Working with Murphy on Movies

Nobody wants to collaborate with Murphy of Murphy’s Law when it comes to making movies, but we have no choice but to collaborate with that POS.  Here are some sob stories about encountering situations where I failed to anticipate what could and would possibly go wrong.

First year Humber Super 8mm assignment: We should a parallel action short I conceived and directed which relied on specific movement and cuts to create scene transitions.  A classmate who looked enough like a vagrant because of the Nineties Grunge trend was recruited to act.  His last name sounded like the opposite of his character. He would also supposedly help with post.  He was supposed to meet me in the library to help edit.  I was in plain view and waited but he did not show up, so I did the edit myself, splicing physical film the old fashioned way.  I was pleased to see how my planned cut came together.  Looked forward to screening it.  Then I packed up and made the mistake of doing what we were told to do — putting the equipment and finished reel back into our crew bin on the shelves of the post-production classroom.  I went home that night feeling I had saved the day and showed up for the morning screening but my film was not there. Grunge boy showed up and handed the reel to the instructor.  In turn with the others, it was screened and I was horrified.  I was not vindicated by this at all.  My work had been destroyed.  This tool had come in early or after I left and had gone through the film and snipped either side of my splices and re-spliced it.  He was a vandal.  It was not just a matter of “learning to edit” and “getting experience.”  It was passive-aggressive and rendered my involvement worthless.  To redress the matter would require him to create something he cared about and then for me to destroy that.  If it had occurred to me to try to get the guy thrown out of the program, no doubt he would plead misunderstanding or that his was a “fine cut” and he is “here to learn.”  Decades later, I still think back to this anecdote and feel the rage.  Over the years, the same guy has proven to be a low-life despite the fact that he gets work in film as an electric.  Had I not been naive, I would have put a note in the crew bin, “Bringing the edited reel home.  Will bring it for screening.” In a time-travel fantasy, that is the advice for my younger self.

We did a 16mm film documentary, and I suggested the Guardian Angels of Toronto having seen them ONCE on the subway.  I had a flurry of amusing editing ideas that would give that subject energy.  The vandal was against the subject because he didn’t like the idea of Guardian Angels (volunteer protectors against violence and crime) having a presence. No shock.  I was technically the writer, which has little meaning in documentaries. I had to submit storyboards so that the guy in “the cage” would issue our camera gear. That policy makes sense, but then I found out that we were not allowed to have the writer and director be the same person. Another classmate, Trina, was named director. She went over my storyboards and agreed with them. Then she had to be absent for an appointment so the crew advised me through producer Shaun that I should direct that day.  So I did the majority of it, the exteriors. That included half of a transition, a whip pan from the police 52 division that would take us to the headquarters of the Guardian Angels. The swish-pan was storyboarded, a transition gimmick seen in Some Like it Hot and sort of on the old Batman show.  Pan quickly away from something to a blur, cut on the most blurry frame of that and the following image which begins on the fast pan and settles on the new setting.  Vandal was to shoot the first half, the pan-away. I asked if he knew how to do a swish pan.  He was affronted and said, “Yes!”  Then I watched him and new his pan was wandering and wonky.  I politely asked if I can take a stab at it.  Mine was smooth.  The following day, Trina was back and we had to shoot the other half in the Guardians office. She wanted to skip the pan-in.  I confess I insisted we get it shot even if it isn’t used. She may have been miffed at not having the last word as nominal director. Audio of an interview was used as our sound, so there wasn’t much need for me to write narration.   When we looked at the raw footage I explained to our instructor why the swish was there and how it was to be used.  Yet, when the editor had his way, he delivered a cut that omitted my swish transition but kept the meandering, shaky attempt Vandal had done.  It was a disaster.  I spoke to our producer and asked if I can use the outtakes and restore what I had storyboarded.  He said yes.  I did a marathon editing session and made the doc as it should be.  The next day, there was a pall in the air in the cafeteria.  The editor was a popular basketball player and some (especially not from my crew) thought I had crossed a line.  I was put on the spot in production management class and had to apologize especially for hurting the feelings of the editor (never mind that he had ignored my guidelines and embarrassed me).  I got a nod of approval for my apology from the person whose opinion meant nothing to me, the vandal.  But eventually the editor looked at my cut and realized I was right and most of it was kept.  After all the melodrama, I was invited to direct the 5 minute drama the next semester. Years later, I put a satirical voice-over to it and put it on youtube.

I showed up at the earliest meetings for 16mm drama with a bunch of outlines, little paragraphs and titles.  Anyone could have pitched their own script ideas but one of mine seemed most promising so it was chosen.  I then wrote that into an eight page script and then edited that down to five pages.  It was agreed, so we went forward. Board Beyond Belief was about a customer returning a Ouija board to a service counter.  The shoot went well.  The cinematographer often asked to look at my storyboards to get it right. Then the editing process was like waiting for a baby to be born.  The editing partners included Vandal. When the actors arrived with their mates to see the screening with our class, what they saw had jump cuts because the most basic editing of a simple conversation could not be competently achieved.  Thankfully this time there had been a negative that I could take in and get transferred (albeit only to VHS at time). I took this to an off-line suite and did a complete video edit.  I took it to the screenings of another class and it played well so I felt vindicated.

In third year, I had planned to make a movie called Art Show if my script won people over.  It did not.  The script that had support was by Randy Chase, the writer in class more prolific than me.  He would also be producer and continuity.  That year I was living with my First A.D. Peter and his girlfriend.  I think Randy and Peter were popular enough that some of the crew rallied around them, and as I had asked them to be involved with Art Show I somehow retained the position of director on our 20 minute 16mm film drama project, Hearing Things.  Again I storyboarded the whole thing, let my cinematographer look through the thumb nail version with me and then I refined them after seeing the most likely location. What could go wrong?  The highly capable DP did the ordering of equipment and said he would hot access a video tap.  (In hindsight I think that may have been a fib so I wouldn’t be scrutinizing each shot in progress, which proved highly necessary.) He also showed me some excellent camera tests with various film stocks so I could choose the best look.  But then to save money and without asking he went for a cheap Agfa stock that proved to be kind of grainy and not what I would have asked for.

The opening shot was to zoom out from the darkness of the heroine’s profile to end below her shoulders so it is still a medium close-up profile.  Everybody had a thick booklet of all the storyboards.  I questioned why the camera was so far back and asked to move it closer. I wasn’t tough enough.  I’m sure when I checked the end position it was the shoulder shot.  The woman’s arm feeling at her ear had to read on screen, so I was furious to see that the zoom pulled all the way out and far away and her hand coming up was a detail that barely registered.  We also had an anticipatory pan.  She turns her head upon hearing her sister and looks down a wall to where she will emerge.  I had production stills and storyboards of this and was clear of the finishing position.  But what they showed our instructor was a meandering pan.  And in this case it was two smart guys, the DP and camera operator.  I heard them claim “That’s what Will wanted,” and was tempted to throw them under the bus but I didn’t.  There was also a planned jump cut from a wide view of the mailbox at the end of the driveway to a closer detailed shot of the mailbox; the cut was to occur while the camera was blocked by a passing car. This was before everyone had cell phones, so a miscommunication with the driver meant that he drove the car past once and then turned around and drove out of the driveway and onto the highway thinking he had passed twice. The producer was off that day and I think my roommate AD had a dentist appointment.  There was nothing in place to goose me or remind me.  I had been through the ringer for being a control freak and now I was too sedate and amenable on set.  There was one day when we had a huge dialogue scene and out DP had to go to work at a hotel. I told him we have to finish and maybe I could just shoot it myself.  The threat of me taking over anything caused him to call in and delay his shift, so that was one small victory.

Our sound recordist had his apartment robbed so out mic and the Nagra recorder went missing.  The school wanted him to pay for the replacement and instead he chose to drop out of the course.  So our post-production sound guy filled in on location as recordist.  After each take I’d ask “Good for Camera?”  “Good for sound?” and get a yes before saying it was a keeper.  There was one take where the framing was bad – a head in lower frame  – and the performance was not so good so that was not a keeper.  Camera, Performance and Sound had to be deemed acceptable.  There was an interior dialogue scene where I wanted to match the point of someone sitting into a chair as the conversation took another turn. Standard cut on the motion of sitting, from wide shot to close-up.  If helps engage the seriousness in the close-up.  Well, despite keenly watching to make sure the timing lined up with the takes I had chosen, the editor advised me that because different takes were used they didn’t allow for that editing choice.  The post-production sound guy had listened to the takes while transferring to mag and decided which ones he deemed to have the most clear sound.  Now direction, framing and performance were low priority and sound clarity decided which takes were kept.  The editor and post sound guy had spent Christmas holiday getting that editing done.  Despite the fact that I had marked up the script and given storyboards and they had my number for any questions they worked independently instead of interdependently.  Where I had no ideas for sound I would write “doesn’t matter” in the margin but I should have said “editor’s choice” because it gave the wrong message.  In most cases I was specific about sound.  In one case, a pan from the husband’s thoughtless purchase of a new car to the heroine in profile reacting was intended to be filled by a rise of score.  But the production management instructor saw the cut in progress without music and suggested cutting out most of the pan and starting the profile from her nose.  This ignored my note mentioning the composer.  One scare we had was that part way in, the lead actress resisted signing a talent release because she thought she would become quite famous.  (I have no recollection how that was resolved by the producer/writer.) I do know that when copies needed to be made on VHS for cast and crew it was done at a TV station where our editor had his co-op placement and he forgot to set the levels.  So the first run of copies for Hearing Things to play for agents and so on had muddy sound nobody could hear.

20 years later, the producer Randy presented me with a 3.4 inch tape which I had transferred to digital.  I was temped to change the end credits to put my name first as director but I kept it in the random way the editor did it, irritating as it is. There were only a couple of small edits I indulged in.

More examples in another blog. . . . .

 

 

 

 

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.