Archive of posts about Category: directing

Breaking down a script as a director

We’re two weeks away from shooting The Deadline, which is the biggest project I’ve ever done in terms of budget, cast, crew, and pretty much everything else. I have a great producer that I’m working with and she takes a lot of the producing load off of my shoulder but there’s still a lot to do on my side. So much that it sometimes feels like there’s not much time to actually think about directing — what I want from the camera and from the actors.

Now that there’s a lull in producing responsibilities, I’ve been going through the script scene by scene to figure out what I want out of it in terms of camera movement/framing and actor performances. I think that preparation in this realm is essential because I want to have an answer to the eternal question that actors ask: what the hell do you want from me here?

So I came up with this little checklist of what to look for in each scene.

For each scene, find the:

  • camera movements
  • objectives
  • character POVs
  • blocking
  • circumstances to remember (the moment before, character-specific notes)
  • internal states
  • moment to moment, anything you want to see
  • moments of play or improvisation
  • how to play it
  • any looks you want or specific reactions to try

The script is only 13 pages and takes place in one location, so by traditional screenwriting rules, it’s only one “scene.” But we broke it out into 13 mini-scenes to make it easier to shoot. And each mini-scene has its own story, its own beginning, middle, and end. I had a writing teacher a few years ago that taught us to break sketches down into beats, and then work each beat to make sure that it told its own little story.

Basically, something should be changing in every mini-beat — an emotional change, a physical one, a status change, etc. Breaking the script down into 13 mini-scenes fits into this framework naturally and makes it easier to answer the above questions at any given moment.

So I take each one and jot things down, usually breaking the notes out into sub-heads: one for camera, and then for each character that appears in the scene. I’ll take these notes with me to rehearsals and to set when we film. My hope is that by the time we’ve rehearsed twice, that these will all be second nature to the actors and myself–we’ll all know what’s supposed to happen so well that we’ll nail it after a few takes and then have time to play and improvise a little bit.

And any time I think of something interesting to try in a scene, I add it to my notes so that I can forget it for now and have it in front of me when I’m working with the actors.

And I don’t write down notes for all the things listed above, just the ones that are apt.

I think this is a useful exercise, even if you don’t end up using any of the notes, because it forces you to clarify what you want and it uncovers any weaknesses in the script (that can be fixed now). I’m always open to happy surprises, but when in doubt, I prefer to be prepared. Some day I hope to be so good that I don’t need to prepare at all and I can do everything by instinct and feel. Until then…

The task of the craftsman

As Dreyfus and Kelly explain, such sacredness is common to craftsmanship. The task of the craftsman, they conclude, “is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there. This frees the craftsman of the nihilism of autonomous individualism, providing an ordered world of meaning.

— Cal Newport in his excellent book Deep Work

Really like the movement in this

Really like the movement in this. And the song.

Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary (!)

I read Hitchcock/Truffaut earlier this year. It’s a fantastic book. Hoping to catch the documentary at CIFF.

Notes on Directing Improvised Scenes (on camera)

Improv can bring about lots of happy surprises but it isn’t guaranteed to tell a good story. Directing improv was for the most part about making sure the story was being written in a compelling way, beyond the great moment-to-moment work done by the actors.

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.

Note on Directing for the First Time

The first episode was also the first time I’ve directed anything, whether on stage or for the camera. I was terrified on the morning of the shoot — afraid that things wouldn’t go well, that my ideas wouldn’t work, that the crew would think this was stupid, and mostly that I would let the actors down and they would feel untalented because I hadn’t put them in a position to succeed.

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.

Some deep wound or hunger was imprinted on them early in life

Bunuel belongs to a group of great directors who obsessively reworked the themes that haunted them. There is little stylistically to link Ozu, Hitchcock, Herzog, Bergman, Fassbinder or Bunuel, except for this common thread: Some deep wound or hunger was imprinted on them early in life, and they worked all of their careers to heal or cherish it.

– Roger Ebert on The Exterminating Angel

Mike Nichols on how improvisation influence his directing style

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.

Mike Nichols on how improvisation influenced his directing style (via the always excellent Heidi Saman)

The Kinski entrance

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.

– Werner Herzog in A Guide for the Perplexed

Watching with a detached gaze

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.‘

Akira Kurosawa