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.


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.

Making of 7x6x2, Part 4: Co-Directing and the Director’s Responsibilities.


Part 1: The Beginnings.
Part 2: The Monsters.
Part 3: The Machines.

To watch the film in its entirety, click here to go to the Tribeca Film website.

Before I get into more details of how we made 7x6x2, I wanted to discuss a little about the role of the director. One of the most common questions Paul Pope and I got asked about the film was what it was like to co-direct. I think people were interested because individually, we’re both kind of control freaks, we’ve always been in control of our visions from start to finish. So what happens when you put two of those kinds of artists together?

We had immense success as a co-directing entity, and a lot of that success I feel stems from our personalities, but also in that we clearly defined our roles from the outset, and we gave each other input on what we were tasked with.

In order to do this, we had to do two things: address where we would be most useful and productive to each other, and then really break down what it meant to direct. The latter seems almost nonsensical, but it is essential for any director to understand, be they solo or co-directing.

Paul had asked me to come on board as a co-director largely because he’d never directed before, and being the humble giant he is, he wanted to have someone he could trust by his side during the entire process. We’d established our collaborative chemistry during the development of The One Trick Rip-Off, so it seemed the natural choice. Once we sold Tribeca on the idea, we had to figure out who was going to do what. It would be counterproductive to have us do the same work, and having two minds chime in on every single decision would be incredibly inefficient. We had to decide where our strengths lay, and go from there.

Paul is one of the great visualists of our time, his aesthetic has earned him honors and accolades, and he’s been recognized as one of the true masters of his craft. He builds worlds from the ground up, and infuses them with genuine heart and sensitivity. It made absolute sense then that he be in charge of the design of the film - the art direction and production design, costumes and visual effects. We would be remiss if we didn’t build a Paul Pope universe.

Paul’s got a brilliant knack for production details. Check out the Thing’s texting tools.

My strength is creating strong visuals, and doing them very efficiently. I can make something look insanely expensive and beautiful on a pittance and incredibly fast. I would take Paul’s ideas and designs and map them out, block the action and work with our DoP Jesse Green on getting the images and coverage we needed. Paul and I would both collaborate on the performances.

By separating our work, we were able to work brilliantly together. Paul would complete designs with Mike Conte and he’d ask my opinions. I would storyboard the film and consult Paul on angles and movements. We’d make adjustments and discuss our differences in opinion. It worked exceptionally well.

But this was all pre-production, and the crux of our work was understanding what it means to direct a motion picture. I always break down the directing responsibilities into three categories, and this is what I shared with Paul before we got into principal photography. The three responsibilities of directing are:

1) To Hire. A director is only as good as the people around her, and she has to have a keen ability to interview, assess and hire the best collaborators. There are many things to consider when hiring, but the most important thing to assess is chemistry. This applies to both cast and crew.

What is chemistry? Chemistry is a connection that you share with someone, when wavelengths are harmonized and honesty is enabled. It’s when someone intrigues you and makes you want to know more about them, when they bring something to the table that you’ve been dying to discover, and they’re willing to share it. Chemistry is ease of communication, of someone you’re clicking with. As hard as it is to describe, the beauty with chemistry is that you’ll know you have it once you experience it. But in order to get to that point, a good director has to be able to ask the right questions of candidates. A good director finds out what makes her collaborators tick, what makes them scared and what makes them exited. A good director makes challenges for their collaborators and takes notes on how they respond. A good director knows what they want and must be able to determine if their collaborators are willing to work to get there, and if they have the wherewithal to do it.

Paul Pope, Jim Pascoe, Paradox Pollack and producer Gary Krieg (foreground) during a production meeting at Native Films in LA.

2) To Convey. Every director, if they’ve done their homework and put in the work, will have a complete vision for their film. A complete vision is not every minute detail, although many directors (myself included) try to get down every detail as possible in our heads. It really depends on the individual, as some will have a greater holistic vision and others will be far more lucid and detailed. Each end has their particular advantages and pitfalls. Either way, a vision must be had.

But a vision in your head is useless if you’re not able to clearly describe it to your collaborators. I find that directors who are unable to clearly convey what’s going on in their head are the ones who scream and become belligerent. If you see the top kitchens in the best restaurants, you’ll find that the atmosphere is calm, relaxed and efficient. Every chef in the kitchen knows what they need to do, they are fully aware and understand the executive chef’s vision. Ever wonder why Gordon Ramsay shouts so much on Hell’s Kitchen? It’s because his chefs don’t get what he wants. He could easily remedy that (which he does in his own restaurants), but if he did that on tv then it would be the most boring program on Earth. The man doesn’t have multiple Michelin-star restaurants for no reason.

Paul and I had to be exacting and extremely clear with our team as to what we wanted, and we had to put our desires into objectives that not only conveyed what we wanted, but allowed our collaborators to bring their talents to the forefront. This is the difference between directing and micromanaging. A director will ask an actor to reach a place after giving them an actionable objective, a micromanager will act the sequence out for the actor and tell them to exactly replicate it. The latter will always result in uninspired work. You can give examples, you can interact physically, but you can never, ever do their job for them over their shoulders. Fail to communicate clearly and you will build only resentment and contempt, and you will lose control of your show. Clarity is confidence, and you must have conviction behind your words. People will trust you if they feel you know what you’re talking about.

And what if you’re stuck? What if you run out of ideas that work? Then you clearly ask your collaborators. It’s as simple as this: “nah, this doesn’t seem to be working, what do you think?” You’re being honest and clear, and you will get some good ideas in return, some bad ideas, and some things that you can work with to create a solution. That’s collaboration, and it only happens when you are able to clearly and calmly explain what’s going on in your head.

3) To Observe and React. As your vision comes together, you have to be able to take notes and process everything that’s unfolding. Sometimes it’ll go exactly as you envisioned, other times, because the millions of moving parts in making a film, you will get something different. You have to be able to see those shifts, observe them, and react accordingly. Reacting could be making corrective measures or it can be seeing where these changes are taking you. During this entire time you must keep a running log in your head or even on a notepad of how this vision is evolving. You must let your instinct react to these developments, and trust your gut. Sometimes your gut leads you astray, but more times that not your instinct is correct because your instinct is the real you, and you want the real you represented on the screen. If you feel the real you is not being represented, make the changes accordingly, give objectives to your collaborators that will push in those directions, and see what they give you. If the chemistry is right, if the objectives are clear, then you will find that things will appease your instinct or challenge them in beneficial ways because your collaborators trust in you and you trust in them.

Note that all three of these responsibilities apply to every facet of filmmaking, because the director is responsible for every facet of what makes it into the final cut.

Paul and I adhered to these responsibilities religiously, and it not only made our collaboration seamless, it made the shoot fun for all involved. It was brutally hard work but I can say with absolute honesty that I enjoyed every minute of it. Every film should be that way, where even the problems are welcomed as challenges and not as affronts. Filmmaking is nothing but solving problems and creating new solutions, and the more fun you have creating, the more your problems will seem like opportunities do do something crazier.

Directing: John Huston, ‘Fat City’ and Making Lean American Films

It’s amazing how things change over time. I used to hate olives on my pizza, now I think they’re pretty dope. Same thing with pickles on a burger. Growing up in the 80s and 90s I used to think that everything about the 70s was a big joke. The bell bottom pants, the big collars, disco music and boring movies. Yep. I found the movies of that era to be uninspired, bland, and boring. Having grown up on a steady diet of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction, Raging Bull and Blade Runner, stories about people in their natural surroundings dealing with personal issues were just, y’know, kinda boring. The visuals were uninspiring to me, I needed bombast. I was born in the era of the blockbuster and grew up on fantasy. There was no room - or particular need - for reality.

Gif by ghostofcheney.

It’s only until much later when I actually started making movies and studying them for my work that I began to realize that the 70s, in my opinion, was the most productive decade of American art in this country’s young history. Coming off the Vietnam War, racial tensions and a crippling US economy, artists in the 70s used art in its proper function, to serve as a mirror to the human condition, and the condition of humanity at that time was pretty bleak. Artists turned their brushes, guitars and cameras towards themselves, asking the question of where we are going individually and as a part of a greater family of man.

There are always exceptions, and these films, like Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker or the Coens’ No Country for Old Men and Anderson’s There Will Be Blood exemplify classic American filmmaking that has evolved from the fundamentals laid down in the 70s. They are personal films about people, their place in the world and their meaning relative to each other.

Perhaps no filmmaker, for me, embodies this more than John Huston, whose career spanned almost five decades, but who for me reached his peak with Fat City, which he made in 1972. I know that had I seen Fat City fifteen years ago I’d dislike it immensely, as I’d be waiting for something over-the-top to happen, some cataclysmic event that will change the course of history.

None of that happens in Fat City, which is the story of Billy Tully, a down-on-his-luck amateur boxer trying to eke out a life in an economically ravaged small city. Based on the eponymous novel by Leon Gardner, the film lacks any kind of spit-polish or grandeur that we see in today’s American filmmaking. Fat City meanders, it’s threadbare in its script and plot, and it contains no coincidences or accidents. It’s inhabitants are not supermodels and poster boys, in fact there is an elegant grotesqueness to their beaten and weathered bodies. Tully, played with equal fire and restraint by a brilliant Stacy Keach (who I am only recently discovering to be one of the truly great acting talents of all-time), has scars and bruises, his hair a hot mess, and yet there is a rugged charm about him, a man with some principles who has hit rock bottom and is trying to claw his way out to a decent life.

Huston crafts the film with remarkable precision, using a minimal number of beautifully composed shots (lit by the immortal Conrad Hall in a wash of diffusion and a palette of ochres, turquoise and coral) and allowing his actors to roam freely within these tightly-laid confines. It’s a contradiction, but a beautiful one at that, and it lends itself to a very lean and efficient style of filmmaking, one that is, at its core, the very essence of classic American cinema. If we look at the works of Huston, Cassavettes, Coppola and even turning back the clock to the works of Keaton, Chaplin, Mann, Hawkes and Ford, we see this pattern of lean filmmaking - limited shots, meticulously composed, and allowing for exploration through performance. What results is a very muscular style of film, powerful and deceptively elegant, much like an American muscle car.

This is important to acknowledge in moving forward as filmmakers. As we fully begin to embrace digital cinema, our coverage has increased astronomically. It’s not uncommon for filmmakers to emerge from their shoots with 35-40 hours of footage, which is both a blessing and a damnation. With so much coverage, what we’re seeing now is more and more films being made in the edit, where performance is crafted by the knife. The downside to this is an unfocused film, filled with thousands of cuts that perforate its foundation like swiss cheese. Today’s American cinema feels more like a salad than a side of beef, and any kind of muscularity is being provided by an overbearing Hans Zimmer score and CGI explosions. It’s all resolutely fake, and that cannot be sustained.

What we can learn from Huston and the films of the 70s is to go back to composition as place for actors to work within. Even an extravagant film like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is spare in its shots - they are allowed to unfold and establish their might, and even with the alien beauty of the jungle, this is still the story of men and their duties to one another. The film is as strong as an I-beam as a result. A fair amount of credit goes to editor Walter Murch, who took the nightmare of hundreds of hours of footage and maintained the lean ethic.

The goal here is to not convey what type of movies to make, that’s nobody’s purview but your own. What is to be impressed upon however is a thoughtfulness in craft, of maintaining simplicity of conveyance and not overburdening our films with unnecessary chaff. This doesn’t mean to omit details - a look at the films of the 70s reveals an immense attention to detail, but it is all done within a restrained number of shots. We cannot establish cinematic power without allowing the time for it to be established.

The best metaphor I can think of for this is a rocket. To lift itself out of orbit - an act of immense power and muscle - there must be a large, focused and maintained blast of rocket fuel. If a rocket were to pulse its blast in small thrusts, it’s expending the same (if not more) amount of energy, but it will lack the power to take off. Think of your edits and compositions in the same way. Allow power and emotion to develop in composed frames, develop your performances in longer takes, and edit your coverage in the leanest way possible. Allow your actors to breathe, to explore, to feel within a meaningful and thoughtfully designed space.

At the end of Fat City, Huston does something quite remarkable. Tully, at the bottom of his barrel and in the haze of alcohol, gazes about a cafe and sees some men talking in the corner. We don’t know what they’re talking about, and they have nothing to do with Tully. But he fixates on them, and there’s a brief freeze frame on Tully’s face. It’s a resoundingly surreal moment, a shock in a film filled with such gritty realism, akin to Truffaut’s freeze frame at the end of The 400 Blows. This is Huston using the power of cinema to undermine all that he has laid down before in one simple move, and it’s a calculated deconstruction. The mighty, muscular film for the past 100 minutes crumbles in a few seconds of a freeze frame, a mirror of the journey of his protagonist. It’s a beautiful moment, akin to when men of iron show vulnerability, and it is calculated and highly risky. I love this kind of filmmaking, which shows no fear and absolute trust in the audience. It’s an irony that Fat City was a studio film (Columbia Pictures) that would never be made by a studio today. My how times have changed, but the silver lining is that with today’s technology, a film like Fat City can be made with little complication as an ultra low-budget independent film. It has to be planned, thoughtful and efficient, and films like it will thrive because they speak to us on a myriad different levels.

I wring my hands at this latest discovery in my journey as a filmmaker, and am ready to reevaluate my plans for The One Trick Rip-Off, to view it through this prism. It will be difficult going back and retooling what I’ve already established, but if it means my growth as an artist and greater benefit to my art, then it is work worth doing and suffering for. Nobody said this was easy.

Filmmaking Advice: Setting Goals.

It’s been about a month since I last posted, a much-needed sabbatical from writing as I collected my thoughts and dealt with the immense loss and change in my life. During that time I got a lot of letters from readers, many asking if I was okay, many telling me that they miss the posts. A lot of my readership are film students or students just coming out of school, and may of them ask me the same question: what’s the best advice you can give a beginning filmmaker?

I guess the entirety of this blog can be considered an answer to that question, and I’ve responded privately to as many questions as I can, because everyone’s situation differs.

But I have to admit that I don’t know all the answers. My own journey as a filmmaker is relatively young, and it would be a fallacy for me to say that I know everything. I don’t, and I’m still figuring things out as they happen to me. It’s been one of the driving forces of doing this blog in the first place , which was to share my experiences with both aspiring and working filmmakers so that we can all work together towards a few common goals.

And I want to talk about that in detail. Setting goals is important. Very important. Every dime-store self-help book will tell you that. It’s almost become a meme or a t-shirt. It’s too easy to say but exceptionally difficult to follow up on. What often makes them difficult is the scale of the goal and the vague nature of them.

I want to make films, amazing films, for the rest of my life. That’s a goal, no doubt. But when I say something like that, where do I go from there? It’s such a massive and ambiguous goal that there’s no starting point, and the end point is something that is a declaration of the obvious. It’s hollow and lacking in purpose, more of a label than a goal. Of course we all want to make movies, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. That’s a given, a declaration of intent more than a goal.

When it comes to setting goals, there are three very important things to remember:

1) Be specific. Your goal is not to be a filmmaker or make a movie. That’s your objective. Your goals are milestones that will get you to that objective. In order to set specific and realistic milestone goals, you must first understand the milestones that need to be achieved. Which is where blogs like this one or other resources online and in print are your best friend. Develop your filmmaking literacy and education, and ingrain in your brain all the necessary steps, in vivid detail, that are needed to make a film.

This is the best time to be humble about your abilities. Rather than set a goal of “Write a screenplay,” which again is a vague objective and not a goal, instead assess your abilities and set goals that will empower you to write a great screenplay. Writing consistently begets greater writing, so set a goal to write five pages a day, everyday, for the next two years. Understand that your writing doesn’t even need to be germane to your film career, you just need to write. Set smaller goals to improve your writing, such as taking a class and refreshing your grammar skills. Set a goal to read 20 books a year and facilitate this by joining a reading group that will force you to stick to your goal. Before I got derailed by my emotional personal losses this year, I was doing pretty well with my New Year’s resolution to watch three films a week, and by forcing myself to write about the films each week, i made sure I did it.

Filmmaking is a series of highly detailed and labor intensive steps - more so than a majority of professions - and to engage in it with little to no knowledge is asking for confusion and stasis. Being a great director doesn’t mean being good at one thing, you have to be the best at everything. That’s a bold statement but it’s what I believe, and my goals are built around that statement. I’m constantly in the process of learning and refining, relearning and recalibrating, and I set specific goals to facilitate those objective. I take night classes at my local universities and libraries. I take online courses. I read the newest film books and even revised editions of classic books. I’m a student all the time. When I keep gathering information, my path reveals itself.

In this past year I’ve learned so much about film finance and the business of film that it’s changed how I approach my pitches and business plans. It gives me direction and daily objectives, and there isn’t a single day where I have no idea what I’m going to do today. Ten years ago I had plenty of days where I had no idea what I was going to do - I’d set a goal to write a screenplay and instead I spent most of the day watching television, surfing the web, and waiting for some kind of miracle to happen. I wasn’t working toward anything because I literally had no idea where to start or how to get there. Be specific with your goals and you’ll create daily work, work that will get you to your larger objectives.

2) Give your goals a date. I can say “I’m going to write a screenplay,” and that could take anywhere from a week to five hundred weeks. It’s an open-ended goal, and because it lacks a clear start and finish date, it has no sense of urgency or initiative. Give your goals specific dates. Take a grammar class on January 4th through March 4th. Write your treatment, which needs to be completed by April 1st. Your first draft needs to be completed by June 1st. Buy a paper planner - not your iPhone - and write all your dates down. It has to be something you can see, every day, in front of your face.

Putting dates in front of your goals translates them from mere dreams into actionable ideas. The importance of this cannot be understated. Without a date you will be meandering, and all of our propensity to get lost or distracted will be enabled in full force. Setting dates is the core of establishing your discipline, which leads into the final point-

3) Set a routine. Paul Pope sent me a text a few weeks ago telling me about Jean-Paul Sartre’s daily routine. According to Paul, Sartre’s diet over 24 hours included “two packs of cigarettes and several pipes of of black tobacco, more than a quart of alcohol, 200 grams of amphetamines, 15 grams of aspirin, several grams of barbiturates, plus coffee, tea, and rich meals.” I responded stating “no wonder he was existential!”

Nerd humor aside, Paul and I addressed our need to create more rigid daily routines. Of course none of it involves mind-altering narcotics, but it means we need to set daily goals that need to be achieved consistently for the rest of our lives. This includes waking up early (or earlier), eating three healthy square meals, exercise, starting our creative work by a specific time, and working until closing time. I have to admit this is easier to write than do, and I’m still working on it. But it helps so very much in keeping with our long term goals. It’s basically organizing our day to achieve whatever we want. It’s difficult to do specific tasks when you have no order and your life is a shambolic mess. Straighten things out, get into a daily routine to start your day and maintain your workflow, and you’ll find that you can be immensely productive in executing your goals. Clutter is your enemy. Not saying you can always avoid clutter - it happens to all of us - but do everything in your power to create order and organization in your life. The key to that is your daily routine.

The misnomer of adhering to a daily routine is that it makes your life boring and predicable. Far from it, just ask the ghost of Sartre. You’re simply taking a few hours to prepare yourself for daily exploration, and to go into the great unknown without any preparation is a guaranteed recipe for disaster. Prepare, prepare, prepare. It doesn’t mean be a perfectionist, because as Michael Mann famously stated, perfectionism is the inability to differentiate between what is important and what is trivial. Don’t sweat the small stuff, but stick to your routine. Your routine will allow you to get to the small stuff in a manner that won’t drive you to insanity. And when you’re doing that, you’re making your goals into reality.

This is a lot to chew on, and what it requires most is your commitment. There’s no amount of preaching or teaching that will make you get up and do all of the aforementioned. That has to come from you, and you alone. You can’t become a filmmaker if you don’t do the work it requires, and that applies to just about anything. Life doesn’t come to you, you have to go and make it happen. Fail to do that and you won’t even make it out of bed. Show no effort and your friends and family will continue to question your career choice. Show no initiative and you’ll be letting yourself down. Be more than just talk, show your efforts through action. Actively work, push yourself, discipline yourself, and immerse yourself in the greatest and more fun, fulfilling profession in the history of the world. There is no greater privilege than being a working artist, and it is a title earned through back-breaking work and commitment. Set your goals, work towards them, and once you achieve them reset your goals to even higher and grander scales. There is no limit to your ambition, but you must walk before you run!

Dreamers of Decadence


An Ambassador for Laing

Played 59 times

Music for the Weekend: Dreamers of Decadence by Dalhouse.

Sorry for the lack of posts recently, it’s been an insanely busy time. Came back from Canada and New York with tons of business, and now the real hard work starts, which is the follow-up and number crunching on soft money and revenue streams. I know. It’s the sexiest part of being a filmmaker.

But not as sexy as a mini donut. Mmmm. Mini donut.

Also got some interesting offers to direct some features, stuff that’s pretty cool. Gotta sit down with the scripts this weekend and really think about it. It’s an interesting time where people are asking me to direct, and I’m not having to go door-to-door. I’m not complaining at all, it’s more that after eleven years in this business, it’s a new feeling. Hence the track I chose this week, its title and aura are apt. Surreal and a little unsettling.

But this is all just baby steps in the marathon of my career. I’ve got such a long way to go - and so much more to learn - before I really start hitting my stride. There’s really no such thing as being a veteran filmmaker, each new project brings us back to a blank slate, staring at the summit from base camp below. If we choose our work wisely then we will be presented with new challenges that will force us to learn our craft anew, and that’s both incredibly daunting and insanely exciting. That’s how we make progress, how we evolve. I don’t want to spin my wheels and make twenty different versions of Lilith. Every film should be an evolution, a series of experiments that lead to somewhere uncharted. Even if the material is pedestrian, and it’s just work for a living, make it interesting within the parameters you have. Try something different, explore areas you’re afraid to venture in. Being bold is scary as hell but it’ll also make your work stand out from the crowd. I’ve taken tons of risks - many successful, many unsuccessful - and that’s likely the reason why I’m having interesting work show up. It also doesn’t mean I stop developing my own work, in fact it means I should push my own work that much more because I’m reaffirmed that there are people and companies out there who are very interested in what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.

I work back-breakingly hard and I won’t lie that luck plays a role in things. But luck is simply when hard work and opportunity meet, and being in the right place at the right time takes a lot of effort. Eleven years of it.

Have a great weekend!

2013 Resolution: Movies Watched This Week (8.26.13)

After a month-and-a-half hiatus, I’m continuing with my resolution to watch more movies, here’s what I took in this past week:

Elysium, dir. by Neil Blomkamp, USA, 2013.

This was one of my most anticipated films of 2013. I was a huge fan of Blomkamp’s District 9 and his earlier Halo shorts, which were nothing short of remarkable. Blomkamp is one of the driving forces behind my world building in my next feature, Paul Pope’s The One Trick Rip-Off, and we keep going back to him as a reference.

Elysium is as impressive as ever from a sci-fi world standpoint, its details are remarkable and deftly realized. The production design is ace, but unfortunately that’s about all the film has going for it. This despite Blomkamp’s obvious visual talents and Matt Damon’s earnestness.

Where to begin with this mess of a film? Well let’s start with just that - it’s messy and sloppy. Feels like it was edited by a 6-year old on an iPhone, and the ADR on Jodie Foster’s wonky accent takes something that was already bad to downright appalling. Foster - who is likely one of the greatest actresses of her generation - totally phones it in with a lazy, one-note performance. The only time we see any depth in her character is in the seconds before she dies, and that too is contrite and boring.

I also don’t understand the casting of Alice Braga in this or any other Hollywood film. I just don’t think she’s got what it takes to carry big budget films. She was a revelation in City of God and set the screen on fire in Lower City, but her ventures into Hollywood have been flat and uninspired. I can’t put my finger on it, but for some reason I just don’t buy her in any of her roles. Could be just me.

But as is the case with most current sci-fi, the film fails at the script level. An inane story is further dragged down by silly dialogue and a complete disregard for any common sense. Technologies are provided that literally act as god machines, easy fixes that have zero credibility. In one sequence, a completely incomprehensible Sharlto Copley gets his face blown off and in a completely stupid leap-of-faith gets his entire face reconstructed within seconds. Sure it’s sci-fi, but any science within that universe must be rationalized. In Elysium, it’s all effect and zero plausibility.

The fault of all this lies squarely on the shoulders of Blomkamp, who also wrote the screenplay. It’s so overwrought with social metaphors and cloying left-wing politics (and I say this as a bleeding heart liberal myself) that it comes off more as a political parody than social critique, a lefty version of Atlas Shrugged. Ouch. Can’t believe I just wrote that, but it’s very, very hard for me to like this film. There’s very little going for it other than pretty visuals.

Murder on the Orient Express, dir. by Sidney Lumet, United Kingdom, 1974.

Hercule Poirot is one of literature’s truly wonderful characters - uptight, snooty, wholly inappropriate and a complete badass. Albert Finney’s version of Agatha Christie’s intrepid inspector is one of the all-time great screen characters, and bolstered by Paul Dehn’s Academy Award-winning screenplay and Sidney Lumet’s impeccable direction.

This is classic Lumet and movie that would never be made today because it is loaded with dialogue and balances a small army of characters with equal aplomb. Poirot digs and pokes and prods each suspect of an overnight murder on a stranded train, using humor and Gallic charm to piece together the evidence. Features an all-century cast with Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, and a lethally radiant pair of femme fatales in Jacqueline Bissett and Vanessa Redgrave, this is a pure treat of performance and impeccable direction. The ending is shocking and morally ambiguous, which makes it all the more memorable. We just don’t see movies like this anymore. Sad.

TRON: Uprising, dir. by Charlie Bean, USA, 2012.

Joesph Kozinski’s TRON: Legacy was a visually stunning letdown. It’s improved over repeat viewings but there was just something missing from it, and after seeing Disney’s otherworldly animated series TRON: Uprising I finally realized what that missing factor was: edge.

Kozinski’s film, like his Oblivion is simply too smooth, too slick, and as a result it reads as mechanical and cold. What the original TRON captured - and what the animated series has recaptured - is a hard cyberpunk edge that infuses heart and blood into a cold, mechanical world. This visually stunning animated series is one of the very best things I’ve seen in a long time, cartoon or live action feature combined. And that’s not hyperbole, it’s just that fucking good. Superb voice acting, hyper-stylized animation, impeccable sound design and amazingly solid writing all contribute to what science fiction should be in our age of visual technology, and TRON: Uprising is just firing on all cylinders. It’s violent, sexy, thought-provoking and amazingly executed. Definitely flying under the radar and undeservedly so, this is sci-fi at its very best. Seek it out, support it, and make sure it doesn’t get cancelled.


June 6, 2013 - The Invisible War, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Fast & Furious 6.

May 26, 2013 - Upstream Color, Star Trek: Into Darkness.

April 21, 2013 - Through the Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum), The Art of the Steal, Repo Man

April 4-14, 2013 - Gate of Hell, White Mane, The Holy Mountain, Scenes From a Marriage, Homeland

March 31, 2013 - Room 237, Strange Circus, The Darkest Hour.

March 24, 2013 - Spring Breakers, The World According to Dick Cheney, Hope Springs.

March 17, 2013 - The Loved Ones, Pink Ribbons Inc., The Seducers.

March 10, 2013 - The Master, Sound City, Perks of Being a Wallflower

March 3, 2013 - Holiday, L’Enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot, The Woman in Black, Savages, Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles

February 17, 2013 - Les Miserables, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste; Galaxie 500 1979-1991,

February 10, 2013 - La Marge (The Margin), The FP, Kill Bill V2

February 3, 2013 - The Night Porter, Gantz, Bitten

January 26, 2013 - Eames: The Architect & The Painter, Luck By Chance, School of Rock

January 19, 2013 - Silver Linings Playbook, We Are Legion, Zero Dark Thirty


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!

Mistakes Directors Make, Part 3563: The Laziness.

A full admission before going into this post - I make, and continue to make - a lot of these gaffes. Sometimes it just happens. There’s a lot of spinning plates when it comes to directing a film and things get unraveled from time to time. Happens to the best of us. Even Spielberg. Or maybe not Spielberg. Fuck Spielberg. Whatever.

But the point is that in order to make any progress with your craft, you have to be humble enough to acknowledge your mistakes so that you may identify patterns and make corrections. It’s important to be humble and honest in your assessment.

And another thing to acknowledge - and this is a hard one for anyone - is that we tend to get lazy. Except me. I work really fucking hard. Okay maybe not that hard. But really hard. Sometimes. Most of the time.

See how hard this is to admit? I do work really fucking hard but there are moments when I look in the mirror and turn away in shame, because I know deep in my heart that I should’ve spent that time breaking down that one scene in my script into objectives, and instead I watched an old episode of The West Wing on Netflix. On location I’m scrambling to get it all down on paper when there are a billion other things going on, when I could have just have easily done it a week before. I was lazy. Hand up. Sigh. Color me guilty.

But I got it done. Like a fucking champ.

Fuck yeah motherfucker. Unnngh!

But my omission doesn’t mean I’m a slacker. Far from it. For a 22-minute pilot I accumulated almost three hundred pages of preparation, including full storyboards, script breakdown, character notes, department dossiers and story research. I did my work, and then some. I just know I could have done more - that one fucking scene - and my soul is restless because of it. Atonement for sins await on my next project.

Which leads me to my observations on sets, both of my own and for other filmmakers. Sometimes when I see these lazy mistakes being made on set I want to scream aloud, but it’s not my place to step on another director’s toes. I know I’d hate it someone did that to me on my set, but then again that’s why I make these observations, so that I don’t give myself the opportunity to look like a total lazy fucking tool.

Laziness is covered by a single blank statement which I must have heard from at least a dozen aspiring directors:

Trust Me, The Film is Completely Formed in My Head. Of course it is, grasshopper. Every director has a completed film playing in their brain, right? Wrong. What I come across is that many directors have just a handful of scenes that are fiercely realized in their head, and when it comes to filming those sequences, they are slick as snot and able to hammer it out. But then there’s that other 95% of a film to be shot around those scenes, and this is where a lot of directors stumble. It may seem mundane to visualize a basic Over-The-Shoulder conversation between two actors, but if you don’t do that homework, that’s exactly what it will become: mundane. Boring. Amateur.

Every shot of your film must have your signature on it - it’s what will get you noticed, make you stand out from the crowd, and get you consistent work - and that might be apparent in your brain, but if you don’t have it on paper, then you don’t have it. I know, I know. You’ve read that Wong Kar-Wai and Jean-Luc Godard make their masterpieces without a screenplay or any kind of formal planning, and they’ve made some of the most beautiful, authentic and important films in cinema history. But let’s set the record straight on a few things. What often gets lost in the narrative is that Godard and Kar-Wai make their films in the edit, and production has always - consistently - been a fucking nightmare with these guys. But it’s important to acknowledge that it works for them. They are the exception, not the rule. I am not Godard, you are not Wong Kar-Wai. At least not yet, not until you’ve become such an instinctual filmmaker that you can work off the cuff. Few people can. Not even Spielberg. Or maybe Spielberg. Whatever. Fuck Spielberg.

Preparation is the absolute key to directing, because if there is a paramount thing that a director must provide, it is clarity. If your cast and crew have no fucking clue what it is you want, then your production will be going in nine thousand different directions, and it’ll turn into a clusterfuck from the very first shot. We don’t want that. Sometimes it happens, but make sure it happens for reasons outside of your control. As long as you are the master of all things in your control, you are the director of the ship.

Note that clarity doesn’t have to mean obsessive detail. That can be sterile and robotic, and your film will be bereft of any kind of soul. Clarity simply means actionable directions, things people can actually work with. If you tell an actor “I need you to be more angry with him,” you’re not giving them any kind of actionable direction. Chances are your actor will respond by making their voice louder and adding physical histrionics. Then it starts to become pantomime and everything will lose its authenticity and heart. You need to give your actors an objective, something they can act upon or react to. Giving direction such as “Your goal is to eventually rip this guy’s heart out - with your teeth” is giving your actor an image to work on, it gives physical objectives, he might push his adversary or claw at his breast pocket. He might bear his teeth like a wolf. Who knows what’ll happen, but it’ll definitely be more interesting and authentic. Take what your actor gives you and sculpt it from there.

But how did I come up with that image of ripping a guy’s heart our with your teeth in the first place? From my preparation. Long before the shoot and during rehearsals I would have made notes on my screenplay of the objectives of each line, scene, act and overall story. I’ll have put simple objectives like “To Seduce” “To Rile Up” “To Provoke” “To Explain” etc by each line of dialogue and action, and then in consecutive rounds I’ll think of images to effectively convey those objectives. I’ll do this for the entire screenplay.

That is, unless I’m watching a rerun of The West Wing. Damn you, Aaron Sorkin, why must you be so compelling!?!

This preparation, including storyboards, blocking and all the other details of each department, takes a lot of fucking work. But if you want to be the best at what you do, there’s no way around it. Do the work. Create shit. Make it unique and interesting. DON’T BE LAZY. Spielberg isn’t lazy. Whatever. Fuck Spielberg.

My vitriol is reserved for that ending of ‘A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.’ Otherwise he’s pretty fucking brilliant. Or sort of brilliant. Kinda. Whatever. Fuck him.

filmanddonuts ASKED:

Hi Sridhar. I watched your director's reel and I really enjoyed it. I'm planning on putting together my own reel in a few months and I've shot comedies, dramas and some behind the scenes work over the last year or two. Would you suggest doing shorter, separate reels or doing a reel that featured the best of my work, regardless of genre?

It’s a really great question, the answer to which I’m still trying to figure out.

After several variations, I cut three different versions of my reel - the one you see now (see below), one that featured performances only, and another that had a mix of both. It was tough deciding what I wanted to feature - my visuals, my performances, or all the above.

After some thinking I took the stance that we work in a visual medium, and first and foremost I want to grab the attention of any prospective clients/ agents through my visuals. I chose specific visuals that had performance undertones and mixed them in with pure imagery.

You have something in your resume which speaks to the contrary, which is that you’ve shot comedy. Comedy is primarily about timing, and unless you shot slapstick/ physical comedy, you can’t convey timing in a visuals-only reel. It’s a little easier to get a dramatic piece across in that you can highlight peaks of intensity, which despite being only a single facet of dramatic performance, is what most people tend to associate with drama and good acting. (Note that in the clips selected to highlight Best Performances at the Oscars, the academy always chooses the parts where people are either crying our shouting. It’s easy for people to digest that “hey, that must be good acting, they’re shouting!” We all know that the greatest acting is in the quieter moments, where the boiling happens underneath the skin. Which is why Daniel Day-Lewis wins everything.)

In my opinion (and there’s no right or wrong answer to this), I would suggest first making two reels - one for your visuals and the second for your comedy/ drama. Then try merging the two and see if it works. It becomes challenging in that you’ll have to find music and pacing that mixes all the genres that you’ve worked in. I’ve seen some reels that use a stop/start mechanism, where they’ll start out with a clip of dialogue, cut to a visual montage with music, then back to a dramatic/ comedy piece, and then end it with another visual montage with either the same or a different piece of music. This might be something worth looking into.

But here’s one very important thing to remember. When promoting ourselves, it’s important to edit. Whether it be a reel or a resume, we don’t need to put everything we ever did out there. People have short attention spans, and they’re wired to shut you out at any given opportunity. It’s just how we’re designed, as it’s a survival instinct that resides in our animal brain. If it’s not worth our time, we must conserve our energy and resources for something that is.

Choose material that is going to impress. It’s quality, not quantity. I’d rather have one minute of amazing material than six minutes of average. On a resume I’d rather see that someone directed an acclaimed short that got into good festivals, than fifty-two videos that were “distributed” on YouTube.

To quote Jerry Maguire, “we live in a cynical world. A cynical world. And we work in a business of tough competitors.” There’s a lot of competition, a lot of it very good. I watch videos on Vimeo and am consistently astounded by the quality of filmmaking talent out there. It’s too easy to get intimidated and feel like we have to put it all out there or else someone will think we’re not productive. But as an employer in film, I don’t want proficiency without quality. Talent, vision and craft is what matters, and if you’ve only got one minute of 100% quality work, then that’s what I need to see.

Think of a reel as an elevator pitch for your skills. You’ve got only a small window of attention to capture, so bring out your big guns first and impress. Once they like you, you’ll have time to fill in the details later. Which brings me back to your question about your reel. The only caveat that I have about incorporating comedy and drama into your overall reel is that these scenes, and comedy especially, take time to develop and pay off. That is valuable time. Be very judicious in picking your clips, and choose ones that can have a quick payoff with as little setup as possible. Which is why examples of physical comedy work best. If you’re finding that the inclusion of these scenes are killing the pacing of your reel, then I’d suggest breaking your reel into two and presenting them separately, which is what I’ve done for myself. Lead in with the visual reel, and follow up with the performance. If you can combine them effectively, all the better, but don’t force it.

Hope this helps!

My reel.

So after three different versions and grappling with the philosophy of what and what not to show, this is my final 2013 reel.

Besides Lilith there are some real deep cuts in here, including footage from my first feature, 19 Revolutions and a ton of sneak-peek footage from 7x6x2, my collaboration with graphic novelist Paul Pope. Enjoy!

Sridhar Reddy Directing Reel from Sridhar Reddy on Vimeo.