“So if you’re a filmmaker, work on this. The frame is a playground. So Play.”
– Tony Zhou
I can’t stop watching the Every Frame is a Painting on Edgar Wright and how to do visual comedy.
By the end, I was starting each day by telling the actors that it might not be funny at first, or it might not feel funny, but it was my job to get the story there through the editing, so they just had to be real—to eliminate the pressure to be funny or get discouraged by the first few takes.
We did the first take without direction to see how things played out. As they hit certain story beats, I would cross them off my outline on a clipboard. After we had hit the major story beats, we experimented with different attitudes, reactions, storylines, etc.
Throughout the filming, I jotted down funny lines that I wanted to try, so once we had the story down, we did pick up takes where the crew and I tossed out lines for them to say, just to try out funny things. Occasionally I had them repeat a line from earlier, usually something that established the premise or made one of the reveals clearer, just so it would be easier to get to the heart of the matter in the edit.
There was a pattern where a couple minutes into a take, the actors would get stuck in the story and there would be some kind of argument or impasse. To get around the impasses, I cut and then pulled the actors aside, separately, to give them a new approach to try. Then another take.
I think that dramatic improv training, like that that you do in Meisner classes is more focused on living your truth, honesty, etc. That’s what it’s designed for, to get you to be able to act naturally and open up emotionally, to live truthfully moment to moment.
Comedic improv training, where students and performers spend a lot of time improvising for public audiences, learning via laughter how to move a story and get laughs. Comedic improvisers learn techniques to get out of stalls – heightening, dynamic shifts, edits, tactic switches, game playing, etc. But they may be too quick to sound the “boring alarm” and move on too quickly.
So, the type of direction required depends on the actor’s improv background.
We started rolling the first shot and they started improvising their scenario (this was what turned out to be episode 4 with the CIA agent and informant on the park bench). I didn’t know how long to let it to go or exactly what I was really looking for. I wanted to cut the camera about three minutes into the first take but I waited for another two minutes while I thought of something to say to the actors.
In later episodes, I was prepared for these moments and had a plan. It’s good to have go-to’s in your back pocket for when you don’t have any specific notes or adjustments, something I learned from Stephen Cone’s incredibly awesome directing class.
It occurred to me later that screwing up the moments between the first and the second take could probably tank and entire scene or day or even project.
I realized after the first episode that I needed to have more prepared in terms of story. So I had an outline of the beats and I had to have specific things for the actors to try, specific tactics that they could use.
The humor often came from details, and I wrote some of those details into the initial treatments. Some of them I jotted down as ideas in the outline, and some I jotted down while we were filming.
I like collaboration and many good ideas came from the crew.
Directing is the easiest way to hang out with your actor friends.
The actors I worked with are very good and that made things easy.
Each episode was only about 2-3 hours to set up and shoot, with camera rolling for 50-90 minutes of that time. Basic setups, minimal lighting, etc.
There isn’t much movement of actors or camera in this series. I want to do more visual storytelling in my next project. Better to isolate one variable to get the hang of it before adding in other variables, is my thinking at least.
What I really thought [improvisation] was useful for was directing… because it also teaches you what a scene is made of — you know, what needs to happen. See, I think the audience asks the question, ‘Why are you telling me this?’ And improvisation teaches you that you must answer it. There must be a specific answer. It also teaches you when the beginning is over and it’s time for the middle, and when you’ve had enough middle and it’s time already for the end. And those are all very useful things in directing.
When an actor enters the frame from the side, there is often no dramatic tension, so whenever there was a reason for it Kinski would make his appearance from directly behind the camera. If he wanted to spin into frame from the left, he would position himself next to the camera, with his left foot next to the tripod. Then he would step over the tripod with his right leg, twisting his foot inward. The whole body would unwind before the camera, allowing him to spin smoothly into frame, which created a mysterious nervousness.
During the shooting of a scene the director’s eye has to catch even the minutest detail. But this does not mean glaring concentratedly at the set. While the cameras are rolling, I rarely look directly at the actors, but focus my gaze somewhere else. By doing this I sense instantly when something isn’t right. Watching something does not mean fixing your gaze on it, but being aware of it in a natural way. I believe this is what the medieval Noh playwright and theorist Zeami meant by ‘watching with a detached gaze.‘
Keep it real. Keep it natural. The beauty of [Elephant, Last Days, Gerry] was that one of the rules was no coverage, unless we need to. No close-ups, unless we need to. So when you have a close-up, it’s very important.
In the standard coverage, where you do master shot, medium shot, 2-shot and close-up, the crew become like robots. It’s like “Okay, got it,” then everybody starts moving, the tape measures come out… That’s not filmmaking, it’s the dumbing down of the people who make movies. And everybody’s just covering their asses, “just in case”…Instead of shooting everything and looking at it later, please make a decision. It’s hard to make movies. We don’t have money, and we have to act like the police are chasing us. So let’s try to do this with some dignity. And do it well, and have some fun. And do good work.