Things I’ve Learned: Chris Weitz’s Golden Rules of Filmmaking

This week, our Things I’ve Learned come from the Hollywood jack-of-all-trades that is Chris Weitz. The consummate professional reminds fellow moviemakers to avoid clichés and always mind their manners on set.

Writer. Director. Producer. Actor. Chris Weitz has done it all. The New York-born, Cambridge-educated Weitz started his career working alongside his brother, Paul, as the screenwriter of DreamWorks’ animated Antz. The two next launched the American Pie franchise in 1999. Since then, his career has exploded: in addition to starring in Miguel Arteta’s Chuck and Buck, Weitz’s credits include About a Boy (for which he earned a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nod), In Good Company, The Golden Compass, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, A Single Man, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, and A Better Life.

Before moving on to his next project, Weitz gave us a few tips he’s picked up over the years.

First—and this is probably the most important thing I can tell you—please do not do that shot where a car pulls up, the camera is low angle, the door opens, somebody’s shoes appear (Russian jackboots, sexy high-heels) and then we see who it is. I hate this! I would also think twice or thrice about the “Steadicam circles the kissing couple” routine. Avoid clichés like wet lepers. After that…

1. On day one of shooting, get to know the names of all of the crew.
All of them. I’m lousy at names, but these people are going to do all they can to get what you have in mind on to film (or hard drive). That’s worth remembering. All things being equal, every member of the crew will bust his or her ass to make the movie as good as possible.

2. Get to understand the crew’s working conditions a little. If you’re going to run late, try to express to them why. Do not take the “grace period” running into lunch for granted. Sometimes people want overtime, sometimes they want to get home to see their kids. In general, people are happy finishing the day on time. There’s nothing cool about grinding out long days.

3. Your assistant director knows more about this than you do.
He or she understands the ins and outs of the workday and work week. Do not ignore the practicalities. This is part of your job. Understand why call times get later and later each day of the week. It is a sign of respect to the crew to know what effect you are having on their daily lives.

4. Remember your Ps and Qs. Don’t shout, unless it is really, really important and deserved. A good reason to shout is when someone is about to get crushed by a falling light. You may be under a lot of pressure, but it is part of your job to spare the cast and crew from it. If somebody genuinely needs a talking to, do it apart from the rest of the crew.

5. Never cut the service line at lunch or dinner. If you have to look at dailies during lunch or something, it’s okay to get a quick lunch to go. But if you’re sitting down to lunch, wait. Nobody likes a cutter.

6. Don’t drink on school nights. The workdays start early and you can’t think straight with a hangover.

7. This is just me, but—shotlist.
Ideally, every single cut and every single shot has its reason and is the result of a plan. Do your homework before you start shooting. Remember that your work will be viewed by space aliens millions of years after our species has died, and you don’t want to look like an idiot in front of them. By shotlisting you begin to understand which days are going to be easy and which days are going to leave you in the weeds, and you can adjust the schedule accordingly. At the same time, be ready to abandon these plans when circumstances intervene. Until then, be over-prepared. As a corollary: Listen to your editor. He or she will know if you are getting enough to cut with.

8. Close-ups are overrated and subject to tolerance. If you blow the impact of close-ups by using them too soon, they will lose the thematic significance you need later.

9. Deep focus is overrated. Shots that look cool and uncanny when projected on the big screen look like steamy turds on an HD television. I hate to say it, but a lot of your work is going to be seen that way. Learn the romance of short focus. Consequently, make sure your focus puller can maintain focus at a challenging f-stop (Javier Aguirresarobe’s favorite: 2.8 minus 1/3rd. Depth of Field: Around six inches. Don’t mess with Javier.)

10. Don’t call “cut” on a single that is going to be cut in and out of just because somebody flubs one line. The rest of the shot may have great stuff. Let your actors know this. Also, trust them when they know they’ve gone off the rails.

11. If an actor asks for another take, and you can manage the time, give it to him or her.

12. Listen to your actors before, during and after shooting.
This sounds obvious and touchy-feely, but it isn’t. Basically, their job is to conform the lines their characters say in the script to a viable notion of an actual human being. It’s a difficult job and they very often know what they’re talking about. Sometimes you will need them to do things for the larger structural purposes of the story or movie. Try to find a better explanation for this than “it’s just a movie.”

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13. Unless there is a good reason to behave otherwise (i.e. you’re working with a masochist—someone who does that Marlon Brando thing where he would do a bad take on purpose just to see if the director could tell), try to phrase every “post-take” chat with an actor as supportively as possible. Discuss what you want in terms of cause, not effect. Not “I want you to look away from him” but “Your character can’t stand to look at him.” It will make more sense to them.

14. If there’s something that needs doing and not enough people to do it (lifting a dolly, etc.), pitch in. Nobody is going to think any less of you. Understand that even though you have a groovy title and might be everybody’s “boss,” we all just work here.

15. Watch dailies at lunch.
The day is too fucking long and you don’t need to lose another hour’s sleep.

16. It is not cool to waste somebody else’s money.
Even if they are a studio. You are not Sam Peckinpah or Terrence Malick. Unless you are. Understand that somebody has probably entrusted you with a shitload of somebody else’s money.

17. On the other hand, nobody gives you a medal for saving $1 million, so don’t short-change yourself.
Come in one cent under budget.

18. Learn about budgets. Do you have too little in the budget to license music? You’re gonna have to save money on the front end, or beg for it later. I never paid attention to this stuff until I was forced to.

19. If you are doing a movie with a VFX component, remember that the guys doing the effects are artists, not techno-geeks. They need to be encouraged and coached like actors.

20. It is really fun to say “Action,” but your first AD probably has a better idea of who and what is ready. Leave it to them. On the other hand, nobody says “Cut” but you, unless there is a really good reason. Like, say, a film rollout. Let the actors finish their take and get their yah-yahs out rather than throw them off their game.

21. Have fun.

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