The man in this case was writer/director Alexander Mackendrick, and what he walked way from way making movies in Hollywood. Here’s a documentary about the films Mackendrick made and how he turned to teaching at CalArts—a school founded by Walt Disney.
Archive for the ‘filmmaking’ Category
” A solid principle is to employ expository dialogue as the reaction to the events that take place before the lens (remember: show and then tell). Invent action or incidents as the provocation for dialogue, because exposition in film is much more interesting after the dramatic event as a comment (or perhaps an explanation) on it.”
“The senior writers at the film studios in London where I worked for many years used to delight in collecting examples of bad dialogue in screenplays. One of their favorites was ‘Look, Highland cattle!’ This was a quote from a particularly amateurish travelogue in which a character pointed off-screen, said this line, and the film cut to guess what? Those three words became shorthand for a piece of wholly unnecessary and redundant exposition used when the story was being told perfectly well solely through visual means. A good director will go out of his way, often in the editing process when he has both words and images in front of him, to gradually eliminate all lines that are absolutely not necessary.”
Here’s the opening scene (Spanish translation version) from the Breaking Bad pilot written by the show’s creator Vince Gilligan, and it’s a great example of visual and compleing storytelling with limited dialogue. You may not know what’s going on but it makes you want to know what happend and what will happen next. Much better than, ”Look, Highland cattle!”—or even “Look, a meth lab!”
P.S. An interesting editing concept I picked up from Sam Mendes on the DVD commentary of American Beauty is looking at cutting the first line or two of the opening of the scene and doing the same at the end of the scene. American Beautywas Mendes’ first film and he discovered in editing that often times those lines weren’t needed. It’s an interesting exercise to read your script again from page one asking yourself— “If the opening and closing lines were edited out, would it make any difference?”
I’ve found that in reading many unpublished screenplays it’s not just cutting the opening or closing line or two in a scene that works, but often a line or two of dialogue within regular ongoing conversation in scene after scene.
Posted in filmmaking, tagged Alexander Mackendrick, Andrew Stanton, CalArts, Cast Away, filmmaking, Helen Hunt, On Film-making, Robert Zemeckis, screenwriting, Tom Hanks, William Broyles Jr. on February 5, 2014 |
“What Sandy [Alexander] Mackendrick did for myself and my classmates was he was the first cold water we were hit with and he prepared us how to face the business.”
CalArts film student
“Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling.”
Oscar-winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E)
(And CalArts Grad)
“One of the tasks of the director as he transfers a screenplay to the medium of the moving-image-with-sound is almost to forget what the characters are saying and reimagine their behavior as being mute, so that all thoughts, feelings and impulses are conveyed to the audience through sound and vision—without speech. There is a curious paradox here, for when a scene has been reconstituted in this fashion the director is often able to reincorporate elements of the original dialogue in ways that make it vastly more effective. Moreover, when a script has been conceived in genuinely cinematic terms, its sparse dialogue is likely to be free of the task of exposition and will consequently be much more expressive.”
A great example of feelings and emotions conveyed without dialogue is in Cast Away (2000) written by William Broyles Jr. and directed by Robert Zemeckis. At a big holiday family dinner, Chuck (Tom Hanks) looks down at his pager and then glances across the table at his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) and her expression says it all, like—”You’re not going out of town on Christmas?”
It’s a quick moment and a simple one, but one that is so core to the story. Of course, Hanks is later cast away on an island following a plane crash, but there’s a sense that he is casting away the relationship with his girlfriend for his job commitments. The moment is captured in six quick shots without a single spoken word. I couldn’t find the scene online, but it’s a great example of what Mackendrick said about conveying “thoughts, feelings and impulses” without dialogue.
Show, Don’t Tell (Tip #46)
Show, Don’t Tell (Part 2)
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO (?) “IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.”
“Storytelling without Dialogue” (Tip #82)
Today I’ll start a series of posts on Alexander Mackendrick. He directed Sweet Smell of Success and received an Oscar nomination as one of the writers of The Man in the White Suit. Frustrated with the Hollywood studio system he turned to teaching at CalArts, where he was Dean of its School of Film from 1969 to 1993. (Despite only formally having one year of study at the Glasgow School of Art on his academic resume and being 60 years old when he taught his first class. What he did have was a 30 year filmmaking career.)
Mackenrdrick believed that student films were either “too long” or “much too long,” and used an egg timer as students pitched their stories to the class. He had a passion for craft and taught film as a popular art.
After he died in 1993 and Paul Cronin edited his teachings into the book On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director. And if all of the above is not enough to get you interested in Mackendrick, here’s what Martin Scorsese wrote in the forward of On Film-making, “This book —this invaluable book—is the work of a lifetime, from a man who was passionately devoted to his craft and his art, and who then devoted himself to transferring his knowledge and his experience to his students, And now it’s available to all of us. What a gift.”
It’s a great book that I haven’t given the proper attention on this blog. So as I attempt to mak up for lost time, here’s a taste of Mackendrick’s teachings:
“Film writing and directing cannot be taught, only learned, and each man or woman has to learn it through his or her own system of self-education.”
“Though it will only be a couple of weeks before you are familiar with the basic mechanics of filmmaking it will take a lifetime of hard work to master them.”
“It has been said that the director is like the orchestra conductor, a maestro who must be able to play every instrument competently. Unlikely as it is that you will ever discover real ability in all three fields of directing, writing and acting, I believe you will not be even competent in any single one without a basic comprehension of the other two.”
“Over a century and a half to the present day…you see the evidence of slavery as you walk down the street…The prison population, mental illness, poverty, education.”
Oscar-nominated director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
2013 New York Times Interview by Nelson George
“In the vast majority of stories, the hero’s overall change moves from slavery to freedom.”
The Anatomy of Story
One of the roots of this blog is steeped in African America culture. Annye L Refoe, Ph.D., was my creative writing teacher in high school. It was in one of her classes I first wrote a dramatic script and directed a video. As a black woman raised in Sanford Florida (yeah, same place where Trayvon Martin was killed) she opened up a new world to a class of white students via the writings of Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Where Watching God) and showing us the film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun.
In my very short stint playing football at the University of Miami I heard stories of black players raised in Overtown during Miami’s riots , as a photographer in L.A. I did photo assignments in Watts and Compton and heard gang stories, and I’ve been in prison chapels where blacks made up 85% of those in attendance and heard some of their life struggles.
At the same time, some of the scariest situations of my life were racially centered. Being cornered by four black youths in Florida when I was ten years old, taking a wrong turn on the South Side of Chicago after midnight, and being yelled at from two feet away for having a video camera on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica (which at the time had a higher murder rate than Haiti).
I’ve at least seen the view from both sides of the street.
It’s said that many white Americans can go through a whole day without encountering a black person, but the opposite is not true for most black Americans. I don’t pretend to fully understand the struggle of black people, but as a human being I am sensitive to the issues. It sticks with me when actor Jamie Foxx told Oprah Winfrey, “I was called a nigger almost every day in Texas.” For many whites the Civil Rights of the 60s is old news, and slavery of the mid-1800s is ancient history. Look, “We even have a black president now.”
Yes, there have been great strides on some levels. Heck, the biggest home I’ve ever been in was NFL great Deion Sanders’ 28,000+ square foot house in Dallas where I did directed a video shoot a couple of years ago. Tyler Perry’s net worth of over $400 million makes him according to one website the fourth financially successful filmmaker in America. But only he and Oscar-nominated writer/director John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) are in the top fifty.
There are still wide gaps in our culture. And we still live in a world of much racial tension. Some have called 12 Years a Slave ”Oscar bait.” If Steve McQueen wins Oscars for best director and/or best picture there will be those who say it’s because he’s black. And if he doesn’t win in either category some will say it’s because he’s black. There’s lot of wisdom in that William Faulkner line from Requiem for a Nun , ”The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” One of my favorite all-time book titles is taken from a Yeats poem by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe for his book Things Fall Apart.
Pick any period of world history and you’ll find Koyaanisqatsi—The Hopi Indian word for “life out of balance.” (See Godfrey Reggio film Koyaannisqatsi.) We can go back and forth on the political, economic and spiritual solutions to finding peace and harmony in a world where good and evil exist. But it’s hard not to at least metaphorically agree with the thought that, ”We are reminded daily that we live outside the Garden.”
“Everything is supposed to be different than it is.”
Simon (Danny Glover)
Grand Canyon written by Lawrence Kasden & Meg Kasden
This whole global quest we’re all on for equilibrium is why I love storytelling in general, and films specifically. Artists are like those people waving large finger pointer signs at auctions telling everyone where to look. Movies at their best stir up questions and offer hope.
Here are 25 links from this blog over the years centered around blacks and filmmaking:
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting –I happened to be in Atlanta the week Coretta Scott King died.
Martin Luther King Jr. Special –A multi-media project I produced with artist Gary Kelley
Blacks in Black & White “We’re a great country. We’ve got great stories. And for the most part, the great stories of people of color have not been told.”—Spike Lee
“Super-Serving Your Niche” (Tyler Perry’s advice to Edward Burns)
The Father of Film (Part 2) Touches on Spike Lee on D.W. Griffith
40 Days of Emotion Touches on the whipping scene of Denzel Washington in Glory
The Black List Annual Report (2013) Franklin Leonard
And let me give a shout-out to Brian McDonald who writes The Invisable Ink Blog. I believe he’s the only black writer to have written a few books on screenwriting; Invisible Ink, The Golden Theme, Ink Spots.
May the stories you tell—to borrow Oscar-winner Tom Stoppard’s words, ”nudge the world a little.” And may they nudge it in the right direction.
P.S. I know there are efforts being made helping minority screenwriters and welcome you passing those websites on to me in the comments or via email at email@example.com
Writers Guild of America, West Diversity Department
CBS, Writers Mentoring Program
Deadline article about Warner Bros. diversity connection with The Black List ”“For a black kid from Georgia, I’m acutely aware of the access issues the industry struggles with, and I’m excited to be part of a first step toward addressing this.”— Franklin Leonard
The Black List Newsletter Follow the links for Warner Bros Submission requirements
Fox Writers Intensive (FWI) ”The Intensive is designed to introduce experienced writers with unique voices, backgrounds, life and professional experiences that reflect the diverse perspectives of the audiences Fox creates for to a wide range of Fox showrunners, writers, directors, screenwriters and creative executives.”
Diversity in Hollywood, NAACP
Universal Pictures’ Emerging Writers Fellowship,Seeking New and Unique Voices
In the While Room With Black Writers “There’s this thing in Hollywood, a ‘diversity staff writer.’ Most every writing room has one…”—Beejoli Shah
Organization of Black Screenwriters, West Hollywood
BuzzFeed interview with Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) : “I’m from a small town in Wisconsin, but even when I’m in New York and I’m working for MSNBC or CNN, you’re used to being the only black person in the room. You spend your life in this space where you’re constantly seeing people who don’t even know perhaps they’re being a little dismissive of people of color, let alone the ugliness that you hear on a daily basis. So at times when people say that [racism] is bubbling up, it’s just bubbling up to a level where they’re aware of it.”
“The writing part is sometimes the hardest part. And I think with the writing part I just give myself a lot of time to just daydream.”
Oscar-nominated Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich)
While the Spike Jonze MasterClass with the Ghetto Film School is more of a short interview I thought it was a good opportunity to look at some of Jonze’s work that paved the way to his writing and directing Her. (A film for which Jonze and his script won a Golden Globe Award this week, and I’m betting a film will be getting some Oscar-nominations tomorrow.) First is a commercial he directed years ago for Ikea that shows his sensibilities. The other videos are around The Creators Project which “celebrates visionary artists across multiple disciplines who are using technology in innovative ways to push the boundaries of creative expression.”
Just as Jonze was inspired by the early Coen Brothers film Raising Arizona, (1987) I think Jonze is a great inspiration for filmmakers who aspire to a vision outside the Hollywood norm. The skateboarder born in Rockwell, Maryland, turned music video director, turned feature film writer and director, and part-time actor (Moneyball) is a voice worth listening to and talent worth exploring.
Finding Your Voice (2011 post) “For me, it was a matter of years of trying to develop my writing in the same way that some people spend years learning to play the violin.”—Frank Darabont
Finding Your Own Voice (2009 post)”“I begin in absolute chaos and darkness, in a bog or swamp of ideas and experiences. Even now I do not consider myself a writer, in the ordinary sense of the word.” —Henry Miller
“I think The Third Man is one of the best, if not the best, non-auteur films ever made.”
Writer/Director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show)
“The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen. Like many love affairs, it started at a dinner table and continued with many headaches in many places, Vienna, Venice, Ravello, London, Santa Monica.”
Screenwriter Graham Greene
‘The Third Man’ as a Story and a Film
NY Times—March 19, 1950
Towards the end of the Orson Welles Q&A at USC back in 1981 there is this brief exchange which says a lot about going to great lengths to get the right shot.
Audience member: An actor friend of mine once told me that he thought one of the great moments in film is in The Third Man when the light falls on you and you’re revealed —
Orson Welles: —”Oh, it is one of the great moments. (The USC audience laughs and applauds.) Remember I didn’t direct it, Carol Reed directed it. And do you know that we had that set built on another stage, and every afternoon for five days at the end of the day’s shooting we went and shot it again until Carol had it exactly the way he wanted it. Because he knew it was the key moment of the movie.”
I couldn’t find that scene online, and that’s just as well. If you’ve seen it you know what’s being talked about. If you haven’t seen it, you should (and not online). But I did find the classic short “cuckoo clocks” monologue by Welles that is often quoted from the movie. And a couple other related videos including a full audio commentary of The Third Man by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic ) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity). And I should at least mention that The Third Man—which is listed at number #94 on IMDB’s Top 250— was written by the novelist, playwright and screenwriter Graham Greene (but even he admitted, “the popular line of dialogue concerning Swiss cuckoo clocks was written into the script by Mr. Welles himself.”)
“Coverage: All the shots and angles needed to capture a scene effectively and edit it well.”
Glossary of Lighting Terms, Lowel EDU
Much has been written about Orson Welles watching John Ford’s Stagecoach 40 times before or while making Citizen Kane. One of the techniques Welles learned from Ford was shooting long takes. And Welles said he learned from Ford not just shooting long takes, but not shooting coverage. Meaning coverage shots such as medium shots, close-ups, two shots, reversals, etc. Options for the editor(s) to use when editing the film.
That’s not to say that Welles shot his films like Jim Jarmusch did in Stranger than Paradise—using only master takes for the entire film. But for key scenes Welles used long takes for specific reasons and a classic film school favorite is from his film Touch of Evil:
What’s interesting about the following quotes is that Welles seemingly contradicts himself in a couple of answers he gave back to back addressing shooting coverage and long takes. At 59:30 mark of the Q&A at USC Welles says;
”When [director John] Ford shot a movie he never cut it. He had nothing to do with the editing. He never saw a rough cut. And the way that he protected himself was to give [the editors] nothing to go to. So if he wanted the girl to say, ‘Yes Duke,’ that was all she got to say. She didn’t get to listen to all the rest of the scene, or say the dialogue he expected her not to say, that’s all he shot. And he told me to do it and I followed his instructions.”
Meaning as a director Ford controlled what would be in the final cut. There was no excess and the scene was taken out of the hands of the actors or editor to deviate for the director’s intentions. Yet a few minutes later at the 1:01:58 mark Welles is asked if his long takes come from his background in theater or as an expressionist reason and replies;
”A long take for me depends on two things, a very good technical crew and very good actors…I believe it is an enormous help to a cast, if they are good enough, to play the rhythm of the entire sequence rather than leaving it to the director entirely. The director has, I always suspect, a little too much power in movie making. In film studies the actor is underrated. The story and the director get a little more credit than is deserved. Because actors keep showing us things we never suspected. Any good director is consistently astonished by something that his cast is giving him.”
Orson Welles Q&A at USC in 1981
So which is it? Is it the director controlling the picture by controlling what is shot, or do the actors via long takes make directors look good by their astonishing talent? See the contradiction in the above quotes? I have learned studying filmmakers over the years that the great ones—like all human beings—are walking contradictions. Part of it is due to the mystery of filmmaking. But a large part of it is due to the collaborative nature of filmmaking. It’s often not an either/or question, but usually a mixed bag. Or like looking at all of those snakes in the pit of Raiders of the Lost Ark—it’s impossible to see where one snake ends and the next one begins.
Below is a classic scene from Citizen Kane which is brilliant in its simplicity, yet was a very complex scene to shoot. From the 20 second mark on it’s almost a 4 minute scene done in just two long takes. A set had to be built and lit. A director of photography had to plan those two shots with the director. The cameraman had to frame the composition. The dolly grip and assistant cameraman had to hit their marks and focus points. The director directed. The actors worked their magic. And, of course, the scene had to be written.
Sometimes trying to explain the filmmaking process is like trying to explain which body parts are more important. Is the heart or the brian more important? Is seeing or hearing more important? Ideally all of the body parts are effectively doing their job and there is no debate. And ideally on a good film everyone effectively does their job and somehow captures the magic. Except that’s often where the debates start. Pick a classic like Casablanca—was it the director, the script, the actors, the editing, etc. etc. that made it special?
The best answer to that question is “yes.” Everything beyond that tends to lead into the zone of contradiction.
P.S. “Yes,” is also a great answer to the question; “Is plot or character more important?”
Directing Tips from Peter Bogdanovich “If you have two good actors there’s no reason to cut around a lot. Just let the audiences get into the story.”—Bogdanovich
John Ford’s Advice to Spielberg
John Ford’s Secret Formula?
Stagecoach Revisted (2.0)
“Nebraska”—Take 2 (Directing Actors) “I’m not there to give an acting class. I’m there to make a movie.”—Alexander Payne
Shot Sizes at Elements of Cinema (Good overview of basic camera coverage.)
“All humor is rooted in pain.”
Commedian Richard Pryor
“I think humour does save one’s sanity. We can go overboard with too much tragedy. Tragedy is, of course, a part of life, but we’re also given an equipment to offset anything, a defence against it. I think tragedy is very essential in life. And we are given humour as a defence against it. Humour is a universal thing, which I think is derived from more or less pity… Cruelty is a basic element in comedy. What appears to be sane is really insane, and if you can make that poignant enough they love it.
Interview with Richard Meryman
(via Diary of a Screnwriter and Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema by Jeffrey Vance)
If we slide the Internet of today back 100 years I think Charlie Chaplin would have been the first social media superstar. No question Chaplin would be all over Facebook, the first to have 1 million Twitter followers, and the first You Tube celebrity. His career producing, writing, directing, acting, editing, and composing music (and I think even shooting at times) began in 1914 with the short film Kid Auto Races At Venice, California.
Chaplin would sometimes get an idea in the morning and shoot it in the afternoon and edit it as soon as the film was developed. You can rack up some credits—and experience—making short films in a day or two. It was the popularity of his short films that opened the door for his comedic masterpiece features; The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940).
“The best ideas grow out of the situation. If you get a good comedy situation it goes on and on and has many radiations. Like the skating rink sequence [in The Rink]. I found a pair of skates and I went on, with everybody in the audience certain that I was going to fall, and instead I came on and just skated around on one foot gracefully. The audience didn’t expect it from the Tramp. Or the lamppost gag [in Easy Street]. It came out of a situation where I am a policeman, and am trying to subdue a bully. I hit him on the head with a truncheon, and hit him and hit him. It is like a bad dream. He keeps rolling his sleeves up with no reaction to being hit at all. Then he lifts me up and puts me down. Then I thought, well, he has enormous strength, so he can pull the lamppost down, and while he was doing that I would jump on his back, push his head in the light and gas him. I did some funny things that were all made off the cuff that got a tremendous laugh.”
Interview with Richard Meryman
The lamppost gag on Easy Street begins at the 4:45 mark of the link below. (Also notice that both Chaplin’s skating and lamppost examples build on key elements that also work for Hitchcock’s thrillers—anticipation, fear, irony and danger):
P.S. I don’t know what year that Chaplin interview was done but if it occurred in the last year of his life—1977—it’s possible when he said ”I think humour does save one’s sanity,” he was referencing Jimmy Buffett’s song Changes in Latitudes , Changes in Attitudes—“If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane”— which got a lot of air time on the radio when it was released in 1977. Maybe not the case, but gives me a smile to think that’s the way it went down. The bottom line is if Jimmy Buffett and Charlie Chaplin agree on something it must be true. (Though it doesn’t quite explain why so many comedians/ court jesters have walked down the path of destruction . Could it be that while delivering the cure the messenger is killed?)
Telling the Truth=Humor
Tasting & Smelling Comedy (Tip #61)
The “Stuckinna” Plot (Tip #63)
The Bomb Under the Table (A Hitchcock phrase and something all classic movies are said to contain.)
Jerry Seinfeld (Part 2)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (part 1)
“After twenty years of reviewing films, I haven’t found another filmmaker who intrigues me more…Errol Morris is like a magician, and as great a filmmaker as Hitchcock or Fellini.”
You know what’s most quirky about The Black List (2013)? Yes, screenwriter Elijah Bynum is the only writer with two scripts on the list, but that’s more phenomenal than quirky. Certainly the fact that there are two scripts on the list about making the movie JAWS and two scripts about Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) is quite odd. But as far as most quirky, I’m going to go with the Andrew Sodroski’s thriller script Holland, Michigan having Errol Morris attached to direct.
Morris is an Academy Award-winner who’s been making films for 35 years. Mostly documentaries (The Fog of War, Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line) but the only narrative feature he directed, The Dark Wind (1991), was an experience he called “remarkably distasteful.”
“I’ve ‘undervalued’ The Dark Wind for a number of reasons, because it could have been a very different kind of movie, a good movie. I hate to go on about it, but, for me, it was devastating and, for a while, I even thought about giving up filmmaking altogether…I wasn’t allowed to shoot what I wanted to shoot. And not only wasn’t I allowed to edit the film, I wasn’t involved in any way with the editing. So I feel so disconnected from the end result, so divorced from it, that it’s hard for me to really think of it as one of my films.”
2001 Errol Morris Interview with Tom Ryan
So I find it interesting that he’s set to direct a narrative film that was the most highly ranked script on this year’s Black List. It’ll be interesting to see how that deal all worked out. And isn’t it quirky that he’s making a film titled Holland, Michigan when was the title of one of his early documentaries is Is there any other filmmaker in the history of cinema who’s made two films named after a city and a state? If you’ve never see it— and want to see something really quirky—check out the doc Vernon, Florida.
P.S. Back in the ’90s I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Rodgers at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Long before he recorded his first of 895 episodes of the Emmy-winning Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he earned a BA in Musical Composition from Rollins. He and his wife occasionally returned to the campus for various reasons and he actually came to a piano recital my wife gave. I’ll never forget after the recital he told my wife in that perfect Mr. Rodgers voice, “I really enjoyed your music.” Mr. Rogers was one of the good guys. And now that I think about it, having just one Mr. Rogers script on The Black List would have been quirky, I don’t even know what you call two Mr. Rogers scripts being hot properties in Hollywood. (In fact, if you told me Errol Morris was directing one of the Mr. Rogers scripts I would have thought that made perfect sense.)
Related Post: What’s in Your Backyard? Touches on Errrol Morris doc Gates of Heaven after he read headline, ’450 Dead Pets To Go To Napa.’