Years ago, philosophers Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren wrote a serious book called How to Read a Book. In it, they mentioned that unless you’d read a book three times, you really hadn’t read the book. That is, you hadn’t digested the book. I wonder how many of the estimated 1.7 billion DVDs sold last year were viewed more than once (not counting Finding Nemo).
The best way to watch a movie in order to grow as a screenwriter and filmmaker is to watch it over an over again. Writer/director Frank Darabont admits that, on his days off while making The Shawshank Redemption, “I would just watch Goodfellows again and again…just for inspiration.”
Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch George Stevens’ classic, A Place in the Sun 50 times. In fact, the single best class I had in film school was taught by a professor who showed us A Place in the Sun and afterwards asked us questions like “what sounds and visuals do you associate with the Shelly Winters’ character?” and “What music is playing whenever Elizabeth Taylors’ character appears?” It was the first time I really saw the intentionality of a filmmaker.
Film school was also the first time I was challenged to watch a film with the sound turned off and then just listening to the audio. Just out of school as VHS machines finally became affordable is when I began to break down movies scene for scene and to time the length of scenes as well.
Repeated viewing take you to a deeper understanding and appreciation of film. And now with DVDs and the like you can easily locate a single memorable scene, allowing you insights on how lighting, editing, pacing, economy of writing, direction, music sound effects and performance all come together for maximum impact.
While many DVDs come with extras, the real gold is in the commentaries. I’m not talking about the ones with film professors and critics, but the real nuggets that come from the writers and directors who made the film.
One DVD that I recommend you invest your time studying is the 15th Anniversary edition of Rain Man. The film, winner of “Best Picture” Oscar in 1988, has been out long enough to stand the test of time and be considered a modern-day classic. One aspect that separates it from the DVD pack is its three commentaries.
The director, Barry Levinson, the original writer Barry Marrow, and the rewrite writer, Ron Bass, offer more than six hours of insights that warrant repeated listening as well as the film itself.
The commentaries on Rain Man expose the collaborative process at its best. At one point, Steven Spielberg was set to direct, and had spent many months working with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise on their characters and mulling over script ideas with Bass. You learn how difficult it was to get the film made even with top talent attached.
Levinson explains how he sought to shoot in a way that would give the audience glimpses of how Hoffman’s autistic savant character saw patterns in the world. And he notes that his direction was designed to show that Cruise was as handicapped (relationally) as his brother, making the film a journey of two broken people connecting.
Rain Man works on so many levels (psychologically, visually, emotionally, and performance-wise) that you can begin to appreciate its depth only by repeated viewings.
So don’t concern yourself with watching films just to check them off your AFI Greatest Films list. Invest in couple DVDs of your favorite movies that you’ve heard good things about the commentary and watch those–study those–repeatedly. And like Van Gogh studying a Rembrandt painting, you will be partaking in a timeless creative tradition.
Here is a short list of my favorite DVD commentaries:
The Godfather; Francis Ford Coppola commentary
Stand by Me; Directing inexperienced actors and using improvisation
Seabiscuit; On adapting a film from a best-selling book
The Shawshank Redemption (15th Anniversary Edition); Frank Darabont and “Happy Accidents”
Pieces of April: On funding falling through and finally making the low-budget movie in 16 days.
Big: Commentary with writers Gary Ross and Annie Spielberg which has original excerpts of when they were writing the original script before they had ever had a script produced. Great stuff.
Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith