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.
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! :)
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 Initial Action.
The Initial Dialogue.
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 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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
Sundance Institute trained, journeyman molecular biologist with bonus producing, writing, editing and directing skills. Amateur film historian, unapologetic liberal Tarkovskite with fierce cooking skills and a penchant for unusual stories. I hope you like my writing and find it useful.