Most writers have day jobs, which feed into their writing. Every Friday I’ll be asking a writer what unexpected lessons their day job has taught them about the craft.
This week, I asked friend and fellow USC alumnus Phil Hughes, a director, writer, and storyboard artist, what directing feature films has taught him about writing.
As an award-winning director with his MFA in TV & Film Production from the University of Southern California, Phillip has had his work screened on four of the seven continents of the world. He is also a commercial storyboard artist and illustrator whose work can be found in such places as the book "The Children of Eldritch Lane". He is currently working on a new novel, "Summer's Snow". You can find more about his latest film, Merry Maids of Madness, at www.merrymaidsofmadness.com
Lesson #1 : Whose Scene Is It Anyway?
When it comes to creating a shot list, especially, when you don’t have unlimited resources and time, a director must have a game plan. They have to figure out how to capture a scene that doesn’t involve getting the full range of coverage for every actor. If that’s the case, you need to know the scene backwards and forwards so you get everything that is "essential" to telling that story. One of the first and most important ways to do this is know whose scene it is. Who is driving the scene? What do they want and how are they going to get it? The more you’re absolutely clear who the scene is about, the more crystalline the drama/action/comedy can become. It’s the cornerstone of most of the dramatic choices one makes.
Lesson #2 : What The Heck Is the Scene Doing?
When under pressure on a shoot, one would be amazed at how many times you look at a scene and realize that you simply don’t need it. So, at the writing stage, I always make sure that every scene has one important purpose at minimum, but really should be doing two or three things simultaneously. If there’s only one piece of utility in a scene, try combining it with another scene and one may be amazed at the results and wonderful density of the story. If you can’t truly validate its existence, it’s a waste of time and money on a shoot (or in a print run).
Lesson #3 : Give Your Characters Something to Do
Two characters sitting and having a chat—now this can potentially be the best scene in a script that deals with the subtextual battle of wills between two people using their pleasant words as weapons. That being said, more often than not it can be a little boring—a little boring to read, boring to shoot, and boring to act. Actors love business; they love having something to do while in a scene and often if they have a task to focus on, scenes can take on a higher level of naturalness that’s engaging to watch. There’s a reason why everyone walks briskly through dynamic halls while talking public policy on The West Wing. It’s the candy coating on the exposition pill. Plus, having characters performing an interesting task and interacting with their environment gives you a whole other set of tools to explore theme and symbolism.
Lesson #4: Do Not Underestimate the Power of Silence
As writers, we have a tendency to make sure people “get it.” The primary example of this would be all of those unnecessary lines of dialogue that clog up one’s script, but we are so sure are absolutely essential to the story. I can tell you, an actor worth their salt who are playing a well-defined character (written so well by you!) can create so much juice with just a look, an action, or even a wardrobe choice. If you truly know your characters to the bone, trust in them (and the reader) to be able to feel the story as opposed to simply tell it.
Lesson #5: Find the Fulcrum
When I’m doing my directing homework, one of the key things I look for in a scene is the fulcrum, that pivotal moment where the scene is decided. It’s the place where we find out if the person who the scene is about is going to get what they want or if they’ll be blocked and must look for a plan B. If you’re only given one close up for a scene, this is where you use it. It’s your mini-climax for the scene and if your scene doesn’t have one, then it may not be living up to its full potential. It may sound obvious, but I’m surprised by how many scenes I’ve worked with that I had no fulcrum and how much harder it can make shooting a scene effectively.
Thanks to Phil for this week's post! Any valuable lessons you've learned from your day job? Do share!