Wanna Know How to Tell Stories? Watch “The Walking Dead”

Two summers ago I interned at Valhalla Motion Pictures. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a production company headed by Gale Anne Hurd. And if you don’t know who she is, take a minute to edumacate yourself here. The company sort of specializes in producing films and TV series based off of graphic novels, comic books, and the like. While I was interning there, they had a project up on the big board in the works. It was titled The Walking Dead. Frank Darabont, of The Shawshank Redemption fame, was the series creator. Gale Anne Hurd wanted to produce. No pilot script had been finished yet. No stars attached. On that strength alone it had been picked up by AMC. During my time there, I didn’t get to see much in the way of development of that series, but from that long ago I could not wait to watch it when it aired.

Two years later, and I’ve just devoted the past two nights of my life to watching the entire first season of The Walking Dead. It’s a 6 episode season, half the number of normal episodes usually ordered for an established premium cable television series. But man, what they do in 6 episodes, most network series can’t accomplish in a full 24. It’s as wonderfully written as it is shot, and for an upstart storyteller like myself, it’s the perfect example to take from of how to take a badass concept and weave some real emotional heart into the sucker.

What sets The Walking Dead apart from most other series is, in my opinion, it’s ability to find the human truth in every single circumstance. No matter how fictional or fantastical a situation may be, at the end of the day, you are telling stories for a human audience, and raw human emotion is what all anyone will ever connect to. That’s why, for instance, you can have a far greater investment in characters fighting off zombies than you might for desperate housewives cheating on their partners. It doesn’t matter whether or not one situation is more realistic than another, what matters is which one of those instances feels more emotionally honest. In this respect, The Walking Dead is head and shoulders above many more shows airing today.

In terms of the power of cinematic narrative, The Walking Dead is a great example of the difference between having a camera tell a story than anything else. In the pilot episode, there begins the introduction of the audience to the zombie apocalypse with a 5 minute non-dialogue sequence. In this moment, our hero wakes in the hospital from a coma, and he sets out to make his way home, discovering what the world has come to along the way. During his whole journey home, perhaps four words total are said, and for a solid 5 minutes, we watch in dialogic silence as the world around us is slowly, powerfully revealed onscreen. From the use of juxtaposition, to the rhythm of the shots, and the exposition of subject matter, every single layer is peeled back, emphasizing and simultaneously enlarging the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe.

Through no other medium of storytelling other than film is a silence such as this so powerful. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then moving pictures are like those one thousand words being screamed by the most eloquent banshees you ever heard. As a filmmaker, it’s a glorious piece of cinematic achievement to behold.

And as a screenwriter, reading the pilot teleplay is like seeing that “A” paper the smart little shit wrote in your 8th grade English class while you were toiling away with a “C-“. Everything you might have learned about writing, or read about writing, is executed in such a way that you fully understand the meaning of how it’s accomplished. Wanna know how to best use white space? It’s right there. Wanna see how to write the tone and tempo of a scene onto the page? You got it. This day in age, it’s all to easy to do a search for screenplays online and get them for free, legally. The insane copyright laws that exist for the finished products of music and movies don’t yet extend to the scripts themselves. So if you’re looking into getting into the filmmaking business, do yourself a favor and get while the getting’s good. Search for some movies you like and download their screenplays. Learn from them. And then expand upon the knowledge they give you.

In screenwriting, one of the first exercises you’re given is to write a short, dramatic, non-dialogue scene. It all started with silent films, and if you can’t translate the drama of your piece without dialogue, forget trying to make your scene seem authentic with it. If you want to know how to write an amazing non-dialogue sequence, read pages 13-20 of The Walking Dead pilot. If you want to know how to tell an amazing story onscreen, read the rest of that pilot script. Then watch the actual show. Or vice-versa. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

hitRECord and the Remix Revolution

As a struggling artist, I had no idea how I would ever get my name out there with the big boys or ever make an impact. Breaking through the wall of entertainment is such a daunting task when you’re on the outside looking in. But, a couple years ago, thanks to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and hitRECord.org, I realized that I don’t have to wait for my big break. Especially this day in age, everything I’ve ever needed to create my art has been more widely available to me and anyone else than ever before. It took until I joined hitRECord to realize that. And since then, I’ve made contributions to projects that have screened at Sundance and SXSW, and I’ve just finished an article that could contribute to TIME magazine about hitRECord and all it’s done for me. This is that article, and this is why you should join the REmix Revolution.

from hitRECord.org:

TIME profile – The Remix Revolution

Having access to a TIME magazine interview, and having permission to write on it, is something I feel I haven’t yet deserved in my career. I suppose my main reasoning behind that feeling is because I haven’t started a career yet. As an artist, I write, act, and direct. These crafts I am exploring and learning as I attend university in San Diego, California. Yet here I am, with an interview between Joel Stein and Joseph Gordon-Levitt at my disposal, having been allowed—nay, requested—to write a profile from it, and I don’t even have a résumé typed up. I didn’t have to start in the mailroom; I didn’t have to climb up any ladder rungs to get to this position. All I had to do, was hit RECord.

Started years ago with the help of his older brother, Dan, hitRECord.org was at first just a site where Joseph Gordon-Levitt could upload his own projects. Today, hitRECord.org is a “professional, open, collaborative production company” where artists from all over the world, with all kinds of backgrounds, can come and work together on professional quality works of art. It is the kind of place where an editor from England can take clips filmed by an actor in Hollywood, from a story by an author in the Philippines, based off of an idea from another artist from another part of the world, and weave them together to create a film to be screened at a place like Sundance. “There’s so many artists all over the world making great shit,” Gordon-Levitt says, “and that’s who I wanna work with.”

This is made possible through the company’s core idea of “Remixing.” In an age of crackdowns on copyright violations, Gordon-Levitt’s company goes against the trend by promoting the sharing of intellectual property. “Anyone can contribute a record, and anyone can download a record and remix it into something else. Remixing isn’t theft on hitRECord. It’s an honor.”

And this isn’t something Gordon-Levitt preaches to the masses, it’s something he feels so very personally as well. “Having someone take creative liberty with what I’ve done, it’s just fascinating,” he says. “It’s endlessly fascinating. Wow, they really got it. Or they didn’t. You can really tell by the art that they make, more than whatever the box office says.”

The culmination of this ongoing, public process manifests itself in the form of the company’s first “RECollections” volume, a sort of compilation of the best works to date from hitRECord bundled together in a tangible piece of multimedia art. “We’ve been working on [RECollections] for years now. That’s what’s so exciting about it, being able to present this finished product. We can say, ‘You wanna know what we’re doing? Here’s what we’re doing.”

In a site that has over 200,000 records released for remixing, “RECollections vol. 1” is comprised of no less than 1,000 records collaborated on by 471 artists from around the globe, all of whom will be paid should this endeavor turn a profit.

And making money off of this form of art is something that Gordon-Levitt believes will become a more plausible thing as time goes on. As Joel Stein notes that he makes far more money off of his acting roles than he might off of hitRECord, Gordon-Levitt responds simply, “for now.”

The status quo, as it stands, is dictated by the current intellectual property laws, which Gordon-Levitt calls “hogwash.” “There is a lot of money in intellectual property, and the people making that money have spent a lot of time and effort into propagating the idea that stories belong to authors.”

It’s only a matter of time, he believes, until that changes. “It’s the task of our generation to figure out how can we connect directly with our audience and creative community, and support ourselves with the art that we make.”

As to when this time will come to pass, Gordon-Levitt argues that it’s already happening. “In 2010, we were playing places that were 100 people. In 2011, we’re going to do the Fall Formal for 1800 people. So what are we going to do in 2012 and 2013?”

Now whether or not this Remix Revolution comes to surpass the status quo remains to be seen. And whether or not it’s Gordon-Levitt and his merry band of artistic rebels that are at the forefront of this movement remains is anyone’s guess. But one thing is for certain: the times, they area a ‘changing. They are changing as I write and as you read. The windows of opportunity have been thrown wide open, and the distances between artists have been shortened. We can thank technology in large part for this, and in the smallest of parts, we can thank Joseph Gordon-Levitt and hitRECord. And, more than anything, we can certainly expect to hear from them again…by heart.

image by Lawrie Brewster.