Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Worth a thousand pictures..?

"The three most important things about a film are the script, the script, the script" - Oscar-winning director Fred Zinnemann

I am that oxymoronic creature, a filmmaker who's not particularly visual. I suppose many if not most filmmakers get started through a love of images; personally, what really interests me, as Tom Stoppard once said, is "what people say to each other", and why they say it - or in some cases, don't. My scripts are dialogue-driven - and my films are character-driven.

I lean too far in that direction, I realise; I am gradually learning how to say things without words. Often in a readthrough of a script it becomes clear that some of the words are unnecessary. But I suspect that what actors look for in a script, initially, is interesting dialogue that is expressive of interesting character - acting, at root, is surely about exploring the human condition. And even if verbal communication does in fact constitute a fairly small percentage of how we actually express ourselves, it's the means that most people use to present their chosen image of themselves. That image can be contradicted by their body language, or their actions - but that's only interesting if we have the words to compare.

And if this was a script, I'd cut everything above and start here...

In writing short film scripts, often in my case for film challenges, you work within certain parameters; you write for the people who are available, you limit the locations and characters (er, except when you don't because everyone you ask says 'yes' and you feel bound to include them...) - in short, you work with what you've got, and you use your limited resources in such a way that they become strengths.

I approached my feature script in the same way. I was - so I thought - ferociously cunning: I came up with a format that would involve a number of scenes (interviews direct to camera, phone conversations, bridging shots) that needed only one character onscreen, and thus could be shot at almost any time, contributing to the running time without involving major scheduling headaches. The interview scenes were also conceived as a payback for performers who had worked with me before - there were obviously a limited number of featured/leading roles, but this way everyone got to have the screen to themselves, if only briefly. If you're working with no money, goodwill is your strongest currency.

Oh, and a decent script, of course.

My first thought was - 'Keep it fast-moving. Don't give the audience time to even consider whether they might want to look at something else.' But then it struck me that many films I have found utterly compelling do things in exactly the opposite way; they take their time, allow the audience time to really empathise and feel with the characters. One of the most gripping things I've ever seen is the initial meeting of Cynthia and Hortense in Secrets and Lies, and far from being a succession of quick dramatic cuts and intense close ups, it's pretty much all one shot. It's the acting (and the writing) that draws you in - so much so that I didn't even notice it was a single shot until I'd seen it a couple of times.

I didn't quite go that route. After all, if you have no money, and you are your own art direction department, you have a duty to entertain. The script I wrote is romantically-comedic in tone, if not in actual subject matter - make people laugh and they will forgive a lot. (At least, that's the theory)

Which seems an opportune moment to insert my joke:

How many writer/directors does it take to change a lightbulb? One, because 'This is my project, damnit!'

(One can imagine a slightly more Zen-like variant: insert the word 'auteur' instead of 'writer/director' and there's no need to even answer...)

So: I wrote a script, thinking carefully about how to minimise scheduling nightmares, utilising sets/locations that I knew I already had or could easily get, and creating characters for performers which played to their personalities and/or individual acting strengths. I worked over the script, editing and rewriting much more than I ever had time to do for a challenge film, and even deleted a sub-plot, something which cost me a lot of funny lines. I went over and over the script; I submitted it to about ten readers to get feedback, which was pretty much uinversally positive. In the meantime I was working on pre-production. I had my own flat as location for the to-camera interviews, with a plan to start them ahead of the main shoot, I had a large pool of interested potential cast members, I was buying a new camera and had a postponed short film slotted in as a good warm-up exercise. I was ready to go.

Of course, that's when things started to go awry. But I need to fortify myself before I can endure going over that...

p.s. It occurred to me only after I nabbed the quotation for this post that Fred Zinnemann is responsible for one of my favourite dialogue-driven films of all time. Adapted from a play, of course. I do sometimes wonder if the theatre would be a better home for me...

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