As a young filmmaker trying to break the creative seal, I am finding myself paralyzed by something that I can only think to call “The Problem of Appreciation.” I have always been most comfortable inside of the theater, eager and excited to explore the text and environment of almost any film in front of me. Sure, there are movies that I don’t like but there aren’t many movies that I love to hate and, in general, I have a passive hostility towards the overly critical viewer (not critical in the theoretical sense, but rather in the “Two Thumbs Down!” sense) even if they are my closest friend. Engaging in heated debate over film is obviously a favorite past-time, but I almost always find myself in the role of Public Defender rather than Prosector. I love everything from the tight construction of Billy Wilder and Wes Anderson to the loose, Cinematgraphic Real/Ecstatic Truth of Herzog and Bresson. I love trash unironically and can rattle off a dozen reason why I think Predator is a perfect storm of actors, crew and direction. I love the elegiacal and I love the bombastic.
It’s not really the content that I am getting hung up on (I am confident in the stories that I like and want to tell), but rather in the drafting and establishment of style as it begins in the script. I know this is an intensely personal block for any artist to approach, but I am curious if others have dealt and/or deal with this problem. It’s like I begin to write and then I get huge anxiety about whether to put it all on the page or leave it out for production to decide. I feel more inclined with the latter approach, as I do see this as the great advantage of the camera, but then I watch something like The Apartment and I’m like, “Yeah… they didn’t come up with these gags on the spot.”
I suppose to say this doesn’t deal with content is a fallacy actually, since different stories obviously lend themselves to different styles and levels of control. But I guess I have all different kinds of stories that interest me and enlighten different aspects of the medium. How does one deal with this? Do you just start making films and decide what you like and what you don’t? Do we think the greats find a style in what they like to see, or in what practice feels good? I guess it is much easier to look at your own creation on screen and be critical but, right now, its just…taking….that first….step. Don’t know if that makes much sense, but I think some of you might know what I mean. I guess its a general crisis for any type of artist, but specifically relevant to film considering how we (as in the MODERN WORLD) absorb and react to a screen.
Also, I’m a bit drunk. Thanks!
In vino veritas
What you are asking is the age old question of how to approach a screenplay, with the knowledge that you are going to be directing said screenplay. This is different to the industry pattern, which about 80% of the time divides these roles up: a screenwriter puts a blueprint down and the director interprets, in line with what the studio/producers have stipulated. What you are talking about is the auteur approach. You are to all intents and purposes all three roles in one. And that’s how I advise you to approach it.
Be a screenwriter first. Indulge yourself. Overdo it. It is easier to put a red line through scenes later than it is to have to come up with improv.s on the spot unless you have a lot of experience.
In preparation for the filming itself, switch heads and be the director. Make technical notes on the screenplay. Interpret it objectively. Work with the actors, and see how they feel about it, check the blocking for scenes, rehearse (even if you are going to improvise, rehearse. It’ll give a you a heads up). When filming begins, watch what is working and what can be dropped. Many times you’ll find that words and actions become superfluous, and the film evolves into its own animal.
And finally, keep in mind throughout both processes the idea that you are the executive/producer in the boardroom at the end, critical and expectant, knowing what was promised. Don’t let this “voice” destroy your work, or undermine your confidence. But listen in from time to time, take time out as you write and shoot and ask yourself “Is this making sense in terms of my original intention.”
Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules.
“My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water… When you do not know what you are doing and what you are doing is the best – that is inspiration.”Robert Bresson
I know that Gus Van Sant when filming Mala Noche abandoned all hope of the script reaching the screen, and relied entirely upon his storyboard and improvisation pulled from his actors. Kubrick was notorious during filming of The Shining for rewriting everything on the morning of the shoot for the next scene, to the point that Jack Nicholson gave up learning his lines because everything was flux.
When you write a script that you’re going to be filming, there are two things to think about- The fact that it’s a blueprint for you to work from, allowing you to keep track of key ideas and dialogues you feel necessary to tell your story.
- A base for the actors and crew (and depending on the scale/ambition of your production, you will probably need both a screenplay and a shooting script, as well as a storyboard and a series of technical check/cue pages) to work from.
Forget about rules. The three act structure you get taught in film school lends itself effectively to a certain kind of storytelling. But I doubt very much that Bela Tarr or David Lynch works this way. Their storytelling doesn’t fit the model, and therefore the model is irrelevant.
My last film, I had a big screenplay with large margin spaces and lots of scrawled notes as to what camera angle and lens and lighting and estimated length of each scene in minutes and seconds (including extra time for safety) and all the reaction shots mapped out. I came to the shoot, and by day 3 it was lying in the corner unceremoniously crumpled and abandoned. This is because the film took on its own life, and instead of fighting that, I went with it, and steered it into the entirely sick mess that it is today. But I’m very happy with the outcome: because a) I learnt something new (again) and b) It ended up a more dangerous and difficult piece of work than I had anticipated.
That’s the job.
No safety net.
You’re not going to sell your screenplay. No one’s going to publish it. It’s not a play, it’s not going to get performed many times and reinterpreted. So it doesn’t have to be a complete document. It can be freaking notes on scrawled bits of yellowed paper tacked to the inside of an exercise book if that’s what works for you.
Write what you want, as much or as little as you want—- don’t judge yourself, get out there and see what you can make of it.
I’d advise against an entirely improvised approach unless you’ve got some experience working with actors. Done well, I think it’s the pinnacle of filmmaking, but it takes concentration and an ability to read many things in the environment at once.
Drink some more wine and do some writing and stop asking questions. It’s in the doing you’ll find the answer. Have fun.
Benham: As I have just said on a different thread, always respect your own instincts as an artist. Don’t listen to that critical person inside who is telling you what you are doing isn’t right. If you listen and respect your own voice, and learn to LISTEN to that voice, you will find that everything else comes ‘round. Don’t judge your own work by any one else’s or any so-called standard. These are all obstacles to be jumped, like a good show horse approaching an equestrian event. The past, including film past, is over – it’s dead. The future is being made now, and is really the only thing that counts. Appreciation from others comes after the fact – not before. Go and create something that reflects YOUR own vision, that is true to you, and everything else will follow. Watch what you like and make what you like and damn the critic inside or outside. Basically, all criticism that is negative is a form of jealousy at the fact that the artist, in film or whatever, has actually DONE something. Go out and enjoy, drunk or not, and stop this self-pitying! You have your own answer: “Do you just start making films and decide what you like and what you don’t?” – Yes!!!
Artistic blocks are just an illusion – they only exist outside the moment. When you are in the moment, everything flows. Get a little drunker, perhaps, and you’ll know what I mean. Always remember: Appreciate yourself and your vision and then there is no ‘problem of appreciation’.
After posting, just saw Tobias’ great and real suggestions – now you really need to just get going. He knows what he is talking about, guy! I am just the cheerleader on the sidelines.
I’m in basically the same position you are – have an idea of the kind of things I want to do but not a clear direction of how it should be filmed, and I feel that what I do may end up just aping my favorite directors because I lack the voice to say something particularly interesting or original. But that sort of disease of super self-consciousness seems to afflict almost every artist, even the great ones (probably moreso with the great ones). So I feel like I’m certainly not alone.
“Do you just start making films and decide what you like and what you don’t? Do we think the greats find a style in what they like to see, or in what practice feels good?”
I have very limited experience with filmmaking so far, but I think it must be some combination of all of the things you listed. Doing what you’re compelled by, or what feels interesting and good to you is obviously how you come up with your own voice. Maybe some people can move simply by an intuitive force guiding them, without giving it any conscious thought. But most of us don’t work that way. There’s nothing wrong with lifting some ideas and scenes from your favorite films, if only to discover what you like so much about them and to get a better understanding of how things work.
In my limited experience, I’ve found that you have to start throwing different things at the wall and hope they stick before you can reach the point of arriving at your own voice. Especially with the relative ease of creating something now vs. how it used to be, there’s really no reason not to try several different things out. Anything you’ve worked on can be a learning experience, no matter how minor or bad it might seem. Obviously you should strive to make the best movie you can make with what you have, but don’t try be overly analytical about it. As in, you should always be asking yourself what sort of feelings you want to evoke in the audience and what you’re setting them up for with your story. That’s just part of the process – to find what you’re communicating and how you should best express that in images/sounds. But don’t try to move outside the world of your film to analyze if what you’re doing is “good” or “bad” in the context of other things. That doesn’t accomplish anything.
anyway, that’s all in very limited experience and parts are semi-regurgitated from advice I’ve been given that I have yet to live out in practice. I think it’s right, though. Even the most brilliant filmmakers started somewhere. Anyway, I wish you luck.
Edited to add that the last few sentences of Tobias’s post are all you really need to know.
Liz wrote… “There’s nothing wrong with lifting some ideas and scenes from your favorite films, if only to discover what you like so much about them and to get a better understanding of how things work.”
This is very sound advice. It’s actual something we are going to be doing within Garage when it launches. In the beginning, you kneel at the feet of everything that has gone before you. You are not going to comprehend all the complexities and subtleties of shots (especially in narrative films), their inter-relationships and the overall effect they create until you’ve walked the fire of your own work, and most likely got your feet very badly burnt. Ultimately, with hard work, trial, error and faith you move from a position kneeling at the feet to standing on the shoulders of giants.
It’s a really great exercise to pay homage to the shots of others. But look at every aspect of the shot: the lighting, the pacing, the movement (or non-movement of the camera), how the sound works (try to work out where the mics are, or if it’s dubbed), etc… Intense focus. It really won’t hurt to be doing some of this while preparing for your film. Too many times you get out into the field and then discover that you really weren’t prepared. It also helps you to learn your camera. Experiment with settings—- film something to which you have no especial attachment in terms of outcome, take the footage home and edit it. This way, when you come to shoot, you’ll know exactly what you need, and what can be achieved in post—production.
Liz and Tobias have some great ideas when it comes to this topic.
When I’m writing I am very harsh with what I have written, leading me down the path of revision after revision as a result of a myriad of factors. My one litmus test is to give the script to someone who has no association or interest in making film and see what they have to say. Having your work analyzed and taking criticism is an essential part of filmmaking and will help you know what works or not and allows you to get better.
When I’m screening a film I always pay attention to the audience are they laughing when I want them to, is anyone laughing when they’re not supposed to, people looked bored at this part of the short. My favorite reaction is silence, unless I’ve made a comedy, as people tend to talk during independent or amateur short film, silence for me is golden, people are engaged with the material or are just very polite!
Coverage and time are your best friends, from my experience if you don’t know how to shoot a scene shoot it a billion different ways. Story boarding helps a lot, it forces you to think about your shots and gives you an idea of your shot flow without having to waste time on set figuring out what you want, allowing you to act on new ideas that may not have presented themselves otherwise.
Something that worked for me was using a small camcorder while some of my actors during a rehearsal and trying a bunch of different shots and framings, which opened me up to a multitude of ideas on how to cover the scene.