Sunday, September 18, 2005
On Making A Film

You begin with a whole, coherent vision in your mind, a finished film that only you can see. Much of it is instinctive, with no rational thought behind the "shots" your creative mind has chosen with no real logic or reason; why you choose one angle over the infinite possible alternate angles is a mystery; why you see it dominated by certain colors, or accompanied by certain sounds, or with a certain person (who may or may not exist in reality) in a role is arbitrary, and yet intensely personal. The film that first forms in your mind is one that could never be imagined by anyone else, and will never be seen by anyone else. It's the ultimate in personal cinema.

If, from there, you move on with the idea of transforming that internal image into an external reality, you find yourself forced to dissect your vision in an aggressive and deeply practical way. This translation of irrational into rational thought is one of the great leaps in filmmaking, in which the fundamental nature of the creation is altered. The images you see in your mind have to be translated into film language, sequences worked out and detailed, gaps filled in, and all of it realigned with the concrete reality of the physical world. The composition you see in your mind may not be possible with any lens known to man, much less one you can afford to rent. The idealized actor you see in the lead role has to be abandoned, and you find someone who captures some of the same qualities -- or maybe someone completely different, who appeals to you for some other reason. The details of the location you see in your mind, if they don't exist anywhere in your real world, give way to different details from a location that does exist. The whole vision begins to shift and adjust.

And then you break your vision into chunks, shots of a size and structure that meet the demands of production. You stop seeing your film as a whole, and begin to see it in pieces; each piece becomes a tiny film in itself, and the larger vision becomes harder to grasp. You put your faith in your rational mind, trusting yourself to have been thinking clearly enough at some point that your plans still hold your original vision somewhere within them. You move through production, watching as new pieces of the real world and of other people's minds and visions work their way in, trying to meet reality halfway, trying to find the best possible union of outside influence and willful creation. Or sometimes you just try to get through it alive.

After all that, when the struggle between what could be and what is ends, you start reconciling yourself to whatever it is that you've ended up with. Some of it's good -- some of it's unexpectedly good -- and some of it isn't. The first look at fresh footage is resignedly satisfied at best, and agonizing at worst; nobody ever looked at new rushes and saw their beautiful vision delivered perfect and whole on the screen. Often, if you're lucky, you don't even really remember what that vision was -- you're so overtaken by the interaction with imperfect life that what you saw through your viewfinder has completely replaced what you saw in your mind, even if vestiges of the original remain. Probably a few traces of that vision appear on your screen as well, along with lots of things you didn't have time to notice while you were shooting.

So you learn to redefine your original love for your vision as your new love for your actual footage. The process you undertook when you started to plan your film now begins to reverse -- you watch long shots and begin to break them into movements, gestures, phrases, expressions, and beats, and you begin to recombine them and rejoin them into entirely new sequences. You find little bits of amazement in unlikely places: an actor's posture during a moment when they weren't acting; an intake of breath and an instant of hesitation right before they flub a line; a pan you screwed up, leaving a shot unusable for its original purpose, but which serendipitously provides a perfect moment for another, unrelated sequence. Some of your plans go to hell, but some of your mistakes are beautiful. You give up control and start to let the film make itself -- just like you did in the first place, but now in a form that you can hold in your hands.

Eventually your sequences join themselves up into scenes; your scenes grow together to make a whole, cohesive film. It looks nothing like anything you've seen before, although if you've done well there are still echoes of your first vision present, even if nobody else can see them for what they are. But it also contains contributions from other people, from your immediate surroundings, and from blind chance. You've swung from total receptivity to hard pragmatism to gentle control; you've travelled from wholeness to fragmentation and back to wholeness again. It involved art and craft and technical skill and intellect; some of the work was mental, and some of it was physical. Some of it was just dumb luck.

It's the best fucking thing in the world.
11:02 PM ::
Amy :: permalink