In my (roughly) one year of gaining experience and growing in the Saint Lucian film industry, there are more than a few things I have learned, most of which I am afraid I cannot put into words but they have been nearly seared into my mind when making directorial decisions both on and off set. One of the things that I have learned however– only through experience and constant interaction with other filmmakers– and can articulate, is that there’s no rule book to directing.— This stuck out to me because it has never been taught or passed down from any of the ‘grandfathers of local film-making’.
I realized this by observing not just local filmmakers but also those abroad (in online interviews, articles, behind the scenes videos etc.) and how they manage to take “an idea”, or rather a screenplay and make it a finished product to be screened in front of an audience. Never mind the screenwriting aspect and the producers role in the formation of a film, this is for the directors.
For the sake of bringing my point across, let’s consider two directors with very different processes (for the most part), but both are hugely successful and are currently on the top 10 list of highest grossing directors of all time (if that means anything to you).
Ridley Scott. He did thousands of TV commercials before he ‘graduated’ to directing his first feature film The Duellists at age 40. Since then, Blade Runner (1982), The Martian (2015) and most recently All the Money in the World (2017) are just a few titles you would find on his vast filmography. His extensive background in shooting commercials, he will admit, has been the greatest experience that no one gets as a filmmaker. The nature of shooting commercials as I myself have come to realize is that it’s heavily dependent on preparation as is most film-making.
To fast-forward, Ridley Scott is very well known for story-boarding all of his films from top to bottom, scene by scene, leaving nothing to chance but, there’s more; figuring out colour palettes and spending countless hours drawing concept art by hand for use as reference are all parts of his pre-production process. Yes, Scott is fully prepared at all times. In a round-table interview with The Hollywood Reporter he also admitted that his films never go over budget or over schedule and that is largely due to experience and preparation. I am also going to throw in the fact that he says he never rehearses before shooting. He claims to know exactly what he is doing and comes in with everyone ready to work towards that— so why waste time trying to figure out your day if you already have it all planned out?
Now, I really like Ridley Scott films (particularly those mentioned above as they are the ones I’m most familiar with), but I cannot seem to relate to his process in the way that he describes it. Does that mean I am a bad director?
The other filmmaker I would like to toss into this is none other than…
Steven Spielberg. You might have heard of him, but I am even more sure that your childhood was built on one or more of his classics; Jaws (1975), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), The Colour Purple (1985), Jurassic Park (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and my favourite of the lot, Bridge of Spies (2015).
To briefly run through his background as I have learned it, Spielberg, like most directors I have researched, started off making films as a child on a super 8 film camera. His story about the first film he made as a boy scout is actually pretty inspiring on its own. But I digress. Four Oscar wins and a ton of critical and commercial success later, let us talk about Spielberg’s pre-production and production process as director.
Disclaimer: Spielberg’s process changes based on the project as some, like The BFG, are very VFX (visual effects) heavy and so require different preparations. For the purpose of this article, I will highlight his process on Bridge of Spies.
In an interview with Film4, Spielberg recalls not doing ANY storyboards on Bridge of Spies, (Amistad, Saving Private Ryan among others) except for the scene where the U2 plane gets shot down—that scene, for your information, only lasts about five minutes more or less, but every other moment of this 2 hour 22 minute masterpiece was largely decided and done on the day of shooting.
Obviously, things like costuming and production design must be prepared beforehand but blocking, camera placement, composition, actor performances and the like were all done on spot. Spielberg often mentions going to the set early or the night before with a work-light on while he walks the set and figures out where the camera will be, where the actors will stand and how they will move. The actors’ performances (amazing by the way), as you would imagine, evolved over multiple takes, really needing no rehearsal period. In another interview, I recall the director saying that he does not like to rehearse (just like Scott, but for different reasons) mostly because sometimes you get the perfect performance in rehearsals and you have no camera to record it, not to mention it would be nearly impossible to replicate that perfect take again on a shooting day.
It would be pointless to even debate who “knows how to direct” and who should serve as your inspiration. Learning that the aforementioned directors— among several others— have different methods behind the scenes and on the day was a relief for me, who is still very much a beginner trying to figure out what works and what does not. So, trust your process, experiment all the time and keep improving.