Friday, May 13, 2011

How to Make a Movie: Directing


Okay, here’s the deal. I say this all the time, and here I’m going to say it again.

I’m a writer.

I have been paid to write, in multiple mediums.

When I’ve directed, it’s been on an amateur basis.

So all my advice is either stolen, or things that I’ve worked out while working with high school students.

So let me start with two books:

David Mamet: On Directing Film

Robert Rodriguez: Rebel Without a Crew

Why recommend those two books?

Mamet is, by most accounts, not a great director. But he brings his movies in on time and on-budget, and that’s worth something. Plus, unlike the big-name directors, he usually doesn’t have that much money to spend.

He knows how to get it done.

And the way he gets it done is pretty basic. He figures out what’s supposed to happen in a sequence, he breaks it down into a series of shots, and he gets those shots.

The actors, the sets, whatever else, are all window dressing. As near as I can tell, the man is not looking for great acting (though he hires great actors, so maybe that’s moot) or great sets, or whatever else.

He just wants a place to shoot, so he can get his shots. Then he makes everyone create the shots he needs.

I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but the book didn’t tell me what that was. So let’s pretend that’s all there is to it.

“Rebel Without a Crew” says pretty much the same thing, by the way, but it emphasizes that you should try to make your movie look awesome.

Mamet, generally, makes movies that could be stage plays, and generates excitement through drama. Rodriguez gets in his emotional licks here and there, but really, he’s an action director who seems to love finding new and entertaining ways to blow stuff up.

As a teacher, this is what I emphasize:

Get your shots.

My favorite editing advice came via a friend who asked Tim Minear (Angel, Firefly) for tips on directing. Tim said (more-or-less) go watch an editor try to put a movie together, and ask them what’s missing that they could really use.

Taking the reverse of that, the question is always: What’s missing?

So, make sure nothing is missing.

Make sure your script is on-set, even if you’re just there with a couple of friends stealing shots for your indie movie. Bring a highlighter. As you get your shots highlight them. Make sure none of your shots are missing.

When you’ve got your shots, you’re done. Not before that.

You might think, “Oh, I probably don’t need this shot.”

Well, if you thought it was important enough to put in the script, then you need to shoot it. Because a week later, when you realize that you just need, like, an insert shot… the weather will be different. Or a table will be missing.

Or, in the case of my students, the classroom they were shooting in got all-new desks.

Or, in the case of another class I was running, we got moved to a totally different building on our shooting day, and one actor-person was there the first half of the day, and a second actor-person was only there the second half.

Did we make it work? Yep. Because you have to. But with all the things that might go wrong, why shoot yourself in the foot?

Bring your script, shoot what’s in the script. Leave only when you’ve got everything.

I hear a voice crying in the wilderness, asking how to deal with actors.

Well, okay. Remember that script you’ve got? You do? Good.

What you do is, you bring a bunch of people in, and you have them read the script, and if they read it a way that you like, you cast that person.

Then you make sure the person is responsible enough to show up on the days and times you need them.

And if you do your casting right, then you shouldn’t need to do a lot of “directing” your actors. Because they already read the script the way you want them to.

I realize this sounds kind of bland, and the truth is, if you’re a big-name director, or making a movie for a big studio, you’ll probably be able to pick and choose a little more.

But in the small-time world, the smartest thing you can do is cast actors who are doing what you want them to do. Then make sure they do it again on set.

And get your shots.

Finally, a couple of thoughts on how to go about choosing your shots.

If you want some terminology, go here:

When it comes time to break down your script, you can do it using storyboards, or you can do it with a shot list.

Use whatever works for you. I had my kids do storyboards, and then we never used them because we had so many issues to juggle.

But we kept the script in front of us, and highlighted things as we got them done…

And we got our shots.

Get your shots.

Will doing any of stuff I’m recommending you do make you a great director? I’m going to say no. But at the end of your time shooting, you’ll have all your shots, and you’ll be able to cut them together into a movie.

And that’s a win.

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