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Can a writer direct a movie?


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#1 Hrishikesh Jha

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Posted 19 October 2014 - 03:37 PM

Hey everyone.

I created this account and didn't bother to check if this has been asked before, but this dilemma has plagued me for some time now. I have a few questions I'll ask separately. Please read the entirety of this post to get an understanding of what I am saying. 

 I'd love to get some feedback.

 

I am a scriptwriter. My favorite writers are Paddy Chavefsky, Robert Towne, Billy Goldman and David Lynch. I watch 2 films a day and study and analyze them.

 

But what fascinates me the most about a film is not the writing or the acting, it is the "look".

The vibe or the atmosphere a film has. I am transported into the world if the look effects me. For example Blade Runner always manages to transport me into the  world of that film. It is perhaps psychological, perhaps because I've been told I am sensitive, or maybe its just me.

 

Mulholland Drive, Eyes Wide Shut, Solaris(both), The woman in Black(the older one), Miracle Mile, Wolf, Cat people....I can go on forever(1238 films in my imdb seen profile, 80% of them made before 1995)

 

I wrote a thesis on this subject and gave some examples and ended up getting a standing ovation from the class. Teachers loved it and said "They had never looked at a certain film this way".

The 70s had a documentarish look(All the president's men), The 80s had a raw, gritty vibe(Terminator, Blade Runner, To live and Die in LA) and the 90s had a sunny, yellow tinged look. I watch random early to mid 90s movies just to get completely lost in the lazy, sunny feel every film seems to project from that era. Obscure random films like Full Body Massage(Its on youtube, Nicholas Roeg-Dir/1995) because they have a soothing effect on me.

 

Question: Is it just me or you have also felt this? . Even directors like Scott and Cameron and many others have said they're done with film stock. Hardly anyone uses it anymore and I think its detrimental. No work of Scorsese lately matches After Hours or Taxi Driver and I think so much of it has got to do with the atmosphere.

 

 

I don't like the look of most new films(made after 2000). To me they look glossy and like a video game. Nothing like film. But it seems everyone seems to love digital. Add to it the fast cuts and I just don't get used to them. My writer friends say I am snobbish to think this way. Everyone has gone digital. In fact many them don't watch any films made before 1990 because they hate grain. I love grain. I love the sunny glow.

 

Question: Is there anyone else who thinks this way? Who still watches older films and doesn't care for 1080p or mega mega pixels? I am asking you professionals. Robby Mueller's(Paris,Texas/To live and Die in LA) films have far more character and aura than any big budget CGI fest I see nowadays  :(

 

Now comes the main query:

Can a writer, or any person who has absolutely zero knowledge of the technicalities of the camera make a feature film? I have the cash and people have suggested that I go and ask videographers and film students. I want that certain look, I love slow zooms and panning long shots. I can give examples with movie scenes but I don't even know the terminologies. Can I simply ask a person to do this and that and they will do as I want? I don't have the technical skills. I can barely work my Iphone.

 

My film can have an impact I am sure of it. But am I out of touch with modern sensibilities? Most people today haven't even heard of films like Altered States or Stakeout or Black Widow- average, everyday films made in the 70-95 time frame. You might say other factors like actors and story are far more important and that a greatly shot film is nothing without them, but I think everything has to come together and I will put more emphasis on the atmosphere than anything else.

 

Why do I like them I cannot put in words.

 

Maybe, it could be because they make me feel like they are transpiring in the real world. The Exorcist seems so scary because it has that atmosphere wherein it feels like it is happening next door to you. Eyes Wide Shut/After Hours(1985) for example have a dreamlike, ethereal quality and I love that. It seems real, yet cinematic. The Player(Robert Altman) or LA Story(Steve Martin) have a magical effect on me because of how sunny and lazy the stories appear.

 

Modern films don't give me that joy at all.

 

 

 

Thanks a ton for your responses in advance.

 

 


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#2 Phil Rhodes

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Posted 19 October 2014 - 05:58 PM

There is huge variation in the level of interest directors have in the style and technical process of photography. Some people are actors' directors and prefer to be off with the cast. Others live behind a monitor. Towards the extremes one is relying on the cast and crew to deal with the director's tunnel vision, which they should be able to do, being professionals, but some people might argue one wasn't getting the most out of one's staff in that situation.

 

The things that determine the style and look of the things are determined by production design and photography. The former is particularly key and is often what makes cheap movies look cheap. Production design covers a huge range of tasks including costume, locations, props, hair and makeup, and so on. At some point the camera can only photograph what's in front of it, but the two disciplines work together closely in order to create something cohesive. It would not be unreasonable for a director to explain, perhaps using examples, what he or she wanted, then leave production design and camera departments alone to achieve that.

 

Hope that makes sense.

 

P


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#3 Hrishikesh Jha

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Posted 19 October 2014 - 06:33 PM

There is huge variation in the level of interest directors have in the style and technical process of photography. Some people are actors' directors and prefer to be off with the cast. Others live behind a monitor. Towards the extremes one is relying on the cast and crew to deal with the director's tunnel vision, which they should be able to do, being professionals, but some people might argue one wasn't getting the most out of one's staff in that situation.

 

The things that determine the style and look of the things are determined by production design and photography. The former is particularly key and is often what makes cheap movies look cheap. Production design covers a huge range of tasks including costume, locations, props, hair and makeup, and so on. At some point the camera can only photograph what's in front of it, but the two disciplines work together closely in order to create something cohesive. It would not be unreasonable for a director to explain, perhaps using examples, what he or she wanted, then leave production design and camera departments alone to achieve that.

 

Hope that makes sense.

 

P

Thanks for that advice.

So a thorough knowledge of camera lenses and angles isn't requisite? Just tell the DP/Cinematographer and its his responsibility? I am reading a few books on the subject and they're all conflicting in their opinion. 

Best would be to discuss everything beforehand and then proceed to take action/pay.


Edited by Hrishikesh Jha, 19 October 2014 - 06:34 PM.

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#4 Bill DiPietra

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Posted 19 October 2014 - 07:23 PM

Thanks for that advice.

So a thorough knowledge of camera lenses and angles isn't requisite? Just tell the DP/Cinematographer and its his responsibility? I am reading a few books on the subject and they're all conflicting in their opinion. 

Best would be to discuss everything beforehand and then proceed to take action/pay.

 

Not true.  You have to at least have a working knowledge of visual storytelling so that you can have a coherent dialogue with your principal department heads.

 

Analyzing the films you say you've seen is good.  Reading books is better.  A basic filmmaking class may be best.


Edited by Bill DiPietra, 19 October 2014 - 07:23 PM.

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#5 Justin Hayward

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Posted 19 October 2014 - 09:16 PM

 

My film can have an impact I am sure of it. .

 

 

 

If that statement is true, it sounds like you already know what you want to do.  Just explain what you want to everyone helping, regardless if they've seen certain movies in your wheelhouse.  If they haven't seen something you're referring, just describe it to them to the best of your abilities.  If they show you something that doesn't work, tell them.  If it does work, tell them.  It's not a science, it's feeling out the situation moment to moment.


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#6 Dan Dorland

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Posted 19 October 2014 - 11:07 PM


My film can have an impact I am sure of it. But am I out of touch with modern sensibilities?

 

I've made a few shorts that got into festivals, but I'm not professional (maybe some day), so take this with a grain of salt, but to put it simply, f&@k modern sensibilities. Make the movie you feel the need to make. You're not the only one who adores the atmosphere that film exudes, so make your movie for them as well. If you're analyzing 2 movies a day, that's already evidence that you have the mindset and drive to make one. Without a doubt, it will help A LOT if you have a basic understanding of all the aspects of production, but when it comes down to it, if you can show your DP examples of lighting/looks you like, and what each scene needs to accomplish with the story and the characters, they should be able to come up with something you both love.

 

So yes, of course a writer can direct! It should give you an edge, because now the story belongs to you that much more, instead of a director taking your screenplay and imprinting his vision on it. Some of the best directors are also writers/co-writers. Just don't put all the emphasis on atmosphere. Story is always the #1 priority. If the atmosphere serves the story, you're gold.


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#7 Richard Boddington

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Posted 19 October 2014 - 11:27 PM

Keep in mind that a writer/director combo is very different from a writer with no filmmaking experience.  There is a skill set required to be a director that needs to be learned either via instruction or experience.

 

I think a director for hire would have a hard time directing one of my scripts because I have written the screenplay in a shot-for-shot manner as to how I plan to direct the movie on set.  I think that would put a different director with a different vision at a disadvantage.

 

I have heard people comment that Oliver Stone wrote Platoon and then directed it as a first timer with no experience, but this is not true, he had directed three features prior to Platoon.

 

Then there's Stephen King, brilliant writer indeed.  Director? Well not so much.  He directed his own script in 1986, Maximum Overdrive.  This was the one and only movie he directed, you be the judge.

 

R,


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#8 John E Clark

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Posted 20 October 2014 - 12:23 AM

Europe tends to have more writer/director combo in 'one person', or a writer director pair who produce a number of films together. In the 30's with the rise of the NSDAP/3rd Reich a number of german director and writers came to the US, and were successful in moving into Hollywood, and many were 'writer/directors'.

 

There have been modern examples as well, Werner Herzog is one such, Tom Twyker a younger example, although for the Hollywood 'films' others have written the script, for his German films he has frequently written the script. In the latter case, he hooked up with cinematographer Frank Griebe and they have worked as a pair.

 

Rainer Fassbinder is a mid-60's example of writer/director.

 

I've mostly studied german film, but the French New Wave was filled with writer/directors as well.

 

In terms of developing skills... writing deals with story, and in the case of film, presenting a script for the visual medium of film. It is really a 'technical' sort of writing, as other than dialog, nothing of the 'script' is ever seen beyond the production crew.

 

For directing, one has to develop a visualization capability such that one's written pages come to life on the screen... and then... one has to learn to manage a potentially volatile hord of 'talent' ranging from technical to highstrung people management.


Edited by John E Clark, 20 October 2014 - 12:24 AM.

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#9 Michael LaVoie

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Posted 20 October 2014 - 07:28 PM

A writer can direct their own film.  In my own experience with my own short films I noticed that as a writer, I might like a performance because I "get" the humor and the tone and what not.  So I'll direct an actor and ask for this or that and I'll really like it, but the audience may not "get" it because they didn't write it. 

 

So what I'm saying is, when you're the writer, sometimes you may want to get variations of the performances from big to small, light to dark.  etc.  Just to give yourself options in the cutting room.  I mean with tone and performance.  So that you don't box yourself in.  Cause it's easier to do that with material that's your own because you know exactly what you meant when you wrote it so you're translation of that can often fall short or be way too personal and film needs to be, at some level universal so various audience members understand it.

 

At the very least, I'd recommend involving an editor so that a second pair of eyes is on it and this way, you don't wind up failing to communicate an idea, joke or whatever clearly.  An outside editor will catch that because they didn't write it and they won't know what you meant if it isn't objectively coming across.  Kind of important.  Or test the film with an audience and use Q&A forms.


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#10 Carl Looper

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Posted 22 October 2014 - 04:19 PM

Writing for film differs considerably from writing for things like books.

 

The industrial model for film writers has been quite horrible. And probably still is. As a filmmaker and a writer (more the latter these days) I avoid the industrial model like the plague. There is no real reason a writer can't steer a film, other than the historical internia against such.

 

The fetish for screenplays written in Courier or equivalent (the heavens would collapse if it were otherwise) according to a format adopted a thousand years ago where little more than dialogue graces the pages, and only minimal references to anything cinematic occupy the text, is absolutely appalling. It has it's origins in efficiency concerns. The script is understood as for the actors, and the actors are uderstood as able to do a better job, and more cheaply, if they have no idea what the film is about other than the lines they need to learn. And their particular role will have their character name CAPITALISED so they can can more easily find their lines when leafing through the script.

 

Its a mindless approach to writing but it is very efficient. And it makes sense for a certain kind of filmmaking.

 

The problem is that writing predates the cinema and is associated with aspects of a film that are not intrinsically cinematic. There will be others involved in steering the cinematic aspects. The writing is treated as if it were something to be transformed into a film - and the less the writing concerns itself with that, the more the cinematic aspects are considered easier to achieve.

 

But while this might have been the case in early cinema it's hardly the case now. There is no reason a writer can't also be a filmmaker and write accordingly - to write what will become the film. To express the  specific nature and quality of each aspect of a film. In words. Words that steer the film as precisely as any other method (storyboards etc), might do.

 

It ultimately depends on who you are working with and the extent to which they are willing to participate in the way you might otherwise prepare a film through writing. Using the industrial model makes it easier to interface with anyone so trained in such a model. But also easier to make a work of no merit whatsoever.

 

C


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#11 George Ebersole

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Posted 23 October 2014 - 09:30 AM

 

Can a writer, or any person who has absolutely zero knowledge of the technicalities of the camera make a feature film?

 

If you can coax or hire the technical people you need, and have the resources for equipment, and have taste and talent both, then you can.  And by that I mean something that looks good.

 

Otherwise you can direct your own film, but your results may vary.  I would suggest that the best film makers have active knowledge of both the writing and technical aspects of production.


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#12 Rakesh Malik

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Posted 23 October 2014 - 01:20 PM

I've worked with two directors who had very little technical knowledge and experience, and we've gotten good films out of them. The trick is to avoid the gen-y's hero worship attitude... which is that directors make movies. The reality is that they don't. They get their team together, and that team is who makes the movie.

 

What varies is how the director participates in the team effort. I always try to minimize distractions for the director, which includes not asking the director to work with the gear on set. Tthe directors I work with crew on other projects that they're not directing, but when they're directing, I want them to be able to concentrate on the actors + storytelling. We work together to block out scenes and design shots and lighting, which means that I discuss options and show them ideas until we're both satisfied with the shot design.

 

To direct, you need to learn a lot about visual storytelling, story structure, and acting. You also have to know how to determine whether or not you can collaborate effectively with the DP + crew that you select, as well as the cast. You don't really need to know specifics about lenses like which focal length corresponds to a 50mm lens when mounted on a Super 16 sensor, but understanding how you can use a long lens to alter the shot's perspective and how the viewing angle affects the way that the scene reads would be very beneficial for working with your DP to design the film's look, shot to shot.

 

To direct well, you should learn about the process of how to make a film, as much as you can. Even more important than classes on film making are classes on film analysis, IMO. 

 

Learning about visual storytelling will also help you plan shots that will edit together smoothly, and also make it easier for you to work with your editor in post.

 

Writers CAN direct, but there's a lot to learn if you want to direct well.


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#13 Justin Hayward

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Posted 23 October 2014 - 09:50 PM

I like what Quentin Tarantino said about first time directing in a recent interview.  I don't have the quotes, but when he talked about "Reservoir Dogs," he said even though the entire crew had more experience than he did, no one there could have directed it better because no one knew the material as well as he did... not only because he wrote it, but because he poured over it.

 

He also talked about how he had limited technical understanding, but he always had specific shots in mind.  He said if you really want to learn what a director does, watch any Sergio Leone movie.  You can see the directing in a Sergio Leone movie.  You don't have to direct like Sergio Leone directs, but at least you can see what a director does.


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#14 Sabyasachi Patra

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Posted 25 October 2014 - 09:14 AM

Two of the write directors whom I adore are Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa. Incidentally both of them drew their own story boards. They knew what they wanted in their films. Clippings of films can also help convey. However, I would prefer a director who can internalise the classics and create his own vision and then convey to me rather than show me a potpourri of clippings as at times those clippings can come across as very disjointed or incoherent. I guess it depends on your preparation. 


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