Wednesday, November 3, 2010

It's a Director's Medium

John McFetridge

An update on the movie version of Dirty Sweet, if anyone’s interested.

Now that Dannis Koromilas and I have finished the screenplay (and a couple of sets of revisions based on notes from the producers) it’s going out to potential directors.

Things are really starting to get interesting, because as we all know, movies are a director’s medium:

Or an editor’s or an actor’s or even a producer’s – anybody but a writer.

Actually, I think there’s truth in that.

Every once in a while a movie comes along that’s really talky with static camerawork and no editing style and people love it, but that’s rare. And even then, the movie has some editing and some music added and something more than just the words – and someone has to bring all that together.

TV and the movies a are different, of course. When I was working on The Bridge I was asked to hang around for most things involved in the epsiode I wrote (even though I didn’t really write much of the episode). So, I went to the casting sessions and saw the pictures of the possible locations and stuff like that. Of course, the director was making all the decisions about these things but even then the main cast was already in place and the main location is in every show. When the six days of shooting were over the director had two days to deliver an edit (weeks before I’d loaned one of the editors the power supply from my laptop so I was able to get a peek at that edit, but I wasn’t involved). Then the producers had another go at editing and then the network had some notes and a final edit was delivered.

So, for some directors their job is really to get as much filmed as possible, to get every line of dialogue covered in wide shots and close-ups so the producers and the network have lots of choices (there’s a famous story about John Ford only shooting the lines of dialogue the way he wanted them used, only in close-up or only in a two-shot, and studio producers complaining bitterly, but you know, he was John Ford).

But movies are different, of course. Movies are a director’s medium. Directors are usually involved in all the desicions from the very beginning (well, not the very beginning, not that private moment the writer has in the shower or on the bus or some rare instance actually sitting at a desk when the idea for the scene first appeared).

I remember once when I was working as a driver on a movie shoot (wow, that was a long time ago) and I was taking the director and a few other people on the tech survey – the visit to the location before shooting. The director was sitting in the passenger seat of the minivan going through the script and reading things like, “Kathy sits on the edge of the bed,” and saying, “Maybe, maybe not, let’s see what else we can do in that room,” and I realized that in addition to the big decisions like the final draft of the script and casting, he made thousands of these little decisions all the way through, from pre to post production. If the director is good all these little things can add up to something, they can all be part of an overall feel of the movie that comes across without actually drawing attention to itself (that’s really just taste, I guess, I don’t like it when these things draw attention to themselves, but lots of people love these things – Martin Scorsese draws more attention to the direction of a movie than anyone else I’ve ever seen, except maybe Tarantino, and they’re about the two most revered directors out there. Clint Eastwood may be the best known for not drawing attention to the direction, so it really can go either way).

Of course, if the director doesn’t have a clear vision for the whole movie...

So it’s weird for me right now because the script for Dirty Sweet is being sent to directors and they’re quite different – young, old, male, female – and they make different movies.

If all goes well one of them will actually get to make the movie and it wil be, “A Film By___” and have the feel that director wants.

As it should be. But I’ll always wonder if one of those other directors had made a different movie how would I feel about that one?


Dana King said...

My previous life as a musician gave me a little understanding of this. I was a performer, not a composer, so the composer was pretty much at my mercy for solo and chamber pieces, and at the collaborative mercy of the conductor and the musicians for large ensembles.

I remember playing for composers' showcases, and how their emotions ran from worried to terrified because they couldn't be sure how the performers would interpret what they wrote. We all did our best to follow their wishes, but people are different, and the musicians all had different strengths and weaknesses, so no two performers would ever play something exactly the same. (Not if they were worth a damn, anyway.)

With a movie it must be even worse, as the director often feels no qualms about substantially altering the original. Screenwriters often join the fun, too, caring less about the tone and intent of the original than they do about how they would have written the book had they actually made the effort to do so. (See Robert Altman and Leigh Brackett, THE LONG GOODBYE.)

A book like DIRTY SWEET, where the reader is trusted to put things together, can go a lot of different ways. The director and cinematographer will have a lot of clay to work with.

What I'm really interested in is the location. A lot of movies are shot north of the border when they're alleged to take place here in Baja Canada. I wonder if they'll film this one in Toronto, or find someplace else to stand in for it.

Steve Weddle said...

Sounds like you make the thing and then they make their thing.

What I find crazy is when someone writes a story, then four other people work on the screenplay that's based on the story. Or when that story gets the screenplay treatment, the original author is one of the five writers working on the screenplay. Now that's gotta be an odd dynamic.

pattinase (abbott) said...

The group thing kills me. How can a group produce a unified vision? I think turning it over to one person would be preferable. Even if it isn't your script or story by the end at least it has a single vision and it would seem to me turn out better. But what do I know?