As I mentioned before, in my Michael Riva post, here at CalArts we have a weekly session called Guest Artist Workshop, where someone currently in the industry talks to us, and often we have a Q&A sorta deal going on, and they share with us bits of wisdom about becoming better filmmakers.
Next week we’ll have Joseph Gordon-Levitt, so I’ll be saying something about him (unless he turns out to be boring. I kinda doubt it). But this post is dedicated to the first ever student of directing at CalArts, James Mangold, who came to talk to us three weeks in a row. He was extremely generous with his time and his experience, and he is a really engaging, funny person to listen to.
He was sort of an experiment, as I said before. He was the first and only directing student in his class at Calarts, and he graduated when he was 21. Talk about good faculty to student ratios! He also spent a year in acting school, according to Sandy (Alexander) Mackendrick’s (The Sweet Smell of Success, The Ladykillers) instruction. Mangold enjoyed his time there and highly recommends getting into the actor’s shoes if you want to direct. Later he attended Columbia University as well, in their film school.
I would listen to his recommendations, too, considering who he’s worked with and what he’s done. Among his work are Copland, Girl, Interrupted, Walk the Line, 3:10 To Yuma, and this year’s Knight and Day.
He brought in dailies from these films and showed us what exactly went into a day of shooting, how he dealt with his actors on the set, when he decided to cut or keep rolling, and what the actors were like between takes. He also brought in audition tapes from Girl, Interrupted and explained what he was looking for when he was casting the role eventually played by Angelina Jolie. (An ease and lightness, rather than most of the girls’ readings which were intense and crazy- which the script had inferred, but what he was looking to juxtapose.)
The following are paraphrased things he told us during our sessions, things I found interesting and useful. Take what you will.
-He wanted to come to CalArts because it wasn’t a “director factory”, because it wasn’t necessarily the “right” place to be.
-In his words, “Work fucking hard.”
-Story first, change and innovation (visually, etc) later.
-If the material is INERT, if it has no life in it, it’s on you, the writer. It’s not on the DP, and not on the actors.
-It’s good, it’s healthy, to be relentlessly unsatisfied with your product.
-You want the audience to FEEL what the character is feeling, not to hear what the actor is saying or seeing what the actor is doing.
-Have your actors cross in front, rather than behind the camera. It keeps the integrity of the space, and helps later when you’re editing.
-Pushing a lot of action into wide shots can add life to your scenes.
-Involve the actors in your struggle to make films. Let them know that you’re on their team, and they’re on your team. Don’t alienate actors, or it will seep into the tone of the film. Tell them what’s going on!
-Be organized, but be open and flexible while on set. (For scenes full of choreography and action, Mangold does storyboards, but for scenes that are mainly conversation, he tends to work from shots lists. Just a note, all these technical things are how he personally works and what he finds most helpful in his process. They are not the right or only way of working.)
-Linking shots, such as a whip pan from one person’s face to another person’s face, can never be quick enough. Always try to get a quicker take.
-To go along with that last one, any camera movement that does not imitate the movement of the human eye- the audience will take meaning from. They will interpret it.
-Time is uninteresting. Don’t take too much time. But- don’t tell the actors that you don’t have the time to try something. Don’t ever tell them you don’t have time. (Though you never do have time.)
-Watch films that are incongruous, or in a different genre than the film you want to make. For example, when Mangold was making Girl, Interrupted, he wasn’t trying to make another One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He saw many more parallels in his story to The Wizard of Oz.
-Never hire someone to do the same thing for you that they did for someone else’s film. Creative people usually want to do different things, not the same thing over and over again.
-Don’t let composing (musical score) go against the picture. Go on feeling, in general, not on microdecisions.
-Actors have “baking time.” Once they’re done, they’re done. They won’t bring anything new or better if they go past their “baking time.” Also, different actors bring better performances at different times of the day. Get to know these times, working styles, etc, of the individual actors you’re working with.
-It’s only hard to come up with shots (ways to shoot the scene) when the scene doesn’t work.
-Where’s the ‘in’ point for each scene? Usually it’s later than you think.
-Be friends with your actors. There needs to be love there. Also, they need to know they need you. To let them know this, in at least one scene, in the first 3 days of shooting, make sure to help a scene get significantly better with your direction. Save a scene. If they’ve got it down and don’t need your help, three days in a row, you’ll lose control/respect of the actors, and from there, the set itself.
-Directors are “Daddy.” And part motivational speaker. You need to own those. Don’t let yourself get pushed around. Keep the marbles on the table.
-Work in real space, not in a blank rehearsal space. Rehearsal spaces are a vacuum, they can lead to false discoveries in performance that are harder to get back to, when shooting on set.
-Spend quality time with actors at auditions. Make them comfortable, let them know you value them and genuinely work with them to make the scene better. Read with them, don’t just sit behind a table. It will make things awkward. You want to set a positive tone, not a negative one. Even if they’re not right for the part, who knows if you will want them for a later project?
-Walk through your blocking yourself. Things will come to you. Be in the acting sphere.
-This one is well-known, but Mangold repeated it to us: “Don’t make movies with someone you wouldn’t have dinner with.”
-Always think about what energy you’re putting out.
-It’s very difficult to separate disciplines. Directing is managing EVERYONE’s job. All those disciplines at once.
Part two will have more advice from weeks two and three of his visit!