Graham Leggat, the Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society and a former Contributing Editor at Filmmaker magazine died late last week from cancer. Highly respected and liked in the Bay Area and beyond, I have heard from a number of his well wishers amongst my friends and students since his passing. I thought it would be appropriate to offer a link on this blog to the obituary in Variety via Filmmaker.
There’s an interesting piece by Nicole Elmer over at Filmmaker Magazine about whether it is better to approach a microbudget production with a fully realized script or a story to be improvised around during the shoot. It’s a big topic and one I have had recent experience with in my capacity as a story advisor. Last month I was brought in to consult in post production on two very different Bay Area indie features. Both of these movies had gone variations on the story route. They had talented casts and the directors had wanted the feel of ‘authenticity’ that people often think comes with a wholly or partly improvised performance (we can debate this).
As far as I know there were different levels of scripting involved in each feature, but the result was that despite loads of potential, they were both having structural problems in post. So in each case I did what I could to think through the story with the filmmaker. As you would expect, I gave suggestions on reworking and clarifying the structure and figuring out how to bolster it with the minimum of reshoots. In her Filmmaker piece, Elmer describes her version of working with a story rather than a script. I think it is close enough to the situation I was dealing with to serve as a useful illustration:
It was a creative choice as much as a budgeting choice. Because of the specificity involved, a script would have required the costly fabrication I mentioned earlier. Instead, the writer created a very basic outline that was broken down into scenes. Locations were replaceable and everything could be moved as needed, as long as the general symbol of the moment was still expressed. A script would have also forced us to shove dialogue in the actors’ mouths. Instead, we gave the actors their goals, they developed their characters WITH the writer, and we gave them responsibility for their dialogue, a creative choice normally made by a screenwriter.
This is certainly the ideal of semi-improvised movie making. The challenge is that when you go the story route you are effectively ceding control of structure to your actors. There can be an upside to this of course, but you need to find a way of instilling the kind of discipline in the production that a fully developed screenplay gives you if you want to avoid talking to people like me in post! Discipline does not have to mean restrictions all over the place. At its heart it means understanding what a rigorous little guy even the most character led indie story actually is and accepting that its needs are more important than those of anyone else on set – including your actors.
Here are a few quick thoughts about how to keep on track:
Don’t just have an event led outline, work with an objective led outline. In fairness, Elmer makes this point above. Make sure your actors are very clear on their scene goals and make sure those scene goals fit your story outline like a glove. Give them as much freedom as you want in improvising around a situation but never let them deflect a scene from its place in your story. If you are tight on objectives this won’t happen easily, so make that your line in the sand.
Buy as much rehearsal time as you can. You can use your rehearsals to work on actual story elements or on general character and relationship development as you like, but the more familiar your actors are with their characters and each other before shooting starts the better. If you are thinking of coming back at me with a counter argument about immediacy here, remember that most of your characters probably know each other well – or at least sub groups do. Particularly in an ensemble story, that sense of familiarity and ease is vitally important. Where characters don’t know one another – boy meets girl or whatever – then your argument has more weight. Be led in part by your actors in cases like that. Do they want the comfort of having worked with each other or do they want to hit the moment ‘cold’?
Be even more prepared than usual to kill your darlings. The great thing about improv is that gems come out of nowhere. The nightmare of improv is that gems come out of nowhere. Get me? It doesn’t matter how wonderful a moment is, if it is not helping advance your story it probably has no place in your movie. Your story is your god, so worship it like the Aztecs and sacrifice to it early and often. If you come back to me with any variant on the: “hey man, don’t harsh my indie buzz” defense, prepare to see me in post!
Don’t let your actors hang out to dry. This is another perspective on all the above: as a director you have a responsibility to your actors to guide their performances. This applies doubly in improvised situations and as much in post as in the shoot. One of the problems I often see in post production on movies like these is scenes that are allowed to run long because the improv is strong. Remember that your actors give all they can until you call cut. That’s their job. Your job is to protect the heart and truth of their performance by not allowing it to drag the whole movie down with it. Top and tailing scenes is even more important with improv so do your actors a favor and cut to their defense.
There’s much more to say about this, but I read Nicole Elmer‘s piece and felt it needed a little warning flag, so hopefully this will serve as a conversation starter for some of you. Go read what she has to say. There’s lots of good stuff there, just be aware of some of the pitfalls as well.
EDIT: Name corrected.