It always amazes me when directors say that they don’t storyboard a film.  How can this be?   A script is a nice place to start, but a film is so much more than the words the actors speak.   Film is visual, so you need to be thinking and communicating in visuals.  Why would you write ten drafts of a script, and then only storyboard it once?    Storyboards will give you a vision and an understanding of your film that you simply would not get any other way.

Hitchcock used to say that by the time he started filming, he already knew every shot because he had storyboarded the whole thing.  He just had to follow the plan.  That’s an extreme view of storyboards, but Hitchcock had incredible visuals and he knew how they would be cut together; he knew what would work, because he had already drawn it out.

There are directors that refuse to storyboard as they want each shot to be spontaneous, or to allow the actors the space they should to do what they need to do.  Mike Leigh, who I love, comes to mind, as does Robert Altman, who I don’t love.   There are great directors who don’t storyboard, but they are generally not visual directors.  Sometimes, they are older directors who used to storyboard, but now are looking for a less stylized approach to their work and maybe have enough experience that they feel they don’t have to storyboard anymore.

In my mind, there is no reason that you can’t have storyboards and give the actors all the room they need.  This is a film, there should be a give and take with the actors and the shot, but the actors come to set prepared, and the director should too.  In film school, we were taught that even documentaries should be storyboarded.  This was simply so that you knew what you needed to get.  Let’s say you were going to film a basketball game, you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know they are going to dribble the ball and shoot.  You can plan some shots according to your approach of that game.

Storyboards, like a script, serve two functions.  One is strictly practical.  They show you what you need and when you need it, so that when the DP or the producer asks you, for example, what equipment you need to get the scene you are going to shoot on a certain day, you can tell them.  I need a crane on this day to get this shot.  And the DP can look at that and know that he needs to get a certain amount of lights to shoot it.

Or, a scene, which only is a paragraph in the script, is going to take three days to shoot because this is the way we are going to shoot it.  How would you know that if you hadn’t done your storyboards?  I do a few storyboard passes on a script, but the first one is always with this in mind because the first questions that come up in a production are scheduling questions.  I can’t tell you how important this can be.  These early decisions, usually made when the film has no cast or financing and might not even happen, tend to get set in stone very quickly and before you know it, you’re on a set living with decisions you made months ago.

The other reason is artistic.  It costs nothing to draw a storyboard.  You draw them before you’re under any stress of production, or even preproduction.  It gives you a chance to try things out in a way you’ll never be able to when there’s a crew standing around and dollars are evaporating.  It makes you think about details that in a script, you shouldn’t even think about, because a script works in a different way than a film.  Scripts need just as much description as it takes to give you an idea of what a place should look like.   A film actually shows you the set.

I remember when I was storyboarding CHASING SLEEP, I had Ed Saxon put some ice on his head.  When I wrote the script, I didn’t think about what happened to that ice, but drawing it, I realized that the ice was going to have to be put down somewhere and it would melt.  This gave me some ideas and some shots I wouldn’t have come up with if I had just realized that on the day of shooting.  It was a nice couple of shots, if I don’t say so myself, and the alternative would have probably been to just forget about the ice and hope that the audience forgot about it too, because that’s what happened in the script.

Storyboards aren’t set in stone.  Once you are on the set, maybe something doesn’t work, or more commonly, you can combine a few shots, but that’s what making a movie is all about.  You need to come to the set with more ideas than will ever make it into the film and then, when some of the ideas don’t make it into a shot, there are still plenty of ideas still in there when the shot changes.  You can’t get everything you want, but everything you get is what you wanted.

Besides, if you’re a director, what the fuck are they paying you for?





Willem Dafoe crosses the line, in a good way

I saw the new Willem Dafoe play, IDIOT SAVANT,  a couple nights ago and I’m still thinking about it. It’s experimental theater by Richard Foreman, although at this stage, I’m not sure what’s experimental about it. Everyone seemed to know exactly what to do and how to do it.

Willem Dafoe’s performance was excellent, as expected, but there was something about it that really intrigued me. The play pretty much does away with any fourth wall. There’s a sort of gate, I guess, which serves as a physical barrier upstage, but the actors, and Dafoe was expert at this, never really pretended to be anywhere else. They were on a stage, in front of an audience.

What was amazing to me was how Dafoe included the audience in the show, without directly engaging them. There was this amazing feeling that we were all in this together, we were all here to enjoy something and it had as much to do with us watching him, as it did him performing. In a sense, it was like watching the host of a variety show, but only in that inclusive way a host might talk to the audience.

Like I said, the actors never talked directly to the audience. It was much more of an unwritten contract between him and the audience that they shared the experience.

So, naturally, I’ve been wondering how that feeling could be recreated in a film. I am not talking about a character, or an actor, talking to the camera. How do you insinuate the audience to be part of the experience when you are watching a film? In a sense, when an audience is engaged in a film, it makes the film more enjoyable for everyone, so just by being good, or not boring, there’s some of that. But, in a theater, the actors aren’t set on celluloid and can react back to that invisible conversation that’s been started. Maybe it can’t be done, but it would be interesting to figure that out and try it.


I remember stories from script writers who would go into development meetings at Disney and be faced with a room full of “imagineers”. I used to think that the very idea of imagineers was disgusting; the corporatizing of imagination, the conference table creativity, had a dangerous sound to it.

I had forgotten about the imagineers, but lately I’ve noticed in the film world that there has been a devaluation of creativity. It made me think that a corporation that actually has enough respect for imagination to create (and pay) a group of people to sit around and imagine things is something that the world could probably use more of.

I wiki’d the Imagineers, and it turns out that most people who work at Disney are called Imagineers, so that’s an abuse of that term. Disney Imagineering was set up in the 60’s by the big man himself to help him come up with stuff for his theme park. It’s still around and they’ve thought up stuff like Disney Cruises and even consulted with Northwest Airlines to help them come up with new uniforms.

How different is this than having a room of writers, or of “creatives” at an Ad agency? It’s not really, except that the value of imagination as part of the job requirement is implicit in the name. Writers are always devalued in Hollywood. Films are packaged on the names of the actors, not on how much imagination went into the script. A development exec will most likely approach a script with their eyes on the package, and without tapping into their imagination at all – after all, imagination is something like strength, not everyone has it, and even those who have it can lose it, if they don’t work on it.

Imagination is the work of writing. It’s the work of acting. It’s the work of making films. The producers who succeed in making good films value this, and stand by it in the face of an increasingly cynical system.

Ranting about breakfast cereal and movies

I was lecturing my friend, Anja, about how giving her kids Fruit Loops was disgusting when it occurred to me how disgusting and sick it actually was.  I’m not just talking about the fact that it’s unhealthy and full of sugar and chemicals and insects.

It’s disgusting because of what it does to your soul.

Paying seven dollars for a box of crap that you hate yourself for giving to your kids doesn’t make sense.  Does anybody feel good about giving their kids Fruit Loops?  The packaging goes crazy emphasizing the health benefits of eating this blatantly unhealthy food – “good source of calcium” it blasts across the front of the box.  It may be a source of calcium, but it is not a good source.  And don’t you put milk on it anyway?  The real purpose of this is to get around that warm fuzzy feeling that you have for your kids that, in a more rational world, would protect your child against this stuff using any means necessary.

The reasoning that goes into a decision to give your kids Fruit Loops, or any of this other crap, is a lot like the reasoning that addicts go through when justifying their next binge.  “I’ll just let them have it this once.”  “All the other kids eat this, so what’s the big deal.”  “It’s not that bad for them.”  “I’ll just buy it for the toy.” Or my favorite, “My kids won’t eat anything else.”

Your kids won’t eat anything else?   Eating nothing is better than that crap.   Starve them.  Or even better, give them something that’s good and tastes good.  Fry them a fucking egg.  It’s not that difficult.

So, this being a film blog, what’s this got to do with the price of a movie ticket?  Is this how we get marketed into crappy films over and over again?  Would the world be any better or worse if they had skipped making 2012, the Roland Emmerich movie?  Sure, we tell ourselves, two (plus) hours of mind-numbing nonsense is just what we need to forget all the problems in the world.  Isn’t that fucked up?  Why should we be trying to forget our lives?  I like my life, and I’m a pretty miserable person.  Shouldn’t we go to the movies to enrich our lives and make them more enjoyable?   Don’t you love coming out a film and discussing it, rather than trying to pretend that you didn’t just waste ten bucks and hopefully dinner won’t be so bad?

I guess you could argue that watching the world get destroyed has a certain cathartic value, and we all fantasize about how our problems would just disappear if the world just got blown up.  But all this is just marketing.  Just in case you’ve already decided that 2012 is a piece of shit, not worthy of your ten bucks, that’s when the New York Times comes up with a review that’s just good enough for them to plaster a quote across their poster.  You know, something like “RIP ROARING FUN!” or “THE MOST ENTERTAINING MOVIE OF THE YEAR”.   Or “A GOOD SOURCE OF ENTERTAINMENT”.



toilet humor

When I was a kid, I always wondered why you never saw the actors go to the bathroom.  I remember seeing FUN WITH DICK AND JANE starring Jane Fonda and George Segal –  I just imdb’d it, so I was about 9 years old – and in that film, Jane Fonda, while talking to George Segal, her husband, casually sits on the toilet, pees and wipes.  It was a revelation to me, because I had always wondered why you never saw this.  After all, my mother would talk to me while she was peeing.   But the other thing I remember was that people in the theater applauded.  Now, looking back on it, I’m pretty sure it was just women applauding and they were cheering on Jane for breaking another feminine taboo, jumping one more boundary in the cause of women’s equality.  (People did that in the 70’s, didn’t they?  Who knew that peeing could be such a political act!)  But it was a strange thing to see in what was otherwise an average, Hollywood comedy because they suddenly added this little touch of reality.  It was a nice thing to see.

I’ve grown to realize why they don’t show people going to the bathroom in films very often.  The simple reason is that nothing very interesting happens in there (and what does is gross!).  But I’ve never lost the idea that there are plenty of things that we never see in a film that there is really no good reason not to.

I was watching a trailer of some upcoming film and it had a shot of some beautiful girl’s ass.  Of course, she had the kind of perfect ass that only a 26 year old actress who works out four hours a day and is powdered up to perfection could have.  It’s a wonderful thing to see, but isn’t that what we see in every movie where we see that ass shot?  Think about this: when was the last time you saw a stretch mark on an ass shot in a film?  I’m not talking about the superfat ass shot of a girl in a bikini who everybody is making a joke about.  I’m talking about a real girl’s ass, with a little bit of sag and a stretch mark or two.   It’s not an unattractive thing to see.  I remember walking up the stairs behind a girl I had a crush on and seeing a few stretch marks under her ass and thinking it was totally sexy.  She must have been about 25 and was by no means fat.

Even films in the 70’s, back when things were more natural and shaving everything was considered weird, if at all, the women were pretty near perfectly beautiful.  Jane Fonda wouldn’t have peed on that toilet if her ass was going to hang over the edge of the seat.  Jane Fonda, to this day, hasn’t had a sag on her.   Obviously, the problem here is as much to do with an actresses vanity as it is with the reality that you and I live in.  A shot of cellulite on an actress could kill her career, so why shouldn’t she demand perfection.

But this is just one thing that you don’t see.   The interesting stuff always happens behind that door and you shouldn’t always be comfortable with what you see when you go in there.  It’s not that there is a price to pay for our voyeurism when we go to a movie, but if you want to look into the life of a character in a film, don’t you want the whole picture?  Isn’t that going to mean more to you than the glossed over look of a world so beautiful that it is completely absent of humans?


Old Movies

I was reading up on Vertigo at dcairns blog the other day and it really drove home something that I’ve been thinking about for a while and even talked about here. For some reason, cinema has regressed. It’s definitely regressed more in America, but even in countries that I consider to be ahead of everyone else cinematically, like Japan, it’s just not what it used to be.

Vertigo is so full of ideas, so rich in its cinematic language, so complex in its themes that it is impossible to find its equivalent in the last thirty years of movies. It’s a rare film these days that even tries out a visual theme, but when they do, it’s usually pretty simplistic. Vertigo is a puzzle that’s always puzzling, full of obsessions and fetishes and emotion and size, it’s a huge film.

If you’re interested in talking about Vertigo, here’s the link.

So what happened? It’s always easy to go back to the classics and say that things just aren’t as good. Mozart still holds his own. Sure, Mozart and Hitchcock were geniuses, but does that really explain anything? Where are the geniuses now? I love David Fincher, but even Fight Club didn’t come close to Vertigo in terms of rich, complex cinema.

Many people have pointed out that the great directors of the 50’s and 60’s came from silent films, and the studio system. They created the language and as they grew older they experimented and expanded it. The studio system also enabled them to be constantly working. Hitchcock and, say, Hawks, directed countless films. Directors these days spend three years or more trying to get a film off the ground. A modern director is lucky to have ten films in his career.

The audiences were more visually sophisticated in the past. I think it’s impossible to imagine this richness of cinema happening now with TV’s visual simplicity and blandness having taken over people’s idea of what cinematic language is.   Audiences used to go to the movies constantly, and they would go for hours. They weren’t just kids looking for a good time out, everybody went. So they all knew how to watch a movie.

It’s sad to think that films will never reach the dizzying heights of Vertigo again, but it’s also silly to mourn for a world that’s never coming back. We’re lucky that we have Vertigo at all, and with DVD and widescreen TVs we can pick it up and watch it whenever we want. As they always say in movieland, “we’ll always have Paris.”

Energy and Directing

I’m always amazed at that phenomena that happens when an actor in a theater goes on stage in front of a few hundred people and acts: how there’s a dynamic that happens that focuses the attention of the audience which creates an energy on the stage. Somehow the attention, the energy, of the audience feeds the actor, who uses that energy to create that excitement in their performance. When it works, it’s something you don’t even notice, but it’s this sense of excitement that gives live theater its life.

The other day, I was listening to the commentary track on Superman: The Movie and Richard Donner was talking about how a director’s job is maintain a high level of energy and spirit on a film. So I started thinking about how that energy has to be created on camera – in front of a crew of not that many, who have their attention set on their own jobs, not on the actors – so that it is there when the film is projected in front of 200 people in a cinema.

Then I started thinking that budgets must influence this stuff. After all, when a film costs a hundred million dollars, that kind of money gets people excited. It’s not just that the director has all these means at his disposal, it’s also that an actor is getting 10 million plus, so he has to live up to that salary. That’s a lot of pressure and stress for everyone. I mean, even telephone companies get excited when contracts for 100 million dollars are signed.

But most of us don’t have those kind of budgets, and while even a ten million dollar budget is huge, it clearly doesn’t always provide that excitement. Otherwise, we’d have a lot more exciting films.

Then there’s the video camera, which just records and records. With film, as soon as “roll camera” is shouted, the clock is ticking. There is a real feeling of urgency to get everything into that shot, with speed and perfection. That’s what shooting a film is all about: getting the shot, no matter what. If you don’t have that mindset, your film isn’t going to have it either.

Directors that I’ve met aren’t always high-energy people, but talk to them in preproduction and you won’t be able to keep up. The excitement starts building, the energy starts ramping up. Shooting a film is incredibly exciting, but it’s also draining, and there’s nothing worse than working on a film where the director is a hack, or some key is cynical. You can feel the energy just getting sucked out of the soundstage.

So how do you maintain that sense of energy that the actors would have on a stage when shooting a cozy little scene in a living room. I would guess that different directors have different ideas about this, so I would say that there are two things that need to be done. Both of them have to do with imagination.

An actor connects to his character with imagination. He or she comes to the set prepared. They walk on the set and if they see, for example, that the sets have been decked out imaginatively, they will match that energy. There’s a feeling on a crew when things are going well, when everybody is thinking creatively, everyone’s imagination takes off. Actors want to be a part of that, and they will do their best to match it. Do your best, and they will too.

The other idea I had was just the simple idea of remembering, or imagining, the film in front of 200 people. It’s a simple idea, but most of the time, when I see that living room scene, I’m not seeing it. It’s just a dull living room scene. There is a reality of two people sitting in a living room and talking, but is that really all you want out of your scene? Come on, man, put a little effort into that. Use your imagination. That scene could have been great.

Anyway, just what I was thinking about when I was on my run. I probably didn’t articulate it very well, but I’ve got to get back to work.