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The Sociality of Filmmaking

I mentioned recently how getting involved in a number of indie film projects has taught me a lot about filmmaking. Well, that’s true in a number of ways.

There’s the practical level: I’ve learned a lot about screenwriting, about soundtrack composing, about lighting, about the complexities of camera work (and I haven’t even worked a camera); about editing, about pacing, about attention spans and the importance of taking breaks when repeatedly viewing the same material. I’ve learned about the massive difference one gets working with people who know what they’re doing, versus people who are trying to figure out what they’re doing.

But the biggest thing I’ve learned, and the most difficult for me, is the sociality of filmmaking. Which bears emphasis: working on a film isn’t just collaborative type of work, it’s also an intensely social one.

As a writer, I’m used to having (almost) complete creative control of everything all the fiction I write. I may be asked by an editor to tone down the language, or to tighten or cut a scene, but it’s always my choice in the end, meaning I can back out of publication if the cuts or changes requested are too extreme, or endanger my vision of the piece.

But what I’ve found working on a film is that it’s an intensely social kind of work, and one in which social finesse is crucial. I’ll put it this way: when you cast someone, you marry them, in the Hollywood sense. You can’t just kick someone out if they’re being a nuisance on the third day, let alone if they become a nuisance five weeks in. Hell, the fact that Back To the Future got a reshoot after five weeks of shooting with Eric Stoltz? That’s a very expensive, and unusual, sort of thing. It’s even more unusual when you’re making a film independently.

The lesson I learned with the directors I’ve worked under is that when someone involved in a collaborative project behaves like a jerk, you need to postpone your emotions, your reaction. That crap  matters less than the project at hand, and the project at hand demands 100% focus. So, in the moment, the best you can do while on set is to write it off as nerves, or as a prima-donna reaction, and manage the situation so that everyone refocuses, everyone is able to manage their feelings, and production can continue… because when you’re making a film, unless everyone is working for free and you own all the equipment and you’re getting free electricity, then time really is money.

And it’s not just the director who has to do that: everyone else on the crew has to do that. When you’re on a crew, the one thing you need to be able to do is shut up, not get in the way, and let the director tell you what to do. Even when a cameraman is bitching about direction with which he disagrees. Even when an actor is talking down to a fellow crew member. Even when you want to punch someone in the face, or just quit and walk out. You partition all that, set it aside, and focus on the work. How does the lighting look in this shot? Is the audio coming through well? Is the boom mic as close as possible without getting in the shot? Am I playing this character convincingly? Does everyone know what needs to be done in this shot?

(And, one of the big concerns that seems to get neglected on too many shoots: Are we all hydrated?)

Which is to say, have to actively shut off those other parts of yourself–the parts that make you want to say to a director, “Shouldn’t we shoot this from that angle?” or to tell a performer, “Hey, you should show a little respect to the PAs,” or to tell the cameraman, “Dude! What do you mean you left the camera at the last location? We’re all hauling gear here, you know that you don’t have a personal assistant. Go back and get it, you moron!” You shut up, you let the director make the call (or, when it’s delegated, let the Assistant Director make the call), and you do your utmost to make sure the next take is shot as perfectly as possible.

And then, of course, you quietly, gently mention to every film person you know well that they should avoid so-and-so, quietly and without smearing them, so that nobody else makes the mistake of hiring someone so unprofessional. And you tell them all about the crew or cast members who were focused, wonderful, and hard workers, because that helps them get more work, but also because your friends will want to know who they should hire, not just who to avoid. And you know that everyone involved in the project is doing the same thing about you: telling their filmmaking-scene friends about how you either handled a difficult actor wonderfully, or lost your shit and started shouting; about how you were an attentive and creative cinematographer, or slept on the job; about how you were a focused and dedicated actor, or a prick on set who gave the director a hard time.

Don’t get me wrong, this kind of thing happens in the world of writing: for example, I’ve heard which editors are a waste of time to submit to; which ones pay late, or don’t pay; which editors are wonderful and wholly professional; which publishers or fellow writers are likely to hit on you if you’re a woman under a certain age. There is definitely a reputation economics side to writing, as well.

But that all happens on the business side of it, and really, there’s a business side to everything. Most of the time, fiction writing just involves you in a room with your computer, or notebook, or typewriter, or whatever. That’s most of the creative work. The difference with filmmaking is that the business side is always there: your reputation is built not just at the odd con, or at the odd meeting with the publisher, but the whole time you’re on set. This makes it more akin to the business of playing music, like jazz,which is also collaborative, except that instead of being four or five people who have to work together, your band is twenty to fifty times that size, and you’re all working together on fifteen hour days for anywhere from a week to several months at a time. When you’re working on that scale, even if you have complete control of who gets involved, you might as well resign yourself to the reality that you’re bound to get one or two jerks involved in every project, inevitably.

Which means that at some point, it always comes down to the ability of the directorial staff to finesse a situation, to get everyone to focus on the project. Maybe it’s different when you have a completely professional crew and cast, I don’t know, but I suspect–human nature being what it is–that even on professional shoots, this comes up occasionally.

And that is a really, really interesting dynamic. Difficult, fascinating, and so very unlike what I’ve been used to in all my other work–in teaching and tech writing, I’ve been generally autonomous; in creative writing, I’ve been almost completely autonomous. Filmmaking’s a very, very different game.

One more thing bears mentioning, and that is: screenwriting can be social too. It’s not always as solitary as most fiction writing, and you may find that you, as the screenwriter, will have to collaborate with a director or some other crew on a film in finalizing a script. That is sometimes important because there’s a tension between the auteur role–I am creating these characters, I am making this story!–and the collaborative process to which everyone but you, as a newbie screenwriter, is already accustomed. Which is to say: you need to be able to collaborate, and to take direction… but, at the same time, you also need to know what you’re doing, and you sometimes may need to give feedback to the director. Just as a cinematographer might explain, “If we’re going to shoot from this angle, the lighting needs more adjustment first,” a screenwriter has to be able to explain, “If you cut this scene, then the information that is disclosed here has to come out elsewhere,” or, “Why are we cutting this scene?”

And it’s important to ask that question not in an aggressive, How dare you cut this? way, but rather in order to figure out what the purpose is, so as to better accommodate the purpose while producing a top-quality script. I remember being surprised when we went to the audio studio for the final audio mastering of “The Music of Jo Hyeja,” how the audio person didn’t just make the changes we asked for, but asked us, “Okay, why do you want that train sound to be quieter?”or, “Why do you want the music to fade out more slowly here?” I thought he was giving us attitude, but it turned out that wasn’t the case at all: he just wanted to understand the purpose of the requested changes, and because sometimes, he needed to understand why in order to figure out whether what we wanted would be logistically possible, or would be effective… because, when it came to sound, he really does know more than us, and can help make the film better than we’d imagined. Or, because, sometimes, there was a background sound on the voice track that required the train sound to cover it up, which was why it couldn’t be quieter.

I won’t get into details, but I will say: sometimes, backing off too willingly is a mistake. On one film project for which I wrote a script, I backed off too easily regarding a cut, instead of explaining why the cut was a bad idea in terms of the overall film. The result was unfortunately a less effective film than it might have been if I’d stood my ground, and talked through the script a bit more with the director, and made clear why I thought it was a bad idea.

That said, the cut was made for logistical reasons, and made there was no other way to do it. On top of the constraints imposed by its inherent sociality, filmmaking involves creativity constrained by logistics–especially when you’re telling fantastical stories in cinematic form. But that’s a topic for a whole ‘nother post…

As for hints on how to actually achieve the directorial masterfulness I talked about above? Well, Mrs. Jiwaku’s been looking into the Coen Brothers, who are some of our favorite filmmakers, and John Turturro has say a lot of things about what it’s like to work with them. Two things have have come up repeatedly are:

Anyway, that’s my observations so far. But I’m still a neophyte and I’m sure there’s plenty more to learn…

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