Raindance MA in Film: Learning Contract

I’ve always said that I want to be as transparent – warts and all – about my progress through the Raindance MA in Film. This includes doing my bi-weekly or so video blog “I Wanna Be A Producer” (available on YouTube) and posting my assignments.

Below you will find my complete ‘Learning Contract’. We write this thing to say what it is we will be doing over the course of our masters. It is incredible painful to write, but at the same time incredibly helpful. I try to refer back to it often and when I do I go ‘oh yeah, THAT’S what I’m supposed to be doing’.

I’m putting this up here because there aren’t examples available from the school and of all the pain we have in this course finding the format of the Learning Contract shouldn’t be one!

— Phil Smy


Raindance MA/MSc Film by Negotiated Learning

Learning Contract

1. Personal Information


2. Key Research Question

The Production Company v2.0

I hope to combine my Tech Startup Company experience and my interest and experience in film and film production. My personal background is nearly 20 years in the software, website and internet marketing and management business. I want to combine that with my lifelong creative pursuits of music and moviemaking.

To that end my Key Research Question is as follows:

How can the production company be re-imagined to take advantage of the latest thinking in ‘startup innovation’ and the changing landscape of distribution? In addition to creating a sustainable production company focused on low budget content, I want to evolve not only my understanding of the business side of film production but also increase my skills as a producer.

3. Research Methods (AM99995-7)

3.1 Title

How are some producers of low budget (films with an operating budget under $1,000,000) content distributing their product online? I’m investigating this in order to determine what the popular choices are amongst the filmmakers I talk to and if their experiences can help me in my choice of distribution method later.

3.2 Rationale

There are currently many options for the low budget producers as far as distribution is concerned. – a leading online independent film resource – enumerated top platforms in March 2014, and came up with 29 (Hove, M 2014). I feel that when it comes time – in NP2 – to start experimenting in the marketplace I will need a strong grasp of which platforms are currently being used by other low budget producers. Their experiences will help guide me in a choice of platform at that stage, based on ease of use and audience acceptance.

3.3 Methodology

  • Reading about creating and doing surveys.
  • Find filmmakers using personal connections and online communities I am active in and find some who will participate in a survey.
  • Survey as many film makers as possible with regard to a specific production they have distributed
    • Questions:
    • budget
    • number of previous productions, to get a sense of experience level
    • where did you distribute
    • what financial returns
    • what were the audience numbers

Combine filmmaker surveys with statistics from the platforms they reference to directly. Specifically audience numbers and views. By applying accepted norms for advertising click throughs, etc, I can attempt to determine if there was any financial success independently of the filmmakers response.
Do more in depth interviews with (at least) two filmmakers about the distribution process and their experience with it.

3.4 Theoretical Context

Filmmakers are struggling to get noticed in the shifting landscape for self and indie releasing. (Dargis M, 2014). By examining the efforts of other filmmakers, and also trying to confirm their success in attracting customers, I hope to spot some trends that can either be followed or avoided.
New models of distribution are available (Schreder S, 2014) but are production companies taking advantage of changing distribution models? If not, is it because of lack of awareness or understanding of the platforms or something more deep seated in the attitude and structure of the production company itself?
In a later module – NP2 – I will examine applying different business structure models to the production company, but a basis in existing actions with regard to distribution, will give me insight into what is and isn’t working for others.

3.5 Deliverables

4,000 word research paper; Appendices containing survey data

3.6 Bibliography

Carter, M, Media moving online: in search of profit,, Available At:

Smith, M & Telang, R (2012), Why Digital Media Require a Strategic Rethink, Harvard Business Review, Oct 2012

Friendman, A, 3 trends in media consumption you need to know, iMediaConnection, Available At:

Millward Brown, Digital Predictions 2014, Available At:

3.7 Learning Outcomes

3.7.1 Knowledge & Understanding

By doing an overview survey of a few low-medium budget filmmakers, and two to three in depth interviews with a couple more, I hope to learn what options are currently in use by low-medium budget filmmakers, what their experiences are and filter out the marginal players.

3.7.2 Learning

I will learn more completely the research and referencing process needed for the rest of my masters

3.7.3 Reflection

I will reflect on the impact, benefits, drawbacks to filmmakers like myself using these platforms. By interviewing some active filmmakers I hope to further understand my direction

3.7.4 Problem Solving

I anticipate issues with getting ‘real data’ and believe I will have to make significant personal contacts to get access to personal data.

3.8 Time Allocation

Faculty Contact 10
Web Research 60
Literature Research 20
Conduct Interviews 15
Transcription 15
Writing 30

Total Hours 150

4. [updated] NEGOTIATED PROJECT 1 (AM99996-7)

4.1 Title

Proof of Concept Web series Development and Pre-Production

4.2 Rationale

With greater emphasis on online distribution, and shorter content, a web series seems the optimum format to develop for the later stages (NP2 and NMP) of this degree program. By developing a web series I will get more exposure to the hands on aspects of film production – from script development, through to budgeting, casting, scheduling and finding investment. In addition, at the end of this module, I will have some assets – concept art, script readings, storyboards, etc – that can be used as source material for NP2.

Initially the contents of this module were to be for my Negotiated Film Production module (AM99997-7) but I have advanced it for a few reasons.
First of all, I feel that I have underestimated the amount of time required to adequately develop this webseries. Finding talent in Japan is proving to be a significant challenge that I had not anticipated and is requiring a lot more time investment in networking and discovering communities that I had previously expected.
Second, my original NP1 – investigating consumer activity in finding online content – revolved around a similar process as my RM module. Namely, surveying. My attempts at surveying for my RM was not successful, and in that case I believed I had direct access to a community – other independent filmmakers – that would be helpful. This turned out to not materialise. In my previously proposed NP1 I suggested attempting the same strategy, but for the public at large, a significantly less motivated and less approachable group! Rather than position myself for more frustration and failure I thought it best to advance and extend my NFP module.
Thirdly, I am discovering that to attempt to perform the ‘experimentation’ that I lay out in NP2 I need more and more varied source material.

4.3 Methodology

  • Find scriptwriter to co-develop web series idea through local industry contacts. The script will be developed in English and Japanese, but if shot the dialogue will be entirely in Japanese.
  • Ensure script ideas developed to budget by keeping locations and number of onscreen actors in check.
  • Investigate finding talent and production staff and locations by getting involved with the local industry.
  • Secure talent for the filming of a pilot episode

4.4 Theoretical Context

In the NP2 module I will pursue audience testing and content development – making minor content and concept changes in through repeated rounds of audience acceptance testing. To adequately pursue these tests I first have to have a original concept developed to a clear enough point – i.e past the idea stage and into the script development and pre-production stages – to be able to place something before an audience.
In this module I will also develop the practical aspects of my production knowledge – that is the actual planning of a film (or content).
Because I intended to make a web series in Japanese I will work closely with a local writer to ensure that dialect and tone are appropriate, but similarly my personal goal is to develop something that draws on ‘western dramatic sensibilities’ as opposed to conventional Japanese serials.

4.5 Supporting Activities

Attend or review, either in person or online, the Raindance course Create & Market Your Web Series (
Review the materials from the Raindance course Web Series Foundation Certificate (
Review, a leading website dedicated to the development of web series (

4.6 Deliverables

First draft of pilot episode; production and budget documents; reflective report outlining learned conclusions.

4.7 Bibliography

Morgan, Elize (2012) How to Make a Web Series

4.8 Learning Outcomes

4.8.1 Knowledge & Understanding

I will learn how to develop an idea from a basic high-level concept into an initial script, taking into account budget, location and casting limitations.

4.8.2 Learning

I will learn the techniques for budget analysis of a script, how to create a shooting schedule and how to approach outside investors.

4.8.3 Reflection

What did I learn about the process of idea to script to finalised pre-production schedules?

4.8.4 Problem Solving

Finding solutions to location desires versus available locations, and similar constraints with casting and equipment, will prove to be challenging. Especially given my location (Japan).

4.9 Time Allocation

Faculty Contact 5
Supporting Activities 80
Writing 80
Content Creation 60
Web Research 30
Literature Research 20
Reflective Report 25

Total Hours 300


5.1 Title

Coordinate and produce a single episode of webseries content.

5.2 Rationale

In this updated module I will create basic elements for the web series developed in NP1.

After developing the webseries, and preparing for production, in NP1, in this module I will create basic webseries content for use in NP2. I believe that, in part due to my situation of living in Japan, the whole process of development and creation of my webseries will take significantly longer, and require significantly more effort, than I previously expected.
For the purposes of the experimentation outlined in NP2 I would like to have as much ‘base material’ as possible. That now extends to at least one episode ‘filmed’. With that completed things like live action trailers, music videos, etc, can be more easily created that fit into the overall theme and presentation of the webseries.

5.3 Methodology

  • Coordinate all on-set production aspects (equipment, location, talent, production staff)
  • Direct or supervise the directing of, principal photography for pilot episode
  • Perform or supervise initial post-production of pilot episode

5.4 Theoretical Context

5.5 Supporting Activities

Research and prepare paperwork for shooting permits and actor’s in Japan.

5.6 Deliverables

Raw footage of pilot episode, first edit of pilot episode, first trailer and music video based on pilot episode footage, shooting logs, production notes.

5.7 Bibliography

Morgan, Elize (2012) How to Make a Web Series

Kenworthy, Christopher (2012) Master Shots Series (Vol 1 – 3)

5.8 Learning Outcomes

5.8.1 Knowledge & Understanding

Come to a greater understanding of the legal and logistical aspects of independent filmmaking in Japan. This is not something that has been written about in any detail (that I can find) in English.

5.8.2 Learning

Learn specific production skills, from arranging personnel and catering to securing location permits.

5.8.3 Reflection

How will my actions on this short, low-budget production scale out to larger productions?

5.8.4 Problem Solving

I anticipate many issues to arise due to the unusual nature of what I am doing. Shooting a film in small town Japan, with a foreigner at the helm, will cause great consternation amongst the locals! Getting cooperation might be difficult. That coupled with the ‘usual’ production problems like last minute cancellations of people and equipment will test my abilities to succeed.

5.9 Time Allocation

Faculty Contact 5
Supporting Activities 30
Logistics & Organisation 50
Preparation & Shooting 60
Editing 30
Post production 20
Reflective Report 25

Total Hours 300


6.1 Title

Marketplace experimentation – putting content through a series of audience tests

6.2 Rationale

Having developed a proof of concept outline, script and pre-production documents for a webseries (NFP), the next step is to perform ‘experiments’ in the marketplace. ‘Experiments’ in this case refers to the methodology of doing small, frequent ‘releases’ of content into the market and testing reaction (Ries, 2011). By doing this I should have more understanding as to whether this is a viable process for content creation.

6.3 Methodology

  • Develop some assets – storyboards, concept art, theme music – and variations
  • Release these into the marketplace via YouTube channel
  • Drive traffic to the experiments by using a combination of targeted social media postings and limited advertising.
  • Create a ‘Customer Avatar’ – model an ideal customer to give a foundation for marketing approaches.
  • Measure audience reaction – views, sharing, comments – to different variations

6.4 Theoretical Context

This concept of marketplace experimentation is becoming commonplace in the software industry, and it has been (arguably) proven that the methods of Minimum Viable Product, Continuous Development and Split Testing increase both quality and customer satisfaction. (Ries, 2014). See Section 9, Definitions, for an overview of these concepts.
These concepts are occasionally applied to content marketing – teaser and trailer variations for example – but rarely to the actual content development, and usually not at the low-budget level as it is incorrectly perceived to be expensive. (Bachmann, C 2009)
By performing these experiments and analysing not just the results but also the methods, I hope to determine how applicable the methods are in this situation.

6.5 Supporting Activities

Review the following web resources:

6.6 Deliverables

Detailed report on experiments performed and data acquired
Reflective report on the impact of the experiments and changes made to the content because of them

6.7 Bibliography

6.8 Learning Outcomes

6.8.1 Knowledge & Understanding

I will gain knowledge and understanding of how much relevant feedback can be retrieved from consumers and how the content can be tailored to that feedback.

6.8.2 Learning

I will learn how to measure feedback and promote new content to consumers. I will learn how to manage or do the creation of variations on content.

6.8.3 Reflection

Is it possible to use a build-measure-learn (Lean Startup) loop for something like content creation without losing site of the initial creative vision?

6.8.4 Problem Solving

Getting a large enough sample – and active participation – will be challenging. If necessary I can harness other websites I have influence in to drive traffic, or, run a paid advertising campaign.

6.9 Time Allocation

Faculty Contact 5
Web Research 100
Literature Research 40
Supporting Activities 55
Writing 100

Total Hours 300


7.1 Title

Bringing it all together – Operating Principles and Formation of a Reimagined Production Company

7.2 Rationale

This masters has been a series of evolving projects. Having gone from market research to consumer research to proof of concept content development and finally on to content experimentation it is now time to brings these findings together and to outline the operating principles for a new production company, and to pursue it’s formation.

7.3 Methodology

  • evaluate and enumerate steps to company formation in Japan
  • define minimal roles needed for production company using industry standard roles compared with new business methods ideals
  • iterate through business model canvas to fine tune consumer and content focus
  • write business plan and SWOT analysis
  • draft mission and vision statements
  • approach industry peers for feedback
  • evaluate and approach potential financial investors
  • structure a board of directors

7.4 Theoretical Context

There are two significant growing trends in small business – the Lean Startup model and the Blue Ocean Strategy Model. (Blank S, 2014)
The Lean Startup – developed by software entrepreneur Eric Ries – deals with a different form of company structure to instill rapid, customer driven development, through experimentation phases (Ries, 2011) similar to those I will have attempted in NP2.
Blue Ocean Strategy is a complementary startup ethos aimed at creating a distinctive product and product space, thereby reducing competition, through an examination of the core values of any business. (Kim & Mauborgne, 2005)
I hope to follow these two complementary schools in structuring the internal and external workings of a new production company.
Existing production companies have an inherent structure with defined roles. How do these roles fit into a company structured on the aforementioned new principles?

7.5 Deliverables

  • Business plan
  • Business Model Canvas
  • SWOT Analysis of company position
  • Mission Statement
  • Reflective report covering peer and industry feedback

7.6 Bibliography

Ries, Eric (2011). The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses.

Kim, W.C., Mauborgne, R. (2005). Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant

Japanese External Trade Organization (JETRO)

7.7 Learning Outcomes

7.7.1 Knowledge & Understanding

By going through the steps of company formation I will gain a deeper understanding of the corporate aspects of running a company. I will gain understand of the business requirements for company operation in Japan. Gain knowledge of tax and other incentives for media companies and companies operating with the ‘disaster zone’.

7.7.2 Learning

I will learn the process for company registration in Japan. More formal learning of the business plan development process.

7.7.3 Reflection

How am I suited to the role of business person and how will this new company be situated in the marketplace.

7.7.4 Problem Solving

I anticipate great difficulty in finding all the requirements to form a company and to attract investors. I hope to overcome these by consulting with experienced business people here in Japan.

7.7.5 Communication

I will have to prepare and give presentations to potential investors and industry leaders. Also prepare documents in Japanese with the use of business partners and partnering agencies (eg Japanese External Trade Organisation) for governmental approval for incorporation.


Brachmann, C. (2009). Automatic Movie Trailer Generation Based on Semantic Video Patterns, In: Digital Tools in Media Studies, University of Siegen, Germany.

Blank S (2013). Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything, Harvard Business Review, (May 2013) p. 64

Dargis, M (2014), As Indies Explode, an Appeal for Sanity, New York Times, Available at:, (Accessed 8 August 2014)

Hove, M (2014), Direct Distribution & Marketing Roundup: A Who’s Who of Today’s Digital Tools, NoFilmSchool, Available at:, (Accessed 8 August 2014)

Kim, W.C., Mauborgne, R. (2005). Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant, Boston: Harvard Business School Press

Lockard, L (2012), Ask the Experts: Where do you find customers online?,, Available at: (Accessed 8 August 2014)

Ries, Eric (2011). The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, New York: Crown Business

Schreder, S (2014), How to Save Indie Distribution in 5 Easy Steps,, Available at:, (Accessed 8 August 2014)


Minimum Viable Product – The term minimum viable product has been in use since at least 2000 as part of various approaches to product development. See “The Dynamic Balance Between Cost, Schedule, Features, and Quality in Software Development Projects”, Junk, W, 2000, Computer Science Department, University of Idaho.
The term refers to any product (initially any software) in a basic state that can be presented to consumers. As defined by Eric Ries in the Lean Startup, a Minimum Viable Product “is a learning vehicle. It allows you to test an idea by exposing an early version of your product to the target users and customers, to collect the relevant data, and to learn from it.”
See also: “Minimum Viable Product: a guide”, Eric Ries, 2009.

Continuous Development – The process whereby products are altered frequently and released to the marketplace in an aggressive – often weekly – schedule.

Split Testing – Simultaneously releasing 2 or more variations of the same product into the marketplace, obtaining some sort of metrics to test customer approval or interest, and comparing the results, choosing a ‘winner’.


This following are articles, blog entries and general reference materials that I feel will be beneficial during the course of my degree program

Adler, T (2006) The Producers: Money, Movies and Who Calls the Shots, Methuen Drama

Bernstein, P, Crowdfunding is a Full-Time Job,, Available At:

Fogelson, M, How to Identify an Online Community for Your Business,, Available At:

Grove, E (2013) Lo To No Budget Filmmaking, Focal Press

Hirschhorn, J, If Video is Booming, Why are Revenues Evaporating?,, Available At:

Jolliffe, G & Jones, C (2000) The Guerrilla Film Makers Handbook & Movie Blueprint, Cassel

Lynch, J, How Amazon built a TV studio that’s finally challenging Netflix,, Available At:

Puttnam, D (1997) The Undeclared War: Struggle for Control of the World’s Film Industry, HarperCollins

Munarriz, R. A., Why Your Local Redbox Kiosk Just Disappeared,, Available At:

Ng, D, How to Find Thriving Online Communities,, Available At:

Sillesen, L, Do documentary filmmakers need data about their audiences?, Columbia Journalism Review, Available At:

Szalai, G, Netflix Has Reached 3 Million U.K. Subscribers, Analyst Estimates,, Available At:

Wigon, Z, Indie Filmmakers Should Act Like Entrepreneurs,, Available At:


Favourite Film Book(s)

We all know the situation. Someone asks you to recommend your favourite xyz… movie, book, song, band, vacation spot, etc etc. It’s impossible.

So, when we were asked to write about our favourite book on filmmaking, I knew that it too was impossible. Filmmaking is such a wide term, that the best I could do was narrow it down into ‘best in group’. I mean really. How can you compare the best terrier to the best gun dog?!


At heart I still think of myself as a creator, and for me in the movie business that means the screenwriter. If it ain’t on the page there’s no way it’s hitting the back of the CMOS sensor! I’ve taken all the big courses (McKee, Truby, etc) and read all the big books (Sid Fields, McKee, etc), but for me the one that really gave me the ‘aha’ moment was this one.
The ‘Writer’s Journey’ unlocked – read: spoiled – movie watching for me for a very long time after I read it. It felt ‘right’ and seemed to definitely mimic what I was seeing on screen in movies that I loved.

Is it easy? No. It is still tough to follow Vogler’s map with enough creativity to make something unique and compelling, but, it does give you the signposts along the way.

When I am developing a story I try to run it through a few templates, or story engines, to first give me a deeper understanding of the story I am trying to write and second to hopefully find a template that matches to make writing the script even 1% easier! I still use other templates and engines, but, my master template, the one I overlay onto any story where there is a central character, is the one outlined in Vogler’s book.

The ‘Writer’s Journey’ takes us through two significant structures. The first is ‘The Hero’s Journey’, where our central character goes through 12 steps (no addiction required!) that covers the entire script, in order, from start to finish (Vogler, 1996 : 18). (Interesting to note that these points are in script order, which may not match the unwrapped timeline of the character – i.e something may happen 20 pages in that is a flashback, but it is still 20 pages into the structure and therefore should be along that path).

The second structure Vogler covers is the hero’s ‘Inner Journey’, a further 12 steps that cover the same timeline, but delve into character emotion (as opposed to character motion). (Vogler 1996: 82)

Ah, read the book!

Vogler also has a great website that gives you a great introduction to the material. You can find that here.


Film is a language. And what I find is that in the throws of production you can sometimes forget how to speak. My next book is again invaluable. It’s actually 3 books.

The ‘Master Shots’ series by Christopher Kenworthy is like the greatest directing assistant ever. Over the three volumes Kenworthy outlines shot setups for nearly every scenario. When you are going through your script and storyboarding ideas, Kenworthy’s volumes are an amazing starting point. They cover what the audience is expecting, after a lifetime of media ingesting.

The shot list is pretty impressive, from Fight Scenes, to Dialogue, to Love Scenes (and that’s just volume 1!). The latest edition covers blocking and camera movement and even gives tips on cutting to different takes together.

I know there will be some eye rolling from the ‘serious directors’ in the audience. They want to learn and hone their craft and give and original spin on things. But, in my opinion, at least 80% of any movie that hopes to find an audience has to speak in accepted visual terms. And I feel the Kenworthy series gives that to a director.

Of course, film directing can’t be learned from a book. Sitting with this on your lap will not get over the fact that your film, your script, is different (hopefully) and will have situations and settings that are of course not covered. But it is a good starting point. If you didn’t spend $50,000 on going to film school this will still put you in very good company.

Gosh, after writing this I want to go back and read it again!


My favourite book on producing is actually one I just read. It’s one of the few books I’ve read on the subject that talks about the whole tip to tail job, not just line producing (the work done during the few weeks of production).
‘The Producers’ by Tim Adler is in essence a series of profiles covering 7 different independent producers and their styles. The book is fairly recent (2006, but I believe written in 2001/2002) and thereby gives a somewhat modern approach to the subject (though there is little talk of low budget or the internet). It is also nice that the subjects are ‘independent’ filmmakers. It puts it into the realm of the likes of ‘us’.

Adler manages to really cover a wide range – from Michael Douglas’s early days with ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ to Duncan Kenworthy and Andrew Macdonald’s work with Richard Curtis to Marin Karmitz producing Kieślowski’s ‘Three Colors Trilogy’.

Throughout each interview you get a warts and all look at the role of producer. The lengthy process of getting a film produced (Douglas quotes it as being on average 5 years (Adler, 2006; 62)) comes up again and again. Again and again we hear how the producer drives the production from concept, and often script creation and development, through actual production and onwards to distribution.

Each subject has a slightly different take on it. But, despite it all, I came away inspired. Producing is not for everyone. Maybe it’s not even for me, but, with every chapter I felt more and more like it was an exciting, stressful, wide ranging discipline. Quite simply, this book solidified my desire to become a producer.

What Started It All

Back in 2001 I was living in Spain and was a little bored and frustrated with my situation – personal and professional. I felt like I was missing some creative challenge or output. I surfed the internet and stumbled across Rick Schmidt, his book, and his ‘Feature Workshop’ program.
I bought Rick’s book ‘Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices’ and my mind was blown. Making movies was something I’d always dreamed of doing but also thought was beyond my reach. Rick changed all that. Rick inspired a whole generation of filmmakers in the US (including Robert Rodriquez, director of Sin City). Rick covered all the things we now take a standard in the low budget film world – getting permissions, raising money, finding cheap alternatives, getting production value, etc. He was a maverick.

I signed on to go to one of Rick’s insane Feature Workshops. A dozen strangers get together and write, shoot and edit a feature film in about 10 days. It is madness, and of course rarely is the output watchable but it is meant to give you a taste of what is needed to get the job done, and, to show you it CAN be done!

It, quite simply, changed my life.

And, not for the least of which that it was Rick that told me about Raindance. If I remember correctly he said something like ‘there’s a guy in London who has a cross between a film school and an adult education program’. It was Rick that pointed me to my first Raindance experience in 2002.

The book now seems obvious, but, there are still thousands out there who will be inspired by it.


Vogler, C. (1992) The Writer’s Journey, London: BoxTree

Kenworthy, C. (2011) Master Shots Vol 1, 2nd edition: 100 Advanced Camera Techniques to Get an Expensive Look on Your Low-Budget Movie, London: Michael Wiese Productions

Adler, T (2006) The Producers: Money, Movies and Who Calls the Shots (Screen and Cinema), London: Methuen

Schmidt, R. (1995) Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices: Revised Edition, 2nd Edition: 2000, Penguin Books


Woody Allen: Director

I remember sitting in the basement, what must have been late at night, in the early/mid 1970s. The TV was on, I was alone, and enthralled in the work of a man who’s career now spans 50 years and an incredible 60+ films: Woody Allen.

The movies of Woody Allen have always spoken to me.  I think it is the self-deprecation and the erudite humour that has always appealed to me. To paraphrase one of the Pythons, its him looking in the mirror with a dictionary and insulting himself. I’ve always believed in the addage that comedy comes from putting an exceptional person in unexceptional circumstances (and drama vice versa) and in Allen’s case, he is the exceptional man… which is such a contradiction I can’t help but be seduced by it.

I realise that tackling a prolific director such as Allen is beyond both my time and my ability, so I’m going to limit my scope. One of Allen’s first transitions as a film maker came in the jump from his ‘Slapstick’ Period spanning from 1969’s ‘Take the Money And Run’ (that film I was watching in the basement in the early 70s) to 1975’s pseudo-intellectual-bashing masterpiece ‘Love And Death’.

Then came ‘Annie Hall’ (1977) and all of a sudden Woody Allen was a grown up film director.

I’d like to look at those two films – ‘Love and Death’ and ‘Annie Hall’ – in closer detail.

Love And Death

I was walking through the woods, thinking about Christ. If he was a carpenter, I wondered what he charged for bookshelves.

‘Love and Death’ tells the story of Boris Grushenko (Allen), a coward…and well… Woody Allen. Forced to enlist in the Russian Army, he accidentally becomes a hero of the Napoleonic Wars. Returning a war hero, he tricks Sonja into marriage when she believes he will die in a duel. When Napoleon invades Mother Russia, Sonja convinces Boris to attempt to assassinate him. All of this is a pre-tense for philosophical double-talk and slapstick humour, with homages to Eisenstein, Bergman and the Marx Brothers thrown in for good measure.

As with all of Allen’s work, the central focus is on the script, not the camera. ‘Love and Death’ has a very 1970s feature feel about it. Most scenes run over 3 minutes, with the standard, workman-like approach of master, two-shot and medium being intercut. This being a comedy often the ‘punch line’ of a scene, or joke, is done in close up. As I say, most of the scenes are shot like this. Most… but not all!

The battlefield scenes evoke ‘War and Peace’. Allen’s use of Russian classical music – especially Prokofiev – mimicked Sergei Eisenstein (who used the same music).

Untitled 3

Death, from Bergman’s ‘Seventh Seal’ turns up in a comedic role. Bergman is present again in the final scene, an obvious nod to Persona (which would be used again, without the humour, in Allen’s Interiors).

Untitled 10Untitled 11‘Love and Death’ is a satire on Russian literature and the motion picture epic – and it contains elements of both. Allen’s often surreal humour allows him to pull in references across the ages – from a Marx Brother’s physical slapstick piece set in a Russian boudoir, to a black drill Sergeant reminiscent of the Vietnam era war films of the time.

Untitled 2

Allen also talks directly to camera in passages that could be interpreted as inner dialog. On one occasional both Boris and Sonja talk their inner dialogs to the camera while sitting side by side.

Above all else, ‘Love and Death’ is a comedy, perhaps the funniest of Allen’s early work, and one that solidified both his writing and on-screen persona as a pseudo-intellectual,neurotic, smart-ass. It’s classic Allen.

The Transition

But the problem is this: it’s easy for me because it’s flamboyant; it’s not real at all [Lax, pg 68]

One of the reasons Allen can be so prolific  is his speed. He has infamously said he can finish a screenplay in four to six weeks. Writing is part of the process of film making, and his judicious use of time gives him options.

In his June 1974 interview with Eric Lax, right at the time he was deciding whether to make ‘Love and Death’ or another unnamed project, he talks about a move in direction, that would most definitely end up in ‘Annie Hall’: a move to ‘the real’.

I’d love to get to the real thing, because that would be the biggest departure for me [ibid]

And get real he did

Annie Hall

You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life

Annie Hall, Allen’s most financially successful film until 2011’s ‘Midnight in Paris’, straddles a period in his film making between farce and trying to pull more ‘reality’ into his work. Watching the film back to write this posting, I was struck by not only the differences between Allen’s previous film (‘Love and Death’, see above) but also by the similarities! Both films start with Voice Over. Both films start with childhood to frame the following story. Both films deal with dealing with unrequited love.

The differences are in essence fewer. Annie Hall substitutes ‘Love and Death’s satiric Russian tragedy backdrop from current day New York City. It’s as if Allen finally feels comfortable enough as a film maker to be able to capture ‘real life’ on screen.


The other difference is the editing.

Allen is known for keeping a tight crew around him and using it on every production. His first editor, his ‘editing teacher’ as he once called him, was Ralph Rosenblum. Rosenblum worked with Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin before settling in next to Allen in the editing suite for six films, starting in 1969 with ‘Take the Money and Run’ and ending in 1978 with ‘Interiors’ (Rosenblum declined to edit 1979’s ‘Manhattan’ and for the next 20 years Allen worked with Susan Morse, Rosenblum’s assistant editor). Rosenblum was known for his French New Wave-like style and Allen openly admits that he learned a lot not just about editing, but about crafting a story in the editing room, from Rosenblum. Incredibly, ‘Annie Hall’ was not focused on the Allen/Keaton character’s relationship, but was originally about Allen’s internal dialog. It was Rosenblum who recut the film, hi lighting the Annie Hall character. Rosenblum won the BAFTA for his work on Annie Hall.

Untitled 2

The editing in Annie Hall keeps us at a distance. Gone are the close ups on the punch lines. In fact, gone are many of the cuts. There’s an outstanding seen where the Singer (Allen) is in the bedroom with his first wife (Carol Kane) where the camera tracks around the bed and the characters move in and out of frame. The scene ends with Singer talking to the camera, commenting reflectively, from the future as it were, on what we’ve just seen.

Nothing like that had been seen in a Woody Allen film before, but it became a staple of Allen’s cinema after Annie Hall.

There are more scenes shot in master, as if we were watching them ourselves. To quote British producer Duncan Kenworthy (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral) “for comedy to work properly, you must believe in the characters and let the humour shine through. At the end of the film the audience should feel it has just watched a documentary”. This is the approach taken, perhaps pioneered in screen comedy, by Allen.

Annie Hall won 4 Academy Awards in 1977 – Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Leading Actress (Keaton) and Best Picture – beating out ‘Star Wars’.

In Conclusion

It was fascinating for me to watch these two films back to back – in essence, watch them as Allen made them – and note the astonishing differences, and equally astonishing similarities between them. To see Allen grow as a film maker – before your very eyes as it were – is also an incredible experience. It is like Allen ended a chapter, knowing that he had done all he could, or wanted to do, with the slapstick genre and moved on to a more introspective work. In future years, of course, he would move further in to more serious films and then start investigating other dramas and periods.

These two films represent high points of two of Allen’s many genres. Picking ‘the best’ Allen films has always been impossible for me. The list is too long. But these are a great, educational, introduction that can be used as a jumping off point for moving forwards and backwards through his career. I still watch these films every few years. They are now like good friends that still make me laugh and think.


  • Eric Lax, Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking , Vintage, 2009
  • Tim Adler, The Producers, Methuen Publishing, 2004
  • Robert B. Weide, Woody Allen – A Documentary, 2012

What goes around, comes around – life lessons and comedy in Groundhog Day

Yes. ‘Groundhog Day’. It is perhaps not the coolest, hippest film choice I could have made, but, in all honesty, it is a film that has rarely been equalled in it’s combination of profundity and humour.

The Story

I am sure I don’t need to tell you the basic outline of this plot, as the film has woven itself into the lexicon of western culture, but, here goes.

Groundhog Day tells the tale of jaded TV weatherman Phil Connors who goes to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to report on the annual Groundhog Day festivities. He then gets stuck in a time loop and repeats the same day over and over. As he reruns the day over and over – we never find out how many times, but it is implied it is in the tens of thousands of days – he goes through many stages. First disbelief, then fun, then boredom, then despair and then finally an awakening.

My Significant Film

I love the film because of it’s natural simplicity. In fact, it’s so simple that at first viewing you can easily miss – as even influential film critic Roger Ebert admitted he did – the film’s deeply profound and spiritual meaning. The film shines after repeated viewings. It has touched and inspired thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people from all walks of life around the planet. It has influenced popular culture. It has been praised by Buddhist and Christians.

And it’s funny.

But it has darkness, not black comedy. That is also very appealing to me. Life is full of humour and tragedy, and the combination of this also adds to the film’s natural, unpretentious feel.

It’s a film I would love to make. It embodies pretty much everything I like about story-telling and filmmaking. It’s simple on the surface, the story is laden with reveals and understated philosophy. The directing is solid, and minimal. It has some rom-com schmaltz that actually serves the purpose of pulling the film out of a very dark place.

The Script

From a (unproduced) screenwriter’s perspective the script is tight and clever. With a celebrated comedian in the starring role, and a very experienced comedic writer-director, without a doubt some scenes were improvised, but even taking that away there is a polished aspect that can only come from many revisions.

The script combines comedy and fantasy, but does so without any pre tense or edifice. In fact, this is the film’s charm – the absolutely natural way that Phil Connors reacts to his situation.

The script is a perfect example of seed planting and foreshadowing. Right from the opening line, the script tells you exactly where you are going to go. The opening line is this:

‘Someone asked me, if you could be anywhere in the world, where would you like to be?’

Throughout the setup of the film – the first 20 minutes before Phil gets stuck in the loop – many characters talk about being stuck, and planning for their future.

The Production

The film had a budget of $15 million. For the early 1990’s, that was not a small budget, but looking at the film you can see that there are many large set pieces involving lots of extras. But, for the rest of the film, it is small and intimate. For a ‘fantasy’ film (actually on AFI’s top 10 fantasy films) there are no special effects (don’t count the Groundhog!). It is just straight filmmaking. The film was shot over the course of less than a month.

The Money

On initial theatrical release the film did very well – grossing over $70 million in the US, with a further few millions in other major markets – but in the 20 years since its release it must been in the hundreds of millions of dollar around the world. It still ranks as a popular online sale and rental, when most other comedies from that time have been left behind.


The film has been recognised by the AFI and designated a national treasure by the Library of Congress. Not bad for a rom-com fantasy.