I did it

I do another lap on the sidewalk outside Bad Robot. I try to tell myself that I’ve earned this, that my pitch is good, that I can do this. I try to calm my nerves, try not to think about what a big deal this is. But of course, it’s a huge deal. The biggest deal of my life. It’s my lifelong dream, inexplicably thrust into my lap. I’ve wanted to pitch Bad Robot before Bad Robot was even founded. I’ve wanted to pitch a company like Bad Robot all my life, a place that values story, and mystery, and all the geeky ideas that I love.

When I left Hollywood at the age of 24, I assumed I was leaving this dream behind as well. But now, against all odds, I stand outside the production house I most admire. And they are waiting to hear my idea. A fancy black car, so fancy I don’t even recognize the brand, pulls up. Oh my god. It’s JJ Abrams. There’s his wife. They’re talking! I shield my gaze and power-walk away, trying not to look like a creepy stalker. Act professional, act professional, act professional. Do one more lap. Then it’s go time.

My story is the classic Hollywood myth, the one everyone hopes for but we all know doesn’t actually happen. You know how it goes: A regular Joe Schmoe goes about his daily life in Small City, USA. The phone rings. It’s from Santa Monica. Schmoe answers to find Hollywood A-list director JJ Abrams on the line. Is Regular Joe interested in coming down to pitch? It’s a dream too good to be true, a dream that never actually happens. Except it did. It happened to me.

I’m lucky. I’ll be the first to admit it. There are lots of talented people out there. They’re working on cool projects. A lot of their projects have more youtube views than mine. When my project dropped, the timing was perfect. Stars I didn’t know existed aligned in ways I never could’ve predicted. I’m a lucky son of a bitch.

But luck favors prepared. And, really, I’m not just some random Schmoe. I’m a random schmoe who’s been working his ass off on pet projects for the last six years. Pet projects that took months of my life. Pet projects that led nowhere. Until, finally, one did.

Is there a guaranteed recipe for success? Of course not. But every successful creative has to do four things. They sound simple, deceptively simple, but each of these four steps are some of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. Do these and, when luck shines, you’ll find you are prepared.

#1 – Start Something

Standing outside Bad Robot wasn’t the scariest moment of my creative career. The most terrifying moment of my creative career was posting the casting call for “The Monday Knights”, my web series. I couldn’t sleep the night I pushed the Craigslist “post” button. I had butterflies in my stomach for days afterward. For some reason, that was a huge point of no return for me. By involving other people, not friends or family, I was making an irrevocable commitment to see the project through. Come what may, I was putting myself out there.

It’s easy to write a sentence. It’s easy to write a paragraph. But to truly start something, to say “So help me God, I will finish this project by end of the year!” takes some true balls. It’s incredibly scary to commit to a project, because then you’re on the line. But the second time, starting a project will be easier. And the third time will be even easier. By the time you get to Bad Robot, heck yeah you’ll be nervous. But you’ll have confidence too. It may be your biggest rodeo, but it won’t be your first.

#2 - Finish it

Think starting something is hard? Try finishing it. This is a test of endurance and concentration. Anyone can start something. Virtually everyone has. But finishing a project is crazy difficult. I don’t just mean throwing a couple of splashes of paint on a canvas, stepping back, and saying “I finished my first painting!” I mean, every step of the way, with every stroke, asking yourself: Do I truly believe this is valuable? Is this the best I can do? Most of the time, the answer will be “no”, and at some point you’ll go back and redo it.

You won’t be great all the time. You won’t even be great most of the time. You will be great on rare occasions. Creating something of value is being willing to stick with a project long enough to let all those great occasions add up and start to congeal. You will get stuck along the way. You will panic. You will get frustrated. You will walk away. The test is: Will you come back? Will you finish what you started, even though odds are nobody is going to see it, and if they do, they probably won’t care? If you can finish your project in the face of these horribly depressing certainties, and spend the time to make it great, then you’ve passed the second threshold.

#3 – Stand Behind It

All these steps are hard, but this one may be the hardest. Standing behind your work is painful. After all, your project is something you poured your heart and soul into. Your ego is tied to it. When you put it out into the world, if someone doesn’t like it, what you hear is “I don’t value you.” I’ve seen many creatives finish something, and either shelve it or just toss it out there without a second glance. Their logic is “My work speaks for itself”, but what they’re really saying is “I want to disassociate myself from it, in case people don’t like it”. I’m guilty. I used to do this all the time. I’m a little better today, but I still have a really hard time standing behind my work. Even when the vast majority of comments are positive, each negative one is a dagger to the gut.

But standing behind your work is important. Sometimes your work is good enough that other people will champion it for you, but often, especially when you’re starting out, you’ve got to be your number one fan. And being a fan doesn’t mean spamming your friends on social media, but it does mean speaking about your work with pride, showing it off, and generally having confidence in yourself and what you’re doing. Ask yourself “why am I proud of this”, and then don’t be afraid of the answer. If you can articulate this with confidence, people will respect you.  

#4 – Do It Again

So you just poured your heart into a project. It took you months, maybe years. You probably worked a day job while you did it, so you’ve had no free time. You didn’t see your friends. You gave up your hobbies. Your relationships suffered. Then, when you released your project, no one cared. Sure, you got a few compliments. Your friends probably saw it and gave you a high five. But the earth-shaking ramifications you were expecting just didn’t happen.

Give yourself a pat on the back. Seriously, you’ve earned. Take a couple weeks off. Turn your brain off. Don’t think about your project. Enjoy your friends and family. Then force yourself back onto that horse. It’s time to start creating again. Time to devote your entire being to another creative process that no one will see, and no one will care about. Another exercise in futility.

Except it really isn’t. Every project gives you two things: Experience and a showpiece. Experience is HUGE. When I started my web series, the Monday Knights, I knew nothing about shooting on DSLR cameras. I knew nothing about sound. I knew little about lighting, camera tracking, and setting up efficient 3D renders. When I go back and watch the last episode and compare it to the first, the difference is huge. I learned so much just in the process of doing, that the later episodes were a high enough quality to get me my next job. Which brings me to my next point:

You get a showpiece. You can point to something and say; “I made that”. It may not go viral in the immediate future, but sometime down the line, somebody is going to ask, “Why should I hire you?” Now, you have something to show them. When I first started creating, it felt random and futile. I wrote screenplays. I submitted them to competitions. I never heard anything back. I pitched and wrote a book “The World of Warcraft Guide to Winning at Life.” Blizzard, the producer of World of Warcraft, sued and successfully stopped the launch of the book. All 30,000 copies were dumped into a landfill, minus my 20 author copies. Just when I thought I had broken through, I was back to square one.

Then I Kickstarted the Monday Knights webseries for $5,000. As I mentioned, the quality got better as the series went on. The senior production at agency Sincerely Truman was impressed with the amount we achieved for $5k. He hired me on as a producer. Working for the agency, I pitched the idea of doing a passion project about Star Wars, addressed to Hollywood director JJ Abrams. They gave me freedom to run with it. Five months later and over 1 million youtube hits, we had a viral hit on our hands. JJ Abrams called me. He invited me to pitch Bad Robot. Suddenly, all the work I’d previously done came marching back in to support me. It was like the ending of “Usual Suspects”. All the creative projects that never went anywhere suddenly formed a larger picture that I just didn’t see before. The Monday Knights got me my job at an ad agency. The ad agency gave me the resources to make a kick-ass video addressed to JJ Abrams. JJ Abrams asked me to pitch him, and I knew how because I’d written so many treatments and screenplays. Then, when they ask for a writing sample, I show them the World of Warcraft Guide to Winning at Life. All those projects that I thought were a big waste of time came back to support me.

Bottom line: Creating is never futile. Your immediate effort on any given project will likely go unrewarded, but the end result is a piece of who you are. You are a creator. Over time, your creations will add up to something more.

#5 – Be Nice

Whether it’s editing a Hollywood blockbuster, or editing a movie on iMovie, everyone has access to creative tools.  If you want to write, paint, make movies, or design, the barrier to entry has never been lower. The 21st century is full of creators. With the proliferation of social media, everyone has a voice. The result is that we’re savvier critics, and we feel much more entitled in our opinions. The Internet is littered with barbarous attacks on creative works.

This is why I try to come at other people’s creative from a place of love. I try to offer criticism that’s actionable and supportive. Always look for places where I can give praise. Pour positive energy into the world, rather than negative energy. I do this because I know praise and recognition are often the only rewards we creative get. Attitude may not be everything, but it’s at least 60% of any job interview, project, or promotion. Your outlook on life will get you much farther than your creative ability. If you have both, you’ll be unstoppable.

I’ll never forget my phone call with JJ Abrams. The call lasted nine minutes. Three of those minutes he spent praising my “Dear JJ Abrams” video. JJ Abrams, praising my video? Craziness. And he said something that really stuck with me. He said, “You know what I liked best? There was no hidden agenda, no name-calling. Your video came from a place of love. It just felt good.”

And this, I feel, is the closest thing I have to a secret. Be nice. When someone creates something great, tell them. And then make something beautiful and give it to someone you admire. Tell them you love their work. Love is a rare commodity. Let it loose and see what comes back your way.

The "4 Rules" in Episode VII

 

First I wrote and produced the four rules video. Then I did the follow-up essay about why they were important. Honestly, I don’t want to turn into another self-proclaimed Star Wars expert. But I also couldn’t spend five months working on the video without thinking about what I want in Episode VII. Plus, it’s my blog, a safe place to rant and rave. I swear this will be the last time I post about Star Wars… in the meantime here are two more of my cents.

 

Rule 1 – The Setting is the Frontier

Whatever the Youtube comments may say, I did not mean for my four rules to be draconian edicts. It was not my intent that the rules were unbreakable (except maybe Rule 3). Episode VII doesn’t need to take place entirely on the frontier. I just think Star Wars was more successful as a backwater adventure than an urban political thriller. So yes, I hope most of the movie will take place on the fringes of society. Having said that, I think there’s good reason to start Episode VII on Corusant.

Here’s my pitch: A young protagonist, possibly a Skywalker, has lived on Corusant all her life. She knows nothing but its claustrophobic urban corridors. But fate lures her off the planet, and strands her in the frontier. She’s the city girl to Luke’s country bumpkin. Yet their backstories are similar, two young souls out to see a new world.

Why start with a city slicker, fish-out-of-water story? First, because it allows the audience to see the galaxy afresh, through the eyes of someone unaccustomed to space travel. Presumably, a lot has changed in 40 years. Even locations familiar to Star Wars fans can feel exotic. Second, because I think it will help modern audiences explore the frontier. Since the original trilogy was released, global population has increased from 5 billion to 7 billion people. Most of that growth has happened in urban areas. A modern audience is better equipped to relate to an urban protagonist over a rural Tatooine farm boy. Lastly, the Star Wars we most recently visited in Episode III was very urban. By starting in the city, there will be a natural continuity with the prequels. And then we can quickly distance ourselves from those movies, leaving the cities behind.

 

Rule 2 – The Future is Old

I’m not advocating the exact same aesthetic as in the original trilogy. However, I think this rule offers some really exciting opportunity. It’s been 40 years since the Empire was overthrown. They had control over much of the galaxy. What happened to all their technology, ships, settlements?

I want to see the remains of the empire decaying on planets across the galaxy. I want to see pieces of a crashed star destroyer rebuilt into a fortress by some primitive alien race. I want to see dirty, patched up storm trooper armor worn by a bounty hunter. I want to see a tie fighter entangled in vines and moss. Episode VII is a great opportunity to build on the fantastic Star Wars look, while transforming it into something uniquely it’s own.

 

Rule 3 – The Force is Mysterious

K, plug your ears. I’m about to be heretical. Kill the force.

Crazy, right? How could we have Star Wars without the Force? Bear with me. Here's what I'm thinking: Something has happened in the galaxy. Maybe it was caused by the extinction of the jedi. Maybe the Force just atrophied from lack of use. But the force is dying out. Perhaps it’s already gone, and now only lives in myth and legend. Then, halfway through the movie, allow it to make a slow comeback. Allow someone to find it, and learn it again. Allow the audience to welcome it back like an old friend.

The force has to be made special again. In the prequels it was almost an afterthought, a lazy tool for exposition and superhuman abilities. Because of episodes I – III, audiences expect furious lightsaber battles and force pushes. But the force is like a fine spice. Too much ruins the meal. So I say take it away for a while. Give us some cool characters and story to digest. Let our palate come back. When we finally get a whiff of the force, we’ll be drooling for more.

 

Rule 4 – Star Wars isn’t Cute

Again, more controversy. I want the Jedi to go back to being pacifists. Remember when Yoda didn’t wield a lightsaber? Remember when Obi Wan let Darth Vader MURDER him? How radical was that? Can you imagine a movie nowadays where a good guy lets himself be killed? The Jedi in the original trilogy were boring, play-by-the-rules pacifists. And that was what made the story so interesting! Luke’s decision wasn’t “Do I want awesome good guy powers, or awesome bad guy powers?" It was: “Do I want to sit around meditating as a good guy, or kick ass as a bad guy”. That’s a tough decision. With shows like Breaking Bad, I think today’s audience would probably choose the later. And there’s nothing wrong with that: Let’s use it!

Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie because Luke has to make a difficult choice: Either be a good guy, or save your friends. He, of course, chooses his friends over the path of righteous, and at the movie's end the future looked pretty grim. The  problem was that he never really had to face the consequence of his decision. In Return of the Jedi, he  saved his father and defeated the Emperor. He had his cake, and then he ate it.

In the new trilogy, I want to see the consequences of those tough choices! Make the Skywalker of this series decide between increasingly tough options. Let him choose his friends, his lover, his adventure and excitement: All the stuff that, yeah, duh, a 20 year old is gonna crave. By the end of the movies, this Skywalker becomes an amoral master of the force who walks his own path, apart from the Jedi or the Sith. In fact, this Skywalker ends both the Jedi order and the Sith. The moral code of the Knights of the Old Republic is dead, he declares. We have a truly modern Star Wars, with Walter White as our Jedi protagonist. Holy cow, that's good! If only Disney would allow it…

Or, just do something totally unexpected. Blow our minds, pull the rug out, and keep the Star Wars franchise alive for another thirty years. I have faith in Abrams and Kasdan. Even if they don't take my awesome ideas, those two are masters of their craft. I can't wait to fork over my $14 to see what they come up with.

 

Why the “4 Rules” Work

Like Star Wars fans everywhere, I walked out of the The Phantom Menace in 1994 scratching my head and thinking, “That was Star Wars?” I’d anxiously awaited the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker—and it was a terrible disappointment. A decade later, though, I’m glad the prequels sucked so badly. Their failure provided fans with the incentive to remind studios what we expect in a Star Wars movie. And with a multi-million-dollar franchise on the line, it’s in Disney’s best interest to listen up.

I recently created an Open Letter to JJ Abrams in video form, which outlined four rules that distinguish the prequels from the original Star Wars trilogy. The video went viral online—great evidence that masses of fans share my perspective. The video’s rules are mere observations of the differences between the two trilogies; but if Disney were to read between the lines of each rule, they would find concrete filmmaking techniques they could leverage to make better movies. Disney, if you’re listening, I’m going to spell it out for you. Here’s why the four rules made the original trilogy so great.

 by Robert Perez

by Robert Perez

 

Rule One: The Setting is the Frontier

What it does: Activate the Imagination

Star Wars fans all over the Internet have been loudly requesting the use of practical elements and puppets in Episode VII. This is, in part, a reaction to the overuse of CGI in the prequels. However, I think this demand may also be driven by a desire for the creators to leave some things left unseen—a technique that the original trilogy employed deftly

It’s true that limited technology in the original Star Wars era dictated what was seen on screen and, more importantly, what wasn’t. Some aliens we saw, but many others were obscured, below the waterline or off screen. For everything shown, something else was hinted at. But this had a great, if unintentional, side effect. It activated the biggest tool a director has: the audience’s imagination. Leaving gaps forces the audience to engage more with the story. The audience has to immerse themselves to help their own brains fill in the details of the world, and in doing so, they develop deeper personal relationships with Star Wars.

Our imaginations are activated when the right balance is struck between close-ups and wide shots; with carefully designed sound stages rather than unlimited greenscreen; seeing a partial Krayt dragon skeleton on a sand dune versus a CG Krayt dragon full-on stomping across the screen. The former whets the appetite for more, while the latter leaves little room for imagination. Balancing on the boundary between the known and the undefined creates “movie magic”. It’s why the video advocates making the setting the frontier. The frontier is the line between the wilderness and civilization, the border between known and unknown. Set Star Wars on the frontier, don’t show everything, and let the audience fill in the gaps.

Rule Two: The Future is Old

What it does: Creates the Brand

In A New Hope, George Lucas introduced the “used future” aesthetic, and audiences had never seen anything like it. It made sense in the context of the Star Wars story world: If technology has been around for millennia, of course the spaceships feel banged up and dirty. Pulling from industrial design, George Lucas created a look that became the signature Star Wars style.

Then, in the prequels, he ditched the “used future” aesthetic completely. His logic for doing so was that the pre-Empire era was newer and shinier. For the Star Wars story, this may have made sense—but for the Star Wars brand, it was terrible. The original trilogy purposefully moved away from the shiny, Buck Rogers look to create a style never before seen in film. The prequels’ return to “shiny” pulled Star Wars backwards, into the realm of generic sci-fi. It’s as dubious a creative decision as to ditch the lightsabers or the Force. There may be a place in the Star Wars universe without lightsabers, but is that a story we really want to hear? The original trilogy has an amazing brand. Don’t dilute it; build on it.

Rule Three: The Force is Mysterious

What it does: Makes us Believers

The Force is a distinctive spiritual element not found in 2001, Star Trek, or Firefly or other sci-fi brethren—the Force differentiated Star Wars. Star Wars didn’t try to tell audiences why they should believe in the Force, it simply MADE them believe. It used techniques religions have used for centuries: chill-inducing music, Jedi riddles and the moving poetry of Yoda’s “The Force is My Ally” speech. The Force in the original trilogy was an emotional hook, never a logical sell.

Its address of the human need to believe is part of what makes the original Star Wars timeless. Why was this beautiful reverence edited out of the prequels in favor of over-explanation? Of course, Moore’s law and rapid advances in technology breed the belief that science can explain everything—and perhaps that’s why George Lucas caved in to the temptation to give reason to the Force in the prequels. But I would argue that making the Force quantifiable, even a little bit, strips it of its powerful mystery, and that a mysterious Force becomes more important in a scientific world, not less. Star Wars VII creators, don’t attempt to lecture why the Force is real or great. Please, you must MAKE us believe.

Rule Four: Star Wars isn’t Cute

What it does: Creates Complex Heroes

A cute pratfall or two can be OK. It would be a mistake to portray Star Wars as completely “gritty” or “edgy”, because there is lightheartedness in George Lucas’s world. Star Wars is fun. But it earns its fun by including its darkness. In the original trilogy, Luke walks the hazy rail between dark and light. Han is an amoral scoundrel who shoots in cold blood. Leia is a vociferous shrew. The funny droids, the Jawas, and the Ewoks worked in the original trilogy, but only because they had multi-dimensional heroes to support them.

In the prequels, morality was dolled out along party lines. Jedi were good. Sith were bad. Anakin was mostly good, until—suddenly—he was bad. There was no complexity, and little subtlety. The lighthearted humor, which might have been welcome if the characters were more interesting, felt flat. So listen, Disney: “Cute” can work in Star Wars, but not unless there’s a realist backbone supporting it.

No one can guarantee a story’s success—even for a beloved franchise such as Star Wars—and there’s no formula for making a classic. But if Disney is willing to take these four, tangible steps, they will push Episode VII in the right direction. Fellow fans, consider your role in this, as well. Are you willing to settle for mere spectacle? Or do you demand good storytelling? As the audience, we decide with our dollars what kind of stories get told. If these four rules do nothing else, I hope they at least make us actively reflect on the entertainment we choose.