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Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker

Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker

Articles - Cinematography

Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard
Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass
and Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Lane in Billy Ray’s Shattered
Glass
.

Prepare by Seeking Counsel

One of the smartest things I did was I cold-called
a bunch of young directors, and just said “you don’t know me but
I’m about to direct a movie. Can I take you to lunch and ask you
some questions? And they all said yes. Ed Solomon was willing to
sit down with me in the middle of cutting a film. David Goyer, who
had just directed for the first time, a movie called Zig Zag,
sat down with me. Brian Helgeland, who had just directed for the
second time. Young producers… Seek the counsel of people who have
had similar experiences and just put yourself at their feet and
learn from them. They all had invaluable advice for me, and they
were all very generous about it. That helped me feel prepared.

Communicate with All Your Departments Every
Day

Another piece of advice that I would give to directors,
which is something I learned from a producer named Lucas Foster,
who said when you’re in pre-production, go into the office of every
single person who’s working on your movie every single day. Go visit
your art director, your graphics director, your production designer
and your location guy. Just poke your head in every day and say
do you have any questions for me? Is there anything I can do for
you? Learn what these people do and let them know that you are there
to answer questions, so that they don’t run off answering them themselves,
thinking that you’re too busy. Let everyone know how much you value
them and how much you need them.

Never Pretend to Know More Than You Do

The thing about a movie like this is that I knew nothing.
I actually said this in an interview once, but it’s true: the grips
on my set knew more about the nuts and bolts of filmmaking than
I did. It’s totally true—that’s not false humility, it’s a fact.
And the reason that they all worked so hard for me was because they
knew how much I needed them; they knew how much I valued them. The
one thing I’ll give myself credit for as a director is that I didn’t
pretend to know more than I knew. I was constantly asking for help—and
constantly telling people ‘I don’t know. Please educate me.’

Lean on Your Crew, but Get Great Work Out of Them

I have no technical ability as a director—none. I
have to lean on [my crew]. Directing is a grown-up job. And part
of that is getting great work out of people around you, which you
will later take credit for—and there was a lot of that. I mean,
no one is coming out of these screenings and calling my first AD
or my DP and saying ‘God, you did a great job!’ My god, the dollying
on that was beautiful. No, they’re calling me—but that’s not my
work, that’s their work.

Think in Terms of Structure

The best advice that I could give to screenwriters
is try to think of movies in terms of their structure instead of
in terms of their scenes. Ultimately, the artistry—the craftsmanship—becomes
evident when you stand back from it and look at the full picture,
the full arc that a character is taking and how that works within
the fabric of a movie. I think writers today, rightly, think that
if they come up with a great idea and a few really hot set pieces,
that they can sell a spec screenplay. Unfortunately, that’s true,
because studios are always looking for that. But that’s not the
same thing as making a good movie.

Study and Understand Five Very Different Screenplays

It sounds completely antiquated, and I know that it
dates me as a person, but whenever I speak to young screenwriters
I tell them that there are five screenplays that they should just
master, that they should understand. And if they can understand
how these five work, they can understand structure. I’m not saying
that these are the five greatest screenplays of all time, although
you could certainly make that argument. But for me the five are: Ordinary People, Kramer vs. Kramer, Rocky, Broadcast News and The Wizard of Oz. If you can understand
the nuts and bolts of those five—because they’re very different—and
understand what makes them work, you can understand structure.

To Write Great Characters, Reveal Character—Not
Just Quirks

You have to learn that character is not the
same thing as quirkiness—it’s really important! The fact that your
character walks through the film flipping a yo-yo, doesn’t not make
him a character—that’s just a quirk. Or the fact that he can quote
every line from The Sweet Smell of Success—that’s a quirk.
He may be a great character, but quirks alone don’t make him a character.
What makes a character is dilemma—giving a character an impossible
choice, such that no matter what he decides, he loses something
big. Then that choice reveals something about him. That’s
the most important thing.

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