Archive for August, 2012

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Directing Emotions

August 23, 2012

Being a director is all about emotions. Finding the emotional beats in the story, getting the actors to the right emotional place for the scene and iliciting the desired emotional response in the audience. These things are somewhat obvious. But there is another feelings-based element to consider- that of keeping on top of the emotional state of the cast and crew.

When you’re actually there on set, particularly on the low budget side of things, its easy to forget that everyone there has an investment in the film you’re making- whether it be doing good enough work to justify their day rates or wanting to creatively exel themselves. Cast and crew alike, they all have practical, creative, reputational and emotional concerns about this project- is this going to look good on their reel, could they be doing something better today, is the money worth it, will this be their big break, will they regret this? And every decision you make as a director changes their feelings on this shoot a little bit, giving them confidence or cause to worry.

Once you realise this and tap into it, your job as a director becomes at once more complicated but also so much easier. On the one hand, you now have one more thing to worry about- one more thing that has a high chance of destroying the shoot if mishandled. But on the other you have a way of keeping everyone happy, productive and creative- if only you notice the signs and play things intelligently.

To give a few examples…

Kayleigh Lawrence in “The Collector’s Room: The Last Serenade”

On one of the Collector’s Room shoots, I was working with a lovely actress called Kayleigh Lawrence. The script called for a scene where she had to wear a nightie and be ignored by her boyfriend played by Chris LeHec. Now this wasn’t an exploitative scene (it was more for character and comic effect) nor was it going to be shot in a titillating manner (it was a lying-down over-the-shoulder shot and some singles) but it was obviously a concern for her. I knew I needed to make her feel more comfortable but I also knew that if I made a big deal of this it could make her more insecure. So I asked some of my crew- the male half of my crew- to start setting up the next scene downstairs. This left only Kate the AD, Bethan the Producer and Lindsey the Make Up Artist in the room. Since I was my own DoP, I had Kate jump on audio and we shot the scene quickly and Kayleigh was put at ease. Reducing the number of (male) eyes in the room was obviously the easiest course of action, but if I had drawn attention to what I was doing and why, it would’ve made Kayleigh feel even more self-conscious and possibly made things difficult for her for the rest of the shoot. By sending the others out under the “pretence” of setting up the next scene, I not only made her feel better but also saved some time on the schedule!

Actors Robin March and Lily Beck larking about on the set of “Jason’s Persona”

More recently, on the Jason’s Persona shoot, we were filming in a pub function room. We had the pub to ourselves all day but we had a cubic fuckton of material to get lensed. To make matters worse, it was a very hot (for Britain anyway) summer day and we had blacked out the windows because we were filming day-for-night. We were quickly shooting some open-mic-night stand-up comedy sequences for one of the film’s scenes and we were having issues with where we could place the camera so we got a good close-up. I wanted to cheat Robin’s eyeline and place the camera further round so we got a more traditional 3/4 CU. David, the DoP, had the shot in near-profile and didn’t understand what I was getting at and why the current framing wouldn’t work. Obviously, neither did Robin or Lily, his co-star who was providing his eyeline. In fact, no one got what I was going on about- as far as they were all concerned I was being nitpicky and awkward when we were short on time and everyone was short on patience. Knowing that I had to strive for the right shot and knowing that if I pushed too far everyone would get pissed off, unhappy and less productive (working for free, remember) I asked David and Robin to humour me and told Emily my AD to call a break after this shot. Even though the ten minute break would set back the already back logged schedule, it was necessary for everyone to have a breather so the stress would be forgotten and good spirits bought back.

I’ve also seen things go the other way.

I was DoP-ing on a short film last year where the director was pretty inexperienced and didn’t really communicate well with the cast or crew. The leading lady wasn’t particularly confident in his directing so when he blocked her movements a certain way to set up his shot, she objected saying it felt wrong. In these situations, it’s all about knowing what you want. If you want a good performance and need the blocking to work a certain way, then you need to let the actor know you understand where they’re coming from, assure them that on camera the blocking will work better than it feels on set and between you try to find a playable direction that she can use to justify the blocking. I often get the actors to walk the blocking with the camera rolling and then show them the footage so they can see where I’m coming from. That way it builds mutual trust in each other’s skills an opinions and you start working together on the problem.

This guy didn’t.

In fact, he got very flustered and couldn’t explain or justify his thinking. The actress, sensing his loss of direction turned to what I call “actor’s self-preservation” where she decided the film didn’t matter anymore- only how she was going to look and how bearable the rest of the shoot was going to be. She flat out refused any direction, preferring to do it her way, made diva-like requests and at the end of the shoot demanded higher expenses than previously agreed. While all this was going on, the other actors and crew started to get restless- some saw her behaviour as holding up the shoot and some started to side with her. The director never recovered that situation or the shoot. The AD and I managed to get through the last few scenes but the performances from everyone suffered because of that single loss of goodwill. And as a post-note, the film has never been finished to my knowledge.

These incidents all go to prove that directing is a lot tougher than many filmmakers assume. For a lot of aspiring directors it’s about being in charge, telling your story and getting your own way when in fact, directing is usually about deferring to and filtering opinions and ideas, telling the story and often letting others think they’re getting their way while finding out what your way actually is.

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A Director’s Priorities

August 16, 2012

Some of the cast and crew from “Jason’s Persona”

So the second Persona shoot is finished and in the can and I can’t help but wonder how we got everything done.

While I’ve not been the frequent blogger I intended or promised to be over the period of this project’s development, I have made a few mentions to the difficulty of doing the Persona shoots- particularly in the areas of pre-production time, tight schedule and self-imposed standards of story and performance. You see, the average Persona story has a turnaround time so tight it could open a strategically-placed beer bottle with a cough- many are turned from vague plot idea to finished product within six weeks. And, with a timescale like that, something has to give and that something is usually quality. Quality of writing. Quality of casting. Quality of performance. Quality of cinematography.

On the two shoots I’ve directed, we’ve tried to not let that happen, but obviously compromises have to be made somewhere. But we’ve tried to put the hours and effort in where we can make the most difference and let the least important areas slide instead. And the areas we’ve let slide aren’t what a lot of emerging (hate that term- sounds like you’re a badger or something coming out of hibernation!) filmmakers would choose to scrimp on. So here I’m going to share our approach to achieving better results with less- picking your battles carefully and putting the effort and money in where it matters most.

The single most important thing is the story. If this doesn’t make immediate sense to you then you are either not a director (and instead likely an unprofessional wannabe-DoP douchebag) or you’re a fucking idiot.

As a director, you are the ombudsman for the audience- you care about about what they care about. And, as a rule, they don’t give a toss about pretty bokeh porn or picture grading or anamorphic lens flares (that means you, JJ Abrams…). All they care about is the story- what it is, how it’s told, who the characters are and what happens. These are the important things- the things you need to focus on. If you have limited resources, then they all need to be thrown at things that enhance the storytelling process first. And sadly for a lot of filmmakers and DoPs, that actually doesn’t include the camera at the top of the list.

In fact, the list (in descending order) goes:

1. The script.

2. The cast and crew.

3. The performances.

4. The world.

5. The presentation.

The script is the single most important thing for a fiction film to work. While it’s not exactly the metaphorical blueprint frequently referred to (blueprints are supposed to be definitive and unchangeable, unlike a script which is more akin to a sketch with rough measurements), it is the creative product that the rest of the show is based on. Rushing or compromising this can only lead to a less than stellar film. Certainly one which is inferior to it’s potential. Don’t go into production until the script is great.

The cast and crew is second. And by cast I don’t mean the executive style of casting where they try to find a household name to pin the project on- I mean choose the right cast for the roles and the project. Choose actors that you think/know you can work with, that trust you and know that you can rely on them to “get” the story and the characters. Cast a difficult actor or one that you can’t direct and pay the price- no matter how talented they are, if you can’t get them where you need them, the show will suffer. Choose your crew with similar care- their creativity and knowledge are what you hire them for. Make sure they work well with you, then you can trust them and their imput. Remember, filmmaking is not a solo activity- you need the people with the skills that you don’t have to make a film that pools your creative skills.

On the set of “Jason’s Persona”

The acting performances follow naturally on from the cast. Choose the right cast and they can deliver the right performances. Why separate cast from performance though and place the former above the latter? Because while the performances are extremely important, if you have limited time and resources you might not be able to give the attention that you’d like to performances on the day. Cast the right actors, trust their judgement and allow them to create the roles- if you make the right decisions in casting, you’ll make your job a lot easier on set. But obviously, there’s more to it than that. You can’t just hope the actors will deliver fried gold on take one without any imput from you. They will still need direction. And it’s this direction that will help mold their performances into the sort of on-screen drama and characterisation you’re looking for.

Now, the first three are somewhat self-explanatory. They are the things an audience actually notice and respond directly to. Ask for the average Joe’s movie review and he’ll talk about the story, how believable the actors are and whether or not the script sucked. Everything else is a bit more abstract or subtle for people to register. The world is one such element and essentially, a lot of it’s about the art department and production design. A good story creates a believable world but if this world cannot be created, insinuated or shown on screen, the audience’s faith and immersion won’t be as powerful. This doesn’t always mean great matte paintings or detailed craft workshops- an effective world can be created with a complete design and attention to detail with key props, costumes and location choices. Don’t just settle for what you find- make the world the audience sees.

But where, I hear you cry, in this list is the cinematography, the look, the style, the editing? Actually, they all come under point five- presentation. Along with pretty much every other facet of the filmmaking production process. Yes, camera department, that means that the writer (script), the actors (cast and performances) and the production designer (the world) are more important to the film than you are. Galling though this sounds, it’s because from an audience’s perspective, the cinematography isn’t something they register on any conscious level. I’ll admit, they register it subconsciously- different colour palettes and lighting and shot choices all affect the mood and the story conveyed, there’s no denying that- but an audience notices a bad script, a poor performance and an unbelievable world before they realise that the bleach bypass look made the film feel gritty. This isn’t to degrade the cinematographer or their work- far from it- but the common camera department opinion that theirs is the most important and medium-defining role on set is bullshit.

I suppose what I’m getting at here is that what you as a filmmaker might think is the most important thing to focus your money and creativity on, probably isn’t to your audience and as a director, you need to refocus. With a budget of nothing and resources of next to nothing, focus your attention on the script, the people you’re working with and the actors’ performances because these things are both cost-effective and best for the story.

Because after all, the story should be a director’s primary concern.

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Juggling

August 11, 2012

As mentioned in  previous posts, I’m not at a stage where I make a living directing/filmmaking yet. I do make some money. Sometimes. But it’s not enough to live on. So I have a day job, like most people in my position do.

While it brings the money in- which is its raison d’etre after all- the day job also leads to several problems. Problems that, if left to get a foothold, will ultimately stop me from achieving my directing career.

Firstly, day jobs require you to turn up to them on a regular basis. This is less of an issue if your dream career can be squeezed round your free time (such as writing, composing your own music, designing video games), but if your dream career involves getting a bunch of other people together on specific dates at specific times for essentially whole days at a time to achieve something during what would otherwise be office hours then you’re kinda screwed. You’ll need to take time off to do it. Aside from the limited days you have available, these requests will have to be acceptable to the employer and everyone else who might be asking for time off. The other year I had a shoot over Reading Festival weekend- a time of year in my hometown where thousands of wallets enter the place with scant disregard for their own sobriety and fiscal responsibility. In short, workplaces in Reading do not want to give employees time off over that weekend, regardless of the film career opportunities the project offers.

Secondly, day jobs often demand you be involved/enthused/passionate about the services they supply and the job you do. This is particularly hard if you don’t actually give two shits, are just doing it for the paycheck and have somewhere else you’d rather be- like, say, a film set. Now, you can push past this and either muster up some involvement or flat-out fake it, but this in itself causes another problem…

Your loyalty and energy become divided and eventually misplaced. Every hour you spend in a job that isn’t your dream is an hour spent cramming your heart and mind with something else. Something irrelevant. Something that’s taking up valuable brain and soul real estate that could be filled with film techniques or directing methods or shot ideas. For instance, I’ve not really developed much as a filmmaker in the last year or so because I haven’t made many projects, written many scripts, analysed many films, directed many actors or worked with many clients. But I have developed in my capacity as salesman/technician/educator/person-who-takes-your-shit-for-£7.70 an hour by sheer virtue of spending 40 hours a week out of my waking 112 doing that crap.

And it’s this last part that really grates. You become defined by what you do- in my case, repair mobile phones and teach technology workshops rather than direct actors, choose shots and tell stories. Every day is frustrating by sheer virtue of feeling like it’s pushing you away from your dream. I’ve often likened my day job to being like a long term relationship where the love has gone. You’re not going anywhere, there is no future here, but you feel compelled to stay because you’ve been there for long enough to fear being alone again.

So when circumstances meant I couldn’t get time off for a shoot due to there not being the staffing, I had a decision to make. Do I stick with the day job and abandon the shoot- a shoot I was committed to and obligated to produce content for- or do I quit the day job- the job that provides the money that keeps my landlords happy and my fridge stocked? Or do I go on the shoot anyway and run the risk of being fired as a result?

I chose the shoot.

I explained my predicament and my decision to my bosses. To their credit, they tried to figure out a way to accommodate me, tried to arrange a shift swap or something… But since nothing would stick, I believed that there was a very good chance that I wouldn’t have a job when I went back to work on Tuesday. A dangerous scenario given the current economic climate and lack of work prospects. But I had made the decision based on a very simple idea- that I didn’t want to feel trapped anymore, living a life that wasn’t going to make me happy. Maybe I projected too much on things but I felt that if I didn’t take the shoot, I’d be accepting a day job over a film career. Staying in a loveless relationship because it was comfortable.

I suppose there comes a time in many a creative individual’s life/career where they have to make these decisions and maybe they’re a filter of sorts- there will always be those who give up and leave more openings for those who stay the course.

EDIT 18/8: As an addendum to this little tale, I didn’t get my P45 handed to me. One of the managers at work wrangled it so I could have the days off I needed. To be fair, I can’t fault him for that- he stuck his neck out to do it and I’m grateful. It’s saved me from unemployment and postponed my ship-jumping til a time when I’m secure enough to do so. But it still feels wierd.

You ever see those samurai movies where a character has to commit seppuku but at the last moment gets a reprieve and they can’t quite prise the dagger away from him? It kinda felt like that. Like I had committed to a course of action and even though it wasn’t necessary any more, I had gotten used to the idea that it was what I had to do.

Early on the friday before the shoot I got a call from the series’ executive producer saying the shoot couldn’t go ahead due to fiscal/administrative problems. This should have been the reprieve I was looking for but I fought it. I convinced him (and probably Emily the AD and Alison the Producer as well) to let the shoot go ahead. Even though we weren’t exactly ready. Even though at this point I could still get fired. Even though every sane part of my brain was telling me “here’s your get-out-of-jail-free card.”

I guess where I’m going with this is that, regardless of the consequences, I had decided that my directing career came first. I’ve always thought that the difference between success and failure is perseverence- those who succeed in life are usually those who keep going and sacrifice things that others would never let go in order to get there. Seems I’m standing by my beliefs now. Whether or not they’re worth standing by remains to be seen…