bazin once famously divided directors between those who cajole the image and those who find their inspiration in the world. put another way, some filmmakers believe their own skills more important than whatever content they must work with. for others, it is the other way around. they do not want their own filmmaking to obscure or even compete with the material they are shooting. they thus pilot their films straight into the bog of the world. whereas the first group always dominated, today it towers over the latter. this is largely because filmmakers, like everyone else, spend most of their time looking at devices instead of exploring the world around them. as a result, their inspiration is likely to remain second hand, limited to what has already been turned into images. soon enough a creative impasse is reached. in contrast, the world—“reality” in bazin’s terms—is welcoming, wide open, and inexhaustible. it never stops giving itself to us, feeding our imagination with unexpected encounters and new experiences.
it takes time to learn a craft. not in the sense that any aspect of the production process is particularly difficult to master, but coming up with a portrayal of life that is not just believable but compelling enough for others to watch is definitely a time-consuming process. a single example: even though he had years of experience as a still photographer and had made a couple of shorts, kubrick’s first feature was a disaster. as a novice, he was already skillful with composition and light but maladroit with staging and incompetent with actors. he had to catch on, then excel in these areas prior to integrating them within the overall visual style that became his trademark. the continuing encounter with the material is thus what hones your skills. having more experience under your belt makes it easier to figure out why something is not working and what to do instead.
you’ll feel it instantly the first time you get everything right in a shot. a flush of adrenalin will suddenly electrify your body. there will be an intense sense of elation. better yet, something has changed deep inside of you. you now realize that if you managed this feat once, you will be able to do it again in the future. in other words, this is the moment when you know for sure you are a filmmaker.
learning on the job was thus for a long time the only way to become proficient in filmmaking. some like kubrick were quick learners. for others, it took longer: ford made many, many dreadful movies before stagecoach and little in bergman’s early films hinted at what was to come. today the industry no longer grants anyone this privilege. you have to excel by day one. this is important because an advice often given to budding filmmakers is to take the plunge and shoot a feature immediately after leaving film school. if all goes well, the film is noticed at sundance, a distribution contract is signed, and your career takes off. unfortunately, the strategy doesn’t work too often. many have taken the advice, gambled all, but, rejected at sundance, had to open in one of the 3,000 festivals where distributors never set foot. afterwards, the unreleased film acts as an albatross around the filmmaker’s neck, undermining his or her confidence. furthermore, actors and co-workers won’t expect the next project to do any better and its author eventually gives up filmmaking altogether.
face the fact: unless you are orson welles, it is highly unlikely that your first feature will be any good. instead, shoot it with a micro budget and learn from your mistakes. then try your hand at a second one and see how that one turns out. but, and this is important, make your bad films in private. don’t attempt to release any movie before it is one you are proud of, one that can actually do the job for you.
film students often envision a director as a general giving orders that are dutifully carried out by the troops under his/her command. true enough, blockbuster films require a huge personality at the helm because of the size of the enterprise, the money involved, the large number of people, and the thousands of issues that need immediate answer. one imagines jim cameron on the top deck of the titanic directing his people with a loudspeaker… in low budget films however, the strict hierarchy that keeps people segregated and demarcates who can speak to whom is mitigated by the quieter, more congenial environment, making it possible for all on the set to contribute to the film beyond their usual activities. in this way, a shoot can become more like a jazz session with musicians embellishing various musical motifs that are improvised during the gig. in this case at least, can we talk of the director as a coordinator, a channeler, an ombudsman, someone who contacts the thinking, feeling, questions, suggestions, and resistances, co-workers may have about any part of the project?
this difference between hollywood and independent films explains why the transition from the latter to the former can be a traumatic experience for directors. at times it is the war-horses on the set who frustrate the newcomer because they are unable to accommodate a different way of shooting (e.g. the director of photography in arthur penn’s the chase). at other times, it is a movie star who undermines the novice director by reminding everyone on the set who is really in charge (frank perry’s experience while shooting the swimmer). even though they know this, most independent filmmakers still jump at the chance to make a hollywood film should the occasion arise.
on the page of a screenplay, all the lines have equal importance. at this stage of the project the camera is assumed to be looking at whoever is speaking. this doesn’t mean you have to shoot (or edit) it this way. there are times when the listener is more interesting than the speaker. an example borrowed from camus: where do you point the camera? toward the woman drowning in the river or the man who pretends he doesn’t hear her screams for help?
sometimes, it can also be more effective to suggest an action than to visualize it. why show the fate of the general’s son in the hateful eight? the scene, made up of uninspired shots, merely illustrates major marquis warren’s narration. staying inside the cabin would have forced us to watch the impact of his words on the general’s face, in the end a more harrowing experience. here, uncustomarily, tarantino lost sight of what makes his cinema so unique. whereas in most films action is connected with people rushing this way or that, in his, the dueling starts when they sit down and begin to speak.
any scene opens a world: what is there, what do we see? a restaurant, a supermarket, an antique store? unless you push yourself, these views are likely to remain trite. so do not select a location solely because of convenience or money. look at all your options. is there something about this particular store that caught your eye? the brick façade maybe or the single palm tree in front of the doorway? beyond this, remember that your protagonist, just like every other customer, has something in mind when patronizing these places: a date with patricia, a list of goods to buy, or a wicker basket that may look good in the living room. that goal gives you a direction, a path to follow. finally, your personage is (hopefully) also likely to notice things others in the same location may not pay attention to: the small stain on the carpet next to the back wall of the restaurant, the belgian shepherd waiting patiently for his master in front of the supermarket, the 1940 film year book discovered by chance in the antique store. in this way, what would otherwise comes forth as stale perspectives is vivified through uncommon observation.
the directing job thus consists in bringing slowly into existence a custom-built view of the world. exceptional directors like parajanov, tarkovsky, etc., are masters at it. but all good directors are skillful at transforming things: a plain hotel hallway that suddenly takes on an eerie appearance; a decrepit wall that shows itself the perfect background behind a fallen gangster; a mangy dog meandering its way through a street that speaks of what is happening to the protagonist.
most films however never manage to get this far. why? well, the story is recycled from other films, characters behave just as we expect them, actors go through the motions, the lighting is predictable, the décor stale, the images worn-out, and the pace familiar. in one word, the whole project is mechanical, spiritless. at times though, even in an otherwise forgettable movie, a director may suddenly perk up and do something unexpected. this unforeseen boldness is what made b movies so endearing, for instance the volte-face of mercedes mccambridge in johnny guitar or the camera staying on james stewart’s back at the end of the naked spur. these moments show wonderful directorial touches. at other times it is the oddness of a scene that surprises us. my example comes from a rather conventional film by rossellini, escape by night. the scene takes place in war-torn italy. three escaped war prisoners—an american, a british and a russian—have reached rome in their attempt to rejoin the advancing allied army. there, they are hidden in an attic by sympathizing italians. it is christmas eve. hearing on the radio some festive song, they line up, join arms, then step forward and back to the tune of the music. the scene is the antithesis of cool. but that is precisely what makes it touching: it feels like something these particular individuals would do, not the polished version a savvy director would normally come up with. people rarely do anything that could be seen as hokey in films. rossellini in this scene dared and succeeded.
when you stumble upon a movie scene offhand on tv or elsewhere, the encounter is unlikely to be of interest because one misses the context that makes it meaningful to the participants. it is no more riveting than bits of conversation heard in the subway or a coffee shop. for us to pay attention, something has to be there beyond the story. this something can be located in a surprising camera movement or an unusual staging. the sighting in turn suggests a presence that stands over and above the story world. the effect is baffling. it is as if the text contained a watermark. you know something is there but, in this case, you cannot make it appear. to put it plainly, what you experience, filigreed in the material, is the unconventional thinking behind it. the film as a result emerges differently: it appears to be forged individually, not jerry-built according to well-known formulae. mise en scene, style and authorship are the concepts typically associated with this phenomenon.
in france the term mise en scene was first used to earmark the work of theatre directors in support of a play: the staging of the action, the directing of the actors, the overall set design, the costumes, the lights, etc. so, even though the term was later broadened to include film directors who must also choose the angle and perspective through which we access the scene, its roots remain linked with the physical staging of the scene more than anything to do with the camera. with mise en scene then, the action’s choreography matters more than its filmic aspect.
let’s face it, most mise en scenes are hardly innovative—directors not reaching for anything beyond the basics. conversely, nicholas ray, anthony mann, samuel fuller and others were eventually recognized as significant directors because their more personal mise en scene far exceeded what was expected in genre films. one example from a b-movie: in the shooting, monte hellman has a cowboy holding a large sack of flour full of holes. responding to a gunshot, he rushes for cover with the bag spewing out billows of white dust behind him. this is not something you can see in any other film. as for angelopoulos, he is known for his elaborate mise en scenes. one example: in eternity and a day, the protagonists are lost on a countryside road near the border between greece and albania. they come out of their car and look at something off screen. a slow pan allows us to see what caught their attention: a detention camp for illegal migrants with the inmates clinging on the barbed wire surrounding the site. because the wires are stretched at different heights all the way up to twelve feet, the men end up looking like flies caught in an immense spider web. the darkness, the rain and the fog contribute to the surreal aspect of the scene. this is mise en scene on a grand scale. time is suspended throughout. one is transfixed. one dares not breathe at all.
kiyoshi kurosawa contends that mise en scene is not limited to the space in front of the camera, that it extends behind it as well. this is an intriguing proposition because in the movies the technicians at times intersect with the actors during their performance. in fact, the way the technical personnel operates and the dance movements it sometimes performs have never been really looked into. oftentimes, when the crew is at work, the actors are still doing make-up. other times, when the actors are rehearsing or performing, the crew may be tranquil. now and then, whenever the camera is on a dolly or a steadicam is used, they carry on simultaneously. should the two groups be on the same wavelength? should the ambience in front of the camera be reflected behind it? this consonance, if one wants to achieve it, is not automatic. it makes a difference where the film is shot (studio or location), who shoots it (the size and make-up of the crew, the individual personalities involved) and what equipment is being used (how conspicuous the camera is, the requirements connected to lighting and sound, etc.). details matter. for instance, kurosawa keeps crew members from smoking during a take because the action could undermine the actors’ confidence that what they are doing is compelling. in some way then, the atmosphere behind the camera is no less important that the more eye-catching activity taking place in front of it.
style, in the classical sense of the term, is not external to the action, a veneer that lifts an otherwise indifferent content. instead, it articulates a director’s distinctive vision. that synthesis between form and content is precisely what defines great directors, each approaching his/her subject in a characteristic manner: ozu through his idiosyncratic camera height, ophuls with his elaborate tracking shots, kubrick with his straight ahead, one point perspective system, etc.
the concept however is used more and more to highlight the purely visual treatment of a film aside from its significance. a good example of this trend can be found in the murder scene that starts the police investigation in nowhere to hide. the elegance and sophistication of the shots are matchless. the scene even manages to produce a daylight counterpart of the visual mood noir films were known for. not an easy task for a genre film.
the danger of course is that the stunning handling of a scene becomes the sole focus of the director. when that happens, style is there for its own sake. and indeed, in contrast to their predecessors, most contemporary filmmakers want very much viewers (and producers) to notice their work. so whereas mainstream films used to be rather laid back, today it is difficult to find one that doesn’t flaunt its look.
as goethe once said, anyone can copy someone else’s style but no one can choose his/her own style. let it come to you. in time it will.
artists do not work in a vacuum. they piggyback on each other. they are transformers (yes) before anything else. yet directors claim to be the sole authors of their films. it doesn’t matter how mediocre the movie actually is, a title proudly proclaims “a film by…”. prior to the sixties, this would have been unthinkable in hollywood. the writer wrote the script, the director handled the shooting, and the producer remained in charge throughout. each person did his/her job. as they themselves like to put it, it was truly a “collaborative” effort.
the grabbing of the overarching title “a film by …”, as opposed to just “directed by…”, came as a result of a campaign by foreign critics to valorize what was visual in a movie as opposed to its storyline. it took time but hollywood, over the vehement objections of screenwriters, eventually went along with what had already become accepted internationally: the directors’ sole authorship of their films.
to become a brand however is not without side effects. people expect it to remain the same. so, just as actors can easily become type casted, directors can find it difficult to shift gear and attempt radically different projects. should we admire ozu, kaurismäki, and wes anderson for their unwavering film style or perceive their steadfastness as an inability to grow? are authors faithful to their style because that is who they are? or are they afraid to abandon what made them successful?
confusingly, the term “author” has been used to put across radically different values. at times, it privileges writer/directors whose personality overwhelms an entire project (e.g. tarantino). at other times it is used to extol those directors who display a consistent personal style even though the inspiration for their films stems from material written by others (kubrick). lastly, it could celebrate those filmmakers whose work was varied and whose style and interests evolved greatly over time (von trier).
do not put the cart before the horse: don’t think of yourself as an author. if others, later in your career, call you that, that’s nice but don’t let it go to your head. your job is to make films. the rest is just fancy talk.
when a procedure on the screen catches your eye, it is unwise to attribute the source of your pleasure solely to that trope. in the same way silver halides were positioned randomly on the film’s base, each shot is a one-of-the kind event: the encounter between a distinct sensitivity and a slab of reality. to put it differently, the photographed scenery is made up of unique concrete items, a thousand unfathomable details involving the actors, the costumes, the light, the color, the movement, etc. once these elements are grafted together, they cannot be easily disassembled or duplicated (van sant’s psycho). sometimes the stars line up, often they don’t. casablanca is remembered as a film when everything just went so marvelously right.
characters belong in screenplays. once actors personify them in front of the camera, they become human beings. because people have a purpose when they get together, what they say and do trying to achieve that goal should arise organically from the developing situation. in other words, nothing fanciful or arbitrary should be pressed upon the actors by the director. the latter’s sole job at that moment is to help the actors unearth their character’s psychological and physical reaction to what is going on. the dialogue of course provides a clue but words, as mentioned earlier, have to be taken with a grain of salt. what is that person really feeling or thinking inside?
it helps therefore for the director to intuit what is going on within each protagonist. what would i feel and do if i were her and this is happening to me? but then, the director has to move back out again and harmonize this particular performance with the others as well as the rest of the aspects important for the scene in toto.
how one shoots a scene depends on its mode of production. in the most common approach, the director blocks the entire scene with the actors without worrying about the camera. when finalized, the scene can proceed non-stop as if it were happening in ordinary life. only then does blocking give way to its sidekick, coverage. that is to say, the director now “covers” the autonomous action from various angles and assorted shot sizes. on paper, coverage is infinite. in practice, time and budget constraints limit what can be done. typically, a master is taken first, followed by a medley of mediums and close-ups. more than anything else, coverage functions as an insurance policy. for, regardless of the weakness of an actor or the slowness of the action, the editor will be able to make something decent out of the multiple standpoints.
although this procedure is often taken for granted, it is not without shortcomings. first of all, it is not cheap. insofar as coverage takes longer to shoot, it means more weeks of paying personnel and renting sets, equipment, costumes, locations, etc. inherent in this approach is also the fact that, during the process, one does not presume to know how the scene will eventually play out, whether it will start with a full shot of the man as he enters the room or with a close-up of the woman looking up from reading a book. so you shoot it all now and decide later in post which configuration works best.
since nothing new can make its way into the scene once it is blocked (the issue of continuity), it means that one is working the entire time with a corpse instead of a living body. not a pleasant prospect for the actors who have to go over the same lines and actions again and again.
finally, coverage precludes a narrative voice. this is so because one essentially follows the character around. the independent, self-propelled action comes first. the shooting is subservient to it. however numerous or diverse, the shots only catch this or that aspect of what’s going on. another way of saying this is that the live event trumps the filmic potential of the scene. coverage is therefore inimical to authorship. most times, it makes little difference whether this director or that one is in charge. as noel burch once put it, this mode of representation is institutional rather than personal. what matters most of all in this instance is the story and it literally tells itself.
découpage is an alternative to coverage. the crucial difference between the two methods is that here no blocking precedes the shooting. instead of catching various views of an autonomous self-sustained action, the view from the camera determines where the actors are and what they do in the shot. the narrative is therefore organized along a string of predesigned images. each shot works as a unit advancing the story forward. no bit is duplicated. no moment is recorded from another angle. needless to say, because fewer shots are taken of each scene, the shooting is faster and cheaper.
simply put, in découpage, narration is given the upper hand over the narrative (the beginning of blue provides a good example). what we access on the screen—the filmic presentation of an action—is filtered through a unique personality. instead of being stuck in the events, we see them through a distinct point of view. even though the narrator does not appear in person, he or she is instrumental in our appreciation of the tale. whereas with coverage the story is the prime concern, with découpage the film comes first.
an additional bonus: if you watch in 400 blows the scenes where father and son are spending the evening together, you can observe how, with a little thinking ahead of time, découpage allows you to bypass many continuity issues.
an obvious drawback: editors do not have much breathing room to help a scene that didn’t turn out the way it was meant to. découpage also does not guarantee a better film. if the director’s vision stinks… beyond this, the procedure can be construed as a typical instance of what barthes characterizes as western cultural arrogance since descartes: the drive to assert one’s power or control over all areas of discourse. simply put, there is the risk of the director behaving as a little dictator on the set.
if coverage postpones the final arrangement of the shots till post and découpage implements a vision of the scene that preceded its actualization during the shoot, improvisation allows those on the set to discover what the scene is about at the very moment it comes into play. cinema—an immensely expensive venture for most of the twentieth century—was not a natural for experimentation. it took dogma 95 to give us (briefly) a clue of what working this way makes possible. the specific items found in the movement’s “vow of chastity” do not matter. any prohibition forces you to look elsewhere, that is to say, to find another way to do the same thing. to exclude a procedure always sharpens creativity. less is more. the result (e.g. the celebration) is unlike anything we are accustomed to see in traditionally shot movies.
most times, in movies, one ends up with what was first written, then rehearsed with the actors. to let others—actors or crew—do something that was not coached implies a radical rethinking of our assumptions regarding the directing job. it is now about discovering where the work organically leads to as opposed to controlling its path every step of the way. it is about giving up the autocratic approach in favor of a truly communal effort. no doubt about it, it takes guts to undertake a film like boyhood, not knowing whether the actors will still be there and willing years from now! yet, to see something radically new happening under one’s eyes is the most exhilarating experience in an artist’s life .
improvisation is clearly not for everybody. most of the films produced under dogma 95 failed to convince critically but this was not because they went too far, it was because the directors blindly followed the rules without understanding what they were meant to bring about.
traditionally, directors use numerous takes to sharpen what is at first only an amorphous idea in their head. so they keep shooting till something clicks. can we do better than shooting multiple takes of the same action? why always shoot one for safety?
instead, let’s employ one of deleuze’s ideas on difference and repetition and make each take a variation on the last. something fruitful might suddenly blossom under your eyes.
yet another tactic: if everyone knows that only one take will be shot of the scene, there will be pressure on all to do it right.
a film camera allowed only one person to see what was being recorded during the shoot: the operator. customarily directors were satisfied observing the action while sitting next to the camera (do directors sit because they want to see the scene as the audience would?). as soon as video assist technology was introduced however, they relocated themselves in front of a monitor, away from the actors and the camera. this move felt right for a generation of filmmakers who were a lot more concerned about the look of their images than their predecessors. they could also ascertain that the operator did exactly what he/she had been told to do. at last, they surmised, all their intentions would be implemented.
unsurprisingly, the relocation had unintended consequences. earlier on, by sitting next to the camera, a director would still access the entire action even though the camera at the time was capturing only a close-up of the female protagonist. the director could thus notice something her partner just did, or a detail elsewhere, and then introduce that bit as a new element in future takes (at least when shooting découpage). far from being set in stone, the scene was thus allowed to evolve organically.
on the video screen, the situation is radically different. the directors’ main concern is now the seen of the scene. and, within that, they are fixated on their directorial intentions, whether they clearly came across or not. no longer accessing the scene in its global environment, they can only put finishing touches to something that has already been reduced to an image.
looked at from a wider perspective, video assist technology is a manifestation of cold scientific detachment. it typifies the cartesian subject-object dichotomy. in the same way scientists observe tiny organisms through a microscope, directors inspect and evaluate the worth of a scene after having excerpted it out of its natural environment. no longer fellow human beings, the actors are treated as specimens to be scrutinized and regulated.
the immediacy of digital allows for the editor to show a rough cut of the scenes to the director much earlier than before. this allows the latter to think of adjustments and retake the shots when everyone and everything are still on deck. the assumption here, once again, is that the more a filmmaker is in control of the material, the better the film will turn out in the end. the opposite viewpoint, which i share, is that mistakes, errors, and miscalculations do not necessarily tarnish a film for they can lead to breakthroughs elsewhere that leave it sharpened.
directors are now unequivocally the flag bearers of their films. all eyes are on them. actors surely, but also crew members, count on them to guide them successfully through the chaos of production. if people notice a loss of spirit, they will no longer do their best and the project will collapse.
if the screenplay is the caterpillar and the film is the butterfly, directing a film is analogous to the mutation that takes place during the chrysalis process. despite video assist and the rest of the new digital technology, that process remains as murky as ever.