As you can imagine, watching movies is a uniquely immersive, engrossing experience for a filmmaker. Even when I’m not in the midst of a writing or directing project, every movie is more than mere entertainment; it’s also an opportunity to study, to learn, to grow … either looking at the movies critically (i.e., “What I would do differently is…”) or to admire them (i.e., “Wow, that really worked!”).
Fortunately though, I am still able to turn off the analytical processes of my brain and just participate mentally as an audience member. In fact, I always try to do that on my first viewing—to just enjoy the movie as a viewer. If I cannot “suspend disbelief” and get fully into it for those 90 minutes or so, it’s usually an indication of a flawed movie: an insufficiently engrossing story, overtly flashy directing or lighting or camera choices that draw attention to themselves, weak or unbelievable acting, or other production shortcomings. But if the movie is good, I’m a pure viewer on the first viewing.
Beyond that first viewing though…
If the movie is good, I’ll often watch it several times to see what I can learn from it. What I look for depends on the movie and what I liked about it technically. I might watch it once to observe how the writer structurally crafted the story, and then watch it again to study the dialogue or how the characters interacted and affected the plot or how the writer designed the scene transitions.
If the directing was the magic of the movie, I will watch it repeatedly to observe how the director covered the scene (wide vs. tight, angles, lens choices, camera movement vs. actor movement, etc.) and then to study what they did with the actors (pacing, rhythm, intensity, gestures, props, relative positioning, or character-specific camera choices) or what they chose to do with the scene and production mechanics (lighting, sound, transitional devices, lenses, stage pieces, color, design, mood, etc. ) to help them tell the story in the most engaging, beautiful way.
Movies: the cornerstone of my continuing education program
Since leaving USC’s film production program several eons ago, and between working on professional productions, I have informally continued my filmmaking education, believing that no one has ever “arrived,” so to speak, as a completely learned pupil of screenwriting or directing. After all, the medium continues to evolve as viewer expectations change, as technology evolves, and as creative up-and-coming directors and writers bump up the game to new heights. So my knowledge of the craft must evolve too.
Besides, I figure that any writer or director can up his game by not only deepening his knowledge of those challenging crafts, but also by broadening his knowledge into the related crafts of the business that are so critical to the realization of the writer’s or directors vision, such as lighting, camera, special effects, audio, music, acting, and so forth.
After all, is Clint Eastwood’s directing success not positively influenced by his years of experience working as an actor? Could writer-director James Cameron have ever achieved such grand levels of success with films like Terminator 2, The Abyss, and Titanic were it not for his deep and continuing knowledge of computer graphics? Could screenwriter Diablo Cody have been able to craft such memorable and believable dialogue in Juno without immersion into the patois of today’s teenager?
So, I feel that broadening my knowledge is just an important as deepening it.
My homegrown formula for continuing education:
- Reading books on screenwriting and directing
- Reading the trades (from the entertainment business)
- Reading screenplays (and the books from which they were adapted)
- Acting and studying the art of acting
- Watching and listening to TV and radio interviews with filmmakers
- Watching behind-the-scenes features included with DVD movies
- Attending (or participating behind the scenes in) stage plays
- Discussing and debating the process and techniques of filmmaking with others in the business
And, of course, watching movies. Lots of movies. Tons of movies.
It all works together. I get the most synaptic connections when I intersperse my movie watching with the more formal learning processes of studying the craft. Watching movies without also studying the art and craft of moviemaking limits understanding. Studying the craft without observing its application is just even more limiting. So I do both.
I’ll usually gather my learning around a topic of some sort, which not only keeps the educational process fresh and fun but also measurable. Call it silly (although feel free not to), but I find satisfaction in being able to measure my progress through life, not unlike a beat cop purportedly carves notches in his nightstick. It’s why I make lists (I get great satisfaction in looking back at the close of the day or week to see what I accomplished). It’s why I set goals in writing and then mark off my fulfillment of them. And it’s why I usually study filmmaking by deep-diving into one subject for a period of time before moving on to another. I feel more accomplished, carving these notches into the nightstick of my moviemaking education. Now that we’ve beaten the hell out of that analogy…
I might do a director-focused study. Six months ago, for example, I immersed myself in the writings and movies of legendary filmmaker Edward Dmytryk. He’s written a number of textbooks on filmmaking and directed more than three dozen movies during his two-score career as a director, which had been preceded by decades as an editor, and capped by more than a decade as a filmmaking instructor. He’s worked in and out of the big Hollywood studio system with some of the biggest names in the business, including John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, and Clark Gable. His work spans multiple genres, continents, and eras. He was my instructor at USC for a single class, and it wasn’t enough. So, several years after that class, I took the time, on my own, to go deep in my lessons. I’ve recently watched all the Dmytryk movies I could dig up, finally taking the time to see and understand exactly what he meant when he talked about his preference for Mise-en-scène—for editing without cutting by moving the camera and actors within the moment to do a close-up or wide shot organically, rather than doing multiple camera setups and cutting the scene together in post. It’s one thing to understand the theory, but quite another to personally experience the director’s style through his movies.
And presently, I’m doing a screenwriter deep-dive, studying the work of William Goldman, which includes reading many of his scripts and novels, watching Goldman interviews, reading his books on the craft of screenwriting and selling scripts, and, of course, watching the movies made from his screenplays. This deep-dive has been not only mind-expanding but downright enjoyable. Try reading one of his nonfiction books about screenwriting and you’ll see what I mean. His writing style is absolutely delightful, as engaging as the content. And so many of the movies have become classics: moving comedies, thrillers, and dramas. A real kick. And a real education.
Or, I might choose a movie genre to study for a time. As my Blockbuster movie queue indicates, I’m presently engaged in a heavy round of study in political dramas, since the current screenplay project is one. It’s helpful to know what I’m up against, and to learn from those that have come before by observing and figuring out why certain passages in other political dramas are gripping or confusing or compelling or inspiring or boring. It’s a tricky genre: easy to get sappy or melodramatic. And if it’s based on real-world scenarios or events, it’s also easy to get too detailed in an effort to faithfully render it. So, I’m trying to avoid such pitfall by studying their mistakes and by imitating their successes.
I’m planning to do a deep-dive on the legendary filmmaker Frank Capra, as he is one of my favorites, more for the storytelling and subject matter of his films. Also on my list: the films of Lawrence Kasdan, Charlie Kaufman, and Neil Simon.
When I get a few moments, I’ll post a list of the books I’ve read or plan to read regarding film directing or screenwriting.