29 July 2014

Making Movies

I'm making a movie. No, that doesn't mean I've relocated to Hollywood. I'm making a short, no budget movie here in Auckland City, New Zealand. Short means 5-10 minutes, no budget means just that. Nada. The movie is a mystery story being shot on digital video, and its destination, once completed, will be a film festival or two (one day, it'll eventually wind up on YouTube -- the final resting place of all things video).

A moment for some history: When I was a kid, I lived and breathed movies and wanted to be a movie director. My father had a Super 8 mm camera, and I shot a bunch of short movies with high school friends. My first production had drama, romance, humor, skateboards, a car chase, clowns, and a gun. The one thing it didn't have was a plot. My desire to be a director evolved into the desire to be a screenwriter, and for over a decade I practiced and taught myself the art of screenwriting.

I'm often asked where I learnt how to write; well, it was there, in the pages between countless FADE INs and FADE OUTs of countless screenplays. Screenwriting taught me structure, plotting and pacing, the economy of language, and how to write dialogue.

The movie I'm making is called The Sandcastle. The story started in my head with a basic plot outline and three characters: two women and a man. I could easily have typed out the story as prose and submitted it to either the Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines. There's mystery, there's a crime, there's a twist ending. Had I done, it would have become a different story to the one that'll wind up on the screen. When you write a short story, the characters don't usually come to life and start writing their own parts.

The movie was put together very quickly. And when I cast it, the script was no more than notes, emails, and a Google Doc of motivation and backstory. The principal characters didn't have names and were known simply as Woman 1 and Woman 2. By mutual agreement with the two actresses playing the parts, the characters became Olivia and Rose. The characters now had names, they had become real people, and they had input on how and why their characters were going to do the things they needed to do in order to satisfy the plot I had sketched out.
Olivia (Yisela Alvarez Trentini)
Film making is collaborative story telling. That's part of the fun of it. Even when I start out with a completed screenplay, actors quickly get into their roles and tease out their character's nuances and motivations. They bring a fresh mind to the story, and they'll suggest things I hadn't even thought of. That kind of input just doesn't happen when writing alone, when writing fiction for the page. Part of my job as the movie's director is to facilitate this, and to keep it on track.

Imagine when you write a short story or book, that you could go to lunch with your characters and discuss their parts, their motivation, arc, etc., that they come to life and help you build the story. I'm not advocating working with a collaborator (I don't think I could write a short story or book with anyone else), but the change is refreshing. It's invigorating. It's why I've lately come back to making the occasional movie. Besides, it's fun to go outside, hang out with cool people, and tell a story in a completely different medium. Sitting alone at a desk day after day can, frankly, get tedious.
Rose (Kathleen Azevedo)
So, do I subscribe to the auteur theory of movie direction? No, I don't. And I get annoyed when I see "A Film by..." in the opening or closing credits.

The "auteur theory" arose in France in the mid 1950s. A group of movie critics, mostly connected to Cahiers du Cinéma, proposed that the director was the "author" of his/her movie -- that the director's personal style and artistic vision WAS the movie. The thinking went something like this: Picasso IS the voice of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Shakespeare IS the voice of Hamlet, Bach IS the voice of the Brandenburg Concertos... therefore, the director IS the voice of his/her motion picture. They didn't apply this theory to every director of the era, but certainly to the more notable ones like Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was their poster boy.

But, is Hitchcock really the "author" of Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, or North by Northwest, or any of his other movies? What about the input of Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the music for all those movies (yes, The Birds has no music, but Herrmann created the eerie electronic "bird" score). What about the input of the screenwriters, cinematographers, art directors, and actors who worked on those pictures? When I remember North by Northwest, I remember James Mason and Martin Landau quietly stealing the movie from Cary Grant. When I remember Vertigo, I remember Kim Novak in that green dress. When I remember The Birds, I remember Suzanne Pleshette's quiet despair, delivering lines written by Evan Hunter (AKA Ed McBain). Sure, Hitchcock directed all of them, but he was more the ring master of a creative circus than a sole individual alone with an empty canvas, a blank piece of paper, or a sheet of manuscript paper. An "auteur"? I don't think so.

That many of the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma went on to become directors themselves supports my theory that what really motivated them was elevating the artistic standing of the movie director in the arts community. Cahiers du Cinéma was based in Paris, after all. Revenons à nos moutons...

The Sandcastle
Making movies at the no-budget level (an actor's salary is lunch and a cup of coffee) means a lot is left to chance and serendipity. You really only have one or two chances at getting a scene right, and when you leave the house in the morning with the camera and the tripod, you hope for the best. But this can also be the best thing about making movies, and it's something that simply can't happen when you're alone with your word processor. It's the unrepeatable moments -- the moments you capture magic. You suddenly find you've put the camera in the right place, the actors are perfect in their performances, and even the weather is behaving. Everything is just right and is even better than you'd imagined. Later, when you review the day's footage, you see these shots and you think, Damn! That was good! A well written sentence really doesn't have the same effect.

There's a way to go before The Sandcastle is completed. There are a few things yet to be filmed and I've only just begun the editing process. And yes, I will be sharing the screenwriting credit.

Be seeing you!


  1. SANDCASTLE is exciting news, and I'm looking forward to it. Coincidentally, on a much smaller level, I awoke this morning thinking of a book trailer to film for my CORPSE UNDER THE CHRISTMAS TREE Callie book, which was released last December, too late for much promotion.

    Also on my agenda is an Author Page on Facebook, which my computer-savy friend Rick has suggested and offered to post for me. I visited yours and liked it.

    Years ago when I taught fifth grade, I had my class make a movie each year for a competition. We always won, and now, many years later, when I encounter my former students, they always mention the movies we made. It was a great way to teach many subjects that they didn't even realize were lessons.

    Looking forward to more about the movie as it progresses, and I love the fact that the characters were named with input from the performers after they were chosen.

  2. looking forward to seeing it. You know, in several of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels someone will refer to The Birds having been written by Hitchcock, and one of the cops will reply "I don't think he wrote it."

  3. Great column, Stephen. Writing AND movies, who wouldn't love that subject? Looking forward to seeing Sandcastle.

    An agent named Larry Sternig, one of the few who represented short story authors, helped me to sell a number of shorts before his death in 1999. Larry once told me that he had talked Robert Bloch into writing Psycho, which I believe began as a short story and then was lengthened into a novel (though I could be wrong about that). And I remember how pleased I was when I first learned that Ed McBain/Evan Hunter had written the screenplay for The BIrds. Author or not, Hitchcock was a master--I love almost every one of his movies.

  4. Love this - and I am going to check out the links. I wish you lived closer - I live in an old school with a boiler room and a bomb shelter that cry out for movie-making...

  5. Fran, I thoroughly recommend a Facebook author page. It creates a nice division between the writing and the personal.

    I'll report back on the movie in a future post!

  6. Rob, I didn't know that, but I love it! :-)

  7. Thanks, John.

    I love Hitchcock's movies. My favorite is probably The 39 Steps (I even have an app on my phone that plays the whole movie), followed by Strangers on a Train. I also have a habit (3 years running now) of watching North by Northwest every New Year's eve.

  8. Thanks, Eve. My film crew/cast will drop by on Saturday :-) It sounds great!

  9. That's exciting, Stephen. And I agree with your conclusions. I recall a debate whether films and operas could be identified with single artists and if not, were they truly works of art? (We know how that discussion turned out!)

    I learned a lot in the comments, too.

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. Leigh, it is exciting!

    Thomas, I think you need to go back to school and learn how to write proper sentences, and then write them someplace else -- maybe a place where spam is appreciated...? I think it's in the 4th circle.

  12. Note: The deleted comment above was advertising junk mail that slipped through the spam filters.

  13. I agree with your crediting conclusions. As such, if ever I finish the publishing process, (sigh) I now plan to include a photo of my editor on the inside cover with chisel in hand.
    The idea of movie making and screen writing excites me. At my age, I'd like to know a fast track to become proficient in both areas. (Said tongue in cheek)

    My small island of Amelia produced an oscar winner for short film, Luke Matheny. God of Love I think is the title if memory served.

    I'm off to visit both your sites in anticipation.

  14. C.S., if your town is like my town, there will be many groups of people making movies, and movie makers are always looking for writers to write their scripts!


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