Internalized or Imposed Knowledge

Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, except that some work is more satisfying than other work.  By a certain age I may have internalized my knowledge of movie making, especially directing the attention of the audience.  I need to decide on a sequence of shots, not just record content and see if it cuts together later. To feel I am directing a movie it is as much about use of the frame (placing the audience) as anything else.  Actors who have never acted may have a natural way about them that means walking through a room and giving a neutral expression can be more effective than someone who is on stage regularly and feels inclined to mug and gesticulate so the camera has to stay out of that performer’s way.

As long as the script is solid and the casting is appropriate, I can be free to DIRECT the movie.  I like to do that mostly on paper first, not under the gun.  Regardless of whether every shot by every other director has meaning or motivation, I will ask myself questions:

WHAT IF this shot matters or means something from below eye level or eye level or above eye level?

WHAT IF this wide lens elevates the scene and makes the mundane seem epic?

WHAT IF this shallow focus allows people to feel that the character in sharp and clear character feels isolated from the setting or other people?

WHAT IF these characters are only shown in the same shot or over shoulder when they may agree and only in singles when they are – overtly or under the surface – are apart?

WHAT IF an action or an image at the end of a scene can be answered or ironically followed by something at the start of the next?  Will that distract from or help unify the whole?

That kind of thing, on and on like that.  If I prepare to direct something and 90% of my satisfaction is going to come from pre-visualization and following through on the implementation of the vision, the last thing I want to hear is that the fashion is to be more “loose” and to just let the audience find what to look at like Altman and not direct their gaze.  There are a great many people working as directors who have the designation because they have excellent people skills but they may not bring much in terms of a vision.  That might make them very pliable and they can talk about their “authentic voice” because they choose subject matter or scripts that have a certain identity.  But to be honest, that kind of thing only means something for the director in question and his or her satisfaction using the medium as a platform.  For me, it is only the joy of the craft.  Once the screenplay is written and settled, it is less about voice and more about the articulation and grammar of the conveyance.

Peter Benchley’s Jaws and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park portray people with a jaundiced eye and have more of a cautionary thrust.  The movies are more uplifting. If someone were to adapt those books with fidelity but the filmmaking was artless, there would be little point.

Meanwhile, in my own work, I already have specific shots I know I want and scene transitions regardless of whether the broad strokes of a story or the fine points of a screenplay draft have provided the opportunity as yet.  Just showing up and “going with the flow” makes no sense to me.  I have to know what I want and have a craving for it and be somewhat obsessed to go through the long haul and the sleepless nights of setting dates and following through with shoots.

I think it hurts the craft and the perception of director as a position if too many people are delegating the frame or not having a “camera boner” as Ana Lily Amirpour might call it for how a moment is going to be framed. The most lax approach would be like video recording a stage play, and we all know how detached that can feel playing it back.  To shoot for the camera can be both self-conscious and so focused that it feels of a piece with the content being followed.

With e-mail, blogs, tweets, or Facebook and Instragram posts people can say bluntly and sometimes artlessly and clumsily exactly what they feel.  If the delivery device for a message is something as cumbersome and labor intensive as a movie, maybe there had better be something besides the most obvious message and instead also the bonus understanding that you clearly understand and love the craft of movie making and respect and reward the attention of the audience.

I am busy watching a dream in my head which is just as loud as the reality around me.  If someone starts talking about numbers I will have to reorient myself and wake and then concentrate again to find my place again.  If someone were to ask me on set why I am directing and how I got there and what my qualifications are, I might be short with that person because it is not conducive to anything of use to me. If that person knows my body of work, then there is no need to ask.  If they don’t, there is only one way to interpret it:  Why isn’t someone more successful doing your job?  Luckily most people have the sense to let that go and then just get on with their own job.    I don’t have much interest in selling my feature scripts, since I intend to direct them myself whether I am deemed worthy or not by external measure.  The input of years of cinema being absorbed will demand the output of generating my own movies and continuing a vocation or a habit I have had since 1984.

I recall an interview with a cinematographer who said the worst movie making experience would be with a director who has spend years preparing something and is finally making the movie.  Because that person’t vision will be something almost set in stone and it won’t allow for a lot of flexibility (or for the the cinematographer to be a defacto co-director).  If that kind of concern can be drawn out early on, the right people can be recruited for a project.  I mean, frankly, at this point I have a few projects that have languished or gestated for years or decades and I know that following through on what has already been discovered is more important to me than letting it go and letting Murphy’s Law determine what else can be found and just coasting on serendipity and slapping my name on it at the end and feeling disingenuous.  Whether it is in the writing stage or story boarding stage or on the set, there is a degree of instinct and letting years of absorbed cinema work through the unconscious.  The labor for me is the technical aspect, and negotiating with people or vetting them insofar as I can.  What motivates me is a movie that does not yet exist but that I have already pretty much seen.