“So, you want to pass yourself off as a writer-director,”
– A-hole College Instructor, 1994
Improvisation is not a further draft of a script or a further polish. It is reversion to either brain-storming or first drafts. But there is a spin that suggests a script is further evolved.
The mind games never stop. We are told that the perception of a screenwriter (other then, say, Aaron Sorkin or The Cohen Brothers) is one where the credit may as well have an asterisk beside it because there is a constant drum beat of the narrative that not only will a script be changed by other writers, executives, directors and actors but that is should. Robert McKee can have his own contradictory remarks collapse back onto each other in the same interview. We can only take what we like and leave the rest.
There can be a constant gnashing of psychological gears over the expectations of mediocrity that greet anything creative. There are, of course, the Are You Covered? ads for supposed directing workshops that promise that you do not have to have talent to be a director. This kind of makes me insane, so it plays in a loop in my head as I try to sleep. You MUST be talented as a stand-up comic or musician in order to be a movie director but you do not have to be talented about movie directing, says the pitch.
It should comfort nobody who hopes to direct, because they all think they have something to give, beyond protecting a script if they are also the writer.
What I want and need to be satisfied as a screenwriter is to make sure actors are the right fit and that they can learn the dialogue as written and bring their personality to it in the realization without resorting to improvisation. I would rather have a reviewer say, “Gee that writer William has a tin ear. His dialogue is clunky. He is only saved by the inflection given by the actor.” Fine. At least the “Written by” will not feel fraudulent.
We are in a time where playing the lottery of trying to get a screenplay read let alone bought much less optioned or purchased for an amount that allows dignity. May as well expect to make a movie on your own.
What I want and need to direct a movie and not feel like I am bullshitting is to go through my usual process of storyboarding the whole script. How I use the frame and imply a cut are tools of direction and not just elements or chores to delegate. A storyboard sequence could certainly be re-illustrated by an artist simply to make it look more professional. But the psychology of the frame as applied in each image or each camera position should come from the director. We direct the attention of the audience.
I know, this is where the Robert Altman fans chime in with his decision not to show the audience where to look and to just plop them down in front of chaos and atmosphere. Except for the Last Supper shot in MASH and a couple of uncharacteristic transitions in Short Cuts, I have never been a fan of what might be called Altman’s directing. The good news for people who do like that kind of thing is that in today’s digital world you can just go out and make that kind of thing. Maybe not with the biggest character actors of the day, but it can be done. And apart from wearing an ascot and a cowboy had and having a confident stance, you may indeed not need actual MOVIE directing talent. You might come from theater and just let your DP choose where to put the camera. I might not be eager to see the resulting movie, and I could never be satisfied doing that, but it can be done.
It might seem to lack generosity and curiosity and flexibility to look at it the way I do.
To say okay a little bit of improvisation might be allowed might be like saying one small hole is okay in the bottom of the boat, and in practical terms what that means is that instead of watching the horizon and where you are headed your attention is preoccupied with bailing water. If a screenplay has been written and polished, the writer might like to hear his or her own dialogue performed in the final movie. Along the way, it might be heard given its day in court for rehearsals. But if a project attracts people with the false representation that improvisation and riffing is necessary, this may be taken as permission to paraphrase or to improvise entirely over whatever banter has been designed. A stylized run of lines might be labor intensive and not as satisfying for the creativity or the ego of the actor. It is tough to get the Genie back into the bottle if a project has been misrepresented. Most if not all scripts I have written will have elements that will be called problematic by those who like to use that word five times per day. So I will be especially averse to improvisation which might easily pave over the very elements of a script that made it worth writing in the first place.
If someone seems to be on board with a project but have a hidden intention of foisting improvisation onto it, or of imposing a cinematographer who has no regard for storyboards, this will mean an uphill battle. It is never far from my thought that Peter Farrelly said of directing Dumb and Dumber that they told the crew to save their asses and that they knew nothing. He said that if they crew thinks a director believes himself or herself to be Stanley Kubrick they will make the director’s life hell. So it may not help that so often when I have made films over the past thirty five years I have organically folded people into a crew or inherited them from someone else. There may be no way around the Kubrick thing, except saying to your team that the reason you storyboard is to “organize my thoughts.” In my case this is true, but I also want to be able to look at finished sequences and compare them to the storyboard so they match. The one collaborator nobody wants to work with is Murphy of Murphy’s Law, whom I mention time and again. What can go wrong? People not wanting to make the same movie. People being offended by jokes or subject matter that are the reason to make the movie. People who are not up to the tasks of their job.
I don’t know. There is always more to say on this. It is a cycle to break. There might not be a short cut solution. It means knowing people at least reconcile themselves to what you have written. It means maybe someone being willing to read 100 pages to make an informed choice. It means any crew member being willing to follow direction and use storyboards as a guide. I mean we all take home movies and don’t plan those. We do personal documentaries and those are just go-with-the-flow and we see the ups and the downs of that. So that process of discovery and the matching frustration is experienced. If storyboarding is the way to go, to persuade yourself that there is indeed a movie and a place for thoughtful directorial placement of the frame, then you can stick to your guns with a clear conscience. You are not afraid of spontaneity. You instead need to own each frame and its context. There may be a point of saying THIS is movie directing and THAT is not. Wide establishing angle, close-ups of each, over shoulder and reverse over shoulder is just recording or documenting the content. It requires no visual interpretation. It is the minimum. Shooting scenes with no dialogue might be the real test of directorial ability.
And yet, people will grab a camera or a cell phone and just maybe keep people in focus and get something they can slap a title onto and get into a festival because of subject matter and have it branded “important” whether there is directorial talent or intention or not. So go figure. Slapdash approaches can open doors. People “passing themselves off” as writers or directors can attract those who actually want to come up with shots or make up their own dialogue, so there is a perception of success and insider conspiracy among some who do it for a living. I can’t say don’t do that, because people get away with it. But I know that for myself a burden I carry will be the determination to make sure I am bringing my own writing to life and calling my own shots.