It seems like anything goes in filmmaking today. Anyone can pick up a camera, form a cast and crew, find a location, shoot, edit and distribute (yippee for us film lovers). Yet, there are still accepted rules. Rules that you must not break. For instance, it is common practise to shoot out of continuity because it is cost effective. Right? Well, here is the only crucial rule for directing: make a film that engages an audience emotionally and work under conditions that will create a productive yet relaxed atmosphere for your cast and crew. That’s it.
So why do we still follow the others rules? Because we have accepted them and fear to break them. Why though? We are filmmakers, we crave a challenge. Filmmaking should be a liberating and different experience each time. Even though you are a real auteur with a distinctive style and you collaborate with the same people, if you do not adapt as a filmmaker and try new things then why are you making films? We want to explore and show the world to an audience in various, exciting ways: make them cry, make them laugh, make them think, make them glued to the screen. Isn’t that why we tell stories?
So this article is aimed at anyone who feels a bit restricted with the common rules and fancies a liberating and challenging film experience. Here is a list of accepted filmmaking ‘rules’ and ways to break them for your next shoot. These unconventional tips are directly inspired by the working methods of the ineffable director, Wim Wenders.
THE RULE: only shoot what is on the page.
BREAK IT: take in the unexpected.
The unexpected?! But everything is supposed to be controlled on a film set. However, there are always things that you cannot control on a set. Things that you think are mistakes, things interfering with your vision. For instance: noisy neighbours, traffic, tight spaces, odd pieces of furniture, low light levels, sunlight, people in shot etc. The tip here is to embrace something unexpected in your film that naturally occurred on the shoot. For Wenders, embracing the documentary side of filmmaking in fiction is liberating. Why is this a good tip? As the problem that you are trying to rule out of your vision could be a great asset in the film and, most importantly, add realism to your scene. Taking in the unexpected also teaches you to be a flexible and adaptive filmmaker, which is one of the hardest but essential principles to learn in film. Finally, it encourages you to not get too tied to the words on the page but to instead visualise and interpret the script. Remember, the audience never sees the script, they see with their eyes.
THE RULE: shoot out of continuity.
BREAK IT: shoot in chronological order.
Shoot in chronological order? Your producer has just had a heart attack. But just ignore the shooting schedule for a moment and think of the story, the characters and the actors. Shooting in a linear fashion could potentially enhance the performances of the film and its structural clarity. Wim Wenders shot his fantastic film, ‘Paris, Texas’ in chronological order: he shot in Texas, then California and then back in Texas again. Wenders’ justification for this is that it “allowed [the actor] to be much more in control” and “the actor had to live the experience and we felt that we had to live through his story”. Keywords: actors and story – the most important elements of your film. Anything that can make the actors more comfortable and the film more believable will enhance your film. This tip allows you and your actors to go on a journey of discovery, the very same journey that the film character and the audience will go on. So if you are not afraid of a logistical nightmare, shooting in continuity could be very liberating and rewarding.
THE RULE: work with a complete script.
BREAK IT: invent it.
Even I think that this is insane. It is so drilled into us that the script is everything and that not having a completed script will result in a terrible film. Fear not, this tip is not as harmful as it sounds. Wenders worked with half a script on ‘Paris, Texas’ and wrote the rest as he saw the film develop in front of him. Look how good that film turned out. So the tip here is to use the script as a basis but to invent scenes as well, through rehearsals, discussions with actors, ideas from your crew. This does not mean go crazy and make up any old rubbish but instead invent within boundaries: make sure your creative thinking is tied to your narrative and character intentions. You will be amazed at what you could come up with through invention.
THE RULE: time is money.
BREAK IT: never say cut.
Finally, the golden rule: time is money. Wasting time on set results in shooting less coverage than you wanted and less choices for your editor. I am not recommending that you deliberately waste time, that would be mad. However, follow one of Wenders early filmmaking tips: never say cut. When asked in an interview about the meandering, realistic quality of his earlier films, he amusingly states that the reason for this is that he could not say cut. For Wenders, the magic moments in performance happen after what the actors and crew have discussed will happen in the take. Similarly, prolonging the shot will please your editor ever so much as it gives them plenty of choice. Lastly, this is so inexpensive now. Wenders was prolonging shots while working with expensive film stock. In the digital age, you can shoot as much as you like for no extra cost. The only thing you are losing on set is time. But, are you really losing time by not saying cut when you are (hopefully) uncovering great emotion from it?
THE RULE: start with a character then put them in a place.
BREAK IT: start with a place and then develop a character.
This is a simple but effective one. It is common to focus so much on a character and then just put them in a standard place – a house, a car, a bar. Wenders’ tip is to think of a place you would love to shoot in, a great location. Think about the qualities of that location: the quality of the land, the population, the temperature, the buildings (or lack of). Then, let your character and narrative develop from your ideas about your chosen location. Again to reference ‘Paris, Texas’, Wenders comments that, “I could have told a million stories, but we found the story when we talked about our favourite places and when we evoked the Mexican-Texas border and that no man’s land… evoking those places, we came up with the character, this man who shows up in the middle of nowhere.” And what is so great about this tip? It is liberating to do as a filmmaker and it results in powerful filmmaking. Simple.
THE RULE: look at other films for inspiration / pitch your film with other films in mind.
BREAK IT: Listen to music.
We are dealing with films. It makes sense to watch films for inspiration and to pitch your film by referring to examples of other films. However, if you fancy a fresh approach then listen to and be inspired by music lyrics. Be inspired by the emotion(s) that you feel when you listen to your favourite, or a completely new song. This tip is lifted from one of Wenders’ early films, ‘Alice in the Cities’. Wenders emphasises how the film’s inspiration was taken from the lyrics of Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis Tennessee’ song. Inspiration comes in all forms and works differently for different people but that fact it worked so excellently for that film means you should give it a go.
There we have it, ways to break through the mundane rules. If you ever feel restricted by the rules, remember that you are a filmmaker and that it is not the occupation to get comfortable in one situation. Challenge yourself. As Wenders says, “making films was being set a problem by the film and solving it”. That is your job too. Good luck rule breakers.