All new film directors get excited about the powerful techniques that camera and editing have in the art of filmmaking. Yes, they can be powerful and exciting. For example, Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ shot down the stairwell from James Stewart’s point of view. Spielberg’s own version of that shot in ‘Jaws’ as Roy Scheider sees the first shark attack from the beach.
However, you will note that Hitchcock’s and Spielberg’s best movies have the best stories. The best scripts.
Director Clint Eastwood rarely uses trick shots, or complicated editing techniques, but has had a string of highly entertaining movies, one after the other, especially in his later years, winning two Best Picture awards with ‘Unforgiven’ and ‘Million Dollar Baby’. Both of those movies have great photography, but no fancy shots or editing to speak of.
Put on a DVD of either ‘Million Dollar Baby, ‘Unforgiven’, ’True Crime’, ’Changling’, or ‘Mystic River’, and I guarantee that you won’t turn it off once you get to the 25 minute point. And it won’t be because you’re waiting to see the next camera angle, editing trick, or special effect. It’s the story that’ll have you hooked.
Eastwood admits to ‘staying out of the way of the story’, and to ‘not call attention to my directing’. “Then what do you do?” he’s been asked by interviewers often. “Oh, I just let the story tell itself,” he answers. “And maybe find a place once in a while to punch up a scene.”
So how does he REALLY do it? More importantly, how can new directors sustain a career like Eastwoods? What is his secret of directing?
The answer is easy to say, but not easy to do. 50% of it is choosing the subject and story. 30% is casting. 20% is getting it up on the screen in an entertaining manner.
New directors should put all the film techniques that they studied in film school on the back burner and concentrate on subject and story, not to mention the marketability of their subject and story.
I fell victim to this ‘excitement for technique over story’ on my first movie, ‘Drawn Swords’. And worst, never gave a second thought to the marketability. I just wanted to follow my dream of making an ‘American samurai’ movie, even committing the worst crime of filming it in black & white to copy Akira Kurasawa’s technique. My story of three Japanese samurai going to England to enter a fencing tournament turned out to be merely an artful experiment (Or more honestly, an expensive ‘home movie’ filmed in 35mm Techniscope.)
For my next feature ‘Death Machines’, I put every story angle to the marketability test and ended up with a Techniscope COLOR movie, that has cops, gangsters, white, Chinese, and Black karate killers, a Japanese Yakuza woman, a love story, giant fight scenes in a karate school, and police station, and blowing up a real Cessna airplane. It sold fast to Crown International.
The story however, was just a revenge vehicle to thread all the marketable action together. But it was a big hit opening in 50 theaters in Los Angeles alone. It wasn’t untill years later that I could come up with stories that were intriguing and suspenseful on their own. But by that time my only way of expressing them was through novelizing them and producing them as full cast audio-books with movie stars performing them. A great and creative endeavor for me, as I could use many of my movie heroes that I grew up with such as Rod Taylor, Robert Culp, and David Hedsion. But they were not feature films. Hopefully they will be.
So all you filmmakers coming out of film school (My degree was in Film) with your editing and camera techniques under your arm and ready to film, put those on the back burner until you choose your marketable subject, an unusual and attention holding story, with a screenplay that will keep the viewer from hitting the channel changer button. In fact, I recommend you write your screenplay with a TV remote control in one hand. When you get to a point in your screenplay where you are ready to change the channel, it’s time to pump up the story, or get another story.
The main thing that I learned on my first feature is: After all the camera rentals, film editing, sound mixing, and film printing, you end up right back with the one hundred and twenty pages of the script you started with. And only that script (now on 35mm film) will attract viewers and hold them or not.