Posts Tagged ‘director’

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The Role of The Female Director

August 10, 2013
This is Dorothy Arzner. Go look her up now.

This is Dorothy Arzner- one of the first successful female directors. Google her. Now.

After the last few posts, which have frankly all been me banging on about work (or the lack thereof), I thought it would be a good idea to write something more profound and less ranty. So I picked something political- which I don’t normally touch with someone else’s splintery barge pole- and something relevant to the world of the film director.

My friend and film critic Luke Owen recently wrote a post for Flickering Myth about the Bechdel Test and how it isn’t as sound as many people think. For those who don’t know or can’t be bothered to click the link and read the article, the Bechdel Test is a three point criteria to see if a movie has a fair creative treatment of female characters. It pretty much goes thus:

1) Does the film have at least two named female characters?
2) Do they actually talk to each other?
3) When they talk to each other, do they talk about something other than men?

As many self-identifying feminists will point out, it’s surprising how many films fail the test. As Luke pointed out in his article (just read it, I’ll wait…), it’s surprising which ones fail and which ones pass. For instance, “Alien 3” with its strong female lead fails the test because there are no other named female characters for her to interact with. Mysoginist shit like Michael Bay’s teenage boy spank-bank “Transformers” passes because Megan Fox’s character talks to another female character and they discuss how pretty she is.

Apparently, this is okay according to the Bechdel test.

Apparently, this is okay according to the Bechdel test.

While it’s obvious that the Bechdel Test has all the causal validity of an ontological argument (look it up- but if you’re religious, feel free to type your knee-jerk rebuttals somewhere else), the issue itself- the representation of women in film, both as characters and as creatives- is entirely valid.

While the 20th century has seen some amazing progress in civil rights, from race and religion to sexuality and gender, it’s fair to say that we still have some way to go on all counts. Even my generation, which grew up in a world where everyone was supposed to be treated equally, have those who hold poorly-formed prejudices. But certain industries are locked into antiquated elitism and the film and TV industry is arguably one of them. Most studio heads and executives are male. Most of their subordinates are male. For a woman to get into those hallowed ranks, not only would it be a case of dead-man’s-boots on the scale of a small natural disaster, but her contemporaries would have to let her stay and not black-ball her at the first opportunity.

As a result there are relatively few female producers. There are even fewer female directors and writers. There are fewer still female DoPs. Maybe it’s the same problem that female comedians have- that their male counterparts’ material is about anything and everything, but their own material is nearly always about being a woman.

I think the same thing happens with female directors. The female voice is so marginalised in film that when women do get the chance to direct or write, the stories they want/feel they have to tell are about that marginalisation- they’re about the role of women in the world. Whereas male directors have the luxury of audiences knowing man’s “role” in the world (thanks to our male-dominated history) and thus are free to squander their storytelling opportunity by indulging in explosions, pop-culture references and titties.

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What we’re getting to here is the ultimate conundrum with equality as a concept. True equality is where gender just flat-out doesn’t matter. Characters in a fictional story could be male or female (or something in-between!) and it would make absolutely no difference to our understanding or expectations of said story either way. Sadly, as a culture we’re not there yet. And in all likelihood, never will be if you believe in biological pre-determinism. So instead, I think what we should aim for is equality of identity- where every identity is equally valued and equally represented. I’d like to think we’re staring to see progress in this regard but I suppose it’s hard for me to judge these things since I am a) male, b) white, c) English and d) upper-working class- everything that makes me part of the most media-privileged demographic on the planet. I’m like the largest demographic personified.

And that in itself can be a problem. The general consensus is that you have to be part of a demographic in order to create media about/for it. For instance, it would be frowned upon if I, an English white man, were to make a film about Afro-Carribbean culture in 80s Harlem (actually “frowned upon” might not be the right phrase, since “full-tilt confusion” would probably prevail). I couldn’t direct a movie about the women’s rights movement in the 60s or the Zionist ideal in Israel for much the same reasons. In all cases, it could be deemed inappropriate and borderline disrespectful for me to even try. These are stories that should be told from a viewpoint from within the issue (or as marketing types are more than willing to cynically accept, from someone who could have been within the issue) and as such are off-limits to someone like me.

No wonder it is that when these marginalised groups get a chance to tell a story on a large stage, they choose to tell these ones. Because these stories need to be told and society has deemed it that only they can tell it because of the colour of their skin, the God they believe in or the number of X chromosomes they have. And that’s totally fair because someone has to tell these stories and carry the flag. But what of the female director who just wants to make a big budget action flick? Hollywood probably won’t let her. They’ll be more than happy to let her direct a film about being a woman in a man’s world, but won’t let her helm a flick that has Tom Cruise shooting his way through a building.

Which I think is wrong. Stories are stories. Storytellers are storytellers. It shouldn’t matter where/who the story comes from if it’s done well and it sure as hell shouldn’t matter whether or not the director’s genitals can get caught in a zip.

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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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A Director’s Identity

March 18, 2013

total-recall-if-im-not-me-then-who-the-hell-am-i

Something that affects all creative industry types at one point or another is deciding who they are. And I don’t mean anything existential- just who they are creatively. What their “type” is. When I’m shooting showreel scenes for actors, the topic of typecasting frequently comes up. Most actors don’t want to be typecast, they want to be versatile with great range, but actually typecasting is frequently good for actors. When you have a successful type, producers and directors have an easier time of casting you and you have a better chance of getting work. Harsh though it sounds, actors are frequently asked to an audition based on their headshots alone (particularly if they don’t have a reel)- hence the OTT price tag many headshot photographers apply to their trade.

But this is true of other creative types too- musicians are lumped into genres and sounds-a-bit-likes, artists are categorised by style and influences. Directors are no different.

I bring this up because, as my last blog post might have indicated, I’ve been looking for a writer with a script in tow. I posted on job sites like Mandy.com and TalentCircle.org and got loads of responses. Ignoring those that didn’t read the job description (and either didn’t have a script or sent the wrong thing) or didn’t understand the word “scriptwriter” (two directors applied to direct my “script”), most of the scripts were less than stellar. Now, I just asked for 20min scripts and didn’t specify genre or anything (since as mentioned, people don’t read job descriptions) but perhaps I should have. Some of the scripts were probably fine pieces but they had elements in them I didn’t like or didn’t make sense to me or weren’t morally acceptable to me.

Actually, that last one sounds kinda odd, but it’s true. I have a certain morality that I want to bring to the stories I tell- protagonists eventually have to do the right thing, evil always gets what’s coming to it and the good guys always win (even when they don’t, it has to feel like they came off better than their adversaries). I don’t want to tell stories that glamorise drug use or anti-social behaviour so a huge chunk of the “urban bullshit” scripts set in Britain’s inner city ghettos aren’t of any interest at all. I like shows with wit, intelligence, likeable characters and a positive moral outlook. I want an audience to finish watching a show I’ve directed and feel a) that it wasn’t a complete waste of their time and b) that they feel better off for having watched it. This doesn’t always mean a happy ending, but there needs to be a sense of completion and satisfaction upon getting to that end moment. It’s often said that artists paint the world as they wish it to be and while I’d cast some doubt on that generalisation given many artist’s predilection for painting “reality,” when it comes to me, it holds true. I like fictional (if otherwise realistic) worlds where good defeats evil and true love conquers all and there is serendipity and foreshadowing and irony… the real world is much more uncomfortable with its randomness, unpredictability and non-karmic cause and effect. These fictional worlds with their storybook rules make me feel better and that’s why I gravitate to them in my own work.

I have an identity as a director.

It’s weird but I never really thought about having an artistic identity before- which is strange considering my choice of milinery was an image decision that screamed “Director!”

This man is either a film director or a raider of tombs.

This man is either a film director or a raider of tombs.

Don’t get me wrong, I knew what I liked in films and TV and I knew what sort of stories I liked to tell, but never really thought of that as defining me as a filmmaker. Which makes me a bit of a pillock to be honest. I always thought that I could direct any drama- whether I liked the material or not (as long as I got paid for it!)- but actually that’s not the case. Tron Legacy director Joe Kosinski once said “you can only make a movie you want to see” and there’s more than a bit of truth in that. The director is the ombudsman for the audience, so if you don’t like the characters, relate to the story, understand the plot, feel the emotion or enjoy the film as a whole… the audience never will either because any attempt you make to tell the story will, at best, be facile and superficial and at worst, convey your dislike or apathy.

So it’s important, as a director, to pick projects that you relate to. If the script or story ain’t right, don’t direct it. You’ll only produce a sub-par film that no audience will like and you won’t want on your reel or IMDB page.

Unless you get paid of course, in which case you can distract yourself by thinking about all the sports cars and hookers you’re going to spend it on once the shoot’s wrapped!

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Cliches and Shadows- A Brief Look at Film Noir

January 25, 2013

I’ve been ill for a few days recently and when you’re ill there’s very little to do but stare at the TV until your immune system sorts its shit out. Usually, this would mean digging out a DVD boxset and charting your recovery by how far you get in the season (or telling yourself you’ll be better by the end of the series!) but I decided instead to explore a style of filmmaking that I’d never really looked at properly.

I decided to watch some film noir. In part because it’s a style of film I’m venturing into making later this year, but also because I don’t really know the movies that well.

Film-Noir-Touch-of-Evil1

At uni we’d had that whistle-stop tour of cinema history they do on film courses (as a way of showing students raised on blockbusters and sequels that there’s more to film than the latest reboot or effects-laden merchandising opportunity) but aside from a few clips, I’d largely missed film noir. Like most people, I knew what the style tropes were- the high contrast black and white, the use of shadows, the urban setting, the gangsters, the detective, the femme fatale…- but that in itself was a very blinkered understanding of proceedings.

For those harbouring under the above common illusion, film noir doesn’t have to be black and white (although most films were during the 40s because colour processing was extremely expensive). It doesn’t have to be high contrast with strong shadows (although these are the result of the cheap and relatively fast high key lighting design the European cinematographers bought with them). The “noir” part of film noir doesn’t refer to the cinematography at all really- rather the mood and outlook of the films, dealing as they do with the city’s underbelly, the cops and criminals, stories of deceit, sex and murder. But the visual style was very striking and even after the practicalities of shooting black and white with chiaroscuro-style lighting had become less fiscally necessary, it had become a very effective way of setting the mood. It was the perfect match of style and substance.

Now, I knew all this from lectures, but as I mentioned, I’d watched very little from the film noir canon. A few clips from The Maltese Falcon and A Touch of Evil, but that was it. So I scavenged around online and found me some movies- many of which were on YouTube in their entirety which was handy.

DI8

First up was Double Indemnity, considered one of the quintessential film noirs. The opening sequence of our insurance salesman, Neff, going to his office at night and narrating the past events on an old school audio recorder is a great scene-setting device and really ticks the mood and voice-over cliche boxes. What really makes Double Indemnity however is the dark subject matter- a woman conspiring with her insurance salesman lover to kill her husband for the double indemnity money. At the time, the infidelity, the fraud and the murder were what set the low moral tone (tame as their treatment might be now). One thing that struck me while watching it though was how witty the script was and how well the dialogue was delivered. A lot of it could pass for a contemporary film.

the-big-combo

Next up was The Big Combo, a film that in my mind was a somewhat sub-par crime story with the frequent stroke of cinematic genius. Plot-wise, the film is about an obsessive detective trying to take down a kingpin called Brown who’s always one step ahead of him. The only leverage our cop has is the kingpin’s unhappy trophy wife and as Brown becomes increasingly aggressive and paranoid, he starts to murder all those close to him out of distrust. Kinda reminds me of the 2004 version of The Punisher, where Travolta’s character becomes so paranoid that he murders his closest friends- the punishment Frank Castle had intended. Anyway, what really elevates The Big Combo to its classic status is the cinematography. John Alton uses a very high contrast look with crushed shadows to isolate characters in the frame and reduce the backgrounds to pockets of abstract black and white- most noticeably in the films final, iconic shot of two silhouettes against the fog and searchlight.

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Then there’s The Asphalt Jungle, a heist movie about a master criminal with a plan to rob a jewellery store with the aid of a safe-cracker, a driver, a hoodlum and a financier with fencing contacts. It’s one of the forerunners of the sort of heist movie popular in the 60s and late 90s with quirky characters, an elaborate plan, some semi-fictional security technology (in this case a thoroughly unconvincing infra-red beam sensor of sorts) and many complications and double crosses. It feels a little like an old-timey version of a modern heist film, which is I suppose completely accurate. One thing to note is how all the characters are either arrested or die by the end. This was a common theme in noir and originally stemmed from the studio production code which dictated moral depictions in film- unmarried couples cannot share a bed, bloody violence has to happen off-screen and all criminals have to pay for their crimes. Imagine if in Ocean’s Eleven everybody got arrested at the end instead of just George Clooney, how different would the film feel? Even with the production code’s rules, maybe this was the intention with The Asphalt Jungle. Make the dramatic point that crime does not pay by having the characters regret their choices or fail to achieve their goals. Sterling Hayden’s character (invisibly) bleeds out yards away from the horse farm he always wanted to go home to and Sam Jaffe’s “Doc” gets arrested because he spends too long at a truckstop diner watching a woman dance. It’s their hubris that leads to their downfall.

I also started watching A Touch Of Evil, Orson Wells’ other magnum opus, but haven’t had time to finish it. But the three films I did see in their entirety struck a chord with me not only with how striking they were visually but also how well they work compared to their modern counterparts. You’d expect a 40s film to suffer from overly melodramatic acting and dull pacing but these films weren’t so affected. They worked well and the instances of stilted performance or theatrical staging only served to add to the mood. It really hit home what noir is- a stylistic treatment of a crime/morality story- and it’s that that I’ll apply to the short I’m working on rather than fill it with cliches and shadows.

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A Short-ish Review of the Year that Was…

January 8, 2013

Yep, this is a recap post, but since 2012 was as eventful as a mormon’s party planner it hopefully won’t be a stupidly long one!

Meghann and Conor in "Eliza's Persona"

Meghann and Conor in “Eliza’s Persona”

2012 started extremely well with me landing my first gig where someone hired me for my directing ability. This is a landmark moment in a director’s early career and I threw a lot of myself into it. The project was Persona– a soap designed exclusively to stream from a smartphone or tablet app- and it was a chance to direct dramatic material that didn’t have a sci-fi element. It also meant that I was able to work with other skilled crew members such as DoP Phil Moreton, AD Emily Turton and AC Murat Akyildiz. The film looked and great as a result. I was challenged by the show’s producer, Don Allen, to come up with a story with a current events angle so I created one about a soldier returning from Afghanistan with PTSD and how it affects his non-military life. The script was written by the talented Martyn Deakin and the three principal actors- Meghann Marty, Conor Kennedy and Jake Ferretti- really bought it to life. To date, “Eliza’s Persona” has had a very positive response from audiences which is testament to the work of everyone involved and it’s probably the directing work I’m most proud of.

DSC_0234

In April, almost immediately after we’d wrapped on Persona, I was hired to direct the dramatic sequences in a promo video for Snowdance acting classes. The client had arranged for a DoP for me, but it was only when I got to set that I realised that he had limited knowledge of cinematography and lighting… and a Canon 5D mkII. Since he was happy to defer to me, I ended up lighting and operating (with a camera I didn’t know very well) as well as directing in locations that were too modern and austere for the piece. The end result was a mixed bag visually and performances varied from great to stilted- the two actors were excellent given the short scene they had, but the presenter wasn’t confident in his delivery and got too caught up on the exactness of the lines rather than what he was actually saying. I also got roped into editing it- something I wanted to avoid- although it did give me a chance to edit a whole piece in FCPX rather than just bits. Jury’s still out on whether I like the new software or not.

One of the pluses to the gig was I got to meet scriptwriter Ellie Ball– a talented Scottish writer with a sharp wit- and in May/June I asked her to write some viral comedy scripts for me for Enborne River. I decided to make Enborne River specialise in drama, since that was where my track record was, but realised that selling virals was hard when you didn’t have one yourself! She wrote a series of short scripts for me… and I’ve yet to film them due to location issues, so that really needs to be pushed through this year!

Robin March and Sally Rowe, "Jason's Persona"

Robin March and Sally Rowe, “Jason’s Persona”

I was asked to do a second story for Persona and after a series of increasingly contradictory criteria from the production team, writer Keith Storrier and I created Jason’s Persona– a story about a frustrated office worker who finds a new lease of life as a stand up comedian. I was inspired by the story of real-life comic John Bishop, who kept his new career a secret from his mid-divorce wife but reconciled with her when she unexpectedly saw him perform on stage and fell in love with him all over again. For me, that reconciliation and re-falling in love were the real hooks of the story and while we had practical limitations on the shoot getting that scene to work, audience feedback has been very good regarding that payoff.

The Jason’s Persona shoot also almost cost me my day job- that necessary evil that keeps my bank placated- and while I didn’t get fired it did change my attitude to it. I realised that the job was taking up too much of my energy, time and mental real estate. I didn’t have any downtime because I was trying to live two lives (9-to-5-er and director) and cram both (and sleep) into the 168 hours a week allows. I’ve realised this was untenable and have some tricky decisions to make in the coming months regarding the day job. Do I stay, do I go or do I cut down my hours? It might be the most important career decision I ever make…

Mid-summer, I started working with Phill Barron– the lead writer/ script editor on Persona- on a low budget feature. We wanted something time-travelly and over the next few months thrashed out a few treatments, only to put the idea on hold when the plots were getting away from themselves. This too, needs to be resurrected in 2013.

"Bitter Parents" Robin March and Jo Hughes

“Bitter Parents” Robin March and Jo Hughes

I got offered a gig directing a comedy sketch for the Cold Cuts comedy group called “Bitter Parents.” It was pretty much a one-extended-joke scene but it was going to add a bit of comedy to my otherwise drama and scifi-heavy showreel. Due to the difficulties in securing the location, extras and the child performer, the scene didn’t get lensed til November and over the course of two sunday mornings- meaning actors weren’t all in the same place at the same time. Miraculously, it seems to have come out okay though.

In an effort to get a new short film off the ground (and then get some festival exposure) I started looking at all the old scripts I have floating about. A couple of old The Collector’s Room scripts looked like they could work with a bit of a rewrite. I asked TCR’s co-creator and writer, Luke, if he’d do a rewrite on them, but it seems he’s given up screenwriting because I’ve heard nothing more from him. Collaboration is always a problem in this industry which is why it’s worth having some degree of skill in all areas- if necessary, you could do the job yourself! Sadly, I’m not the greatest writer and my rewrite is still at treatment stage. I need to find a local collaborator to write with or else so many projects will go unmade.

Another script that is undergoing the rewrite treatment is a noir-esque action movie. The idea had been in script limbo on my old mac for years, but it was a renewed interest in action movies that prompted me to dig it out, dust it off and start reworking it. If all goes well, I should be shooting my own John Woo-esque gunplay action short in the first half of 2013. Hollywood will beckon!

October was a bit of a bump in the road in my personal life- my Dad passed away at the early age of 60. Quick and painless for him, complete surprise for us. It made me think about what I was doing with my life, how short time can be and rather than make me lower my expectations, instead it’s made me determined to get my career going. Just a belief in yourself isn’t enough- you have to strive for it and take risks if necessary. I’ve started to realise that and have some brave choices to make in 2013 if I want this to happen.

MiMedia

At the tail end of the year my illustrator friend, Mark Stroud and I got involved with fledgling media design group Mi-Media, headed by local entrepreneur Tony Charles. It sounds like a project that’s got legs and a good chance for giving me future work and so far, things have been going well. Hopefully in the next few weeks, the company will go live and we should start seeing the work roll in.

So that wraps up the mixed bag o’ shite that was 2012. Seems more happened than I thought since this post is anything but “short!” Some things got off to a fine start, but many crashed and burned before they got very far.

I think a concerted effort is needed if I’m to make 2013 the year 2012 was supposed to be.

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That Self-Improving Second Look

September 27, 2012

I recently screened two episodes of “The Collector’s Room” (a web-series I directed and co-created two years ago) to a local filmmaking club. Now this wasn’t a festival or anything and the series is both abandoned and rough around the edges compared to my current work, but it was a great experience all the same for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the club members were all filmmaking enthusiasts with a range of experience- some had a professional or broadcast background and others were recent devotees learning the ropes. It was great to be able to show work to people who understood what went in to making it- a lot of festivals (and audiences in general for that matter) are full of critics who have never made a film in their lives and only judge the piece on the names attached to it. So playing to a receptive and empathetic audience was a welcome change.

Kayleigh Lawrence in Ep 1 “The Last Serenade”

Secondly, it gave me a chance to see these shows again and watch them play out with an audience. I haven’t watched these episodes properly since Luke and I recorded the commentary tracks for the DVD and the distance time creates meant I was able to watch them as an audience would. As the audience around me did. Hearing them laugh or jump at all the appropriate moments completes the circle in a way and it’s why a live audience can be both a nerve-wracking and highly rewarding experience.

And lastly, was the added bonus of talking about the production of the series and doing a bit of a Q&A. I’d never really done one of these before. When “The Collector’s Room” had its press screening two years ago, I let Luke do a lot of the talking (since the bugger likes waxing lyrical about projects and thanking people!) and pretty much just confined myself to the technical answers about the show. Obviously, at a screening for filmmakers, technical questions were the order of the day so I had a chance to teach and educate- the more positive expressions of “ranting” and “lecturing” which are my normal modes of communication!

Directing Rebecca Hansell on Ep 3 “The Star”

It also made me realise how much I know about filmmaking and all the little things I’ve learnt.  I tend to think more about what I don’t know than what I do know and it’s only when you get a chance to share that knowledge that you really get a sense of perspective. Speaking of perspective, I also got a chance to see all the little mistakes I made, now obvious with hindsight, on a big-ish screen and through good-ish speakers. So there’s also that humbling educational experience…

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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.