I’ll be going dark on the blog for a few weeks while I finish my final film for my MFA at USC. But I’ll be back, looking at doing a retrospective on USC and the experience of getting an MFA in a new artistic and professional discipline.
These are incomplete lists.
Theater gave me…
-Familiarity with actors and acting.
-Understanding what a scene is.
-Comfort with collaboration.
-Comfort with chaos.
-Flexibility – Willingness to see what is actually THERE and let that inform the process, as opposed to insisting ONLY on the original vision.
-Focus – the experience of drilling down in rehearsal and tech is an excellent preparation for the kind of single-mindedness necessary in all aspects of filmmaking.
-Resourcefulness: what stuff you have isn’t as important as what you’re able to put in the audience’s mind.
-Diplomacy and Management – you must work with many extremely talented constituencies who take pride in their work. Some more sensitive than others. You MUST be a leader. You MUST be aware of when to push and when to pull and when to let people alone to be brilliant. You WON’T always get it right. Theater and film demand this equally.
Theater did NOT prepare me for…
-The uncertainties of producing: how do you plan a film when your locations aren’t locked? You plan it, and also work on the locations. This is one of the biggest differences – a lot of the elements that are fixed in theater (the space you’re performing in…) are variables in film that must be dealt with. All location shooting involves the coordinating of an invading army, and the diplomacy of experienced ambassadors. Not even touring quite prepares you for this kind of work.
-Thoroughly understanding the 2-dimensional nature of film. Watch more movies, on a big screen. Obsess over them. Watch more. In theater the medium is humans and spaces. We need light to shape and understand the medium. So too with sound. In film the medium is light itself, and sound itself.
-A documentary approach: removing as many performative aspects as possible from a scene and finding ways for us to experience life rather than watch a performance. Admittedly, theater demands some of this too, but I had not yet aimed at it with much energy.
-Controlling the audience’s point of view with the camera.
If you have an active dog, training it to go to its crate on command can save you a TON of hassle, because whenever the dog gets too worked up or hyper, there’s an immediate place to send it to cool off, drink some water, play with a toy and relax its brain.
But with a hyper dog, this training takes diligence. And it’s easier just to tie the dog up and walk away. Even if 2-4 weeks of solid training can save someone years of…ten minutes messed up here, ten minutes messed up there, a chewed up sofa here…most people are unlikely to make that investment.
(yes, all dogs are different, yes, some are easier to train than others, no, this isn’t about shaming people who haven’t paid for expensive dog schools)
The same can be true of my own inner hyper dog. My habits, my goals, my daily choices, are easier to just push to the side rather than make real, substantive changes in.
Recently, the Farnam Street blog, which I have found immeasurably valuable, shared a pamphlet written for life insurance salesmen called “the common denominator of success.”
My first thought was “what is Farnam Street doing sharing this stuff?”
And then I read it, and I was struck by how it framed a couple of things. Be prepared for some Mad Men era success talk:
“Successful men are influenced by the desire for pleasing results. Failures are influenced by the desire for pleasing methods and are inclined to be satisfied with such results as can be obtained by doing things they like to do.”
I’m not one to so easily divide people into camps of success and failure. And yet. This struck home with me, because there’s a real difference between trying to get the results you want and trying to create a situation where you can keep doing things you like. Trying to retain your current level of comfort.
This gets VERY true in the creative fields, I believe, not just after someone has moderate success but even when someone achieves moderate praise. The intuition is to cling to what has elevated you.
But it was this passage that really got me.
“Many men with whom I have discussed this common denominator of success have said at this point, “But I have a family to support and I have to have a living for my family and myself. Isn’t that enough of a purpose?” No, it isn’t. It isn’t a sufficiently strong purpose to make you form the habit of doing the things you don’t like to do for the very simple reasons that it is easier to adjust ourselves to the hardships of a poor living than it is to adjust ourselves to the hardships of making a better one.”
That was a smack in the face. A good one. It’s easier to accept the status quo – even if the status quo is one of struggle – than it is to create meaningful change.
Look, I’m not of the theory that everyone who struggles does so because they’re too lazy to change their situation. Privilege is a real thing, and I have a bunch of it.
But if we were to NARROW this statement to a slightly more particular scenario: I must ask myself – IF there were room in my life to create change for the better, AM I doing the things that will get that result? Or am I just battling to maintain the current status? To NOT LOSE?
Am I going to train the dog, or am I going to just tie it up?
I directed a horror film recently. The story itself had some bits of humor and absurdity, but ultimately it was an exercise in delivering the genre.
It was revelatory. And I mean that in the “oh shit it’s so obvious but I’ve always ignored it” kind of way. It screened in my class and people vocally reacted to moments in the film in a way nothing I’ve ever directed has produced. It actually achieved its objective.
Horror is about creating a feeling in the audience, it’s about cueing up primal emotions and fears, building a rollercoaster ride of tension and release. The audience comes to the theater expecting a rollercoaster. And if you don’t deliver, it’s pretty obvious. It demands that you use every tool available to you in order to produce those waves of emotions. And they’re obvious, primal sensations that boil down to a couple basic primal scenarios deep in our lizard brains: the fear of being hunted by something we can’t quite see, sometimes disgust (evolutionary fear of infection/pathogens), panic or terror at the loss of our own faculties, relief, even laughter, at momentary safety, and the emotion of horror itself, which I’d categorize as “the feeling of being a wriggling bug under the toe of an incomprehensible giant.”
The audience comes to the theater because they WANT to go through these emotions. Somehow the ups and downs of simulating these emotions is something people pay money to see. Yes, there’s story, and comprehension, you can intellectualize it, but at the end of the day the audience is paying for an emotional experience that it is your job to deliver.
(they aren’t paying for your drone shot, they’re paying for the experience and perspective of flight)
Horror makes the director’s job baldly plain. Produce the desired experience, or fail.
My little film achieved its objective because the genre gave me a comprehensible objective.
And that made genre clear to me. After three years of film school, all it took was directing one horror film to define something that I’ve struggled to define my whole life.
What the hell is genre?
There’s academic explanations galore. But for a DIRECTOR, for a WRITER, for a MAKER, a PRODUCER, there’s only one definition that matters.
A genre is a package of expectations. Yes, there are plenty of conventions in genre, having to do with characters, settings, structures, etc. But what’s important, to directors especially, is to consider that the genre is not the story the audience walks in expecting to SEE. It is the kind of emotional experience that an audience walks in expecting to HAVE.
And brilliant directors know this, intuitively. They know that they can stray outside the bounds of conventional expectations, as long as they deliver the kind of emotional experience people are coming to the theater for. A lot of films probably fail because they are fulfilling the SURFACE expectations, but not the deeper experiential expectations.
A lot of films transcend genre, or mix genres, but they almost always still deliver the genre.
Horror and comedy are extremely hard because they demand that you deliver a specific emotional effect. But my question for myself is: what if I could have that same focus of “deliver the emotional experience” on EVERY film, even non-horror, non-comedies?
Oh, right. That’s my actual job, whether I’m directing, producing, writing, editing, fight choreographing…
And it’s the producer and director’s jobs to see this MOST clearly, and guide the process towards that end.
I’m going to keep digging into this – mainly because I suspect there might be something primal to genre, and that we have genres that fall by the wayside, only to be rediscovered.
It’s the people, both real and imagined.
I love the actors. I love actors. I am an actor, I lived and breathed it for a time, and it hasn’t gone away. But after a while I became disillusioned with acting. Directing changed that. It made me realize what bright, mad, wonderful humans actors can be (and volatile, maddening creatures as well, but it’s all part of the fun).
I love the crew. I love the creativity and talent and perspective and power that a team of real creatives brings into the world. They make a process more than a process. I love seeing the connections made between people on those teams, as one idea bounces off another.
I love producers. When they’re good, my god, they’re good, they do things and make things happen in a way that I admire in the same the way I admire, I don’t know, superheroes.
I love the audience, I love the fact that they’re smart, emotional, and have high expectations. And when they’re engaged, I can feel that this is the completion of the work. When it works, it’s like we’ve built an invisible bridge from our hearts to hundreds, thousands, even millions of hearts in the human audience.
So I must tend to my own heart, that something worthwhile can cross that bridge.
And why do I so often want to sit in the middle of all these, as opposed to take some other role?
Maybe I’m just a glutton for both love and punishment, because as much as I love all these people, each of them have, through choice, or mistake, or the high demands of their own excellence, ripped me to shreds. And that’s just the good times.
I think it’s also because I love the stories, and the characters. And when I know I can see them, really see them, then other people will too, and it becomes a sensation, a momentum, a crazy interplay of the fictional and the real, that culminates in that bridge.
I think it’s because I love building bridges.
I recently watched a fun little video about gymnasts and parkour experts sharing the basics of their disciplines with one another. I absolutely love cross-pollination between disciplines, and because I have some (minimal) experience in both parkour and gymnastics, this was especially fun – when I was teaching at Synetic I would incorporate elements of both disciplines in training for combat and stunts, and was always fascinated to see who would take to the different forms, and in what way.
But the big thing both disciplines teach, in different ways, is an approach to fear. A traceur (parkour practitioner) must always approach a new jump or a new move, a gymnast must approach a new combination or tricky movement. Both, if they really mess up, can end up seriously injured.
In parkour, landing a tricky jump for the first time is called “breaking the jump.” Overcoming the fear of approaching that jump is a first step – then you can repeat the jump, or others like it, and perfect it, incorporate it into the flow of your movements.
This is interesting to a filmmaker because writing the first draft of a screenplay is often called “breaking the story.” Yes this term can mean a couple different things, but in this context I’ll keep it to the act of blasting through a first draft, often without editing along the way.
Having done both of these things, I can say the sensation at the end is somewhat the same. After you break a jump for the first time, often the first thing you want to do is go at it again, preserve the adrenaline and bravery you’ve just built up and get the jump deeper into your nervous system. Screenwriting can be much the same – as soon as I finish a draft, I’m eager to get feedback and start cracking on the next pass.
But deeper than this, there’s a feeling of relief as well. A story that’s gnawing at my insides is deeply uncomfortable. Getting a first draft out is a kind of a release. I end up feeling un-knotted just by getting it out on the page. A jump that has always bothered you, intimidated you, is still waiting for you to crack it, can be a little source of madness – you HAVE to break it.
It’s funny, but this discomfort is probably a good sign. It means you have something spring loaded with enough tension that if you lean on it it’ll start becoming something. A jump. A story. A set of characters.
This discomfort is something I listen for now, I try to become aware of in my day to day, because discomfort can signify an opportunity.
There’s a saying somewhere that it takes 15 years between the knowing and the doing.
I’ve known for a long time that if I want to be writer, it’s the habit that counts. Even if it’s a few hundred words a day, consistency is what compounds to create a body of work.
But my less mature self, the one that still thinks heroes perform in blazes of glory and bursts of divine inspiration, is in fact what prevents the habit from forming. Because 100 words, for that little self, is not enough.
Yes, I’ve had days where I knocked out 10 solid pages — they were even good pages! But the danger is in creating cycles of burnout.
On the other hand, trusting that today’s work can end because tomorrow’s will begin is an act of faith, an act of knowing that I won’t cease to be a writer simply because I only write a little bit today, I won’t cease to be a director simply because I only spent $50 on the latest film.
Hemingway was able to leave off writing mid-sentence, because he trusted his future self to return to that page.
Building a creative habit is about building trust with myself. So a habit of writing, for example, is as much about the stopping of the writing as it is the starting.
Starting to write, at a consistent time, is the habit, it’s where the barriers lie.
Directing regularly, despite limitations of time, space, or budget, is the habit.
But maybe the stopping is just as important, because consciously stopping sends a message to that inner self that I trust myself to return.
And trust, in turn, motivates me, so tomorrow’s return might have a little bit more energy.
Odds are you made yourself a cup of coffee this morning.
Go back to that moment. You may have trashed the details of it already, but reconstruct it a bit.
Look closely at the coffee pot, at the mug.
Now step back further, and look at yourself taking the mug from the cupboard. Try to get a full body view. Now watch yourself pour the coffee.
Hm, let’s see where you are emotionally. Try to reconstruct a view of your tired face as you approach the cupboard. Don’t worry, no one else is watching. Now watch your face as you take out the mug, grab the pot, pour the coffee, add cream or sugar. Work out the details of this moment as it happened to you, trying to watch your own face.
Ok go back. Let’s start with your face as you emerge into the kitchen. Now jump out and see that image of your full body reaching for the mug in the cupboard, now look at the pot as your hand grabs it. Look very closely at the coffee as it spills into the cup. Watch the cream swirl. Now try to capture the look on your own face as you take that first, blessed sip.
Programs like Avid, Premiere Pro, or Final Cut are outgrowths of the old physical form of cutting actual film – but the principles they are built upon are analogous to processes that have existed far longer. These programs reveal something about how our minds work upon the images within our head – they externalize something everyone does.
For me, the hardest part of the above exercise is seeing the look on my own face. It’s really hard to envision in an honest fashion. Maybe that’s something I’m looking for when I look at art – “is that what we look like?” And we don’t know until we see it, but when we do we smile, we laugh, we are moved, because we are revealed to ourselves, and in seeing something true, somehow we feel seen.
There’s a million things that a character can want, in a writing sense, or a psychological sense.
But much of the work of directing or writing or acting isn’t actually working on the subconscious wants. Once you’ve got those worked out (or, in a director’s case, a script that presumably has those built in), you’ve got to physically realize the scene itself.
Then I think there’s a limited number of things in terms of a physical want. Maybe this doesn’t work for every scene, but I think it might be a useful lens through which to see every scene.
Let’s keep the traditional maxim – there’s only two directions in a scene: toward and away. (I’ve had the privilege to learn this a few times over from my professor and early mentor at USC, Barnet Kellman, who teaches a masterful class on working with actors, rehearsing, and blocking – this next bit is something of an expansion on things I’ve learned from him).
The physics of the wants then probably break down into these:
A thing you want to hold or get rid of
A place you want to get to or escape from
A person you want to be close to or far from
Maybe we could define it as simply as this: the physical want of any given moment in a scene may be defined as the person, place or thing a character wants to move towards or away from. (Maybe there’s an action of “maintain the current distance” as well)
I had another two basic actions that I initially thought might count as fundamental on this level:
A thing or person you want to destroy
A thing or person you want to create, heal, or repair
And I thought that they may count as fundamental. But now I don’t think so. It’s hard to call the physics of repairing a car, wielding a hammer, or fixing a computer a basic action – they’re typically obstacles overcome in service of the initial three. R2-D2 messes with the computer in order to open the door so the characters can move away from the soldiers and towards the ship.
But there are scenes in which the primary action of the character is somehow poured into making something — scenes of Michaelangelo painting a masterpiece or Hunter S. Thompson furiously writing…but are these scenes? Or do scenes just involve them somehow, and the primary drama of the scene still boils down to that simple dance of towards and away? A painting scene is hard to interpret as drama. But if Michaelangelo is painting the Sistine Chapel, and drops his paintbrush to the floor far below, and has to climb down a rickety ladder to get there, a ladder that, unbeknownst to him, is slipping against the floor, maybe that’s physical drama.
Is there more to human drama than this? Sure, on an abstract, psychological, dialogue level. But when you turn the sound off on the tv, the fundamentals of the scene still play out in a grammar that boils down to something like this.
Across all the professions I’ve happened to work in, I’ve realized there’s a common phrase all the seasoned professionals have said to me at one time or another.
Acting, directing, fight choreography, personal training, fundraising, construction, writing…in all of these, at one time or another, one or more old pros have said this to me. “Don’t rush.”
At the same time, across all the jobs I’ve held, I’ve always had times where we had to deliver fast. In fact, a demand for speed is absolutely the norm.
So what gives? Why do all the people who know their stuff say “don’t rush” but at the same time we are constantly demanding speed out of our work?
First of all, yes, there are times when the boss is demanding impossible speed, when the market wants something before it’s ready, when I myself am demanding too much out of my own capacity to deliver. Sometimes somebody has to be told things will have to slow down or else things will fall apart.
But the boss isn’t always wrong. And sometimes great things get done quickly.
So there must be a difference between speed and rushing.
Rushing is blind – it’s focusing on the finish line, it’s cutting corners. It’s heedless – let’s just get something to show that we’ve done something. I’m going to write 5 pages today so I can tell myself I wrote 5 pages. For me, it often comes from a place of needing to validate my identity as an artist, a writer, a mature person, what have you.
Speed is different. Speed requires focus, concentrated energy drilling down on the immediate problem. You can’t rush a screenplay, but a professional knows how to focus in and work on THIS scene, THIS character moment, THIS line, this action beat. And then how to step back and assess it QUICKLY against the mechanisms of the whole story, then dive back into the immediate.
In weightlifting, I’ve encountered a phrase that I think is a key concept, perhaps even worthy of being called a mental model. I first encountered it specifically in Olympic lifting, which is a VERY technical art form, and can result in a lot of bodily pain if done wrong, repeatedly. The phrase is this:
Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
It doesn’t mean move in slow motion. It means give every overlapping portion of the movement its due – there’s a setup, an initial pull off the ground, a movement of the hips, a pulling from the shoulders, almost pulling yourself DOWN under the bar as it moves up over your head, and a solidifying of the body as you land beneath the bar.
It’s a lot different from “throw this bar over your head 20 times.”
So if you’ve trained each movement, separately, and also how to move from one to the next, a more complete movement emerges. A smooth one.
But this also refers to taking action. When you slow down your mind, you focus on the moment, and then the next moment can follow smoothly, and the next, and the next, and because you’ve smoothed out the motions, the bar travels upwards at unbelievable speeds. Instead of focusing on several movements, you’ve re-integrated them into a single smooth motion.
You can muscle things out, or you can remove the friction. One beats you up. The other doesn’t, and leaves you ready for the NEXT movement.
So when the old timers have said to me “don’t rush” they didn’t necessarily mean “don’t ever move fast.” Rushing, to me, means I’m prioritizing muscle over removing friction.
You can’t rush writing. You can’t rush acting. You can’t rush directing. You can’t rush producing. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t go fast. The key components, then, are knowledge and focus. KNOWING what to focus on, one moment at a time. Knowing HOW to slow down in order to speed up.
Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
(To be clear – I think this quote originates the Navy SEALS, referring to how to train for operations, and also execute them. I may have gotten it from Jocko Willink, Tim Ferriss, or Dan John – I honestly don’t remember)