“In my subsequent twenty years of teaching, screenwriting, and filmmaking, I have been continually struck by how the creative process of filmmaking is at once painstakingly deliberate and fortuitously experimental”
Filmmaking, like most things in life, is a never-ending learning process.
If you haven’t read Neil Landau and Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Film School, here is a little taste for you. 15 things to make navigating through the process of filmmaking much easier.
1. Start strong.
The opening image should suggest a movie’s central theme and prompt intrigue as to where it is headed. Working Girl opens with an aerial shot of the Statue of Liberty, establishing at once its New York City location and the central theme of a woman’s independence.
The opening image not only points forward to the theme and story to unfold, it can reveal back-story: An opening shot of a boarded-up, tumbleweed-strewn town may depict desolation, while a flower on a cactus at the edge of the frame suggests the possibility of renewal.
2. Show, don’t tell.
Film is primarily a visual medium; almost everything that needs to be communicated about a story and its characters is better shown than explained. Visual cues, when well conceived, will demonstrate the unseen- inner psychology, hidden histories, and emotional conflicts- far better than direct explication will. And if you show it rather than tell it, you will leave more screen time for more important things.
3. Start late.
A movie story should start as late as possible and occur over the shortest reasonable span of time. A film that uses too much time setting up the ordinary world of the characters or that spreads over three weeks a story that can be told in three days will feel slack.
In individual scenes, don’t waste valuable time on unnecessary entrances and hellos. See if a scene can be started in the middle. A screenwriter or director who is willing to self-edit will often find that a scene is strengthened by cutting the first two, and often last two, lines of dialogue.
4. Dig deeper.
Good movies are often- or even usually- about simple things explore with depth, nuance, and attention to detail and meaning. Resist the urge to needlessly clutter a film with more and more plot events, hidden agendas, shoots-em-ups, illicit acts, and quirky characters that don’t contribute to a central narrative. Instead, dig deeper into the murky gray areas of the events, themes, and emotions already present in the story. Do fewer things, but do them better.
5. Props reveal character.
A prop is any object physically handled by an actor, including elements of wardrobe. Props not only make a set more lifelike and believable, but inform on character and back-story.
In Seven, Morgan Freeman’s character has a metronome beside his bed. Its ticking rhythm comforted him and helped him drift off to sleep. But more significantly, the prop conveyed his desire, as an overworked city police detective, to control one noise in a cacophonous city.
6. Every movie is a suspense movie.
Regardless of genre, a film should continually fuel the viewer’s desire to “get to the next page” to see how things turn out. As new information and development are revealed, the protagonist’s dilemma should also deepen. Suspense is the product of the interplay between revelation and deepening dilemma: Will the accumulating discoveries and successes be sufficient for the protagonist to overcome her accumulating difficulties? Will the protagonist ever fully grasp the nature of her struggle? Will she resolve it before it destroys her? Will the next scene be the one in which we find out?
7. Random hypothesis.
Suspense doesn’t come from speeding things up; it comes from slowing things down.
8. Give your character the anonymity test.
Each character’s voice should be distinctive and idiosyncratic.
When writing or reviewing a script, cover up the characters’ names to see if you can tell who is speaking. If the lines are interchangeable, the characters are too similar.
9. Don’t cast solely by looks.
Don’t assume an auditioner who looks perfect for a role will be perfect. Often the best casting choices are against type, which can help define an iconic character.
Don’t necessarily reject a candidate because of an initial bad choice in a reading. After all, he or she won’t be directing him- or herself in the film. Instead give direction to the auditioned and gauge his or her adjustment to it. The auditioner’s action during an audition is part of the audition.
10. Clear the eye line.
When actors look off camera, considerable clutter may be visible: crew, lighting, sound equipment, more cameras, and much else. For this reason, the assistant director will often say “Clear the eye line” before a take, calling for the removal of all extraneous elements which may district the actors.
11. The best story structure is invisible.
The audience should never be consciously aware of structure, which should be camouflaged within dramatic events. When a story is filled with effective emotional stakes, exciting revelation, deepening dilemma, conflict, and suspense, viewers won’t try to explicate structure; they’ll be riveted to the unfolding narrative.
12. Burn your characters’ bridges.
It’s almost always stronger dramatically to prevent your characters from returning comfortably to their ordinary worlds. Limit their options so they remain trapped in the central dilemma, and their only real course is to keep forging into the unknown.
13. Have a plan, but enjoy the detours.
Filmmaking is a complex endeavor calling for detailed plans- outlines, storyboards, shot lists location scouting, rehearsals, and more. It is too complex for even the best conceived plan to ahold up the whole way through. So remain fluid. Engage in trial and error. Make room for unexpected interpretations by actors and crew. Turn accidents into possibilities.
14. Let it go, already.
Everyone has a script sitting in a drawer that has been waiting for five years for its genius to be recognized. Move on. Genuinely creative people aren’t creative once; they constantly come up with new ideas. The masterpiece of a career is rarely the one piece.
15. After the climax, get out fast.
After the plot reaches its climax, there are few places for a film to go that won’t feel superfluous. Resolve the plot and primary subplots satisfyingly, but don’t feel obligated to tie up every loose end. Leave the audience wanting more. Often, a suggestion of how the characters end up is more powerful than showing exactly how they do end up. Nonetheless, when creating an ambiguous ending, have a clear point-of-view with which the viewer may agree or disagree.
For more film school lessons pick up a copy of Neil Landau and Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Film School.