Susan Kouguell is an award-winning screenwriter, filmmaker, and chairperson of the screenplay and post-production consulting company Su-City Pictures East She is the author of The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself ). Follow Susan on Twitter: @SKouguell
At the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, I had the pleasure to speak with Australian filmmaker Joe D’Arcy, whose 6-minute short film Je Suis un Crayon (I am a Pencil) was included in the animated shorts program Whoopi's Shortscurated by Whoopi Goldberg. This program is described as ‘showcasing imaginative storytelling and captivating craft.’
D’Arcy and I began our interview, walking through lower Manhattan, the setting of the Tribeca Film Festival. It was as if we stepped onto a movie set; the rain had stopped, the gray skies lifted, and the sun shone on this dramatically windy day. After screening D’Arcy’s film several times, I had more questions and thus our interview concluded via email once he had returned home to Australia.
About Joe D’Arcy
In 2004, D’Arcy studied screenplay writing with Simon Hunter, Head of Film School at Bond University. In 2006, Joe formed Bodhifilms, which later became joedarcyFILMS. Joe wrote, directed and produced the award-winning film, Beauty. Later that year, he was a finalist in the Project Greenlight TV series, where he wrote, produced and directed from his feature film the dramatic comedy, Follow the Tao. Joe has successfully integrated dual careers of filmmaking and Clinically Accredited Psychotherapy. Along with his Clinical practice in psychotherapy, Joe has worked professionally as an actor, writer, director, producer, cinematographer and editor.
Inspiration and the Writing Process
Kouguell:You mentioned that Je suis un Crayon (I am a Pencil) is “dedicated to the expression that exists within all of us.” The message you present in the film is poignant and powerful without ever being heavy-handed. How did I am a Pencil evolve and how did you approach such a difficult subject matter?
D’Arcy: The original Charlie Hebdo crew dedicated their lives to free expression and after they were murdered, 3 million people marched through France, in support of this expression, standing alongside the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, stating 'Je Suis Charlie' i.e. we are (all) Charlie; just as Charlie expresses, so do we. When watching this unfold, on the other side of the world, this passion and sentiment of the people resonated deeply within me, and the script emerged. In terms of the script, the Charlie Hebdo murders did not need to be spelt out to the audience when making the film.
The focus of the story is that of a regular person/artist/ cartoonist going through their life, on a day-to-day basis. The pencil represents the ordinary person and like every ordinary person, it must express in order to live. Without expression there is no life. Expression, especially for the artist or the satirist, is expressed 'as it is-as I see it' and so this became the common theme for the film. My desire was to create a hand-drawn 'styled' film in honour of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who dedicated their lives to the hand-drawn image.
Kouguell: This short film is a family affair. The drawings were penciled by your wife Carol D’Arcy, your 16-year old son, Byron, did CGI and color grading, and the original soundtrack and theme song was composed by your 20-year old daughter, Jazz.
D’Arcy: As my birthday approached, my family asked what I would like for my birthday and I said, “I would like you to work on this film with me." Each of them are very talented, award- winning creatives: Carol is an accomplished oil painter, Jazz is a singer songwriter and composer and Byron is a filmmaker and cinematographer. They all agreed to work on the film although Byron initially asked, 'Can't we just buy you a shirt, Dad?’
Kouguell: What was it like to work together and collaborate in this way?
D’Arcy: As a husband and a dad, it was a joyful and fulfilling experience to work on the project together with my family. My family members will often support each other in their individual creative pursuits, i.e. everyone will support one person -- but with this project, we were all able to participate on equal footing in our own respective areas. Our home was rich with creativity over the next three months and although we worked very hard, it was a joy to experience.
Kouguell: What came first, the images, the script, or the music? Did they happen simultaneously or did one feed off the other?
D’Arcy: The story came first. In essence, the story is about an ordinary person/pencil that goes through life doing this and that, like anyone else, expressing what is-as it sees it. That's it! That's what the pencil does! That is what it has always done and what it always will do. The fact that people may be offended is somewhat irrelevant. Because as a pencil/an artist -- it is compelled to express what it experiences. This need to express is innate and as a human being/pencil/artist I must express what is innate.
As I wrote the story, the images appeared and were written into the 'action' of the original script. After rewriting the final scene (after Jazz's feedback), tears began rolling down my cheeks and so I knew that the script was working (because I don't have tears easily).
The Screenplay Writing Process
D’Arcy: The majority of the script turned up the first night that I watched 3 million people march through France. We were in the middle of another film project at the time and so I resisted writing the script for 'Je suis un Crayon.' However, the script continued to push itself to the surface from deep within me. After a few days of resisting, I finally decided I would ‘just write the script, but not make the film.’
After writing the script, Carol and I read it and thought it was good, and although we did not want to interrupt our major project, we felt compelled to make the film. Jazz's feedback on the script was that the ending wasn't strong enough, and so I spent a number of days contemplating and visualising the final sequence so that each sequence flowed as seamlessly as possible into the next whilst the intensity of the film built. In this final section, I was mindful of a copywriter’s approach to an image, where the picture tells one story, the words tell another story, and together, the combination of words and pictures tells another story. I did my best to employ this approach.
The Making of the Film
D’Arcy: After discussions and advice from VFX supervisors, Simon Dye and Sterling Osment, and some research, we decided to use traditional hand-drawn images combined with some filtered footage (converted by Byron D'Arcy) and 3D animation to complete the film, along with filmed footage of Carol's hand-drawing at the beginning of each sequence.
All of the footage was then broken into single frames and printed before being individually hand-sketched and/or shaded (over 5000 images in total). We went with 25 images per second and then manually selected it down to 17 frames per second -- for effect. We then reshot each image on a cinematic Red camera, backlit on a lightbox. We used overhead lighting (2x2K blondies) bounced off the ceiling through silk held by two A-frames. The footage was then colour graded by Byron in 'After Effects' to create the burnt sepia finish.
In our final week of sketching and cel shading, Carol realised we were not going to finish in time, so she put out an open call to her artist friends on Facebook to work as cel artists under her guidance.
Je Suis un Crayon and its impact
D’Arcy: A filmmaker friend, Gerd Schneider, contacted me in March and told me that members of the Charlie Hebdo crew were coming to the Kirchliches Film Festival in Recklinghausen,Germany under police guard and that the Festival director, Michael Kleinschmidt, would like to screen our film. We sent him a HD Vimeo link, and a few hours later, we received an email from a member of Charlie Hebdo thanking us for making our film. That was a mind-blowing experience.
Kouguell: How was your Tribeca Film Festival Experience?
D’Arcy: (To date), Je suis un Crayon has screened at Tribeca-New York, Santa Barbara, Nashville, Flickerfest-Australia, Kirchliches-Germany and Raindance-London. Although each festival has its own merits, Tribeca was by far, the most fulfilling experience as a filmmaker. The essence of the festival seems to focus on the art of filmmaking and the desire to nurture the career of the filmmakers. Apart from that, I got to meet my favourite actor and producer, Robert De Niro at the directors’ brunch.
Kouguell: You were a Project Greenlight finalist in 2006. What did you come away with from that experience?
D’Arcy: In order to get into the finals, each script is peer reviewed, as well as judged by an industry panel. I found this experience to be very beneficial as it indicated that both my peers and members of the industry thought that my writing and directing was of a standard, worthy of consideration for one million dollars in funding. This gave me a great deal of confidence and belief in my writing and filmmaking ability. It also was a tremendous exercise in resourcefulness whilst working under pressure with extreme deadlines (we were working on celluloid at the time).
Kouguell: What are you working on now?
D’Arcy: I am currently producing and directing a live action independent feature film, Life Goes On (working title) set in 1966 Australia. The film is four stories in one where each person’s dilemma not only requires their own effort but also the love and support of their family in order to make it through. We have been working on this film for four years with a view to completion in 2017. We often shoot one minute of footage in a very busy day.
Kouguell: Your advice to screenwriters and filmmakers?
D’Arcy: Number 1: I think one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is that, if you give 95%, you'll get 95% in return. If you seriously give 100%, you’ll receive upwards of (making a number up) 700% in return. In an industry where 97% of people struggle to make a living, make sure you produce work worthy of the 3%. Number 2: Get the story right before you start filming.
Upcoming Je suis un Crayon screenings:
St Kilda Film Festival Melbourne (Academy Accredited) on May 20th
SouthSide Film Festival Pennsylvania - June 14-18th
Westend Film Festival Brisbane- June 26th
Sign up for one or more of Susan's next set of classes:
May 26: Advanced Film Rewriting
Check out all of Susan's Upcoming Classes!
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting: Give your Script a Solid Foundation
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting, Accelerated
Writing the Family Feature Film
Writing the Family Feature, Accelerated
Writing the Documentary
Writing the Documentary, Accelerated
Writing the Animated Feature Film
Advanced Film Rewriting
World Building: Crafting Screenplays Readers Can Step Into