CJ Powers on Screenwriting

In this photo CJ (on the right) is talking with Emerson Marks (on the left).

Could you describe the storywriting workshops you do?

In my screenwriting workshop I address the issues where most writers fail. The most popular sessions include: creating a beat sheet, conducting a director�s analysis, script breakdowns analysis, building conflict within dialog, developing a bond between the hero and audience, and salting in relevance to a timeless story. The sessions include lecture, film samples, interaction and writing.

What got you interested in filmmaking?

My dad filmed our family every Christmas since my older sister was born. The family continued the tradition and we now have over 50 years of film. Formats have changed throughout the years and included 16mm, 8mm, Super 8mm, VHS, VHS-C, Hi8, DV, and HD. During grade school my dad let me use the family equipment to shoot short stories and I caught the bug. I wrote and directed my first professional television commercial at age 18. By 19 my first documentary aired nationally on CBS.

When did you start writing screenplays and stories?

I was always an idea guy who understood the visual language of the screen. I co-wrote stories with professional writers in the 80s and 90s, but it wasn�t until November of 2005 that I felt led of God to write a story on my own.

One cold November night I sensed God calling me to write a short story and send it out over email. Within three days I started getting comments back from Australia, China and Colorado. The emails included testimonies of how God used my story to touch people�s lives. Frankly, the testimonies were far better read than my story.

Since then, I�ve written numerous magazine articles, blogs, and screenplays. I�ve traveled world wide giving workshops and have consulted on several feature films as a script doctor.

Why did you go to SAICFF this year?

I was a semi-finalist for a story treatment and wanted to mingle with like-minded filmmakers. I also attended the national Religious Broadcasters conference a couple weeks later.

The one thing I noticed is the reluctance of Christians to share ideas with their peers. It is as if they see them as competitors rather than partners working together for Christ. What is interesting to me is that we all share a desire to minister through film and yet we share less with each other than secular organizations I�ve participated in.

What is your site http://www.safefamilyvideos.com about?

It is a beta site used to test concepts of marketing films through various download media. I�m currently testing wireless downloads directly into homes. Once we have the proper funding for the rollout program, we will launch the site and let others know it exists, but for now it is hiding in the shadows.

What are some of your favorite stories on your site?

If you are referring to my blog site, that was used to test a certain marketing campaign which ended a year ago. I haven�t done anything to the site since. It was our second blog used for testing. I�m still looking for the most economic way of informing people in a format that is easily subscribed to. Right now I�m conducting tests with Facebook and Twitter.

What kind of services do you offer to filmmakers?

I offer a wide range of services during pre-production, production and post-production. Some areas of focus include: story consulting, script doctoring, director analysis, script breakdown analysis, writing, and rewriting. I am currently working as a script doctor on a historical feature story written for Mel Gibson. My greatest challenge is helping the writer improve Mel�s character without changing history.

I�ve found that most Christian writers neglect to re-write their work from various perspectives like that of the director, main character, supporting character, cinematographer, editor, producer, and of course the audience. Frankly, if the story hasn�t been re-written about 20 times, it is weak and I can point out the holes in the story without much effort.

For instance, all top grossing films have its first turning point within pages 17-21, yet most Christians don�t even know what a turning point is, let alone where to place it. I try to instruct the writer and guide them through the process so they know exactly how to sculpt a great turning point that fits their style and story. I stay invisible during the process and the writer gets a stronger story.

Could you explain your thinking behind your recent video �One Red Envelope�? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9X8uxqYTro)

I was impressed that the excitement behind the red envelope came from Millennialists. I wanted to encourage them to drive their message to a broader audience. With a third of their generation having been aborted, it was an important topic that needed to be covered.

To help promote their idea, I designed a story that would touch someone�s life, which based on the responses I received, it did that very thing. I designed the shots to look like a high school student shot the video of his sister. While I could have gone with a cool looking graphic design and a cinematic HD look, I thought the story would be more affective if it looked like a person grabbed a camera and just shot it as it happened. That�s also why I went handheld.

You told me recently that Christian films are often bad because they lack expertise in the crafts of writing, directing and editing. You said it takes 10,000 hours of practise to be a top contender, while most Christians spend less than 2,000 hours at their craft. Could you explain more about this?

When I filmed A Fighting Chance, I had a cast and crew of 300 people. Out of all of those involved, only three people were able to impact the story directly � Writer, director, and editor. All the others could only impact a small, but vital part of the film and bring it to a certain level of excellence.

Most new Christian filmmakers try to wear all three hats to tell a story instead of wearing just one. I never won a substantial award while I was wearing multiple hats. I only won when I was focused on a specific duty or craft. I wore only the directing hat when I beat out 4,000 directors the year I won a secular directing award for A Fighting Chance.

Since most Christian filmmakers focus on everything, they don�t really focus on anything. Until there is a Christian who believes that lighting is the key to excellent films, Christian films will continue to be lit flat without dynamic range. The same goes for make-up, costuming, cinematography, etc. We must train people to excel in every area of filmmaking.

Excellence is found to be the corner stone of those who lead the industry. I had a blast learning from Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister during the filming of The Dark Night � I even got to be in four scenes. Now, here are two secular guys who have mastered their craft and have thousands of hours invested in being the best. In fact, Wally is so well respected, the budget was upped so he could experiment with the iMAX format during production.

In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell speaks about how many hours of practice it takes to become the best in a craft. His documentation demonstrated that it didn�t matter if your craft was a sport, medical process, or artistic expression. In all cases it took 10,000 hours to be the best.

To get to where they are in the scale of excellence, elite filmmakers practiced over 10,000 hours, good filmmakers practiced about 8,000 hours, film instructors practiced about 4,000 hours and Christian filmmakers practiced about 2,000 hours. Keep in mind I�m talking about practice. I�m not talking about the actual production where you are supposed to be shining with your skills.

To prepare for The Dark Night, Wally practiced for weeks with the new equipment to make sure he could control it like the master he is. Rarely have I heard about Christian cinematographers testing all aspects of their gear eight hours a day for several weeks before the shoot. Most just pull it out of a case, set it on the tripod and call out, �Action!�

The day will come when every secular person desires to watch the next Christian film because it is the best stories being told at the highest quality, but that won�t happen until enough filmmakers get a good solid 10,000 hours of practice under their belt.

As a writer, I practice a couple hours every day. As a director I practice a couple hours every week. As a producer, I practice a couple hours every quarter. My awards and the comments of others suggest that my directing skills far outweigh my other skills and therefore don�t need as much practice as my writing skills at this time, but I promise you I keep it fresh for the next opportunity God gives me.

Thomas Roberts: What software do you write with?

I use WORD and Screenwriter software, which easily translates back and forth and ties into the most used scheduling and budget software.

How soon does he work with a storyboard artist?

I rarely use storyboard artists. The vast majority of my projects I can see in my mind before I ever shoot. For complex scenes, I will create a visual shot list (as compared to a paper list). I will also storyboard scenes that include significant layers of optical effects, stunts or physical effects.

I always storyboard animation work that requires multiple artists to draw in an identical style and television commercials because every second counts in telling the story. Unless the storyboard element is visually critical, I will use thumbnail sketches over hiring a storyboard artist.

Calix Lewis Reneau: Could you explain more about why �all top grossing films have its first turning point within pages 17-21�?

Why questions are hard to answer without going deeply into the psychology of the human psyche, but suffice it to say that people need to know where the film is headed in the first 20 minutes or they will mentally check out, or leave the theatre.

The first act sets up the story and gives a sense of where it is headed. The first turning point sends the viewer into Act 2 in a different direction than anticipated. This quickly raises the viewer�s interest in trying to determine the answer to the universal question the writer poses in Act 1.

The goal of every good film�s Act 1 is to set up the story. Typically the opening scene sets the mood and pace of the show. Within the next few minutes, the writer finds a visual way to bond the main character or hero to the audience. Some in the industry refer to it as the �save the cat� scene. Shortly after the audience has bought into the hero, the writer places the catalyst to get the story moving. Once the remaining key characters have been introduced and we know the goal/motivation of hero, we hit the turning point and send the audience into the world we�ve created in a way that allows them to accept the messages the writer will provide.

This formula has been successful in helping audiences receive key messages for over a hundred years. While there have been many experimental formats, none have been found superior. That is why we have the first turning point some where between pages 17-21.


Comments

2 • Paul • July 27, 2009 • 5:52 PM

Ah, yet another reason why Christians should be bringing top industry professionals to Christ =)

3 • Mauricio Belgrano • July 30, 2009 • 4:48 PM

I find it interesting how filmmakers are in a way psychologists. It makes me want to study psychology for the Glory of Christ.

I do concur with Mr. Powers. I got so good at editing by working on it 24/7. Praise the Lord for wisdom. But as we need to be crafted in our skills, we need to be intune with God about his unfailing will in our lives. Thanks, CJ.

4 • Jon Burk • August 03, 2009 • 4:14 PM

I couldn’t agree more, Mauricio. I find it absolutely astounding how few Christians study their craft, whether it be the arts or whatever else. If we are truly desiring the glory of GOD, we should be seeking excellence in all we do