Friday, March 4, 2011

Stage to Screen: Louder, Faster, Funnier

One thing I learned from watching the Oscars® this year; it is painfully evident who has stage experience and who doesn't. To watch a master like Kirk Douglas play a crowd is a lesson to every filmmaker – nothing teaches us how to entertain an audience better than standing in front one. Those lessons run deep. They are not forgotten, and they translate to every aspect of the screen.

With a history that dates back to before the invention of the wheel, theatre has collected a multitude of little sayings used as shorthand in the creative process. I'd like to examine a few of these in the interest of passing on the wisdom to a new generation of filmmakers.

Louder, Faster, Funnier: I don't know the origin of this saying. I've heard it in rehearsal halls and stages all around the country, but mostly with the "Mamet Mafia" actors I worked with in Los Angeles. You'll usually hear it from an actor who has been struggling with the internal workings of his or her character, trying to find the inner life, making it real, etc. The director will then give a note like, "I couldn't hear you on that line." The actor will then say, "Yeah, yeah, 'louder, faster, funnier.'" It sums up the kind of practical direction they hear in every production. Some artEEsts take it as an insult, but the seasoned professional knows there are minimum basic requirements to a good performance.

Louder: If the audience can't hear the dialogue, then what's the point of saying it? In film the actor's volume can be controlled by a team of artists in post production, but we constantly see submissions that we can't hear. Sometimes this will be the actor's fault, mumbling. More often than not it is the mixer/director/producer/editors' fault. The dialogue is buried under background noise, or music, sound effects, etc. Minimum basic requirement of a sound design – you have to hear the words.

Faster: Pace is everything. On stage, and to a certain extent in film, the pace is controlled by the actors. Stage directors are constantly saying things like, "pickup your internal cues in that speech," meaning don't pause so much between sentences, commas, etc. Between two actors they'll simply say, "pick up your cues," which refers to the space between one actor's line and the next actor's line. If this is met with resistance from an actor who has studied too much Meisner Technique – which relies heavily speaking only when motivated, not just when you're supposed to – you'll hear a director say, "yes, well... act faster."

In film, actors must be told by the director when they can step on each other's lines – actually cutting off the other actor with their line – and when they have to "make space" to avoid crosstalk – which is a big problem when editing. Basically, if both actor's faces are in the shot, and both are miced equally, then they should act naturally, if not – in close-ups, singles, etc. – then the actors have to pretend like they are interrupting each other so the editor can cut it together. Still, a filmmaker should always be aware of the pace of a scene. Getting the pace right on the set is the best way to insure it will work on the screen, but if it isn't right in the edit bay, then the filmmaker will find themselves giving the editor the notes s/he should have given the actors.

Think of pace as a wave and the story a surfer. The pace must have enough energy to drive the surfer forward. Minimum basic requirement, keep the surfer on the board.

Funnier: This really relates to the entertainment value. You'll also hear old vaudevillians say, "You don't cut funny." Even in the heaviest of dramas, funny is good. It's human. Laughter is a way of saying, "I connected to that." In the stage note, funnier is a reminder during rehearsal that we are entertainers. During the performance, when, night-after-night, there is nothing between you and a bunch of people who paid their hard-earned money to be entertained, you will be desperate to find that moment that makes them happy they did.

The filmmaker is distanced from this experience, and that is a shame. Some inspired film school should make their students sit on stage in front of hundreds of people as their movie is screened behind them.

Dive for the curtain: I think I might have made this one up, but you could say it in any theatre company and the actors would know what you're talking about. There comes a moment in any story where the audience knows how it's going to end. At that point in a play, a good cast will feel them getting ahead of the story – meaning, they know what's going to happen before it does. That's death. No actor wants to get bogged down in that, so a good director have them pick up the pace like crazy. "Stay ahead of the audience," they'll say. I've always said, "dive for the curtain call."

You want the pace-wave to break just behind the surfer, not in front. I bring this up particularly because I watched a very good feature submission the other day with a fantastic four-or-five-person cast that has a big reveal that comes at just the right place – but from there to the end of the film the edits are too slow. As I watched from the reveal on, I thought, "I remember the scene at the bar, at the gas station. Go, go, go. Move, move, move. You're losing me." If this, very talented filmmaker had to sit in front of an audience as the movie played, there would be a productive editing session to follow.

On to this week's shorts.

I was tickled by a film that was full of stolen shots. For my novelist readers, a stolen shot is one taken in public without telling anyone you're doing it. The actor will walk down the street, or through an airport or something and you get the feeling they just ran out and shot it without hiring extras, locking off the location, etc. For my film editing readers, yes, I know, a stolen shot can also be something filmed for one scene that is used in another, but that's another discussion.

I smiled at the stolen shots because I have a feeling we're going to see a lot more of that with cameras like the 5D, 7D, etc. which look like still cameras, but shoot video has well. A tourist on the corner of Hollywood and Vine taking a picture of the Capital Records building, might really be a DP shooting a major motion picture. A word to the wise; if you're stealing shots your distributor is going to want to see release forms from anyone who is the least bit identifiable in your movie, so be careful.

We had a short film with such good production value that I would hire absolutely anyone with that title on their resume... except the writer. A great costume can't fix bad dialogue. Beautiful set decorations can't make the story more clear. If the audience doesn't care about the characters, then they also won't care about the perfectly framed shot with impeccable lighting. Producers looking at your reel will, though, so here's a shout out to all those hardworking designers who slave away on films that won't find an audience. Your efforts are not wasted, so keep doing your best.

We had a funny short that was in such horridly bad taste that my note was "wonderfully wrong." I've always said that the short is an art form that has its own strengths and weaknesses and the best of them take advantage of that. Quick, clever, politically incorrect humor is one of the things shorts do well.

We had a short film about the movie industry that I wanted to hate – because so many of them are self-serving and bad – but the cast, the dialogue, the art department, and unique humor made me give it a must see. And, honestly, much of the audience at a Los Angeles film festival do work in the business, so one or two good send-ups play well. "Good" being the operative word.

We had a couple of movies last night that had no idea what they were trying to say or how they wanted to say it. I give the filmmakers credit for attempting high style, but when doing that, you have to be in tight control of every aspect of the story, cast, production design, etc. The films last night were vague and roamed around the screen, which leaves the audience with a "huh?" look on their faces.

People have definitely been reading this blog and my posts over the years on Without A Box because we've been seeing more and more movies that look like the first five-to-ten pages of a feature script – something I call "incitement" films. While these are 1,000 times preferable to movies that attempt to tell the whole story of a feature within a short, the endings can be tricky. Back to theatre sayings, filmmakers need to "put a button" on the end of the scene. Something that holds it together as a complete piece. We can still be left wanting more, but we also have to feel like we've had a whole appetizer, not just a nibble. Yes, that's a hard thing – but if this were easy, we'd all be doing it.

That's it for this week. Thanks for reading and comments are appreciated.


Darke Conteur said...

Good post. I can see I have much to learn about this business.

I've read stories where your review of the movies would fit as well, especially for the ones that don't quite make it. You KNOW where the story wants to go, but for some reason, only you see it.

RSMellette said...

I've had that happen to my own work, where someone suggests a different plot point and I think, "duh! of course!"

Sometimes we get so much other stuff in our heads, we miss the obvious.

Joe M. said...

I'm enjoying this blog quite a bit. Great to get the perspective of someone on the inside of a festival. I have a request for future subject matter: would you mind touching upon the types of stories you're seeing? Specifically common themes or stylistic choices. I'd be very curious to know what else is going on out there - the good and the bad. Many of us are getting started on the next film so this info could be helpful. Thanks!