Sorry I have been out of the loop this week. I have been hard at work on my first video piece for LAist.com! I have never produced anything “hard news” before, so it is a little rough, but I think it turned out OK.
I am getting more interested in documentary film making, so I am starting to consider this a first step. From here, who knows, right? And the workshop is pretty cool, too. If you are in LA, and are a filmmaker, you should check it out.
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?
Last week I was lucky enough to attend another Open Projector Night at the Hammer at UCLA. In case you haven’t heard how this event works, directors submit videos and they are played on the big screen for two minutes. At any time, the audience can shout down those videos and at the two minute mark, they get to choose (based on applause) whether to keep the tape rolling. I won’t talk about how my film did, suffice it to say I was unfairly judged.
Many of the videos were voted down, and some weren’t. After analysis of the ten or so successful films and the other thirty that didn’t make it, I drew some conclusions about how to make an enjoyable short. So, here goes:
1. Suspense. No matter what the subject-matter, if a movie had a hint of suspense in the first two minutes, the audience would vote it on. However silly it may sound, even an unopened box will lend enough mystery to merit an additional two minutes. Audiences love to play detective, if you keep them asking why they will watch your video.
2. A Unique Perspective. I keep thinking of one film, Kelp for this example. The movie told the story of a man falling in love with, well, kelp. This may sound odd and a little unjustified, but it had the audience riveted well past the two-minute mark. Audiences will feel compelled to watch if you can introduce something different into your movies.
3. Good Production Values. A good script only goes so far in safeguarding your film from rejection. If it is well-lit, shot smartly, and edited tightly, the audience will want to watch. Think about it this way: how many people are going to check into the seedy motel versus the five-star Four Seasons? Not everyone has a multi-thousand budget, but if you do, use it. There are ways to prettify the Best Western.
4. Humor. Make the audience laugh and they will love you forever. We’re not talking funniest-film-in-the-world-better-than-the-Marx-Brothers but if you inject some humor into your script, and it is meaningful and uncontrived, the audience will appreciate your video that much more.
5. Brevity. Remember you are making a short video. If you have something important to say, find a concise way to say it. For me, some of the funniest and most profound videos have been less than two minutes.
6. Animation. Trust me, it doesn’t matter what the cartoons are doing, (even juggling knives, eyes, and assorted limbs as in one video) people will want to watch it. I don’t understand why or how this is, but just trust me, it’s kinda scary.
Now let’s move onto what never works:
1. A lack of conflict. I think my video suffers from this. Ultimately, conflict drives narrative. When there is no central struggle, the movie drags and the audience gets bored. I agree, audiences are more impatient in the age of cellphones than ever, but that’s still not an excuse. Why else would a teenager sift through seven-hundred plus pages of the final Harry Potter if not to know what will happen to Harry and Voldemort?
2. Grossness. Guess what, it’s 2010 and thanks to the internet, audiences have seen everything. If your purpose is to shock your viewers, the only thing you need is a time-machine. I prefer intelligence, elegance, humor, and solid filmmaking over anything “truly shocking” and so did the audience that night.
3. An agenda. There was one terrifically horrendous video shown that night whose sole purpose it seemed was to spread racist hysteria. The audience quickly shouted it off. We write and direct films because we do have an agenda, but that is not reason enough to make a film. If your purpose is merely to make a ridiculous point, then hand out fliers instead.
Anyway, those are my ideas. Let me know what you think; what is a short movie you liked and why? Post a link or just let me know. Before I make my next short, I need to know.