). Still, it was a really good super-hero film that asks a lot of big questions about sharing knowledge and the responsibility of wealth.
What to Take Away as an Independent Filmmaker
Obviously nobody on a shoestring budget can ever compete with the studios when it comes to the scope of the epic world building that often comes with a Marvel super-hero movie. The constant struggle that an independent filmmaker has is making the film feel bigger than it is. One approach to combat this, and the one I usually favor, is to not fight this at all and in fact lean into the simplicity of a small film. There have been great films that take place in limited locations with no special fx. 12 Angry Men comes to mind as one of the greatest examples of a one-room movie that kept me on the edge of my seat.
Still, as a filmmaker it gets tiring trying to always come up with yet another screenplay idea that can take place in one house or one office building or one bar etc. What dawned on me as I watched Black Panther is that my favorite shots in the film, the ones of the space ship flying over the African landscape before they enter the CGI country of Wakanda could be quite easily replicated by someone with a drone and a little bit of 3d work.
as a filmmaker it gets tiring trying to always come up with yet another screenplay idea that can take place in one house or one office building or one bar etc.
Accomplishing Big Scope on a Tiny Budget
These days it’s actually not too difficult to find some pretty decent fx and 3d artists available for hire online. I’ve even found some great guys on Craigslist in the past. If you have a few great drone shots that simulate the POV of a space shuttle or helicopter and some reverse shots of people looking up at that helicopter, it’s actually not as difficult as it seems to insert a digital helicopter or space shuttle into that shot. Some of these shots are even present in the trailer (which I’ve pasted here below for your convenience)
The harder part of the set-up is shooting the interior of the spaceship as that usually has to be built out on a sound stage (or at least someone’s very large garage). You would have to get creative and limit the interior shots to things like the inside of iron man’s suit – which could almost be filmed in a closet.
But things like drones, steadicams and 3d are not nearly as cost-prohibitive as they once were. The trick is to figure out how to use them in a cost-effective way and only sprinkle in those types of fx instead of relying on them as main driving forces of the story. The real challenge is learning to write where elements like that don’t feel forced and actually enhance the story.
One Way to Do It
As an example, I once wrote an adaptation of a Young Adult novel for a producer based on a book called Fade Far Away. The book was a very sweet coming of age story about a teenage girl who runs away with her dying father on a road trip as he tries to rediscover his artistic talent. The first draft of the script was pretty much a standard adaptation. I revised the structure of the book a bit to better fit a movie and amped up a little of the drama but other than that there was no huge creative license taken with the writing. As a result the script felt a little flat and like it needed to be punched up so I threw out the first draft and took an entirely new approach to it.
In the second draft I capitalized on the fact that the lead character was a repressed artist and visualized things in the story with tremendous special fx to put the viewer into her head. For example, there was a scene that took place in a deli and while she was bored and waiting for her food she took her fork and reached up to one of the salamis that were hanging from the ceiling and popped it like it was a balloon. In another scene where her mother was yelling at her she closed one eye and lifted the eraser of a pencil in front of her face and actually erased her mother’s mouth.
Some of the fx in the newer draft would be ridiculously expensive but I’d say about 70% of the film’s fx could have been accomplished with very little post work if it was planned correctly. Scripts like that are also a lot more fun to write than I initially thought. I loved it so much I actually wrote another film in the same style but with a much lighter tone called And Then I Met Stacey – I believe all the fx in that script were actually achievable on a modest budget.
A great example of a modern film that has this type of storytelling is Amelie. If you haven’t seen it, stop what you’re doing right now and go stream it. It’s one of the most beautiful love stories ever put to film and it’s like bubble gum for your eyes. If you’re not hooked after the first 5-10 minutes of the film check your pulse cause you might be dead.
The saddest part about Amelie was that it lost the best writing Oscar to the snoozefest Gosford Park that year. I remember getting visibly angry when I was watching the Oscars and heard that Amelie lost – just goes to show you that there’s no justice in the world. I’ve probably watched Amelie about 15 times after it came out in theaters – I guarantee you won’t find anyone in the world who’s watched Gosford Park that many times.