I've learnt a lot producing the Huma Error series of shorts and I think I should write about my experiences if for no other reason than I have a terrible memory and I'll probably forget all I've learnt if I don't write it down! :)
First of all - I had no intention of being a producer, but no-one else was going to produce my films so I was left with little choice. Actually, I didn't even realise I was acting as a producer until someone told me that's what I had been doing.
When I was at film school, I attended, or was a teacher's assistant for, almost every film class on offer - the only ones I had no interest in were producing classes. 'That's got nothing to do with art!' I thought.
Almost 20 years later I understand this was one of my biggest mistakes. (Unless the producing classes happened to suck, but they probably didn't.)
With the Huma Error films, initially I had the attitude of 'Why do I need a producer? I can waste the money myself!'. This was largely due to my exposure to some inexperienced producers who made some astonishing decisions. (It seems I had forgotten about all the highly experienced producers I had also worked for.)
Producers don't just spend money. And they don't just organise things. They must take responsibility for the whole production. This means when something goes wrong - it is the producer who should answer for this. It is always the case that problems could have been avoided, and it is always the case that it's the producer's job to make sure they are avoided. This means preparation of course, but not just making sure that things and people are available at the right time and place: it also means knowing who and what you are involving in the production. How many times can something be used? Why might some equipment fail? How much experience do your crew members have and will they need some help? How much can you expect of your cast - each person has different requirements.
In short - what I have learnt is that producing is all about responsibility and accountability. I don't have kids, but I assume that I am also describing the role of a parent.
So what's a bad producer? Well, I would say one that blames others for the production's failings.
OK. I guess I should share my directing experiences, too:
You have a lizard, an elephant, a chicken and a dog, a few snails and a monkey. Your job is to get them all from point A to point B, making sure that they all cross the finish line at the same time.
That's largely what directing turns out to be.
Communication can be amazingly tricky. My scripts are often analogous, surreal and absurd in their humour and commentary. This means that my cast can't take things for granted - it is vital I make it clear to them how I wish the lines to be delivered. I'm an englishman living in Norway and I make my films with an entirely Norwegian cast and crew. Although they all speak english, there are often phrases in my scripts or in my direction that are not easily translated. This adds an extra layer of possible confusion when directing. For sure the actors prefer simple instruction (eg: you are defending or attacking another character) but you will need a string of these instructions to build the scene - and before you know it things can become quite abstract to the point that you find yourself wondering if you're even making sense anymore, let alone following your own script. And then, just when you think you have it sorted out, they have all these questions. It really is hard, brain melting work. When it comes to the actual shooting of a take, my brain finally gets a break. All the hard work for me is before the take, as I attempt to communicate what I want. When the take happens, each moment, be it a line of dialogue or an action, is like a checklist in my mind. As I watch the performance I find myself going down this mental list, ticking of boxes as the actors hit things correctly or not. And then it's onto the next take and the struggle begins again.
You come to trust and frankly love your cast. Well - perhaps I have been lucky in that respect. But there they are, making your vision a reality. And I find myself overcome with the sensation that I can't let these people down. Here they all are working for me. So even if I start to think 'Oh fuck this isn't working, I can't do this' and lose motivation - their very presence and effort makes me realise I have to try harder. I might be leading the team but that doesn't mean I'm not part of the team.
And of course after the shoot you understand that some people are happier than others, and however hard it might be, you have to listen and learn from them to make it better next time. And that will never stop. There will always be something you can do better.
I also write and edit my own films. I consider writing and editing to be the head and the tail of the same animal. Editing is like a second chance at life. It's an amazing thing, and also a maze one can get lost in. I tend to edit a first cut quite quickly, within a week. But I will then fine tune it for another 3 weeks. Just when I think I'm going mad - literally losing my mind - actually, a little after that (!) I am usually done with the edit. It's when you realise that you've spent 48 hours fucking around with taking a few frames off of this shot and adding a few frames to that shot and then realising that no human being could possibly notice the difference that you are probably done with the thing. :)
As for writing.. when directing and producing your own work, with all the constraints that a no budget production has, writing becomes a fluid thing. On set it can become apparent that you simply don't have time to film what you planned, and some spontaneous improvisation to the script - combining two or more scenes into one, dropping other scenes completely - is the only solution. Very often I find that such restrictions, decisions made with no time to think - are often brilliant changes that had I had more time to think about I probably would never had reached.
The only other thing I can say about writing is one of Kurt Vonnegut's rules for storytelling: Start as close to the end as possible.
More on acting:
OK, first off: Don't do it. I mean, don't try and do it yourself. It's tempting to do it as you know how you want the lines to be delivered so you imagine that it will be easier as it's one less person to try and explain things to. But in reality it's a nightmare for three reasons:
1) It is absolutely impossible to flick a mental switch and suddenly cease being a director and start being an actor: you are not focussed at all. It's like driving a car with a steering wheel that doesn't work properly. Stupid. Perhaps if you have the budget and time to be able to break for an hour and get prepared this can work, but on a no budget film, you cannot afford that - you can have maybe 30 seconds.
2) You are now in the scene, so you cannot see what's going on. You cannot direct. Who's driving the boat? No-one. Again: it's stupid. And of course you cannot see yourself. Possibly you could watch playback on the monitor - but again - on a no-budget film: ain't nobody got time for that shit!
3) You can't act. No, really, you can't. It's a great way to insult your actors. Here are these people, most of whom have spent years at school learning their craft, and you decide 'Ooh this is easy, I can walk in and say some lines.' Erm... No, you can't. It's disrespectful and frankly embarrassing.
So, yeah. It generally seems like a good idea to leave the camerawork to the D.P. - so why not leave the acting to the actors?
When it comes to directing actors - there's a big difference between directing an actor in close up, or alone in the frame, to directing a group of actors in a wide shot. In the close up, it's usually only single moments you're looking for: you're most likely going to cut in to close up rather than linger one it. But in a wide shot - some may perform perfectly on the first take, and others might get better and better as the takes progress. This is something I'm in the middle of learning about. It's also painfully obvious if, even for a tiny moment, an actor isn't sure what they are doing - something you can easily miss when filming as there's so much to concentrate on - but when you look at the footage in the edit suite (or that spare room with the washing machine in) is painfully obvious. It's not their fault - they are trying their best to do what you have failed to explain.
Rehearsals are of course imperative. We try to rehearse every scene several times in the week or so before the shoot. Co-ordinating everyone is usually quite tricky, so we're talking about 3 hours for a couple of evenings. It is totally impossible to attempt to shoot a scene without this, and frankly, 6 hours of rehearsing isn't enough at all. I would love to to do it every evening for a week before the shoot - but these people have this thing called a life - which usually involves these other things called kids and a job. So you take what you can. But starting from a read through to a fairly good performance of the scene where everyone understands why they are saying their lines takes about 5 or 6 shots at it. Although, inevitably, when the shoot comes, the odd thing gets forgotten.
Storyboarding, or at least overhead plans of where the actors and camera should be, are much easier when you have a general idea of where the actors will geographically start and end in the scene - but this too is a fluid thing - as when on actual location, there are certain physical practicalities that scupper your plans. But it's much easier to improvise on an existing plan that to just fly by the seat of your pants.
Location and camera are something that become tied together in creating the image. Although we became familiar with our location through the multiple shoots, we were never really supposed to be in there - and were effectively snuck in to the office on weekends by a friend who worked there. This meant that rehearsals took place in a completely different place and although I had a good idea of the location, I was always surprised when we returned that something was bigger or smaller than I remembered. (Also, the office was in constant use, and things moved around). I'm presently editing the fourth film (at least I should be - but I'm avoided the mind numbing task of syncing my audio by writing this!) and I can say I am officially bored of that location. I think the next film will be set in outer space. (That's not a joke.). With the minimal lights we had at our disposal (2 softboxes - very easy and fast to set up and mimicked the typical flat lighting of the office), interesting camera angles were all I had to play around with to make the office more interesing to look at. I personally have a dislike for handheld camera work, and I'm not terribly keen on steady cam either unless it's well thought through. In addition, if the camera isn't moving, it makes everything much quicker and easier to block out. It is total nonsense that handheld camerawork is faster (unless you want it look like total shit - which it seems many people are happy to do).
The main thing that makes these films look half decent, apart from good lenses and a brilliantly skilled cameraman, is costumes and make-up. We didn't have our cameraman on the first couple of films, half of which I shot myself - and as much I said you should avoid acting while directing - you should certainly avoid shooting while acting! It's just a great way to drive everyone crazy. OK - Costumes and make up: I am lucky enough to have a brilliant costume designer. Lesson one when dealing with brilliant people: leave them alone to do their magic. Do not, under any circumstances, even offer an opinion. They have it under control. Of course you tell them basic things like 'For this scene everyone should have monochromatic clothing as the when she picks up the drill it's got to be this bright colourful cartoony thing' ..... or ... 'she's got to look totally bonkers'.... but then stand the fuck back and be amazed as your actors walk out on set looking amazing, and you stand there thinking 'I don't remember casting all these supermodels..'
Actors are amazing. Without them you're nuthin'... just a lunatic with some silly stuff written down. They are everything. Remember to treat them like that. This is something else I'm learning. I hope I'm ok at it and I hope I manage to get better at it.
Storytelling is something that doesn't actually happen on the printed pages of the script. That's just a description of the story. The storytelling happens somewhere between the screen and your mind, and is combination of sound and image. A couple of things I've learnt with these surreal films are:
- If you're introducing something unusual (like 'selling the toilet') - you have to repeat it a few times. The first time an audience hears something they don't understand, they simply ignore it. The second time they hear it they might register it. By the third time, everyone understands that the characters really are talking about something rather odd. In screenings of the film, I have noticed that it is after the third delivery of the line that all the audience start laughing, often repeating the line outloud themselves.
Another way of phrasing that is: Tell them what you're going to say. Then tell it to them. Then tell them what you've just said.
- likewise, you can't throw in too much weird stuff. Surrealism is like salt: a little bit goes a long way. Just one thing is all you need - more than that and you confuse people, and as a result you lose them. This is bad.
- The Huma Error films are combination of the real and the surreal, and in regards to storytelling I have noticed a simple rule: Skip the audience through the easy stuff, and walk them through the hard stuff. By this I mean that when you're in familiar territory (things that are 'real') you can take jumps in the narrative and everyone will understand, but when it comes to the weird stuff, slow down otherwise you lose them. The effect is that the film appears to be told at the same pace.
- OK, it's going to sound like I'm contradicting myself, but once you've established that even pace, you then need to ramp it up, so that the story accelerates. This is achieved through the editing, the style, the colours and the music.
Oh yeah the music.
Music is... awesome. I myself am musically talentless (Someone once misheard me saying that and asked 'Really? What do you play?' which is one of the funniest things I have ever heard.) ... anyhow.. I can't tell a C from a G or whatever and don't ask me to keep time. So musicians in general amaze me. But when people make music for your films it's a very special thing. It's like cement between bricks. It holds the whole thing together and allows you to build higher and higher. That thing about accelerating the storytelling? You'll need music for that.
I've been very lucky to work with 2 superb musicians on these films. Much like the rest of the people involved in the productions. There is no question that I have been very lucky indeed.
And now I shall return to my edit, and try to do justice to everyone's talent and effort. No pressure....