Saturday, March 27, 2010

Looks like somebody did their job.

Last night, I saw a trailer for a film. It takes place in Paris, the story of a guy who observes the environment around him.

Three quarters of the way through the trailer, I turned to my wife and said, "You know what's funny? They could have placed that same story in New York, but it would be a totally different movie."

My wife gave me one of those looks. The one that says, "You're still not over that flu, are you?"

But the point I was trying to make, without even realizing what I was saying, was that the trailer had made it look as if Paris wasn't just relevant to the film, but crucial. It had elevated Paris' status (and I'm only going by the trailer here) from mere setting to almost one of the characters.

Just as I turned back to the screen, the name of the film came up:


Way to go, Cédric Klapisch. I hope the film is as good as the trailer makes it look.

Friday, March 26, 2010

What's a director's vision and how can I get one? (Part 2.b)

There's more to interpretation than narrative style. In fact, interpretation is a huge area –– arguably the thing that truly defines a director.

Interpretation covers everything from the look of the film to the way a line is delivered. It's the pacing of a scene, the shirt an actor wears, how much rain is falling on a window, the music that plays (or doesn't). It's who shows up to work on the set and how they're treated.

Directing is interpretation.

Here's the thing, about interpretation. A lot of directors –– especially when they're starting out –– try to act like they think directors are supposed to. They wear black clothes, act like assholes, give their film a "look." They design shots to be "interesting," art direction to be quirky, performances to be unusual.


I mean it. Don't.

Forcing your work to be more interesting is an admission that you don't think you're inherently interesting. And you are. Really.

Or you're not. But if you're not, you're not going to be able to fool people into thinking you are, so don't even try.

Interpretation –– meaning your vision –– is about doing what's right. There's one right place to put the camera, one right way a line should be delivered, one right piece of music to emphasize the dramatic content of a scene... Your job is to find it. Create it. Make it.

This isn't a moral judgement. It's a taste thing. It's what works best for you.

You may admire Tim Burton, but you're not going to be him. And even if you could, I'm sorry. That position is already taken.

Be you.

Got that?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What's a director's vision and how can I get one? (Part 2)

You know what's neat about last year? 'Avatar' and 'District 9' are essentially the same movie: Humans discover aliens. Wielding power over aliens, humans exploit and dehumanize (I know, but what word are you going to use there) said aliens. A single human, whose mission is to further exploit said aliens finds himself becoming one of them, and as a result develops sympathy for their plight, ultimately helping the aliens to throw off the yoke of their oppressors.

Or, to put it the way I categorized things in my last two blogs, they're both stories about how humankind deals with the discovery of extraterrestrial life. And they're both coming-of-age stories with a ton of special effects.

Both films were nominated for Best Picture. And both made a lot of money at the box office (okay, so one made a lot of money and the other made a FUCKING SHITSTORM OF MONEY.)

You get the point.

Anyway, they're clearly not the same movie, so how can they be the same movie? I'm glad you asked. It's the second part of what makes up a director's vision.


In broad terms, James Cameron created a conventional cinematic piece (when I say "conventional", I'm talking about its narrative style), while Neil Blomkamp made a movie that looks like a documentary.

'Avatar' takes place in the future; 'District 9' takes place in the past. Even the settings are light years apart.

Same story, different interpretations.

Neat, huh?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What's a director's vision and how can I get one? (Part 1.b)

You know what I said about how the material you shoot makes up a big part of your "vision?" There are actually two parts to the material part. There's a) "What's the movie about?" which is what I went on about last time, and b) "What kind of a movie is it?" which probably should have come first because it's both broader and more categorizing.

Oh well.

Comedy directors do comedy. Action directors do action. Horror directors do horror.

Put the two parts together and you have a pretty good idea what kind of film you're going to see (or make). A comedy about how mankind confronts the end of the world ('The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy') is going to be different from a horror film about how mankind confronts the end of the world ('I am Legend') is different from an action film about how mankind confronts the end of the world ('Mad Max').

This is particularly poignant for me because I work mostly in commercials, where there's really only one part to the material part. The part about what kind of a movie (commercial) it is.

It makes sense if you think about it. Commercials are mostly about one of two things: saving money or getting laid (I'll get into that in a later post), and it really doesn't make sense to go, "Oh, Brian? Yeah, he's drawn to spots about getting 10% off."

In commercials, if you're considered a comedy guy –– as I am –– you're not really sub-categorized any further than that. Comedy guys do comedy. And have a really hard time getting invited to do special effects, action, food, cars, or any of the other categories. (Those are commercial categories,by the way. You might have noticed that there aren't a lot of horror, caper, thriller, disaster, spiritual, tragedy, heartfelt drama, coming-of-age, slasher, western, rom-com, or woman-in-peril commercials.)

Where was I? Oh yeah. The material.

The material you shoot goes a long way to determining your vision –– as it's ascribed to you. Not just by audiences, but also by agents, managers, financiers, and studio execs. So be careful. It makes sense to do comedy if you're working in commercials because so many commercials are supposed to be funny. But only if you don't mind being a comedy director.

Once you're categorized, it's hard to break out.

Friday, March 12, 2010

What's a director's vision and how can I get one? (Part 1)

I've been talking to a lot of people lately about vision –– that nebulous quality that defines your work, separates you from your competition, and makes you worth vast sums of money –– and I've come to the conclusion that there are two aspects to a director's vision.

The first part is the material.

The easy way to think about this is to ask, "What's the film about?" 'ET', for instance, is about how humankind deals with the discovery of extraterrestrial life. (So are, by the way, 'Avatar' and 'District 9', but we'll get to them down the road.)

The material you're drawn to is a huge part of defining your vision. Back in 1980, Spielberg could have easily been working on a film about –– oh, I don't know, how humankind deals with the discovery of a hugely powerful religious artifact... oh wait. He was. That's 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'.

As long as we're talking about Spielberg, let's see if we can find a pattern. There's 'Jurrasic Park' (how humankind deals with the discovery of prehistoric life'), 'AI' (how humankind deals with the development of artificial intelligence), 'War of the Worlds' and 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' (how humankind deals with the discovery of extraterrestrial life –– again)... Hmm. When you break it down that way, you start to get a pretty good sense of the stuff that floats Spielberg's boat.

I think it's fair to say that Spielberg is attracted to stories about how humankind deals with events that have the potential to change history.

His vision.

I know, I know, there are a lot of ways to parse what a film is about. Just go with me on this one. And, yes, I'm cherry picking. But you get the point.

Some directors, it's pretty obvious what gets them going.

Mel Gibson is drawn to stories about heroic characters who are utterly destroyed by powerful bad guys ('Braveheart', 'The Passion of the Christ', 'Apocalypto'). Krzysztof Kieslowski rarely veered away from dealing with great cultural themes ('Trois Couleurs', 'The Decalogue'). Ingmar Bergman was hung up on death. Until he, well, died.

Others, well, hey. They have mortgages and ex-wives to support.

Or they have something else that unifies their work. Another aspect of vision I'm going to get to in Part 2.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Is Hollywood the next Detroit? (Part 2)

After having gone on extensively about why not to shoot overseas, a lot of people wonder what would possibly compel me to consider shooting anywhere but Hollywood.

Fair question.

Here's a list of the disadvantages to shooting in Hollywood:

1) Cost. This is the biggest one. If you want all those things that I listed in my last blog, you're going to have to pay for them. That's just the way it is. And these days, nobody has the kind of money that they used to have. Shooting overseas is sometimes the only way we can afford to do a project for the money.

2) Permitting. There are parts of LA that have a moratorium on shooting. Period. Meaning, no, you can’t shoot there. In Portland, I recently shot for two days downtown. The requirements were A) Inform the film office where and when I’d be shooting, B) Don’t block any businesses’ entries, and C) leave at least six feet on one side of any camera or equipment for handicap access. In Moncton, it was even less onerous.

3) Jaded citizenry. There’s something really wonderful about being welcomed into a community, rather than being given the stink eye everywhere you turn. When I shoot a job in, say, Halifax –– or even Vancouver, Washington –– it’s not unusual for people who own the locations we’re using to go out of their way to accommodate our needs. I’ve even had homeowners make cookies for us when we come to scout their back yards. That doesn’t happen in LA.

4) “Free” extras. Every time I shoot in LA, it becomes a festival of gardeners with leaf blowers, motorcyclists idling and revving, people jumping up and down behind whoever’s in front of the camera, and drivers of passing cars leaning on their horns.

5) Unfunded mandates. Where you can shoot in LA, a lot of rules make it difficult to get permission. Try getting 100% of the neighbors on a block to sign an agreement allowing you to film there.

6) Unions. SAG, IATSE, the Teamsters, and the DGA aren’t inherently bad, but they do have their own agendas which make shooting in LA or New York a bit more complicated than shooting elsewhere. You either follow their rules or run the risk that they’ll shut you down.

7) Overexposure. I once shot a car commercial in LA and thought I’d discovered a great location. As I was lining up a shot, I looked down and saw I was standing on tape marks from a previous production. Believe me, if it’s worth shooting in LA, somebody’s already shot it.

8) The Boondoggle Factor. Let's face it, it's more exciting to say you got to shoot in Bulgaria than on the backlot at Paramount. And for people who want to travel, but don't want to spend their own money doing it, taking a production overseas is perfect.

9) Being unavailable. An amazing thing happened when I shot a job hundreds of miles from the nearest cell tower in Namibia –– nobody could "check in" with some higher up to validate their decisions. Everything we did, we did without help. It was one of the most pleasant production experiences I've ever had. Of course, that's not the kind of thing I'd advertise to the higher-ups...

10) The look. LA looks like, well, LA. Even in the areas that can play for someplace else, you're not going to have snow. And it's going to be hard to avoid seeing palm trees.

Here's the bottom line: you have to choose the correct solution for the project, not just give some knee-jerk reaction. Automatically choosing to shoot in LA is no better than automatically choosing to shoot in Argentina.

Frankly, no place is perfect. The trick is to calculate which place is likely to be the most perfect.