DIRECTOR

[Filmmaking A to Z by Vic Alexander]

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(This is an excerpt from my book on filmmaking.)

I encourage all young movie directors to learn to shoot on film, to use one camera and learn the one-camera technique.

The Director is the primary film maker on a production.

On low budget films the Director is often the film maker who puts up his own money and takes on the artistic and financial burden solely upon himself.

On such projects, the Director of a standard feature film should be capable of pulling off the entire production from the early "idea" stages through to the distribution phase.

The film maker may use any number of people to accomplish the different phases of making a movie, except for directing the actors, and he should be able to step in and help out or even take over any aspect of the film making process if need be.

The Director's main job is to interpret the script through his actors and technicians, bringing together the collaboration of every department involved with telling the story.

Every film is a little different. Feature film projects take on a character and feel all their own. Not to overdo this point, but one can say that each film has its own atmosphere, feel and even smell. All right, forget the smell!

Although a western set does smell like horseshit most of the time. But that's a plus, if you're trying to capture the realism of the Old West! Most of the people you end up using on a western, love horses anyway, so it's never a problem!

I didn't get out of that one very well, but let's continue anyway. I know with this kind of freewheeling web page I'm bound to get a few people alienated, but believe me filmmaking is not a business for the squeamish. I got to protect you and give you the best advice, and as much useful information as I can without making the whole thing dry. So a little story about the smell of a western is intended only as comic relief!

What you learn from one film that you can apply to another is the way you collaborate with people. The thing that's unique about movies is that everyone is important on a movie. It's unlike any other type of industry where nothing can be accomplished without a pecking order.

Since every job and role, big or small, is important on a movie, everyone can feel a sense of pride in "making a picture" and should be treated that way by the Director.

So the Director is more than the captain of a ship or a general. Even though the Director is a collaborator on equal footing with every actor and technician in interpreting the intent of the script, it's the Director's vision that is the main vehicle for that interpretation. A captain, a general has only a destination or a result in mind. They have no way of imposing a vision on the course of the action they initiate. Only the end is of significance, safe arrival or victory; but, the Director has to give a film an original "never before seen" destination and meaning. A story's course or its meaning is the unique vision of the Director.

The Director has to be able to pick a story that not only doesn't clash with his sensibilities but one that he feels passionately about, if he's to make a memorable film.

The Director has to create a style of working with the theme of a story that is at once revealing and dynamic. This is a kind of skill that comes from extensive knowledge and experience of literature and art.

The Director has to select the actors that are ideally-suited for accomplishing the intent of the story as he or she understands it and wishes to pursue it.

The Director has to understand the process of putting a film together. How to bring together the collaboration of all the departments in the production of a particular movie, to create the most effective atmosphere for the telling of the story.

The Director's skills and knowledge of all aspects of film production and editing have to be of acceptable "industry" standard (which is the standard of other movies produced by the major studios).

Which all means that the Director has to know from the first shot that is lined up, the first direction given, the first camera set-up to the last, everything has to cut together, look and sound harmonious, play out the intention of the story and ultimately work as entertainment for the audience!

The Director has to love the medium of film, love the actors, crew and all the elements and workings of film making. With such enthusiasm the Director has the chance of succeeding in telling a compelling story.

There are some Directors, like David Lean, who has had so much experience that actors like Anthony Quinn remember the aura they create when they step on the set. Actors and crew enjoy and are driven to seek out such Directors.

But, itís a slow process, gaining the respect of your collaborators, so donít be discouraged by the deprecating gestures, remarks or even jokes that youíll hear early on in your career. Go on with your work with good humor and focus on the job of directing.

Gradually youíll have the respect on the set as everyone understands your commitment to making a successful film. If you run into someone who just wonít quit and obstructs the progress of the film, donít hesitate to fire them at once, without pomp or ceremony. "Youíre fired!" and get on with your work like nothing happened!

On the very first film I directed, my DP brought on a TV cameraman he liked, to operate a second camera. After praising him to the sky so that I wouldnít object to the added expense (I was also co-producer on the film,) I finally agreed to it. We had to shoot a sail boat race for one of the major sequences in the movie.

This second cameraman arrived at the set, took one look at my youthful mug (I was in my early twenties, just out of film school) and he, literally, guffawed. He put his hand on his mouth and went to one side of the wharf and sat down with the camera in his lap.

I went over to him and told him to go to the last island just before the sailboats approached the open horizon of the Atlantic and set up there on top of the hill and shoot establishing shots of the race and the two boats we were concentrating on. He didnít move or respond in any way. I just walked off assuming that he heard me. It was unnerving, but I didnít know what to do.

The race started, the DP and I pushed off the pier in the lead boat, along with the principal actors.

I asked the DP if the second cameraman was in position to shoot from the island as Iíd instructed. He told me, "Yes, thereís no problem." The island was far off and one couldnít see anything from where we were.

We started shooting and went around many islands and finally we hit the big waves of the ocean and the boat rose and smashed into the waters. It was exhilarating, but the sound of the wind, sails and waves was deafening. I had not expected that. It was hard filming. I was yelling at the top of my lungs for the actors to hear. The cameraman was barely able to steady himself to get the shots, but kept on shooting with tremendous effort. Later I found out that heíd broken a few ribs as he hit the side of the boat, but he never let on that he was hurt!

We finally came back with our two sailboats, after having shot all the angles from one boat into the other and all that sort of thing. We got out of the boat and went over to one side and discussed our progress. The DP was still in pain, but he only told me that the shooting was fine. He was even thrilled by the way certain shots lined up and I was eager to see the rushes next day. The DP went off to download the film magazines and I chatted with the actors.

Then after twenty minutes the second camera operator came toward me. I was still by the sailboats on the pier. As he got near me, I noticed he was drenched with water and carrying his camera in his right hand dripping with water. He was grinning foolishly.

He kept saying, "Iím sorry, Iím sorry." Then he went back towards the club house.

Later that afternoon the DP told me that the guy had "fallen off the island" into the water, but that "the film inside the magazine was not wet!"

I said, "What do you mean fall off the island, I thought he was on top of the hill, shooting the establishing shots of the sailboats?"

"Oh, he got that all right, but then he went down to the edge of the water to get some low angle shots and he slipped off a mossy rock."

The second operator had taken the initiative and decided to shoot what he wanted. After all I was a young Director, what the hell did I know? Only thing, if he had respected me as Director, I wouldíve gotten a few more establishing shots from the top of that hill. Because all I got was one very wide shot of the whole sailboat race, and I couldíve used a dozen of establishing shots of different sizes and coverage.

Youíll run into that sort of problem with crews when youíre a young Director and youíll run into similar problems with actors.

Here are some pointers to young Directors.

Never tell actors that you wrote the script! Theyíll start rewriting it!

On my next picture I learned to interview and audition actors carefully. I picked some pretty capable actors who had for one reason or other missed making it big. I felt that way about them. I was going to "discover" them! Thereís nothing wrong with feeling that way, right?

On the first day of production, on my first set-up, I called for a rehearsal. The actors did the lines. "What?" I asked myself. "Are they reading from another script?" I couldnít figure out what story they were doing!

I went over to them and looked at the papers they were clutching in their sweaty hands. These were not pages from my script! I knew what my script looked like. These were hand-written notes. "Where is my script?" I asked.

"Oh, we were studying the script together the last few days and we decided on re-writing some of the difficult lines," my beautiful actress started to say. The other actor said, "You told us if we had trouble with some words ... I mean there are some jawbreakers here."

And hereís another point: Donít let your actors rehearse by themselves, without you! If you can, prevent them from exchanging phone numbers. Remember, you donít need any pregnancies. You might have to do pick-ups six months later! ... (Maybe you canít write it in! Iíve been through it, buddy!)

No matter how young you are, do everything you can to instill a sense of respect for your role as Director. There are many ways to do it. Study the most effective way that will work for you. They used to grow a mustache in the old days. Remember Darryl Zanuck did it. He also had a cigar in his mouth in almost every picture. These were direct orders from the studio owner. Grow a beard, lie about your age, but do something.

On a low budget film, one that you are producing yourself, tell your actors and crew that the money is not yours, that there is a producer who views rushes and anybody can get fired, including yourself, if anybody changes the script.

If you wrote the script, use a pseudonym and say that if one line is changed without approval from the writer, or producer, the actor goes! Do whatever you can to preserve the authority of the Director, until you gain experience.

When youíve gained experience, before you start shooting a picture, call everyone to a meeting, sit them down in one room. Make a long, impassioned, if necessary boring speech, that leaves little doubt in the minds of everyone that you are the Director, that your job is to interpret the screenplay, "with the help and tremendous talent of your cast and crew," that youíll fight for the "right" of everyone in contributing their very best, as long as they are working within your vision!

Alfred Hitchcock was interviewed by a prominent interviewer some years before he passed away. I remember one question and response from that interview. They were talking about NORTH BY NORTHWEST, with Cary Grant, and the interviewer asked what would Hitchcock say if an actor of the caliber of Cary Grant came up to him before doing a shot and said something to the effect of, let me do this scene this way"? Alfred Hitchcock said, "Iíd tell him to go ahead, and I would shoot the scene;" but, he added, "thereís always the cutting room floor!"

There are so many pieces of advice I can give you here, but remember to read as many books or articles about how Directors direct. Learn and use every bit of insight, it will make your job easier. Donít be too proud about using good advice. For most people, itís your technique of working with actors and crew that will determine your style as a film maker. We will get to these points in subsequent web pages dealing with directing.

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