The KKK Took My Cville Away

I awoke this morning disappointed… and a little encouraged. Yesterday I attended my first KKK rally right here in my little city of Charlottesville, Virginia. If you’re curious as to why I attended a rally of the Ku Klux Klan you can read my reasoning here. The rally went off as expected. The KKK preached their hate. There was a large police presence. I witnessed several non-Klan arrests and saw 3 pepper grenades deployed to help disperse the crowd afterwards. All in all it was an afternoon of “entertainment”, our town made the national news, nobody was shot or seriously injured, I was documenting the event and captured some great footage… so why do I awake today disappointed?

I’m certainly not disappointed with the members of the KKK. They delivered exactly what they promised… a protest against the removal of confederate statues in Charlottesville. They applied for their permit to demonstrate, it was granted by the city, and the police presence protected them throughout the event. I don’t agree with their message, in fact, I’m staunchly against it, but I love the fact that I live in a country where all speech can be protected by our constitution and our police force—even hate speech. The moment that is taken away, we all have something more serious than the KKK to worry about.

My disappointment did not begin until the KKK showed up about 45 minutes late. Prior to their arrival at Jackson Park (now called Justice Park) the crowd was chanting things like “Black Lives Matter Here” and I found myself proud to live in a town that was willing to stand up to threats and defend the black lives in our community. And then the KKK arrived and the mood shifted drastically. The chants in defense of black lives became curses of white men in robes. The love and support being spoken of our black brothers and sisters turned into group hatred being demonstrated toward the protestors. “F— you, KKK!”, “Go to hell, KKK!” And while the venom continued to build within the counter-protestors, the majority of them never realized that their hatred toward their fellow men and women is not very different at all than the hatred of the KKK. In one sense “hate is hate”. It’s much easier to feel justified in our hate when we are part of a majority that hates the actions or beliefs of a minority, but reality is that hatred is hatred. It eats our souls, consumes us, and eventually spits out our bones.

I was also disappointed with the counter-protestors comments and reaction to the police presence. Printed signs and vocal chants of “Cops and Klan go hand in hand” were seen and heard throughout the park. People yelling at state and city police officers, “Why are you protecting them?”, “Is this how our tax dollars are being spent?”, and “You’re just as bad as the KKK!” were heard through the duration of the rally and afterwards. The negativity toward the police was so bad that I stopped filming for a while and instead walked the entire media moat that separated the crowd from the KKK and told every police officer I saw (probably 30 of them) “Thank you!” for doing their job. I wanted each of them to know that at least someone appreciated what they were doing. And what exactly were they doing? They were not there to protect the KKK (even though they did that as part of their jobs) but they were there to protect the voice of dissent. And for that I am unbelievably grateful. The police presence alone probably cost the city $100,000 or more. And as I stood there watching the Ku Klux Klan spread their venom, I thought to myself, “Thank God I live in a country that allows these voices I disagree with to be heard” and “Thank God we pay our police to help make this type of event safer for everyone.”

So this is our America; a place where haters can apply for a demonstration permit and have it granted, a place where counter-protestors can believe their hatred is more “pure”, “just”, “moral”, or “righteous” than the other guy’s hatred, and a place where police officers will get up in the morning to do their job to the best of their abilities all while hoping they’ll get to come home that night and tuck their kids into bed. I won’t soon forget talking to a black, female police officer at the rally yesterday. I thanked her for doing her job and mentioned something about this having to be one of the craziest days for her on the force. Her sigh, head nod, and the look in her eye told me I was 100% right.

Screenwriting: Writing Your No-Budget Feature

I wrote this article back in 1999, but when I recently re-read it I realized there is a lot of valuable information for no-budget screenwriters to consider. So without further adieu…


Fade In:  The bus flies over the cliff. The airplane misses the runway. The stadium is packed with screaming fans. These are scenes you do not want to find anywhere near the script for your no-budget feature. Why? Because you have no budget and these scenes require money… and often quite a bit of money.

The first screenplay I ever completed was a thrilling adventure of a young U.S. serviceman who had to escape from Russia with top secret documents and, of course, he fell in love along the way. Russian Skies included location shooting in Russia, Norway, and the United States. It also required a high-altitude hydrogen balloon, a submarine, and to top it off, it was a period piece set in 1956.

This screenplay was obviously written for a Hollywood-type and has collected far more dust than I ever thought it would. Over the next few years I continued writing for big, juicy budgets and along the way I discovered something… my screenplays were not getting produced! Yikes! So I decided to do something about it and I set out to produce my own no-budget feature.

When I started writing When Love Walks In (my no-budget project) I was forced to look at things very differently. I knew from the beginning that filming in my living room would cost far less than filming in some foreign country. So I decided on a modern day love story, cast myself as the lead, and begged my wife to let a film crew take over our house.

Filming a scene in the dining room into the living room of my duplex where we shot When Love Walks In. Notice our flatbed garden dolly which we bought for $99. It wasn’t perfect, but it did the job for this low-budget feature.

Writing no-budget films is very different than writing your average Hollywood feature. For starters, with a no-budget project you most likely will be using no-name talent. This means many things, but most importantly it means that you had better have a very good story to tell. It is your story and your story alone which will keep the audience watching. Make it the best it can be.

Your story also must be shootable. What does this mean? It means don’t include a bus careening over a cliff unless you have someone willing to donate a bus, a cliff, and a stunt man to your cause.

Carefully consider the locations you will need. As I got further into my script, I started exploring what locations I might have or realistically be able to get access to. I knew I could use my living room… and my bedroom, guest room, and bathroom… not to mention kitchen, dining room, basement, deck and yard. These locations would not add much production value, but they would be very functional for a good chunk of the film.

My house was the only location I could guarantee use of, and to tell the story of When Love Walks In, I would need two more houses, a park, an outdoor mall, a couple fields, a daycare center, a vineyard, an art gallery, and a train station. For these I would have to rely on the generous people of my community (and a few insane friends). In remarkable fashion, they all came through for me.

Prepping to film the climatic scene at the train station where John Redgrave catches up to Annelise and begs her not to leave. At the time the old train depot was a library so we coordinated with our local librarian to secure the location for this scene.

Here are several other areas to consider when writing your no-budget feature:

  • Characters – Will you find actors who can play your roles? For free? For points?
  • Number of Locations – The more locations required, the more complicated and costly production will be.
  • Props – Can you get everything you need? Can you afford to buy them? What do you have sitting around the house? Who can you borrow from? (I needed an urn to hold the dead wife’s ashes, so I asked the minister of my church. He pointed me to a man in our congregation who owns a funeral home. This man was thrilled to help.)
  • Vehicles – Can cast members drive their own cars in the movie? For example, if the person playing the part of John owns a 1985 Mazda with three hubcaps and no paint, then in the movie John drives the Mazda… unless he can talk the soundman into lending his car.
  • Wardrobe – Be prepared to raid your actor’s closets and visit Goodwill.
  • Stunts – Keep them to a minimum if you need them at all.
  • Extras – Watch out for scenes requiring a lot of extras.

Be practical as you write your no-budget feature. Write it shootable… but most importantly just write it. If you don’t get the script finished you’ll never make the film. And if you never make the film, you will never experience the thrill of no-budget filmmaking.

Some of the cast & crew from When Love Walks In. Left to right: David Oulashian, Brad Embree, Karen Williamson, Savannah Williamson, Ahmad Russell, Terri Moore, Nick Bovee, Chase Williamson, Kent C. Williamson, Ardath Williamson, Ed Williamson, Brad Williamson, and Morris Priddy

2017 UPDATE: A couple of items of interest… Russian Skies the high-budget screenplay mentioned in this article still has not been produced (which means it’s still available or still collecting dust depending on your take). When Love Walks In wasn’t released until 2005. It won a number of awards at festivals and is still finding audiences today.

Not Just Another Podcast

On March 8th another podcast will launch and in doing so it will become part of the enormous heap of podcast material that is available for consumption. So why is this new one significant? I’ll get to that in a moment, but first a few stats. Podcasting has seen enormous growth since it’s inception in 2003. So why do we need another one? In 2015 it was estimated that between 180,000 and 206,000 podcasts had been created and those numbers have only grown since. Again, why do we need more?

There are podcasts on pretty much every conceivable topic that reach out to a wide variety of demographics, which means that if you create a new one, it needs to be unique. This new one is. The way I look at is that it should have broad topic appeal, and yet be tailored to a specific audience. Yep! The infographic at the end of this article (courtesy of Jon Nastor & Copyblogger) gives a great summary of the history and state of the podcast industry.

So let’s talk a little about this new podcast that will launch on March 8th. It’s called the By War & By God Podcast. Although not at all preachy, it has a Christian angle to it, which places it right into the largest podcast segment that exists (see the infographic below). Potential broad appeal. The podcast is based on the EMMY® nominated film By War & By God, which also places it into the 4th largest podcast segment “TV and Film” (see the infographic). More potential broad appeal. The series will focus on the Vietnam war veterans who appear in the film, but in the podcast we have room to go much deeper into their stories than the film was able to. So there is a war element to this series. Big deal, there are a lot of other war podcasts out there. But what makes the By War & By God Podcast unique is that this group of Veterans goes back to Vietnam to love and serve the people of that beautiful land. Whoa… That is unique! That aspect of the podcast will help us stand out from the crowd.

With the success of major recent films like Last Days In Vietnam there has been a renewed interest in the Vietnam War. It’s hard to believe that it’s been over 40 years since that war ended which means there is a huge potential audience of people that didn’t watch that war on the news every night. Many of these have never heard the personal stories from the soldiers themselves and that’s a part of what this new podcast will do. But the podcast is much bigger than merely sharing stories of the war. It’s a podcast about reconciliation. That’s a big word. Most of the men in the film and the podcast came home from that war wondering why they survived when many of their friends didn’t. They felt the survivors guilt. Some self-medicated to try to cope. Others tried to blend into society, but couldn’t. And each of them felt the need inside for some type of reconciliation. Some felt they had destroyed the country of Vietnam. Others felt they had destroyed the people of Vietnam. And most of them sensed this magnetic pull to go back to the land of the war. They sensed a need for reconciliation between themselves and the land, the people of Vietnam, their enemies, and ultimately between their souls and God. Since 1989 these Vets With A Mission have taken nearly 1400 veterans back to Vietnam as part of this ministry of reconciliation. Who knew this type of work was taking place?

So on Wednesday March 8th, we launch this very unique podcast. I hope you’ll join us as we share the stories of these great men and women who fought in a war, but who became heroes many years after that war was over by going back and serving some of the poorest of the poor in Vietnam. Take a few minutes and listen to the preview episode of the By War & By God Podcast right now. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, so check it out and please subscribe.

Here’s the infographic that shows the history and details of podcasting…

From 2003 to 2016: The Astounding Growth of Podcasting [Infographic]

Buy Local… Art

The film industry is changing tremendously. With streaming technologies taking a stronghold on the market, the filmmaker is put at an extreme disadvantage. The streaming stronghold has become the streaming stranglehold. What happened to musicians a few years back with the advent of iTunes is now happening to filmmakers. People can get access to content in more places more easily than ever before. More bandwidth equals more streaming movies every single day. Simultaneously, consumers are looking for the best possible deal on their entertainment. So, a monthly subscription to streaming services like Netflix has huge advantages to the consumer. Unfortunately, the consumer’s advantage is the filmmaker’s disadvantage.

The idea of paying one low monthly fee for as many movies as you’d like to watch is extremely appealing, but it’s not without its repercussions. And the independent filmmaker is the one takes the brunt of it. Think about it for a moment–if you pay $7.99 a month and in that month you consume 10 movies, that means you paid 79¢ for each film you enjoyed. How much of that money do you actually think ends up back in the hands of the filmmaker? Netflix spends a lot of it’s money on deals with large studios to secure big name pictures with big name actors. The independent filmmaker on the other hand is typically not getting the big dollar deal. Their payment is much more conservative and is often delivered as one single upfront payment. For those who may not know, the independent filmmaker is not in a position to work directly with Netflix — they must go through an aggregator in order to secure a spot on the Netflix roster. This means that the small, meager payment actually goes directly to the distributor or aggregator, before it’s split with the filmmaker. Each filmmaker has a different deal with their distributor but the percentage that the filmmaker receives can often be the smaller portion of the split.

So let’s talk specifics about a few deals in which I’ve been involved. The first distribution deal that I signed for my film Rebellion of Thought was structured like this: 80% to the distributor and 20% to me as the filmmaker. This deal was for traditional media in box stores as well as online sales. The film had a retail price of $22.95, but let’s just use $20 for this example. When the retailer received $20 for the DVD, he had already purchased the DVD from the distributor at whatever agreed upon price. Let’s say $10, which is often the case, unless a deeper discount was applied from the wholesaler. With our example the DVD sells for $20 to the consumer, giving $10 to the retailer and $10 to the distributor, then as the filmmaker I’d receive my 20%, or two dollars. The distributor gets the lion’s share of the money because they are doing the duplication of the film as well as the marketing for the placement of the product. So, if someone buys a film at a traditional retailer for $20, the filmmaker can end up with as little as two dollars. You can see how an independent filmmaker needs to sell a lot of movies in order to make a living doing what he’s attempting to do.

Now lets look at streaming. The cost to prepare a film for streaming media platforms is much less than the cost of DVD replication. A single file of the film is made and it is converted into whatever format the distribution platform needs and typically delivered on hard drive or via upload. There are no replication costs like you would have for traditional media. So this can be advantageous to the filmmaker, because the lower the cost for the distributor, the higher the percentage the filmmaker may be able to secure on a streaming deal. So, for example, on one of my recent films our deal looked like this. 40% for the distributor and 60% for me, the filmmaker. Now, with streaming I’m able to end up with more of the received money than I ever was able to with DVD distribution, but it’s not not all so rosy when you look at the various streaming platforms.

My current distributor shies away from platforms like Netflix that only offer one time payments because it can be a disadvantage to the filmmaker in the long run. Instead, he opts for platforms such as Amazon Instant, Vudu, Vimeo On Demand, Google Play, etc. These services are pay-to-play options where the consumer has to pay specifically for the films they want to watch. This means that each time someone rents or purchases a digital copy from one of these services, the filmmaker benefits.

So let’s look at how the money gets split with a pay-to-play option. Say you rent a movie on one of the streaming platforms for $4. The money is split between the platform and the distributor based on whatever deal each distributor negotiates with the platform. For our example let’s say it’s split 50-50. So with our $4 example, the platform gets two dollars and the distributor gets two dollars. The distributor then split his two dollars with me the filmmaker at our agreed-upon rate; in this case 60% to me and 40% to him. So, on a $4 stream, I, the filmmaker, end up with $1.20. Once again, I have to sell a enormous number of streams of my film in order for it ever to become profitable. In the case of my recent film I spent almost 7 years making the picture and obviously, apart from a miracle, I would never be able to recoup the money for the time invested in the project. There’s a saying I like to use when it comes to filmmaking… “We’re not in it for the money, but without the money, we’re not in it!”

Now let’s address physical DVD’s, a form of media that, since the closing of your local Blockbuster, have been on the steady decline. A packaged DVD of my current film costs approximately three dollars per disc plus advertising and marketing costs. On a side note, each copy of this DVD contains a 48-page full-color study guide, which is why it costs twice as much as your typical DVD to create… oh, and these costs do not include the cost of writing, layout, design, artwork, or programming the disc and support materials. This brings us back to the importance of the DVD and of buying your copy directly from the filmmaker.

Let’s go back to our earlier example of a $20 DVD purchase. Let’s say that you buy that same $20 DVD directly from me the filmmaker. I don’t receive all of that money, because I had to invest in the replication of the DVD media and the advertising of the product. With my current film the DVD contains 48 page full-color study guide companion to the film. So, my costs to create The DVD package are approximately three dollars per disc plus advertising. As you can see, I as a filmmaker receive a much larger portion of the money when you buy the DVD directly from me.

Another long-term benefit of the physical DVD or Blu-ray is that it advertises itself. Simply put, it exists in tangible form. The disc may sit on a shelf, but in doing so, it’s always there to remind you of the film, to encourage you to watch it again, to be shared with another person, to help extend the life and awareness of the film. You can’t do this with a stream of a film. Sure, you can purchase a download of a film, but it sits hidden on a hard drive somewhere and certainly doesn’t advertise itself in the way traditional media does.

I’m encouraged to see big box stores beginning to sell movies on Ultra HD Blu-ray. This gives hope to the future of disc-based media. As long as content can be created at a higher resolution than the bandwidth your average home internet connection can allow, there may be hope for films on disc.

Much of these same economics apply to musicians, painters, authors, etc.—any artist who makes a product and sells it. With so much attention being placed on “buy local” I would like to add to that: “by local art”. And of course with the Internet you don’t have to be local to purchase films from an independent filmmaker. You can go directly to most any indy filmmakers website and purchase their films, whether on DVD or through streaming. When you do this you encourage us far more than you will ever imagine. Every time an order comes through our website, it gives us reason to celebrate. It encourages us to continue pursuing these arts. And it helps us feed our families. So please… buy local art.


If you are interested in buying a physical, tangible, old school DVD of any of my films directly from me, they are available online at Big Heaven Cafe.

How many “F****” are too many in a film?

WARNING: This post contains a few words some readers may find offensive!

Motion Pictures have not always been saturated with vulgarities. And before you click away thinking my argument is one for purity of language within cinema, please don’t… two of my recent films contain the F-word. I’m writing instead to show how much the industry has changed since 1939 when the world first heard the word “damn” from the silver screen.

In the early days of Hollywood there was much more concern and respect for what audiences saw and heard. Filmmakers and studio heads were not quick to alienate the movie-going public. There were a few attempts at codifying some principals and guidelines for filmmakers that culminated in 1930 with the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code or the Hays Code as some call it, in reference to it’s author William H. Hays.

The Production Code provided a list of Don’ts and Be Carefuls that helped guide filmmakers and the industry from 1934, when it was enforced, to 1968 when the rating system was introduced. Some of the Dont’s on the list included “pointed profanity,” “licentious or suggestive nudity,” and the “ridicule of the clergy,” while some of the Be Carefuls were “the use of firearms,” “sympathy for criminals,” and “man and woman in bed together.” This list obviously speaks to the sensitivities of the general public of the time, but also to the responsibility that filmmakers took, realizing that their films were cultural influencers.

In October of 1939, producer & studio executive, David O. Selznick wrote a letter to the overseer of the production code, Mr. Will Hays. Selznick requested special permission to use the word “damn” in the now immortalized line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” in his film Gone With the Wind. Think about that… a Producer requesting permission to use the D-word! And he did it with such elegance and conviction that only a genius from 1939 could have pulled off (see the full letter below). The film itself would go on to win 10 Academy Awards.

In the letter Selznick tried to convince Hays that this one exception of “damn” wouldn’t lead to more.

“I do not feel that your giving me permission to use “damn” in this one sentence,” Selznick wrote, “will open up the floodgates and allow every gangster picture to be peppered with “damns” from end to end.”

Selznick was right and unfortunately he was wrong. In 1990 Martin Scorsese’s gangster film Goodfellas was not peppered with “damns”, but instead with “fucks”. As Michael Medved pointed out in his book Hollywood vs. America, the 146 minute Goodfellas contained 246 F-words… peppered from end to end.

Do audiences really want more F-words? Medved included a quote in his book by Richard Pine, a respected literary agent in the business, who said, “Nobody ever walked out of a movie and said, ‘Gee, that was a great picture, but the only problem was they didn’t say “Fuck” enough.’ Who thinks like that?”

So how many “F****” are too many? I, personally, would think that perhaps 246 should probably be considered a tad “excessive”. But that’s just me. In 2013, Martin Scorsese would go on to break his own record in his film The Wolf of Wall Street. His new personal best over doubled his previous high with more than 500 uses of the F-word.

My films, on the other hand, pale in comparison. Rebellion of Thought and Stained Glass Rainbows each use the F-word only once and both times it occurs in spontaneous man-on-the-street interviews where I felt it made sense to leave it in the picture based on the context and content. In both cases it gives insight into the characters, the environment, and is not used in a gratuitous manner.

We’ve come long, long way since 1939. I wonder what a Martin Scorsese picture would look like if he would make one under the guidelines of Motion Picture Production Code of 1930. My guess is that he would do a brilliant job with it and that most audiences would not consider it puritan. Today, many filmmakers no longer consider the weight of their role and their responsibility to the movie-going public. And unfortunately, if you complain about it, I’m afraid they might just say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a f***”.


 

I’ve included Selznick’s letter in its entirety below. It’s well worth the read.

Selznick Pleads to Retain Famous Line

October 29, 1939
Hollywood. California

Dear Mr. Hays—

As you probably know. the punch line of Gone With the Wind, the one bit of dialogue which forever establishes the future relationship between Scarlett and Rhett, is, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Naturally I am most desirous of keeping this line and, to judge from the reactions of two preview audiences, this line ls remembered, loved, and looked forward to by the millions who have read this new American classic.

Under the code, Joe Breen is unable to give me permission to use this sentence because it contains the word “damn,” a word specifically forbidden by the code.

As you know from my previous work with such pictures as David Copperfield. Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Tale of Two Cities, etc., I have always attempted to live up to the spirit as well as the exact letter of the producer’s code. Therefore. my asking you to review the case, to look at the strip of film in which this forbidden word is contained, is not motivated by a whim. A great deal of the force and drama of Gone With the Wind, a project to which we have given three years of hard work and hard thought, is dependent upon that word.

It is my contention that this word as used in the picture is not an oath or a curse. The worst that could be said against it is that it is a vulgarism, and it is so described in the Oxford English Dictionary. Nor do i feel that in asking you to make an exception in this case, I am asking for the use of a word which Is considered reprehensible by the great majority of American people and institutions. A canvass of the popular magazines shows that even such moral publications as Woman’s Home Companion, Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s and The Atlantic Monthly, use this word freely. i understand the difference, as outlined in the code, between the written word and the word spoken from the screen, but at the same time l think the attitude of these magazines toward “damn” gives an indication that the word itself is not considered abhorrent or shocking to audiences.

I do not feel that your giving me permission to use “damn” in this one sentence will open up the floodgates and allow every gangster picture to be peppered with “damns” from end to end. I do believe, however, that if you were to permit our using this dramatic word in its rightfully dramatic place, in a line that is known and remembered by millions of renders, it would establish a helpful precedent, a precedent which would give to Joe Breen discretionary powers to allow the use of certain harmless oaths and ejaculations whenever. in his opinion, they are not prejudicial to public morals.

David O. Selznick2

2 Letter from David O. Selznick to Will Hays, from David O. Selznick Collection. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin.