RATING: 9/10…READ: March 17, 2011
My favorite book on directing. It features interviews with 20 Legendary filmmakers on their craft from Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, The Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Jean-Luc Goddard, and many others.
The lesson to al these interviews is really that one has to create one’s own approach to filmmaking.
I learned filmmaking in a very organic way. I started as a film critic when I was eighteen, writing reviews for a newspaper. Then I got a job as a trainee film editor, then as an editor, then I began to direct documentaries for the BBC. After a while, I became dissatisfied with documentaries, and I began to dramatize them more and more, until I started doing dramas for TV and, eventually, for the cinema.
Directing is really about writing, and all serious directors write. They might not get credit for it, often for contractual reasons, but I think you can’t separate the shaping of the script from the writing of it. And I think all serious directors shape their scripts, meaning that they sit down with the writers and put the ideas into shape and give them structure. It’s an essential part of directing.
I work in a particular way…I don’t move the camera unless there is a purpose for moving it. I don’t cut unless it’s a necessary cut.
I find that what’s really helpful with actors is to improvise what happens beforeand after that scene.
I don’t cover my scenes very much, and I don’t like to do a lot of takes, either. The reason is that, first of all, what I try to do is show the actors that whenever the camera rolls, that’s going to be in the movie. If you’re shooting from all different angles, then the attitude that prevails is “This probably won’t end up in the film, so let’s not bother too much.
I never print more than two takes. It’s so boring to sit through hours and hours of dailies, and you lose your judgment, eventually. You see six takes, you don’t remember what the first one was like. So I shoot very little film. I don’t shoot master shots for instance, and consequently, it’s very easy to cut together. I shoot five days instead of six, like most people, and this way I spend at least a day in the cutting room, which is enough to cover one week’s worth of shooting. And then I have another day to prepare all the shots for the coming week.
Filming is all about focusing everything onto a certain point. But if you have two cameras, you’re constantly compromising that.
I think an inexperienced director will feel that he will have to go in there and tell the actors what to do. And to be strong and to impose his will. But it’s often more important to listen to them, and to make corrections. Then, by the time you get to the set, there’s very little to be said, provided you’ve prepared it right, that you know where you’re heading. It’s really a matter of making little adjustments.
The smart thing to is to alter the part to suit the actor, to rewrite it for the actor, rather than force the actor into the way the part is written.
What I realized, in fact, is that filmmaking is essentially storytelling. I wouldn’t say that I make films to tell stories though. Not really. My principal interest is in relationships. To me relationships are a metaphor for everything else in life: politics, morality…everything.
I don’t make films to day anything, because I wouldn’t know what to say. I think there are basically two kinds of filmmakers: those who know and understand a truth which they want to communicate to the world, and those who are not quite sure what the answer to something is and who make the film as a way to try to find out. That’s what I do.
I might think a lot about the film before I make it, and certainly after, but I try not think too much when I’m actually on the set. The way I work is that I try to determine as early as possible what the theme of the movie is, what central idea is being expressed through the story. Once I know that, once I have figured out a unifying principle, then and decision I make on the set will be influence by that and will therefore fall into a certain logic.
The only way you can make films for an audience is to make them for yourself. Not out of arrogance, but simply for practical reasons. A film has to be entertaining, that’s absolutely true. But how can you know what the audience is going to like? You have to use yourself as a reference.
I try to make films that raise questions more than give answers, films that might not really have a conclusion to them, because I don’t like it when one person is right and one person is wrong. I mean, if that’s the case, it’s not worth making the movie, really.
You can make your own rules, and you can break all the rules you want—people do it all the time—but I think before you do that, you need to understand the basic grammar. The rules give you a standard, a reference, from which you can then create something original.
The only reason to experiment must be to serve the story. If you’re trying things just because they might look good, I think it’s a waste of time.
I never give an actor directions in front of other actors. Because otherwise, when he does the scene again, he knows that I’m watching and judging him, of course, he also knows that the other actors are watching and judging him!
If everything is going OK, you should just shut up and be glad. The more you work, the more you realize how little this job requires.
An actor doesn’t need to understand in a conventional way what he is doing—he just has to do it. And so you have to make a distinction between direction that produces behavior and directions that produces intellectual filmmaking, the latter being absolutely useless.
Most young directors will talk for hours about the meaning of a scene and never direct behavior. That won’t make the actor angrier or more touching in the scene. He only needs to understand what he needs to live truthfully in an imaginary set of circumstances. Because all acting comes from wanting something. It’s what you want that makes you do something, not what you think.
I don’t work alone because I need another person’s vision. I need to discuss things that are confused and contradictory within me. When I start writing a film, I don’t have a story. It’s more abstract than that. I usually just have ideas about characters and relationships.
Directors who manage to summarize their films always impress me. For example, if someone were to ask me what “The things of Life” is about, I wouldn’t know how to reply other than to say, “It’s about a guy who has a car accident.” Otherwise, I would go into endless detail.
If you were to ask thirty directors to shoot the same scene, you’d probably discover thirty different approaches.
Whatever your level of preparation for a film, reality will inevitably oblige you to improvise most of your decisions on the set.
–On the things of Life for instance, at the start of shooting, I discovered that one of the actors froze as soon as the camera was too close to him. He simply couldn’t perform. I realized that the only way to get anything out of him was to move the camera back and to film him with a very long lens. In fact, it helped him give a better performance. But as a result, it forced me to change the film’s whole visual style, since I couldn’t film the other actors with different lenses. That wouldn’t have been consistent. So you see, sometimes a very minor detail can influence a whole film.
I am incapable of shooting what people call an establishing shot—a fairly wide shot at the start of a scene that shows the audience were we are. I’ve tried, but I can never pull it off. Each time I start a scene in a new setting, I try to break it down in such a way that the audience will discover the setting without realizing it, through the characters’ actions.
Before you can direct an actor well, you need to choose the right actor. And that requires a fair number of meetings, conversations in which you talk about everything: politics, childhood, troubled moments…After a while, a climate of trust is created, and indirectly, you discover a great deal about the potential of the actor.
The real problem isn’t knowing whether the actor matches the character but where he or she matches me.
I’ve never been truly satisfied with any of my films. Generally, at the end of editing, I tell myself I didn’t do too badly after all.
My own personal feeling is that if you make a film that pleases you, and you make it well, then you will please the audience too, or at least part of the audience. But I think it’s a mistake to try to guess what the audience will like and try to do that.
Every director has his own way of working. I know many of them arrive on set in the morning knowing exactly what they’re going to shoot, and how. Two weeks before being on the set, they know. They know the lens they’re going to use, the way they’re going to frame, how many shots they will do…I’m the opposite of that. When I get on set, I have absolutely no idea how I’m going to shoot what I have to shoot—and I haven’t tried to think about it, either.
I like to arrive with no preconceived idea. I never rehearse; I never visit the set before I’m going to shoot. I get there in the morning, and depending on how I feel that morning, and what comes over me at that moment, I decide what I’m going to do. I admit it, it’s not a great way to work. It’s comfortable for me, but most directors I know have always been more prepared.
I don’t do any coverage, and I try to shoot every scene in a single shot, or as close to that as I can. I don’t cut as long as I don’t have to, and I never shoot the same scene from a different angle. When I cut, I continue the following shot from the exact moment when I cut the last.
I never cover anything, partly because I’m too lazy, and partly because I don’t like the actors to do the same thing over and over. That way, they can stay fresh and spontaneous, and they can also try lots of different things. They can play the same scene differently every time, without having to worry about whether it’ll match with the other shots.
Hire talented actors and let them do their work. A lot of directors tend to over direct their actors, and the actors indulge in that because, well, they like being over directed. They like having endless discussions about the part; they like to intellectualize the whole process of creating a character. And often, that’s how they get confused and lose their spontaneity of their natural talent.
Experience has shown me that if you have a good script, you can do a miserable job directing and still get a pretty good movie, whereas if you have a bad script, you can do a brilliant job of directing and it will hardly make a difference.
Since I didn’t learn directing in a theoretical manner, the notion of film “grammar” doesn’t mean anything to me. Moreover, to my way of thinking, if such grammar does exist, it is there to be defied.
I prepare nothing in advance. In fact, I try to dream in my sleep the shots that I will be shooting the next day on the set. With a little luck, I’m able to do it. If not, when I arrive on set in the morning I ask to be alone for a while, and I roam around the set with my viewfinder. I look through it and try to imagine the characters moving and saying their lines. It’s almost as if the scene were already there, invisible or impalpable, with me trying to seek it out or give it life. After that, I bring the camera in, I call the actors, and I try to see if what I have imagined works in reality. The rest is a long process of fine tuning, between the camera, the actors, and the light. Therefore, it’s sort of perpetual process in which I try to make sure that each shot gives rise to the next.
The driving force behind any film is, first and foremost, curiosity: the desire of the director to discover each character’s secret.
I think the first thing you need to ask yourself if you want to make a film is “Do I have anything to say?” And it doesn’t necessarily have to be something literal that can be expressed through words. Sometimes you just want to communicate a feeling, an emotion. That’s sufficient. And believe me, it’s hard enough.
There are filmmakers who claim that they never know where they’re going when they make a film, that they make it up as they go along. On the highest level, certainly Fellini would be the main example. But I don’t quite believe that. I think he always had some idea, however abstract, or where he was going
There are also filmmakers who have a script but don’t know exactly the angles or shots of a particular scene are going to be until they get into the rehearsal of that scene, or even on the day of shooting. I know people can work that way. I don’t think I can.
The script is not everything. It’s the interpretation that’s everything—the visual interpretation of what you have on paper.
The whole problem is being able to know what is essential, what you absolutely cannot change, mustn’t change, and what you can be more flexible on.
Sometimes I went to the locations first and designed the shots from there, and sometimes I decided on the shots beforehand and then tried to make them work within the constraints of the location. I tend to go more for the second option, though.
I don’t particularly like to use long lenses because I feel they make the image look indefinite. I like the way other people use them—for instance, David Fincher in Seven
It’s important not to restrict actors. But, on the other hand, I cannot let actors give me something I don’t want. On a film like Casino, there was a lot of improvisation, which is fine. If an actor feels very comfortable playing the character in that world, I let him improvise within a given scene, and I cover it in a pretty straightforward manner: medium shots, close-ups.
Some directors make films strictly for the audience. Others like Steven Spielberg or Alfred Hitchcock, make them for the audience and for themselves. Hitchcock was great at doing that; he knew exactly how to play the audience. So you could say that Hitchcock only made suspense movies, which is true in a sense, but there was a psychology behind his films that was so personal that it made him a great filmmaker. There were personal films disguised as thrillers, really.
In terms of a message, whether it’s a political message or just the underlying theme of the film, I sometimes see films in which, at the end, a character at will, either virtually or literally, make a speech or have a line of dialogue where he will explain the film title means or even explain what the film was all about. And that, I feel, is the worst thing you can do.
I think that there are two particular ways of learning to make films. The first, of course is to make them. The second is to write reviews. Writing forces you to take your analysis further, by trying to define and explain in a concrete way (for others and above all yourself) why a film works or fails.
There are two ways of making a film, or if you prefer, to reasons for doing it. The first consists of having a very clear idea and expressing it through the film. The second consists of making the film to discover what you are attempting to say. Personally, I have always been torn between these two approaches. And I have tried them both.
When I made my first films, I would spend every evening painstakingly preparing the way in which I was going to shoot the next day’s scenes. I would make drawings almost as detailed as those of a storyboard, and when I arrived on the set, I knew exactly what shots I was going to film and how. I’d usually begin by preparing the frame, and then I’d position the actors, telling them where to stand and how to move within it.
–Since then, I have done the opposite of what I used to do. In other words, I find my scene construction in the action. I arrive on the set without any preconceived ideas about the shots I’m going to film, and only after working with the actors, after making them move around the set, do I start to think about where I’m going to set up the camera. This process takes much more time, of course, because you can’t light the set until you decide on the shot breakdown, but I know now that I need to “live out” the scene before shooting it.
Film can be learned but not taught. It is an art where technique is less important than approach. It’s an entirely personal form of expression. You can ask any technician to show you the conventional way of shooting a given scene, but if you shoot it according to those instructions, there will always be something missing in the end. And that thing is you—your point of view, your means of self-expression. Directing is purely a personal experience. Which is why I think you must discover film language by yourself and you must discover yourself through that language. If you want to learn film, maybe a shrink would be more useful than a teacher.
I virtually always use only lenses with very short focal lengths or very long ones, and I rarely use any camera movement. I’ve reached the point where I almost force myself to write a thesis to justify the briefest tracking shot.
You can choose the frame, but when it comes to shooting, everything is in the hands of the camera operator. You can talk for hours and hours about the light you want, but in the end, only the gaffer decides what the light will be like. And it doesn’t matter. First, because this struggle that pits you against the limits of your control is, in itself, very creative; and second, because there are areas in which your control remains complete—areas that you must concentrate on.
–There are three such areas: the text, the actor’s performance; and the choice of the main color, the one that will dominate the sets, costumes, and the film’s general tone.
Cinema, therefore is above all an exploration. You can make films for purely personal reasons, to discover things for yourself. It’s an intimate process that, ironically, occurs via a means of expression that must aim at the widest audience possible. It’s something that you do for others but which will only work if you’re convinced that it’s solely for you.
As a rule, the way I work on a given scene is that I work the frame first. I set the camera and ask the actors to do “mechanical” movements. Then, once the frame is set, I send the crew out and work alone with the actors.
I don’t cover the scene in the classical sense, by using different angles. What I do, however, is point the scene in a different direction with each take. Sometimes I ask the actors to do the scene again faster or slower. Sometimes I redo it in a more comical or dramatic tone. And afterwards, in the cutting room, I choose the tone that best suits the film as a whole.
Ideally, a director should find a writer who is sort of soul mater, and their relationship should be similar to a marriage.
The great thing about filmmaking is that it’s a team enterprise. In fact, what surprised me the most the first time I made a film—besides the fact that you have to get up so early!—was the number of people involved in the process. That creates a real necessity to communicate, and the director’s job often becomes more political than artistic, really, because you spend your time trying to convince all these people that your ideas are valid.
On a film set, and even more so on a Hollywood film set, the stakes are so high and the pressure is so huge that you want to plan as many things as you can in advance. But the more films I make, the more I realize that spontaneity is really the best approach, because—and that is definitely the biggest lesson I have drawn from my experience so far—you do not know anything until you get on set. You can rehearse all you want, you can storyboard each shot if it reassures you, but once you get on the actual location, none of that means very much.
When I talk about working intuitively, I don’t mean that you can do just about anything. In fact, it’s very much the opposite, because you can improvise only if you have decided on a very strict set of parameters beforehand. Otherwise, you end up with chaos.
I don’t cover much. In fact, I really try not to shoot anything if I’m not sure that it will be in the final cut. First, because it is a waste of time, and the time is something you cannot afford to waste on a shoot. But also because, whether you want to or not, you get emotionally attached to every image you create. And if you shoot so much that after the first cut, it becomes obvious you have to take an hour out of the film, that can be painful. So the more rigorous you can manage to be on set, the less agony you will face during editing.
I rehearse very little because I’m always scared that the acting might become too technical and that we will lose the magic that usually happens on the first takes. Also, I make it a point not to look at the scene on the video control but to watch the actors directly. Otherwise, I think it might create a distance between the actors and me and, ultimately, between the actors and the audience.
You can use a close-up shot in a conventional way—to draw attention to something—or you can use it exactly for the opposite, as diversion.
Oliver Stone once asked me whether I was content to be a marginal filmmaker. I understood what he meant; there was nothing condescending in his question. He knows that I could be making mainstream films if I wanted to. And I answered that I was happy with the size of my audience. But I think this is something that a director must somehow be able to determine in advance—what kind of audience he wants to have—because it will be necessarily influence the language he will be able to use.
In a lot of first films, I notice the same problem over and over again: the inability to make the camera “dance,” to properly organize the sort of gigantic ballet that a film set inevitable turns into.
I am not one of these directors that are obsessed with the camera. It is not my priority when I arrive on the set. I prefer to work with the actors first, as if I were making a stage play, and then figure out a way to shoot it with the camera. I approach it as though I were making a documentary of what I rehearsed with the actors.
The more films I make, the more minimalist my approach becomes, to the point where I sometimes shoot an entire film with the same lens—in the case of eXistenZ, a 27-millimeter lens.
There is a scene in eXistenZ where Jennifer Jason Leigh says, “You have to play the game to know what the game is about.” Clearly, that is how I regard filmmaking. I will never be able to explain what draws me toward a particular project, and it is only by making the film that I can understand why I’m making it, and why I’m making it that way.
For a long time, I felt that it was impossible to shoot a film from a screenplay that I hadn’t written. One of the main lessons I learned while working on Alien Resurrection is that [shooting a film you haven’t written] actually makes things much easier. Because writing is laborious. It’s an enormous emotional investment, and you find it hard to look objectively at what you’re doing. However, when a screenplay turns up, it’s very easy to see right away how you can improve on it. Then you simply have to find a way to make it your own.
The storyboard is like a highway: you can turn off it from time to time to follow prettier country roads, but if you lose your way, you can always return to the highway. If you decide to follow the country roads from the outset, there’s a fair chance you’ll lose your way and get bogged down.
My desire is, above all, to create a graphic form of cinema. That’s why I insist on framing each shot myself. I don’t actually operate the camera, but I decide on the frame. To do that, I usually arrive on the se tin the morning and use a camcorder with a freeze-frame function.
I never cover a scene. I don’t shoot the same scene from three different angles. I make a choice and stick to it. Directors often say, “there aren’t two ways to shoot a scene; there’s only one, and it’s the best.” That’s a little pretentious, but it’s true. And there’s nothing more intoxicating than allowing yourself no exit, trapping yourself and then arriving in the cutting room and realizing that it works.
The greatest mistake that a young director can make is to want to show the actor what to do. It’s like asking an artist to design a poster but sketching it for him.
Some actors need to talk about their part for hours, but others, taking the opposite approach, prefer to work in more instinctive manner. Jean Claude Dreyfus, for example, hates rehearsing. You have to respect that. You have to understand how actors work and try to go toward them.
The greatest difficult and greatest danger for a director is adhering too tightly to the schedule. On one hand, you can be tempted to cut or simplify things to adhere to the schedule and pacify the producers. But you risk paying a heavy price doing this during editing if you’re not satisfied with what you’ve shot. On the other hand, you must be able to make compromises at the right time.
I have always believed that sound is half of what makes a film work. You have the image on one side, then sound on another, and if you know how to combine them properly, then the whole is stronger than the sum of the parts.
I have tried to do most of the music before the shoot. I discuss the story with my composer and record all sorts of music that I listen to as I’m shooting the film, either on headphones during dialogue scenes or on loudspeakers, so that the whole crew gets in the right mood.
Finding an actor who can play a specific part is not that difficult. What’s harder is finding the right one. What I mean is that, for any given part, there are six or seven actors who will probably give you a good performance. But they will all play something different. It’s a little but like music: you can play the same piece of music with a trumpet of a flute, and both will give you something wonderful, but in two different directions. And you have to decide what is the best choice.
My advice to every young filmmaker is this: remain in control of your film from beginning to end. It’s better not to make a film at all than to give up the power of final decision. Because if you do, you will suffer immensely.
When Truffaut or Fellini made films about their own lives, people called it genius. But if you do it in this country, people call you an egomaniac. So you have to hid behind a lot of things.
All the things I’m criticized for—my loudness, my intensity—they all come from the war.
I noticed a softening in American cinema over the last twenty years, and I think it’s a direct influence of TV. I would even say that if you want to make movies today, you’d be better off studying television than film because that’s the market. Television has diminished the audience’s attention span. It’s hard to make a slow, quiet film today. Not that I would ever want to make a slow, quiet film anyway!
Shooting is the critical par of the whole filmmaking process because anything can happen and you don’t get a second chance. That is why, when I get on the set in the morning, I usually have a list of fifteen to twenty shots that I want to make that day, and I go for the money right away. I start with the most important because I never know what I’ll have at the end of the day. I might have twenty-five shots, or I might have two.
I always start by rehearsing with the actors. Ideally, we’ve already rehearsed that scene before we even go into production. And because the actors have a memory of it, it usually leads to something new, I find. In any case, it’s better to be alone with them. That means you have to ask everybody else to leave the set. And sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes three. Sometimes you don’t shoot your first shot of the day until after lunch. You have to wait until you have found the essence of the scene.
You have to cast the right actors to begin with. Because whatever they say, actors have their limitations, and they can’t go beyond them. They can improve, they can stretch a little further, but they can never be someone they’re not. I’ve never seen an actor do that. Robert de Niro, as good as he is, has his range. You will never see him play a warm character.
When I read the script of Pulp Fiction, I thought it would never work, that it was too talky and incredibly self-indulgent. But when I saw the way Quentin Tarantino did it, and the actors he chose to do it, and it became totally different. There are things you just can’t write, like the way an actor will look at another actor. And these little things are everything in a movie. So I think that as filmmakers, we don’t truly have control over everything. And in the end, it can be the movie directing us rather than the opposite.
When I shoot a scene, I try all sorts of angles. I cover everything from wide shot to close-up, and then I choose in the editing, because that’s the moment when I know how I really feel about the scene…I never hesitate to shoot a scene with several cameras (sometimes up to fifteen at a time, for really complex action scenes).
I tend to rely on only two kinds of lenses to compose my frames: very wide and extreme telephoto. I use the wide angle because when I want to see something, I want to see it completely, with the most detail possible. As for the telephoto, I use it for close-ups because I find it creates a real “encounter” with the actor.
If the scene is about, let’s say, loneliness, I ask the actor to play that in a very abstract manner. I will say something like, “Go over by the window and feel lonely. Forget the scene, forget the character, forget everything else, just think about how you act when you’re lonely.”
I treat actors as though they’re part of my family. Before I start shooting, I insist on spending a lot of time with them. We talk a lot, and I try to see how they feel about life, what kinds of ideas they have, what kinds of dreams. We talk about what they love and what they hate. I try to discover what each actor’s main quality is because this is what I’ll try to emphasize in the film.
I pay a lot of attention to the eyes. When an actor acts, I always stare at his or her eyes. Always. Because it tells me if he or she is being truthful or just faking it.
There are two main reasons why I make movies. First, because I always had trouble communicating with people, so films are a way for me to create a bridge between myself and the rest of the world. And second, because I like to explore, to discover things about people and myself.
JOEL AND ETHAN COEN
Our tastes are not what you might call classical. In fact, most of the films we love and that have inspired us are obscure movies that most people consider terrible. I remember when we worked with Nicholas Cage on Raising Arizona, we talked about his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola, and told him that Finian’s Rainbow, which hardly anyone has ever seen, was one of our favorite films. He told his uncle, who I think has considered us deranged ever since.
The main difference for us between the writing and the directing is that we’re willing to write for other people but we wouldn’t direct a script that has been written by somebody else. Part of it comes from a purely pragmatic point of view: writing a script takes a few weeks, sometimes a few months. Directing a film can take up to two years of our lives. So it better be worth it!
When we start writing a script, we don’t necessarily know what it’s about, or what form it’s going to take, or where it’s going to go, and it comes to life little by little.
We usually storyboard most of the shots. But when we get on the set in the morning, we start by rehearsing with the actors. We walk around the set with them a lot, and usually they sort of figure the best blocking among themselves, depending on what is most comfortable or most interesting. After that, we go to the director of photography and decide, from what we’ve seen of the acting, how much we want to stick to the storyboard or not. And most of the time, we’ll ignore it because the blocking of the scene makes the storyboard academic.
How much we actually cover depends on a lot of things. We frequently shoot scenes—especially in our most recent movies, and particularly in Fargo—that have no coverage at all because they’re done in one shot. And in other scenes we do so much coverage that we look at each other at the end of the day like we’re a couple of morons who never made movies.
You’re not there to teach them how to act. You’re there to give them what makes them comfortable, to give them the kinds of things they’re looking for from you. Sometimes they’ll want to talk a lot around what you’re doing but not specifically about it. Or sometimes it’s just “Tell me where to stand and how fast to talk.” So it’s a question of getting a feeling in the first few days of what their process is, to be sensitive about that. And maybe that means to stay out of their way.
Once we’ve cast and have started working on the set, though, we’re not too open to surprises anymore. We don’t like to let the actors improvise, for instance. That isn’t to say that actors don’t sometimes rewrite the lines or come up with their own lines, but that’s different from improvisation. The only time we do improvisation is during rehearsals, to bring certain things out, but that usually doesn’t affect the scene itself. What we’ll usually do is ask the actors to invent the parts of the scene that aren’t written, the five minutes that take place before and after the scene.
My cinema is much more a cinema of images than a cinema of ideas.
I thought that a director’s job was, above all, to have good ideas. I realized instead that it mainly consisted of managing all kinds of outside elements to create the right environment to bring those ideas to fruition.
Once I find the angle I like, I cover myself very little or even not at all. I choose one way of filming a scene and I stick to it, even if I end up regretting it during editing, which happens at times. As long as the cameraman doesn’t start kicking up a fuss, I don’t try anything else. From time to time, this makes him a little nervous. In the past, he’d ask me, for safety’s sake, to try shooting with two or three cameras. I did it to reassure him, but I realized during editing that I was almost always using shot from the main camera, the one that I had chosen. So I stopped doing that.
American cinema is too standardized, too dogmatic—there has to be a hero, a family, black people, meal scenes, and so on. It’s extremely restrictive. And besides, Asian cinema can do something that American cinema is unable to do: control the use of time. In a Hollywood movie, if there are more than ten seconds of silence, people freak out. In Asia, we have more natural and healthier relationships with time. In the end, it’s also a question of scale. For Americans, having a good time means building a Disneyland, whereas I have the impression that we can still have a good time with a simple Ping-Pong game. In the end, I guess money is what governs each culture’s style of shooting, and that’s a pity.
Even when I shoot a close-up, something is always going on behind it; the face is always related to the world around it.
I hate the idea of revealing the characters’ emotions through dialogue. I feel that expressing emotions through words rather than actions is an easy option that the cinema chooses more and more often. It’s like a disease. Therefore, I try to let my actors speak as little as possible, and when they have to speak, I make sure that either they or the camera will be moving.
I always allow my instinct to guide me, but I understand that others find logic more reassuring. In any case, there isn’t really a cinematic grammar. Or rather, there are hundreds of them, since each director invents his or her own.
When I prepare a scene, I always start by positioning the camera, since I believe that directing involves first and foremost the control of space. This is the basis of all cinema. Now, this control of space must be done through the camera. The actors must conform to the predetermined framing, no the other way around.
A director really has one aesthetic goal when making a film: to be stimulated by what he shoots. I know that a scene is good when I feel my heart beat faster, and that very reason I make films is to feel this kind of sensation.
LARS VON TRIER
The problem with wanting to control everything is that when you’ve storyboarded and planned everything, shooting it becomes nothing more than a duty. And the terrible part is that you can only end up achieving seventy percent—if you’re lucky—of what you were dreaming of.
On a film like The Idiots, for instance, I never spent time thinking how I was going to shoot it until I was actually doing it. I never planned anything. I was just there, and I filmed what I was seeing. When you do that, you really start at zero, and everything that happens if a gift. So there’s no frustration at all.
I have no idea how other people make films. I never go to see movies; I am totally ignorant of what is being done elsewhere.
A tracking shot is a big, obvious move, although most American films, directors try to hide it. To them, it’s just a convenient way to move from one point to another, so it has to be invisible. But I try to not hide how things are done. I feel like I would be cheating if I did.
In the beginning of my career, I saw a documentary about the way Ingmar Bergman directed his actors. After each take he would go to his cast and say, “Oh that was great! Beautiful! Fantastic! Maybe you could improve this a little, but really…marvelous!” And I remember I wanted to throw up. It felt so exaggerated and overdone and…well, it seemed to fake to the cynical young filmmaker that I was. But today, I’ve come to realize he was right, that it is the right approach. You have to encourage actors, you have to support them. And let’s not be afraid of the cliché: you have to love them.
My only gift as a director is that I am always completely sure of what I am doing. I was sure of myself when I was in film school, I was sure of myself when I made my first film…I’ve never been in doubt when it comes to my work. Of course, I might have been in doubt of how people would react to it, but I never doubted what I wanted to do. I’ve never wanted to improve, and I don’t think I have.
WONG KAR WAI
I have a rather unusual approach to screenwriting. You see, I write as a director, not as a writer. So I write with images. And to me, the most important thing about the script is to know the space it takes place in. Because if you know that, then you can decide what the characters do in this space.
The space even tells you who the characters are, why they’re there, and so on. Everything else just comes bit by bit if you have a place in your mind. So I have to scout locations before I even start writing. Also, I always start with a lot of ideas, but the story itself is never clear. I know what I don’t want, bit I don’t know exactly what I want. I think the whole process of making a film is actually a way for me to find all these answers. And until I have found the answers, I’ll continue to make the film. Sometimes I find the answers on the set, sometimes during the editing, sometimes three months after the first screening.
I’m not particularly obsessed with technical things. To me, the camera is nothing more than a toll used to translate what the eye sees. Yet when I arrive on the set for a given scene, I always start with the frame because I have to know the space the scene is going to evolve in. It’s only once I know that that I can decide the blocking of the actors.
As a rule, I don’t cover much. It depends on the scene, of course. Very often there’ only one way to shoot it. But in some scenes, and especially if the scene is something of a transition, where the story can shift from one point of view to another, then I will do a lot of coverage because it is only in the editing that I will be able to know whether the story should follow this person or that person.
JEAN LUC GODDARD
Two good scenes in a movie were enough for us to call it brilliant.
I probably learned more by watching films than by making them.
When an aspiring directors comes to me for advice, my answer is always the same: “Take the camera, shoot something, and show it to someone. Anyone. It can be a friend, your next-door neighbor, or the grocer down the street, it doesn’t matter. Show your audience what you’ve shot and observe their reaction. If they seem to find it interesting, then shoot something else.
I always start working on a film with the certainty that I can actually, physically, make it. What I mean by that is that I always got a green light from a producer before I wrote a single line of the script. So, of course, once that project gets going, you have to get going too. It’s a little bit like a marriage: once you’ve taken that step, there’s no turning back. You have to wake up in the morning, go to work to provide for the family, watch your expenses, plan for the future…it’s a commitment you can’t postpone. It becomes an obligation—but a particularly healthy one, I think.
It seems to me the director has several duties—and I mean that in both the professional and moral sense of the term. One of those duties is to explore, to be in the perpetual state of research. Another one is to let himself me amazed once in a while.
For me, the actor plays a part; he or she isn’t the part. I never really directed actors…I often let the actors make their own creations; I let them be free. Well, not entirely free: they have to follow a very specific path. But the go down this path alone, and in the manner they want.
The good actors’ directors are those who have a very definite idea of what they want, who are lucky enough to be working with the right actor for that part, and who are both very firm and very tolerant toward that actor, the way a good coach might be in sports.
Today it looks like a lot of the young directors move the camera to make their films look “cinematic.” They look like they’re not quite certain why they frame this way of why they move this way—and it doesn’t seem to particularly bother them. In many ways, it reminds me of certain operas, where most of the effects are there not to help the story but to offer a distraction because the story is boring.
I think the problem was that when we created the auteur theory, we insisted on the word “auteur,” whereas it’s the word “theory” we should have insisted upon because the real goal of this concept was not to show who makes a good film but to demonstrate what makes a good film.