Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Production design is simple. At least when it's good.

Look around your place. Be honest. Are there things that don't fit?

You bet there are. Even in my place there are, and my wife and I both have pretty distinctive, pretty consistent taste.

There's a painting, for instance, that I hate. My wife likes it. So it's up. If you're married, you understand this kind of compromise.

It's not distinct enough from the other art we have to draw attention to itself. But it doesn't quite fit. So what does it say about us that it's on the wall?

If we were characters in a film, it would say that we don't have a really clear sense of what we like.

We're not characters in a film, which is why it's not a big deal. But in a film, it would be death. It's not consistent enough with the other art to define our taste, but not inconsistent enough to raise a question.

Communication depends on clarity.

If your character is neat, a little mess is not okay. If your character loves music, there's no reason for him to have a collection of shot glasses. Unless there's a reason for him to have a collection of shot glasses, in which case he needs to have them.

Let me hasten to explain that I'm not saying every environment in a film needs to be neat and orderly with only meaningful objects in it. What I'm saying is that you, Aspiring Director, don't have the luxury of developing subtle nuances of character in the same way that, say, a novelist does. A novelist can tell you about the shot glasses, then explain why they're there. Why they're perhaps ironic. Or a holdover from a time when the character felt a need to collect something. Or maybe a meaningful reminder to help a recovering alcoholic from falling off the wagon.

A novelist can even go on for pages about shot glasses that aren't there, that were there once, maybe, but had been tossed into a dumpster in a fit of rage by an ex-lover years ago and missed ever since. Shot glasses that might have precipitated the very breakup of the character and his lover from which he is only now, years later, beginning to recover.

You can't.

There are only two ways to communicate character in film: what people see and what people hear. And as Steven Spielberg can attest, you can never be too heavy-handed with what people see.

Keep it simple.

Is that clear? I know, I know. Clearer than my own living room.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Yep, I'm actually going to use a Christmas carol to make a point about directing.

By this time every year, I'm totally, completely sick of holiday music. Call me a grinch, but the next tinny speaker that tries to get me in a holiday mood by spewing 'Little Drummer Boy' or 'Run, Run Rudolph' into the air anywhere near me is going to find itself decorated for the holidays with a dent that matches the size and shape of the heel of my shoe.

But there's one song I never seem to get tired of. 'Baby It's Cold Outside'.

Okay, it's not really a Christmas carol. But for a song that was written in 1944, it gets played a lot during the holidays –– and almost never during the rest of the year.

I know what you're thinking. You're wondering what 'Baby It's Cold Outside' has to do with directing. Well, let's start with the film 'Elf', which featured the song, sung by Zooey Deschanel –– whose voice has a syrupy, 1940s quality –– and Leon Redbone –– an inspired choice to dub for Will Ferrell.

Before that, it was actually used in the musical 'Neptune's Daughter'. Twice. Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams sang it once. Red Skelton and Betty Garrett sang it the other time. And it won Frank Loesser the Oscar for Best Original Song.

Enough history. It's a great song. But the question is, why?

In a word, subtext.

And that, dear Aspiring Director, is relevant to making a quality film in a way that a little gold statue may or may not be.

Listen to the lyrics. 'Baby It's Cold Outside' is a seduction, set to music.

Here's a really fun exercise: Translate the words to the song into what you know they mean. What you end up with is something about seven seconds long and boring.

Here's my version:

"I want to have sex with you."
"I want to have sex with you, too, but I don't think I should."
"I want to have sex with you."

When you translate the song into plain English, it sounds like the dialogue from a typical Hollywood action film. It's the subtext that makes it interesting. Sure, we know it's cold outside. That much is obvious from the title. But as the song progresses, we get to know who these people are, what they've been doing, how they think, and what their circumstances are. Or, to put it into film talk, character, backstory, motivation, and conflict. We even know exactly what's about to happen next.

Subtext isn't easy. You have to write around something instead of saying it directly, and believe me, it's hard enough to say something directly. But when it works, you end up with something really interesting. Something people –– people like me, anyway –– want to hear over and over again, even when it happens to be 65 years old.

Happy holidays. Now get back to work.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The 60 Second Director will return shortly.


This is just a quick note to say, no, I'm not dead, and no, I haven't run out of things to blog about. The IRS has given me until the 14th to get my paperwork in order for the audit and in the meantime, I have a commercial to shoot on the 8th. So I'm busy. Swamped.

So I'm going dark for a little while. But I'll be back and when I am, boy, will I have stories!

Thanks for all the notes and emails and stuff. The support is truly appreciated.