Directing and Screen Grammar

If there is a syntax of cinema, Steven Spielberg is the most fluent.  But he doesn’t have to be the director.  Anyone who believes in and learns to apply film grammar can direct a movie correctly, setting challenges that create problems and limitations and then figuring out how to solve those.

This is not about being dogmatic, but having a desired visual message and conveying it with whatever clarity or ambiguity is appropriate.  Every beat of a scene may have a shot or a move or blocking cue that is most appropriate.  Darren Aronofski in his commentary for Requiem for a Dream says that shooting two actors across a table the one with more depth and detail in the background is the character with power.  Martin Scorsese says that when character are shot over shoulder they are usually in agreement or considering each other and when they are shot in single close-ups they are isolated literally and in their own minds.  Sydney Pollock says a long lens allowing the person in close-up to be in sharp focus with the background and passing people in soft or blurred helps add to the feeling of being alone in a crowd.  Adrian Lyne in Fatal Attraction shows that you can plan to shift the camera axis with dolly track movie behind one actor from over one shoulder to the other when there has been a shift in the tone of a conversation and the actors trade sides of the screen.

Most people who crow “there are no rules” are not in love with cinema enough to absorb what a movie director potentially brings to a show.  They may be lazy.  They might not know the right tool for the right job.  They may shoot handheld just because they don’t happen to have a tripod or because it is the most expedient or because a faux documentary approach helps disguise a lack of aptitude for direction.

Here is a lie:  There are two kinds of movies, personal expression of your authentic voice and empty Michael Bay tent-pole movies that just want your money.

Here is the truth:  There are many kinds of movies, in all genres, and the authentic voice can be a celebration of the craft and the whimsical gesture of creation. Some are better written than others, and some are better directed than others.  Michael Bay should not represent all tent-pole movies, since his kinetic moves and cuts appear arbitrary and there are many less financially successful action directors whose discriminating use of the frame and the cut rank far above him.  Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy definitely wanted your money, but it was also the vision of a man who had a scale model of Gotham City in his basement he used for planning shots.  The message of a movie is not merely the content but the care and the dance of it.  One might not be drawn to the premise of Brokeback Mountain but upon seeing it must admit that Ang Lee did a good job of presenting it.  People may respect the casting of a Robert Altman film, or the subject matter in a historical context, but he is a particular sacred cow who too often preferred the approach of non-direction. David Cronenberg has said that movies about movies are about nothing.  But they can exude the love of movies and the potential of the frame.  Robert Rodriguez gets across his love of action, efficient design, family, and political satire while ever-sharpening his deft skill in putting images together.  A Chinese period soap opera can be riveting in fight scenes where the coordination of the camera is part of its dance of action. There is a call for diversity and new voices (either in direction or likely writer-directors) and if it results in a First Nations filmmaker being to Natives what Rodriguez was for Latino or Mexican fans of movies I will eagerly look for that person’s work.  It would be a shame for someone to think that because of the “importance” or seriousness of a topic style would somehow be crass, and it results in a stockpile of shaky documentaries about glue sniffing and suicide in isolated areas. To simply record information may be worthy use of equipment and suitable for youtube clips of evidence but may not warrant a film.

Some people claim that even the concept of merit is invented and promoted by Caucasians and straight males to keep them in the role of Director.  That’s another lie. Look at the early movies that Spike Lee and Ernest Dickerson made together. That is merit on display. Look at Todd Haynes movies, a director who happens to be gay and was discovered by producer Christine Vachon when she saw Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a movie made with Barbie dolls.  James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring, Aquaman) is one of the finest new directors of today. As a test, try sitting through Fast and Furious 6 directed by Justin Lin and then watch Furious 7 directed by James Wan and you should sense that Lin’s decisions may have been delegated and arbitrary in the fashion of Michael Bay while Furious 7 feels tight, focused and directed with discrimination and personality despite the production problem of the star Paul Walker’s death.  Lady Bird by Gretta Gerwig is engaging and is directed with style.  Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Bad Batch) leads us and uses the frame with commitment, confidence and subversive humor despite often unsettling content.  I was especially pleased with an interview she gave moderated by Roger Corman; when asked if she was inspired by typical indie art house example Jim Jarmush, Ana Lily said no she was more inspired by Robert Zemeckis.  Good for her.  For that, I cheer for her career.  Near Dark is my favourite of the movies directed by Kathryn Bigelow, not so much the more recent political movies with which she has been awarded.  Style does not have to be conflated with content.

If someone can’t shut up on social media crying about the Male Gaze in photography or colonialism or bemoaning the heterosexual, that person might be best suited for blogs or angry tweets and maybe not the craft of movie-making.    The question is why something has to be a film and not a ten-minute rant on youtube or a college thesis or a blog.  Cinema doesn’t have a gender or a race.  It is its own language, and most of the people who have evolved it at key points have been men. But Leni Riefenstahl knew how to place her cameras, despite the work being in the service of evil.  Triumph of the Will is not a good film, as judged by history, but it is well directed and remains worthy of study by film students.   By the same token, a movie can have the most idealistic and righteous intentions but if it is not a directorial statement of style and power it need not be a movie.

It has been said that if you can possibly see yourself doing anything other than directing movies then do that other thing.  And as much as we hear on-line about “new voices” (not those undiscovered as yet, but those other than the straight while males) frankly some people just like to talk and can vocalize and rally and network like pros but may be averse to storyboard sketching of shots in advance and may even let the cinematographer conceive shots, making that person the de facto co-director. Plenty of comedies are made that way, with the credited director mostly a writer-producer who has a rapport with funny actors.  They might be comprised of the most generic recordings of coverage, even if they are funny due to the cast.  It can be frustrating to see someone soar who doesn’t seem to be a movie director (except as credited on screen and in a whack of imdb entries).

Ava DuVernay has twenty years of credits in marketing and publicity.  That is the bulk of her imdb list.  In Selma she crossed the line or the axis in covering a few scenes of dialogue.  I thought the movie was well cast but the directing not noteworthy. She had much support having made a documentary about the prison industrial complex – important subject. But the answer to why she was being talked up as the next big name in directors appears to be the accumulation of good will she has earned from other filmmakers in helping them through marketing and publicity work.  Knighted by Oprah, she might still continue directing even if super hero movie The New Gods flounders as bad as A Wrinkle in Time. But for every Ava there is a Patti Jenkins who ranges to the character study of Monster to the bright and measured thrills and laughs of Wonder Woman.  In the end, people know the story of the movie and also (more than ever) the story of how the movie happened and who contributed what.  Jenkins turned down an early offer of Wonder Woman but didn’t like the approach or the studio’s take, and then turned down Thor 2 for the same reason.  She essentially said during a Hollywood Reporter roundtable that, “It is important not to be so eager to do a project that you don’t examine what your collaborators want to do and whether they want to make the same movie. Even a tiny difference in the goal shouldn’t be ignored at early stages of discussion because that can eventually derail things as the film is being made.”

Nobody gets a “turn” at being a movie director.  Some people are focused on hiring and money and status and the statistics as to how many of what demographic have the job. But that can be distracting for someone starting out.  Anyone can pick up a DSLR or better for a reasonable price and shoot HD 1080p with a setting of 24 frames per second and get something that looks just right.  They can also get reasonable 4K cameras if they have the computer power to edit with it.  They can work with family and friends. In the late Nineties, Toronto filmmaker Ruba Nadda shot 16mm short films with a Bolex using her sisters as actors.  She would make film prints and send them off to festivals.  She has now worked with Oscar caliber actors and made Sabbah, Cairo Time, Inescapable, and October Gale as well as TV shows like NCIS, Hawaii 5-0 and Roswell, New Mexico. Today, creating a movie can be done on a cell phone. Best if the ease and cheapness is also counterbalanced with precision and genuine respect for how the right camera placement can transform a scene from “coverage” (wide establishing shot, close-ups, over-shoulders of the whole scene inclusive) to genuine movie directing.

 

 

Story, script, and feedback

Giving feedback on writing can take insight and a certain talent of its own.  If you are willing to take the time to compose a screenplay, it might also be worth letting people know the kind of feedback you need.  Maybe you just want to track how the reader feels or is engaged or bored from scene to scene. You may want to know whether you are clear enough or whether your ambiguity or withholding of information engages curiosity or frustration.

You may know that a screenwriting circle you belong to tends to discuss only the broad strokes, so asking them to read a four page outline might help kick the tires on your story.  Too many drafts that are not ready for feedback, full of typos, are submitted for premature feedback and it can hurt the writer’s image.  A table reading where actors are determined to go through it cold may mean discovering speed bumps that could have been ironed out in advance.  If one reader is busy checking text messages during the read and misses cues, a screenplay that relies on rhythm can lose its charm.  Any gathering of people should be the chance to hear the script work.  But another problem with table readings is that if the screenplay is so dialogue heavy it plays like a radio drama those listening will consider it a huge success but it will not be cinematic.  It will be pictures of people talking.  This doesn’t allow a cinema director much to work with.

Also, figure out how to break the news to prospective actors that you ideally plan to shoot what you wrote so that the writing is vindicated instead of replaced with paraphrasing or improvisation to placate cast members who want to avoid learning dialogue.  It can be hellish to find out someone doesn’t get the stylized approach to your patter or a heightened language or they are just used to generating their own material and believe the written word to be arbitrary.  They may feel vocal characteristics of actors are not enough to distinguish them and that what one character takes a few words to convey another should need half a page. Improvisation can take longer and may not inter-cut properly.  For a low-budget film, straying from the script means having the ground shift under the feet of the director.  And as common as it may be, a writer may have to fight for fidelity to the work and to avoid a committee sensibility.

Maybe the most commonly read draft or output of a script should not have everything in it.  You might create a second document with embellishments that might have thrown some readers. I once forgot the word “pristine” for a cleaning lady’s hand and used as a place holder “perfectly white” and forgot to replace it. That may have been taken the wrong way by someone.  I also had a domino effect after hearing someone’s long-delayed feedback that a couple of jokes were (in his mind) “punching down” and I could only reply, “You have to follow your own gut. No hard feelings if you don’t want to do the movie.” Some subjective and philosophical issues and interpretations have to be handled outside of the script.  You either will allow someone else to decide what stays and what goes based on their sensitivity or you want the script to represent your own risks, tastes, and point of view.  You might want to avoid what the Chinese call beizuo or the false virtue signalling that goes on so much in Western culture.