A Dreamer Walking

John Ford – An Observation – Clear Direction

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on April 18, 2012

John Ford 3Directors from the 30’s through the 50’s did not have nearly the control directors have now. I am not saying directors have complete control now but in areas like editing and scoring a picture directors back in the early days had little to no say. John Ford disliked the editing room and was hardly in it. This made me question whether Ford was a true director or not. A director in my opinion is the man who is personally guiding the picture through all the steps of production. How could Ford guide the editing of a project if he hardly saw the editor?

Through further study of Ford I have come to realize Ford was the main editor of his films. Ford edited the picture far before it got to the editing room. He actually edited most of his pictures before he started shooting. Ford had a clear idea of what he wanted his films to be. In the editing room the studios had the power and Ford knew this. No matter what the directors intentions might have been, the studios back in the old days would take control once the film hit post-production. Ford battled this by not giving the studio heads anything more then the bare minimum. He would not shoot like the other directors of his time–capturing the whole scene in first a master, then a medium, and then a few close ups. Scott Eyman in his biography of Ford explains, “[Ford] would shoot only those portions of a given shot that he needed for the scene as he had mentally formulated it. This severely limited editing choices, and meant that Ford had to be right the first time”. Ford needed to have such a clear idea of what he wanted he could stop in a middle of a scene and go to the next shot he had pictured in his head.

The extreme conviction in the direction he wanted to go is one of the things that made Ford such a great director. Cinematographer Charles Clarke made a few films with Ford in the silent era. He said when he first worked with Ford on Upstream (1927) he did not see the relationship between the scenes they were filming. A few weeks later the picture was announced finished and Charles was under the impression they were just getting started. Even though he could not find any rhyme or reason in what they had been filming, when released Charles saw the film and thought it was quite a good picture. Charles explains that Ford had been editing in his head while they had been shooting and although it didn’t make sense to most of the crew, Ford knew how everything was coming together.

Ford knew what was needed and what wasn’t. He Understood story as well if not better then any of the great screenwriters of the day. He knew what needed to stay in the picture and he knew the scenes and pieces of dialogue he didn’t need to even bother shooting. With the old western epic The Iron Horse (1924) the only script the Fox Studio has ends half way through. The rest of the film was basically created by Ford on the go. He didn’t bother writing anything down, he just knew what would make a good story and improvised many of the scenes on the spot. Nobody but Ford understood exactly how the film was going to come together, yet lo and behold it ended up turning into one of the greatest westerns of the silent era.

We can learn a lot from Ford here. The digital era of filmmaking has brought about a curtain amount of indecision. We like to experiment and try many different things. Sometimes this can lead to brilliance but often it ends up leading to stories with no clear purpose or direction. When creating a story we need to have a clear idea of what we want. We can only know what we want if we understand what the story is about. We need to know our material well enough that every shot, piece of dialogue, and choice of music is made because we think it will get us closer to our destination. Ford’s directions were so clear because he understood what the destinations of his movies were and he believed in his abilities to get there.

John Ford- And Observation- Tension On Set

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on April 15, 2012

Ford was one of the top directors in Hollywood so he was given some of the most juicy scrips and greatest stars of the day. With this came a huge amount of responsibility and pressure. Unlike the directors of today, who make about one movie every two to three years, Ford usually needed to make two to three films within a year. This obviously created tight production schedules. Ford’s extremely high ambitions accompanied with his crew’s absolute dedication to satisfy him only added to this mounting pressure. With all this pressure there is bound to be a curtain amount of tension on set. Most directors try to subdue the tension by being warm to their crew members and letting them realize filmmaking is a team sport full of mistakes. Not John. He embraced tension as a foundation of his directing style.

There was always a chip on Ford’s shoulder. Maybe this came from being a son of a Irish immigrant. Maybe it came from being the youngest of five and being picked on as a kid. Or maybe this came from being picked on by the studio system through out his career. No matter what it really was one of the first things I realized when studying Ford was he was not an easy going man. Jimmy Stewart described Ford’s sets as always being tense. If a crew member did not choose his actions or words wisely they were in danger of getting hit or insulted by Ford.

Ford wanted to be in control. He wanted his crew to be ready as soon as he got on set and he did not want to be questioned when asking one of his crew members to do something- even if he was asking them to get into a real fist fight on camera or jump off of a real horse while going full speed.  Ford wanted to get each shot in one take. He had no interest in doing things the same way movie after movie, so by trying new things there was bound to be a learning curve. However, Ford had little patients when something was not working. Tension often creates a greater awareness and a more professional attitude from crew members. On Ford’s sets nobody was supposed to feel at home. They were supposed to understand the demanding requirements of the studio system. Filmmaking for Ford was a job and not something to take lightly.

Tension was created between the actors in order for Ford to get the best performance out of them. While making Two Road Together, staring both Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark, Ford took Jimmy Stewart to the side and told him to watch out because Richard was a good actor and would start stealing his scenes if he wasn’t careful. Later Stewart found out Ford had said the same thing to Richard. Ford went to John Wayne while making The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and openly asked why he couldn’t be more like Stewart. He created a competitive atmosphere so crew members and actors would be pushing each other to perform to their best. Ford told actors at times that he was thinking of taking their key scenes out of the script in order to get the best performance out of them when the time came to shoot the scene. People who did not work well competitively did not last long.

I believe there needed to be a curtain amount of tension on set to in order to create so many quality films in such a small space of time. However, the tension Ford created was not always good. I think it led to less creativity from his crew and actors. You don’t see as much nuance in the performances of most of Ford’s characters. John Wayne and Henry Fonda seem to play the same characters in all the Ford movies I’ve seen them in. If a cast or crew member was afraid he’d get punched because of a suggestion he made, he was unlikely to make the suggestion. This led to missed opportunities in many of Ford’s films.

Ford was who he was and he worked in the way he thought was best. It is undeniable he was successful. Yet, I can’t help but feel Ford was hurt by the many pressures from the studios and the many demons of his past. A curtain amount of tension is needed on any set, but when it starts to hurt creativity and collaboration one wonders if it is necessary.

John Ford – An Observation – Beginnings

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on April 9, 2012

John Ford 5John Ford was a poet and a bully. He was a natural at his art form. A man who always seemed to know where his films needed to go. Ford was not a likable man. He has admitted he was somewhat of a slave driver who really only  had a talent for composing a shot. However, as mean as he was to his crew he had a lot of people stick with him. Ford was known for making both Henry Fonda and John Wayne into big stars. He started off his directing career with the silent film star Harry Carey. They made twenty six pictures together. From the 1930’s on everyone wanted to make a picture with John Ford, including Shirley Temple; who did so in 1937 with Wee Willie Winkie.

The persona John Ford gave to the public was one of a rough manly man who wouldn’t take no shit from anyone. However, Ford was not the kind of filmmaker who was good in just one genre. Even though he was most known for his Westerns, Wee Willie Winkie is proof that he could explore completely different types of stories. Ford’s greatest achievement was his ability to explore cultures and show the world the fragility of family. Movies like Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley give us insight on how the world tends to break families apart. His films often concentrate on the outsider, something Ford had personal understanding of being as a son to an immigrant.

One could not go up to Ford and ask who he was. If you did you would almost always receive a lie. Ford made sure he did not share with the public who he really was. When being interviewed Ford would give short answers, even though he knew the interviewer wanted more. He stretched and even fabricate the truth to make himself look better or to make the story sound better. If you asked Ford the wrong kind of question you would need to watch out, he wouldn’t hesitate to throw something at you or hit you. He was known for his cruel practical jokes. He was a man who wouldn’t hesitate to cuss one of his crew members out. But, behind John Ford’s persona there was a man with deep emotion and conviction. Ford fought to keep each film’s integrity alive. He understood the value of life and made his audience laugh and cry as well as anyone.

If you want to know John Ford watch his films.

Here are some suggestions: The Iron Horse (1924), Four Sons (1928), Pilgrimage (1933), The Informer (1935), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Stagecoach (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

Suspense 101: The Unexpected

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 6, 2012

Hitchcock says after you tell the audience the bomb is going to go off it must never go off. If the bomb goes off and the character your audience cares about ends up dead the audience will be displeased and might even walk out on you. At least, this is how the movie going audience was in Hitchcock’s day. Today it is a bit different.

We have a job as filmmakers to satisfy our audience. We must satisfy them enough for them to want to come back again. This does not mean we need to give the audience everything they want. The audience member has come to expect a happy ending. They have begun to understand our tricks. Suspense is not as strong in film anymore because the audience knows in the end everything will be alright. Today, film must not be so predictable. Loss is needed to keep the suspense in film alive. If you have a small bomb go off and kill some key characters in the middle of the film your audience will be more worried about the bomb at the end of the film.

Audience members want to believe in what they see. For them to believe, our stories must feel real. They need to have all the joy and pain we see in everyday life. Everything does not go just right in our own life, neither should it go just right in film. The key element in both suspense and mystery is wonder. We don’t know what will happen. Keep the wonder alive and you will keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Even if a “happy ending” is eventually going to happen don’t give in until the last possible moment. Andrew Stanton (writer of Toy Story 1 & 2Finding Nemo, and Wall-E) talked about the importance of suspense in the Pixar films. In the first Toy Story movie Woody is given a match toward the beginning of the third act. At the end of the act Woody and Buzz are chasing Andy’s van when the battery of the remote control car runs out. All is lost until Woody realizes he has the match and could set Buzz’s rocket on fire and catch up with the van. He lights the match and is about to light the rocket when a car drives over them and extinguishes  the match. The surprise, dread, and heartbreak created in every 3rd-8th grader was priceless. Eventually Woody lights the rocket and get to Andy’s van, but there was a tremendous amount of entertainment generated by the creators of Toy Story not giving into the audience’s expectations right away. Pixar just got better after the original Toy Story. They had Woody save Jesse in Toy Story 2 only to have the plane door close right before they were able to jump out. They had Lotso Hugging Bear get up to the “stop” button only to not press it and doom the whole toy gang to be terminated in the furnace in Toy Story 3. Only when all hope is gone and the audience truly begins to wonder if the Pixar creators are really going to let these toys, we have come to love, die does “The Claw” come and save them.

Filmmakers must walk a delicate line. If you draw the suspense out for too long you will exhaust the audience. If you go against what the audience wants you run the risk of pissing them off. Great film is created when the creators get the little details right. I think the most important thing is to go with your gut. As Frank Capra (director of It Happened One Night, and It’s a Wonderful Life) said, “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness”. Your story will be dull if the audience knows what is going to happen. Keep them guessing. Tension is only created when the audience does not know what is going to happen next.

Here are links to the rest of my Suspense Series:

1. Suspense 101

2. Suspense 101: The Unexpected

3. Suspense 101: Technique

4. Suspense 101: Creating Meaning

Suspense 101

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 1, 2012

There are two ways to create entertainment for those who choose to watch your film. 1. You create entertainment through enlightening, humoring, or awing your audience in the present tense. 2. You create entertainment through expectation of the future; creating a sort of mystery and suspense that keeps your audience member on the edge of his or her seat in anticipation.

I have seen several moments/scenes/sequences in film that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I was in awe of the land of Pandora when watching Avatar for the first time. The sequence where Jake and the rest of the Na’vi go up the mountain cliffs to ride the ikran was unbelievable and an unforgettable experience. Red Skelton, Bill Cosby, and Robin Williams have given us thousands of hours of entertainment through masterful comic timing with their ability to create humor from pretty much any scenario. There are also moments in film I will never forget because of the overwhelming emotion I have felt while watching them. The black Union solders making the charge up the hill of Fort Wagner in Glory, Raymond Babbitt reaching out to touch foreheads with his brother in Rain Man, and Jefferson Smith making his speech at the end of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, are just a few of those moments which not only entertained me but effected who I am and what I will do for the rest of my life.

However, this post is not about addressing the present. It is about creating suspense in film. This is just one of several posts I will do on the subject. In this post I want to tackle the basic idea of suspense in film. Suspense has been in film from almost the very beginning. As soon as filmmakers realized they could cut back and forth between scenarios that were happening in completely different places, they realized they could create a tension through giving the audience a curtain amount of information but keeping us in the dark with knowledge of the final result. To explain the basic idea of suspense I will call upon the “master of suspense” himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

The bottom line is you create more entertainment through suspense then you do with shock. Shock will only last seconds, suspense can last through whole films. One of the greatest ways to create suspense is by giving the audience more information then the characters on screen. If you let them know the Reaper is coming to kill the babysitter and show several minutes of the babysitter just sitting around, you are building suspense. If you show the babysitter about to leave and the Reaper coming, you build even more suspense because you are creating a scinerio where the unknown victim is seconds away from being safe. Imagine the babysitter leaves and a few seconds latter comes back in because she forgot something. You know the Reaper is close because we keep on cutting back to him with the huge blade in his hand and the music getting more and more intense. You know his intention is to kill the babysitter. Yet, there she is just looking for her keys. “They are on the MICROWAVE!!!”, we yell. She can’t hear us. A few seconds later she finds them. But now she begins to talk to Mrs. Smith about eye makeup of all things. We all know if she gets into her car and leaves she will be okay. But no. IT’S TOO LATE! the Reaper is finally there.

We have had several minutes of entertainment through just watching this babysitter search for her keys and talk about eye makeup; two very boring things to watch and listen to if just shown by themselves (at least far more boring then talking about baseball as Hitchcock seems to think 😡 ). We as filmmakers must learn how to draw entertainment out of our scenes. We also need to know when to give our audience a break from suspense. There are many examples in film these days where the filmmakers wear their audience out with suspense. If we don’t let the audience rest and we get too gory, we will begin to numb our audience. There needs to be a perfect balance.

The heart of a film can not be tension and suspense. Suspense is only worth anything if we care about the characters first. Something I will get further into in a different post. It is very important to understand suspense can be created in any kind of movie, not just in the horror and action genre. You can create suspense through creating a scenario where we don’t know if our protagonist will or will not pass and important test, whether the guy will or will not end up with the girl of his dreams, or whether the guy from the slums will or will not make something out of his life. The more you connect your world and characters with the audience the more effective the suspense in your film will be.

Some people, including Hitchcock, think suspense and mystery are different. I do not. Both need to give a curtain amount of information to intrigue the audience and keep a curtain amount of information hidden to keep the audience guessing. We knew, in the example above, the Reaper was coming, but we didn’t know if the babysitter was going to escape. (Actually, we still don’t know if she lived or died, or at least you don’t ;). This leads to the last point Hitchcock made in the video above– Must the Reaper never kill the babysitter or has the audience member changed in the last few decades? Has the tragedy become the new “happy ending”? I will address this question in my next post.

Here are links to the rest of my Suspense Series:

1. Suspense 101

2. Suspense 101: The Unexpected

3. Suspense 101: Technique

4. Suspense 101: Creating Meaning