Grinding Your Gears

In the past, each completed project gave me a morale boost to fuel the next.  If something goes off track or I’ve been given (and naively accepted) a false resource that collapses, it can be difficult to just transfer energy to something else.  I think people talking to themselves may be re-living conversations where they could have anticipated the worst and come away with dignity and saved some time.  I can grind my psychological gears in a quiet moment wasting energy on a “would-could-shoulda.”  Things may have gone the same way ultimately sooner or later.  Maybe sooner if you put a fine point on it.

If it feels like there is some Faustian embargo in the air, you might be making the wrong deal.  If someone wants to be the creative power behind the throne, they can get their own throne.  And as I’ve said before, if someone doesn’t have faith in you as a director or doesn’t like the script, you’ve got no leg to stand on with that person and why walk into that burning house?  If on the other hand they want to impose something on the film – random shtick, improvisation, ideology – it will negate or compromise your sense of authorship.  It is one thing to improve a script, kicking the tires, questioning logic or continuity. These are things the writer can answer and figure out without losing the sense of authentic authorship.  A full range of talents have clung to a credit even if it meant arbitration and even if it meant that everybody knew the best lines came from someone else.  But if what motivates you is the work itself and seeing your own ideas vindicated (or giving them every chance to be vindicated), it is worth remembering that Jim Jarmush claims that he writes a screenplay in longhand, one draft, and gives it to a typist and then just makes his movie. I suspect there are many critical darlings who do that and if something seems unclear in the movie it is taken as artistic ambiguity.  It is not unlikely that a first draft and final draft will have the same percentage of people who like or dislike the resulting movie.  Se7en famously had many drafts generated in the development phase, only to have its original shocking draft by Andrew Kevin Walker find its way to David Fincher’s attention so he could insist on reverting to that. The Verdict was adapted by David Mamet and then compromised by others until director Sidney Lumet insisted on discarding the development and reverting to Mamet.  Those seem like no-brainer choices, but it took a good cook insisted that not everybody had to piss in the soup.  Especially if you are a writer-director, you are gong to take the heat for a mediocre movie so you may as well be gambling on your own taste and your own work rather than someone else.

Discussion of movies from a fan perspective can generate some of the worst ideas for how it “could have been better.” One guy re-edited The Last Jedi just to make sure that in his version Admiral Ackbar is still alive. There are many things wrong with that movie, and that character should have had an on-screen death and one with nobility (maybe securing an oxygen mask onto Princess Leia before floating off dead in the vacuum of space). But even with a Lucasfilm Story Group and producers looking at the script, and hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, they went with Rian Johnson’s whims and took their chances.  Each writer has to take his or her own chances.  You might even be satisfied just writing character descriptions and an outline of scenes and letting others expand on that. But however long the process, you arrive at a point where you say THIS is the script I want to translate into storyboard drawings and finally stage for the camera.  Not a hundred other variations which you have considered and discarded.

The internet has accelerated the question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” and also the consequences of answering with honesty.   People can insist on being called something they are not. It may be personally vital to know that a writer-director credit reflects your actual writing and your direction. I would feel false if I did not plan my own shots and the progression of images. That is where my satisfaction comes from.  Simply gathering people together to shoot something is not in itself cathartic. It is kind of a necessary evil.  Most of the anxiety will come from just how the house of cards will fall. Some people thrive on chaos, but I don’t.  I wouldn’t invest in chaos.

There are people who push to destroy the auteur theory of direction, where “A film by” credits are seen as giving too much importance to the role of director. I don’t really come down on either side of those false binary options.  The designation of director – let alone writer – can be given to anyone from a fraud who shows up and takes credit for everyone else to someone coming from a Hitchcock perspective where film grammar and psychology motivate the shot choices and the audience is being directed by the person they have been told is doing so.  None of us has to be a genius or feel like one to achieve the latter description.  It might help to be obsessed with finding the best shot for a moment or an interesting and appropriate way to transition between scenes. I’ve done short films that people hated and written screenplays that some people did not get, but I honored my impulses in any case and that is a big part of it.

So many processes appear to be about stripping the finger prints from a work. The issue celebrated might be the subject matter or a sociopolitical bent and not the WAY something was written or the WAY it was directed.  Style may be stripped away, and for me style is a big part of what makes me love cinema.

Does this blog make me look fat?





All Making the Same Movie

Boilerplate for Compatibility:

Investors, crew and cast, before anything else, have to be willing to make the same movie as the director. Each person might have a different movie in their mind’s eye or might choose or omit a different shot or joke than someone else.  There can be as many approaches as there are people, so first thing’s first: Know what the movie is, who has defined the project, at least make peace with whose vision you are helping bring to life. If the director is trying to be the servant of many masters, chipping away anything that someone else might not like, it will be an empty final result.

If a director believes he or she is Kubrick, the crew usually will make that person’s life hell.  So I don’t think I am Kubrick or Spielberg.  I want to make sure that I am giving myself the best chance to to get across the movie that is in my head and in stages of imperfection like the script and storyboard sketches. I’m not going to shoot myself in the foot trying to prove how I’m unlike the best directors and unworthy of directing the attention of the audience.

My plan for a low budget film is to respect the fiscally responsible Roger Corman approach and lock the script, storyboard every shot, and know before we arrive on set or location what the camera is going to do and what equipment will be needed to facilitate that.

The opposite would be to go forward with someone who either hasn’t read the script or doesn’t like it or outright objects to something in it and doesn’t believe in the director. In which case the writer-director doesn’t have a leg to stand on with that person, and who wants to walk into that burning house?

If someone doesn’t believe in the script and wants to infuse it with improvisation, it should be noted that any commentary track for a Christopher Guest movie mentions how long it takes to explore material through improvisation and then the year it takes to find the movie in editing.  If the main point of initiating a movie is that you want your screenplay to see the light of day, and you want to feel authentic about your writing credit, make sure it is known that you ban improvisation. Things will be discovered on a day even with a prepared and well rehearsed cast that might not be in the script, but the expectation of happy accidents do not have to define the project or put the director in the frustrating position of reigning people in to get them back on book.  You want to weed out people who do not like the script, or you will fall behind and go into overtime not for your shot list and the care of setting up a sequence but to placate the egos of actors who want to be de facto writers.

It will be interesting to learn the details of what happened on Solo: A Star Wars Story before Ron Howard was brought in to right the ship.  The version most circulated is that the original director Lord and Miller being improv wranglers on their previous live action movies were not used to storyboarding their shots and merely considered their process about riffing on scripts and generating material on set through improvisation.  This despite the fact that they were graced with a screenplay by Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jon.  Each day, the budget went over because the directors went into overtime and held the crew due entirely to the indulgence in improvisation. The actors played along but one reportedly eventually mentioned to a producer (maybe Kathleen Kennedy) that this was going on and that Alden Eirenrich as Solo was being called upon to do a sort of Ace Ventura energy level that seemed contrary to the laconic Harrison Ford characterization. What is puzzling might be that producers would get continuity reports each day that would have stated for 90% of the shoot that they were going into overtime each day and this could have been caught and rectified. As an executive producer and co-writer, after reviewing the footage that had been shot, Kasdan objected to the freewheeling approach and wanted the directors to stick to the script.

It is vital at the outset, either overtly or covertly, to discover whether a collaborator believes in the project or the script.  In my own case as a writer-director I have had to nudge people towards telling me what they thought or exposing some other reason they might want to infiltrate the movie.  The last thing you want is the ground moving under your feet. Someone may object to a well-earned joke against an arrogant character.  I would rather take the heat of someone expressing outrage over a joke than let someone else’s sensitivity pre-emptively make it go away.

It is asking a lot to say tentatively to a prospective actor or crew member to read the entire screenplay, maybe 100 – 120 pages, to make an informed choice.  But that work pales by comparison to everything you will ask them to do in pushing through the schedule of shooting the movie.  This mostly applies if you have a subversive sensibility.  I today’s climate, that is bold.  But any element of a script can be upsetting to a crew or cast member or a segment of the audience, and they may as well address and confront that in advance.

It is one level of difficult to draw people with a general idea of making a movie, but the more specific your goals and in terms of locations and props and number of cast or the kind of script you want to get away with it will be more of a challenge. There is no point putting off that challenge and waiting for a conflict somewhere down the line.  It is vital to want to make the same movie, or to be willing to.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says, “Every battle is won before it is ever fought.”