Being the writer and the director on a project it seems that you both create the story and then bring it to life. What are the biggest struggles in doing this? And how much liberty do you allow an actor to take with the lines?
For readers who don’t know, I just finished directing an indie movie that will hopefully see the light of day in 2007. (I’ve been chastened against continuing to call it a tiny movie, because it’s not about an albino’s friendship with a cricket, or somesuch. The producers would like me to stress that it actually does have commercial prospects, even if not measured on a blockbuster scale.)
For me, the biggest challenge in being a writer/director is that I really wasn’t a writer while I was on set. I was 100% director, figuring out how to get the scene to work, how to get the performances right, how to get in four more setups before lunch. On other films, when I’ve been “just” the writer on set, I’d often notice things that the director might overlook — small inconsistencies or subtle changes that could screw things up four scenes later.
But here, there was no writer. There was just me. And I was too busy directing the scene to step out and think about the bigger picture.
To some degree, I’d anticipated this going in, so I tried to compensate. “John’s Big Notebook” was a fat three-ring binder that held not only the script and the storyboards, but also my notes on every scene — sort of a last chance for the writer to tell the director what to pay attention to. (In truth, I ran out of time in prep, so the scene notes stopped after the first act.)
During production, I got up at five every morning to write the day’s shot list, which is basically a crib sheet for what shots I thought I would need to shoot in order to complete a given scene. That was usually my last chance to really study the scripted scene and figure out what was important.
I also relied on others. The script supervisor would point out if I was omitting a scripted action, and my producers were nearby to offer assistance.
But at times, the writer resurfaced. One night while watching dailies, I realized something new about one of the characters. So I rewrote a scene for the next day. After two solid weeks of strictly directing, it was oddly exhilarating to remember that I am in fact a writer. Directing is just my day job.
In terms of leeway with the dialogue, I was always willing to let the actors say something better. Often, it wasn’t better, so after a take or two, I’d nudge them back onto the text. (This is also the script supervisor’s domain.) I don’t think I was being particularly writer-ly in getting actors to stick to the script. John August, director, knew what he wanted. Most actors, these actors, respond well to thoughtful requests.
One section of the movie has a combination of scripted and unscripted scenes, which ended up being my favorite thing to shoot. The luxury of having gifted actors and a lot of videotape is that they could simply start having a conversation in character, and seamlessly work in all of the scripted material. One scene had an 18-minute continuous take.
To me, this section was the best synthesis of writing and directing. While I was listening, I had to keep thinking how to steer the scene in an interesting direction. It was a screenwriter’s dream: My characters were alive in front of me, looking for something to talk about.