If You Can Keep Your Head When All About You…

Kipling was one hell of a writer, not a filmmaker. As you so well know, writing is a solitary event. A novelist may deal with an editor or publisher, but, unless you need a new typewriter ribbon or more ink for your pen, you don’t rub up against many people.

Filmmaking is not like that. You’re in the soup with a lot of other people. Your agent, producer, director, sound person, DP, actors, caterer, editor, colorist, sales rep… are your collaborators. They have your best interest at heart. Listen to them even if, from time to time you must ignore Kipling and his legendary poem, “If.”

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46473/if—

In the film department I run, I see this a bunch: despite the best and repeated advice of their crew and teacher, filmmakers at times insist on doing it “their way” and fly the entire operation into the ground.

This is a thin line to walk and I get the degree of difficulty in successfully negotiating the “But they just don’t understand what I’m trying to do!” aspect of filmmaking.

Your crew is your first audience. There’s no way they can see inside your head to understand what you planned and hope for, but they can see the script, they can see the dailies, and they can see the rough cut. They can see your mistakes and if you absolutely won’t be swayed from the gleaming railroad tracks running oh-so-straight across the desert toward distant Paradise, there’s a chance those tracks will drop your train into a deep canyon.

Talking to someone who won’t listen is as rewarding as talking to a wall. At some point your crew may give up trying to give you advice.

When I was in film school, we were required to crew on a 480 (15 minute thesis film) before we were allowed to direct one. The semester before I directed, I was a cinematographer. Together, all the crews watched all the dailies for all the films. All the teachers were in the theater and gave notes as we watched each crew’s footage or cuts and the directors’ reasons for and defense of their choices.

One film was about a Sikh’s decision to cut his hair. The director had a scene where the man is in his bathroom and his girlfriend is waiting in the hall. He takes off his turban and his long hair comes down past his shoulders. He takes one hair between two fingers and pulls it down in front of his face. Holding nail scissors, he looks at the solitary hair and his face in the mirror and… cuts the hair. Nothing happens. Lightning does not strike him and, using the scissors, he hacks at all of his hair, chopping, chopping, chopping.

The scissors were too small to do the job right and the lame attempt to cut all that hair looked ridiculous. Everybody told the director that he had absolute gold if he went from the shot of the one hair being cut, to the hero’s tense wait for lighting to strike, to the girlfriend waiting in the hall, and to the man coming out of the bathroom with short hair. We all felt that, if he showed the character taking the scissors to the rest of his hair, it would be a disastrous mistake. He disagreed. He stuck to his artistic guns and did it precisely like he had always wanted. In the final film, the scene didn’t work. By then, of course, it was too late.

Next semester, when it was my turn to direct, I told my editor that if everyone told me I was doing something wrong, to make sure I listened.

If you’re making a film based on events that happened to them, you are constantly in danger of falling out of the life boat into heavy seas. Creating narrative based on personal history clouds the mind. It takes experience to understand how that, just because something was dramatic when it happened to you, it may not succeed dramatically when it gets to the screen. Be aware: real-life-into-drama can be quicksand.

My 480 was about a girlfriend I’d had in Paris. And a woman I’d dated in Los Angeles. And a French friend I yearned for but who had no romantic interest in me. Claude Lelouch was my favorite director and I wrapped these three stories around each other to tell my story like Lelouch.

It didn’t work. The only one who could follow the complex story structure was me… but I loved it. It was exactly what I’d written and shot. Everything I’d hoped for.

Late in the semester, when we were about to lock picture, my crew and editor said I needed to strongly consider cutting the thread about unrequited love. Nearly one third of the film.

The three part intercutting structure was vitally important. Losing the “friend in Paris” scenes would wreck what I’d been writing, planning and working on for a year. I really, really, really didn’t want to let go of my initial idea.

Luckily, I remembered the previous semester’s director and The Advice Not Taken. As wrenching as the decision was to go against my instincts, I decided that, because everyone was telling me I was wrong, I’d better listen. I told the editor to cut the character. Away she went.

Suddenly the film made perfect sense, worked nicely, and did well for me.

Decades later, I cannot remember anything about that missing story thread except the super cool modern house in the Hollywood Hills we shot in. It’s as if that character’s story never existed. I’d been wrong when everyone around me was right. My team helped me save my film.

If you’re making a film or writing something and everybody’s telling you you’re wrong, there’s a slim chance they could be wrong and holding on to your original plan might be the correct decision. Most likely though, they’re right and you’re not.

When that many people tell you you’ve made a mistake, listen very, very, very carefully.

When you’ve shown your film to an audience or given your writing to an agent, it’s out of your hands and there’s nothing you can do to bring it back. As Ken Robinson, my teacher at USC, told us, “You don’t get to stand next to the screen and explain it.”

I dedicated both my books to the man who gave me that piece of wisdom.

And now, I give it to you.

5 Comments

Filed under Criticism, Filmmaking, Screenwriting, Writing Process

5 responses to “If You Can Keep Your Head When All About You…

  1. Carla Christina Contreras

    Thank you!

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Carla,
      It’s a tough concept to master… the “I might not be right” idea. Takes a lot of agony to open up to it, at least in my experience!
      Will

  2. Melody Lopez

    I can give a couple examples to your point about the guy insisting n playing it out for dramatic effect to show the truth of what happened to him and his blindness to not realizing it was only compelling to him. I had done workshop- where I was trying to create the beats to a true story- and the moderator told me “Melody, that’s more of a timeline then a story”…and so when I I decided then to make up some characters – suddenly the true story became “based on a true” story…but it had A STORY… vs. a true to the fact- timeline which isn’t always dramatically compelling- case in point: Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams in “I Saw the Light”..I recently watched it and I have to say… it was more of a timeline then a story but then I watched the deleted scenes and I could totally see what they had in mind for the story… sadly… got deleted. And so…it was a good effort but the performance of Hiddleston, while truly great, was not showcased as well as it could have been if the story had been less timeline and more story. Meanwhile those deleted scenes felt incongruent- they hadn’t found a way to introduce the father into the movie so the dad got cut…but the story of who Hank was… was probably a father/son story more then a womanizer with a bad back. In any event, the fact is…that movie needed to accept the reality that you can’t always to so true to real life because it doesn’t always make compelling reel life.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Melody!

      Great to hear from you! Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I’ve not seen I SAW THE LIGHT and will put it on my list. Generally deleted scenes are not heartbreaking, but in this case, instructive. I like your word, “Timeline.” Perfect! Sounds like they forgot they were telling a story and only recounted a series of events. Sadly, a lot of money down the tubes! Again, thank you!

      Will

      • Melody Lopez

        If you do watch I SAW THE LIGHT and watch the deleted scenes- I wonder if you’d see what I think they were going for in those scenes as far as a thread to the inner workings of Hank Williams. I’m curious if you’d agree that there was no way to introduce the father in the story with those little bits given everything else that did make it to the final cut, which was mostly about the women in his life (his mom, 2 wives and mistress). The dad scenes would have muddied up the story and made it too long and they would have needed at least one other scene to make a full beginning, middle and end when it came to the dad’s point in being in the movie. For time’s sake, they kept it about the womanizer part of Hank vs. the fact that he did want to be a better father then his father, which they say more then once in the movie. And, no spoilers, but the two deleted scenes with the dad- one of them was actually heartbreaking. And, this heartbreaking scene was the finest performance I’ve ever seen delivered by Tom Hiddleston. He really showed his soul in that moment that made it to the cutting room floor.

        PS I do always read your blog posts but if I don’t have anything to add- I don’t but in this case I actually did have something to add! LOL

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