Caring for Every Frame/Word
By Kevin Del Principe
In his book, Making Movies, director Sidney Lumet wrote, “My job is to care about and be responsible for every frame of every movie I make.” This is the near religious, high calling for filmmakers and writers. It’s the work. Period. It’s also what I have come to learn in my own filmmaking and literary writing experiences.
Recently, I had the opportunity to complete my first feature film that I co-wrote, directed and produced, Up on the Glass, and have my debut novel published, I Animal. The film was independently produced but has since been distributed by Gravitas Ventures in North America, and the novel was published by a small press. For context concerning scale, the film is in the Ultra Low Budget category for the Screen Actors Guild; (this covers films made under $250,000). In other words, I was very involved in every aspect of the filmmaking process. Likewise, working with a small press meant that I played an active role in the publishing and marketing of the book. Making this sort of indie, creative work in film and literature gives me a unique vantage point. Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar, describes individuals who operate on the institutional margins as being “on the edge of the inside.” In a creative context, I relate to Rohr’s idea of being “on the edge of the inside.” I have exposure to the business end of things, but mostly operate outside the traditional industry as an independently minded artist. Furthermore, going through both processes for the film and novel, around the same time, has also given me new perspectives on both making films and literary writing. Below are a few elements I’ve found helpful to keep in mind for both my filmmaking and literary writing work.
Film people are good at appreciating vision when making movies. My friend and former colleague Marilyn Beker makes the point in her book, Screenwriting with a Conscience: Ethics for Screenwriters, that “…screenwriters who’ve studied their craft know that dialogue supports picture, picture doesn’t support dialogue.” Though it is certainly true that what people see on the screen is paramount, the sort of vision I’d like to discuss here is the kind that is from up on high—the eagle’s perspective, and with her wisdom too, that is so important in making a film. In terms of the big picture when making a movie, one has to know where one is going in order to get there. This is especially true when pointing a team, however small or massive, in the same direction. Without vision, you’re cooked; with vision, there’s hope. Having a clear vision for one’s project is vital in filmmaking and literary writing too. It may seem simple, but we must know what we want to convey before attempting to express it.
Independent films are not made by an individual. Instead, they are made by teams and are supported by communities. Of course, there is the writer (or writers), the director, etc. But where does the funding come from? Actual people give their money. The word give here is used precisely rather than invest because many independent films are not really investments in the traditional sense, given the precariousness of monetizing these sorts of projects. Prior to shooting, a director will need the assistance of many people from producers to a casting director, etc. When on set, beyond the director, there is the entire crew—from director of photography to costume designer to assistant director to sound mixer to boom operator to gaffer to production assistant, etc. All are vital. Don’t forget the caterers. Quality food on set is necessary to keep everyone healthy and happy. Many people volunteer in the community as well. They may offer to provide meals, let the film use a location for free, act as extras, and house cast/crew. Without actors, there’s no film. Actors care about character and story. Though they sometimes get a bad reputation concerning elevated egos, actors are the director’s ally when it comes down to it—and it will come down to it. When nothing seems to be working, actors can get a director out of a jam. Then, there is the post-production team: the editor, composer, sound designer, sound re-recording mixer, colorist, visual effects artist, etc.
Having an effective, supportive team is imperative. Finding a good team is the challenge. It’s important to lay out clear terms and boundaries as much as possible before the work begins. Intuition is helpful when building a team and then, at some point, the only thing left is to take the plunge. In truth, one can’t know in advance if someone is going to be constructive when faced with the intensity of the work. Trust is built in the process as the work is being done. This is where people reveal themselves, for better or worse. My friend/former professor, Mark Shepherd, described it to me this way—there are yes people and no people on a set, and yes people are the ones you want. He reminded me that, if anything, you have to protect the yes people from themselves in terms of caring for their well-being.
Producing a novel also takes a great team. There is the publisher, editors, and, hopefully people who will help with marketing. No writer can do everything himself or herself. The team sees the work through.
A director must be able to communicate his or her vision to all team members from pre-production to production to post-production. Certainly, this is just as true for producing a novel with one’s publisher, etc. But how does one communicate vision effectively? The answer director Elia Kazan gives us is the “spine.” In his essay, “Style and Spine,” Kazan explains the spine accordingly:
The study of the script should result in a simple formulation that sums up the play in one phrase, a phrase that will be a guide for everything the director does. He begins with the simple words: “For me, this play is about…” The phrase should delineate the essence of the action that transpires on stage; it should reflect what is happening, what the characters are doing. It must imply effort, progression, transition, MOVEMENT.
Where a theme feels more static, the spine is a singular, active phrase. For example, in a story about a romantic relationship, one might offer that the theme is love. But the spine could be anything from “loss of self leads to destruction” to “lose oneself in another; find the truth.” This phrase can then be shared with all co-creators to allow for creative unity. Whether in a film or in a novel, each scene, each image, every line, every word, every utterance, must speak to the spine. If they do not, they must be adjusted to do so or be discarded. In this process, the ego must be subverted in order to serve the work.
Another aspect of communication is what I call the art of listening and not listening. When working on a complex, time-sensitive project, it’s essential to have trusted people that can be listened to for guidance who have different perspectives. As a director on set, these people are life-savers. There are so many decisions to be made that a person cannot see everything by himself or herself in the moment. Of course, this works best when team members are offering advice within the boundaries of their roles. Things can get out of hand quickly when people do not respect boundaries. Even if communication is working well, there is also a time to stop listening. After considering all relevant perspectives, a decision must be made. This is the balancing act that directors face. It is similar when writing and publishing a novel. Be open and listen; then, make a decision and act on it.
In film, it’s said that you write the film three times—as a screenplay, while shooting, and when editing. This is true but does not account for all the rewrites and revisions that happen during all three stages. When making a film, the goal is to sustain intense focus throughout every aspect of the process. It is to care about everything always.
The screenwriter, or screenwriters, trim heads and tails of scenes and discard entire scenes or sequences when necessary. They struggle over every word. As rewrites deepen, writers must fight to see characters and the story in new ways to continue the refining process. A director works like mad in order to block and visualize every scene prior to the shoot. On set, the director blocks the scenes with actors. The blocking evolves and the director of photography and the gaffer (responsible for lighting) adjust. Then the director stares at what is being captured in a monitor while listening to live audio. He or she must have absolute focus to ensure that everything is being recorded. The director re-shoots until he or she has what’s needed. In the editing room, the director and editor look at every fame over and over in order to refine the work. Much like a screenwriter, the director and editor will sharpen character, restructure story, and discard scenes/sequences if the work requires it.
The same is true in writing and publishing a novel. There are big revisions and smaller ones. Character and story are refined. Repetitious words and phrases are deleted unless they serve a purpose. Every sentence and word are poured over time and time again. Though nothing is perfect, striving for the ideal is the goal. The only way to get near perfection is to care deeply.
In Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, director David Lynch talks about feeling like he was dead, at times, while making his first feature film, Eraserhead, because of the great struggle to complete the project. Making a feature film or writing and publishing a novel is a tremendous grind. Personal life, ego, health, money, and other people can all get in the way of the goal—completing the project and accomplishing nearest to the ideal version of the work. As a director, I’ve felt some of what Lynch describes, but I’ve learned that this is a feeling and feelings are temporary. At times, nothing makes sense, but the trick is to keep getting back up after every knock to the ground. It’s hard at first but keep doing it. Remember that this process of falling and getting up is true for everyone else in the world too. Life and work are difficult, but many, many people get up each day regardless of whatever trials they are facing, put their work clothes on, and do their jobs.
Though feeling like one is dying during the creative process can be troubling, sometimes it is helpful to play dead when creating. Central American cichlid fish pretend they are dead in order to lure in their prey. As a director with vision who is totally focused on the work’s spine, at times it is best to let co-creators nibble and explore their artistry and then assert oneself when necessary. Though a constructive process is important, making a film or a novel, to a certain extent, is about achieving a final product that can hold up over time. Within reason, it’s allowable to accept the imperfections of others and their processes to serve the project because no person nor process is perfect. Certainly, the director or novelist and his or her process is not perfect either. There are exceptions when a leader must act, however. Asserting boundaries is required to care for one’s mental and physical health, the well-being of others, and to honor the work.
The Long Good Journey
My feature film took approximately five years to make from an idea to a final product. Almost a couple of years beyond its completion, I am still in the middle of the distribution process. The novel took about four years to write and publish. Now, the marketing push for the book will be as long as I can sustain it. These processes have been long journeys. The reality is the trek stretches much further back to all my experiences that shaped the visions, to all the people who have supported me along the way, to my educational opportunities, and to all the smaller creative works I made previously that became the foundation.
Hopefully, having an understanding of the length of these journeys can help the next filmmaker/writer walking his or her path. The path is difficult and can be perilous. Good friends and creative partners help. It is a long journey but can be a good one. For filmmakers and writers, it’s the work.
Kevin Del Principe is a writer and film director. Kevin grew up outside of Buffalo but now makes his home in Memphis. He directed and co-wrote the feature film, Up on the Glass, available in North America through Gravitas Ventures. I Animal is Kevin’s debut novel, published by Tumbleweed Books. He earned his MFA in Writing for Screen and Television at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. kevindelprincipe.com