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Episode 25: On Directing

by | May 29, 2022

This episode, I talk about my first experience directing actors and a crew since the Before Times. You know, back in the days when Corona was just a Mexican beer.

Here’s some links to things i mention herein:

Give it a listen here:

And here’s the script of the episode.

Hi, this is Joe Dzikiewicz, and welcome to the Storylanes Podcast, the podcast where I tell the story of how I’m making an independent feature film while I’m making it.  Yup, that’s right: I’m hard at work producing DOMICIDAL, an independent horror film.  It’s the story of a cantankerous feminist tech podcaster who is making a podcast about living in a smart-tech home.  But there’s a problem: the house is haunted.  Or so it seems, because all that smart home technology is controlled by a hacker.  It’s as if your worst enemy in the world controlled your Alexa.

If you’ve been listening to these episodes, you know that the last few have been all about producing.  That’s not surprising, because most of my time over the past few months have been spent producing DOMICIDAL.  Raising money.  Applying for grants.  Recruiting people.  Budgets and lawyers and paperwork.  All the grotty business-side work of making a movie.

But this time I’m going to take off my producer’s hat and put on my director’s hat.  Because this month I directed a film.

Oh, not DOMICIDAL.  That won’t be for a while yet.  No, this month I directed a 48 Hour Film Project film.  I’ve spoken about the 48 before, but if you’ve never heard of it, the 48 Hour Film Project is a competition where you have to make a movie in a weekend.  On Friday night you’re given an assignment: genre, character, prop, and line of dialogue.  On Sunday night, you turn in a short film: 4 to 7 minutes of movie.  It’s a wild weekend full of creativity and hard work.  I call it adrenaline-fueled art.  And I love it.  It’s what got me involved in filmmaking in the first place, and I’ve directed around 20 of them now.  And now I’ve directed one more.  THE MUNCHURIAN CANDIDATE, a sci-fi dark comedy involving cloning and political intrigue, with a little bit of satire thrown in for good measure.

This was the first time I’ve gotten together my old team since the pandemic to do a 48.  The first time I’ve directed other actors and had a real crew in over two years.  Fifteen people putting together their talents, working hard to make a movie.  And I got to direct.

It was marvelous.

And boy, was I rusty.

But we’ll get to that in a moment.  First, though, the meat of this episode.  We’ve talked a lot about producing here.  What does it mean to be a director?

Basically, if you are the director of a film, you are the artistic boss of the film.  That means a few big things.

First, since a film is ultimately about story, it’s your job to hold the story in your mind.  You must have a firm vision of what story the film will be telling.  And you are the servant and the representative of that story on the set.

Some of that means prioritization.  If the schedule says you should do two shots and there’s only time for one, which one is most important to tell the story?  Or is there some compromise that lets you accomplish the story goals of both shots?  You’re the one that has to decide.

And you need to know what is worth spending time on.

This is important.  A movie is made by many people, and each person is going to focus on their part of the film.  A costume designer thinks mostly about the costumes.  An actor is going to think about their character.  A cinematographer is going to think about the images that are captured.  And each of these people is going to want to spend more time and resources on their piece, is going to want to make sure their thing has its moment in the sun.  This is a good thing.  You want each individual to care about their part and not worry about the broader context.

Because worrying about the broader context is your job.  You have to balance the needs and desires of all those individuals.  And therefore balance the requirements of all the elements of the film.  Maybe you’ll decide that an actor’s line needs to be cut, even though it’s a great line.  The actor might be unhappy.  The screenwriter might hate you.  But if it makes the movie as a whole better to cut the line, it’s your job to see that it’s cut.

And, of course, your guide to what makes the movie as a whole better is the story you’re telling.  Which gets to your major job as director: you are the keeper of the story.

Your second job: as the keeper of the story, you have to communicate your vision to others.

Now this, admittedly, is something I’m not always great at.  I do a very good job of getting a vision of the story firmly locked in my head and making sure everything that is done is in service to the story.  But I don’t always do a good job communicating that vision to others.

My natural inclination is to share with people just the information they need to get the result I want.  And I suppose you could argue that’s a legitimate thing for a director to do.  After all, if I get what they want from the people working on the film, doesn’t that mean I’ve done my job?

Well, yes.  And no.  Because if people truly understand what I want, maybe they can find a better way to get it.  If, say, a cinematographer knows that a given scene is supposed to be moody, that cinematographer might come up with some clever way to increase the moodiness.  So I should tell the cinematographer, “I want this moody.”  I shouldn’t just say, “Make sure there are strong deep shadows.”  Because maybe the cinematographer can come up with a better way to show moodiness than the obvious dark shadows.

On the other hand, you don’t want to distract people with things they don’t need to worry about.  They probably have enough to think of, to get their part correct.  So maybe you shouldn’t always communicate your entire vision.  Maybe you should just tell them enough to get what you need.

This is clearly a balancing act.  And I’m constantly wrestling with where the right balance lies.

Okay, anecdote time.

One of my earlier films was called MUSICAL OR WESTERN.  There was a scene where I wanted a cowboy to look right into the camera and deliver the line, “I want the musical.”  (I promise: it makes sense in context.)

Now usually, actors should never look directly into the camera.  That’s one of those filmmaking “rules,” meaning something that’s usually true but sometimes not.  So when I said, “Look right into the camera,” the actor said, “Really?  Right into the camera?”

Now he was right to question it.  But I knew how I was going to use that shot, how it would be edited together. And in that context, I really needed him to look directly into the camera.  I needed it to look like he was breaking the fourth wall, just for that moment.  The movie needed it.  So I told him yes, right into the camera.

It didn’t make sense to him, but he did it.  And when it all got edited together, it worked.

Should I have explained it all to him?  Or would it just have confused him?  I don’t really know.  All that I know is that at that time, I didn’t explain it.  And the film got made.

There have been other times when I had actors or crew do things for reasons they didn’t understand but I did.  The time I had a character scream loudly because I knew the shot that would come before.  The series of shots that left everybody confused that I knew was going to cut together to make something amazing.  And in a lot of those times, I didn’t explain the details.  I just told them what I wanted, then amazed them with how it all came together in the edit.  But maybe I should have explained better.  I don’t know.

So I suppose that’s the real challenge of this job.  As the director, you have to explain the entire vision to cast and crew to the extent that you should explain the entire vision to cast and crew.  And the only way you’ll know for sure if you explained it enough is if you get what you needed to make the movie.  And I suppose that’s part of the job of being the director: not only to explain the vision, but to make sure you explain the right amount of the vision to the right people.  It’s not easy.

Next, a big part of being a director is that you have to make decisions.  And closely related, be good at multi-tasking.  Because on set, you’re going to be spending most of your time making decisions covering a wide range of topics, and answering questions from a lot of different people with different concerns.

An actor asks, “What emotion am I conveying here?”  A gaffer asks, “Is that lit well enough?”  A costume designer asks, “Should we use the red or blue shirt?”  An assistant director asks, “How long until we can break for lunch?”

The questions never stop.  And you have to have an answer for each one.

Sometime you can turn it back to the person.  “Which shirt do you like best?”  But when they tell you, you’re the one who has to decide to go with what they say.

And a little digression.  Some people need you to take the burden of the final decision from them.  They’re perfectly capable of making decisions, but they need the validation of having someone say, “Yes, that’s right, do that.”  That’s not just true of directing a movie, it’s true of being in any leadership role.

Now of course, if you’re lucky the people you’re working with are better at their jobs than you would be.  I know next to nothing about fashion or design.  I’m okay with color, but other people are better.  And happily for me, my usual costume designer/art director is better at both of those things than I am.  Her decisions on these topics are almost always going to be better than mine.  I rarely overrule her.

But sometimes I do.  And there’s the rub.  Because you know what I know better than my art director?  I know the needs of the story.  And sometimes the needs of the story trump the rules of design.

And sometimes, when I overrule her, it’s at a moment when she pops in, asks me a question, and I have all of a minute between talking to the actor and talking to the director of photography to make the decision.  Because that’s how a movie set goes.

If you can’t make quick decisions on the fly, don’t be a director.  Seriously.  You’ll only drive yourself and your crew crazy.  There’s a lot of other interesting jobs on a film set you could take.  But if you’re a director, you are going to be at the eye of the hurricane, and people are going to be flying past you constantly asking questions.  And you’d better be ready with answers.

Finally, as director, you need to know what shots to get.  That’s really one of the fundamentals.  You need to know what is needed to put the film together, and it’s your job to get those shots.  So again, you need to know that story inside and out, and have an idea of how to tell it visually.

So that’s what it means to be a director.  But is that all?

Well, no.  Like any other human endeavors, there’s just some basic craft to directing a film.  And that’s what I was referring to when I said I was rusty.

Some of this gets to my view of film editing.

I think editing is magic.  Seriously.  How is it that a film can cut in a scene from one point of view to another and the audience never gets lost?  How can you cut from the image of one location to an image of an entirely different place, a place that might be thousands of miles away or years apart, all without the audience ever getting lost?

Now there are a wide variety of techniques and tricks that make that possible, techniques and tricks that go beyond the scope of this episode.  Ways to fool the mind so that it doesn’t even notice that the view has changed.  

And if you ever edit something, you’d be surprised at just how delicate a cut can be.  I’ve done cuts that worked where, if I had shifted the cut by one frame or another in either direction, it didn’t work.  Even though that was a difference of one twenty-fourth of a second.  And yet it mattered.

Like I said, editing is magic.

Further, I think editing is the central defining characteristic of film as an artform.  And so, in a real way, the goal of film production is to get the footage that you’ll need when you edit the film.  Or to put it another way, editing is like building a jigsaw puzzle.  Only the pieces of that puzzle are the shots you got in production.

What if you didn’t get a shot that you need?  In that case, you either find a way to get the same effect with something that you did get, or you do a reshoot.  Or you just fail.  And none of these are great options.

There were cases on the MUNCHURIAN CANDIDATE where I failed.  I didn’t get exactly what I needed for the edit, and the film suffered as a result.

A lot of that was just basic nuts-and-bolts of craft.  For example, always keep the cameras rolling for a few extra seconds before calling “Cut.”  Because you never know when the film might benefit from lingering on an image.

There were a couple of cases on this movie where I should have kept the camera rolling.  A couple times when I wished I could let the image linger longer.  But I had called “cut” too soon, so I didn’t have what I needed. That was entirely my fault, and it was because I was rusty.

Another craft example: often when you’re cutting a scene, you discover that you didn’t need as much dialogue, can cut a moment short.  Maybe you want to remove a line from the middle of the scene.  Remove a line from the middle of a speech.  Or maybe a performance was just a little too slow, it needs to be sped up.

You can usually fix those things in editing.  You cut away, remove the lines that aren’t needed, reduce the pauses, speed things up.

But you can only do that if you have something to cut to.  And that leads to another thing that I messed up.  There were a couple of scenes that I only got from one angle.  If I had gotten shots at different angles, I could have cut between them, sped things up.  But although I know better, I didn’t get enough cuts.

Part of this is an artifact of the 48 Hour Film Project.  There’s not a lot of time for planning ahead.  I’m often constructing shot lists on the fly, making it up as I go along.  In a regular film, with a lengthy period of pre-production, I’d have a detailed shot list that would include all that I need.  And I’d be sure to get those shots.

But part of it was just being rusty, forgetting that I needed lots of coverage to allow myself to have something to cut to.  I know better, but my instincts are off from lack of practice.  That can happen in directing as much as it can happen in anything.

Finally, another thing that I often forgot on this film, and that I often forget in general.  And that goes to being at the eye of the hurricane.

After a director calls, “Cut,” the first thing they need to do is speak to the actors.  The actors are pouring their hearts and souls out there for you.  You owe it to them to take a moment to give them feedback.  Tell them if they gave you what you wanted.  Tell them if you have any ideas to make things better in the next take.

But there’s a lot of other people standing there also waiting for feedback.  You need to ask the cinematographer if they were satisfied with the shot or if there were any issues.  You need to ask the sound person if the sound was clean.  And maybe you have directions for them too, things you need to change in the next take.

But the actors should always come first.  Even if what you’re shooting is mostly about the other jobs being done.  Even if the only real direction you have is for someone else.

I often forget this.  And I forgot it a lot on this film.

So, I’m rusty.  And the only solution is to direct more stuff.

Which answers one of the big questions I had going into this weekend.  Should I do it at all?

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’m fairly buried in things that need to be done for DOMICIDAL.  There’s a never-ending list of tasks that need to be done before we shoot.  To share just a little of my current to-do list: I need to design letterhead, I’ve got to work with my accountant to finalize the budget, I have to produce this podcast episode and get business cards for the producers and learn more about CGI and figure how I’m going to handle it on some scenes that will need it.  The list goes on and on and on.

Making THE MUNCHURIAN CANDIDATE took a full weekend.  And at the end of it, I was exhausted.  It was days before I was ready to get back in the saddle and start doing things that DOMICIDAL needed.  Was I irresponsible of me to do the 48 at this time?  Because it sure felt like it.  And Tracey, my co-producer, sat out the 48 so she could do things that needed doing.

But one of the things I learned from making THE MUNCHURIAN CANDIDATE is that where directing is concerned, I am rusty.  And I had damn well better not be rusty when it comes time to direct DOMICIDAL. Directing this short was important, not only to it, not only to my own mental state (and directing was really good for my mental state), but also for DOMICIDAL.

Which means that as we continue in development hell, I’m going to have to keep directing shorts.  Because I need to keep in directing practice.  Or I’ll never be ready for the bigger challenge that will be directing DOMICIDAL.

And that, perhaps, is the one thing that directors absolutely must do.  They must direct.  I know I have to.

Now, movie corner!  What have I been watching lately that is inspiring me?

When I think of the kind of movies I most like to make, the thing that comes to mind is elevated genre.  I love a good genre movie – horror, science fiction, thriller.  But I also like movies that have something to say, and one of the things that I love about horror and science fiction is that they are so well suited to metaphor and social commentary. 

DOMICIDAL certainly fits that mold.  It’s a horror movie with DNA from both science fiction and thrillers.  But it also has something to say about the treatment of women in the tech world and about our growing dependency on technologies that may not be as secure as we’d like.  So I think of DOMICIDAL as elevated genre.

In my mind, the current reigning master of elevated genre is Jordon Peele.  I did an analysis of the GET OUT screenplay back when this podcast was all about screenplay analysis.  But I admire all his work and am very much looking forward to his NOPE, coming out this summer.

Recently my wife and I watched CANDYMAN.  He didn’t direct it, but he was one of the screenwriters and producers on it.  And it sure does show his touch.

I went into this movie not knowing it was anything more than a horror movie about a murderous spirit that you can summon by doing something stupid.  Instead I found an elevated genre movie that, while scary and full of thrills, also had much to say about racism, gentrification, and black lives matter.

I don’t think I’m going to borrow much from CANDYMAN in terms of cinematic style, and it’s a bit too late to be redoing DOMICIDAL’s story structure.  But as a model of how an important message can be mixed with good scares, CANDYMAN will be lurking in the back of my mind as I work on DOMICIDAL.

Anyway, that’s it for this time.  Check out the website at storylanes.com.  There you’ll find a link to THE MUNCHURIAN CANDIDATE and the other films that I mentioned.  And you’ll find the script for this podcast episode.

Until next, this is Joe Dzikiewicz for the Storylanes podcast.  Talk at you later!

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The Storylanes Podcast gives a screenwriter’s point of view of the structure of the screenplay of movies and TV shows.  Each episode does a deep-dive analysis of one movie or show, examining how the story is structured and how al the elements come together to create the story.

Each episode also includes a chart of the scenes and other key elements of the script.  You’ll find those charts here, along with the scripts of the episodes themselves.