Thursday, June 29, 2006

Production Diary # 7: The House Between: Director Lessons

I've directed various and sundry no-budget productions before (with titles like Salvation's Eclipse [1998], Rock'n'Roll Vampires from Hell [1989], Slaves of the Succubus [1992], and Annie Hell [1999])), but nothing - NOTHING - could compare to the experience of prepping, shooting and "experiencing" The House Between, my independently-crafted TV show (which I am currently editing with Rick Coulter). I feel I learned more about movie-making/TV production on this shoot than all my previous efforts combined. It was an immersive and transformative experience for me. I hope that doesn't sound self-congratulatory or anything like that. I'm just saying that, above all else, and putting other considerations aside...I loved the journey.

And that's important to me, not just because I enjoy crafting origin
al material and taking it from script to screen, but because as a professional writer of many books about film and television, I've always felt it is important to understand the process and experience of moviemaking. That's what a lot of film and TV journalists don't get or don't understand (and which endlessly vexes me as a reader). For me to be a good reviewer, a smart and knowledgeable one, I think it's necessary that I've practiced the matter if it is on a no budget production or low budget one.

Someone once said to me at a convention that you can't give a movie or TV show an "A" for effort; that it doesn't work that way. But in some sense, I think perhaps it does. I guess what I'm saying is that I would prefer to sit in a theater and view an ambitious failure, something new and exciting and different (even if flawed...) rather than something mainstream and uninventive. Knowing and understanding and working through the difficul
ties of the filmmaking process from start to finish, I certainly hope I've garnered a vital perspective on how and why failures occur; on how important some shots can become; and why film and television straddle the worlds of art and business. A journalist who's never lifted a finger; never written a script; never acted; never held a camera...well, they're basing their reviews essentially on...what? Personal subjective opinion? Maybe? You tell me.

So anyway, today I thought I would chat just a little bit about some of the innumerable and valuable lessons I learned while crafting The House Between. I should note, these are pretty much my subjective feelings and thoughts alone. Others on the project boast their own uinque experiences; their own remembrances, and I respect all of them. These are just my feelings, pure and simple.

1.) Casting is vitally important. In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Scotty urged one of his co-workers to use "the right tool for the right job." I don't know if I ever understood before how important casting truly is; finding the "right person" for the "right job." But down to the last person (including our guest star), I felt that we had the right person for the right character each and every time. Despite all the Z-Grade stuff I've done over the years, I don't know that I've ever felt how tangible and vital good casting can be. In the past, I usually just cast my friends...and some were absolutely wonderful and some were...not. Here, everybody is - of course - a friend too, but each talent brought new layers to the characters I had crafted. People grew into their roles; people understood their roles; and if I may be so bold - I think some people fell in love with their characters too. I know I fell in love wit
h all of them. I loved that by the third day of the shoot, actors were commenting critically about the scripts; that their characters wouldn't act in a certain fashion at a certain juncture.

2.) Vision meets Reality and in the end comes compromise. After much delay, I learned that not every single shot is going to be the most beautiful, meaningful and artistic portrait in the world. Sometimes it can't be...for very dramatic physical reasons, especially if the parameters of your set won't permit it; or if you don't have a louma crane, or the like. A corollary to this is the following advice: don't shoot important scenes in the parlor. For some reason, our parlor location was just cursed. Every time we did a scene there, it turned into a disaster. Maybe it was the size of the room; perhaps it was that there was a mirror involved. Who knows...

3.)Trust the experts. I learned that there is no crime and no dishonor in stepping back and allowing for collaboration; permitting for the experts to do their jobs; to incorporate the creative originality of other talents. To give you a for instance: At first, I felt really guilty and lame that I was stepping back and letting a stunt coordinator (the exquisite Rob Floyd) block the fight scenes. I mean, I'm supposed to be an auteur, right? But then I realized, that's what a good director (or good captain) does. He must trust his people...he must solicit their input and more.

For the first time on a movie shoot, I actually had a resource like Rob at my disposal (both in terms of make-up/SPFX and stunts), and I would have been foolish and short-sighted not to unleash his creative genius. But instinctively and personally, that was tough for me at the start to understand...I felt guilty. And then, honestly, when I saw what Rob could do, I instantly felt overwhelming relief. It was one more thing I didn't have to handle myself. I could worry about the shots; about the script; about the characters; about the schedule; and trust in Rob to get the best out of the actors and the movements. The same was true with the lighting. It was just best to get out of the way and let my brilliant lighting directors do their job...because they understood things I didn't. How wonderful is that?! To have such resources at your disposal?

4.)Respect the process of the others. Everybody works in a different way, and again, this was something I learned and came to respect. Some actors preferred extensive preparation to get them "in the mood" for the scene; others just wanted to step in and do it without much discussion. Some preferred spontaneity; some wanted rehearsal after rehearsal. I feel that watching To
ny Mercer, Jim Blanton, Kim Breeding, Lee Hansen, and Alicia A. Wood, I came to understand the process of acting better than ever before. I also learned that for each actor, there was a different set of issues, a different set of insecurities and that as a director, it was my job to find the best way to communicate with each particular talent. I don't know if I always achieved that goal, but one of the best and most enjoyable things for me in directing this bunch was learning how to relate with each person and personality in a way that took into account their needs and work process. It was... quite simply ...wonderful.

5.)Be prepared, but being in the moment is actually more important. I had shot lists going in to The House Between, at least on "Arrived" and "Settled." But you know, there's that old adage about war, that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and I think it also holds for filmmaking. I knew what I wanted, but if I had been rigid about those shot lists, we would have missed some great opportunities. In particular, in the fifth episode, "Mirrored," everybody on the production began thinking outside of the routine, outside the letter of the script, and in terms of character and emotions. Suddenly, we were picking up on new things, shooting original material and taking it all in a new direction. It felt great. Shooting that episode, I think, was the best day of the whole shoot. At least for me.

6. Never stop moving. Because if you do, you'll realize how fricking tired you are, and how crazy the whole enterprise is, and how many obstacles you have in front of you, and why this whole damn thing is impossible. Like a shark, you've got to keep swimming. If you stop, insecurity will snap at your butt.

So that's my sermon for the day.


  1. Oh John... Are you ready for YOUR love-fest?

    This was my first experience with a film director (I've done theater and musical reviews before) and I have to wonder, is it the medium that makes it more intimate, or was it just John's way, or was it the fact that we were all literally trapped in this house together? Whatever the reason, this was the most wonderful experience I've ever had being told what to do all day. LOL

    John's style of directing was both encouraging and maddening. "That was perfect! That shot couldn't have been better if this was a million-dollar production. Now, do it again, but this time..." He was always ready with praise, though if we'd had time for him to get 40 different angles and close-ups of every line of dialog I think he would have made us do it. I can respect that (being slightly OCD myself!) and have every confidence that he will put together a beautiful cut of each scene. Thank the gods for Joe Maddrey and his Saturnian presence, forcing John to move on when he began to obsess. *smooch*

    I'm glad to read that John realized he could let go of certain things, and let us all do our jobs. The worst jobs I've ever had were under a micro-manager. I was utterly amazed by how talented and dedicated each member of this project was to their task, and relieved when I was allowed to voice my opinion, or counter John's, without getting into a battle of the wills. I think the group dynamic was magical, and no one felt like they were working for a tyrant. The only pressure I ever felt was from myself. Thank you for that, Mr. Muir. *hugs*

  2. I would just like to point out that #5 explains the day that I fell asleep three times on the parlor floor after setting the lighting and waiting for the next scene. The carpet was the only redeeming quality of that room.

  3. Bobby, the carpet was definitley a plus... the funny smell.. not so much.

    And John, if you are thinking that this venture will lead to us sitting down to "view an ambitious failure," I can say with confidence that I know you're wrong. This "something new and exciting and different (even if flawed...)" will be a masterpiece! everyone is well aware of that... (though our fingers are all crossed..)
    Everybody who's read your blogs or books or anything would know to expect much more than "something mainstream and uninventive."

    C'mon. We're talking about John Kenneth Muir, here!

  4. ”Casting is vitally important.”

    Yes… And this is something that I hope you’ve given yourself a ton of credit for, because it isn’t as if you made a series of obvious choices. One or two could be classified that way I suppose, but the others seem to have been based on an impressive mixture of insight and instinct.

    Warning: Love-fest continues.

    It was an incredible experience, making this thing. The people, the environment and the tone were incomparably positive. You chose the people. You created the environment. You set the tone. You never lost your temper. You motivated us. You trusted us. You let us change things when you could, or when it was the right thing to do. You put your foot down (gently) when that was the right thing to do (and it was, at least for my part). You respected our processes, as you say, but you were able to reel me in that night when I was pushing myself too far too fast. I’ve no complaints.

    I also have to join Kim in hailing a few deities for the Joe. The Joe is wise.

    And of course it’s going to be awesome. If anything goes wrong, we’ll just blame the editor. Oh, wait…

    P.S. I never want to see any of the outtakes from that damn parlor scene (you know, that one) ever again as long as I freaking live. Poor Kim… I’m so sorry…

  5. Hey everybody! Thank you so much for all the kind words and support. I love the *LOVEFEST*!

    I so much adored working with this group of individuals, and my big problem now is that I can't do it everyday, for a living! Gotta get back to my "solitary" life as a writer. Damn.

    On the other point...the editing of "The House Between" is going great. I think I've successfully wrangled the editing program (and the episode footage).

    When I wrote in this post about an "ambitious failure" I swear I wasn't actually talking about this show at all! Instead, I was talking about my general approach to reviewing movies and TV shows! Really!

    Of course, this show is going to be GREAT. I was just making basic points about film scholarship. Sorry for any confusion on that! I would never say anything bad about this project. Ever.

    The first episode "Arrived" is, I think, coming together nicely. Rick has been helping me find "mood" moments to foster the creepy atmosphere and I feel great about the show! Kathryn also watched a preliminary edit and gave me a list of shots to "lose" or "move."

    So things are good. I've added some sound effects and other atmosphere too, and it's amazing how everything is coming together.

  6. John you ignorant slut.

    (Sorry, I just wanted to say that. Quit teasing us with talk of footage that we can't see.)

    Tony, no apologies necessary. The parlour was cursed, not you. Even Shatner would have fumbled in that room. ;-)

    And I disagree, Bobby, the carpet sucked. I had no problems walking up and down stairs or anywhere else in that house in my 4" platforms, but I ALWAYS tripped on that plush crap in the parlour. Glad it made a nice nap room for you, though.

  7. I LOVE you guys! That's all. Just had to be said.