Writing a feature can be one of the most daunting challenges to take on. On set, every crew member has someone to fall back on. A director with their cinematographer, a gaffer with their key grip, an AD with their 2nd AD. But bringing a script to life happens alone in your living room at night with a cup of coffee. To escape loneliness, or honestly, to help with the overall emotional toll it takes when you pour your heart and soul into a character on a page, I have found one exercise that has given me the strength to push on. Group film screenings!
Studying films and screenplays is an absolute must when writing a feature and watching and discussing these films with your key crew members is just as important. It keeps everyone pointed in the same direction and begins an open dialogue about themes, tones, and story structure. For the first round of films, we studied ‘71, Hell or High Water, and The Searchers. Focusing on different elements for each film, we began to see what techniques worked and didn’t work.
Check out the trailers for the films below:
Hell or High Water Trailer
The Searchers Trailer
For ‘71 we focused mainly on the technical approach and tone. ‘71 was shot with anamorphic glass on 16mm film stock, a combination that is not commonly practiced. We wanted to see what this unique look and tone accomplished. Did it aid the story or distract from it? How did it look and did it hold up in night scenes? Did the flares drive us crazy? (Michael Bay has almost ruined anamorphic glass for me.) Overall, we really enjoyed the look and didn't find it distracting at all. The subjective nature of the film and the grit of the subject matter were supported by the choice of lenses and film stock.
Hell or High Water
For Hell or High Water, we mainly focused on tempo, character development, and themes. Following four dynamic actors like Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Gil Birmingham, and Jeff Bridges is no easy task. Each actor shared the screen quite well and we felt that each character was given a thorough level of development. This character development was made possible by the tempo. The film never felt like it was moving too fast or too slow. The simple yet incredibly complex dialogue between the cast gave us all the info and background we needed while also revealing the theme without most people even noticing. Is there a difference between the men robbing the bank and the bank robbing the men? Hell or High Water has earned a spot on my favorite top ten movies.
The Searchers was first brought to my attention in graduate school, and I had not seen the film since then. This film was the first of its kind: taking a classic genre of Western and flipping it into a dark drama. John Wayne plays a racist civil war veteran embarking on a journey to save his niece from a group of Comanche Indians. Even though John Wayne plays the protagonist, the director John Ford does a good job of making the audience feel empathetic without feeling sympathetic. John Wayne’s character is a drifter and will continue to be one until he deals with his baggage. Spoiler alert, he never does.
Our feature, Over Hell’s Half Acre, is a story about fatherhood and what it means to be a man in today’s culture. The story follows the hard lonely life of a West Texas ranch hand, Austin Booth, and the journey he takes after facing a life-altering event.
Knowing our logline and themes, you can now understand why we chose the first round of movies to study together as a group. I do believe it is important to write several drafts before studying films to avoid copying any story characteristics subconsciously. We study films for inspiration, to better understand film language, and to have a better understanding of cinematic storytelling as a whole.
- Josh Gallas
Please reach out if there is anything we can do for you or a project we can collaborate on! We'd love to grab a coffee or a drink with you soon to catch up.