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Bryan is an Atlanta based writer/director and founder of Lucidity Pictures, LLC. He strives to create narrative films with driving focus and deep humanity.

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Updated: Aug 19, 2019

In the past year I have set about starting a director's journal, a space where I can write down lessons I have learned over time concerning filmmaking. These lessons can come from anywhere, mostly from my own projects and mistakes, or from talking with other filmmakers. But also from observing others on set, and of course, from simply watching films. Some of these lessons are very simple and practical, but I find I am increasingly interested in more open ended, theoretical concerns of filmmaking.

Because so many of us millennial filmmakers are largely self taught, we are often seriously lacking in understanding of the foundational principles that underlie our creative filters. We trust almost entirely in our own intuition and yet despite this we seem to adhere quite readily to the conventions of a shared cinematic language. We follow these conventions subconsciously, often without even knowing which ones we are embracing and which we are rejecting. I am interested in trying to elucidate these concerns and this journal is my effort to do so. I began this with no intent of ever making it public, and these thoughts will not be presented here in neat chapters and cogent sections, but rather, as they occurred to me and, with some revisions, as I wrote them.

I remember from the moment I realized I wanted to be a director, I felt there was a better way to make films. A heightened state that could be achieved, yet so rarely is. Now that I am a little older, I am skeptical this better way exists. I presently feel that we already have the tools of cinema set before us and that we must merely learn to wield them properly. This is perhaps a life long task. The better way that I was dreaming of was actually something that already exists, yet as a fleeting thing, as lightening in a bottle. I was thinking of particular scenes in films where everything comes together, where you lose awareness of yourself as a viewer. For its duration, it feels that life will never be the same. It is the thrill, it is what we filmmakers mean by that elusive word "cinematic." I have a hard time actually identifying sequences that achieve this, surely it will differ for everyone. I think of something like the lighting of the beacons in Return of the King, or the ending of Gravity. The opening of Gladiator, the rotating hallway scene in Inception. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a quiet scene like in Unforgiven, as Will Munny and the Kid wait by the tree, or as Jesse James waits for the train to arrive in Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

What exactly is that feeling that hits you when you are so engrossed in a film? There is a newness, an unfamiliarity, your imagination is awakened even as you are pulled deeper into the moment. There is that palpable feeling of possibility. If the hero is in danger, the film has managed to actually trick you into believing their life is truly on the line. There is of course, that buzz word that screenwriters love; the stakes. A cinematic moment is when all of these elements have been properly set up and arrive at precisely the right moment.

When I was younger, I was convinced that every film ought to achieve this moment, that there must be this arrival at a singular moment when everything coalesces and all is achieved, revealed, and resolved. But, as I am older now, it is easy for me to see this is only the visceral component of a good film. In fact many great films function on entirely different levels. I think of a film like Ida, quiet, stark restrained and in the end, devastating. It exists entirely without the thrills of the Hollywood films we discussed above, yet is utterly compelling.

So with great films varying from the likes of Lord of the Rings, to Ida, how is it possible to draw any kind of coherent thread between them concerning what makes for a compelling story? Let us not reduce everything to the mantras of screenwriting, like the stakes and the Hero's Journey. Before all of that, what makes a film good? I mean this in the most general, most conceptual sense. What should the audience feel? What thoughts and emotions do I want them to have? How does one establish empathy with a character? Is it enough to simply entertain our audience and make back our budget, or are we after more? How ought we make films? These are difficult, probably unanswerable questions, but I still find it is worthwhile to try. Often it is the hard questions that produce the best work.

- Bryan

  • Bryan Tan

I wrote this review in 2016, when I first watched Inside Llewyn Davis, but my thoughts on the film in the years since have changed little, if only improved.

Spoilers for Inside Llewyn Davis. That is, if it is possible to spoil a film like this.

Inside Llewyn Davis is one of those films that people talk about like: “Oh I heard that was good, I really wanted to see that.” I once said to a friend: “Oscar Isaac is great, but I feel like he hasn't had a definitive performance yet, though I haven't seen Inside Llewyn Davis yet, so I could be wrong.”

(Yes pretentious past Bryan, you were wrong.)

The film was released in December, 2013, but even as a Coen Brothers fan, Inside Llewyn Davis didn't quite pique my interest enough to get me to crawl out to see it in the cinema. My roommate saw it. He loved it and told me so. He gave me a copy of the soundtrack, which I spooled through once and then forgot about. I did want to see it, just not enough to, well, go see it.

That year at the Oscars, Inside Llewyn Davis was nominated in two categories: Cinematography and Sound Mixing. It won neither. It didn't win any awards at the places most people would recognize. By and large, the response was positive, yet muted. Something about Inside Llewyn Davis made it precisely the kind of film that would be passed over, missed, and yet revered by the few who saw it. It took me three years. I finally watched Inside Llewyn Davis in late October, 2016. I am still reeling.

Much has been said about a certain central scene – permit me to say a little more – Llewyn bums a ride from New York to Chicago, wanders through the cold and the snow, all to get before Bud Grossman, a music manager who makes careers, an almost godlike figure. Llewyn proceeds to play a somber, old song, almost four hundred years old. The Death of Queen Jane.

I have seen other reviewers point out what a strange, e.g. terrible song choice this is from Llewyn's perspective. He has this one chance to prove himself and he picks a slow, somber piece about death. I have seen them write this off as just part of Llewyn's self destructive nature. Yet I feel there is more to this choice than that. From my own minor dabbling in music, and what I have seen of solo performers, it can be strikingly hard to pick “the right song” when put on the spot. Your entire repertoire seems to fade away as you sit there; your audience attentive, waiting. The decision seems to be something utterly subconscious, almost out of one's control. Perhaps a performer more expedient than Llewyn would have a better intuition, but is he really so wrong? He sits before an audience of one, in a dark building on a damp Chicago winter morning. Would something more jaunty and upbeat really seem fitting?

Most modes of artistic expression have moments analogous to this. The moment you must “do your thing,” when the entire atmosphere seems to be demanding the opposite tone from your work. So much is outside of your control. It isn't like practicing at home. It's not like watching your film in the editing room. Standing in front of three producers and a casting director isn't like taping an audition at home.

There is so much beyond your control, and yet in that moment of bewilderment you must somehow find the capacity within to be vulnerable, expressive, and charismatic. Llewyn picks the only song he can. He picks what he truly feels in that moment. He puts everything out there. What more can an artist do when given the chance to perform before someone who can make or break a career? What more can Llewyn do but give the best, most honest expression of what his work is like? If Grossman doesn't like it, well then there's nothing to it.

Thus, when Bud Grossman commands “play me something from Inside Llewyn Davis,” he does. He plays The Death of Queen Jane. I think this song and this scene might encompass the whole film. It is a simple piece, beautiful and elegiac. I lack the vocabulary or musicology to describe it, but it kills me every time.

But there's no money in it, says Bud Grossman. I can identify with Llewyn, hopefully I am not such a curmudgeon as he. (If I'm honest, I have nothing to complain about.) But like Llewyn, sometimes I feel that all I am trying to do is break out of the loop of sameness, to reach some higher artistic plain – to have one's work recognized, its value acknowledged in some way or another. The sad thing is I didn't recognize the value of The Death of Queen Jane at the outset. I loved the film. I even loved the scene; the lighting, the restraint of the camera, the performances. The song itself, I glossed over. Only after weeks of skipping over it in the soundtrack did I finally let it play and realize just what I had been missing out on. I was skipping over Llewyn's soul.

It dawned on me, it would be absurd for Inside Llewyn Davis to be a runaway success. I picture Joel and Ethan Coen going up to accept some award. Joel delivers the speech, Ethan chuckles in spite of himself, taking in the irony of it all. Or let us imagine Llewyn himself receiving some great, career defining award. He sheepishly saunters to the mic, “geeze guys, this is really unexpected.” It is a ridiculous image, totally outside the spirit of the film, the character, and his music.

At the end of the film, we do not know what comes of Llewyn's career. I imagine it would not be very different from my reaction to the film's release.

“Oh, I heard that was good. I wanted to see that.”

- Bryan