Directors, Here's What 35 Years of Filmmaking Can Teach You
One of our collaborators, Keith Hodder, recently assisted director/writer John Kent Harrison on two of his recent feature films. Keith took note of the lessons Harrison imparted on him, as well as a few things he observed while working on the multi-million dollar set.
Here’s 35 years of a life in film boiled down to 9 essential and informative takeaways.
1. There are Always Three People
John believes that there are always at least three people in a scene – the two characters talking to each other, and someone else – who may or may not be in the room – that they’re talking to or about. Do with this what you will, and consider how you can capture it visually.
2. Motion Pictures = Movement
Some filmmakers thrive and prosper in still, motionless cinematography, but movement can bring energy to a scene that previously didn’t have any on the page.
John was adamant in having as much camera movement as possible, believing that the motion picture medium is a showcase of motion. Oftentimes he would open scenes with a tilt down, a pan, or by dollying in or out of the scene to create an energetic pace.
3. Save the Close-Up
It’s said that the eyes are a window into a person’s soul, but if we’re constantly looking through them, will we continue to appreciate the view? John liked to save his close-ups so that they had emotional significance for the characters and for the viewers. They became an appreciated rarity.
This is a stylistic choice and a rule (there are many) that can be broken, as long as it supports your approach and the story or scene’s emotional core. Son of Saul, for example, was shot all in close-ups to showcase one man’s claustrophobic and terrifying experience within a Nazi concentration camp.
The choice is ours, but the close-up is one of a few shots in a director’s toolkit that allows an actor to explore the subtleties in their performance. How much a director would like that to matter is up to them.
4. Find the Emotional Core
Every scene should have a primary focus that drives the characters – informing their objectives, empowering their dialogue, and inspiring their actions. We writers and filmmakers should be asking ourselves, “What is the emotional core?” when we approach a scene both on and off the page. This not only helps us zero-in on the critical moments of the scene, but it highlights and reminds us of the bare minimum that could be shot to capture it on screen. After all, time is rarely on our side.
For example, I may have a slew of shots in mind for a particular scene that focuses on a moment between two characters falling in love. In this instance it’s critical for me to know what the scene’s emotional core is to ensure that I get exactly what I need to bring it to life. My objective is to capture that love-at-first-sight moment without running out of time. That said, the creative and stylistic shot of a flower blowing in the wind behind the characters, probably isn’t the most pressing, as it does nothing to reflect the scene’s focus.
5. Think Like an Editor
Robert Rodriguez has been saying the same thing for decades, especially when creating his breakout film El Mariachi. It’s worth watching his explanation and further lessons here:
At the end of the day - by focusing on and knowing the scene’s emotional core - we should know how to get the bare minimum of what we want. There’s no need to shoot footage that you know you won’t use. Time is rarely on your side when making films, so get what you need and go home.
A strong director knows what they need and what they can lose, which brings me to my next point –
6. You Have to Make a Decision
You don’t always have to make the right decision, but you have to make a decision – and fast. Producers want a director who can make a choice quickly, and even if you tell them what it is, later you can go back on it in search of the right one. John assures that, with time and experience, you’ll uncover the right one more often.
7. Communicate and Block with your Crew
Nine times out of ten, the stories you’ve read about failed films or bad relationships on set are because there has been a failure in communication.
Director’s direct – that’s our job. It’s our objective to communicate our vision as clearly as possible so that everyone can do what they’ve been asked in bringing our shared story to life.
John frequently gathered the crew to explain the scene and showcase the blocking with actors or stand-ins. This guaranteed that everyone was in the loop and gave them the opportunity to prepare accordingly.
8. A Crew is a Family
Hundreds of people can work on a film at once. Each of them have lives, families, passions, and all of them are in the trenches with you. They understand the long hours and are also there to create something great.
Get to know your crew, learn their names and stories, and every day on set will feel like time spent with the best of friends and family. Put in the love and appreciation, and you’ll always get the same in return.
9. Don’t Complain
Seems obvious, but during the long hours – and depending on the conditions of where you’re shooting – it’s easy to forget.
We got into film because they thrill us. They’re magic brought to life in the dancing light. We have the rare opportunity to bring our stories to life, to thrill others as we have been thrilled, and to participate in an artistic tradition that has survived over a hundred years, across the globe, and in the hands of some of the world’s greatest minds and personalities.
We’re some of the lucky few.