Whenever I do a talk at a university or film school or sometimes even in passing the time conversation on a shoot people will often ask me about my process. How is it that you work? What is your philosophy? How do you decide how to shoot a scene and how do you know what to tell the actors or talent?
It’s a question that I have gotten better at answering over time as I have formed my own philosophy on film making and what it means to direct and it’s a question I intend to answer in this blog today!Firstly my philosophy on what makes good directing is simple: Directing is about making choices. If you are not making a choice about where to put the camera, how to stage the action, how to craft a performance or make a line connect with the audience in the way it was intended then you my friend are not directing. Plain and simple the process of directing is about making choices. It’s also about others understanding why you made them and helping you to realise them in a cohesive process that yields the desired end result.
If we understand this simple philosophy moving forward in the day to day duties as a director becomes surprisingly simple. The main questions you have to answer every day no matter what the shoot is will always be the same: “Where do I put the camera”, “What do I tell the actors or talent” and “What is each scene about”. How you answer these questions should also fundamentally be the same.
David Mamet the great American playwright and film director puts forward the proposition that when thinking about “Where do I put the camera” the director should avoid either following the protagonist around (like most American movies) or attempting to shoot the scene in a novel or interesting way but instead should follow the process of Sergei Eisenstein the great Russian montage director with the approach that ‘the scene should always be a succession of images juxtaposed so that the contrast between these images moves the story forward in the mind of the audience’. What Eisenstein and Mamet are both talking about here is that scenes should be told in cuts through the judicious use of uninflected images: A shot of a guy holding a smoking gun… A shot of a man lying on the floor… A close up of a bag full of money… By juxtaposing these images through cuts we get a very clear idea of the story being told.
When it comes to “What do I tell the actors or talent” this seems to be the area that seems to give a lot of director’s the most complications when it shouldn’t. They either seem to want to give actors a spoken word stream of consciousness thesis of what every single beat and sub beat within a scene is going to be about or in the commercial world they do the opposite by offering useless and meaningless directions like “that was great… let’s just do one more” – this line in itself is the complete antithesis of my theory as it demonstrates someone not making any decisions but showing complete indecision which is in no way directing it is simply avoiding making a choice. Direction should always be concise and should avoid any direction which is unplayable. Acting is about playable actions so the short hand is don’t give actors any directions they can’t play… There is no point saying to the woman in the soft drink commercial you are directing ‘what this scene is all about is how this drink sums up summer and what it is to be at the beach and to feel Australian,” when you could simply say “I need you to take a sip of the drink, relax and show me that you enjoy the taste.” Which if you shoot it correctly with the right beachy setting will visually tell the audience the drink is refreshing which was what you were going for all along.
When it comes to directing dialogue again keep it simple. Anthony Hopkins tells a great story about working with Ridley Scott where he says when it came to directing dialogue during the making of “Hannibal” Scott would only say things like: “How was that for you? For me it was a little fast… Can we try a slower one”… He never over analysed and he trusted that if the script was good and his shot choices were correct the rest would be told through the cutting.
“What is each scene about” should be answered by the script and in reading each scene as a director you should be asking yourself just one question: What is the objective of this scene and how does this scene relate to the Super Objective of what this whole piece that I am working on is all about. This question is relevant no matter if you are working on a fifteen second tv commercial or a ninety minute film. The objective for those unsure is simply put: What changes in this scene for the character to get what they want or the story to move forward.
So when approaching directing anything always make choices and remember the K.I.S.S rule of keep it simple stupid!