Written by Dean Goldberg
“Location, Location, Location.” This timeless real-estate phrase was coined in 1944 by Harold Samuels, the man who founded Land Securities, one of the United Kingdom’s largest property companies. It’s also been my mantra for as long as I’ve been in film production.
Another phrase that may be familiar to new film studies students is Mise-en-scène.
Putting aside those on this side of the pond who feel the need to rip off fancy French phrases (Film Noir is another), Webster’s Dictionary defines Mise-en-scène like this:
- The arrangement of scenery and stage properties in a play.
- The setting or surroundings of an event or action.
Okay. So now that we’ve had our history, geography and French lesson, what the heck do these things have to do with you, a first- or second-year production student? Need some advice on scriptwriting or the best editing software? Check out the great articles in Student Filmmakers magazine on those subjects. However, for better or for worse, I have one single lesson to give you today—but for so many young directors and cinematographers, one of the most important.
For me, both phrases, “Location, Location, Location” and Mise-en-scène, mean exactly the same thing. Where do I position my talent, against what background, beside what objects and how much of the scene will I shoot? And while there’s so much to say about the environment of a scene (just ask any art director and prop person), I want to talk briefly about the situation we often find ourselves in where we have no art directors, no prop people, nor even a set: The Interview.
The Office, also known as the Chamber of Horrors.
If I had a dollar for every time I walked into the office of a president or CEO of a large company while the administrative assistant is busily cleaning up parts of the office that nobody’s even seen for years, well, I wouldn’t be rich, but I could have a weekend in New York at a nice hotel, (although I still couldn’t afford the mini bar).
The fact is that the Mise-en-scène, the placement of the talent and the environment around them is essential to a good interview. And here’s the good news: the largest object in the frame should be the interviewee’s face!
Before the COVID pandemic, when was the last time you had an intimate conversation with someone sitting on the opposite side of the room? How about a boss on the other side of the long expanse of a desk? Directly after my “Location, Location, Location” rant, is my “Close-ups, Close-ups, Close-ups!” tirade. But, getting down to brass tacks (really liking these old maxims here), let’s cut to the visual chase.
Here’s Dean’s 5-Point Guide to Happy Interviews:
- Always remember that the space you have in your head for a shot needs to be larger to accommodate crew and equipment, which means that sometimes the camera will be in the hallway looking in.
- Always sit beneath the lens and slightly left or right.
- Focal Length is King, Queen and everything else. I like to be anywhere from 45mm-80mm to give my subject a good look and blur/bokeh the background.
- Make sure you have background and foreground color. I tell all my students to bring a flower arrangement and a couple of colorful posters with them whenever they’re going to an office that hasn’t been scouted.
- Turn off the overheads! Find your key light. It may be a window, or the expensive desk lamp positioned just right.
It’s just that simple, folks. Oh, maybe I left out the hours you spent writing up some really interesting questions that will surely spark some great reactions. Or you’re tense because you’ve been given “exactly 55 minutes to complete the interview,” by that same assistant who’s already angry because after two hours of cleaning, you’re using exactly the 6 feet of space she or he hadn’t cleaned.
But that’s all it really takes to bring the interview, the interviewer, the interviewees, and the scene to life. So rather than “Location, Location, Location,” this time I’ll say, “Focal Length, Depth of Field and Separation through Objects and Color,” will help make your shoot a success.
Dean Goldberg is the director of the Communication, Art and Digital Media Program at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY. During his long career, he has written and directed television, commercials and documentaries. He is currently at work on his new book, The Outcasts: Film Noir and the Hollywood Blacklist, for Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, to be published in early 2022.