Technique: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Surrealism and André Breton.

When I go on holiday I actually work. I know there are a lot of people who’s idea of a vacation is sitting on a beach all day and doing nothing, and I’ve tried that and it makes me feel restless. I need to be actively learning something, and I find that learning actually recharges and refreshes my mind. Bill Watterson, author of Calvin and Hobbes, famously said that our minds are like car batteries - when it’s dead you have to run the car to recharge it. I wholeheartedly subscribe to it.

On our trip to Paris, my wife and I stopped in at the Centre Pompidou to see the newly-opened Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit, charting his entire life’s photographic work, his philosophy, and his technique. I was excited beyond bounds - HCB’s work has been a driving influence ever since high school, when as a graduation gift my grandfather presented me with a copy of The Decisive Moment. Every cinematographer I’ve worked with can attest that I reference Cartier-Bresson in all of my documents. He and Robert Frank are the two visual pillars upon which all my cinematic references are built.

But truth be told - and almost shamefully - I never formally studied Cartier-Bresson, I just admired his photographs. I never read up about him other than a topical biography and his founding of Magnum, the international collective of photographers. I always reference a single quote by Cartier-Bresson, which I’ve committed to memory, as an ideology to my approach to showing horror and darkness onscreen:

"We aim to make terror beautiful so that it will become unforgettable, so that it will burn into people’s memories, so that they will do something to stop it, if they can. And if they cannot, they will at least understand what terror means.”

And that was the extent of it. So imagine my joy and fevered anticipation upon entering the Pompidou, to learn in depth about this man who so wholly influenced what I do. I came out a new artist, a new thinker, a new man. My approach to cinema, in my future projects, will forever be altered by what I learned in that extensive and exhaustive exhibit, which took over three hours to navigate.

The first major element I learned was that Cartier-Bresson, who was also a trained illustrator and painter, was adherent to the newly-minted Surrealist movement and the writings of poet/ philosopher André Breton. Breton, who in 1924 drafted the first Manifeste du surréalisme, declared surrealism as “pure psychic automatism,” i.e. a means of expressing the subconscious. In automatic drawing, the hand is allowed to move randomly and freely across the paper, where chance plays a large role in the final impression, and therefore the surrealist composition is freed of any kind of rational control. Cartier-Bresson, seeing truth in this, applied this to his photographs in a technique which can be seen across all of his compositions. While the human subjects of his photography tend to carry the emotional impact, the real artistic foundation of his work lay in the backgrounds.

Cartier-Bresson, with his naturally gifted artistic eye, selected backgrounds of high visual interest. Textures, proportions, shapes and natural graphics. He would set up his position in front of that selected background, and simply allow life to unfold in front. Rather than searching for people to photograph, he allowed people to traverse that area and photographed them in what he called the decisive moment - a moment where potential energy initially becomes kinetic. Cartier-Bresson applied the idea of automatism, of letting his subjects be free of rational control, and let them move across his canvas, where he would capture a specific moment. The results are powerful and beautiful, a combination of journalistic veracity, surrealist velocity, and pure aesthetic beauty.

It was an absolutely startling revelation to me, and in the exhibit I started scribbling down in my notebook how I could apply this to cinema. I’d realized I’d already started philosophizing about this method on this blog, when I wrote about John Huston’s film Fat City and making muscular, American films. . In that post I wrote that Huston crafted the film with “remarkable precision, using a minimal number of beautifully composed shots and allowing his actors to roam freely within these tightly-laid confines.” Unknowingly, I recognized that Huston was, essentially, making a film in the way Cartier-Bresson photographed. However recognizing it and doing it are two totally different things, and I want to push the Surrealist vision further by embracing the second important thing I learned from the HCB exhibit, which are the thematic pillars of Surrealism.

Unbeknownst to me, Surrealist compositions have three central themes or focuses. The first is some sort of bondage, with items or people wrapped in fabric, tape, leather, or just about any other material. Cartier-Bresson made extensive use of muslin and transparent, textured materials in both his back and foregrounds, and there is an overriding dark sensuousness towards its use. When fabric or material was not available, he employed the human body.

The second theme is on aberrations of the human form. We see it in the works of Dali, where the human body is stretched, ballooned, fragmented and distorted. Cartier-Bresson, be it through lens selection and exposure or through actual subject matter of bodies shaped by environment, genetics or disease, captured the human form as if a subconscious expression of the inner self. Cartier-Bresson intentionally cropped out body parts, refrained from the full body form, and honed in on bodies to the point of abstraction. He used mannequins, statues and costume to warp our perspectives and proportions.

The third element is the notion of people actively dreaming. In Surrealism this is most often captured by showing people sleeping or with their eyes closed, but as time progressed, Cartier-Bresson expanded the idea of a dream fugue state of being by experimenting with frames within frames, creating three-dimensional objects on a flat plane, and photographing subjects from a higher, omniscient angle. The dream state is altogether bizarre but populated with familiar elements, and in that manner, Cartier-Bresson’s truths are indeed stranger than fiction.

These of course are my observations and are part of a deeper study as Cartier-Bresson continued to evolve, and I do not claim to be an authority on Surrealism or photography for that matter. But when in application to my own art, these are the creative starting points to something that resonates within my own aesthetics and worldview. I’ve longed to capture truth within the surreal and vice versa, and this jaunt into an artist whom I thought I knew exposed my own hubris. There is so much more to learn, and rather being daunted by that, I found it invigorating. I feel like an explorer on the eve of an expedition into dangerous territory, like a soldier armed with a new weapon he’s yet to master, like a kid who thought he knew all about music picking up a guitar for the first time. Cartier-Bresson continues to enrich my life, and I know he will continue to guide me throughout my life and career. A monumental sea change in how I work is afoot.

Screenwriting: The Romantic Comedy, Part 2. Teach Me How to Duckie.

Of course if I knew how to write a smash-bang romantic comedy then I’d probably have done it by now. Truth is that I know what I know about screenwriting and making really interesting stories, and based on part one of this series, I’m not happy with how romantic comedies are being written. With the feedback I’ve received so far, it appears that many of you share my feelings.

What I do know is that there is a tried-and-true formula for writing romantic comedies, and the most successful films do high-concept spins off that formula, and the most banal ones follow it to the letter. We see it everywhere, especially in things like haute comfort food. It’s not just a grilled cheese, it’s got cornichons and hand-smoked bacon and fois gras butter. Tastes great, costs a small fortune, but in the end it’s still a fucking grilled cheese sandwich.

I’m tired of that. I want something different. I want us to discover new ways of having people find their true loves, of having them, and struggling to keep them. There’s the bible of romantic comedies - Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit - which is uniformly excellent and worth reading, regardless if you want to write an romantic comedy or not. The book breaks the genre down into a single, seven-step formula and goes to great lengths to show that pretty much every romantic comedy followed said formula. Mernit’s formula is as follows:

1) The Chemical Equation, i.e. the players in the game and what’s missing in his / her life.

2) The Meet Cute, i.e. the crossroads where the two lives intersect for the first time.

3) The Sexy Complication, i.e. the central conflict that keeps the characters from fulfilling the gaps laid out in Step One. This can be both internal and external factors.

4) The Hook, i.e. the big event that throws these two together and it becomes the point of no return.

5) The Swivel, i.e. a reveal that puts one or both characters’ goals in jeopardy.

6) The Dark Moment, i.e. the consequence of the big reveal, which exposes an inner truth / realization of what actually is missing or what they’re doing right or wrong.

7) The Joyful Defeat, i.e. the acknowledgement that the other half is the key, and the willing sacrifice of something to make it all happen.

Mernit goes into great detail of each but this is a bastardized version in a nutshell, and I can’t really argue with it. Where we often see failures in the genre is when our expectations are never really challenged, and on top of that the formula is laden with really dull, mean characters. So let’s rock the boat and fuck with both tenets.

I’ve gone into great lengths some time ago about writing interesting characters, and it’s worth your while to go back and revisit those posts:

Creating Memorable Characters.

Character Relationships

Once we have those interesting characters, insert them into Mernit’s formula and see what happens. You should have an interesting story at it’s most basic, fundamental level, but what happens when you start to rearrange and reinterpret the stages. What happens if the ‘meet cute’ happens at the very end of the movie? What if it never happens at all? The latter would be a very bold step, i.e. a romantic comedy where the leads never once meet. At least physically. Think of a movie like Spike Jonez’ Her, where technically the lovers never meet. They interact but there’s no physical connection (despite a painfully awkward attempt which is one of the truly great scenes I’ve witnessed). What if the final sacrifice involves saying goodbye forever, a la Roman Holiday? It’s been done before but what makes it so memorable is the lead-up to that moment. A couple that is so perfect for each other and yet the forces of the universe keep it from happening. The ultimate sacrifice is their love itself, which is a very powerful thing. it plays into the notion that there is no such thing as an everlasting love, because the truth is that death will tear us apart at some point. But there is an elemental love, one that exists in ether, one that death cannot touch. It’s a love that is incredibly difficult to fit into the romcom formula, but I feel if we can do that, we will redefine the genre and bring it back to its glory.

Play with the formula by first writing your story to the formula. Then go back and write the exact opposite of the formula’s demands, one section at a time, and see what happens. Defy expectation, take the path less traveled. Most of the time it won’t make sense but if your characters are true, interesting and compelling, they will take you to very interesting places. Trust your characters, and observe how they would react. One of the most important things to remember is something I call the Mamet Rule, which is David Mamet’s central questions regarding characters:

What does the character want? What happens when they don’t get it?

Deny your characters at all phases. See what happens. Give them a little back. See what happens. Take it away. See what happens. The most unconventional of reactions is where the root of your comedy and drama lays.

I keep thinking of the character Duckie from John Hughes’ screenplay for Pretty in Pink. He is memorable to me because he is constantly denied what he wants. He reacts with both spoken and physical comedy, and his journey is quite tragic. He journey strikes a chord in my heart, as the plight of the fool, which universally is something every romantic has in his / her heart. Putting your love out there is an act of borderline humiliation, but we do it anyway because love is irrational. Duckie is a real character and we get to see what happens when he is denied what he wants. It defies the formula because theoretically it is the story of Andie Walsh and Blane McDonough, but in my view it is Duckie’s story, which kind of blows my mind.

We cannot break rules unless we know the rules in the first place. More importantly we have to accept that while there is the notion of classic, romantic love (which is what the formula gives us), modern love has evolved into something very different. Just think - had there been cell phones and email, most of the problems of romantic comedies would be solved. There’s no need to run to the airport. Feelings can be conveyed in an instant. Flash mobs can be posted on YouTube. Courtship has changed, and no matter our desire for things to be the way they were, the reality is that while romance is still about getting lost in love, we have a GPS in our phones to get out of it. Let’s work with the modern notion of love and courtship and craft authentic stories, with authentic characters, that let us connect to our condition. I think a film like Her accomplishes this with tremendous success, as the desire in a technology-ridden world is the desire for actual, physical contact. That desire is tempered by the protective shield that technology gives us, it feeds into our survival instincts of not wanting to get hurt. Play with these notions, put your characters in them and see how they react. You’ll be telling the tale of modern love.

30 Minutes With Pixar.

In the eventuality when I open my studio (What? Didn’t I tell you about that?) my model for production will always be Pixar. I’ve studied the studio for almost ten years since my graduate MBA studies, and most recently The Economist held a wonderful video interview with visionary Pixar Co-Founder Ed Catmull. I’ve posted the interview below, and if you are serious about being a filmmaker, you owe yourself the 30 minutes to listen to the way he thinks and the way Pixar operates.

Pixar is a company that is dedicated to the creation of strikingly original content. Even in its sequels, they manage to present something entirely different and new. At a time when the major studios are at the height of conservatism - just look at the box office, where sequels, adaptations and remakes are ruling - Pixar continues to churn out mind-bendingly original content. And it is the reason why they are successful, because when people go to see a Pixar film, they know they’ll take part in something they’ve never experienced before. That’s a guarantee.

Doing that entails embracing a hell of a lot of risk and uncertainty. I love that in the interview, Catmull declares that the most successful companies operate in a state of uncertainty. This couldn’t be more true, and it applies to filmmaking the most aptly. We have to take calculated risks, if not then we will get lost in the sea of output. Sure, I could make a hack-and-slash teen vampire movie and make some money, but if I really want to stand out, I need to take a risk with the genre. Which is what I’m trying with Lilith. It’s unknown if the film will succeed or fail, but I will always know that we pushed the envelope of what the genre provides, and it’s guaranteed that a film like it has never existed before. It’s got a genuine stamp of originality, and that’s a badge we all can wear with extreme pride.

But here’s the thing: Pixar doesn’t fail. And that’s a tribute to the culture of the organization and the commitment they show to their directors. And as you’ll see in the interview, they take that commitment extremely seriously, because in the end, filmmaking is as much as business as it is an art. I can’t think of a better way to run an organization - any organization - better than what Pixar does. They are a model company, and the scary thing is that they will never rest on their laurels, they are always changing, always trying to improve by taking calculated risks.

Enjoy and learn, as I have.

Dramatic Beats and Breaking Down the Script.

Totally came down with something yesterday, and now I’ve been bedridden for the past 24hrs. Generally happens to me at the change of the seasons, I don’t know why, but it couldn’t have happened at a worse time. There’s a lot of work to be done.

Continuing with story boarding and breaking down the script into actionable beats. For those of you who are unfamiliar with actionable beats, I mentioned them briefly in my older post, but I guess now is as good a time as any to go into further detail.

First things first, a word of advice to anyone who has a desire to direct, and that is to take acting classes. It’s absolutely essential, because it is damn near impossible to communicate with actors when you yourself have never acted. In my many years of being a PA and observing directors, I would occasionally see a director shouting at his actors “more anger, I need more anger!” And this would typically result in the actor raising their voice (because with such vague direction what other choice does an actor have?) and the scene hitting an insincere note. Everyone would leave frustrated.

I made the same mistake on my first feature, and after seeing the performances on screen, I decided that I’m very comfortable with my visual style, but I needed to make a commitment to performance. In film you can have the most beautiful images, but it is the performance that tells the story. Everything else - cinematography, sound design, art direction - all serve to accentuate the performance on the screen.

It is a performing art, but we musn’t forget that we are working in a visual medium, so emphasis must be made on actions, not words. My first feature film 19 Revolutions was so steeped in dialogue that I did a disservice to my actors - I made them act through their mouths and not with their bodies. I read later an article where a filmmaker, I think it was Ken Loach, said that we should approach every movie as if it were a silent film, that if we were to turn off the volume, we should still be able to ascertain what is happening on the screen. Sage advice.

So many years after making my first feature, I bit the bullet and enrolled myself in an acting and improv class at The Second City here in Chicago. It opened my eyes to the art of performance, the beauty of preparation and also letting go, and also the language and tools of the craft.

One thing I learned was to break the script down into actionable beats, using an adverb and a verb at every emotional / dramatic shift within the script. Actionable verbs are essential because they are rooted in action with an objective. For instance, if a man and a woman are in an argument, we first must deduce what each of them wants to accomplish in the scene. And, as David Mamet said, we must also determine how each person will behave if they don’t achieve their objective. The twists and turns inbetween are the dramatic beats of the scene, and each of them has an action (verb) and a corresponding flavor / style (adverb). If the man’s objective is to get off the hook for not paying the heating bill, he might want to make up an excuse to cover up his oversight.

At the initial point of the conversation, he may be very confident in his excuse, telling it with fortitude and confidence. In an actionable beat, we can describe it has “lie” (verb) / “confidently” (adverb). This is an action that can be easily relayed to an actor, and will form the core of the direction of that scene. Everything that I tell the actor from there on out will be towards achieving that one goal, which is to “lie confidently.”

It’s a shitty example and I wish I had the wherewithal to come up with a better scene and a better verb / adverb beat, but it does illustrate that this is the single most difficult job of the director, which is to break down the script into directions. Some directors have the otherworldly talent to come up with dramatic beats on the fly, but truth be told I’m not one of them. At least not yet. The core of my preparation is in this breakdown, and like an actor rehearses her lines, so too will I rehearse my direction, taking notes of different choices I can make, and always, always leaving room for input, collaboration, and what the moment may provide.

Once I’ve broken the script down, and once I’ve finished my casting, I will sit down with my actors and work through these beats. We will most certainly end up changing beats because of what the actor brings to the table, which is personal experience, creative ideas, and elements of backstory that they would have created for the character. Then I will compare these notes with my storyboards, and make sure that the visuals are accomplishing, accentuating and amplifying the same objectives. The same applies for music and sound, for art direction and production design, for costume and makeup, and for every single department of the production (well, maybe not catering).

I’ve largely oversimplified the process, but I hope it gets the idea across. Doing the best I can on a foggy brain.