Movie Watching: The Obsession

December 12, 2009

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 domovie-reel 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.

Buenos “notches”

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…

For example…

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. 

What’s next?

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.

Birthing Believable Characters

October 27, 2009

The late film director Edward Dmytryk said in his book On Screen Directing that It is desirable that all characters, even those only briefly shown, be presented as whole human beings. Any character worth keeping is worth developing."

While he’s addressing directors here, this bit of wisdom is at least as valuableimage for the screenwriter to consider (which is why you’ll also find this on the Story Characters and Characterization page of my collection of favorite writer quotations).

In fact, even though I direct as much as write, I feel that this perspective on story characters is more important for the writer to take to heart because…

They are your babies, baby!

One often painful reality for screenwriters is the business of what happens to the story after they’ve crafted their vision of it. The collaborative nature of filmmaking often diminishes the holiness of your written words to mere suggestions.  The producer, the studio, the director, the actors, the distributors, and a host of others—who may all want a voice in what the movie should be about, and even how your story should be told—will pull, tug, and rip at the the fabric of your story as they make their mark on the outcome of the movie. If you’re lucky, the spine of your story remains intact.  The rest is up for grabs.

So, if you want the story to remain as close to your original intentions as possible, then consider the significance of Dmytryk’s perspective when birthing your characters, long before the director will be in a position to question whether or not one of your characters is important enough to “keep.”

With that in mind, my plan is to…

Make it real to keep it real

If I create story characters that feel real—fully formed: as multidimensional as you or me—no matter how briefly the story reveals them, then the actor or director is more likely to be inspired to invoke rather fabricate each character’s reality. And this Dmytryk quote inspires me to remember this.

For inspiration by example…

I turn to the 1991 movie The Silence of the Lambs.  Although the powerful portrayals of the main characters is the first thing that likely comes to mind, I ask you to think about the many supporting and bit characters: the victims, the possible witnesses, the agents, the guards. I easily recall how even those shown ever-so-briefly were “presented as whole human beings,” as Dmytryk implores.

For example, when I watch the scene where FBI agent Clarice Starling spends less than 30 seconds at a woman’s doorway, questioning her, I get the distinct impression that this lady is a real woman, not a “day player”—that she has a long and rich personal history, that her universe began long before we see her, and will continue without us once the door is closed.

Silly though, isn’t it? She’s a little bitty slice of fiction, that’s all.

But through the combined talents of the actor and director, the lady at the door, artfully created by novelist Thomas Harris and modified for screen by Ted Tally, has become a real person for us, the viewers. 

As a director I find that inspiring. As a writer, I am also challenged by this to make it a goal in my own stories: to birth characters that, no matter how briefly I present them, will intrigue the reader, drawing them into the apparent reality of each and every character.

What about you?

Any movies you recall whose bit parts drew you in and compelled you to want to know more about them?  Do tell!

Risk and Reward

July 27, 2009

To do anything is to risk failure. To do nothing is to guarantee it.  And so we risk. We’ve hardly begun this initiative, and yet we’ve already made many decisions that have set us upon a course that will at the least affect the next few years of our lives. That much would be true of any feature film production. But, if this movie is just half of what we envision it to be, it will surely make a permanent imprint upon our personal and professional lives. Why? The story.

It’s a very different story we’re telling this time, and it’s one worth telling. Now that producer-actor G. and I have been on this earth for (let’s just say) more than four decades each, and have made several movies, there is not much pride in simply being able to say that we made a movie, or even in saying that we made a movie that made a profit.

By this, please understand that I’m not saying that we have come to underestimate the challenge of moviemaking, nor am I saying that we have lost interest in profitability. I’m saying that the kinds of movies we make and the kind of influences we hope to have on viewers have become primary influences, affecting what movies we choose to make and, I hope, even how we make them, such that they more closely reflect our principles and beliefs. I suspect too that, if we create a movie worth watching with a story that is both compelling and thought-provoking, satisfied investors will be a natural byproduct.

As anyone who has been heavily involved in independent feature-length movie production can tell you, it is inevitably a difficult undertaking, even if exhilarating. Although most of us involved foundationally in this production have had a good deal of independent feature film experience, I suspect we will find this production not only uniquely and thoroughly challenging, but considerably more rewarding than any past endeavor because of the story we are telling, the scope of the production, and the likely reactions we can expect from viewers.

In many ways, the risks and challenges of the process of independent productions are unique. Certainly big-budget studio films have their own challenges, but consider the words of Edward Dmytryk who, in describing the business of feature film directing said, “It’s a hell of a life but not a bad living.” Of course, nearly all of his experience was within the realm of major studio productions.  The first part of his quote — “It’s a hell of a life…” surely applies to independent feature production. But the latter part — “...but it’s not a bad living” — is often not true for the independent filmmaker, as it can also be a difficult way to make a living. 🙂 Because of this, I think one cannot hope to achieve much success in independent feature production unless that person gets their kicks from the process as much as the product.

In making movies, as with all things, I contend that success has less to do with luck than with unbridled determination. To my experience, the great white stallion of success rarely makes its gallant entry until after the mule train of hardship and desperation has been driven hard, and usually uphill. With Liberty in the Fires, will be driving a very different mule train, knowing that we are telling a story that we are excited to tell, which should make the process of creating it all the more satisfying, no matter the difficulties.  

So, yes, to do anything is to risk failure. But, since doing nothing is to guarantee it, we risk. We undertake this great task, motivated by both the exciting challenge of creating a feature-length movie and more so by the story it will tell. Both are worth the risk.