My name is Peter Marshall. I’ve been working professionally in the film and TV business for 39 years. During that time, I’ve had the opportunity to work on industrial films, educational films, documentaries, commercials, music videos, episodic TV shows, TV movies, Indie films and Hollywood features.
I’ve worked with dozens of good, mediocre and bad directors - as well as hundred’s of good, mediocre and bad actors.
I’ve read 100?s of film scripts before they were produced:some which were so terrible I couldn’t get past the first 10 pages, to scripts which went on to win Academy Awards.
I’ve also had the opportunity to spend months at a time teaching and mentoring film students as they write, prep and shoot their own short films.
I believe my years in the “film production trenches” has given me a unique insight into finding the answer to the question: “Is there a formula, or guide, that film directors (anywhere in the world) can follow, that will help them make successful and compelling films?”
Well, I believe the answer is Yes!
And by the way, my definition of a good film (a documentary or drama) is “the art of visually telling a compelling story with believable characters.”
In my opinion, most inexperienced (or experienced, but lazy) film directors spend the majority of their time figuring out how to shoot the film first (cool shots and creative camera angles) before understanding what the story is about and knowing what the characters really want.
I’m going to be bold here and state publicly that this is the wrong way to direct a good film!
Because I strongly believe that to successfully direct a “visually compelling story with believable characters”, you need to follow this 7-step formula:
STEP 1: The Study of Human Behaviour
What do I mean by the study of human behaviour?
“Human nature is the concept that there is a set of inherent distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling and acting, that humans tend to have.”
In other words, the study of human behaviour is about:
a. What makes us tick?
b. Why do we do things?
Once you know the answers to these questions, you will have a better idea of how the characters in your script should interact with each other, as well as having the proper “psychological tools” to direct actors on the set.
The good thing about human behaviour is that it is observable, and as storytellers, we must first observe the way people react to different situations and circumstances in order to understand How and Why their behaviour changes.
As a film director, you must be a “witness” to human behaviour. You need to get into the habit of observing people going about their daily lives, so you can find out what motivates them to take action.
Once you know what motivates a person to achieve their daily needs, you will have the knowledge to better understand the story you are telling, and you will feel more confident helping your actors achieve believable performances.
STEP 2: Story
There are many facets of a Director’s prep on any film or TV show, but the first, and most important part of your job, is to understand every detail about the story: where it takes place; who the characters are; and what happens to them.
When you first read a script, here are just some of the many questions you will need to answer to help identify and solve potential script problems:
a. What is the story about?
b. Does the story make sense?
c. What problem is to be resolved?
d. What event hooks the audience?
e. What is the plot? (the action)
f. What is the subplot? (the theme)
Understanding the story requires a lot of work on your part because you then need to take dig deeper into the story and it’s structure by analysing each individual scene in the script to find out what it is about, what works and what doesn’t by asking questions like:
a. What is the intention of the scene?
b. What are the story points?
c. Where are the scene beats?
d. Where is the climax?
e. What is the resolution?
f. What are the important lines of dialogue?
Your script breakdown will be a never-ending process. Each time you read the script, you will find something else you didn’t know about the story or the characters.
And the script will also constantly evolve. It will change because of your creative notes, writer changes, actor changes, producer changes, studio changes and location availability.
But as long as you know what the story is about, and where the story is going, you will be able to adjust to all the changes.
STEP 3: Performance
I believe that almost everything you need to know about directing actors is explained in these three words:
MOTIVE DETERMINES BEHAVIOUR
When we break these words down, we see that:
MOTIVE (our inner world)
BEHAVIOUR (our outer world)
And if we break them down even further, we see that:
What our needs are (MOTIVE)
Will decide (DETERMINES)
What actions we will take (BEHAVIOUR)
One of the main responsibilities of a Director is to help actors achieve a realistic performance, and a good director does this by “listening for the truth” and by always asking:
a. Do I believe them?
b. Do the words make sense?
c. Are the characters believable?
And the key to getting a realistic performance from an actor, is by first understanding a character’s objectives.
a. There should be one main objective per character per scene:
What do they want in the scene?
b. Objectives should be clear, concise and stated in one simple sentence: “To discover where the gun is hidden.”
How to choose objectives:
a. Ask yourself “What does the character want in this situation?”
b. A character’s objective should create obstacles for the character.
c. Look at what the character does (his behaviour) rather than what he says.
d. Look at what happens in the scene, and how it ends.
e. Look at what people want out of life: what are the things we will sacrifice everything for?
On the set, actors want to work with directors who understand their vulnerability, so it’s incredibly important to create a good relationship with every actor on your film.
And what do actors want more than anything from this relationship with the director? TRUST!
If actors feel they cannot trust the director to know a good performance from a bad performance, they will begin to monitor their own performances and begin to direct themselves: they will become “Director Proof!”
Remember, to find the character they are playing, actors must surrender completely to feelings and impulses, and a good director understands an actor’s vulnerability and creates a safe place for them to perform.
STEP 4: The Principles of Montage
One of the key elements of being a good director, is to understand the “principles of montage” – the juxtaposition of images to tell a story.
In 1918, a Russian filmmaker called Lev Kuleshov conducted an experiment where he shot and edited a short film in which the face of a famous Russian matinee idol was intercut with three other shots: a plate of soup; a girl playing ball; an old woman in a coffin.
And Kuleshov made sure that the shot of the actor was identical (and expressionless) every time he cut back to him.
The film was then shown to audiences who totally believed that the expression on the actor’s face was different each time he appeared – depending on whether he was “looking at” the plate of soup, the little girl, or the old woman’s coffin; showing an expression of hunger, happiness or grief respectively.
So what does this experiment tell us?
By carefully using the juxtaposition of images, filmmakers were able to produce certain emotions from the audience by manipulating an actor’s performance.
As a film director, understanding the principles of montage will help you to: create a more visual script; to decide your camera placement; to block your scenes; and to get layered performances from actors.
STEP 5: The Psychology of the Camera
What I mean by the Psychology of the Camera are the visual meanings of shots and angles. In other words, where you put the camera can either enhance or detract the audience’s understanding of what the scene is really about, and what the characters are feeling. For example:
There are three angles of view for the camera:
a. Objective: The audience point of view. (The camera is placed outside the action.)
b. Subjective: The camera acts as the viewer’s eyes. (The camera is placed inside the action.)
c. Point of View: What the character is seeing. (The camera is the action.)
Audiences will assume that every shot or word of dialogue in a film is there to further the central idea, therefore, each shot you use should contribute to the story or the idea you are trying to convey.
Since viewer emotion is the ultimate goal of each scene, where you place the camera involves knowing what emotion you want the audience to experience, at any given moment in the scene.
STEP 6: Basic Blocking & Staging Techniques
Very simply, blocking is the relationship of the actors to the camera. Blocking is not about getting the dialogue correct or discussing an actor’s motivation – unless it directly involves the movement of an actor.
I suggest you start thinking of blocking as the choreography of a dance or ballet: all the elements on the set (actors, extras, vehicles, crew, equipment) should move in perfect harmony with each other.
Before you start to figure out your blocking plan, you must know these five things:
a. When, and where, were the characters last seen?
b. What is the last shot of the previous scene?
c. What is the first shot of the scene you are working on?
d. What is the last shot of the scene you are working on?
e. What is the first shot of the next scene?
Your blocking plan will also be determined by:
a. Whose POV is being expressed at the time? (Is it the writer’s, the character or the director?)
b. What distance are you from the subject? (What is the size of shot: close or far?)
c. What is your relationship to the subject? (What is the angle of view – your choice of lenses?)
When you first start directing, blocking a scene can be one of the hardest parts of your job. But like anything else in life, blocking takes practice, and the more times you do it, the more comfortable you will become.
STEP 7: Technical
By technical, I mean everything else it takes to make a movie!
(Locations, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Costumes, Stunts…)
Yes, I know I’m putting the majority of the filmmaking process into one category, but without understanding the first 6 steps of this formula, you are setting yourself up for “filmmaker mediocrity” – which is writing unimaginative scripts with unbelievable characters that create boring and dull films.
Which leads into my favourite filmmaking quote from the legendary director Frank Capra: “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins! And the cardinal sin is dullness.”
From what I have witnessed over the past 39 years, I believe that if you follow this 7-step film directing formula, you will see how any director, even someone with very little experience, can create a visually, compelling movie with believable characters.
And if you have a story that has Universal themes, and the passion to tell this story, you can make a movie, in your own language, and audiences around the world will watch it.
It’s your choice!
About Peter D. Marshall
Peter D. Marshall is a filmmaker from Vancouver and has worked in the Film and Television Industry for over 38 years - as a Film Director, Television Producer, First Assistant Director and TV Series Creative Consultant.
Peter has directed over 30 episodes of Television Drama such as "John Woo's Once a Thief", "Wiseguy", "21 Jump Street", "Neon Rider", "The Black Stallion", "Scene of the Crime", "Big Wolf on Campus" and "Largo Winch." As a First Assistant Director, Peter has worked on over 12 Features (including "Dawn of the Dead", "The Butterfly Effect", "Happy Gilmore", "The Fly II"); 16 Television Movies; 8 Television Series; and over 20 Commercials.
He has written, directed or produced over 50 hours of documentary and educational programs and his documentaries and dramas have won, or been nominated for, 14 International film awards. Peter has worked for directors such as John Woo, Phillip Noyce, Ed Zwick, John Badham, Roger Vadim, Dennis Dugan, Anne Wheeler and Zack Snyder.
He has also worked with actors such as Peter O'Toole, Kevin Spacey, Morgan Freeman, John Travolta, Kathy Bates, Michelle Pfiefer, Marcia Gaye Harden, Madeleine Stowe, Mel Gibson, Ashton Kutcher, Goldie Hawn, Judy Davis, Halle Berry and Adam Sandler.
Peter is a directing instructor at the Vancouver Film School and has also taught for the Directors Guild of Canada, Victoria Motion Picture School and Capilano College. He has also developed several filmmaking workshops and seminars that he has presented over the past 15 years – from Canada to Singapore to Dubai.
You can read more about Peter D. Marshall here.