In director heaven, every scene in the screenplay is clear and concise, the storyboards are perfectly composed, the shot list takes no effort to create and not much to shoot and the editor can tell immediately what to make of what was put together. The coffee is always great, everyone gets plenty of sleep and the pay is awesome.
Reality, of course, is not director heaven. But in many ways, that’s a good thing. There’s an inherent messiness to the process of filmmaking, and while that can be frustrating to deal with, it can also add nuance and unanticipated layers of meaning. This is the case even if you’re the writer and director of your script. Translating a scene from script to storyboard to shot list to shooting to editing involves collaborating with the cast, crew and the physical location, and the results are often better than what you imagined when you sat down to write.
I’m going to step you through the process we embarked on for our web series Three Trembling Cities, specifically how we took two scenes from the script, broke them down, pre-visualized and shot listed them, blocked them with the cast, shot and cut them. Each step of the way, the scenes morphed into something else, and became (we think) richer and more interesting.
Three Trembling Cities
The series is a ten-episode doc/fiction hybrid about the inner lives and daily struggles of immigrants living in NYC who are juggling jobs, family expectations, dreams, money and relationships. The season follows two fictional “circles” of immigrants. The first circle struggles with identity, the second struggles with survival. Complementing the fictional storyline were interviews we shot of immigrants who’ve faced similar issues. The plan was to intercut between the fiction and non-fiction segments within each episode.
Early on in the season, the two “couples” in our first circle meet for the first time. In the first scene, roommates/best friends/grad students Urmi (Nandita Chandra) and Ilona (Tjasa Ferme) walk down the block. They separate while Urmi takes a call from her husband. Ilona stands on the corner and lights up a cigarette.
In the second scene, Azin (Sherz Aletaha) and Behrouz (Arash Mokhtar), sister and brother, respectively, walk down the same block on the opposite side of the street. Azin asks for a cigarette. Behrouz, seeing Ilona smoking, walks over and asks her for one. Azin gets a call from her lover/co-worker. The scene then cuts between Urmi’s and Azin’s increasingly tense, unrelated conversations, and Behrouz and Ilona flirting with each other. It concludes when Urmi and Azin both end their phone calls, join Ilona and Behrouz, and the four head to a bar together per Behrouz’ suggestion.
Urmi and Ilona are at a critical point in their friendship—Ilona is leaving to teach in Dubai—and are starting to realize how different their values are. Azin and Behrouz just had a fight over going back to Iran to perform in a play, over their parents’ objections. The intercutting between the phone calls and the “meet cute” contrasts and parallels what each of the four characters is going through.
How To Make It Visual
One of the joys (and challenges) of being a writer-director is figuring how to take the scenes on the page and translate them into something that has a visual “life force.” Here I had four very verbal, articulate characters who work with language (two English literature PhDs, an attorney and an actor). So how do I make this scene consisting almost solely of dialogue look interesting?
There were three additional difficulties:
There are a lot of characters—7 leads, 4 supporting characters. How do you convey the relationships between them visually to save time?
Most of the locations were fairly unspectacular. How do you give these locations some character, while keeping New York City in the scenes?
The budget was tight. We could only afford 8 days of principal photography, which meant plowing through between 8-12 pages per day. That meant keeping the number of camera and lighting setups in each scene to a minimum. How do you keep the shots from turning into meat-and-potatoes coverage?
The first step was to trim out the fat. I incorporated some short scenes into montages, and restructured a few others, and got rid of some extraneous dialogue. Our cinematographer/producer Ben Wolf and producers Debarati Biswas and Daria Sommers all pitched in here with feedback and suggestions.
The next draft was four pages shorter. I did one draft before our auditions, and two drafts afterward. I can’t express how important auditions are in this regard—hearing and adjusting the same scenes read by actors over and over again can really tell you where you’re just being too verbose.
Deciding on a Camera Format
What camera you shoot on can have a profound impact on your shooting style. The weight and dimensions of the camera, the size of the crew needed to operate it, and its unique advantages and disadvantages—will change how you shoot it.
Ben Wolf owns a Sony A7S II. It’s small, lightweight, and very light sensitive. It was the immediate choice. You can work in small spaces, mount the camera on a Glidecam with ease, and on the street you look like just a group of tourists. We were going to be shooting in neighborhoods where we wanted to blend in (since we couldn’t lock off the sidewalks), and also in some tight apartments. The light sensitivity meant we could work with a smaller grip/electric package and crew. It also meant that we could change locations quickly if we found a better spot to shoot in.
Before the auditions, I went through and did a director’s script breakdown analysis. The main goals of detailing the process can be condensed into the following:
- What does each character want (objectives) in each scene, what’s getting in the way (obstacles)?
- Who do the characters love? Watching two people argue isn’t very interesting. Watching two people who love each other argue is engaging.
- What are the “beats” of each scene—where does the subtext shift? These beats are natural cut points, and can guide the blocking and shot list.
- What are the iconic images in the scene? These could be things mentioned in the dialogue, or objects in the scene. These images can help inform your sound and production design.
- What happened the moment before the scene started (which could be off the page altogether, or part of the previous scene)? This helps actors stay focused on the beginning of the scene, and it can also you figure out the “velocity” or nature of the opening shot.
I went through the script scene by scene and wrote down these elements. This helps me prepare for working with the actors, communicate what I’m looking for to the crew, and gives me a better sense of how to shoot and cut the script.
Working With the Cast
Cast input is key. An actor can convey a line through a look or action. Sometimes it’s better to reshape the role to fit the actor’s background or experience.
The cast of Three Trembling Cities kept making suggestions and coming up with ideas. Nandita is from Simla, in the north of India, while her character, Urmi, was originally written as being from Kolkata. Nandita speaks Hindi, whereas someone from Kolkata would speak Bengali. I rewrote the character as coming from Simla instead of Kolkata, to eliminate issues like this. It was a relatively small change but made a difference in the authenticity of the character.
Arash and Sherz both speak fluent Farsi, and were playing Iranian-American siblings who are having a very personal argument. It made sense for them to switch languages. I didn’t specify in the script where this switching would take place, but told them to go for it if they felt it would fit the scene.