How ought we make films?
Updated: Apr 29, 2022
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.