A Dreamer Walking

Thoughts From Tarkovsky – The Ever-Changing World

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on July 22, 2016

It is a grave, I would even say, fatal, mistake to try to make a film correspond exactly with what is written on paper, to translate onto structures that have been thought out in advance, purely intellectually. That simple operation can be carried out by any professional craftsman. Because it is a living process, artistic creation demands a capacity for direct observation of the ever-changing material world, which is constantly in movement.”  – Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time

This is just one of countless insights I have found from Andrei Tarkovsky’s book, Sculpting in Time. The quote is extra relevant today since there are so many new tools being developed in order to plan out stories, scenes, and even specific shots in advance. Film demands a curtain amount of structure. The very definition of a “frame” suggests structure. Yet, more then any other artistic medium, filmmaking rewards those who are able to break away from the inherent structure of film and adapt to the ever-changing world around us.

I have been in the process of creating several short documentaries. Last year a friend and I made a 20 min documentary on a clinically blind 91 year old woman who walked a mile and a half to church every Sunday. One of the most daunting aspects was the absence of a script. Unlike with fictional filmmaking I was not allowed to create a story before going to shoot. All I could do was hope to find little moments in the process of making the film and put them together in the end to tell a complete story.

What the inability to use structure demanded of me was to observe. I couldn’t rely on any per-conceived ideas. I needed seek out the truth each day, in every moment I captured. Even in the interviews there were contradictions between the characters we covered. Instead of looking at what was said, I found the greatest truths were revealed through mall things, like a hint of a smile or a movement in the eyes; things I would never even think of let alone know how to write into a script.

In the process of making the doc I became less and less interested in telling a specific story. I told my partner I didn’t want this to be about a 91 year old who had all sorts of insights to pass down to younger generations. I didn’t want this to be a doc about a 91 year old who was about to die. I simply wanted it to be about a person who happened to be 91 and let her tell us the rest of the story.

In the end we were able to create a story out of the pieces our subject gave us. But the story had less to do with getting to specific answers and more to do with going on a journey. For a brief 20 minutes we let the audience take a walk with a 91 year old lady and discover a few divine insights before departing. Because we had not yet come to any conclusions before filming we were able to discover insights none of us by ourselves would have ever made.

A beauty of filmmaking is numerous people, if allowed, contribute to the whole of the story. If we structure our story too much we disallow the individual contribution of the person directing the film, the individual holding the camera, or man portraying the character. The difference between a craftsman and an artist is the ability to go beyond what is on the page and bring new insights to the table. We must have an unified vision, a similar journey we want to go on, but its expression need not be limited to one voice. As a unified group we can get to far greater places than we can as individuals.

Joe Wright- An Observation- Telling a Story

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on March 5, 2013

Joe Wright is one of those filmmakers who likes to let his audience know he is telling a story. At the beginning of Pride and Prejudice the main character Elizabeth is reading a book, which Wright described as the beginning of the story she is about to go on. In Atonement the first thing we see is Briony typing out the last part of her play. At the end of the story we find out she is in fact the author of the story we are watching. The Soloist revolves around a group of articles the main character Steve Lopez wrote for his newspaper.  Hanna was described by Wright as a sort of fairytale and we see Wright express this motif constantly; through the main character Hanna reading out of the Brothers Grimm book, the way Wiegler dresses in green and red to resemble a witch, and the fact the whole third act takes place in a deserted circus land which resembles something you would see in a classic fairytale. In Wright’s latest feature Anna Karenina he goes a step further in making it obvious what we are seeing is made up. He fictionalizes the story by setting it in a theater. Wright makes it obvious the actors are on the stage when performing.  Instead of cutting to another scene we at times see prop men come out and change the location in front of our eyes. We even have scenes take place in the prop room, backstage, and up on the catwalks.

If you really think about it most films have very little resemblance to real life. Even the ones based on true stories are completely manipulated in order to express a curtain view. Whether these views are of substance, accurate, or worth your time has everything to do with the storyteller. Joe Wright is a master at using the tools of cinema to manipulate the audience’s view. Wright doesn’t even try to hide this fact. He wants you to understand you are watching a story and not reality. He tells you this through the way he composes shots,  uses music, and edits his films. In fact every time a filmmaker chooses to make a cut, use a curtain angle, or bring in music he is manipulating the audience’s emotions. Wright just is a master at it. His job as a filmmaker is not to tell the literal truth, it is to use the tools of manipulation he has at his disposal to tell the emotional truth of his story.

 “A storyteller is someone who hides the truth in fiction so you can see it better”
Steven Parolini

This is one of the best explanations of a filmmaker’s job. We have the power to send people off to lands where gods and giants rein, to galaxy’s light years away, or to worlds that resemble ours but have toys come to life and animals talk. Wright makes no attempt to make you believe what you are seeing is real. He understands the power of the audience understanding they are watching a story. He wants to exaggerate what we see in real life and create an experience. His job is to understand the heart of his story to such a great extant he could manipulate whatever he needs in order to make the heart of his film resonate with the audience. Wright has experienced life. His films are proof of this.The heart of his stories come from a real and truthful place in his heart.

The reason films like Hanna, a story of a child trained assassin, or Pride & Prejudice, a 17th century drama, resonate with the audience is because they go beyond their genre and show universal truths. Whatever Wright thinks he needs to peel away in order to express those truths more clearly he will take away. It is why we see such impressionistic work in a movie like Anna Karenina. Wright felt the story of lust and love would work better if he heightened the surroundings. He uses extreme color schemes in order to express the emotions of the story and his characters. In the movie Wright does not waste time cutting to different scenes. He has many of the sets change in front of our eyes because his characters’ lives are in constant flux. In Wright’s films we follow his characters’ emotional arcs. The surrounding is completely changeable depending on where his characters are emotionally.

Telling a story requires a lot of talent and technique to get it right. The director needs to be thinking about the framing, music, lighting, sound design, costumes, actors, camera movement, how all those things contribute to the scene, and how the scene contributes to the whole, through out the whole filmmaking process. This takes a lot of devotion and study to get right. You will not get someone who is interested in putting in the countless hours of time and effort unless he is completely devoted to telling the story he has to tell. Joe Wright is a storyteller and his art is telling a story. No wonder he likes acknowledging this in his films from time to time. Yet, Wright doesn’t care whether you catch his acknowledgments. He actually wants you to get so interested in his worlds and so close to his characters you get completely invested in the story. He wants to reveal to you the wonders of the worlds he creates and the emotions of his characters. He wants to tell you a story you will never forget.

Joe Wright- An Observation- Dyslexia

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on February 8, 2013

I first started to research director Joe Wright when I found out he was dyslexic. He has said in interviews his dyslexia made him feel stupid and is one of the big reasons he didn’t finish school. The man just didn’t read as fast as other students and he wasn’t a linguistic thinker. I am sure the school system was, like it is to so many other dyslexics, not kind to Mr. Wright. It is interesting however that Wright says his dyslexia is also the reason he has been so successful in the film profession. In a interview on The Telegraph Wright stated, “I think my dyslexia was a vital part of my development because my inability to read and write meant that I had to find knowledge elsewhere so I looked to the cinema”.

A fair question to ask is “why did Wright fail in school but find substance through the cinema?”.  In order to understand you must learn a little more about dyslexia. Dyslexia is usually labeled as a learning disability. Those diagnosed with dyslexia usually have a hard time with organization, reading, writing, and spelling. The majority of school systems rely heavily on verbal and linguistic teaching creating a huge disadvantage for dyslexics.  Knowing this it is easy to understand why Wright failed in the school system. However the cinema can also be a learning tool. The cinema teaches through the use of images. Through the cinema’s stories we learn lessons on politics, geography, evolution, religion, humanity, and so on.

I don’t believe Dyslexia is a learning disability. It is a different way of thinking. Dyslexics think through images. Some of the strengths associated with dyslexia are the ability to think spatially, being able to look at a problem from multiple angles, advancements in the imagination, and being able to see the big picture of any given problem or project. If you watch Joe Wright’s movies you can see how he has a firm grasp in all these areas.

When listening to Wright talk about his films it seems he relies more on instinct then any literal reasoning. He has done the research for his project but he wants to let the locations and visuals dictate the way he films. Because of this we find every frame in his movies stimulating. His main mission is to provoke emotion through his visuals. Wright never lets the details of the plot get in the way of his characters’ emotional growth. As a dyslexic myself I remember taking tests and always doing badly because I didn’t remember names and dates. What fascinated me and the things I constantly talked to my parents about were the emotions of the events I had learned about, how those impacted the people during that time period, and how they related to me in the present. I understood the material but didn’t have the ability to express my understanding through writing or the the tests I took. I can imagine Wright had a similar problems.

For Wright the literal facts seem to be the farthest from his mind. In Wright’s first feature film Pride & Prejudice he doesn’t care about the fact that Elizabeth Bennett is at a much lower class then Mr. Darcy as much as he cares about the emotional effect that fact has on their relationship. In Hanna the whole plot point of the title character Hanna being genetically altered in order to be a better killer was described by Wright as no more then a “macguffin” (a plot device with little to no explanation, used to propel the story). What mattered is this plot point propelled us into an emotional story.  We see a child grow up and emotionally go to battle with what she was made to do verses what is morally right.

One of the most important things a director must be able to do is have the big picture of the film in his mind while shooting individual scenes. It has been clinically proven that dyslexics use their right brain to a much higher extant than most non-dyslexics. The right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for seeing connections that tie things together and seeing how parts relate to wholes. The beach scene in Atonement and the exploration of Skid Row in The Soloist are examples of Wright leaving the main characters entirely in order to observe the bigger picture. He is able to ground his individual stories by showing us the world around the stories.

Wright creates connections in his films in many ways, including the use of mirror imagery, musical themes, and repeating pieces of dialogue. In Hanna we see the title character use the same line of dialogue to start off the story and to end it; making us reflect on how or if the events she went on had created any change. Two of the key scenes in Atonement are when the main character Briony tells the great lie to the investigators towards the beginning of the story and the truth to the reporter at the end of the story. The lie is what sends us into the conflict the rest of the story revolves around and the truth is what resolves the story and brings the audience closure. Wright binds the two scenes by using the same framing, background, and has the main character Briony looking straight into frame both times. We instantly see how these scenes are connected and how important they are to the narrative of the story.  At the beginning of Pride & Prejudice we hear the musical theme we come to associate with Elizabeth and the Bennett Family. However the same music is played by Mr. Darcy’s younger sister when Elizabeth visits Mr. Darcy’s house. Though Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s worlds look quite different the music unites them emotionally. Wright’s ability to understand the complete story gives him more insight on how to direct these individual scenes and connect them to the greater narrative.

No matter how much a dyslexic has worked to overcome his or her natural weaknesses the struggles are never completely resolved. Wright still says it takes him much longer to read a script or a book then most people. However he has found ways to change these perceived  weaknesses into strengths. Wright has said, “Because I think visually, not being able to read meant that other parts of my brain were pushed further, and so when I read a book, I have to see it”. It is not a accident that three of the five movies Wright has directed have been based on literary classics. It’s not that Wright is against reading, very few dyslexics are. It’s just the words come to Wright’s mind as pictures. Wright’s ability to see what he is reading allows him to translate the written word to film in a much more visually expressive way.

There are many others who have struggled in the classroom to become some of the greatest filmmakers in history. It is suspected that the great filmmaker David Lean struggled with dyslexia as a child. He hardly got by in the school system and was constantly made fun of by peers and his father for being a slow learner. Steven Spielberg is another diagnosed dyslexic who also severely struggled in the school system. These filmmakers did not just overcome their dyslexia they have used it do miraculous things in the cinema.  I feel Joe Wright is on his way. Many would call movies like Pride & Prejudice and Atonement some of the best films of this new century. It is hard not to call his five minute shot of the Dunkirk evacuation one of the most awe inspiring shots in all of cinema. Wright continues to explore his art form and he is going in an ambitious direction. His last two films have been criticized for being over the top and against the grain of established cinema. However “against the grain” is a perfect description of dyslexia. We think in a different way and are often called failures in the established system because of it. Still, many of these school system failures, such as Steven Spielberg, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison, have the greatest success stories in our history.

Personality Filmmaking

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on December 9, 2012

There was once a time when film was seen as no more then a medium for interesting magic tricks and simple sight gags. In fact some of the founding fathers of film, such as Thomas Edison, saw little future in the medium. They thought it was going to be a passing fad, an attraction that could not hold but a few minutes of an audience’s attention. This makes me question how many great inventions failed due to lack of vision? In the last century film has progressed from a passing attraction to a fully developed entertainment, an entertainment that has both thrilled and inspired billions. Film’s success has not just been achieved through the revolutionary technical developments- developments such as sound, color, and computer generated visual effects- but also an ability to dive deep into human nature and give us thorough and diverse looks at what makes us who we are.

When film went farther then simple magic tricks and sight gags the audience started to really get interested. Filmmakers like Edwin S. Porter and later D.W. Griffith brought to the medium thrilling stories which began to entrance a much broader audience. Slowly in the mid to later years of the silent era of film we began to see characters who had individual personalities. The personalities we saw in some of these characters were so impacting audiences kept coming back to see them in action. The most revered of these personalities in the silent days was Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character. The Tramp was a hopeless romantic with a heart of gold. Chaplin was able to capture his audience’s hearts by being vulnerable with them and making his gags and stories speak to the essence of his character. He was one of the first to perfect personality storytelling; where the audience goes to the film just as much for the characters as the story.

Walt Disney was another one of the visionaries to take a hold of personality filmmaking. While all the other cartoons were making shorts revolving around characters with little personality doing funny and abstract gags through the freedom of animation, Walt was hard at work defining his characters and revolving the humor around their individuality. One of the  prime examples of this was the 1933 short The Three Little Pigs. In the short Walt and his artists were able to show district personalities between the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. While the pigs represented the innocents of America, and through the third pig, our nations determination to work its way out of the great depression, the wolf represented the evils of the depression and its determination to sink the American spirit. Immediately audience members were able to connect with both the good pigs and the bad wolf. The characters personalities allowed the audience to get more involved with the story and made the short one of the most acclaimed of all time.

In Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Walt took personality animation several steps forward. He created in each one of the dwarfs an individual makup which not only progressed the story but also gave the audience a deeper connection to the whole. Through just the names of the dwarfs a tremendous amount of personality is suggested. All the characters’ actions and gags were processed through their personality. A character like Dopey had an innocent type of humor which came from his oblivious view on the world while a character like Grumpy made the audience laugh through his negative and stubborn opinions. Walt took the basic outline of the Brother Grimm’s Snow White story and got rid of all the excess material in order to concentrate more on his characters’ personalities. A lot of Disney’s Snow White story revolves around simple things we see in every day life; an average day at work, cleaning the house, washing up for supper, and a festive dance.  These events are made entertaining through Disney’s wonderful ability to entrance us with his characters, individuality. Characters like Dopey and Grumpy are engraved in our imaginations because of how they conducted themselves in these seemingly ordinary situations.

One of the most influential series in this last decade has been the Bourne Trilogy. Literally hundreds of action films began to adapt the Bourne film’s hand-held, tightly cut, film style because of the movie’s success. However, the film’s success did not come from the specific way it was shot. The power of the series came from the filmmaker’s devotion towards the title character, Jason Bourne. Although the movies had tons of high quality action, it was the character behind the action that drew us in. In the first film Jason Bourne learns to see himself as more then just a military project. In the second film Bourne is forced to come face to face with the sins of his past. In the third film Bourne sets out on a journey to understand what made him choose to become who he was. All these stories revolve around Bourne’s search for humanity. The action in the films gets its strength through the audience’s invested interest in Bourne’s personal story. We know the struggle Bourne goes through when he is forced to kill, when he loses those who are close to him, and when his past won’t leave him alone.

The moments I remember in film are when William Wallace yells “Freedom!” at the end of Braveheart, when Jefferson Smith says “I guess this is just another ‘lost cause’ Mr. Paine” in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and when Raymond Babbitt touches his forehead to his brother Charlie in Rain Man. These moments touch my heart because of what they say about their characters. The filmmakers spend the whole movie connecting us to their characters so these moments at the end of the film are able to truly impact us. Stories must be about the character. Don’t make your stories so big you lose their humanity. During it’s production Walt Disney’s first feature film, Snow White, was called by many “Disney’s Folly”. People thought it wasn’t possible to entertain an audience for more then an hour with a cartoon. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs succeeded because Walt did not consider Snow White a “cartoon”. To Walt the characters in his movie were real. They had interests and feelings Walt and his artists spent countless hours trying to understand and defend. Because these characters were real to Walt they became real to us.

Create stories that go beyond the imaginary and become real. The characters in your stories can not be in place just to move the plot along.  They must go beyond cliche’s and speak to the individual. The protagonist, villain, and secondary character, who only is seen for a few minutes in the film, can become unforgettable if you spend enough time figuring out who they are. Give us a reason to come back. No matter if they are made by drawings, in the computer, or through an actor’s performance, you need to create characters with personalities and passions so real they can live in the imaginations of millions.

Three Acts

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 24, 2012

Most essays consist of a introduction, body, and conclusion. The introduction is only about one or two paragraphs. In it you need to grab your audience’s attention with your subject matter. You need to introduce a problem and get your audience interested in learning about the solution. The body is where most of the writing happens.  You need to go into the specifics of your subject and go deep into what exactly it takes to solve the problem you introduced in the intro. The conclusion is usually the shortest of the three. It is where you tie everything together. You must show exactly why your subject is worth remembering.

Filmmaking is not much different.  Every story we tell needs to have a strong beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning the world of the story is established and the main characters are introduced.  The fatal flaw the main character spends the rest of the story dealing with is also introduced. The second act is when the plot unfolds and the main character is taken on a journey that usually forces him to see and try to deal with his fatal flaw.  The third act is where everything comes together to create the ultimate test for the main protagonist and we see if he overcomes his fatal flaw or is overcome by it. It really is as simple as that.

The three acts in storytelling are not in place to limit the storyteller. As I said, there is a beginning, middle, and end in every story. Most likely you will create a three act structure in your story whether you are aware of it or not. The goal is to not only be aware of it but also understand how it works best. You might have some great story ideas, however if not executed properly they will have little impact on your audience.

The second and third acts mean little if the first act doesn’t draw your audience in. The first act creates the foundation for the rest of the film to stand on. Both the world and characters of the story must be established in the first act. The action and plot will come later. In the first act you need to show us a world we will find interesting and introduce characters that we want to look into and understand. The protagonist needs to be someone we can relate to if not also like. If the character is unrelatable we will have no interest in his failures or successes. The main character should be comfortable  in the prison his flaw has created. He might think he is on top of his game, but we need to see how he is also trapped. We must see his fatal flaw as a flaw. If there is no flaw there is no need for a story. Usually the main character’s flaw is hidden in his greatest quality.

Things start to change in the second act. Right around the 25th to 30th minute of most movies an event comes into the main character’s life that completely changes his routine. This is the introduction of the conflict. The plot must completely revolve around the main character and his flaw. Don’t throw your character into a situation just because you think it would be “cool”.  The plot must give us a deeper understanding of the main character and bring his flaw to the surface of the story. The conflict must completely change things up while still staying true to the world you created. The main character is usually thrown into the second act, it is something he cannot control. The second act represents the journey. It’s the longest act of the three. A few new characters can be introduced as long as they help reflect the struggle going on within the protagonist. The second act shows the depth of the storyteller. Are the characters and the struggles the characters are going through cliche or unrealistic? Or, do you have a story that has layers, that feels personal and deep, and one that gives us a deeper insight into the world we live in?

Sometimes the second act is split in two. The first part could show the protagonist running away from his flaw and the second could be about the protagonist acknowledging his flaw and preparing himself to face it. If the character’s flaw is more than skin deep it will create layers in your story that will take time to uncover. It would be a huge mistake to hurry the second act up in order to get to the climax. Each journey is different and it is important to take the time that is needed. There could be action and a lot of adventure in the second act, but do not over do it. The second act is not about dazzling the audience right and left, it’s about a journey inside the human soul. The second act is preparing both the protagonist and the audience for the climax of the picture.

The transition between the second and third act usually comes on a low note rather then a high one. It is the calm before the storm. Do not clutter the end of your movie with too much action. Let your audience experience a low so the high is more impacting. Give the climax room to breath. The third act is where the main character either overcomes his flaw or is overcome by it. Everything must come together to make a final statement. How have the characters you established in the first act and the journey you took them on in the second act set us up for the final test?  You do not need to give us any straight answers in the third act but you do need to create a sense of completion. For example, the fatal flaw you address in the third act might not be the only problem in your character’s life. However, dealing with the flaw might allow your character to see other problems in his life that he could deal with in the future. Sometimes you show the character dealing with those problems in the future by creating a sequel. Sometimes you just leave the rest of the story to the audience’s imagination. The key is that you dealt with the big problem you introduced at the beginning of the story. Whether you deal with it through tragedy or success is up to you. The third act is usually the shortest of the three. Make your point and don’t doddle. Once your climax is finished and you have made your point, tie up the rest of the story quickly. There is no need to linger.

What I have introduced to you is the basic structure of a three act story. However, it defiantly is not how every story works. Sometimes the stories have five or more acts. Sometimes the main character is the character with the smallest arc in the story. There are plenty ways a storyteller can bend and even break the rules. However, this is a good basis for a storyteller to start with. In every story there needs to be a world and characters we can invest in and a problem that takes a journey to solve. If you truly want to impact your audience with your ideas and stories you must learn how to structure them. You must not just have a brilliant story in your head, you need to know how to get it onto paper and from paper into the heads of others.

Suspense 101: Technique

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on June 5, 2012

Creating good suspense requires many elements. One person can not possibly do it alone. You must have a good team around you. Steven Spielberg has one of the most gifted crews in the history of film and he has had most of them for his entire career. Just think what Jaws would be without John Williams iconic two note music, what Jurassic Park would be without Richard Hymns haunting dinosaur sounds, or how movies like Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, or Munich would be without Michael Kahn’s masterful editing? Suspense is working at its best when all the technical parts of cinema come together to enhance the tension.

I do not think there are many better people to study then Alfred Hitchcock in order to understand how to master the technical aspects of creating good tension and suspense in film. Hitchcock seemed to know exactly where to place the camera, when to bring in music, and how to stage his acting in order to create the greatest amount of tension on screen. Hitchcock would not blast his audience with quick editing, a bunch of music, and extreme close ups in order to get his point across. Rather, he was very calculated with what he used and what he kept out. Sometimes it was silence that created the most tension on screen. Sometimes to create strong suspense he even used the opposite of what one would expect.  Just look at his movie Rear Window and how Hitchcock has classical music playing while we see Jeff’s girlfriend Lisa sneak into potential killer Lars Thorwald’s apartment while he is just coming home.

To create great suspense you need to understand the elements of what makes great film. You need to gather a team around you who are masters at their craft. Don’t look for the composer who wants to be the next Mozart, look for the composer who knows how to handle the most complex score, where to place the most simplistic of themes, or when to use no music at all. Don’t look for the cinematographer who wants to put up a light show with dazzling colors and extreme compositions, rather look for someone who understands the importance of a single light and the kind of information the audience can get from the simplest of compositions.  With Spielberg the simplest objects were used to great dramatic effect. In E.T. Spielberg didn’t have a very functional puppet to represent the title character E. T. so what he chose to do was reveal very little of E.T. for most of the film. This created a sense of wonder and allowed the audience’s imagination to create a much more lively character then even the best of CGI could have done.  Spielberg was able to speak volumes by just shooting E.T.’s hands. In Jurassic Park one of the most suspenseful moments comes from a shot of ripples in a cup of water. We know what is coming when we see this and the reveal of the tyrannosaurus rex is that much more satisfying.

Good cinema has less to do with the ability to shoot with the latest camera or utilize the latest editing system. It has much more to do with being able to use what you are given to your advantage. Suspense is all about information–the information we reveal and the information we keep hidden.  We shouldn’t show everything, which is hard to enforce in the digital age we live in. Executives feel like we should show the audience everything. They can’t wait to introduce the villain. The plot needs to start right away. Action needs to be packed into every scene. This all adds up to a lesser dramatic effect. The technique of suspense is discovered through restraint. Let the unseen become just as entertaining as the seen. Relish in the anticipation rather than rush to the outcome. The term less is more speaks volumes when it comes to filmmaking. The reason why so many go back to the past to study suspense is because filmmakers like Hitchcock and Ford were forced to create a lot out of a little in film after film. They were technically restrained in the ways they could tell their stories. And, partly because of this they have become icons in the world of film.

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

John Ford- An Observation- A Thousand Fights

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 21, 2012

In the 1930’s and 40’s Hollywood everyone was under contract, especially the directors and actors. For the most part Ford had little say in the movies he made. He needed to work with the scripts the studios gave him. Ford said he would tell the studios if the script would make a lousy, good, or great picture, but no matter what he was given he would do the best he could with it. This, along with the little time Ford was given to plan, brought about some mediocre films in his career. Very few could really fight against the studio system and make it through with a strong career. Frank Capra and Orson Welles are examples of directors who fought tooth and nail against the control of the studios. As a result both directors had great beginnings to their careers but ended up burning out or slowing their success down considerably ten to twenty years into their career. You might say ten to twenty years is good, until you contrast it with Ford’s forty plus years of success.

Ford said he got into a thousand fights with the studios in his career and he lost them all. I disagree with Ford here. He might not have completely won many, if any, of them. But, he rarely lost a fight. Unlike Capra or Welles, Ford was a master at working the Hollywood system. He learned to work in a way that gave him the power over most of the movies he made without exhausting himself or making the studios too mad. Ford was a shifty fellow, he would not fight through direct defiance, but rather through being more clever then his opponent.

Ford knew the studios had the power in the editing room. So he fought this by giving the studio the minimum amount of coverage to work with. In Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) there is a beautiful scene where Angharad, the most beautiful woman in the town, is just leaving after being married to a rich man who she is not in love with. The minister, Mr. Gruffydd, is the person she is truly in love with and we see him come out of the Church in silhouette looking at Angharad before she leaves. Ford was asked while shooting if he wanted to do a close up of Mr. Gruffydd. Ford replied, “Jesus no. They’ll just use it”. Most of Ford’s pictures were already cut in his head before he started shooting. He was usually so convinced in his interpretation of the story that he only shot what he absolutely needed. Even though the studios had power over Ford to edit his pictures, they could only edit in a limited amount of ways because Ford only gave them a limited amount of film to work with.

Whenever Ford had the opportunity to shoot on location he did. Ford wanted to be as far away from Hollywood and his producers as possible. One of the reasons Ford shot so many of his films in Monument Valley was because it was away from all the distractions of Hollywood and its control. There were no phones, producers, or set limitations in Monument Valley. Without the restrictions of the studio we see greatness at work. Great classics such as Stagecoach and The Searchers were made in Monument Valley. Ford’s pictures at Monument Valley are so legendary directors today refuse to shoot there out of respect of Ford and fear they would do the Valley and Ford a disservice.

The studios might have picked the scripts but it was Ford who chose what he used and what he discarded. Ford was just fine with improvisation and using the script only as a guide.  He was known for getting rid of dialogue or even getting rid of a scene or two entirely if he didn’t think it helped the story’s purpose. I have come across the story, more then once in my research of Ford, where he was given a hard time by a producer for being a few days off schedule. Ford angrily called for the script, ripped several pages out and said, “There! Now we are back on schedule”. Whether this story is true or not, it does represent Ford’s philosophy on scripts; they were never set in stone. He was always looking for the happy accident or the improvisation that enhanced or out did what he read on the page.

Ford’s tough guy demeanor was also a way to defend himself in fights. To prevent himself from always needing to argue his case when directing his crew Ford created an image of being a “hard ass”. Deep down Ford was a compassionate man with a great amount of insecurities. The sentimental scenes in Ford’s films work because he believed in them and his crew knew if a “hard ass” like Ford believed in them, they could too. No matter the insecurities, what drove Ford was ambition. Ford would never let his crew or producers see his soft side. Failure did not bring Ford down it just made him want to prove himself even more. Ford’s crew and the studios he worked for knew he was not someone to mess around with.

Movies like The Quite Man, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were ambitious pieces of cinema that would never have been made without Ford. Ford needed to fight for these films. Ford was able to get the go-ahead for his more personal films by first making the films the studios wanted him to make. Ford worked on several mediocre, at best, stories in order to get the green light for his personal projects. He understood the system better then anyone. He knew he could not get his way every time. Filmmaking was an expensive medium and Ford needed the studios in order to participate in it. He was willing to sacrifice in order to get the opportunity to perfect his art form and tell the stories that really spoke to his heart.  It took him thirty years to get the okay for The Quite Man.

As I said at the beginning of the post, I do not think Ford lost very many fights. However, I do think he was beat up. Ford was abused through out his life and he became an abuser to many people, especially the ones closest to him. Fighting has consequences. Unlike Capra, Welles, and countless others, Ford did not allow the studios to kill his creativity. He did lose many friendships through being a bully and we do see a much more cynical view on life in Ford’s later films. Ford’s last great Western, The Man who Shot Liberty Valence, is considered one of the most melancholy westerns of all time. In it we don’t see the vast landscape shots and great action scenes we are so used to seeing in a Ford Western. Instead we are given a story about the ineffectiveness of law against the true evil of the world. We see a love story that does not end the way most want. And, we are shown how the world rather believe a myth over the truth when it is more convenient.

In order to understand the unbelievable length and strength of Ford’s career all you need to do is look at his Westerns. He started by defining the Western in the silent era in the shorts he did with Harry Carey Sr. and the epic western The Iron Horse (1924). In the middle of his career he made the Western one of the most powerful genres in Hollywood with the movie Stagecoach (1939).  Ford ended his career turning Hollywood and the public’s concept of the Western on it’s head, with movies such as The Searchers (1954) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1960). To have the kind of career Ford had you needed to be a pretty good fighter. Ford wasn’t a fighter without a cause. He fought with the studio systems, his crew, and the changing ideals of America in order to bring us his visions of the country and ideals he loved and believed in. He fought to tell his stories in the best ways he knew how. He fought with conviction, courage, and an unwillingness to stay down. Because of this he had one of the greatest careers in the history of filmmaking.

John Ford- An Observation- The Old School Director

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 10, 2012

John Ford consistently got his films done on budget and on time. He made films full of character and story without convoluted plot. He used a minimum amount of dialogue in his movies and did not move the camera unless he needed to. Ford did not consider himself an artist. Filmmaking was his job and his mission was to create an entertaining picture for the rest of the world to see. John Ford is an example of someone who did not learn filmmaking from a school or book, but rather from on the job experience through trial and error. He stands toe to toe with the great filmmakers of the past who were not just masters at using the language of film but the ones creating it from scratch. With little money, demanding schedules, and constant monitoring with excessive restrictions from the studio systems, Ford was able to bring us classics that are hailed even now as being some of the greatest films ever made.

John Ford is the definition of an “Old School” director. He was part of the group that started it all. He was one of the ones who made us realize the power and importance of filmmaking. He was not artsy or self-indulgent. Ford’s only objective was to do well at his job. Ford wasn’t interested in showing the world the man behind the camera through huge tracking shots and clever compositions, rather his interest lied in letting the action unfold as if the camera wasn’t even there. The camera hardly moved in Ford’s films. When he moved the camera it was for a thought through reason. If he moved in on a character we knew we needed to pay attention to what the character was doing or saying. If Ford made a cut it was because he was finished exploring that particular moment in the story. These days filmmakers are afraid to keep the camera still. They will use handhelds and cut excessively just because they are worried about boring the audience. Ford believed in his crew and his directing abilities enough to follow his ambitions and not cave into the public’s demands.

The advice Ford gave for making good films was simple, “Photograph the eyes”. He knew the power of film came through human connection. Sure we liked the fist fights, horse charges, and gun fights in Ford’s films, but what kept his movies relevant was the simple study he did on the human psyche. He explored the individual and his or her obligations to family and society. He constantly contrasted the individual with the development of what many would consider the progression of History. Many filmmakers of today do not spend enough time connecting the audience to the characters and world of their film before moving on with plot. We often have BIG ideas but usually don’t have the patience to explore them or understand them. Ford didn’t care for big ideas, he explored simple things. Like the obligation a child has to his father in the movie How Green was My Valley (1941), the overpowering remorse that comes when betraying a friend in The Informer (1935), or the concept of finding worth when everything seems to be taken away in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

John Ford made a name for himself through simplicity. He made simple stories and he filmed them in simple ways. He did not feel the need to make a blockbuster time and time again, like so many high profile directors do these days. He did not treat the actors as if they were the most important members of the film crew. Ford’s school was the films he worked on and the movies he went to. All the film student of this generation can do is stand on the shoulders of the great directors of our past. Ford was one of those great directors. In 1971 Ford said, “I never felt important. Or as though I was a career director or a genius, or any other damn thing”. This is the very reason he was a genius and why he has become an important filmmaker to study today. Ford put his art form ahead of himself. He did not make movies for fame and admiration, but rather because he had a passion for telling a story.

John Ford- An Observation- Clear Direction

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 18, 2012

Directors 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 Uncategorized 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.