Welcome to our archive of the "Ask a Filmmaker," a column that was devoted to your questions and concerns about the filmmaking process. Our guest columnists were screenwriter John August (Go, Charlie's Angels), director Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization, Wayne's World) and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News).

June 12, 2006

Ask a Screenwriter Ask a Director Ask a Cinematographer
by John August by Penelope Spheeris by Oliver Stapleton

I am writing a script that could have either a male or female lead. I need to make the decision because it will either be the mother or father of the central figure. It is a futuristic action script. I have outlined it and completed drafts both ways. If all things are equal is a Male or Female action lead easier to sell?


Male. Which is stupid and wrong.

I'm currently working on an action script that has a male lead. Since I haven't pitched the story to anyone, I could easily change him to a her. I've thought about it many times: it would be an interesting if somewhat arbitrary change. Yet in the back of my mind, I know that having a female lead would cap the budget at a lower level than the male equivalent, and since the nature of the movie is hellaciously expensive, I worry it might not get made at all.

So he stays a man, and the stupid and wrong Hollywood system is perpetuated. Although, in my defense, I wrote both Charlie's Angels movies, so I might get off the hook.

How do you get "final cut" on a movie you are directing with a big studio? I have heard that very few directors actually have final cut and get to decide how the movie is edited. The ones that do have "final cut" that I've heard of are guys like Spielberg and Lucas (because they both own their own studios Dreamworks and LucasFilm), Tarantino and Rodriguez because they have support from the Weinstein brothers and big "art" directors like Scorcese and Kubrick (RIP). So, how do you convince studios (if you are ever offered a contract) to let you have final cut on your own movie?


”Final cut” for any director is a most treasured entity, and yes, you are correct, next to impossible to acquire. When your lawyer is negotiating your contract, the best leverage he has in an effort to secure final cut for you is “precedence”. That means that in your last contract you were granted final cut, so therefore you should be given it this time. Catch 22.

How do you get it the first time? If you have a written a script that is so desired and sought after that a studio or financing entity will do ANYTHING to have it, they may grant you final cut (or at minimum, final cut with a few stipulations, i.e. controls on length, rating, following the script implicitly, etc.) If your last picture kicked major bootie at the box office, then you may have the leverage to get final cut on your next picture (especially if it is an independently financed, lower budget piece.) Another way would be if you have a script they really want AND you have an actor that will only do the film if you are the director and you have final cut. If all of these approaches seem out of reach, it is because they most likely are.

The majority of mainstream Hollywood directors do not have the privilege of final cut. When a production company is footing millions of dollars, they want to take the least number of risks possible. A director with the right of final cut could be construed as a huge risk for them and for the bonding and/or insurance companies. These days just getting a picture made is a miracle and getting it into theaters is an even bigger miracle. I would not worry about final cut until you have many films under your belt and have risen to the stratosphere in the director world.

I often watch movies and half the movies I seen in my life is that why are roads or grounds are wet especially night scenes? Is there a purpose of this?


Whenever you are getting ready for night shooting a good production manager will ask you whether you want “wet-down” hoping that you might be bold and adventurous and say no. I shot a very expensive Coke ad in the '80’s in NY and they forgot the wet-down. There were several thousand bottles of Perrier on set for some reason so I got the crew to empty them on to the street. Every time I went to NY for the next few years, production managers had heard that I only use Perrier for wet-down for the extra “sparkle”! Ridiculous.

One reason it is used often for night shooting is that it makes the lights reflect in the street and pavements: the shop lights, the street lights, the car lights – all these sources “liven-up” because what would have been a dull grey or brown/black space has pin spots and reflections which makes the image much richer – especially in black and white.

It’s tempting to not use it just because it is used so much, and because if you are making a film about a hot night in the desert it might be inappropriate. This is how you judge whether to use it or not: will it “stand out” as being wrong because of the context or will it improve the images because of the lighting enhancement, without necessarily saying to the audience “it rained but now it’s stopped”.

There is another practical reason: if you are going to shoot a film like One Fine Day where you shoot for 55 days and have to make it look like One Day, what happens if on one of those days it really does rain? In these circumstances it is safer to make it look wet so that the days it does rain do not stop you from shooting.

John August's screenwriting credits include Go, Big Fish, Titan A.E. and both Charlie's Angels movies. His current projects include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tarzan, and Corpse Bride. He also maintains a screenwriting-oriented website at johnaugust.com.

Born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, John earned a degree in journalism from Drake University in Iowa, and an MFA in film production from the Peter Stark program at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles.

Got a question about screenwriting? Send it to Ask a Writer.

Penelope Spheeris made her feature film debut with The Decline of Western Civilization, an energetic documentary about the L.A. punk scene in the early 1980's. She has since directed a number of diverse projects, including Wayne's World , Suburbia , and The Boys Next Door , as well as completing two more films in the Decline series (The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years in 1988 and The Decline of Western Civilization Part III in 1998). We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n' Roll, debuted at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. In 2004, she produced and directed The Kid and I, based on a true story about a young man with cerebral palsy, who wants to be an actor.

Got a question about directing? Send it to Ask a Director.

Oliver Stapleton, B.S.C. has photographed dozens of critically acclaimed films, including My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters, The Hi-Lo Country , and The Cider House Rules . He received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his work on Earth Girls Are Easy . He is currently filming Casanova with director Lasse Hallström in Venice.

If you are considering working in the movie industry, Oliver Stapleton has written a brief guide available at www.cineman.co.uk.

Got a question about cinematography? Send it to Ask a Cinematographer.