About directing - Part 2

Wolf DeVoon

New member
(continued from Part 1) http://www.studentfilmmakers.com/for...recting-part-1

The deep truth of filmmaking is awful. We shoot out-of-sequence. That means each scene must be alive in the here-and-now PLUS make sense when it's joined to something shot on another day or another week, miles from whatever is happening on the set. That's why the front office people matter. They have to provide everything out-of-sequence, the right cast, crew, props, costumes, picture cars, on the day and hour when it's needed. Huge enterprise on a feature film. Not exactly trivial on smaller projects, either, considering that production staff is proportionately smaller. In corporate work, the "producer" is a writer-director with a skeleton crew of two, cameraman and a utility gaffer/boom operator. Barrel of fun.

On the set of a larger show for cinemas or TV, the director has a small group to support him. The script supervisor marks each set-up and each take on her copy of the script in a binder, noting how long each take ran, how far down the page, and a zillion continuity notes. Who picked up the banana, in which hand, on which line, and how it was peeled, how far, when. Multiply that by every player, every angle, every moving camera shot. The assistant director is likewise at the director's side the instant his director walks on the set, which he announces with a loud voice or an electric bell: "Director on the set!" -- which means seek permission to carry on doing whatever the crew was doing, or be ready to undo something. The A.D. also has responsibility for the principal cast. It's never predictable that actors will show up unless a car is sent for them and other arrangements made to pry them off the ceiling, feed and water everyone, get them into costume and make-up on time. Jeez. Couldn't do that job if my life depended on it, and a good 1st A.D. is worth his weight in platinum. Big shows supply a director's chair, emergency food and drink on set, and an intelligent production assistant whose job it is to be a personal "dogsbody" for the screwball director going through hell.

Why it always has to be hell, I don't know. Broadly speaking, you only get one chance to get it right. Whatever happens in front of and behind the camera must be done efficiently, easily, naturally, with as little hesitation as possible. The schedule is crushing. Today we must make 3 pages. Tomorrow we must make 4 pages. Jesus Effing Christ!

Above it all is the final movie, whether made of a million pieces out-of-sequence or only a couple hundred. The assembled puzzle must make seamless entertainment with originality and verve. Stunt scenes have to make sense, extras and picture cars have to move at the right time, and each performance -- the smallest expression of reaction -- must be convincing, thrilling or hilarious, as the case may be, despite the fact that successive takes get worse, not better. I limited myself to 5 takes. I never had the luxury of endless time and money, nor is that the primary reason to get a great performance in a few takes, with at least one extra take for "protection." Performers wear out fast, get stuck in a rut, lose the excitement of filming a new scene. Directors have to ignite them during a quick walk-through to rehearse follow focus, pan and tilt, moving shot on track, or whatever the set-up happens to be. With cast energized and props in place, the magic word "Action" must not be diluted with fatigue or uncertainty or tedium. Same thing with the crew. They work their asses off and must have relaxation when a good take is marked "Print!"

Directing is the art of creative leadership, constantly envisioning the whole movie that will someday be edited and mixed. On small projects, everything runs like lightning, has to be done extremely well -- quickly. The chief problem on shows of all sizes is human limitation. Everyone on the set (including the director) can get it 80% okay, never 100% correct. That's why we say "When the shooting stops, the filmmaking begins."


If the show is properly staffed, with highly competent people in every department, the job of directing narrows and focusses on staging and eliciting the work of performers in front of the camera, whether scripted or impromptu. The director has to spread a certain kind of creative soil, a calm happy place, smoothing over brief delays for technical reasons. He must be alive to the inner soul of actors and famous people, all of whom are naturally pissed off, surly, and doubtful that this will be good for their careers. They come to the set with sidekicks, agents, children, stomach aches, sneezes, and hung over. No one is convinced that they will be paid as agreed, and it is CERTAINLY not enough money to justify what the director expects them to do.

That's why middle men and PR people matter. Show business is entirely a question of Who's Who and Who Knows Who. I was doing a fairly good job of managing a three-ring circus of scheduled musical acts and celebrity interviews -- three camera "iso" for intimate coverage, hoping to get a few good minutes from each 20-minute chat -- when Matt Freud walked in with Chrissie Hynde. This is why directors have headsets. I scrambled my best interviewer, two cameras, a sound man, and a handheld "basher" with spun diffusion to get set up in a blink. I mean a fucking BLINK -- as fast as they could run and roll to record before Chrissie got bored and decided to do something else, like leave the nightclub. She was wonderful. Best clip in the show. My job was talk to her and beam casual good vibes, as an equal, until the crew was in place and rolling. I had to make it fun for her, introduce her to the gal who was going to interview her. Then step back and let it happen without interfering. Directors only get one shot at doing the right thing.

Filmed drama or scripted comedy is a completely different kettle of fish, but it remains very much a question of Who's Who and Who Knows Who, whether on an A-list feature or a zero budget indie project. I'll talk about each in turn, starting with w.k. (well known) star talent. Directing is diplomacy in casting, a moment of magic in a chance encounter. Stars are people who've seen it all, especially oodles of hollowness and glassy-eyed fans. The director has to be someone they immediately like and want to talk to further, career commitments and big enough money permitting. It is never easy, unless a director has real chops as a human being. I don't know why I was drawn to it, but I started working with all kinds of people as a teenage filmmaker -- girls, boys, Hell's Angels, cameramen, dangerous stunt action, university actors, crazy musicians, recording studio engineers. By the time I had ten or twelve projects under my belt, I got assignments in Australia and Holland, my first brush with pro crews and a few famous people. At this juncture I should recite the advice I gave in an article on Psychology of Free Expression, viz: "Hold your own with the men, and make love to the women."

Both are useful for a beginner, but directing is something additional and less simple. The job becomes a vessel of enjoyment for all concerned. It's done respectfully, at arm's length until we're on the set, deal negotiated and signed, with hot lights and a big crew on deck, waiting patiently. Then it's an intimate romance that's confined to private eyes that no one else can see, words whispered very close that no one else can hear -- although at times, it's good to goof a little and smile out loud, express honest satisfaction that everyone on set can see and hear after a good take. I've cried on the set, laughed, shouted, frowned. But the relationship with star talent must be personal and private, deeply rooted in trust.

This is equally true of low budget projects with amatuer and semi-pro talent. They come with enthusiasm and delusions, tire easily if something is badly organized, need to be understood and helped as people who want to go forward somehow in show business. Small shows are done painfully fast, with difficult set-ups. Directing is always diplomacy and love making at arm's length, until we have hot camera and I need to smile and say "Action!" It does not work unless the talent knows what I want from them. We do a few takes and suddenly it's easy.

That's because famous stars and total Unknowns are alike in many ways. They need to see it's possible to be involved with an exciting project, something worth doing because the director knows his stuff. Okay, we fight about story and money. Okay, we compromise. They're always shocked when I say it's the actor's job to decide what the scene is about, how to play it. Not just a formality or covert diplomacy. I mean it. I can help shape whatever they see in the script, but the performance comes from the performer, and it's always good to plant that seed early in a relationship. On the set, they come with big stuff that needs to be trimmed, or nervous and lost. Directors know what to do with raw, slightly wobbly material, thinking of how it will play in close-up, reverses, and how it must join to the next shot, the next scene with other actors and parallel action. No one does this perfectly. Directors are perhaps the least able people on earth, the most vulnerable at times, easily overwhelmed and overthrown, outnumbered by cast and crew and frustrated production staff. So, the job of directing is ESSENTIALLY to direct oneself, budget one's creativity and confident diplomacy. Whenever possible, the director must leave the set, detach from all responsibility, talk to no one, lay down and rest, eat and drink privately. He will be summoned soon enough when the next set-up is ready.

I lived all my life to do this work. I made a few rules along the way. Never watch TV or movies made by others. Treat oneself to nice restaurants. Wear nice clothing and comfortable shoes, change socks two or three times each day in production. Don't worry, but check the dailies. I seldom look through the lens. I know the focal length and know what it sees without looking. No zooms. No handheld unless it's a POV shot. Framing matters and must be communicated extremely clearly. Take what you get, try not to worry, and fix it in post. Say thank you.
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Wolf DeVoon

New member
Kim Welch;n47588 said:
I think watching movies and understanding what people like [Michael Curtiz] was thinking in Casablanca or others who had great skill were doing can give you ideas you can build on. Like a jazz or blues musician can learn from another player something about a modulation, turn or progression and augment it or even take it to a whole new level...

The reason not to watch other people's work is to avoid being influenced by them, but that's just me. I did watch a lot of classics, before I started making films.

About Casablanca:

With the deadline [for the start of CASABLANCA, 1942] creeping up on me and with Mike Curtiz asking when was he going to get pages, a kind of paralysis came over me... Finally, in desperation, I decided to forget there was no story line and just started to write scenes as they came to me and using the Epstein material wherever it fitted in. I had only the vaguest notion where each scene was leading, just hoping that it would lead to another scene and another and that the sum total, if I lived that long, would add up to a film that wouldn't be bad enough to end my brief career in Hollywood... Two weeks away from the scheduled shooting date, I recall taking stock of where we were (the "we" included the Epsteins, whose material I used in the sequence along with my own). Numerically, we had about 40 pages, a quarter of the eventual screenplay. They were typed and sent to Curtiz, who quickly responded with enthusiasm, although I think Mike was so worried and hungry for a script that any pages would have looked good to him. The 40 pages were mimeographed and sent to the various departments -- casting, set construction, montage, location, music, and special effects -- that were assigned to the production.

(Howard Koch, screenwriter)

I have a bunch of these quotes from great directors, actors, and composers, if you'd like me to post a few more.
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