Tag Archives: directing

On Going It Alone

And collaboration, which is not necessarily a compromise, may be the very thing, if properly encouraged, that allows film to speak in the most developed way to the largest number of people. Every person who works on a film brings his or her own perspective to bear on the subject. And if these perspectives are properly orchestrated by the director, the result will be a multi-faceted and yet integrated complexity that will have the greatest chance of catching and sustaining the interest of the audience, which is itself a multi-faceted entity in search of integration.

-Walter Murch

Walter Murch

I love this paragraph from Walter Murch’s seminal In the Blink of an Eye. Murch, editor of The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and other untouchable classics, had one of those miracle Hollywood careers; his book is really is a must for anyone interested in filmmaking (editing or not). This passage in particular sums up his philosophy: film is collaboration. It takes talented editors, producers, writers, carpenters, production assistants, production coordinators, and a host of others to really make an amazing movie. Don’t trust those DIY filmmakers who say they did everything themselves. No one exists in a vacuum, and the moment you get help as a director, is the moment you make a film.

Collaboration is a difficult concept for me, because I am one of those DIY filmmakers. I don’t even like when other people touch the camera while I’m directing. It’s not that I’m some Laszlo Kovacs or James Wong Howe, it’s just I’m so used to doing it my own way, I have trouble ceding control. I trained as a writer on my own: very few classes, no film school, and I have never really worked on a large-scale, collaborative set.

But that reticence is something I have been trying to change. No one lives in a bubble, nor can someone write or direct in a bubble. I could spend the rest of my life making my own videos. With today’s technology, that’s very possible. Yet I’ll never grow as a filmmaker. That growth takes hard work, the kind that involves other people. Ironically, sometimes letting go of the film is the first step to actually making one.

What’s your filmmaking experience? How do you balance being an indie auteur with being a “ringmaster of a circus that is constantly reinventing itself” in Francis Ford Coppola’s words? Are those two things mutually exclusive?

Are Directors Jerks?

The crew walked out on me. One of my first experiences as a director, and all five techs for my show staged a walk out. In the midst of trying to get everything ready for the first (and only) showing of the play I wrote and directed and worked over for months and months my senior year of high school, I acted like a monster to the crew. I didn’t really know what I wanted in terms of lighting, so I yelled at them to figure it out for me.

I eventually apologized and they returned to the rafters but I never quite forgot the experience. Since then, working on sets as a PA, and seeing the stage from the other side of the curtain, I know this behavior isn’t unique to me. It may best be exemplified in this outrageous tirade from David O. Russell on the set of I Heart Huckabees:

Russell couldn’t get a satisfactory line reading from Lily Tomlin so instead of working with her, he resorts to yelling “I’m tryna help you!” To be fair, Lily was giving him attitude. The way he handled it speaks to the frustrating dilemma directors are in—if they don’t get a line reading right on set, they’re never going to get the movie they want in the end. It’s a frustrating, drag out, time crunch, filled with long days, long nights, and little time to get something right. It’s justified he would feel this way.

But good directors don’t give into that pressure. Filmmaking is a collaborative process; good films take many people to get right. While the director is ultimately responsible for the finished product, she or he is at the cast and crew’s mercy.

The best directors understand this, and quickly get them on their side. Clint Eastwood works with the same crew every picture not only because they’re the best, but because they know his style and they follow his method. There’s a quiet persistence in knowing what you want and going out and getting it—not immaturely, but through leading by example.

I get David O. Russell’s motivation to yell at Lily Tomlin. You have to be authoritative. But you also have to know how to work with a group. And you don’t have to be such a baby about it either.

Would love to hear your thoughts. Please share in the comments.

and all five techs for the show staged a walk out.

Ivan Passer on Directing

A Still from Intimate Lighting

Last weekend I was lucky enough to see Czech director Ivan Passer speak about his film Intimate Lighting at the Silent Movie Theatre. It’s an awesome movie, one filled with moments of humor, emotion, and wisdom; all of which feel understated and real. Written in 1965 while Czechoslovakia was under communist control, it’s a truly beautiful, incisive look at small-town life—independent, sly, and even slightly subversive.

After the show Passer answered questions from the audience. I was fascinated to learn that all but one of the actors were non-professionals; many were found on the streets of Prague. It shows, the acting feels natural and unrehearsed.

Passer did mention he had difficulties with one actress, the grandma. He had found her outside a “film club” in Prague. She was a widow who agreed to come with Passer to the country even before she knew he was shooting a movie.

When this actress came on set, her choices were hokey and Passer thought he would have to replace her. In fact, on that first day of shooting, he took the film out of the camera because he knew that all of the scenes with her in it were ruined. He sent out assistants to scour the village for an older woman who could play the grandma. At lunch, they came back empty-handed. Passer was nervous. This was his first movie—his first day—as a director. He couldn’t report back to his producers that he had nothing.

He took the older woman aside after lunch and told her, “You know, I want you to know that you have very pretty eyes. You don’t need to do much more than show your beautiful eyes” (I’m paraphrasing here). After that, the actress calmed down. They redid some of the scenes from the morning and from then on, almost magically, she became one of the stand-outs of the film.

I think as a director you have to let your actors know that they have pretty eyes. You have to give them the confidence to go on stage or on camera. Because let’s face it, actors are some of the most nervous, miserable, needy people in the world. A director’s duty is to make the actors feel comfortable, in charge and dynamic. It can be as simple as telling an actress that she has pretty eyes, or even laughing after a take.

Whenever I direct (which isn’t often these days) my first job is to make my actors comfortable and happy. The worst films I have done the actors did not know each other, didn’t care about the material, and didn’t want to. And it shows on the final take or performance. The most fun plays I have done, like Roland, a lot of the rehearsing took place off the stage when we were getting to know each other. It’s hard work, but that bond of mutual respect and admiration, among the actors, crew, and director, makes the final performance that much nicer.

So my question this week is: who do you think are the best directors and why? What do you think makes a good director?

The Bird Watching Movie

In anticipation of releasing my newest video on Youtube this week, I thought I would go through some of my older shorts and talk about them.


“The Bird Watching Movie”

This is the first movie I made that was longer than one minute, and I am pretty proud of it. I created this in the fall of 2007 with two other partners. The exercise was ostensibly to create something less than five minutes and use some camera techniques (graphic matches, depth of focus, zooms, pans) that we had learned in class. Most groups did comedies, like ours.

I don’t know how we decided to do birding. I think my partner Jackie mentioned something about bird watching and we ran with it. I remember storyboarding the movie before writing the script, something I have never done, but is actually quite freeing. If you know what is happening, it is easy to write in the details. Once I knew I would play Charlie, the story was easy. I simply had to find my craziness and amplify that about one hundred percent. The bird calls at the beginning of the film are not based on any real calls but simply figments of my imagination. Again, craziness inspires this film.
What I Like:

1. I am glad that we were able to improvise ninety percent of the script. The humor does not feel as forced. Comedy is best unexpected and unarranged, and most of our shots were just that, set up, shoot, and wait for the funny. The plot points needed to be specific, but the dialogue did not.

2. For example, many people laugh when “Andy” tells Charlie his name is not really Andy. This was not in the script but still very funny.

What I Don’t Like:

1.  I would have used a real bird for the chase sequence.

2.  I probably would have switched out that one shot where I approach the camera at the end of the chase. It looks pretty forced.

3. Instead of simply locating Charlie at a lectern for the bird watching “conference,” I would have tried to co-opt a lecture or something and filmed there. It just looks very sparse, and I know that’s what I’m going for, but that scene does not say “conference” to me.

Enjoy, and if you really like the videos, subscribe to my YouTube, I promise to subscribe back http://www.youtube.com/user/JBP687