Or: How you too, can develop good taste and class
“I’m a writer/director so my job descriptions is: don’t screw up. This translates day-to-day as prep, prep, prep times a million.”
For a while, I had the pleasure of sharing Sunday nights with Jason and my roommate and discussed Walking Dead (editor’s note: Walking Dead Season 5.2 Premiers this Sunday Feb 8) and fine philosophical points of writing, acting, and plot. Jason describes our meeting here:
Jason Akina: I met you catching the premiere of this season’s Walking Dead at your apartment, because I knew your roommate. Anyway, the Walking Dead interested me because Frank Darabont (creator of the show) directed the first episode of WD, which is great. He’s a writer/director, whom I admired from The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. I like that his stuff is character driven, because I’m interested in well-developed characters more than plot. That’s the stuff I love to watch and write. How does a character live in this situation? Rather than, what happens to a character, and then what do they do, and what happens next?
Born and raised on Maui. I am the seventh child of eight, and I have the best family. Seriously, they’re the best to road trip with. I attended BYU Provo which is a rad school, but studying films and making them and finding a professional mentor can’t be beat–and it’s usually cheaper, except maybe not in BYU’s case. Currently, I work part-time making videos for a supplement company and part-time as a filmmaker.
“When you finish your storyboards, you’ve made the worst version of the movie that exists. So then you keep redrawing the storyboards to improve the movie cinematically. And sometimes that means you rewrite the script based on a discovery in the storyboards.”
Michael Bacera: So the film industry has always held a special place in my heart. Maybe it’s because I love movies, and I love movie writing. Maybe it’s because I’ve had so many family and friends who have been able to be involved in some way. Maybe because it is an art form that combines so much technical, creative, social, business, publicity aspects all into one media form. How did you get into the Film Industry? And while we are at it, how do you suggest others get into it?
Jason Akinaka: How DID I get into the film industry? Well, I decided that I wanted to write and direct, and then I did it after a long period of saying to myself, “But wait, doesn’t someone have to give me permission?”
How should others go about getting into the industry? First, talk to someone who is in it and knows what they are doing. Unfortunately, I haven’t made it yet, so I’m a bad resource. But, aren’t we all like 6 degrees from Kevin Bacon? He’s made it. Talk to him everybody.
MB: Okay, tell us about your job! What is your title, and what does that mean? And then what do you do on a day to day basis?
JA: I’m a writer/director so my job descriptions is: don’t screw up. This translates day-to-day as prep, prep, prep times a million. You’re a writer, so I won’t say much on that, except that SCREENwriting is a very fluid thing because in the end it’s a movie people see, not a script. So you finish a solid draft. Then you storyboard and rewrite your script accordingly. Also, dialog gets rewritten once you start rehearsing, as does some of the action. As far as directing goes, it means you have the final say on every aspect of filmmaking (and sometimes that means the final edit and marketing too). But again, this means you have to be ready to make decisions and that takes prep, prep, prep. See? BOOOOOOORING.
MB: That doesn’t sound boring at all. Sounds like a lot of responsibility actually. Okay, so I want to focus really quick on the Screenwriting and Storyboarding cycle. I didn’t know it was something you modified on the go, for one. Tell me more about that.
JA: M. Night said it best on the DVD extras of the Sixth Sense: when you finish your storyboards, you’ve made the worst version of the movie that exists. So then you keep redrawing the storyboards to improve the movie cinematically. And sometimes that means you rewrite the script based on a discovery in the storyboards. For example, you might storyboard a chase scene in a car with a lot of angles and cuts. And then you might restoryboard the scene to have no cuts where the camera behaves omnisciently and travels through the car seamlessly with the actions and then the reactions of the characters. Without the cut, you increase the tension because the brain doesn’t hit any commas or periods if you will. And that’s how Alfonso Cuaron shot the car chase scene in Children of Men and man, it’s intense. Perhaps any other director would have shot that scene in the traditional sense, with cuts. And no doubt, because Alfonso didn’t, it affected the how the scene was written in terms of what action happened and character interactions. Also, a lot of the time, actors will discover more about the character they play then you could ever know as a writer/director. So sometimes the actor knows better the nuances in the actions the character would make and the things they would say. That’s when you rewrite a script in rehearsals. Typically, those are small but fantastic/magical changes. Rarely is it a change in the overall story structure.
MB: Ha, I can’t believe you quoted M. Night Shamalama Ding Dong, but okay, good advice is good advice. Next question: so the very first time I met you, you were scouting out a location for a film. Tell me about that process, because I remember it was a rather fun adventure.
JA: Anyway, scouting. Pretty much any answer I give you is going to be heavily restricted to a poor filmmaker’s budget. Basically, the story, lighting, and sound dictate the location with story being paramount. The type of lighting tells you what you can film. The question you ask about sound is, “Can I shoot clear dialog here or is will we be constantly bothered by that TRAIN?” Finally, I don’t look for an interesting location. I look for something that communicates the right tone. For example, I shot a scene in an fancy toy store because the story called for a tragic event to happen to a kid in his favorite place on earth. The truth in that is that tragedies ruin the best things in life.
MB: Oh, I love that last line. And it’s true too! Okay, so the dollar and cents question: How do you make money making/writing/shooting film media?
JA: From what I’ve gleaned from my buddy who’s part of a writing/directing team who are “making it” as we speak is that it’s a game of selling you. People don’t buy your next feature (especially when you haven’t made one yet; or for that matter if you’re Martin Scorsese, cuz that dude can make any movie he wants now). A director sells movies to a small degree, so you have to be a hot commodity. This comes from good taste. And I think you either have it or you don’t, to some degree. And if right now, you don’t have it, unlock it by enjoying the finer things in life (good food, good music, good movies, good writing, etc). You’ll start to see where you fall in among all those things, sensibilities wise, and if there’s a place for you, then welcome to Babylon. Good taste is what’s going to make you matter. It’s what your job is. The costume person will come to you: this or this? And you’ll have to choose the right this. And over and over again with the story beats, the acting choices, the editing, the everything.
Of course, it’s a team effort, and the cast and crew bring their invaluable good taste to the work, but it’s your vision they are following. A director makes or breaks a movie, everytime. When you’ve gotten to a place where you are proud of your work and want others to see it, go ahead and show them. Ask your Kevin Bacon to watch it (if he hasn’t already helped you make it, edit it, score it, etc) and see if he thinks he would be happy to pass it on to someone “up there” who will help you get more work. Or if he kindly says, you should take it to festivals, take the hint and take it to festivals. And that’s where my advice ends. Festivals are weird and you just want to find one that’s gonna love you and your specific movie. The end.
*BONUS QUESTION* MB: We gotta do favorite movies!
JA: Favorite movies? This is embarrassing because I haven’t seen that many movies and because I have a horrible long term memory anyway. Here’s a list of some of my favorites: Casablanca, Matrix, Lion King, Princess Bride, Big Lebowski, Shutter Island, The Departed, Beetlejuice, The Princess Bride, The Silence of the Lambs, The Road. I should probably admit here that I haven’t seen Apocalypse Now, Godfather, Goodfellas, and that I’ve seen 2001, but it goes way over my head with the second half of the film in a way that is not good? Oh, and High and Low on Hulu. And Magnolia (Jason: Not Steel Magnolias!)
The Writing Process
“Finally, I don’t look for an interesting location. I look for something that communicates the right tone. For example, I shot a scene in an fancy toy store because the story called for a tragic event to happen to a kid in his favorite place on earth. The truth in that is that tragedies ruin the best things in life.”
So what can an aspiring author learn from Jason’s experience in the film industry?
“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.” – George R.R. Martin
Myself, I am an architect: I love the planning and the world building, but I also found great success with letting my characters run around in my world and discover who they are by free writing or writing drafts. Just like how Jason says
“Also, a lot of the time, actors will discover more about the character they play then you could ever know as a writer/director. So sometimes the actor knows better the nuances in the actions the character would make and the things they would say. That’s when you rewrite a script in rehearsals. Typically, those are small but fantastic/magical changes.”
I like this idea a lot because in a well written book, our characters should take a life of their own. If you have a character profile, (and this is a silly example, but true) to have a certain catch phrase, but as you discover the character, he says to you, “Hey, no offense, but I would never say such a thing,” then don’t force them to say it.
Note: I had a character pegged to use the catch phrase from Great Gatsby, “Old sport”, and as I wrote him, he kept resisting the catch phrase. Every time I wrote him saying that, it sounded awkward. So I decided to scrap the catch phrase, and discovered that he already had one, just from organically exploring the character.
Basically, your outline should be the worst version of the book, and when necessary, the story should break the story board/outline. Your outline should be subject to telling a good story, not the other way around.
2. Settings and location
I think a lot of times, as speculative fiction writers, we have the option to set our stories in these spectacular locals (speculative, spectacular, cool huh?), and that is great to inspire the awe and wonder aspect of being transferred to a new world, which is one of the reasons why we read and write speculative. But Jason brings up a good point that, sometimes, we can choose small quiet places to communicate the right tone. Remember that, despite having an amazing Second World Location, the Lord of the Rings begins and ends in a locale that is rather humble. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
Choose your locals wisely, and in the spirit of “everything you write should serve more than one purpose”, locales should “communicate the right tone”. Sometimes small and quiet places are just as effective as expansive and fantastic places, or even more effective, in conveying a certain tone. A character doesn’t long for an amazing mansion with fireworks and trained acrobats, he longs for his quiet peaceful home. Even Gatsby, who had an amazing mansion with fireworks and trained acrobats, was longing for something quiet and peaceful.
In fact, a very effective motif that I have read oft times, is the character returning to home, and realizing that everything has changed. Not necessarily because the location has changed, but because the character himself/herself has changed.
“And then you realize, that you can never come home. Because you have changed, and even if you return home, it will not be the same.” – Tracy Hickman, on Writing the Epic Storyline
This is, of course, related to the Joseph Campbell mono-myth I’ve mentioned before, and is the last part of the cycle.
The big takeaway here is that, just because as writers we don’t need to be conservative and reserved with our choice of settings when compared to film directors and location scouts, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be. Pick your settings carefully so they can be impactful.
3. Good Taste
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass
However, there is a way to develop good taste, and that is to experience what good movies, books, music, etc is. Now, I don’t want to sound pretentious and say you should only partake in critically acclaimed pieces, but you should vary your background. Watching, listening, and reading the best should give you ideas of how these problems have been solved before. Because at the heart of every story is the problem “how do I tell this story in the way it wants to be told.”
The fact is you can and you should develop good taste. It’s a lot like table manners (and manners in general). Even if you are going to decide not to abide by the standard, you should be aware of what the standard is. So even good film makers (and writers) can break these rules intentionally, because they are aware the rule exists and understand it. For writers, rules of grammar, cliche, structure are important to know even if you plan to break them. The important part is intent: If you appear to intentionally break the rules (for a purpose) you look like a genius. If you appear to unintentionally break the rules, you appear like an amateur. I really like Jason’s quote in the following:
“This comes from good taste. And I think you either have it or you don’t, to some degree. And if right now, you don’t have it, unlock it by enjoying the finer things in life (good food, good music, good movies, good writing, etc). You’ll start to see where you fall in among all those things, sensibilities wise, and if there’s a place for you, then welcome to Babylon. Good taste is what’s going to make you matter. It’s what your job is. The costume person will come to you: this or this? And you’ll have to choose the right this. And over and over again with the story beats, the acting choices, the editing, the everything.”
Good taste is a quality that comes into play in many aspects of life. Social events, formal dinner, grammar, design, dress and fashion: it is better to be in Good taste than in Bad taste.
“I like that his stuff is character driven, because I’m interested in well-developed characters more than plot. That’s the stuff I love to watch and write.”
I’d like to thank Jason for taking the time to this interview. We were both incredibly busy, so I am glad we were both able to barely squeeze it into our schedule to get this done.
If you’d like to follow Jason on Instagram his account is: intimatewithstrangers
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