Six Angry Women: Building a Technique and Studying Mike Leigh

When I made my first feature, 19 Revolutions, I used Jean-Luc Godard as my guiding influence, shooting youthful idealism with reckless handheld and frenetic editing. With Lilith I embraced Andrei Tarkovsky, using long, stabilized, languid and almost spiritual takes in a widescreen landscape.

Of course it’s one thing to ape or simply copy these filmmakers, but it’s an entirely different thing to let them be your guides. They did something right, and they fit their worldview perfectly, we’d be remiss not to visit their work and buttress it upon our own. When I look at a Godard or Tarkovsky, I’m not asking myself how they did it, I’m always asking why, of how their technique served the narrative and if those tools are something I can use to tell my story. Godard himself quoted the work of Howard Hawkes, and Tarkovsky’s films always carry the fingerprints of Eisenstein and Vertov.


From Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Dziga Vertov Group, Un film comme les autres, 1968.

With Six Angry Women I knew I had an ensemble piece that required absolute emotional honesty and real characters. I wanted to avoid the cliched archetypes that infect so much of American independent cinema today, like the screechy malaise-ridden families of August: Osage County, which was an amazing play but I absolutely abhorred as a film. I don’t want my actors playing characters that fulfill a role, I want them to play real women who are in a volatile and unpredictable situation.

Tarkovsky and Godard are not the right reference for material like this. Nor is Kieslowski, Roeg, Bergman, Ray, Fincher or Kurosawa. They all have that balance of dynamic realism with surreal images, and it populates their entire body of work. Likewise I didn’t want to go to the crushing reality of filmmakers like Ken Loach and John Cassavettes, because I’m portraying a world that we can only imagine the reality of (the jury room, which none of us have access to), so I needed to look elsewhere. This is what brought me to Mike Leigh.

I’d seen Leigh’s films - Naked being one of my all-time favorite films - but I can’t say I’d ever really studied Leigh’s technique. Turthfully because his technique terrified me, as he regularly goes into a film without a formal script, building the screenplay in rehearsals. Because of my scientific background and my inherent desire to plan, and because I lack any experience directing theater, going about a film like Leigh does seems counter intuitive and unproductive. I was terrified of the prospect of working that way, but I knew it required consideration.


'Naked'

I started watching Leigh’s films and picked up a copy of Amy Raphael’s excellent book Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh (also check out her book on Danny Boyle, it will change your life). I was accustomed to seeing powerful and impossibly authentic performances in Leigh’s films, but in rewatching and studying his work, it also dawned on me that his movies are quite visually beautiful. I’d never noticed that before, and it turns out he had a background in visual arts before going into theater and film. It became abundantly clear to me that I needed to study his technique, and that despite my fear, this was the technique that would best serve Six Angry Women.

Leigh, who is famously cryptic about the details of his method, gives out hints as to how he goes about things. I’d done training in improv at The Second City here in Chicago, so I was familiar with a lot of the rehearsal techniques that Leigh mentions in the book. Trust building exercises, hot associations, actors giving each other “gifts” of “yes, and” in improv sessions. I could do that, yes. But I was far more curious about how Leigh built his screenplays. The misnomer is that he films without a script, which is not true and only applies to Godard and Wong Kar-Wai. There is no waiting-for-inspiration-making-it-up-as-we-go with Mike Leigh. He builds his screenplays in rehearsals, and by the time the shoot date arrives, he has a screenplay in hand, one which his cast and crew can use to make a film efficiently. I loved this about him, and wanted to know how it’s done. Since there is no official document about this technique (at least one I know of), I basically had to create my own version of it based on my own skillset and whatever little information I could glean from writings and documentaries about Leigh, and DVD commentaries from his films.

I know that Leigh assembles his cast early and doesn’t even tell them what the film is about. A lot of times even he doesn’t know what the film is fully about but he has a nascent idea that he’s fleshed out a little. He spends a considerable amount of time only building characters with his actors. I don’t have a clue how he does this, but I’ve created my own version.

I’d tried writing a Six Angry Women screenplay many many months ago, and found that my own politics and desire for justice were getting in the way of the narrative being fluid and honest. The downside was that I was stuck, but the upside is that I had a very clear idea of what the film was about in my head. This helped me as I approached my actors about the project. I’d give them the basics and no details, and told them we’d be building the screenplay in rehearsals, that they will be part of the writing process. It intrigued all of them immensely.

Given that I only have a month to put this all together, I couldn’t afford to be as reserved as Leigh in his productions, so I had to spill some beans about the story, but I only provided a few sentences about what I thought each character would be. Based on that seed, I asked my actresses to find someone in their own lives, or multiple people, who might fit that description. I asked them to simply observe and put together a composite of a character. We were only focusing on character - there’s no mention of the jury or the trial, nor did I want my actresses doing research on race relations or the justice system. I just wanted them to build someone who is real. I asked them to put together a physical description, to come up with a career for them, a family history, and a daily routine that they go through.

The physical description is very important here, and by physical description I mean only quantitative analysis. It’s important to connect a visual to these ideas, and by obsessively writing down every detail, we form a bridge between the visual and the idea. Once the visual is established, then we build the qualitative and emotional aspects of the character. In director’s parlance this is called hot objects and is something I picked up from actress / University of Southern California professor Nina Foch.


Nina Foch. A brilliant teacher and a foxy lady til her last day.

So far we’ve only been talking about character, testing them in different everyday situations that have nothing and everything to do with the trial. But only I know that, and I’m taking notes. After two weeks, I feel like we have a group of very real women who are walking into this jury room. The next step I gleaned from Leigh is to now engage in group rehearsals, where the actors will meet each other for the very first time. Leigh maintains a very strict policy here - all characters must be spoken of in the third person, and no one is allowed to be in character until I say ‘action.’ At this point I am going to present the case to them in detail, and we’ll start collectively figuring out the natural flow of conversation and events. This is based on an outline that I have.

At this time I’m also going to have my cinematographer sit in the room, and we will be recording the rehearsals. I’ve hired an assistant (paid, of course) and at the end of each day, my assistant, DP and I will review the footage and come up with pages of script and a shot list. Hopefully by the end of the rehearsal period we will emerge with a screenplay and and full shot list. Performance, story and visuals all in one exercise

This may not be Leigh’s exact technique but rather it is a modified version of it that suits my own technique and temperament. As much as I was terrified by it, with each passing day of rehearsals I’m amazed with how it’s all coming together. I’m seeing the film clearer and clearer with each new idea. I’m feeling more confident and I know this technique can work because Mike Leigh has proven it works.

My film will not look, sound or feel like a Mike Leigh film because I’m not Mike Leigh. But he’s given me a new set of tools to work with, and my cast, crew and I will figure out how to use these tools to accomplish our goals. It’s like being in school again, and because we are independents we don’t have to please anybody except ourselves. It’s a wonderful and liberating way to work.

Six Angry Women: Casting and Trust

Sorry for the long delay in posting, it’s been a long nine days of casting and rehearsals. After an exhaustive search, I’ve found my six angry women, all local Chicago actors with a ton of talent.

Being that I’m going at this with a micro budget of less than $40k, it’s pretty much been a three man show so far. My production manager, Anthony Del Percio, who is a brilliant filmmaker based here in Chicago, has been handling logistics and has been working with my DP Faroukh Mistry on putting together a camera package and all the requisite gear for a full feature shoot. Despite our budget, we’re not going DSLRs and consumer light kits on this - it’s a full-blown production and we have no intention of skimping on production values. We’re striking mutually beneficial deals and making friends along the way. It’s been remarkable what we’ve been able to pull together so far.

I’m acting as my own casting director and have been criss-crossing across town to meet with actors. As I’ve written on this blog before, I don’t believe in doing cold readings with actors - I think it’s unfair and puts unproductive pressure on both of us. I’ve seen all of these actors perform on stage so I’ve got a pretty good idea about their presence, the timbre of their voices and what they’re capable of. I try to sit down for one to two hours with each actor and just talk to them. I want to find out what makes them tick and see how open they are to the concept, to their craft and to me as a director. This is business about trust, and if an actor and I have difficulty communicating then it will not be a fruitful collaboration.

Some of the actresses I met were fairly closed because of the nature of the part and the film. Many were afraid of playing a racist woman on film. I had to remind them that I truly felt the members of this jury weren’t racist, that none of them walked into that jury room with the mindset of “I’m going to fuck that black kid over.” It’s likely that the pressures of the trial and the jury deliberations brought out their inherent fears, fears which are most likely rooted in a prejudice that comes from misinformation or personal traumas.

I wanted to see how each actress would respond to that, given the part would require them to really dig deep and ask tough questions. It’s too easy to play a racist. It’s too easy to play a fearmonger or scaredy-cat. It’s tough to play a real woman with real feelings and secrets. By means of questions you can tell if an actor is intrigued and excited by the idea or apprehensive about it. As a director you have to read your actors and trust your gut. Given that I don’t have a script for this film, I’m counting on my instincts with this casting process, and I feel confident I’ve got the right bunch.

I also had to have actresses who were great writers themselves, and part of my line of questioning was to determine their process. Again, it’s too easy to just ask if they write, because everyone says yes. But it’s more about the process of writing, of their approach to creating a character, of where they find the soul of the character and how it matches up to plot and environment. I propose different scenarios to each actor - “We’ve determined that regret is a big part of this character, how do you demonstrate regret in a crowded room?” My actors are not “writing” a response on paper, but we’ll go through the creation of a scene using that seed. It’s a fun and fascinating process, and as aforementioned it requires openness and communication. If your actors trust you, then they’re more willing to take risks.

It begs the question: how does one go about building trust, especially in such a short time? The answer is simple: empathy and sincerity. As a director you have to be sincere with your actors. I follow a protocol when I meet a new actor, and when I say protocol it’s not a cold list of rules to go through one-by-one. I do these things because I sincerely mean it.

The first is to always, always thank your actor for coming out to meet and audition. It takes a lot of preparation and travel for actors to audition, and they’re putting themselves up on a plate for you to dissect them. That’s asking a lot of someone and is daunting, so be genuinely thankful for their participation in such a grueling process. The next part of the protocol is to just talk to your actors. Chit-chat. Talk about the weather, the commute, something that’s happening around you, whatever. This will put both of you at ease and let some of the tension out of the room. It’s also establishing your communication with them. In order to get to the root of any character you have to be able to talk freely.

Which makes the next part of the protocol very important - you must show empathy. This means you must share a bit of yourself with your actors in the process of discussing the part. You don’t have to reveal all your dark and personal secrets, but you should share your feelings and thoughts with them. An actor - or any collaborator for that matter - will be more willing to dig deeper and share ideas / thoughts / emotions when you demonstrate that you’re willing to do the same. I talk freely about experiences that have shaped my desire to make this film, my fears and doubts, my admission that I’m just as curious as anyone else to know what this film is going to end up looking like. And it’s not lip service - I honestly feel these things and want to share them, because it helps me process all that’s around me as well.

In this sense, my auditions are really just two sounding boards listening to one another. My actors are all figuring me out just as I’m trying to figure them out. There is no power struggle here, we both need each other to make this thing work. The audition is a level playing ground, which is why I hate traditional casting with a table separating me from the actors in a cold room. That’s an awful way to get to know someone.

But sometimes a cold reading of lines in a room with a table is necessary when casting supporting roles and smaller parts. I reserve my custom casting process for my lead actors, but it doesn’t mean I’m any less personable with my supporting actors. Even from behind a table I thank them for coming, I shake their hands, I chit-chat with them to put them and myself at ease. I don’t have the time to go through a full process with each actor, but at minimum I devote 30-40m per actor. It’s exhausting work for me, but if it means getting the perfect cast, then it’s well worth it.

Plato once said that we must “be kind, for everyone is fighting a battle.” Actors are not there to take our frustrations and insecurities out upon. I’ve seen this too many times and it disgusts me. It all stems from the opinion that many directors have of actors, which is that they are property, they are just tools, pieces of meat to manipulate to make a picture. Where the director is the seat of power that all actors and crew must bow down to. This is nonsense. Your actors are the directors of performance, you have to entrust them with your vision, and when you do that they will listen to your direction with utmost care and respect. You are equally important to each other, and that mindset has to be upfront and clear from the second they walk through that audition room door. Doesn’t matter what style you have as a director, an actor will only give you respect when you respect them. This applies not only to film, but to life as well. If you show an actor respect and they turn around and disrespect you, then there’s no place for them in your collaboration. Talk to them, find the root of the problem, and if a solution is not there, then fire them. But that’s a tough and expensive process, so it’s best to get it right at the audition level. Cast with your heart, not your eyes.

Now begins my one-on-one rehearsals with my actresses, where we focus only on character. We’re not even discussing the film. Just character. I’ll get more into to this process in my next post.

DDFH

Run The Jewels

Run The Jewels

Played 89 times

Music for the Weekend: DDFH by Run the Jewels.

Life’s moving at a million miles an hours and I seem to be getting further and further in a hole in terms of my sleep deficit. But that said, I’m thankful to be busy.

Finished my rough cut on my edit for the TV pilot, and it’s looking great. I think I’ve made some breakthroughs on my directing process, and I really need to thank my actors for that. It was a great collaboration, and their trust made it all possible because as all of my actors on any project will attest, I tend to put them in some very interesting and compromising situations.

Screengrab from the pilot; Elizabeth Riegert and Jacob Moore getting hot n’heavy on a very public elevator.

Took a few days away from the edit and this weekend I’m going to take the razorblade to it, trimming and seeing what is absolutely necessary and what needs to go. It’s the most brutal part of filmmaking, which is letting go of something that is beautiful and perfect, but all for the benefit of the story. Egos and sentimentality not allowed, which is why I need albums like Run the Jewels to keep things real and in perspective. EL-P and Killer Mike are absolutely murdering it right now.

Have a great weekend!

Purrple Splazsh

Actress

Splazsh

Played 80 times

Music for the Weekend: Purrple Splazsh by ACTRESS.

It’s been a very long week of auditions and callbacks for the television pilot I’m directing, and I’m happy to say that we’ve found our three main leading ladies. They’re an amazing, kick-ass group - in our callbacks I pushed them very hard and they came back with emotion, creativity and unique voices. I’m super excited to be working with them and to be able to go on this journey with them. After going through almost 60 auditions, each of them 30-60 minutes apiece, my brain is exhausted.

It’s a lot of fucking work to find the right actors, but this is the most important decision you will ever make as a filmmaker, which is to find the absolute best cast. 90% of making a film is finding the right actors, and when you do find them, you’ll know. Early in our careers we tend to cast with our eyes - people more that often will look the part, and we’re often put under the spell of beautiful women and men. But I’ve come to learn that I’d much rather have someone who can play the part convincingly and powerfully than someone who just looks the part. Sometimes you get lucky, like I did on Lilith with Julia Voth, Lili Reinhart, Bianca Christians and Nancy Telzerow who basically have the entire package going for them. That doesn’t happen too often.

My pilot required a part for a woman in her late 30s/ early 40s, and we were really struggling to find the complete package. We had an actress come in and read - she was 24, but she was mature beyond her age, and she just had that presence that put her into her late20s/ early 30s. She was incredible in her audition, nailing every beat and in our callback she showed so much range and ability to take direction. She was a dream, we all loved her, but she was still too young. We put her aside and kept searching.

I kept thinking of her throughout the auditions, and kept brainstorming on how we could possibly “age her up” for the role. It would be difficult, but I told myself I’d rather have someone who could own the part, play it beautifully and convincingly, than someone who simply fit a category. Choosing the 24-year old would require a change in the script and many of the directions we were originally planning to go in, but as we talked it through, it really wasn’t that big of a deal. She could sell her character and make us totally forget about her age, and we would only need to make small shifts to accommodate that. We made the call and cast her.

This is why it is so important to spend time with your actors. So much is lost when we limit ourselves to headshots and cold reads. Spend some time with your actors, talk to them, get to know what makes them tick. If we’d stuck to what was on paper, we would have never cast this young actress, and we would have lost out on someone whom I feel has what it takes to be a star. She just needed an opportunity, and I’m more than happy to give it to her because she earned it. She did the work, she took those risks in her audition, and she understood her own voice and body. I think she’s got that “it” factor and I want her to succeed, and I’ll do everything I can as a director and collaborator to get her there. I’m kind of old-school loyal in that way. You work with me and we become collaborators for life. If not now, then somewhere down the line. Ya can’t get rid of me.

I absolutely love actors. They’re bold when I can’t be, they voluntarily cry my tears when I cannot, they give their mind, body and soul to absorb my story and make it theirs. They are brave when I’m too scared to be. When we agree to work with each other, it’s my utmost responsibility to take care of them, to make them feel safe, to let them know that irrespective of what choices they make, my crew is behind them. That is the core of my effort with them, and it is the part of my job that I enjoy the most.

Have a wonderful weekend.

attitudeandsyndicate-deactivate ASKED:

I'm thinking about getting into Directing, do you have any tips for first-timers?


Sorry for the late reply, I’ve been getting around to answering my backlog of messages. Feels good to get back in the game!

First and foremost, the most basic tip I can give you is to prepare, prepare, prepare. You can never, in my opinion, prepare too much. Break down your script, create shot lists, create acting objectives for each scene, storyboard complex sequences in advance, and rehearse if you can. Some argue that preparation kills creative spontaneity, but I’m in the camp that it actually promotes spontaneity because you’ve covered the basics before you’ve even stepped in front of the camera. You are free to make adjustments based upon the moment, of what your actors and environment are giving you, of what your instinct is telling you (more on that later). But to go into a shoot unprepared means you’ll be spending valuable time figuring things out logistically rather than spending time with your actors and key crew. Prepare, prepare, prepare and you’ll be freeing yourself to really be in the moment.

Next tip. I think back to my first film and I think the best thing I learned was to get as much coverage as I could. For the uninitiated, “coverage” is collecting as much footage as possible of each scene, and this includes wides, angles, perspectives, close-ups and inserts. A good wide master-shot will ensure that you’ve filmed the scene in its entirety, and that in a worst-case scenario you’ll have the scene in its full for your edit.

But there’s a downside to master shots, which is that they tend to be flat, long and boring. Unless you incorporate interesting movement, layers of production design or choreographed action into your masters, they will tend to read almost flat. You’ll need to have close-ups and inserts to build narrative and interest. But as a fail safe, a master shot is a great insurance policy for a first time filmmaker.

My next tip is to manage your energy on set. Think of production as a battery. Each day you start at 100% and as the day presses on, people’s energy will drain. As a director you’re going to have to be at 100% all the time, but you have to be mindful that your crew and actors will be fading as the hours pass. Manage their energy wisely through scheduling and pragmatism. Rehearsals are great but avoid doing too many - actors will tend to put their energies into their first few rounds and you’ll want to preserve that raw power. Do a walkthrough at half-speed and if you’re shooting digital, you may even want to film your rehearsals. If it’s a complex sequence, then you’ll want to schedule a rehearsal before the camera shoots so that when you’re on set, you’ll be able to fine tune without expending too much time and energy. Avoid numerous takes on things like inserts - shoot them as a series instead.

The two things you’ll never have enough of are time and money. When you shoot, try to consolidate wherever you can without losing your inherent style or objective. If you can say two things in one shot and still keep it visually interesting (think of using a camera move or having your actors move in the frame as opposed to two shots), then you’re saving both time and money. Each setup costs you precious time, so be judicious with what you can do. Early in the shoot take note of your setup times and keep a mental log of what your shots will demand in terms of time and manpower. That long, single take with a steadicam will take time to light, choreograph and execute, so if you’ve allocated the same amount of time to it as you did for an insert of a man picking up a gun, then you’ll be in trouble, and you’ll fall behind. So either incorporate the man picking up the gun in your steadicam shot, or ditch the steadicam shot and do it as a series of shots under a similar lighting scheme. Know what is important and what can be sacrificed. Be precise but avoid being a perfectionist. As Michael Mann once put it, “a perfectionist is someone who cannot distinguish between what is important and what is unimportant.” Directors should be exacting in their overall vision, but they should have the wherewithal to know what is worth investing in and what can be consolidated or even excised. Those decisions will usually have to be made in the moment as you’re running out of time, you’re losing light, your talent is going into overtime, and a rainstorm is on the horizon. Believe me, it always happens, so be prepared for it.

Of course the very best tip I can give you is to listen to your instinct. Your collaborators will be bringing you thousands of decisions to be made each day, and you really have to go with what feels absolutely right to you. Being decisive is very different from being stubborn. You have a vision for your film, and every decision you make should be in service of that vision. If it doesn’t feel right - and you will know when it doesn’t feel right - then you have to act on it and devise an immediate solution to correct it. And if you don’t have an immediate solution, have the humility to ask your crew for their input. Your cast and crew are there to facilitate your vision - they are working with you, not against you - but it is your responsibility to steer them in the right direction to achieve the results you want. Hence the title of the job - director. Create a situation and environment where your collaborators are able to exercise their talents to the fullest as they bring your vision to life. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that is dependent upon your ability to stick to your convictions and provide directions to making those a reality.

These are just a few tips that I think can help out. There’s tons more tips but I really think these are the utmost important ones.

Screenwriting: How to Get an A-list Actor

Another friendly reminder that ‘Lilith’ is now available for download and DVD pre-order. You can order both the download and DVD (which has tons of cool stuff the download doesn’t have) directly from the distributor by clicking here, or by using the following link: http://store.nehst.com/lilithdvd.html

Back to business of the blog - it’s a good one, very important for screenwriters! :)

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Waitaminute. What does getting an a-list actor have to do with screenwriting? Technically, it doesn’t. But we have to look at our greater goals. The entire purpose of going on the endeavor of writing a screenplay is to eventually get it made into a film. A screenplay is essentially a proposal for a completed film, it’s a blueprint to a vision that needs a lot of people to come together on and make happen. And in order to get a lot of people, we need to have money. And in today’s financing environment, we need a marketable actor to champion our script.


This was an actual movie. That had a screenplay. And got financed.

Of course this is not gospel. We can make movies on shoestring budgets with unknown actors, and what is marketable is our high concept. We can find really talented young actors and help make them into the superstars of the future. This is my personal belief, and I’ve done it so far. But I’ve also found that my budgets under this model have been extremely limited, and it takes a long, long LONG fucking time to raise those funds. The fastest and quickest way to get a healthy budget - and by healthy I mean a budget that affords you the time to exercise your craft - you’re going to need to get a marketable actor attached to your screenplay. That will get you through the door faster than anything, and it will get you money faster than you can imagine. It’s not a foriegn concept - I just finished reading Christine Vachon’s brilliant memoir A Killer Life and the key to the success of her production company Killer Films was to uphold the director’s vision and get the right people attached to the project to get financiers to pony up cash. It’s because financiers are wanting to hedge their bets - a high concept is not a sure thing, but a high concept with a marketable actor (see movies like Source Code, Moon or Looper) - then we have a fighting chance to recoup that money. It’s worth a shot, and if that doesn’t work, just journey on and raise that money.

The main key in getting an A-list actor is to write a powerful, impressionistic opening sequence that introduces the lead character in an unforgettable manner. You want to imagine an actor reading your script and within the first five minutes saying “I need to play this part.” It’s because actors are also artists, and they have a desire to do meaningful work. Likewise, we have to imagine if we present our script to a producer, they can immediately in their mind cast for that part and help you pursue that actor.

So what goes into a powerful introduction? There are four elements, listed here in the order of importance:

The Situation.

The Initial Action.

The Initial Dialogue.

The Description.

The Situation. The key to a strong situation is to challenge the character. Challenging a character allows us to be emotionally engaged with them. We have to put our characters in a specific circumstance, and challenge them with it. The most basic challenge is to have the character be in a predicament where they either lose or maintain their values.

In There Will Be Blood the opening situation - Daniel Plainview mining for gold on his own in a desolate location - is extremely challenging. He is charged with the immense task of doing the work of ten men on his own. Plainview injures his leg, and he’s faced with something that will challenge his core values - stay for the money (someone else will take his gold), or tend to his well being. He chooses the former, and it says a lot about him as a man. If we study how P.T. Anderson built this opening, we see that he is engaging us by throwing us into the pit with Plainview, and he keeps making it interesting by throwing in suspense (the burning fuse of dynamite) and twists (literally - the injury of Plainview) that give us opportunities to field the choices that Plainview makes. One of the overriding feelings when watching that sequence is that most men would have died in that situation, either by pain or simply giving up, but Plainview is not an ordinary man. His tenacity in the face of his situation is what makes him unforgettable.

There Will be Blood Opening from Media Clips on Vimeo.

The Initial Action.

There are essentially two types of action: meaningful and meaningless. Meaningful action is something that delivers the essence of the scene. It explains it through action, and not dialogue. Meaningless action is simply an action, and we have to always ask ourselves if it is not contributing to the meaning of a scene, then is it at least visually compelling. The ideal, of course, is to have meaningful action that is also visually compelling.

When creating a powerful opening scene, we ask ourselves first what the meaning of the scene is, and then we have to devise a way to deliver that meaning through action. The exercise for this is to write a scene completely devoid of dialogue. We do this because dialogue, as much as it is a vital part of a modern screenplay, exists not to tell a story, but rather to entertain, deliver character, point to subtext, and create anticipation. It should never, ever deliver the meaning of a scene.

This can be seen in the introduction of one of the truly great iconic characters of recent film - Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men played by Javier Bardem. Our introduction of Chigurh by the Coen Brothers is absolutely unforgettable - he is apprehended by the police and he proceeds to murder a police officer by strangulation, and then continues on by calmly killing an innocent bystander by means of a cattle gun. The situation is odd - we don’t know who, when or why this is all happening, but it is arcane and gruesome, and it’s entirely delivered through action. The dialogue in the scenes - the officer talking on the radio and the banter between Chigurh and the innocent passerby - never deliver the scene’s meaning, which is essentially to define Chigurh as a complete and utter homicidal sociopath. We understand this through Chigurh’s actions - the look on his face as he strangles, the fact that he injures himself as much as his victim in killing them - than his dialogue, which is simple, stripped and bare. It is Chigurh’s actions that make him unforgettable, not his haircut, his dressing, or the way he speaks.

The Initial Dialogue. I know, I just poo-pooed dialogue and now I’m telling you that a character must have great dialogue to be memorable. But there’s a difference - it’s initial dialogue, something that reveals something of the character for the future and creates anticipation. This can be a clever one-liner or a deadpan delivery of something spectacular. Take a look at AFI’s ‘Top 100 Movie Quotes’ and you’ll see that many of them, on their own, are pretty unspectacular. But when placed in context of the situation, action and character, they become cultural milestones.

Returning to Anton Chigurh, his spare dialogue in his intro speaks to his cool, demented demeanor. He places the cattle gun to the stranger’s head and utters a single line: 'Would you hold still, please.. It’s a rare admission - a sociopath saying the word ‘please’ but in the context of ‘please stay still so I can kill you.’ It lends meaning to the scene and to the character, and it’s a brilliant and unforgettable line.

It’s not a steadfast rule that the character intro have a great line, but it helps. And it should not be forced, it should organically stem from all that has transpired. But give a great line and it becomes a great sell of that character to an actor - there is no actor on the planet who wouldn’t want that “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn” moment. If not in the intro, your script should have a line that rings out, found in the emotional peaks of the screenplay.

The Description. No A-list actor ever took a role because of the type of pants they were wearing, unless, of course those pants were on fire and they were running through a paint factory. So many screenplays get bogged down in describing how a character looks - some going to the point of describing a specific actor in want of wooing them - and this is time and space wasted. If we are going to describe a character, pick the elements of them that make them distinguishing and speaks to their motives and meaning. Anton Chigurh’s haircut is interesting, but in the reading of a screenplay it has nothing to do with his character, and the Coens make no mention at all to Chigurh’s physical traits other than “his dark hair disappearing into the seat of the squad car.”

P.T. Anderson’s script for There Will Be Blood doesn’t contain any description of Plainview either. Reading the script we don’t really have an idea of what this man looks like, but by the end of the opening we know who he is and the type of man he might be. That’s far more powerful. There are no physical descriptions of him that would help me understand that better - does mentioning that he wears Jodhpur boots say anything about him? Probably not. But imagine if P.T. Anderson, in an alternate universe, described Plainview as wearing beaten denim overalls, with a peek of women’s underwear showing above Plainview’s beltline. Now we’re getting into memorable and meaningful description. That detail says something about the character, about something to expect in the future. Use these descriptive elements wisely and sparingly, and in doing so they become incredibly powerful.

In researching this post I did read the screenplays for There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, and if I were an actor I’d be beating down the filmmaker’s doors to play these characters. They are interesting, powerful, and they command our attention from the very first frame they are there. They challenge us and themselves.

Also apparent is that neither Anderson or the Coens held anything back in introducing their characters. They went all out and gave us their very best upfront, and sustained it throughout. Your character introduction is not the place to show restraint - it’s said that an audience decides whether or not to emotionally invest into a film within the first ten minutes, so make those ten minutes count and give them a character / situation that will punch them in the gut. A character looking out the window and contemplating life in the opening scene is boring and unengaging. A character looking out the window and contemplating life - sitting naked, covered in blood and listening to Phil Collins is something I won’t forget.

And equally important is how your main characters end. The ending of each character should express exactly who they are, and it should take them to the next level. Again with Plainview - he clubs Eli to death with a bowling pin, throws his hands in the air, and utters “I’m finished” with sardonic satisfaction. He is his own worst enemy, but always in control. He’s taken himself to the next level of depravity. Anton Chigurh walks away from a heinous car accident - bone protruding from his arm - still ready to carry on with his business. It takes Chigurh from being a mortal killer to an immortal killing god. He’s almost indestructible, and he might not be of this planet.

In doing these exercises you not only put the best possible advertisement for an A-list actor to love your script, but you also make your script so much better overall. Screenplays are extremely complex mechanisms that have correlating parts that feed into one another, and a script is only as strong as its weakest element. Improve one element and it will expose the weakness in another. Correct that element and an imbalance is revealed elsewhere. Keep doing this until your screenplay achieves harmony, and when it reaches harmony, it will simply sing off the page. It will read briskly. And that’s exactly what we want - not only for a great screenplay, but for an amazing film!

Process of an Improvised Short Film.

So last week there was a moment of inspiration. Before Ebertfest, Prashant Barghava (friend and director of Patang) and I talked about how his father, Vijay, had been taking acting classes for two years and how cool it would be to make a short film with his dad. We had an opportunity present itself - for Ebertfest, two of Patang's actors, Seema Biswas and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, came into town and were staying with the Bhargavas. Additionally, another fine actor and good friend, Samrat Chakrabarti, was in town from New York. It was a confluence of talent that rarely happens - Seema Biswas is considered by many to be India's finest actress and she and Samrat had worked together on Deepa Mehta's upcoming adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight’s Children. Nawaz is one of the hottest young actors in international cinema, with two films premiering at Cannes and a half dozen more releasing in India. So we had to jump on it, and we decided to co-direct a short film in 36 hours.

Problem was, we didn’t have a script. We had tossed around a few ideas but they were pretty large in scale and required multiple locations. By Sunday night we had some vague concepts manifesting, but nothing close to a fully realized film. Plus we had four characters to manage. Things were not looking good, but Prashant and I decided to press on.

I showed up at the Bhargava household on Monday morning. It was a cold and rainy day, which further put a damper on shooting outside or in other locations. I had rented a 5-light ARRI kit and wireless mics from Zacuto Films here in Chi, and we had two Canon DSLRs shooting primes simultaneously, a 24mm prime and the other a 50mm. I mixed the audio on the fly on a Zoom HD recorder.

With nowhere to go, we decided to have our four actors sit in the living room and engage in an activity - we had them play a game of Jenga, and just had them talk to one another about some real-life worries or troubles that had happened recently. Every once in a while, Samrat would interject one of the vague concepts we had into the conversation, and we’d see where it would go with improvisation. And we just recorded like that for a few hours.


Seema Biswas.

Something really magical happened in those two hours. A lot of real emotion and feeling came to the surface, and we captured some incredibly raw moments. But we still didn’t have a story. We took a break and started talking about some of the key moments in the conversation that rang true or created uncomfortable moments. Through that conversation we had some lynchpins to work on, specifically the relationship between the characters, and we investigated them in a new location - the backyard - and tried to test them out through improvisation. It started to ring true, but we still lacked a narrative. We called it a night and slept on what we recorded.

Tuesday morning we all convened and talked about ideas, and a plot emerged from the actors each talking about how they felt and where they wanted to go with their characters. We managed to construct the most important thing we needed to move on - an objective for each character. We constructed some new scenes and then improvised for the rest of the day, building on the individual objectives until we reached a conclusion.


Nawazuddin Siddiqui (foreground) and Vijay Bhargava.

As most of you know, I’m a highly precise filmmaker, and to go into a film project without a script or concept is a pure nightmare scenario for me. It’s like showing up for an exam without studying for a single minute, and you don’t even have a crib sheet. Prashant is a little more versed in this style of improvised shooting, but he too made Patang with a complete script and almost three years of research behind him. So we were pretty much flying blind on this, and we placed our trust in our extremely talented actors and let them write the story with us, crafting dialogues, movement and plot twists from a purely reactionary standpoint. It was tense but extremely fascinating, and to watch four actors riff off one another and build, to have digital cameras that can record for hours and allow us all to make mistakes and just keep mucking around until we hit a real nerve is an amazing experience.

We ended the film by filming the climax in a car along Lake Shore Drive on the south side of Chicago. I lit the car with a small battery powered LED light with blue gels and Prashant and I filmed from the back seat while Samrat and Nawaz drove, talking about the events that happened before. Both actors fed off one another, and let the conversation take them into some really weird and unexpected places, exploding into moments of violence and following it with a lot of eerie silences. It was really fucking weird, and somewhere in that exchange, we found our final frame, a natural and truthful conclusion that felt real and unforced.


Samrat Chakrabarti improvising on two cameras, 24mm(L) and 50mm(R).

What a weird fucking movie we’ve shot. We had no idea where it was going but it found its own rhythm, its own voice and its own path simply because we were all collectively open to the truth of the moment, and we followed it accordingly. The truth can be an amazing guide, and when you follow it, it can take you to some very unexpected places. In these cases sometimes the best direction is very little directing at all, and simply imparting trust in one another.

We shot hours of footage that will now have to be edited down to about seven or eight minutes, and we’ll go on another wild journey of discovery in the edit. Can’t wait to see where this goes!

Going Anamorphic.

Making a film is never so easy as just placing a camera in front of an actor and having them say lines. I wish it were that simple. Film is such an intermingled web of forces that it’s damn near impossible to make one decision that doesn’t affect everything else. It’s one of those things as a director that can make your head explode, and I keep a little Moleskine book in my pocket just to keep track of the ripple effect of my decisions.

I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about. A few posts ago I mentioned that we were shooting on a RED camera with Master Prime lenses, which will give us one specific kind of image. When we were working out the camera package, we came across an available set of Elite prime anamorphic lenses, which would give us the kind of vast, open and panoramic vistas seen in some of my favorite films like Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Kurosawa’s Ran. After mulling on it for a few days, we decided, for better or worse, to go anamorphic on the film. It will look absolutely stunning.

One would think that this decision doesn’t affect much of anything, but it actually affects just about everything in the film. When you go anamorphic you’re opening up your lateral frame to it’s widest aspect ratio - the slimmest letterbox - and you’re revealing far more information on the screen. In fact you’ll see just about everything.

No biggie, right? Wrong. More information on the screen means there’s more to light, which means you’ll need more lights to set up, which means you’re pushing your grip and electric team to get more done in the same amount of allotted time. More space on the screen also means that’s more area that the art department has to dress, which means they’ll need more props and the set dressers will also be required to get more done in the same amount of time.

Anamorphic lenses are humongous and heavy, and they require more room to operate, so it affects my locations and how I will shoot in them. Because the size of the camera rig with an anamorphic lens, I’ll lose about an additional 15-20% of space behind me to accommodate the rig.

So then, you may ask, why even bother going anamorphic? Because it is simply the most stunning image a film can produce. It is epic filmmaking, the widest frame possible, and given the expansive locations, the impeccable quality of our art department, and beauty of the actors we have, a film like Lilith deserves only the best. You have to calculate how much you compromise on one end and see how much you gain on the other. In my estimation it’s flat out worth it.

Plus I grew up on the films of Akira Kurosawa, who is in my humble opinion the greatest widescreen filmmaker of all time. Kurosawa set the Tohoscope (the Japanese equivalent of Cinemascope) frame as a stage for his actors to freely move around within, and he would masterfully break up the long horizontal frame into levels and quadrants, creating a frame of unparalleled depth. I’m drawing upon my favorite Kurosawa film, High and Low for my reference to widescreen use in Lilith, and it has been an invaluable source of inspiration and guidance.

I know in my heart that we made the right decision, and Lilith will benefit all for it. It will look simply stunning.

Casting Process.

I think auditions are unfair to actors. It doesn’t make sense for me to have someone read lines from a script where they have no context, no direction, or no background on the character. So many actors try to knock it out of the park during the audition, trying to deliver an Oscar-winning performance. It is often forced and uninformed, and it’s impossible to expect an actor to “nail it” in an audition.

But in many regards it is a necessary evil, and for some parts (smaller supporting roles) it makes sense to do an audition within a greater casting call.

But for my leads, I never make them do an audition. Instead I just sit down and talk with them. Generally not about the film, but about life in general. At minimum I like to spend about a half hour with each candidate, and we sit and figure out what makes us tick. That’s what I want to know from an actor, which is what personal anecdotes, stories and experiences they are bringing to the table. These are the things that they can draw upon to bring out the veracity of their performance.

While in the interview, I listen to the timbre of their voice, look at their body language, and see how much they open up to me. I don’t expect everyone to spill every intimate detail of their life dysfunctions, but I do like it when actors tell me their experiences. After talking we’ll discuss the story of the film and the character, and I generally ask them for their immediate thoughts.

There are no right or wrong answers in an interview of this nature, but what counts is the attempt. It let’s me know that an actor is really thinking and processing the character, and they’re being honest and earnest in their effort.

I might know at that moment that the actor is right for the part, or I may do a callback. Even at the callback I don’t have them do lines, but rather we do acting exercises that are focused on determining the emotional and physical range of the actor. We’ll talk more, shake hands, and call it a day. And generally by then I’ll have made my decision.

Casting is a brutal process, for directors but especially for actors. It may seem that we’re making actors jump through hoops to get a part, but one has to put it in perspective. This is the person (or people) who will give life to your words, whom the audiences connect to, who are the face of the film. If they are not strong and interesting, then the movie has failed. So it has to be a thorough process, and no stone must be left unturned. Once the decision to cast someone has been made, I’ll be putting my entire film in their hands. It’s a lot of responsibility, and I want to make sure that I have the right person to do it.

Of course there is no such thing as the “perfect” actor for any given part, but certain actors have that “it” factor which just tells you that they’re right. It’s not a science, rather more an intuition. Given the independent nature of the film I’m not burdened with the commercial value of an actor, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want an actor who could help me sell my film. For Lilith I’ve come across some absolutely amazing actresses for the part of Sarah, and it’ll likely be the most difficult and important decision I’ll have to make for the film. It’s giving me sleepless nights.

Fighting a fever after pulling four straight 18-hour days, I think my body is punishing me for kicking it’s ass. Time to rest, and then it’s back to the grind.