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For an indie producer, to engage — and remain for any serious length of time — in development of a project is a testament of belief in the project. The producer works with no promise that the film will ever happen, and generally speaking will have nothing to show of their efforts unless the film actually gets made. If the film isn’t made, the producer can’t use the script to get them future work. If the film doesn’t get made, the producer’s reputation suffers — even if they have improved the project with their involvement.
Nonetheless, I find the development process invaluable for a number of reasons. One of the strongest benefits of development is that it reveals who you are truly collaborating with. Have you ever worked with a writer and director team and they think the script is perfect and you know it needs work — and probably a lot of it? How do they respond to your notes? Do they recognize they can take the script further, or do they think you are just pushing them for pushing’s sake? Do they think each new draft is perfect until you point out otherwise? Arguments are healthy, if they are used to bring things closer to the truth, and not just so that someone can feel they’ve won.
When supposed collaborators don’t want notes, when they just want to go out with the script, or get angry that you have questions, or are confused, these are all good indications that you just are not going to get there. These are good indications that you are not working with people who want to make the best movie, but people who just want to be right. These are people who are telling you that they are not good collaborators. These people are using development to let you know that everything that comes next is not going to be an enjoyable process. They are asking you to evaluate your choice.Tweet
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I am thankful for anytime I find more than one of these in the same film. This list originally ran on HammerToNail, a site I helped found, and one that continues to champion those movies that offer up these elements. First the list, and then the description. I would love to hear your comments, too.
4. Integrity To The Concept
7. Joy Of Doing
9. Communication Of Themes
10. Clarity of Intent
11. Synthesis of Style & Themes
12. Application Of Techniques
13. Reality Of Actors
15. A Good Story Well Told
16. Accomplishment Within The Means
17. Awareness & Appreciation Of The World
18. Acknowledgement Of The Limits Of Feature Film Form
19. Consideration Of Effects Of Representation
20. Recognition Of Film History
21. Subversive To The Status Quo
22. Provocation Of The Audience
23. Respect For The Audience
24. Confidence In The Filmmaking
26. Awareness Or Avoidance Of Pretension
27. Access To The Subconscious
28. Differentiation Among Characters & Environments
29. Leaving Some Things Unexplained
30. Emotional Use Of Technique
31. Depth Of Character / Depth of Characters
32. Impassioned Point Of View
In terms of the filmmakers who create them, some films are challenges; some are proofs. In the Challenges, the filmmaker is hoping to discover things, hoping to learn things in the process. In a Proof Film, the filmmaker is showing the audience what she or he knows. With a Challenge, the audience is aligned with the movie, trying to discern whether the filmmaker will meet the challenge; whereas with a Proof, the audience is dictated to, watching something unfold according to a recognizable formula. A Challenge is involving, whereas a Proof is a passive experience for the audience. Ambition is to go to places you have never gone before with the hope that you will discover something positive in the process – a challenge and not a proof.
There are so many films that have already been made, and made again, and then made yet again. Many films of the past had the opportunity to get there first – to be the first to portray a particular type of character, explore a genre or a style, to tell a story in a particular way. The ambitious filmmaker will never be content to walk in others ‘first steps. It is not enough to simply provide an update. Repeats are just an attempt to provide more products for current tastes, driven by profit, not ambition.
There is always more that can be done — more nuance provided, a different perspective offered. With ambition, one asks how a situation can be read differently, more fully. Ambition embraces the edict to “make strange”, to unlock the oddness in normality. Ambition exposes the wonder in the every day, forbids us to take our situation for granted.
Ambitious film goes beyond the engineering that a Proof is. Emotions and tensions are easily manipulated by an engineered film. It is a challenge to create work that is both surprising and inevitable. With an ambitious film, one that is successful, we are pulled through the unknown only to recognize – to know again – what we inherently know. An ambitious work will make us both know and recognize. An engineered film just reconfirms an unquestioned position.
Ambitious film will do more than just give the audience what it wants. To simply provide is all but to pander. Ambitious film takes us into new ground where we question our place and ourselves.
A great film should be more than proof of what the filmmaker knows. Did the filmmaker reach higher than themselves and then place himself or herself where no planning could guarantee success? This challenge could have been a logistical one or one based on editing or scale of the idea or anything that makes them work without a net – but a challenge, not a proof, a challenge to go where the solution and the result is not yet known.
So many films that are made feel like remakes of other films already out there – and I am not talking about the films that are actually intended to be remakes. Some people might find it comforting to recognize characters, situations, plots, or behavior, but unless it also reveals some new aspect about life, culture, or craft, I find it dullDullDULL. There is a pretty high bar established by the great film artists that show how it is done. You’d think it would shame others to just regurgitate what has already been done, particularly when there is such great original work to consider – but so many filmmakers keep on traveling down well beaten paths. Some of the over-explored themes and techniques can be chalked up to filmmaker ignorance, but that is still not a legitimate excuse. Why would one want to repeat what has already been done?
I am always taken by the filmmaker, who in pursuit of originality is willing to fail, by the filmmaker who risks elegance or perfection in service to taking the audience somewhere new.
There are many directions in which originality may be manifest, but the most common are:
1) Character: Show us someone we haven’t seen before, whether in occupation, attitude, psychology, or behavior; or at the very least, show it in a more complete or nuanced or complex manner;
2) Setting: Show us a part of the world we’ve never been to, a work force that is not normally explored;
3) Narrative Structure or Approach: why tell it linearly? Can we learn something more from a different approach? Does it need to have singular protagonist?
4) Aesthetic: Through the camera work, editing style, or design, certainly there is a way to make it fresh;
5) Subject matter: even when choosing to work within a specific genre, there is so much that still hasn’t been shown. Is the film fully reliant on the dictates of its genre, or is it aiming for new ground? Has this story ever been told before?
6) Inspirations & references: Is the film free of presenting its inspirations on its surface (although, alternatively that could also be its point)?
A filmmaker in pursuit of originality seeks to avoid any reliance on cliché. Culturally we have developed a shorthand so that we can get to a story much quicker or gain access to a complicated emotion.
3. INNOVATION (VS. ORIGINALITY):
Innovation, as opposed to originality – which is about content and form, is generally about application of technique. Ang Lee’s THE HULK was innovative in terms of how it found a multi-screen presentation representative of cartoon panels, but the story by the time it made it to the screen, certainly wasn’t original. Tom Twyker’s RUN LOLA RUN was both innovative and original; its fast forward approach to examining secondary characters’ lives was innovative and its approach to a thriller genre tale was original.
Innovation can also extend beyond the experience of watching the film itself. The experience of a film is not relegated exclusively to the time the audience is in the theater or watching the disc. Filmmakers have been making real strides lately extending that experience via preceding or other carefully placed shorts. These can be “additional value” on a disc, or be found on the Internet and extend the audience’s understanding of the film’s universe. Virtual worlds can be created via websites and other materials. Even how a film is presented in a theater is up for grabs, with various artists providing live scores and other forms of expansive entertainment.
Similarly, many film enthusiasts appreciate innovation on a technical level, be it in quality of image, projection, or sound, or in range or experience of the same. It is mistake to think that only the well financed have access to innovation; the flaunting of one’s limitations has often led to innovative work too. In fact the lower budget work can afford to take more risks and it is often this experimentation that leads the way.
4. INTEGRITY TO THE CONCEPT:
Is the movie more important than attracting or “satisfying” the audience? Does the filmmaker avoid pandering to popular tastes? Are the choices made aligned with the content of the film? Providing pleasure does not require compromise of principal, yet this compromise is found in many works lacking true ambition.
There is something counter to ambition in being eager to please. Yet, maintaining integrity to the concept does not require abandoning satisfying pleasures. An ambitious filmmaker will place the film and it’s integrity above the simple pleasures – and this in turn may very well deliver a greater pleasure, albeit a more complex one. Integrity to the concept is the pursuit of a principal that places greater value on the whole than on the sum of its parts. When an individual momentary pleasure in the film is in violation to the film’s central concept, it breaks the relationship between the audience and the screen. It breaks the trust.
Where is this trust in the concept initially established? It generally comes down to what helps us develop expectations. The choice and adherence to a genre and its dictates has a great deal to do with it. Pacing and composition also helps to establish what we think may happen or not. We still can be surprised without sacrificing the film’s integrity; we just have to feel simultaneously that that surprise was derived from the rules that were established.
Discipline might well be a measure of the extent to which a film sticks to the rules it has established. Do all the techniques service the theme? Are the performance style, cinematography, editing, design, and music united behind a common voice, one that was selected via the content? Is the narrative told in accordance with the rules of pacing that it established, never staying with a shot or scene too long or not long enough? Are the aesthetic approaches utilized by the different departments working in unison for the intended effect?
Does all of the content further the story or the themes of the film? Unless self-indulgence is part of the concept, have all aspects of such self-indulgence been stripped away? Unless digression is part of the film’s concept or organizing structure, has the film avoided such digression?
Ultimately, to what degree is all of this done?
6. TRUTHFULNESS: Truth isn’t just about what is presented, it is also about what a filmmaker chooses to not present. To understand a world, you need a whole truth. To leave something out distorts, and a filmmaker has to take responsibility for that omission. When a film makes it look like “evil” is simply an individual choice, and not a symptom of something greater, that distortion grows in prominence with an audience. On a strictly formal level, that distortion distances an audience from the content because we recognize that what looks like a complete world is in fact something else.
A director may make the choice to foreground the performance of his or her actor, and not try to demonstrate naturalism. One could argue that perhaps this is the greater truth as it acknowledges that all we can ever film is someone being filmed, and generally aware of being filmed, but regardless it demonstrates the elusive quality of truth on film.
Yet truth in film is a bit like the court’s definition of pornography: we know it when we see it. Or perhaps we know that it isn’t when we see something other than truth on film. An overdressed set is something we recognize as not being truthful, just like an actor who seeks to convey their emotions in too overt a manner, or when an edit is used to hide time passage or display it with too heavy a hand.
7. JOY OF DOING:
Some films you can look at it and feel the pleasure the team took in making it – or rather think you feel that pleasure, because it may very well have been anything but fun getting that movie done (writing a bit from experience here).
Filmmaking is an investment of a great deal of time, labor, and money – and everyone knows this. Hopefully it is also an investment of a great deal of thought, research, and collaboration. Regardless, it is an unspoken bargain between the audience and the filmmakers that a film will produce more pleasures than what it took to make them. There is a quality inherent in certain films that acknowledge the privilege of making films and the pleasure that comes with getting to exercise that privilege. When a filmmaker is able to get this attitude up on the screen, it is as if the filmmaker is inviting the audience to a party. The early Godard films certainly have this, as do the films and videos of Michel Gondry – you know that both artists really like the ideas they are putting forth and that enthusiasm is contagious. Part of the fun actually comes from not taking the act of movie making so seriously. You could feel this in Richard Lester’s work for sure. Tarrantino’s films overflow with enthusiasm for every aspect he is putting on screen, from the actors to the music; every second feels like a kid in a candy shop.
Does the film feel like it came from a distinct point of view? Does it feel like it came during a specific point in time? If someone else had directed it, would it have suffered? Although personally speaking I find the “A Film By” credit a distortion, I do think the truly talented director puts their stamp on every aspect of the production, they become the filter through which every decision is made. When the director brings the passion for the project, dedicates the time needed to consider all decisions, has the knowledge of the subject, and a real appreciation for the depth of human emotion, one would think that their individual stamp would resonate all through out the film, but it takes something more: they need to have something to say – and it is not just the articulation for the film’s themes. Singularity of a work comes from a filmmaker’s ability, courage, and confidence to contribute their personality into their work, both consciously and subconsciously.
9. COMMUNICATION OF THEMES:
Film is a dialogue with the audience. To work on both an intellectually & emotionally engaging level, audiences need a communication of both ideas and emotions. Audiences appreciate walking away from a film having understood or recognized something about their lives and world better than before. A well-done communication of themes leaves audiences with a clarity at the film’s conclusion. When done well, an audience member can go back and look at how each scene and element helped the theme to not only be expressed, but also to evolve and impact us.
In short, do we get it? Beyond plot, what is the film about? Well-done communication of themes does not mean that a film has to have a message; a theme may just be a subject, like love or the family — but when done well, the audience can appreciate each element as part of a unified whole. Communication of themes allows the take-away from a film to be more than just passage of time or the witness to a story. Communication of themes allows the audience to be rewarded for surrendering their ninety minutes with a deeper appreciation of an idea, an emotion, a time, or a place.
10. CLARITY OF INTENT: I’ve watched so many films that I felt got made mainly because they could get made – a director wants to direct and actors want to act. When something gets done simply because they can, I am left awash in other people’s cynicism. I want to experience something because the creative team had something they felt it was urgent to express, that they were passionate to get out and communicate. Even still when they hit this level, they don’t always succeed in getting whatever it is they have to say across.
Does the audience walk away from the film feeling they understood what the director wanted to say in a full and deep way? To me, this is one of the key qualities to a film resonating with audiences and audiences not getting pissed off. Audiences rebel when they think a filmmaker hasn’t done their homework or taken the tale to its conclusion. If the audience struggles through a sequence unsure of where it is leading or a with a character whom they are not able to anticipate action or sympathize with, audiences appreciate learning why the filmmaker felt the audience needed to take this journey.
A filmmaker does not have to spell it out in its entirety but they also shouldn’t leave key elements within the realm of the unknown. An audience doesn’t require complete understanding of a character’s psychology, but they look for some framework as to why they are being shown and experiencing what is presented.
11. SYNTHESIS OF STYLE & THEMES:
The alignment of form and content is a form of poetry unto itself. Does the technique reinforce the content or vice a versa? Although there is no right way to judge whether the two forces are aligned well, an audience knows it when it sees it. When there is a true synthesis of style with the content and themes, we know that we have seen a film well told. The attempt to unify these two different strands is itself a pleasure to witness, whether or not the filmmakers have actually achieved some form of synthesis.
12. APPLICATION OF TECHNIQUES:
Did the filmmaker consider all the tools and methods available to them and utilize them well? Did they inspire their team, and did their collaborators in turn inspire them? Are they thinking about the frame, the light, the way they move the camera, the influence of the design? Are such techniques breaking new ground? Do they demonstrate evidence that they know how such techniques were utilized in other films? Is the application of them aligned with the film’s other aspects?
13. REALITY OF ACTORS: NON-PERFORMANCE, NON-JUDGEMENT OF CHARACTERS: It’s a question of directing, and a question of non-directing, whether the actors are inhabiting their character or performing them. If an actor desires us to feel a certain way about their character, we don’t truly feel, but instead are being asked to judge. A lot of genre-based filmmaking seeks us to know a character immediately and thus actors are often asked to project and let us know whether the character is good or bad, noble or selfish, to be trusted or doubted. It is a whole other type of filmmaking when actors simply present the character and allow their ways and habits to be felt by an audience. It is an easy route to ask an audience to judge from the start; it is a challenge to admit how hard it is to ever know someone, even as truths emerge. A filmmaker demonstrates a respect for individuals, in all their aberrations, and a love for humanity in general, when they require the actors to never judge their characters and let their interior to emerge over time and in details.
14. PLEASURE (INCLUDING HUMOR, THRILLS & BEAUTY):
What is the delight that we get to experience due to what the film presents to us?
Was the film enjoyable? Has the film taken us to a place that we enjoy? Was the time taken to watch the film worth the investment of the time? Whether they are heady or escapist, we want to have fun of some sort. Films are a unique art form and we delight when we witness filmmakers exploiting that the uniqueness. Sound and vision. Story telling and the passage of time. Passion and pratfalls. All these things that filmmakers can exploit, yet there are many films that seem to ignore them completely.
15. A GOOD STORY WELL TOLD:
Is the audience “in” the movie from beginning to end? Do we drift out of the story unintentionally? Do we have to wait until an undo amount of time until we are taken into the story? How quickly do we develop any expectations? Do we accept the logic of the characters’ actions? All of these are questions pertaining to whether a story is well told.
Equally of importance is whether the story itself is what one might call a good story. Are we fascinated but what is portrayed on the screen? Does it move us emotionally? Excite us? But what really makes for a good story? Is it simply conflict or an intriguing character? Exotic locales, romance, adventure, laughs, and tears? It is a harder question to answer although people have tried for centuries. We do know it when we see it, just as we know as well when we have witnessed it’s opposite.
16. ACCOMPLISHMENT WITHIN THE MEANS:
Some films are done in by their filmmakers trying to do too much. Sometimes the frame or sequences are over packed and the audience has too much to process. Sometimes their budget and aesthetic are not aligned and we recognize an unintended falseness to the design. Sometimes an audience can recognize a story or concept’s potential and see the distance from this and the actual execution. When I started out in low budget indie filmmaking, I would tell my directors that they could have a dog or a baby in a scene but never both of them; you have to make sure you can get one uncontrollable element right before you can start adding to it.
As much as some try to do too much, others don’t try to do enough. One doesn’t need a budget to capture emotion or beauty. One doesn’t need time to come up with a new idea.
There is poetry unto itself when one witnesses a filmmaker who not only recognizes their limitations but turns that into an asset. Science fiction is often though of as a genre that cannot be executed without ample funds, but PI, THE GIRL FROM MONDAY, PRIMER, and THE STICKY FINGERS OF TIME not only got by, but also had fun with their limits. I think the combined budgets of these four films are still under $500K!
17. AWARENESS & APPRECIATION OF THE WORLD: Reality is a nice thing. Film can do a remarkable trick sometimes and help us to discuss something about our world that we otherwise might find too difficult. Film can help us understand a situation that we might otherwise only witness superficially. Film represents reality like no other medium and as such can show us a fuller picture of places beyond our immediate experience. Film dates itself in the process of recording and again can not help but call attention to the here and now. A filmmaker concerned with things beyond just entertaining, recognizes this unique power of the medium, doesn’t give us an escape from reality, but a deeper understanding about it. In reacting to a film, sometimes it seems that the filmmaker actively sought to deny the world they live in; an ambitious work does just the opposite, and we the audience leave such a film with a greater awareness of our world.
18. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF THE LIMITS OF FEATURE FILM FORM:
A traditional feature, made to be watched linearly, and presented on a screen, will always be limited in what it can show or tell. Audiences have been trained to follow the protagonist and follow his or her path. Yet, every other character that we see on the screen might have an equally compelling tale that the filmmakers have chosen to ignore. Similarly our protagonist may experience many dull moments that don’t necessarily further the plot and have consciously been left out of the narrative. Yet, if the reality of these other, seemingly forgotten aspects of the whole picture are not some how acknowledged by filmmakers, audiences are aware that they are being manipulated to focus on a singular path and not choosing themselves what to witness and think about. It is a fine balancing act some filmmakers achieve by opening the presentation up to these “asides” in order to give the audience a fuller feeling of their free will and thus their chosen participation in the events unfolding before their eyes and ears.
19. CONSIDERATION OF EFFECTS OF REPRESENTATION: To a watch a movie is a real choice, even if a lot of the audience might have made it on impulse. As a choice, each choice the filmmaker demonstrates carries real weight. The choices are as much what is not shown as they are about what is shown. A movie that has one gender or race being the bad guys is not considering the effects of representation, and frankly neither is the film that delivers an unrealistic diversity of cast. Making movies is a huge responsibility and there is a definitive pleasure in witnessing a team that has embraced that responsibility to the fullest.
20. RECOGNITION OF FILM HISTORY:
What are a film’s precedents, be it in subject matter or approach? When working on a similar terrain as other artists, a filmmaker is extending that dialogue. How do they acknowledge they are continuing this conversation, and then allow the audience to participate in it too? In this day and age of internet downloads and DVD delivery, it is hard to imagine that a filmmaker wouldn’t do the research and look to see how other people have attempted to solve similar problems or tell similar stories. Not everyone may subscribe to the notion that it is our responsibility to move the discussion forward, but to ignore the past is nothing but lazy.
21. SUBVERSIVE TO THE STATUS QUO:
It is too easy to just give the audience more of what they got last year. Who has the courage to lead us to somewhere new? How little does that actually happen and why is that? We see the world through a fixed paradigm and only the visionary can show us a true alternative. Quite often, a filmmaker will be diminishing their financial prospects, or at least the quick and easy route to them, if they don’t simply serve up more of yesterday’s dessert. It not only takes courage and ambition to subvert the status quo, but it requires real artistry in order to work with current audiences: you just don’t have to do it well, you have to do it so well that people both take notice and can engage in a new language. Frankly, I imagine that a lot of the best work that is done in this area goes unnoticed for some time because both critics, curators, and audiences are trained to see anything but today’s filter. In America, we have a particularly hard time at looking openly at anything that doesn’t reinforce today’s political paradigm other than perhaps when it is delivered by the frequently conservative viewpoint reinforcer of the dystopian post-apocalyptic aesthetic. Even still, it’s easier for American audiences to accept explosive content than it is to even consider radical form. We are spoon fed linear narratives with dominant protagonists one after the other. When will we be set free?
22. PROVACATION OF THE AUDIENCES: It may not be everyone’s idea of pleasure, but film has an uncanny ability to make us squirm in our seat. In a “seen it all” culture, the ability to illicit a squirm or a hand before the eyes, is a talent that should be rewarded.
Film can also kidnap an audience and make them complicit in some sort of previously unarticulated desire, albeit most often the trinity of sex, death, and violence.
Yet, film’s abilities do not need to be limited to the visual. The deep immersion in a world also makes us uniquely susceptible to new ideas and ways of thinking.
Film has the capacity to transform an audience, and an ambitious filmmaker hopes to finish the film with an audience that is no longer the same as when they entered the theater.
23. RESPECT FOR THE AUDIENCE: Film is a dialogue between the audience and the screen, and like an individual, film can talk down to its audience or ignore its audience’s needs. Respect is an equal relationship and in film it is reflected by the creative team indicating that they don’t think the audience is a bunch of fools or unwilling to work for a deeper and richer experience.
After 100 years of filmmaking, most audiences recognize that a handgun introduced in the first act will most likely go after in the third. Audiences know that an overt close-up at the end of a shot sequence means that the subject is important or will be important in an unexpected way. Filmmakers who don’t acknowledge our shared cinematic language demonstrate a lack of respect for an audience.
Since audiences generally have seen many films, to not show them something new, make them feel something new, or think of something in a new way, demonstrates a disrespect of the audience’s time and investment. Movies have to do more than just get made or made with high technical standards; they have to aspire to taking us somewhere not just new, but something that will provoke us beyond the commonplace conclusions of the concept.
Studios and financiers frequently ask filmmakers “who is the audience?” in regards to a project, and they never want to hear “everybody”. They expect to have a clearly defined group whom they know how to reach and communicate with, but even this demonstrates the beginning of a disconnect with the true nature of any community. Nobody likes to be defined as a specific demographic. One of the true joys of cinema is that it speaks to the expansiveness of the human spirit. Sure we have our favorite things, but generally what we initially respond to, are just a few of them initially – film can expose a greater part of ourselves, and filmmakers willing to do this, show the greatest respect for an audience. A movie does not have to be a singular tone. It does not have to fit firmly within the dictates of a specific genre. Great movies do not require that all the lead characters are people we “love” and “sympathize” for. We show audiences respect when we recognize that everyone likes to experience new things and recognize them as part of themselves.
24. CONFIDENCE IN THE FILMMAKING:
Does the movie lead the audience forward and earn our trust? Today’s audiences ask the filmmaker to prove it to them that the director is a worthy leader; they sit in suspicion waiting for failure until the director does something that inspires confidence and erases doubt.
A filmmaker who is truly confident is also willing to fail; they don’t just prove what they know but are also willing to go out on a limb and try new things. A confident filmmaker knows that he or she does not need to show things in the same way that other filmmakers do; they treat the audience to new angles and sequences but are able to do it in a manner that does not feel like a show-off or pretentious.
When a filmmaker has confidence questions of tone and pacing are often placed on the wayside as the audience recognizes that these more nuanced aspects of filmmaking are fully understood.
25. RESTRAINT: Some many films feel like a recitation of just the high points. These movies live at a peak emotional level and there is no ebb and flow to them. The audience is not given any room to breathe. It is as if the filmmakers felt the audience had no imagination and that everyone is a sensation junky. As much as clarity is something to be praised, an ambitious filmmaker leaves room for an audience to make their way through a film. Whether it is the pleasure of getting to complete a thought on your own and not needing to have it spelled out for you, or the delight in the avoidance of the grandiose, holding things back can be equally as powerful as displaying other things.
26. AWARENESS OR AVOIDENCE OF PRETENSION: Film is an art form that invites the pretentious to participate. Up until very recently it was always conceived of being displayed on the largest of screens in front of large numbers of audiences. The scale of it alone gave it a pomposity that was hard to avoid. Recognition of this inherent phenomenon is the mark of an ambitious filmmaker, regardless of which direction they may chose to go in – but to try to hide it or avoid it demonstrates a lack of understanding of culture, time, and the medium. So many of the Hollywood prestige films try to deny that they think themselves important, but whether it is the moody lighting, the over wrought performances, or the burnished tones to the sets, we know what they want us to feel, even before we hear their score cue us. An alternative is to let it all hang out and let the audience know that you want to be thought of as Art from the get go. I adored Atom Egoyan’s early films for precisely this reason: every aspect of their design and presentation cued us that what we were watching was important and unique. The current trend of overt “naturalism” in independent cinema carries with it a form of pretension delivered by the filmmakers’ disavowal of any pretentious devises – its lack thereof becomes the very thing it runs from, but at least it is directly on the surface and acknowledged by the filmmakers from the start.
27. ACCESS TO THE SUBCONSCIOUS: As film combines so many diverse elements, it has a profound ability to access what lies beneath. We experience emotions and sensations in a way we do nowhere else. David Lynch is certainly the leader among contemporary filmmakers whom attempts to tell a different sort of story. Some filmmakers may chose to dwell on the surface or in other levels of meaning, but since the attempt to explore the subconscious is on everyone’s palate, it is surprising how rare a trait this actually is. You have to wonder why with such a powerful tool at their disposal more filmmakers to stake out this ground. Yet, when such access is achieved, I am always impressed, even when it preys upon that which I wish went undisturbed. Bunuel was such a master at this, for even in his straight narrative features, he would frequently hit below the depths of our daily existence and thus question the order of our world. How many films do that nowadays?
28. DIFFERENTATION AMONG CHARACTERS AND ENVIRONMENTS: Does everyone talk in the same voice with the same cadence and vernacular? They don’t in my world and they shouldn’t in any filmic world either. Does the filmmaker understand or look to exploit this difference, and if not, then, why not? Does the uniqueness of each character, set, and location say anything about the filmmakers’ outlook on the world in general? If a filmmaker hasn’t thought though all of these things, have they truly done their job?
29. LEAVING SOMETHINGS UNEXPLAINED: When did American movies start trying to clarify absolutely everything? What is our national obsession with trying to provide a psychological explanation for all characters’ behavior? If you ask me, I think we have gone overboard. Way overboard. Time to leave that practice behind.
It’s refreshing to see a few films recently start to abandon this practice. Miyazaki’s PONYO did not try to explain the magic (at least in the version released Stateside). Neil Blomkamp’s DISTRICT 9 did not try to explain why the aliens landed here or how people learned their language.
It is fun for the viewer to come up with their own explanations, to discuss these possibilities with their friends. We certainly don’t know everything about our world and leaving some gaps in the narrative feels truer as a result.
David Bordwell touched upon the need for spaces in his great essay “Now Leaving From Platform 1” where he explores the hopes of expanding the narrative (and yes, okay, I am referenced therein). Our storytellers really need to take it to heart. It’s curious that both of these examples come from abroad.
You can even see Bronkamp employing this strategy in the short film that launched his feature: “ALIVE IN JOBERG”.
Neil Blomkamp\’s \”Alive In Joberg\”
30. EMOTIONAL USE OF TECHNIQUE: There is an emotional quality inherent in camera placement and lens choice. There is a similar effect with color palate and fabric texture. I don’t think anyone would argue that editing style and pacing also qualifies for this honor. As certainly does camera movement. Yet, for all of this, I rarely hear filmmakers remark about it.
When we first started working with Ang Lee, I remember that one of James Schamus’, my business partner at the time, first observations of Ang’s unique talents, was that he had an uncanny understanding of the emotional impact of camera placement.
We need to give our characters space to breathe, to live, to feel. We don’t always need to see their faces. We do need to see how they relate to their environment. We need to give our audiences time to put themselves in the shoes and minds of the characters. We need to use the tools we have to do this. I don’t think there is a science to this, but more of an instinct, and we know it when a filmmaker does this well, or more usually, ignores it altogether. Too many filmmakers allow the actors to do all the emoting, and that’s only half the picture.
31. DEPTH OF CHARACTER / DEPTH OF CHARACTERS
I don’t like characters to be solely in service to the plot. To relegate characters to this secondary position, values actions over the people who take them. Audiences will not recognize these characters as real people if they feel everyone is there just to drive the story forward. Similarly, if all we learn of a character is what is needed to advance the plot, our imagination will never be free to roam. Films that provide audiences this freedom and openness are generally some of my favorites.
I am regularly impressed by how complex and diverse the people I encounter in real life are, but the opposite more than often holds true for those I find on the screen. Granted we can’t be expected to capture the nuance of any life in 90 minutes, but we can recognize that each life encompasses many worthy stories. A consideration of the depth of each life in a film is nothing short of respect for life in general. The same can be said for the range of characters we meet in a film: is everyone just there to service the plot? Here’s to those that have the courage to show that life is more than just story and how it plays out!
Even from the most practical view, filmmakers should want to give their characters depth and complexity, if only to engage the audience. A feature film is a relatively long-term commitment; audiences are interested in more things than just how a body moves from Point A to Point B. By enriching the character with fears and hopes, quirks and concerns, the desires that both drive or repel, a filmmaker will give the audience sufficient substance to hang onto, to actually want to anticipate what will happen, to wonder how they will react.
Frankly, cinema is not just about story.
32. IMPASSIONED POINT OF VIEW
Filmmaking should be a scary proposition for anyone who undertakes it. To project your feelings, your attitude, your hopes and your horrors up on a large screen to a big audience is very brave. Cinema is made to be a dialogue with an audience; recruiting an audience is part of the process. If it is not screened in front of crowds, I personally think it is something other than cinema. But what does it mean to get to screen your and your collaborator’s work in front of a crowd?
When filmmakers are given such a chance, only a few somehow choose to actually say something. If people assemble, I think they want to walk away with more than an escape from something. The audience wants to know what the filmmakers care about – this is one of the pleasures of viewing. When film comes with an awareness of the world or a hope for something more, it is taking on more and challenging an audience to come with it. This quality is there in my favorite films.
SPECIAL BONUS: Since initially writing this, I have kept thinking about it. This list will never be finished. The analogue era was about completion. The digital age is about evolution and constant iterations. I have written five more qualities of what makes a good film great.
Can we and the people we work with actually get better at the things we do? And can we get better, faster? Are there things that we can do for each other that might expedite the process? How do we transcend the plague of doing well enough?
On low-budget indie film shoots, the collaborators are of a wide range of experience levels. Such films are also chronically plagued by a paucity of funds and time. Too much to get done, and not enough resources to really get it done perfectly, or sometimes even just well. With a hundred things needing to happen at any given time, your head will pop if you concern yourself with everything that goes wrong. It does seem like those that often do best are those that have learned not to sweat the petty, or perhaps some sort of zen-esque understanding of the world (that is combined with the sort of hyper-focus of concentration in the things that make all the difference — and that will some other post further down the line).
The Serenity Prayer that Alcoholics Anonymous has adopted always seems fit as a method to manage the creative chaos that defines most film production. Granted, I get some criticism in life for having too great expectations of people and things, believing always that one time we all will hit our high point, but I really think by dropping our ego, finding a way to point out what can be done better, explaining the reasons why, we can rise to the occasion and one day truly get it all in sync and do beautiful work. I want us to do more and to do it better, myself included. Let me get to that, but first, I think it’s worth looking beyond the first three lines of the Serenity Prayer, and look at the rest of it:
Many times on film sets, I see folks hesitant to say what they feel, not wanting to complain, not wanting to demand that things are better. When things are sloppy or unsafe or could be handled in a better manner that will most likely yield a better result: SAY SOMETHING. Don’t be cruel, but be direct. Explain, why you think it will work better if they did something differently. Speak of the result you want to obtain. But speak up. Maybe you have to pause and wait for the right time to be truly heard, but speak up.
And when they don’t get it right, take action. Step in, get it done, and recognize when you have to make a change. Be it a director or a producer, if I have heard it once, I have heard it a 100 times: “whenever I considered firing someone, I end up always wishing that I had done it then and there, and when I haven’t done it, I always regret it.” Under the right circumstances, people can learn from those mistakes. What are the right circumstances that help us all learn?