Problems with Get Out & Moonlight For Indie Filmmakers

What are the problems with Get Out and Moonlight? It takes away all excuse from indie filmmakers on getting the job done right. For next to no money. Just story, craft and get’er done is all it takes to make a splash with your film. [Spoilers]

Story

[Spoiler] Moonlight is the story of a poor, urban american, black, gay kid, “Coming of Age.” Sounds simple. It is simple. It’s done well, but it’s simple. Writer / Director Barry Jenkins doesn’t even follow the normal story structure, but instead Boyhood’s it and tells the story in three acts, that are actually three short films. A compilation of three short films were found to be the best movie of the year. Fa real.

How does he do this? He does this by telling a specific story, that humanizes the main character and gets past cliche. When I says ‘humanizes’ I don’t mean he makes the character simply sympathetic, but he helps us understand the character’s motivations, and how and why he is who and where he is. So Chiron ends up a drug dealer, just like his ‘hero’ Juan, but we don’t judge Chiron negatively, despite the irony of his mother being a drug addict.

So what’s the lesson? Tell the story of someone who’s complicated, and help us understand how they’re complicated just like everyone else.

[Spoiler] Get Out is the story of a black guy dating a white girl who goes home with her to meet her murderous parents. Is it simple? Yes. Has this story been told before? In part. As a drama (Guess who’s coming to dinner) as a comedy (Meet the Faulkers) but never as a bi-racial horror film. So where as Get Out doesn’t reinvent the wheel (Rosemary’s Baby, Stepford Wives, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Guess who’s coming to Dinner, and for those who love deep cuts, The Dutchman) it blends and bends genre to a Tarantino level of genius.

How does he do it? He follows the horror formula but touches on something new, in this case the perspective of African American men in white American society. (I’ve heard the film gives short shrift to the African American woman perspective. That could be your next movie.) So a metaphor for this could be painting a Matisse with pencils, or in low budget filmmaking, with crayons or chalk.

The studio’s attempt this all the time, riffing off older films and remixing them, but the studio system isn’t as dexterous and dynamic as Indie Filmmakers with this. Just think of all the horror remakes we’ve had these days: The ring, Halloween, Evil Dead, The Fly, Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm street, and the Mummy just to name a dozen. These aren’t sequels, they’re just out and out remakes. Studios do this to refresh old intellectual property for new audiences, but since these properties have value, rarely do studios veer too far from the original script. Indy filmmakers have nothing to lose taking iconic elements from these stories, and crafting small, relevant films that people actually want to see! I mean really, the exorcist is still an amazing film, what’s the use of remaking it? But what if you exorcise someone of their race, or their class, or their great character flaw? You don’t need the effects and shot for shot detail used in the Exorcist, you just evoke it.

The lesson? Shake it up, flip it, rub it down. Work that old school flow with a new school twist.

Craft

Let me be clear, Barry Jenkins and Jordan Peele are experienced filmmakers. And they have millions of dollars to pay crew to put the projects together right. But, as much emphasis and care that they put into the script, they also put into wardrobe, shots sequences, set decoration, color pallet, sound design and score. And just because you don’t have that budget, doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore these elements of the filmmaking craft.

Look, am I saying you need to be good at all of these jobs that legitimately should have department heads and department staff below? Even though you don’t have millions of dollars? Even though you might have to do half, or maybe all of these jobs by yourself? Yup. If you’re working on a film, these things need to be addressed. If you’re the director, you’ll be blamed for the decisions that are made. (If you don’t have money to pay people, learn to be delicate and diplomatic to get your way) What CANNOT happen, is that these elements be ignored, if you want your film to be any more than “meah.” (To be honest, your first effort will be meah, but you gotta get past that.)

Gett’er Done.

Hands up, Get Out had a $4 million dollar budget, and even at the least expensive film to win best picture, Moonlight still had $1.5 million to spend. But neither happened over night. What both filmmakers did in the meantime, was practice and make stuff.

Jordan Peele worked on Mad TV, did some short films and then got the popular Key & Peele show on Comedy Central. What’s this got to do with anything? It allowed him to be on set, write, direct and possibly most importantly, see experts doing what they do. He had access to essentially observe all the moving parts of tone, story, performance and post, so when he got his turn at bat, he knocked it out the park. There’s the myth in Hollywood of the ‘overnight success’ and Jordan Peele is an overnight success 10-12 years in the making. He developed a brand as a half of a comedy duo, established himself as one of the best comedians of our time. All in all, he’s a reasonable flight risk for Blumhouse productions to invest money in, and he’s got a brand that makes marketing a breeze. Not a sure fire way to take a 4 million dollar film and make 100 million in profits, but this time, it worked.

Barry Jenkins went out and made a movie, Medicine for Melancholy. It’s a very sensitive, beautiful evocative film about a couple not quite falling in love after a one night stand. And super low budget. The official budget was $15,000 according to Wikipedia. He proved that he could do the work. Medicine got him lots of meetings and project deals, but according to many interviews during the Moonlight Oscar campaign, multiple projects he developed didn’t work out or come to fruition, and then Moonlight came along. Did he get discouraged and couch his emotional bets on this next film project that also didn’t get made? Nope. He got in there, translated the play to a cinematic masterpiece, before he even had a budget in place. Fate would have it, a run in with the producers of Plan B, netted him the financing, and he was able to shoot and distribute Moonlight. And the rest, they say, is history. This story is not important because he won some Oscars: it’s an example of how even when you’re talented, the best laid plans don’t always come to fruition. Barry and his production team were able to press through the no’s to get to the yes. Which has nothing to do with the craft of filmmaking, and everything to do with filmmaking.

These are the lessons I take from Get Out and Moonlight. I hope they serve you as well as they’ve served me.

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