In this month’s ‘notes on the screen door‘ southend filmmaker jamie evans brings in some home truths on the business of filmmaking, and shares some useful tips on how to keep on schedule and on budget!
Moviemaking is an interesting and funny old business, no doubt you’ve realised that by now? It is an industry that somehow manages to be prevalent in our everyday lives and yet remains an enigma; the method of getting in obscure at best and nigh impossible at worst. It is an industry that is both fickle and yet solid in its adherence to tradition. An industry which churns out crowd-pleasing blockbusters and then seemingly loathes itself for doing so.
It takes a special someone to make it in this game; someone with guts, passion and a desire to work hard. You also need to be too stupid to know when to quit when any sensible person would.
I’ve learned a lot in the ten years I have been trying to build my film career, a lot of those lessons were harsh; they led to disappointments, arguments with friends and even a break-up at one stage. I could fill a book with these lessons but, as I’m short on word count, I’ll settle for just one.
You are not Stanley Kubrick – and you shouldn’t try to be.
To be fair, I don’t mean to pick on Stanley, it just so happens he is the perfect director for this analogy. It works with plenty of others as well.
You see, another way in which filmmaking exhibits an interesting and conflicting duality, is its status as both an artform and as a high-stakes business venture. We all set out with the intentions of being highly artistic filmmakers; visionaries who create art that really says something, that challenges the narrative. That’s great and it is absolutely what we all need to aim to do.
Unfortunately, movies are expensive. What Hollywood considers “low budget” is still several times over the yearly salary of the majority of people. Even microbudget features like the ones many of us make, soon leap up in costs presuming you are working ethically.
This is where the greatest skill you can have as a director comes into play; knowing how to make your day.
At the microbudget level you tend to have to multi-role. There’s a good chance if you’re directing that you’re also involved in the scheduling and producing side of the project as well. This means you will know exactly what footage you need to get each day and believe me, being able to get that skill is an invaluable if not exactly glamorous arrow to have in your quiver.
See, directors like Stanley Kubrick are well known for their dedication to perfection. Kubrick knew exactly what he needed to get and he was determined to get it, schedules and budgetary concerns be damned. We’ve all heard the famous stories of him demanding 100+ takes in his films and driving Shelley Duvall to a breakdown in The Shining.
It is completely normal and understandable that a filmmaker wants to borrow from or pay homage to their favourite directors, we all do it. My debut feature, Candy Hart and the Fire of Catalan, is filled with dutch-angle shots and quick zooms, in a deliberate stylistic choice to emulate Sam Raimi, one of my favourite filmmakers.
However, Kubrick was working at a much higher level and in a system several decades ago that put directors at the forefront. Filmmaking is a producer driven medium now, the age of the auteur director is, if not completely over, certainly waning.
If we don’t want creative and visionary filmmaking to die out then we need to learn to operate within that duality of art and business. We need to learn how to play the game. Going overschedule and overbudget, at this level, is unacceptable. Along the way I’ve learned some things that help me to stay on schedule and may help you too.
- Shoot coverage first, fancy shots second. Make sure you have the basics of the scene down first. A master shot and a couple of over-the-shoulders is usually all it takes to do this. It isn’t the most exciting or fulfilling but it means if you run out of time you still have a watchable scene.
- Pick your battles. I, like many directors, love highly creative shots. Much to the annoyance of my crew on Candy Hart, I love to have a moving camera which sweeps through a scene and visits various points of action. In my shot list I listed the shots I’d like to get and then split those into shots I needed and shots I’d like. If you’re running out of time, you must make brutal and fast decisions. In Candy Hart I chose to forego some shots I planned in favour of a more complex shot that I knew we needed more time to do. In this shot a camera tracks backwards as two characters enter a room. The camera then follows their motion as they fall together onto a bed before continuing to move down and revealing a third character hiding beneath the bed. It is a very humorous shot and one I knew I definitely wanted in the movie. This came at the cost of other areas, however.
- Trust your crew. Your crew know their jobs and they will know approximately how long something is going to take. If they’re advising you that something cannot be done in time, listen to them. Likewise, don’t take sole responsibility for worrying about complicated shots – your crew will probably have useful and creative suggestions to help you.
- Don’t plug away tirelessly at a scene that isn’t working. We’ve all been on a set where a director is doing more and more takes of a shot and keeps demanding more despite nothing changing between takes. Not only is it frustrating, in a tight shooting schedule like the one you’ll probably have on a low budget film it is the difference between failure and success. If you’ve reached ten takes and something about the scene still isn’t working; don’t keep trying to force it. Instead, make alterations, either in the blocking of the scene or the dialogue or even the camera movements.
At the end of the day, film is about self-expression. It’s also about collaboration. Each team you work with will influence the final product differently and that is one of the great things about filmmaking. The lessons I have learned work for me because I enjoy working. Directors like Kubrick have legendary reputations, but they also tend to have huge gaps between projects. That’s not a path I’m keen to take my career down but it may be the path for you. The important thing is to not lose hope, keep making movies, keep learning, keep growing and above all keep supporting one another in this crazy little industry.
Jamie Evans is a Southend-on-Sea film director, owner of Impala Films, he frequently hosts on ‘Jamie, Your Film Tastes Sucks!’ podcast and recently directed the short film ‘CACHE’ for ESSEX FILM COLLECTIVE. @jamie_evans_impalafilms