Beyond Filmmaking Theory: Speaking with Students at Curry College

Curry College

Swan and I have returned from another Boston adventure. This time we were presenting The Devil’s Tail to students enrolled in the film program at Curry College.

We’ll take any excuse for a road trip, so we drove down again. We nattered for hours in the car about what we wanted to say to students who were preparing for careers in media, and especially those who had already been seduced by the idea of making their own movies.

We decided that the most valuable perspective we had to offer was that of two people with a lifetime of experience both as talent/crew for hire in the film and television industry, who had put that experience to the test in creating our own original theatre, short films, and now feature film.

There are a seemingly infinite number of books, seminars, and classes now which purport to give you the nitty gritty on feature filmmaking and how to become a Hollywood playa, but they tend to bog one down in financial, promotional, and technical considerations.  In other words, the machinery and so-called “rules” of the business.    This can of course be very helpful.  It can also be very discouraging.  For those of us who aren’t primarily motivated by money and fame (note that I said primarily – I would love to be rich and famous as long as I could keep my soul, or at least visit it on weekends) this completely leaves out the question of passion and expression.  You know – art.  One of the things that makes life worth living.

Sure, filmmaking can be like producing widgets in a factory.  Look at the typical formula Hollywood movie.  Steve Carell and Tina Fey plus guys with guns chasing them around Manhattan equals  a $25 million dollar opening weekend.  Fine.  By now everyone and their grandmother knows you put a couple of big stars in a wacky situation and promote it on every available surface, you’re likely going to make a mountain of cash.

But film is not just a commodity. It is as much an art as it is craft. What gets Swan and I out of bed every morning and keeps us up until the wee small hours is not imagined millions, but a shared passion for storytelling (verging on mania) using all the tools at our disposal as filmmakers.

What I really wanted to convey to aspiring filmmakers was this: the obstacles to making a feature are less than they have ever been. If you have something to say, you don’t need more than a script, some actors, a video camera, a mic, and a computer with editing software.  That, and a few work lamps from the hardware store is pretty much all we had, and with that we were able to make a feature length movie that has played at international festivals and won several awards.  But more importantly, we were able to tell the story we wanted to tell, the way we wanted to tell it.  And we didn’t require anyone’s approval.

But this is still putting the cart before the horse. Why make a movie in the first place? It’s hard and there are so many ways it can go drastically wrong. Success in any case is the opposite of assured.

For me, the big broom that sweeps all these reasonable objections aside is that WE HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY, and the best way for me to say it is by making movies. Way too often I see shorts and features that are devoid of meaning.  Their message is nothing beyond, “I love zombies” or “I am a misunderstood genius” or “I want to shoot commercials for loads of money”.  What a waste of everyone’s time.  If you are not genuinely reaching out to an audience, and trying to connect with them in a constructive way, you’re masturbating.  Go on, enjoy yourself.  But don’t ask me to watch.

Do everything possible to get good performances. Respect actors and what they do. Acting – good acting – shouldn’t be taken for granted. Not everyone can do it. The production of any movie that is about people, as opposed to, oh, CGI creatures and explosions, should be geared towards making sure that the best possible performances are recorded.  This means the director has to know what good acting is, and not be unduly awed by such things as big tits and/or the ability to memorize simple dialogue. I would recommend to any aspiring filmmaker that they take some acting lessons themselves, so they know what’s involved. But let me say this:  if it isn’t completely obvious to you that Robert Downey Jr. is an infinitely better actor than Tom Cruise, then there is no hope for you.

When auditioning, make sure the actor has the ability to take direction, to perform a scene in radically different ways based on suggestion. When shooting, remember that the most important thing is to capture great performances.  So don’t be distracted or derailed by minor technical issues. Spend as much time as possible with the actors in front of the camera, not tweaking endless physical details that no one will give a damn about if the story and performances are lousy.

I used to think that indie filmmakers I worked with who spent all their time setting up shots were misguided perfectionists, or idiots who didn’t understand the importance of performance.  Now I believe that consciously or unconsciously, they are simply afraid of engaging with the real dynamic crux of filmmaking, which is the actual performance.  If the moments between your actors aren’t alive and true, it’s all been a hollow exercise, and your movie goes down the toilet.

Those are my main concerns as a filmmaker, and happily they work well with my current status as a do-it-yourself guy. My films may not have big budgets, but they can afford what really counts:  meaning, story, performance, taste.  And so can yours.

I think we managed to put these points across at Curry College. We really enjoyed speaking with the students, which we did for several hours. They were intelligent and engaged and they gave me hope that they will be producing great work. I hope they keep in touch, because I want to encourage them to be the best filmmakers they can be. Many thanks to Professor Jerry Gibbs for inviting us.  It sounds like he and Bob MacNeil are doing a great job of providing students with a balanced and practical view of film production.

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