My advice to people has always been: copy old shit. For instance, the style of Every Frame a Painting is NOT original at all. I am blatantly ripping off two sources: the editing style of F for Fake, and the critical work of David Bordwell/Kristin Thompson, who wrote the introductory text on filmmaking called Film Art. I’ve run into quite a few video essays that are trying to be “like Every Frame a Painting” and I always tell people, please don’t do that because I’m ripping of someone else. You should go to the source. When any art form or medium becomes primarily about people imitating the dominant form, we get stifling art.
He passed away earlier this week.
Here’s an interview with some of this thoughts on filmmaking. I admire him and his work a great deal, but don’t agree with everything he says:
I’ve watched this EFIAP about eight times now. I watched it about a week before production on The Deadline started and I sent it to Nick the DP and he was like “oh man, I just watched that too!” So we ended up stealing the idea of going wide in close-ups and I’m really happy with the way it came out. You really feel like you’re there with the actors.
The question “What is this movie about?” will be asked over and over again throughout the book. For now, suffice it to say that the theme (the what of the movie) is going to determine the style (the how of the movie)… I work from the inside out. What the movie is about will determine how it will be cast, how it will look, how it will be edited, how it will be musically scored, how it will be mixed, how the titles will look, and, with a good studio, how it will be released.
How many times in life do you genuinely tell someone that you appreciate their hard work, that you love working with them, that they’re doing great work, that they’re an essential part of the team, and that without them there, things would not have been half as enjoyable or successful?
In normal office jobs, this happens rarely. We might say these things sometimes to people we love romantically, but rarely to co-workers and even more rarely to someone we met just three days ago.
It’s a wonderful thing.
Filmmaking is beautiful on two levels. One is the level of creating can capturing beautiful images and moments; the output.
The other is behind the camera, watching 40 people work at the top of their game. When we move to a new setup, the camera is set, actors are running lines, art is dressing the set and putting props together, the AC is putting a new lens in, I’m talking to the actors and then the script supervisor to check continuity and talk trough how the coverage will work in the edit, makeup is being applied, wardrobe is making adjustments to a collar, I’m asking another actor how his mother is doing after being hospitalized last night, PAs are washing the windows and making a coffee run, the producer is figuring out how to put up a tarp to stop the rain from leaking onto the costume rack, people are joking, someone is walking in off the street trying to order coffee from the cafe because he didn’t see the sign that says the cafe is closed and then turns around in a daze to see the lighting rigging and a camera in his face, the AD is telling me that we don’t have time to get all the shots I want and maybe we can cut the next close up and use the wide instead, the DP and gaffer are talking in their opaque shorthand, then lights and flags and screens are going up, and 20 minutes later there’s a beautiful image on the monitor.
And it’s like that for 3 days with just constant flow, a constant flow of interruptions and thoughts and notes and side discussions and jokes and war stories and bits and excuse mes because we’re all on top of each other in a cramped space and it’s like that for 12 hours a day and nobody snaps or loses their shit, even though half of us have never been through this before and the other half are doing it for a tenth of their normal day rate.
About halfway through the first day, I stopped and thought “this is what I want to do.” I’m not sure how to do it for a living but it’s what I want to do and I will keep doing it even if I can’t make a living doing it.
Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive.
— Ferrand, the Director in Day for Night
One of the scenes has three people making out. It’s a bid unconventional from the actor’s perspective because the kissing is… unmotivated? I don’t know if that’s the right word, but they’re not in romantic relationships that lead up to a moment of intimacy. They plunge into intimacy spontaneously. I had them run the scene several times to get the choreography right (there are a lot of moving pieces that have to work in sync) and then once the timing was down, I did a take with lips engaged. Then another because the first time they were uncomfortable and the kissing was too comedic.
The point is, I tried to minimize the discomfort (if there is any, some may enjoy it). It’s part of being an actor but I don’t want to abuse their sense of professionalism.
I think I might have been more anxious about it then they were.
One of the actors is playing a non-speaking role and was so incredibly awesome about the whole thing. I asked him (in private) about 3 minutes before running the scene if was cool with the kissing and he was 100% in.
When I get excited with nervous anticipation, everything slows down and I have trouble focusing on one thing at a time.
I’m running around getting bottled water and snacks for set, withdrawing cash to pay for the lighting truck, buying a clipboard, reviewing tomorrow’s shooting schedule, taking notes on what I need to remember to tell the actors during their scenes tomorrow, passing out flyers to the businesses and residents that live next to the location so they know we are filming and have the producer’s contact info in case of questions, prepping the location with the art department, cooking a big batch of food so I don’t have to worry about breakfast and dinner for the next 3 days, and laying out clothes so I don’t have to make decisions about what to wear, and moving anything in my to-do list to after the shoots so my mind is uncluttered.
And playing tennis to spend the nerves so I can relax and will be able to fall asleep tonight.
Total commitment to a single project is an interesting thing, almost a religious practice.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is what I had been training for.
— Mike Nichols in an excellent American Masters episode from PBS
‘At the time’ refers to his time as an actor, writer, and his work before becoming a director.
Most of what I learned about working with actors came from taking acting classes and watching how the great teachers work with actors.
I was talking to some other directors in Chicago last week and we were talking about how it’s a very generalist position. It’s like you figure out one piece and then another and then it comes together more or less.
Some people learn the pieces before directing, and some learn after they start directing. If you learn before, then it’s kind of a revelation when you realize that this is what you were training for (even though you thought you were just trying to be a better actor or coach a team or watching a lot of movies because you loved them).