What film directors can learn from the world’s first consulting detective
We film directors immerse ourselves in pre-production, and countless planning meetings. We are always re-working our approach to the story, the way we visualise it, with help from our collaborators. I, for one, often think I direct like Sherlock Holmes: seeking out the clues that can help me make the story and the performances better.
However before we start to storyboard, shot plan, meet with production designers and other key collaborators, what can we do to ensure we have the most rigorous and meaningful understanding?
Having recently re-visited the books and film adaptations of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, it is apparent we can learn much from the skills he invested into his fictional hero.
1. ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’
Probably the most famous of quotes attributed to Holmes, but what does it have to do with film directing?
If you consider the screenplay as not merely a blueprint for your film, but more as a map and a source of inspiration for the film you will end up making, it should become clear that it is deserving of study and moreover analysis.
Over time I have become to appreciate it as a detective might a case file full of evidence and testimony. It contains clues to the world and the ‘truth’ of the story we are telling.
By looking at the possibilities of where the script takes us and challenging our theory of what the film is about, we develop not only a better understanding but a deeper connection to our material. This inevitably pays off when working with others, as they see we know our material, and for the audience as they experience the story the way we understand it.
2 ‘They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,’ he remarked with a smile. ‘It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.’
Our goal and responsibilities as cinematic story-tellers is to engage our audiences in both a highly visceral, riveting and deep experience.
In order to give ourselves the best chance to do that, we need to immerse ourselves in the world of the story film. We may be experts in the technical and logistical aspects of film directing, but we must also be ‘experts’ in the story we are telling.
This implies we should ‘take pains’ to really dig deep into the story to know not only the plot but the underlying meanings, motivations, and context for every scene, every character and the world view provided to us by the screenplay.
3.‘It is my business to know what other people don’t know.’
As film directors, we spend most of our energy on developing and realising a vision to share with our audience.
Filmmaking is collaboration and therefore we need to be able to share our vision in a clear and actionable form to many different skilled and able Heads of Department and especially our cast, so that they are able to give us what we need.
To that end we must always remain aware that they will have a perspective on the material too, they will have their own interpretation. We should be willing to listen to their what they have to contribute and where possible incorporate it into our own.
However, we have been given the privilege of having the overall vision for the film and will have spent a great deal of out time and energy coming up with this vision. This also means we should know the film we are aiming to make better and more thoroughly than any other contributor.
Knowing how to use this insight to guide others is key to getting our vision on screen intact.
4.‘The Game Is Afoot.’
We have a plan, and informed all our team of said plan. All we should need to do is just stick to that plan, right?
Once we get into the demanding, all-consuming phase of production and actually start realising our vision in the forms of footage, performances and sound, it becomes all too easy to shift our focus to just getting the shots.
However we need to remain alert and prepared for not only the unforeseen in terms of obstacles, eg: weather, equipment or cast getting lost, but also the inspiration we and others might experience on set and while the camera is rolling.
When anything new and unexpected happens, we as directors have to evaluate the perspective of whether or not it woks for the story we are telling, and what are the knock-on effects if we are to use it in our vision. The ability to make informed decisions in this situation will always come from your deep insight into the story as a whole and not just the moment we are working on.
5.’The Great Reveal.’
Finishing our film and showing it to audiences for the first time, is a lot like the moment in many classic detective stories. Everyone is gathered to hear the conclusion reached by the great detective, whether it be Sherlock or Miss Marple. However there are no guilty parties present. In fact the audience had only been complicit in that we have somehow managed to entangle them in the story we have presented to them and they have believed in all they have seen and heard.
Although from this point onwards it is no longer in our hands to help others understand our vision, we should always have this end point in mind as we prepare our film, especially in editing.
We can think of the edit as delivering our interpretation and conclusion to the mystery that we have been given to us in the form of a screenplay.
Want to Learn How?
It may seem like a lot of work and you may even feel that the project you have may not need or be able to withstand such scrutiny.
However, having these skills in your toolkit can only add to your abilities to be a well rounded and informed director that is both a pleasure and easy to work with for the rest of your team.
If you would like to know more, I am running the Script Analysis For Directors workshop on Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th June 2019.
This is an opportunity to get practical experience for this key directing skillset and is even of benefit to screenwriters and others wanting to learn how to get the most into and out of the screenplay.
I hope to see you there.