Peter Strickland, director of THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY and BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, talks about being a filmmaker:
At the start of my career my work was met with complete indifference. When I worked in WH Smiths in Reading I remember one of the managers asking me what I wanted to do for my career and I told him I wanted to make movies and he burst out laughing. That’s a better form of motivation than film school. But it was great to have that positive response to Berberian especially when I thought no one would like the film. I wouldn’t say they’re autobiographical films but they are very personal. That’s the thing, as long as you make personal films, even if no one else likes them, I like them. I think filmmaking has to be a selfish act otherwise you’d go nuts. There’d be nothing worse than making a film for other people and finding out even they don’t like it. I’m fully aware this is a niche film and not for everyone but in my mind it’s a love
“I decided that the camera should never stop moving. It was arbitrary. We would just put the camera on a dolly and everything would move or pan, but it didn’t match the action; usually it was counter to it. It gave me that feeling that when the audience see the film, they’re kind of a voyeur. You’re looking at something you shouldn’t be looking at. Not that what you’re seeing is off limits; just that you’re not supposed to be there. You had to see over someone’s shoulder or peer round someone’s back. I just think that in so many films everything’s so beautiful, the lighting is gorgeous and with each shot everything is relit. My method also means you don’t have to light for close-ups; you only have to accommodate what may happen, so you just light the scene and it saves a lot of time. The rougher it looked, the better it served my purpose.
I was worried about the harsh light of southern California and I wanted to give the film the soft, pastel look you see on old postcards from the 1940s. So we post-flashed the film even further than we did on McCabe & Mrs Miller, almost 100 percent.”
"I never have a difficult time working with directors. You always try to look for people that you know you can get along with. It’s like choosing the girl you marry. There are some directors who wouldn’t touch me with a ten-foot pole. But there are others that I work with and have a wonderful time with. Directors have a difficult time shooting a movie. It’s a horrendous experience. They’re getting beaten to death by the company; they’re getting beaten to death by actors who don’t want to cooperate; they’re getting beaten to death by everyone. The mere fact that a director stays on his feet for eight or ten weeks, or sometimes many months, is a miracle. So I’m a director’s cameraman. I would not take a job via a producer, because I feel that when you make a movie, you’ve got to have a united front. Aesthetically, physically, you’re taking on a whole group of people.”
MASTER OF CINEMOTAGRAPHY ROGER DEAKINS'S TOP TEN TIPS
1. Get some life experience
A cinematographer visualises the film and is a director’s right hand on set. I studied photography and then went to the National Film School in England and got into the business that way, but there are all kinds of ways of getting in.
I think it is more important to experience the world, really. You can’t learn cinematography and you can’t copy it. The job is just your way of looking at the world. Maybe that sounds a bit pretentious, but I think life experience is always more important than technical knowledge.
2. Be picky
I’m picky about the sort of material I want to work with, always have been. But usually I’m drawn to scripts that are about characters, I don’t have a love of doing action movies.
It is really important to choose which projects you are going to work on carefully. You are going to be on a film for a long time. I’ve just come back from Australia working on Unbroken with Angelina Jolie, which she was directing.
It’s six months of time and investment, but very worthwhile. I enjoyed it completely, but it was a hard shoot. You work long hours, often you’re working six days a week and you are away from home. There are certain kinds of sacrifices you have to make.
3. Choose your collaborators carefully
My relationship with the Coen brothers goes back a long time. We just sort of hit it off and we’re good friends, so I’d do anything with them.
I loved working Sam Mendes on Skyfall, I probably wouldn’t have done a Bond movie with anybody else. He had a different take on it and I think that film was far more character driven and that’s what drew me to it.
I turned down working on the next Bond film. I was really torn. I would have loved to work with Sam again but I just didn’t feel I could bring anything really new to it. I’d really like to see someone else have the opportunity.
4. Take your time making decisions
My wife James travels with me when I’m working on a film. We’ve been married for over 20 years and she has been incredibly important to my career. We always talk about what projects are coming up and make the decisions together.
We like the same kind of movies, we rarely disagree, we just talk things through. Deciding which projects to work on is something that you spend quite a long time considering. I’m very lucky to be in a position that means I can be a bit choosy these days.
5. Don’t just copy others
It’s no use just thinking you can just learn how to light and copy the best. We all find our own ways of doing things and our own sense of lens choice, composition and the way you move the camera. You can tell one person’s work from another quite often, you know.
So I think it’s important to develop as a person. You have to develop your way of being. Otherwise, what are you doing? It’s no good just copying, learning a technique and doing it. That’s not very interesting, apart from anything else.
6. Understand the importance of lighting
I remember a fellow cinematographer talking about Shawshank and saying, “Well that was really nicely shot but there was no lighting in it.”
We actually shot most of the film in a prison that was absolutely black - I used a huge amount of light to create the look, more or less every shot, even some of the exteriors were lit! So it was a reverse compliment really, because there was a major cinematographer thinking it was shot with natural light when it wasn’t!
So, on the one hand, you need to light a space so you can see the actors - but, more than that, you are creating a mood, you are creating a world for those actors to inhabit and for the audience to get submersed in. Lighting is one of the most important aspects of any great film.
7. Don’t cut corners
When you are on a film, because it takes so much time and you are often doing a 12, 14, 16 or even 18-hour day, you’re often tired and so sometimes the temptation can be to do something a bit quick and cut corners, but then you regret it.
Any time that you do something and think, “Oh well, that will be alright even if it’s not as good as I can do,” you always regret it later. If anything stands out as being untrue within the terms of that movie, then the audience’s experience of that world is jolted, they are taken out of it.
What you do lives on forever, as they say. It’s important to persevere, because it’s the people who persevere who go on to create something unique.
8. Keep up with new technology but remember the storytelling
You have to keep up with new technology, it all changes rapidly. Film stocks change, techniques like steadycam come along, we’ve got cranes now and aerial helicopters that can do all sorts of things and gyromounts so you can move the camera in all sorts of ways. We have digital technology now and 3D has come back.
Technology is changing all the time, but for me nothing has changed in the sense that you are still telling stories by the use of light, the use of a frame, the way you move a camera. I’m still hoping to be part of telling stories about people and the way we are. So, to me, technology is important, but it’s only in the background, it’s a means to an end, it’s like the paintbrush.
9. Wear something you are comfortable in
I cut my own hair. My hairdresser died when I was eleven. He was a really nice man and I didn’t have anyone else, so I started cutting my own. I know it sounds silly, but I really don’t like people fussing, frankly. It’s only hair.
I’ve got a really comfortable pair of cowboy boots and I wear blue jeans and a white shirt every day, including today. When I was working in England I wore a black shirt but now I’m in America, I wear a white one.
I’ve got 10 white shirts and three pairs of jeans so that when I get up in the morning, I don’t have to think about what I am going to put on. I can be dressed and out the door in ten minutes. It’s a silly thing but it’s like I’m getting ready for work and putting on my uniform.
10. Learn to put things to one side
I’ve been fired off a movie a couple of times and that’s pretty horrendous. When something like that happens, you’ve just got to look at it and realise it’s not necessarily about you. I haven’t got a particularly thick skin, but it is important to be able to put things aside.
Some films were very hard and at times you kind of struggle and you are in conflict with other people to get the job done. But overall, I wouldn’t have done anything else. I loved those experiences if only because at the end you actually feel satisfied that you’ve managed to create something.
I don’t know what’s next. I’m hoping to get back with Joel and Ethan and do something with them, really. I love my life and my career so far and I think I’ve got plenty more to do.
1. Always choose good collaborators. It seems so obvious, but the best collaborators are the ones who disagree with you. It means they’re passionate, they have opinions, and they’ll only ever say yes if they mean it.
2. Try to learn how to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. Direct Shakespeare like it’s a new play, and treat every new play as if it’s Shakespeare.
3. If you have the chance, please work with Dame Judi Dench.
4. Learn to say, “I don’t know the answer.” It could be the beginning of a very good day’s rehearsal.
5. Go to the ancient amphitheater at Epidaurus, in Greece. It makes you realize what you are a part of, and it will change the way you look at the world. If you’re an artist, you will feel central, and you will never feel peripheral again.
6. Avoid, please, all metaphors of plays or films as “pinnacles” or “peaks”; treat with absolute scorn the word “definitive”; and if anyone uses the word “masterpiece,” they don’t know what they’re doing. The pursuit of perfection is a mug’s game.
7. If you are doing a play or a film, you have to have a secret way in if you are directing it. Sometimes it’s big things. American Beauty, for me, was about my adolescence. Road to Perdition was about my childhood. Skyfall was about middle-age and mortality. Sometimes it’s small things. Maybe it’s just a simple idea. What if we do the whole thing in the nightclub, for example. But it’s not enough just to admire a script, you have to have a way in that is yours, and yours alone.
8. Confidence is essential, but ego is not.
9. Theater is the writer’s medium and the actor’s medium; the director comes a distant third. If you want a proper ego trip, direct movies.
10. Buy a good set of blinkers. Do not read reviews. It’s enough to know whether they’re good or they’re bad. When I started, artists vastly outnumbered commentators, and now, there are a thousand published public opinions for every work of art. However strong you are, confidence is essential to what you do, and confidence is a fragile thing. Protect it. As T.S. Eliot says, teach us to care, and not to care.
11. Run a theater. A play is temporary, a building is permanent. So try to create something that stays behind and will be used and loved by others.
12. You are never too old to learn something new, as I was reminded when I learned to ski with my 10-year-old son. He, of course, did it in about 10 minutes, and I spent four days slaloming up and down, looking like a complete tit. But, don’t be scared of feeling like a complete tit. It’s an essential part of the learning process.
13. There is no right and wrong, there is only interesting, and less interesting.
14. Paintings, novels, poetry, music are all superior art forms. But theater and film can steal from all of them.
15. There are no such things as “previews” on Broadway.
16. Peter Brook said, “The journey is the destination.” Do not think of product, or, god forbid, audience response. Think only of discovery and process. One of my favorite quotes from Hamlet—Polonius: “By indirections find the directions out.”
17. Learn when to shut up. I’m still working on this one.
18. When you have a cast of 20, this means you have 20 other imaginations in the room with you. Use them.
19. Please remember the Oscars are a TV show.
20. Get on with it. Robert Frost said, “Tell everything a little faster.” He wasn’t wrong.
21. The second production of a musical is always better than the first.
22. Learn to accept the blame for everything. If the script was poor, you didn’t work hard enough with the writer. If the actors failed, you failed them. If the sets, the lighting, the poster, the costumes are wrong, you gave them the thumbs-up. So build up your shoulders, they need to be broad.
23. On screen, your hero can blow away 500 bad guys, but if he smokes one fucking cigarette, you’re in deep shit.
24. Always have an alternative career planned out. Mine is a cricket commentator. You will never do this career, but it might help you get to sleep at night.
25. Never, ever, ever forget how lucky you are to do something that you love.
“There’s nothing worse than hearing somebody say, ‘Oh, you made that movie? I thought that movie sucked,’ and you have to agree with them,” Fincher said on why he’s so hands-on in making decisions.
“You are going to have to take all of the responsibility, because basically when it gets right down to it, you are going to get all of the blame, so you might as well have made all of the decisions that led to people either liking it or disliking it.”
2. Give it your best, but stay realistic
‘Do the best you can, try to live it down,’ that’s my motto. Just literally give it everything you got, and then know that it’s never going to turn out the way you want it to, and let it go, and hope that it doesn’t return. Because you want it to be better than it can ever turn out. Absolutely, 1000 percent, I believe this: whenever a director friend of mine says, ‘Man, the dailies look amazing!’ … I actually believe that anybody, who thinks that their dailies look amazing doesn’t understand the power of cinema; doesn’t understand what cinema is capable of.”
Film is a collaborative process. It’s dependent on everything falling into place the way it’s supposed to – no one person, even the director, can exercise complete control over this. All they can ever do is put in their best work and keep trucking.
3. Check for different perspectives
Fincher looks at the set up of each scene with each eye individually – the left, for composition and the right for focus and technical specs.
Why? The left eye is connected to the creative side of the brain and the right is connected to the mathematical side.
4. Movies vs. Films
A movie is made for an audience and a film is made for both the audience and the filmmakers.
“I think that Fight Club is more than the sum of its parts, whereas Panic Room is the sum of its parts. I didn’t look at Panic Room and think: ‘Wow, this is gonna set the world on fire.’ These are footnote movies, guilty pleasure movies. Thrillers. Woman-trapped-in-a-house movies. They’re not particularly important.”
That said, make sure your movie actually contains a semblance of a plot. A series of scenes where characters sit around and reflect on the meaning of life might as well be a documentary.
5. Take it one day at a time
At the beginning of the filmmaking process, your project looks like a heck of a giant to tackle. In the middle it’s hard to step back and imagine what the finished product will look like.
“How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time. How do you shoot a 150-day movie? You shoot it one day at a time,” said Fincher. This advice is applicable across the board in nearly all art forms. Break your projects down into smaller tasks and don’t let the gravity of any situation overwhelm you.
JJ ABRAMS on DIRECTING ACTION AND MONSTER SEQUENCES
Every scene has its own unique requirements. This is true whether it’s a comedic scene, a still scene, or a busy scene, a scene that’s all in-camera vs. one that requires visual effects and CGI. As you break down a scene with increasing resolution, the first thing to do is figure out what you want the sequence to be and how it serves the story. Once you figure out what the scene is supposed to do, your mind races trying to figure out what would be cool.
In a sequence with a creature, first and foremost you want to approach it from as visceral a place as possible. You need to figure out what the endgame of the sequence is. Once you figure that out and what you’re going to do, then the fun becomes how you are going to do it. You often begin to come up with a sequence, but what you discover is that a dozen shots that you thought were critical are actually superfluous. Part of what works is sketching it out, either yourself or with a storyboard artist.
In terms of visual effects shots, you need to really be as practical as you are inspired. Which means you need to be able to tell the crew: what we need to build, what we’re going to shoot live, what we’re going to do in-camera, which scenes are going to be entirely CG, which are going to be filmed in CG, where we’re going to create sets, where we’re going to be creating a piece of the creature physically with special effects, etc.
A monster scene is like a magic trick; you’re saying “I want to put a Testarossa on the stage, I want to cover it with a cloth, and I want to rip the cloth away, and I want there to be a ’67 VW bug.” Once you know what effect you are trying to achieve, then you start getting into the mechanics and working backwards, deconstructing the scene in your head.
At the heart of PATIENT 39 is a character whose brain injury has left him with a shattered sense of self and of the world around him. The Patient’s experience, as he tries to piece together who he is, invites the audience to contemplate their own consciousness. It is therefore important that the patient’s fragmented internal point of view is conveyed, and the sound design and music are central to this.
Film Editor Richard Wilkinson and Sound Mixer John Rogerson worked on the sound design to create a compelling soundscape. “Sound-wise, there was a delicate balance to strike between the real, hyper-real and the completely unreal,” says Sound Mixer John Rogerson. ‘The contrast between the patient’s aural POV and the ‘outside’ world needed to be recognisable to the viewer and as such needed to reflect an aural experience we have all known, for example, that of being underwater - the resultant loss of high frequency perfectly conveys the sense of the Patient having suffered significant cognitive impairment due to his injury.”
In sequences from the Patient’s Point of View, these muffled ‘underwater’ tones are then intercut with sharper textures - the voice of the Nurse, the noise of a fan. This contrast is designed to produce a heightened, almost hallucinatory feeling as the patient regains consciousness and wakes. “These movements (both sonic and visual) helped to create a sense of confusion, damage and vulnerability in the patient,” says John.
This soundscape was complemented by Andy Hopkins’s original score in which looped music samples help build on the suggestion of fragmented memory. “The biggest challenge was to create a sonic backdrop which was true to the films themes yet avoided period cliches, ” says Hopkins. “The looped samples suggest insistent fragmented memories and the synths create intense amorphous emotions but the musical structure/narrative is only clear in key moments where characters are able to integrate their realities.”
I’ve only just caught up with BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (slow I know) and Peter Strickland is officially my new hero. Kudos to the guy who decided to invest a legacy in making micro-budget feature KATALIN VARGA while teaching English in Budapest. I thought Berberian was terrific and showed great ambition for big, complex ideas.
Finding, interviewing, and hiring your production designer
This article from 1994 by Ted Hope and Scott Macaulay outlines the important decision of who to hire as Production Designer on a low budget feature, and how important that person will be to realising your vision.
In the director’s skillset, the importance of hirings and how to go about it is rarely spoken about, but how many of us have had the experience of booking someone and finding ourselves disappointed…or worse?
This article suggests how important it is to bring some rigour to the process, through reviewing previous work, taking up references and asking the right questions.
"NEVER FUCK THE TALENT" - DIRECTOR MIKE NEWELL'S RULES OF FILMMAKING
Directors are solitary animals. They never see others of their kind at work, they detest intrusion and are dominant, silverback apes of uncertain tempers. Making a movie is a knife fight, and as is said right before Butch Cassidy kicks his opponent in the balls, “Rules? In a knife fight? No rules!” Nonetheless, here are some guides to navigation—some private rituals that I don’t like to be without when I work.
1. When I first read a script, book or treatment, I’ll get an immediate little jolt of excitement if the thing has something to say to me.I have to nail that idea before anything else. If you have a big, clear idea of what you want your audience to feel and think—and above all, what you want—then, even in the times of darkest chaos (which will quite certainly be upon you), you have a rock to hang on to
2. Try to know the scripts nearly by heart.I work the scenes through in advance again and again with as much detail as possible. Then, on the day we shoot, I am prepared to ditch all of that if better ideas come up. Spontaneity is the quality that only actors can bring and it’s a quality worth its weight in gold. Be prepared for the fact that no plan survives first contact with the enemy and listen really hard to the actors. Don’t impose on them. Instead, try to encourage them to be easy in their skin.
3. Everybody on the crew will have ideas about how scenes should be made; they will have ideas, angles and movements you had never imagined. One of the best camera operators I ever worked with would listen to my opinions about where the camera should be put and then march off to the complete opposite position.
4. I have a mantra that I try desperately to remember through every day’s work: Please let me not be an arse-hole today. Vain hope, but it’s good to have an ambition!
5. A lot of smoke gets blown up a director’s bottom. It’s worth not believing any of it. I try to survive without wanting to know what everybody thinks of me. Some think you’re great, some think you’re crap. The reality will lie somewhere in the middle and, anyway, it shouldn’t matter. A lot of rough things get said to you, so it’s good to have a skin thick enough to take the damage and thin enough to understand why this stuff is being said.
6. Talk quietly.
7. Have good manners.
8. If you are going to lose your temper (do try not to), it must be overwhelmingly for real. There’s nothing worse than fake anger.
9. Don’t eat the catering at lunchtime.
10. Sleep whenever you can.
11. Wear a comfortable pair of shoes.
12. The process of making a film feels like being pecked to death by pigeons. A thousand tiny bites will slowly remove your reasons for starting in the first place. You will forget why you are there. That’s when you must fall back on that initial spark of excitement (see #1) to get you through.
13. Above all, “Never fuck the talent.” (See Charlton Heston, circa 1979.)
SAM MENDES DISCUSSES REHEARSING ON 'AMERICAN BEAUTY'
I did a lot of what I would call “lateral rehearsing”. In other words I gave Annette Benning a tape of the music I thought her character would listen to. I gave Alison Jenning a book of Edvard Munch paintings and said, “your character is in there somewhere.” I gave Wes Bentley a tape of his kind of music, and also gave him a video camera and told him to go out and film things that his character would be interested in. Stuff like that. Exercises and research which are about the character they’re playing. So they can marinate in it rather than me sitting at a table and saying, “I want you to say a line like this.”
Producer Stephen Follows has done an interesting piece of research examining what makes for a successful crowd-funding campaign. If you’re interested in having a go yourself, it’s packed with tips and well worth a look:
Routine saves me. I get up very early. I go to the desk. I imagine a dark cinema. I imagine the first sound, the first picture. I get ready to watch the film. It is trance-like. I write. When I am full on writing I don’t want interesting things going on around me. I don’t want distractions. I need to focus on the page and on the movie in my head. So, an early start to the day – 5.30 or 6. Then something physical – yoga, run, swim, whatever. Coffee. Sit down. Do emails. Then turn off phone/internet/children. Write. Stop at 1pm. Walk. Take a notebook. Walking is good for for ideas. Eat something very light. Sit down. Read what you wrote the day before. Research a bit. Make notes for where you will start tomorrow (never complete anything). Stop around 6pm. Go home. Be nice. Do this 6 days a week. Research on the 7th. Keep going. Do not rewrite as you go. GET TO THE END. Then rewrite. That’s the plan anyhow. Good intentions. Hell awaits.
Some nice advice here from first time director John Krokidas of KILL YOUR DARLINGS. Apparently a new director on a movie is considered a “deadly attachment” by investors who’s involvement is a risk that must be balanced by bankable stars.