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9May/110

The High Concept of The Cheat Sheet

The first ever (but I'm guessing not the last ever) "The Cheat Sheet" film festival was a bigger success than I would have ever imagined.  Certainly something I didn't completely think would ever come to fruition when I began writing the first story from the collection, "The References," less than two years ago in December of 2009.

In the movie business there's a term:  high concept.

It refers to a work that can easily be described in a succinctly stated premise.  One sentence or so.

Now, this term is often used disparagingly, but I don't think it needs to be.  In fact, I intentionally wrote all eleven "Cheat Sheet" stories to be as high concept as possible (check out the succinctly stated premises on the book's Amazon page).  I wrote the stories with an eye for them one day being adapted for screen--and easily at that.

Most short stories are pure literary exercises, writerly masturbations--a man lying in bed dying while thinking about his life, for example--which is about as low concept and un-exhilarating for screen as humanly possible.

But, just because a story is high concept, just because you set up a strong plot backbone in the original material, doesn't mean the film will be great.  Execution is key and it's so easy to fuck up a good idea with a few errors here and there, a little bit of uncontrollable bad luck.  Until you've made a film yourself, you'll just never know how damn hard it is.

These Syracuse students that participated in the adaptation process via Tula Goenka's upper level filmmaking class worked tirelessly on the films from late January when I first came to class to tell them the assignment all the way to, in some cases, putting the final edits on a film a few hours before the festival!

It's grueling work turning a twenty-five page story into a fifteen minute movie, but the kids--I call them kids--pulled it off.  All four films were damn good.  Not flawless, of course, that will come with time and finer honed skills, but still damn good and impressive in their own way.  These are kids I'm going to be begging to work with me soon, begging to work for eventually perhaps.

The winning film was "The Ambiguous Woman" adapted by Amy Paterson, Lindsay Steinkamp, and Xiu Qing Wu.  Truth be told, going into the screening, I thought they were a longshot to pull off the victory.  Not because of their talent or anything, but because "The Ambiguous Woman" seemed to me one of the harder stories to adapt due to an abundance of interior monologue in the main character's head.  But, their execution with such a degree of difficulty was unique and skilled, especially since they flawlessly cast the male lead.  A lesser actor truly could have botched the entire project.  They even had the balls to change my title, opting for "Cool & Relaxed," a naming which nearly made me vomit when I first saw it on the festival program, but which I was completely sold on by the time the credits rolled.

The other three films were also good, all having their own moments of brilliance [a tour de force sex montage cut to Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" in "The References"; a truly trippy "Twilight Zone"-esque portion of "Gross Humans"; and a stunning ending to "The Boyfriend Trials"] but a few more problems here and there ultimately cost them.

Filmmaking is a "failing promiscuously" kind of art form.  You have to fuck up countless times in order to actually get good at the many aspects of it.  So, I'm glad I was able to help the students get a few more fuckups out of the way early in their careers.

The kids seemed very excited at the work they did this year and the opportunity the festival afforded them.  I even heard some filmmaking students that weren't involved express dismay that they didn't get such an opportunity!  I hope I get to do it again next year with a new batch of kids, perhaps a new batch of colleges even.

It was a massive success.

And, I can't wait to show you the films soon enough.

Special thanks to Tula, Craig, Jake, Jules, and all the filmmakers and actors involved in the films.

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