Archive for May, 2013

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Drama isn’t a Genre. It’s a Necessary Ingredient.

May 27, 2013

As the three people who read this blog will know, I’ve been trying to put together another short film. It’s been way too long since I last directed drama that I’m starting to wonder if my directing hat will biodegrade through lack of use. One of the projects I’m trying to push is an action film, another a ghost story- both have their own obstacles to getting off the ground (not least of all that the scripts aren’t finished!). Part of the reason I’m pushing for these genre pieces is because it’s nice to be doing something with its own stylistic conventions and set-pieces rather than just straight drama.

But a recent conversation with a fellow director made me think about that definition. He was also doing a genre piece- a horror flick- and was glad to be “getting away from plain, boring drama.” Now obviously, he meant “drama” as a genre- domestic environments, people arguing/crying, contemporary setting, kitchen sink… In the days of video rental shops there were many genres- colour-coded stickers and cheaply printed signs in Impact proclaiming “Comedy” “Horror” and “Action & Adventure” (a catch-all title if ever there was one), usually with some terrible clipart next to it.

Shit like this

Shit like this

“Drama” was one of these genre pidgeon-holes.

But why is “drama” a genre? It seems that the films shoved unceremoniously into this category are the ones that didn’t fit anywhere else, like the misfit kids who sat in the corner of the classroom, unified only in their social apartheid. Polar opposites David Lynch and Jane Austen would sit next to each other on the shelves- except in our old video shop where the owner’s OCD meant shit was always alphabetical (this also meant that the Adult section was near the front of the shop, which wasn’t a popular decision either…).

Drama isn’t a genre. It’s an ingredient. And as it happens, it’s a necessary one for a film to work.

Every film needs drama. Drama is the conflict and subsequent resolution between characters that forms the backbone of a story’s plot. Without drama and conflict, the audience won’t care about Arnie’s struggle to take down Robert Patrick and save the ever-annoying Eddie Furlong. Without drama (and the inevitable tragedy that a film called “Titanic” hints not-so-subtly at), the romance between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet wouldn’t work. Without drama, audiences won’t care if Jamie Lee Curtis survives Michael Myers’ killing spree.

Drama.

Drama.

All these genre classics that filmmakers like to call “not-drama” are in fact… well… “drama.” With a coat of arse-kicky, boat-sinky, hacky-slashy genre paint but still… At their core, they’re drama.

Which is why I wonder why there’s so much opposition towards drama among filmmakers. Maybe it’s because drama is frequently forced upon you at film school in “History of Cinema” screenings. Maybe it’s because drama isn’t as “big-budget” feeling as action or horror. But a lot of the time, I think it’s because drama is hard.

Most new or untested directors will balk at that, but it’s true. Well, sort of. Good drama is hard, shite drama… not so much. With good drama you need to understand the actors and their processes, know about and plot the change in character objectives, super objectives and arc, understand and utilise pacing and timing and subtlety and inflection. With bad drama you just hand the actor a script and say “just do what it says on the page.” Aka the George Lucas style of directing. And like the aforementioned bearded wonder, the films you direct suffer as a result. You only have to look at the turgid excuse for a romance in “Attack of the Clones” to see where I’m going with that.

"No, it's because I'm so in love with you... myeh myeh myeh.." Fuck off.

“No, it’s because I’m so in love with you… myeh myeh myeh..” Fuck off.

“Oh, but it’s a genre film” I hear these directors cry. “It doesn’t matter here!” I call bullshit on that. Think about it- okay, we’re accepting of badly written and performed melodrama in a space opera or a slasher film but isn’t it better when the drama isn’t so ham-fistedly scrawled and portrayed? “Attack of the Clones” is fucking terrible dramatically, but just look at the series’ high point in comparison. “The Empire Strikes Back” is a space opera with special effects and battle scenes, larger than life characters and almost soapy melodrama- but in this case it works. It’s written (or should I say re-written, since Lawrence Kasdan kept throwing out Lucas’ original dialogue) and performed with an appropriate truth and honesty which, regardless of the genre you’re working in, is the sort of dramatic level to aim for.

Shitty drama and its bedfellows, poor writing and turgid acting, are not acceptable even in the straight to video, low-expectations-because-it-stars-Hayden-Christiansen, bargain bucket, 2 for £10 shelves in HMV. Strive for better in your work. You might not always be able to nail it due to budget or decisions outside your control but you owe it to yourself to try.

A director needs to embrace drama in every script and every film, no matter what the genre tropes or set pieces. If all you focus on is the action scenes or the blood-and-guts murders, the film won’t have the dramatic weight to engage your audience properly. So if you’re a director, aspiring or otherwise, don’t neglect the drama.

Unless your work does sit on the “Adult” shelf, in which case drama, the script and the acting are the least of your worries…

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Highs and Lows

May 26, 2013

You may have noticed I haven’t blogged in a while. And if I’m honest, laziness and being too busy is only a part of it. If you’re expecting actual directing advice today you might as well just hold off til later in the week (I’ve got a nice little post lined up on drama and its place for the genre director). Until then, you’re getting something a little more personal and nigh-on bugger all to do with directing.

I’ve been depressed recently. I bring this up not only to explain the lack of updates (which only three people probably read anyway) but also because if you’re an aspiring creative, some of this might apply to you too.

depression_signs-someones-obese

First, a bit of background. I started suffering from depression in my early twenties. Like most people in their early twenties I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I hadn’t gone to university like all my friends and kinda felt pressure to do so and choose a career path. Throw in the death of a friend and some problematic relationship choices and you have a recipe for 20-something angst. It had never been officially diagnosed, but I’m pretty sure I’ve always been bi-polar (meaning prone to mood swings and manic depression rather than being attracted to male and female polar bears) since I was a kid, something that really didn’t help.

I eventually got over the worst of it not through therapy or medication but by looking at the things that triggered these episodes and overcoming my own insecurities over them. But I still get recurring episodes, nearly ten years later. And more often than not, they’re career-related. Or more accurately, lack-of-career related.

This recent one was triggered by the idea that I might be doing this all wrong. I’ve been trying to break into directing for years, but haven’t got there. Yet I see other people make inroads into their dream career and it becomes depressing at my lack of progress. Even more so if their target career is also in directing because if they’re succeeding where I’m not then I must be doing something wrong. And have been doing something wrong since 2007 when I graduated.

Six years in the wrong direction. Quite a depressing thought. Couple that with a lot of recent paid gigs falling through and clients taking the piss with work and it was quite the trigger.

Fortunately I’m somewhat analytical by nature and it’s made me think things through a bit. I’ve always blamed the multi-ball juggling of day-job-to-earn-cash, video-production-work-to-earn-better-money and trying-to-direct-drama-to-get-noticed as reasons for my failure. But it should be no surprise that all that is just an excuse, no matter how truthful. The real reason is because I’m not really trying. I’ve coasted through all the major academic scenarios in my life, never tried that hard and still done well. I’ve always believed in myself, but I’ve always just let things happen because in the past, they just have.

And in this highly competitive game, that attitude doesn’t get you very far.

I need to put a renewed effort into things. I need to direct some distinctive shorts- action or sci-fi or… something. I need to direct some stylish promos or music videos to make me a solid hire for production companies or agents. And I need to start treating all this as a professional career and start earning a proper living from it- at the moment I rely on crappy day jobs because my standards are way too fucking low.

And on that note, I’ll leave on the wise words of that oracle of all wisdom and great decision-making, Charlie Sheen:

“As kids, were not taught how to deal with success; we’re taught how to deal with failure. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. If at first you succeed… then what?”