Friday, March 12, 2010

Words on Words on Film

After screening last night, I was up late working on my own stuff, so I'm a bit bleary-eyed. I hope this comes out coherent.

The night started out with two movies and two different peeing scenes. Gee, thanks guys. If this blog accomplishes nothing else, I hope it will teach independent filmmakers that 90% of scenes containing the expulsion of body fluids are not unique, cool, hip, edgy, or uber-indie. We see them all the time.

Last week I talked about how the Art Department saved a movie. This week we had quite a few bare-walled apartments. Hey, I get it. You're a starving artist – which means you have no money for art. But is that the case for your characters as well? A wide, long shot of two people talking in front of a blank white wall is boring. Learn from good designers. Use that space to help define your characters and at the same time, draw a wondering eye back to the action of the scene. Empty space is a missed opportunity and the sign of a lazy filmmaker.

That brings me to something Leslee brought up in a good way. "Location, Location, Location." In this day and age of easy digital, find an interesting place to shoot. Get some depth behind your characters. Give us some eye candy by way of the space. Show us something we've never seen before. That's what makes a movie worth the ticket price.

Every year we get movies by actors about how difficult a life it is to be an actor. They all have one thing in common – bad acting. There's nothing worse than a scene where a character is complaining about how stupid "they" are for not giving him/her the part, when it's clear to everyone watching the movie that the actor playing the actor can't act.

And even if they were the best talent in the world, becoming an actor is a choice, not a right. It's nearly impossible to make a movie about a person complaining about something they've chosen to do. One notable exception is LARRY THE ACTOR, which is hands down the best movie about the profession in recent memory.

Regular readers know how I rail on about slow music over slow scenes in slow movies. Last night, we had a film that got it right. Pumping, fast, intense music over a slow, emotional shot of a young girl missing her father. Worked great. Terrific young actress, too. This particular film also nailed the concept of surreal imagery. It wasn't crazy shots for crazy's sake, but pictures rooted in deep human emotions that came together to tell a story. Good job.

A heads up to all you folks with emotional monologues – usually featuring a woman, usually about a break-up – last year I screened two features in this style. Last night we had one that had some very nice moments – but ultimately these films come off looking like someone's acting reel. The writing tends to be very good, but essays or personal emotional venting aren't well-suited to cinema. That doesn't mean it can't be done, but you should be aware that several filmmakers are trying it, so you can find yourself up against the "not another one of those" feelings from a screener. In our defense, when they are good, we get over that feeling.
We had our first black & white video short last night. Some thoughts on that: If you're thinking of shooting in black & white, please understand that your decision changes everything. You can't just turn the color off on your video camera. For one thing, video doesn't handle black & white very well – so you have to do some fancy DP tricks to make the blacks truly black – or shoot on film. Once that homework's complete, then every set-up – angle, lighting, action, etc. has to be done with black & white in mind. What works with color doesn't always work without it, and vice verse. So tread lightly.

Finally, I want to say a word about dialogue.

Capturing natural speech is the art of screenwriting. Having a good story is imperative, but if that story unfolds via dialogue that sounds like it's there only to get the plot points out – which often makes me say I can hear the keyboard clicking in the background – then the story will crumble under the weight of broken suspension of disbelief.

Bad improve has the same effect. Actors aren't writers. It can be so painfully obvious when a director has told the cast what plot points are important in a scene, then asked them to improve. It sounds about as natural as a 3-headed cow singing Dixie.

Visual artists are trained to see. Actors and writers are trained to listen. Spend time out in the world listening to real people in real conversations. Then when you're polishing your script, hear the words in your head and make them natural on the page. If you're also the director, you must then forget the way the words are in your head and see what the cast gives you. Don't be afraid to ask them to "loosen up" your written words. If you've done your job in casting, then you'll have a ton of experienced people to work with. Take advantage of that. Get their feedback – always with the understanding that the final decision is yours. As a director, you don't have to come up with every idea, but you do approve or disapprove them.

Have a dialogue with your fellow artists, so the dialogue in your movie doesn't sound typed.

Thanks for reading. See you next Friday.


Lisa_Gibson said...

You always give sage advice. Particularly loved the dialogue insight.

RSMellette said...

Thanks. Glad to help. :)

Anonymous said...

Yikes, I hope my dialogue wasn't the catalyst for the conversation. Good lesson, thank you.

RSMellette said...

Oh, believe me, there are enough films to go around in that category.