Friday, January 31, 2014

The Great Man Directs - Part 3 - Bring On the Cooks

"“The first thing he discovered is that the creative architects knew how to play. They could get immersed in a problem. It was almost childlike, like when a child gets utterly absorbed in a problem. The second thing was that they deferred making decisions as long as they could. This is surprising."
-John Cleese on Creativity*

SPOILER ALERT: This story has a happy ending. It just takes a dark and twisted path.

I've always liked Iron Chef, though I still prefer the original Japanese show on which the Food Network show is based. It was more amusing precisely because they seemed so much more sincere, and the concoctions seemed more out-of-reach, as did the ingredients. The level of concentration and commitment on the part of experts who had reached the peak of their professions interested me.

Conversely, I have no interest in most other competition shows, especially food shows with waitresses, firemen and other semi-pros attempted the same thing.

There is a trope that goes something like this: too many cooks spoil the broth (soup).  I've come to believe it isn't too many cooks that spoil the broth, but, rather, the wrong combination of cooks.

On The Yellow People, the short I directed, there were definitely overlapping skill sets.

My producer, Dennis, is also an accomplished director in his own right. On a reality webseries a year earlier, he helped guide me in story editing a series from a factually-accurate but rather tedious snore-fest that was only missing John Cleese mocking BBC documentary voice-over artists to something that was quite entertaining.

My two actors. Chelsea, my lead female, had directed and been the lead in a short I had helped line produce and First AD. Subsequently, she had become a true producer on her own. James, my male lead, was also an accomplished editor.

Then, there was my respect for the process I had for Adam, my DP.

Finally, there was me, the long-time producing and production pro and novice film director (I had done a good deal of stage direction). While I was watching the creative side, the First AD that lives in my head kept one eye on the clock. Were we losing light through the window behind the actors? When was the best time to break for lunch? Which angles should we shoot out first and what would be most efficient.

While most of the experience mentioned above is a good thing, in another situation, it could have been awkward. Chelsea's experience has led her to direct herself, and, to some extent, to also direct her fellow actor (who in this case was also her fiance, just to make it more complicated).

James is an editor, so whenever we would move camera, I could see James calculating whether we had enough coverage from that angle.

Both actors were very sharp with continuity, sometimes reminding me of which hand had picked up a cigarette or whether they thought these two angles would cut.

Also, because the I had talked with the actors about motivation and the meaning of different moments for the weeks leading up to the live play, I felt it wasn't necessary or even healthy to keep beating those points. More extensive rehearsal before this would have been too much, and I very much agree with Tennessee Williams' belief that the film version of a play has a different life**, and I wanted that to be able to breath and grow.

It is also in keeping with what Cleese talks about in terms of creativity; that balance of being prepared but also being open to the moment, to trust yourself that you will be able to fix certain things as they arise. The extreme of this, of course, is not being prepared, and I was careful to make sure this wasn't true.

Everyone involved tossed their ingredients into the stew, but, thankfully, also knew just how far was reasonable and what would be crossing the line.

Yes, enough pepperoncino to bring out the taste, and, yes, maybe just a pinch more to connect with the heat, but not so much as to mask the flavors.

All of this compares and contrasts with my belief that filmmaking is at once a collaborative art and a dictatorship. To quote from Peter Brook's belief in The Empty Space, where he describes the Good Director, the Bad Director and the Deadly Director, the Bad Director is one where everyone can see that directing isn't happening, so everyone else jumps in. My own version of this theory is that someone will direct on set; if it isn't the director, it will likely be the DP, the producer, or the lead actor (or actress).

It's why I believe there is another fine line between welcoming input and cutting it off, something I try to be aware of when I AD or line produce if I see people disrespecting the director's space.

Finally, there is the editing.

My first look at the editor's cut through me. This isn't the film I directed? It seemed almost every cut and angle was the wrong one!

Of course, a deep breath and subsequent viewings made me more comfortable with the cut. There was no way it was going to come out the way I saw it in my head; that was an unrealistic expectation.

In working with the editor, I kept sending notes, and he kept making changes. The process was informative, There were key story points and transitions that the editor could not have known I was going for, and those (as well as the original music, which was way too on the nose) needed to be changed.

There were other places, though, that after I asked for a change, I realized I liked the editor's original cut more than my idea, that what he had done, while different from my idea, worked in a way to bring a fresh look at the piece, exactly in keeping with my theory on collaboration.

I've watched directors give over their work in post, and I've watch directors smother editors to the point that I wondered why they hired an editor at all. I was determined to do neither.

An assistant editor who worked with Coppola on Apocolypse Now Redux quotes him as saying: "It's not finished, but it's done."

I know how he feels.

I still have some ideas for music, and will want to sit with this cut and also run it by my smart actors for input, but for now, thanks Hussein, for a nice job editing.

Here it is - feel free to share your thoughts. I know many of my readers are directors in their own right, and welcome the input.

* Cleese, a founding member of the brilliant "Monty Python" comedy troupe, has some great videos on the process of creativity. Only one linked here - there are more.
**While there is no one quote where Williams says this, he discussed it often. A look at Elia Kazan's book "A Life" will show how Williams wanted his work to be adapted.

1 comment:

Michael Taylor said...

Great post on a difficult subject -- and I especially love that Coppola quote, which reminds me of something Walter Mosely once said on the subject of writing: "When you know what's still wrong with the piece, but don't know how to fix it, you're done."

At a certain point, forging on no matter what can beat all the life out of what you've got - whatever good was there gets crushed in the process. The trick is knowing when to stop -- a crucial skill in any creative endeavor.

My internet data usage (maxed out for the month) precludes me watching your movie right now, but I'll return to see it when the data clock resets in a few days.

Glad to hear that your baptism of fire went well.