Saturday, January 16, 2010

Film School Follies: Part 10 – The Direct Approach

By ScottDS

After Panic, our directing class was a regular breath of fresh air. Our teacher’s name was Tom and he was probably the first “cool” teacher we had at Full Sail. He was certainly enthusiastic and knowledgeable (by this time, I had gotten over the skepticism with which I greeted every new teacher) and most of my classmates would probably rate him as one of their favorites.

I remember he had an interesting way of taking roll: instead of calling the student’s name and the student answering “here,” he would ask for other information. “Okay, today you’re going to give me your favorite film” and so on and so forth. Obviously, if you answered, that meant you were there. My favorite was “your porn name” which apparently was a combination of the street you grew up on and your first pet. I never had a pet so, at the urging of a classmate, I simply gave him the name of our DC teacher with the word “ravishing” attached to it. (This turned out to be mildly prophetic.)

Directing is, quite frankly, difficult to explain. No two directors operate exactly the same way. There are rules to be followed but just as often, the rules are broken. In short, directors oversee all the creative aspects of a film. (Television is a different animal entirely.) They are responsible for approving actors and key production personnel and selecting camera angles and the “tone” of the film, in collaboration with the director of photography. They go on location scouting trips and approve costumes, sets, props, etc. They work very closely with the editor during post-production to shape the film. They discuss their intentions with the composer and attend scoring sessions (something I’d pay to do). I’m sure most directors get a say in how their film is advertised and promoted but I could be wrong. (I simply can’t imagine the director of the latest direct-to-DVD American Pie schlockfest having a lot of clout in the industry.)

Stanley Kubrick would shoot a hundred takes before he got what he wanted. Steven Spielberg is known to shoot very fast (sometimes to the detriment of the film). Some directors love improvisation (see: Apatow, Judd) while other directors hate it (like Kevin Smith, though I think he’s mellowed in recent years). Many of the most famous directors have an identifiable visual style (Kubrick, Hitchcock, etc.) whereas many directors are simply journeymen who move from one film to another and have no recognizable style. Many directors storyboard every scene (M. Night Shyamalan) while others arrive at the set in the morning with no idea how they’ll shoot the scene (Woody Allen). (Visual effects are always storyboarded; I’m talking strictly about dialogue scenes.)

We were told that our 16mm films would have multiple directors: basically, anyone who was interested in directing would get a chance. I was not a fan of this idea and I’m still not. I’ll talk about the making of our 16mm film in the next blog but I recall some students were literally assigned just one shot to direct! I took this all in, knowing I wanted to direct both a 16mm film (parts of it, anyway) and a 35mm film. A director needs to have a vision of how the film will be: style, tone, mood. Again, it’s sort of hard to explain but after watching many movies, I felt it sort of seeped in through osmosis. We were given copies of the four scripts to be shot in 16mm and I gravitated to one in particular: a World War II story. I immediately started getting images in my head. A few of us even got together one night to talk about the script, thinking we were all going work on it. (In the end, none of us did and the resulting film is a well-intentioned mess.)

We talked about shot composition. You have your wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups. Each type of shot carries with it an implied meaning. A close-up of a crying woman holds more weight and can mean something different than a wide shot of the same. We also discussed angles. A low angle implies menace whereas a high angle implies vulnerability. The 180-degree rule is something that most people don’t notice until it’s violated. Picture two people talking face to face. An imaginary line intersects them. The camera can only remain on one side of the line. There are, however, ways to get around it: the actors can move, thus dictating the movement of the camera (not every director shoots like this); the camera can circle around the actors; or the director can use an “insert shot” like a shot of a clock on the wall. Many times, inserts are used to cover up an edit or simply to covey information. (That shot of the speedometer in your favorite car chase was no doubt filmed by a second unit, possibly days or months after the main unit wrapped with the actors.)

I was mostly nervous about working with actors. While the roles in Panic were filled by classmates, we would be working with professional actors on our 16mm and 35mm films. Tom talked to us at length about rehearsals and how actors respond to scripts. Every actor has their own process and, looking back years later, for all intents and purposes, I think we might’ve gone a little overboard. I remember a pre-production meeting where all we did was talk about the characters’ backstories for two hours. While this is very important, I’m not entirely sure it was all that relevant for our films. Even after our 35mm films were finished, I thought to myself, “Was all that necessary? Who cares what our lead character’s wife does for a living? She’s not even in the movie!”

They stressed the importance of the “throughline” or the spine of the script. Every scene and every line has to have a purpose: either it reveals character or moves the plot along. Of course, I can think of several examples of scenes and lines that don’t do either of these things but the best written scripts are the ones that manage to do both without hitting the audience over the head. (I read once that a character should never utter the phrase: “As you know…” because that’s simply script-talk for “Now I can inform the audience…” I think that’s why many films have a “new guy” or an “observer” so our hero can explain complicated ideas to him/her and it seems natural.)

We were told that actors hate line readings: “Here is how you should say it.” The trick is to get the actor to deliver the line the way you want without having to tell them how to do it. I later found out it’s all about communication. If you and the actor are on the same page and you answer all of their questions and you know the meaning behind the line, you should be fine. Some actors are certainly better than others and the really good ones will bring things to the film that you never imagined. On our 35mm film, some of the actors had good ideas: some we used, others we didn’t. I don’t believe any of our actors (at least on the films I worked on) had any hard questions that couldn’t be answered and remember, we were dealing with local performers, many of whom mostly worked on student films so they knew we were amateurs. (That is to say they treated us like professionals but knew we were inexperienced.)

I’m personally a fan of what’s called “business.” Some actors like to have a prop on hand, for example a pencil they can chew on. It adds character and becomes a bit of “business.” One filmmaker once speculated why actors in old movies always smoked – they would have something to do with their hands! Tom taught us a very good lesson in “giving vague direction.” During one class, he kneeled in front of my desk and we improvised a little scene. He told me to play it happy, then sad, and then he started generalizing. I can’t remember exactly what he said but I know at one point I was muttering and stumbling like Woody Allen. Of course, Tom did the same thing with my friend at the next desk and he was actually pretty good (the bastard)! Again, this all goes back to communication: answering questions, being able to explain why an actor would perform action A and not action B. (During the making of Airplane!, Lloyd Bridges asked why his character would do a certain thing and Robert Stack basically told him, “There’s a watermelon falling from the ceiling and an arrow shooting into the wall! Lloyd, nobody’s paying any attention to us!”)

Since Full Sail was (and still is) more of a technical school, we didn’t talk too much about the various schools of acting like “the Method.” I don’t even think it ever came up during the making of our films. We were such small potatoes and none of our actors seemed to have any weird rituals (that I knew of) though one actor who worked on another class’ film apparently showed up to the set with his pet chickens! (He didn’t work on any of our films, thank God.) One of our guest speakers was a local actor who had appeared in many Full Sail films. His name was Guido (the name definitely didn’t match) and, while I like to think we learned a lot, there were about five students left in the room by the time his presentation was done. Even the teacher had disappeared and we were left with this stranger in our class. He complained a lot, that’s for sure. I only stayed because I didn’t want to be rude. He didn’t work on any of our films either.

As for me, while it’s been a few years, even if I read a script today, I get images in my head and a good sense of rhythm. Of course, only the audience will be able to judge whether or not my instincts are correct. The best directors seem to be the ones with the best instincts. As I said earlier, much of this creeps in via osmosis and it’s easy to see when the director’s instincts are wrong. My friend and I saw I Am Legend and we both felt it was missing something. On the other hand, I just watched Back to the Future again and everything in that film works. Scenes flow naturally from one to another, the script observes the time-honored traditions of set-up and payoff and, to quote the studio exec, the film “was put together like a Swiss watch.” In the next blog, I’ll talk briefly about a 16mm film that was put together like an imitation Rolex…

Recommended Reading:

Katz, Steve. Film Directing Shot by Shot. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 1991.

Mamet, David. On Directing Film. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Rabiger, Michael. Directing: Film Aesthetics and Techniques. New York: Focal Press, 2007.

Van Sijil, Jennifer. Cinematic Storytelling. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2005.

Weston, Judith. Directing Actors. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 1999.


AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the article Scott. I think it's interesting how different many directors' style can be. Kubrick, for example, is so distinctive that you can spot his films in the first glance. Speilberg doesn't have a visual style that I recognize so much as he uses the same emotional tricks over and over.

And then you get to this vast group that, as you note, really have no style. These are the guys who turn out films that just like "standard" and nothing more.

I think being a director would be great.

ScottDS said...

Your welcome!

One great director with no discernible style is Robert Wise. Watching The Andromeda Strain, you'd never know it was directed by the same guy who did The Sound of Music! I believe he once said that his style was whatever worked for that particular film and I can't argue with that. Another example would be Sidney Lumet (IMHO).

As for Spielberg, the MTV Movie Awards once parodied his habit of having actors reacting at something off-camera. I think this was in 1997 when The Lost World was released and all the trailers showed Goldblum and Co. staring off into the distance.

I would say Spielberg does have a style - the man knows how to wield a camera and capture everything in one shot without a lot of cutting. Maybe it's not as identifiable as Kubrick's but the best example would be Poltergeist: it was "directed" by Tobe Hooper but the whole thing gives off a Spielberg vibe. He produced it and that's another story -

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Scott. I agree with Andrew about the comments on directing. Hundreds of takes for Kubrik, eh, -- who knew? BTW, my porn name was Taffy Edgewood.

Since I don't know if there will be another open thread this weekend, is anybody going to check out 24 this year? I was kind of disappointed last season, but will give it a try. I never did get into Jude's live blog last season since I was on east coast time. Human Target looks intiguing as well.

Tennessee Jed said...

One director whose style I never really enjoyed was Robert Altman. It reminds me of the style later employed on Hill Street Blues and other television shows-- e.g. controlled chaos. It was hard to pick up on dialog and just too busly even though somewhat realistic.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, We did the "porn name" thing too and it really works. Mine was the awesome "Max Bunkhouse." I've thought out changing my real name, but I'm too lazy. ;-)

Scott, I'm not saying that Speilberg doesn't have a style, far from it -- he has a very definite style. What I'm saying is that his style isn't the kind of style that you spot right away from the look of the film. But his films are unmistakable (and not always in a good way).

ScottDS said...

Jed -

24 is something I'll have to Netflix and watch marathon-style later. I never got into it and everyone I know would tell me the same thing: "It's so intense!"

As for Kubrick, in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, Shelley Duvall compares working on The Shining to the film Groundhog Day. And there's on-set footage of Kubrick losing his cool a little bit while directing her.

Click here and go to 3:50:

I've only seen a few Robert Altman films. Meh... I should probably watch The Player again though I liked Nashville (if only for Henry Gibson). I think he was one of the first directors to have overlapping dialogue in his films: two characters on frame left and two on frame right, both holding their own conversations.

ScottDS said...

Andrew - Understood and agreed!

Now I have a question. I know on BH (and other sites), people like to say "Hollywood filmmakers are out of touch with their audience" and I think this works to a point. Sure, you have your indie directors and your "artistes" but take someone like James Cameron.

I know, I know... Avatar. But as I've mentioned elsewhere, Cameron was a physics major. He's worked blue-collar jobs. He started at Roger Corman learning on the job, he wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Same with Spielberg - the guy was a Boy Scout when he was a kid, grew up in the burbs, and - naturally talented - worked his way to the top - I suppose what I'm asking is, how can anybody win? And how does someone like Cameron go from blue-collar tech guy to "Marxist," "Socialist," etc.

Filmmakers can only make the kinds of movies they'd want to watch, which I suppose goes back to the whole "We need more right-leaning filmmakers." Some in Hollywood might be out of touch but you can't second-guess or predict what the audience will want either.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I don't think it has anything to do with their background so much as the politically charged and isolated/bubble environment in which they end up. It’s a form of group think.

Look at a guy like Spielberg. When he started, you couldn't have told his politics from his early films, e.g. Jaws, Close Encounters, etc.

But as he spent more and more time in Hollywood, surrounded by people who make a heck of a lot more money than middle Americans, who don't live like middle America, who don't share the beliefs of middle America (who in fact routinely disparage middle Americans and their values) and who are about as far left as Americans get, he started to pick up the bad habits of his surroundings. For example, with everyone around him happily spitting out hatred for Republicans and middle America in normal conversation, it doesn't take long before it becomes very easy for whatever liberal inclinations he has to become leftist and then far leftist, and soon he doesn't think a thing about putting leftist political statements into his films because everyone else around him does it and everyone else around him encourages him to do it. (Though I don’t see this as much with Spielberg as others.)

Hence, he loses touch with the rest of us.

Think of it this way, if you moved to China, it wouldn't take you long to start adopting Chinese ways. Soon you've changed enough that if you came back to America, you wouldn’t fit in very well.

And it isn't only conservatives who make these kinds of assertions. The left tells us that without enough women, blacks, Jews, Muslims, gays, handicapped, etc. on whatever panel or in whatever company, those panels or companies or government bodies will not be able to represent those groups because they can't understand the worldview of the unrepresented groups.

So why would this be different with a place like Hollywood, which really lives in a bubble?

ScottDS said...

Yeah, I figured as much re: the "bubble" environment. I tried thinking of a good "Scott moves to China" joke but I couldn't. :-)

In any case, I guess this is where willpower and a strong moral compass come into play. (Besides, I was taught not to bring up politics in mixed company. And since I'm an independent, I'll just end up pissing off people from both sides!)

Going back to directors' styles, it's interesting to see how some filmmakers evolve over time. I was listening to the audio commentary on I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Robert Zemeckis at one point says, "I'd never shoot this scene like that today!"

Writer X said...

Interesting post, Scott. With all the moving pieces, it does seem pretty remarkable that a movie can ever be made.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to return to the complete massacre known as the Saints vs. Cardinals playoff game. :-(

ScottDS said...

Writer X -

(You may read this post-massacre) :-)

That's why a director needs to surround himself with a great support team: people who not only know their own craft but who can offer ideas, alternatives, etc. Thankfully, it's the producer's job to worry about money and to keep the studio away from the director.

On the 35mm film I (co-)directed, at one point no one thought we'd get a frame of film shot. But we did.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - to Andrew's point about Spielberg and China, let me quote an old Woodwardian proverb: "If you work on a tuna boat long enough, eventually you start to smell like tuna."

I used to use that line when we on occasion place one of our underwriters in a broker's office to whom we had given our pen. Our underwriter was theoretically expected to keep the broker honest, but the concern was they would eventually "go native" on us.It seemed equally appropriate in talking about why good directors go bad.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Offend away, we're all friends here.

I know what you're saying about strong moral compass, but let me suggest three things:

(1) Many people don't have a very well developed set of views/principles and they will follow whatever crowd they are with.

(2) It's surprisingly easy to lose touch with the rest of the world when all you hear is one view. It's the same thing with language and what you consider proper. For example, if you spend any time in the South, you will pick up the expression "you all" because everyone says it all the time ("all y'all" is the plural). If you hang out with athelets, union workers, or navy people, you will start swearing. If you hang out with political extremists, you will get so used to hearing extremist things that you won't realize how shocking they are to people who aren't in your group.

(3) Many times, the path of least resistance is to do what everyone around you wants -- especially where the other people hold the power to hire/fire you or to distribute your film.

So there are many reasons for people in Hollywood to drift in the one direction.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Let me give you one more example similar to what Jed is talking about. One of the issues I worked on years ago involved allegations of defense contractor fraud. We did an investigation for the company in conjunction with the government's IG office.

When we started, we were stunned to find that everyone in the local office had become in faking test results, faking documents, and even stealing government supplies to resell them to the government.

What's bizarre about this, is that they all knew it was wrong -- and none of them benefited personally from doing this -- but they all did it. When we asked why they got involved, all we heard was, "everyone else was doing it."

That's a scary thing.

(In case you're wondering, several of them (but not all) ended up doing a lot of time.)

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Writer X, Sorry about your team, but I was torn. I like Warner a lot and I like Brees a lot -- both seem like really decent guys.

I suspect this is the Saints year.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - with all due respect, I must make one small correction to your last previous comment. "You All" is what Yankees say. Y'all is singular and All Y'all is the plural. If you doubt me, check out the 1990's era charmer with Reese Witherspoon and Kiefer Sutherland called "Freeway" (a slightly bizarre twist on Little Red Riding Hood) for verification.

ScottDS said...

Andrew - I dig. I suppose I'm asking all these questions now to cover my own ass later.

And I probably heard more "y'all"s during the NASA study (which was in Texas) than in my previous 26 years combined. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, You're right, I wrote that incorrectly. "Y'all" is southern (with the plural being "all y'all" -- though I never adopted the plural.

The one that makes me cringe is the Pittsburgh/Ohio version: "you'ns" or "yinz." Ug.

Writer X said...

Andrew, thanks. This may be Kurt Warner's last year, and there's no denying Brees's talent. I admire him too.

BTW, in the Midwest, you hear a lot of "you guys" a lot. And I'm guilty of that too. Still. Maybe it's a "city kids" thing. Anyway, my cousins in Texas used to make fun of me and my siblings a lot for saying that. They used to tell us it "sounded funny." Cause I guess "ya'll" sounds perfectly fine. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Cool post. I like this series.

Unknown said...

Scott: Great article, and funny too. I hope the whole experience for you ends up producing the career you finally want. You can even learn from the weirdness. Believe me, I know.

My favorite director was Alfred Hitchcock. He was versatile, but the one thing he always did, regardless of the subject of the film, was to create a mood, and stick to it. It served him well whether he was doing serious drama, horror, mystery or light comedy. Not to mention I couldn't enter the theater without immediately wondering which scene he would show up in.

ScottDS said...

Thanks, LawHawk. The kind words mean a lot.

As for Hitch, my last movie purchase before leaving for the NASA study two months ago was North by Northwest on Blu-Ray. One of the new features was an hour-long documentary about the different methods and motifs in Hitchcock's films: music, sound design, camerawork, thematic elements, etc. It also includes excerpts from an interview with the man himself and it was quite insightful - interesting but not pretentious.

From what I understand, people would go to his films wondering when he'd show up. So he had to start appearing near the beginning of his films to get it over with so people wouldn't be thinking about it the whole time.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's true. By the way, if you're interested in Hitchcock, the best ones (from a film geek perspective) are often off the beaten path. Strangers on a Train is really creepy and crawling with inside jokes (see the British version, not the American version). I love The Trouble With Harry, and Rope. Suspicion has some really neat film trickery in it -- like the spider web image near the end, and has an interesting history of studio interference.

Topaz is interesting when you hear about the ending, though the movie is unsatisfying -- could have been so much more (same with Torn Curtain, which actually is one of the better spy movies around).

ScottDS said...

I own the Universal and WB DVD boxsets. I liked Strangers on a Train very much but I watched the American version. I'll have to put the UK version on the to-watch list. The Trouble with Harry and Rope are very good. (Speaking of Rope, when are we gonna get another Film Friday?) :-)

I didn't like Suspicion that much. And I didn't like Cary Grant's character. I was aware of the studio-mandated changes but I'm not sure it works. (I do like the milk glass lit from within.)

Topaz was okay but twenty minutes too long (gotta love John Vernon as a Cuban!). I liked Torn Curtain but it's nothing special. It's also the movie where Hitch and Bernard Herrmann had their falling out.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I agree with your assessments of the movies, but I think those are the more interesting ones from the craft perspective (except Torn Curtain which is nothing special -- but I enjoy it).

Hitch had to tone down the gay angle in the American version of Strangers. It makes the movie a little more creepy.

I didn't "like" Suspicion either, though I respected it. I loved the craft he put into it, like the lit milk glass, the spider web shadow, etc. I also thought it was fascinating how easily you come to seriously dislike Grant -- something that you never see again in his career.

I'm hoping to start the Film Friday's again this Friday -- I just didn't have time over the holidays to do them (they take a surprisingly large amount of time).

ScottDS said...

I understand. One film of his that I think is great is Dial M for Murder. For starters, the script, while not the best ever written, is impeccably constructed. Also, it only takes place in a few different locations though it doesn't feel claustrophobic.

A friend and I tried writing a TV pilot. Even for something as simple as our lead characters stuck in a traffic jam, we found ourselves asking, "How big is the traffic jam?" "Why is there a traffic jam at this time of day? (not rush hour)" "Will there still be a traffic jam by the time they get to their destination?" "What about after they accomplish what they have to do?" "How do they get out of the jam?" ad nauseam.

My friend might've asked, "Do we need to know all this right now?" and I could only answer "Yes!" Hitch's movies made it all look easy. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Good fiction (movie or otherwise) is amazingly complex to put together -- otherwise you end up with unrealistic moments that drag the viewer/reader right out of the story. I never felt that with Hitch -- never a moment where I said, well that doesn't make sense. . . which is an all-too-common occurrence in movies or books today.

I'm actually working on a book (editing now actually) and it was amazing how complex the thought behind each scene needed to be -- even when it doesn't show up on paper -- just to make sure that everything made sense. Interestingly, occasionally, these little details would highlight bigger problems that required a significant readjustment in the story, when I realized, "hmm, that would kind of create an easy way out here that they would obviously take, meaning this second part would never happened."

StanH said...

I know I’m late Scott but, You didn’t have a pet?

It seems as you develop your directing skills one skill they should attempt to teach at film school is management. I’ve run several companies, still do, and what people respond to is confident leadership, certainty of direction. This touches on what you, Andrew and Jed were discussing about going native. When you are in charge of a film, the director sets the environment, in other words the set will follow your lead, and become “native” on your terms.

ScottDS said...

Stan -

No, I never had a pet. I was never really interested in having one, nor was my brother. One day perhaps. :-)

As for management, that does play a huge part in filmmaking, not just for the director but for everyone. As for going native, I don't really have more to say on the subject - it was just a thought.

Sometimes, a good working environment will show on screen... the one blogger on BH had been doing articles about Smokey and the Bandit and you can tell those guys had a good time. But not every "fun" set leads to a successful move and vice versa.

ScottDS said...

^"successful move" should be "successful movie"

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