Saturday, December 12, 2009

when writers attack

I went to an event at the WGA today that far exceeded my expectations. It was a directing workshop for WGA members featuring Billy Ray, Scott Frank and Gary Ross. It was amazing. I've always been a big fan of these writers and their work as directors has been some of the most visually stunning from scribes who've made the leap into the director's chair. Anyhow, the point of today's workshop (the first of many) is to teach writers how to direct so that we can infiltrate and subvert the DGA. I'm not kidding. I sat in between Winnie Holzman and Howard Rodman - there were plenty of well knowns in attendance. So here, without further comment, my copious notes:

Working with Actors
Scott Frank moderated this section. His credits are numerous but of particular interest to this discussion is The Lookout. It's an incredible little film that is as emotional as it is intimate - Frank achieved this through his close work with the cast. It was one of the earlier films Joseph Gordon Levitt did just before becoming the big name that he is now.
  • Make your actors feel safe. Make sure that they know that you are not going to let them look bad. Each actor is different and they all have different insecurities. It's your job to figure this out and give them what they need in order to perform. Directors have been fired from movies because the MOVIE STAR is uncomfortable. Every day you have to go in and find out what they need. Spend time in their dressing room or trailer and talk. Not all will need this but some will. As a director, be prepared to be "married" to your actor.
  • You have to reassure them "you're going to look great playing this amazing character."
  • Making an actor feel safe is important because it gives you a safe space to adjust their performance without freaking them out. They may not have the perspective you have, but if they trust you they'll do what you need them to do.
  • Actors love to discuss the story. If you can talk about your story (and this is why writers turned directors have an advantage) then you are in a good place. The thing is, you've got to know your story inside out. The "why" of every moment, every tiny little thing. If you've done your job as a writer, this will be easy.
  • You are not defending your script from the actor's interpretation. This is an intense collaboration and is all about making it better. If you can't see it changed then you do not want to direct.
  • If an actor says "who am I playing" or in some way suggests they don't understand who this character is you are in big trouble. It means it's not clear in the script (or not clear to them) get clear on this before you move on.
  • You can't fix it in post. Twenty years in the business, it's never worked. He has a house that he built off fees for writing voice over. "The Problem" must be fixed in the script.
  • Casting is a great way to practice working with actors. It has the side benefit of showing you the weaknesses in your dialogue. When you're in casting (or working with an actor in general) you are always a great audience. You have to find what was good and give praise for that. I liked how you did...XYZ.
  • Steven Soderbergh holds very casual rehearsals. His actors eat, they hang out, watch movies and talk about the script. It's not a hard working rehearsal schedule. He just wants to create esprit de corps.
  • Here's how you can spot a great performance: it makes you stop what you're doing and listen. You are mesmerized. If this happens in casting, cast this person. If it happens during a shoot, great! That's the take. If it's not happening... make it happen. The words need life.
  • Directors will take your call if you want to find out about their experience working with a certain actor.
  • The more concise or specific you can be giving direction, the better. You don't need a whole conversation about it, just remind them of where they are in the story.
  • Casting directors and the Studio Executives can help you get the right people for your story, but they can also have an agenda. We need THIS STAR to get financing or to "mean something overseas." This is about money. You have to speak their language and explain to them why the wrong choice will cost them money. Be prepared to walk away from a green light if you are going to have to make the movie with the wrong person.
  • Cast your actors and crew perfectly. Everyone there should understand the story and bring something to it that makes it even better. Find actors and crew who can educate you without being a jerk about it.
Directing the Script
Gary Ross was supposed to be talking about "developing" the script but since we were all WGA members he figured we'd all had enough development for a lifetime. True. I wish there were some simple answer to the question "when is a script ready?" The fact is, it's never ready. A script can be great but the reality is, movies happen through sheer force of will. Of course a great script doesn't hurt.
  • Be open to input that will solidify your vision. What you want is the better, fresher version of what you were trying to do.
  • You have to be flexible and collaborative and yet firm in your vision of the movie. It sounds contradictory, and it is. Think of it as harmonizing.
  • DO A TABLE READ of your screenplay. Get some actors, some pizza and make it happen. You'll learn a ton.
  • Moving from writer to director you have to detach yourself from the script. Directing is not about protecting the script, it's about protecting the baby. Doing what's best for the movie (not the script). Directing is not a defensive game, it is an offensive one.
  • The way you decide to shoot the movie affects the story. Instead of preparing a dry shot list, Ross writes an emotional roadmap that contains his shots but in descriptive languate the intention behind those shots. For example, from Seabiscuit, he describes a wide shot of a funeral with a tree anchoring one side of the frame. He wants it wide to give them their privacy and so that the distance lets us fill in with our imagination the devastation of the characters. For more on this DVD special features shows Ross going over his unique "shot list roadmap."
  • There's time in development to get your point of view down firm. Direct the movie in private (the roadmap) before you have to direct it in public.
  • If when shooting you're running out of time and something's gotta give, let it be lighting. Lighting is overrated. Don't be done in by what isn't important.
  • Only 10% of a director's job happens between Action and Cut. It's about the other things, casting, editing, prep. Don't overlook these areas. They're hugely important.
  • When you direct you're the host of the party, not the guest. You're trying to get your cast and crew to do that extra bit for you that they reserve for good hosts.
  • You don't have to know everything. You just have to be able to defend your script. So it better be fully cooked.
Managing your Film
Billy Ray wrote and directed Shattered Glass and Breach. He has a winning attitude that is frankly refreshing in what is often a cynical business. He described the harrowing events around shooting scene 202 of Shattered Glass - a 16 hour day that comprised a pivotal action sequence. At the end of the day they discovered all three cameras were underexposed. The footage was unusable. He took his cast and crew aside, explained the situation and said this was their opportunity to do it better. They rallied and pulled it off. The scene was better than what had been lost on the underexposed footage.

  • You can't whine or complain, you have to lead.
  • Take the blame for everything that goes wrong (I didn't supervise the cameras close enough - that's why the footage was underexposed) and deflect all the credit for everything that goes right (I have an amazing cast - production designer - etc.) You're going to get credit anyway.
  • You do not need to be the big dog.
  • That said, do not be self deprecating. You are the leader, you do not have to apologize for having the job. Listen to how the crew talks about other directors. Shake everyone's hand at the end of the day. Pay for coffee. This is simple stuff - all a way of saying "don't be an asshole." It's amazing how many directors don't get this - they think you have to be a screaming maniac - it's bullshit. People value good leadership and work harder for good leaders than they do tyrants.
  • Seek advice from other directors. It's understood that directors help out other directors. Mentorship is easy to make happen.
  • You need to be in the best physical shape of your life. You have to be prepared for something to hit you when you're at your weakest moment. If you're a runner, for example, finish with a sprint so you're in the habit of finishing strong. It's at the end of a shoot that something crazy happens - you have to be physically capable of overcoming it.
  • Hire people who do not create drama. There's no metal detector for crazy but if you can at all help it, avoid whiners and complainers. They're always a drag.
  • Anticipate that you will get calls from the studio. You know what they're about - they're about the problem. Have answers for them.
  • Manage the shooting schedule - be on the lookout for potential problems like big shots (moments) back to back or an actor having their big scene on the first day they arrive. Ask the crew questions about the schedule so that all departments can be informed of each other's needs.
  • Every night, after shooting, prep for the next day. Don't goof off, prep. Go over everything that night.
  • This sounds crazy but on a long day, change your socks at lunch. You'll get it.
  • You do not have to go to dailies.
  • Always ask yourself "How can I make it better?" You've got the script, lighting, camera, sound, music and performance in your toolbox. How can you make it better?
  • You know that the editing is going well when you're cutting good moments OUT of the film. This sounds counter-intuitive but what it means is that there's nothing bad left to cut, you're down to cutting good stuff.
  • Don't take the Film By credit. If you do Billy Ray will haunt you.

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