Often when filmmakers watch films there’s a tendency to start… well, let’s call it ‘borrowing’ or ‘paying homage’ to be kind. Personally, I feel that there’s something of a trap by going this way, and I would always encourage people to disagree with me, but allow me to explain: if we’re all watching movies to find elements that we’re going to put into our own movies, then what we’re doing is sampling and recycling.
Now that’s fine to some degree, everyone loves Tarantino after all, and hey, even Kurosawa was being influenced by John Ford when he made his samurai films (which then ended up influencing Sergio Leone’s westerns, which most recently have fed back into Tarantino), so there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
But I do like it when these lessons are kept as broad as possible: less about the specifics of what we’re watching, and more about the wider ramifications that these imply. Sure, this is a list primarily for other people interested in practical filmmaking, but by keeping things as broad as possible there’s hopefully a few points of interest for people who are planning on not making anything.
Anyway, to give you an example of the kind of lessons I’m talking about here are 10 filmmaking tips from a film I first saw back in… 1988 or ‘89? It’s a film that I still enjoy to this day (if that’s the right word), quote on an almost daily basis, and make sure I watch about once every year. I chose Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) but I could have chosen any film.
1. Supporting Characters
“Want to see something?”
“Wait. I just typed, “You want to see something?” What?”
Supporting characters can really bring a film to life. They can introduce world-view elements from an entirely different perspective, and make the whole film richer as a result. Too often you see supporting characters that just serve as information booths for the hero, and don’t have their own world going on. Almost as though they were simply sitting around and waiting for the hero to visit them so they can tell them something.
As the story goes, at the end of filming Taxi Driver Paul Schrader thanked Albert Brooks for showing him who Tom was. He said that in the script he never really knew who Tom was or what he was about. Albert Brooks being Albert Brooks makes a joke of this (Apparently saying to Schrader: “That’s the guy you didn’t know? You knew every pimp and murderer, but the guy who gets up and goes to work every day; him you didn’t know!?”).
But it would have been a shame to see Taxi Driver without the warmth and humour that Brooks brings to the film as Tom, let alone some of the other supporting characters. There are a multitude of incidental roles in this film in particular that add to the patina of the film, but to remove Tom would be to remove most people’s experience of life, and would have left the film as something much more difficult to relate to than it is.
And it’s already fairly difficult. Make your supporting characters real people, with their own lives and interests, no matter how small their role, and everything else will lift.
2. Stray from the point
“Fifteen thousand volunteers is not bad, but the organizational problems!”
“I know what you mean. I got the same problems. I gotta get organized. Little things like my apartment, possessions. I should get a sign : ‘One of these days I’m gonna get ‘organezized.”‘
“You mean organized?”
“‘Organezized.’ Organezized. It’s a joke. O-R-G-A-N-E-Z-l-Z-E-D.”
“Oh, you mean organezized like those office signs that say ‘Thimk’.”
When you’re writing a script you always have to have a point to each scene. That’s, like, a rule, or something. And as much as I enjoy breaking rules this is one that I adhere to. At the end of a scene everything should have moved forward a little, we should have learned something, or something should be closer to or further from completion. Basically, things can’t be the same as they were at the top of the scene.
But that isn’t to say that slavish adherence to this point *is* the point. Sometimes you need to stray, or *appear* to stray from the point.
Look at the lunch date scene between Travis and Betsy. Travis likes Betsy, he likes her a lot. Betsy is intrigued by Travis, but clearly doesn’t feel the same way he feels. A poor film would have Betsy sit there and just say how she’s feeling. Something like: ‘You know what? We’re just from two different worlds, and you’re a little bit freaky, so I don’t think this is going to work out.’ or, you know, something like that.
But instead their conversation deviates from what’s happening in the scene, and you have the hazy mismatch of the ‘organezized’ moment. A joke falls flat. And it wasn’t hugely funny anyway. And neither person is really listening to the other person, not in the way people do when dates are going well. And that’s all you need right now to understand that nothing is written in the stars for these two.
No one really struggles to attain a film where everyone in it talks about what they’re doing the whole time. It feels too ‘on the nose’. But stray from the point well enough and that is often where the point can be found.
3. Stay flexible
“Now back to Gene Krupa’s syncopated style shortly.”
I would never recommend that someone just wings an entire feature film. You need to have scripts and schedules and storyboards and all manner of things. But you wouldn’t find me saying that these should be adhered to all the time. Once you have the overall structure of a film in place it frees you up to start doing different things.
Everyone remembers the weird drumming guy in Taxi Driver. He has two lines, and does some drumming. He does not interact with any other characters. That guy was just a guy that Scorsese saw drumming one day. He doesn’t *need* to be in the film. He wasn’t in the original plan. But he adds to it immeasurably.
Remember the end of Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974). Remember how perfect it was, and how upsetting yet rewarding it was? Well that wasn’t the original ending in the script. In fact, that ending was added late in production by Roman Polanski. Robert Towne (the Screenwriter) hated it, and threatened to take his name of the whole thing.
Of course, he didn’t, and there are some people out there who think he should have maybe mentioned something about this when he picked up his Best Screenwriter award at the Oscars. The point here being, that wasn’t the plan, but it was great.
And, although I have nothing to prove this with, I’d imagine that the script for The Two Jakes (Jack Nicholson, 1990) stuck to its original plan with less deviation. You need to stay flexible, and ‘keep it frosty’, as they say, because the plan is not the film, the film needs magic, and it’s not easy to plan for magic.
4. Second unit
“Why? I’ll tell you why. I think you’re a lonely person. I drive by this place, I see you here. I see a lot of people around you… and I see all these phones and this stuff on your desk. That means nothing. “
When Travis first speaks to Betsy he explains why he’s there, and passes his hand over her desk. There’s a top down view of this, a visual motif from the film. You’ve seen this shot before, and you’ll see it again, most pointedly for the long, languid movement out of the brownstone at the end of the film (for which the roof of the building had to be removed, which is one more example of how far they went when making Taxi Driver).
Now, personally, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with second unit photography. Cutaways. Whatever you want to call it. Too often it’s done in a really tedious way, very staid and functional. Although, there’s an argument to be made that that’s the way pretty much everything is done. All the time. But I digress.
Too often there’s an energy and a rhythm running through a film that is entirely absent in second unit photography. Additionally, second unit work is often done with a different crew, in different locations, and the impact on me personally is that it’s clearly from a different time/space, I get pulled out of the film I’m watching and start wondering whose hands I’m looking at, and so on and so forth.
But the second unit in Taxi Driver is fantastic because it’s Second unit that actually adds to the film, giving it a stronger visual identity.
More films should do this kind of thing. Instead of just inserting time lapse footage of traffic, or skylines, or that kind of thing.
5. The importance of lying/withholding information
“Are you Charles Palantine, the candidate?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I’m a big supporter. I tell everyone who comes in this cab that they’ve gotta vote for you.”
“Why, thank you… Travis.”
Now, we know that Travis likes Betsy, and Betsy works for Palantine. But *does* Travis tell everyone who comes in his cab they have to vote for Palantine? We’ve seen a few customers, and this didn’t happen. Of course, we haven’t seen every single customer, so maybe this is true and it’s merely been omitted. Hard to say.
One thing’s for sure. The whole scene is a lot more interesting because of this lying/omission element. Here’s the thesis for this part: all films become more interesting whenever people start lying.
And check out the Senator’s staggered response as his eyes search out items on the dashboard before finally giving up the name of the driver to him. “Why thank you… [eyes scan driving licence, certification]… Travis.” Palantine doesn’t ask what his name is, he makes out likes he’s just an observant person who’s interested in people. And hey, maybe he is.
We sure don’t learn anything counter to this. But then, in this world where we can’t tell what’s a lie and what’s an omission, it’s hard to say how much we know about anything. And that just makes everything fascinating. The next time you’re writing dialogue for a character and something just isn’t working, try writing the opposite words and then put ‘lies’ in a wrylie and see what that does.