Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of preemptive ingenuity

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Yesterday, my wife drew my attention to the latest episode of the podcast 99% Invisible, which irresistibly combines two of my favorite topics—film and graphic design. Its subject is Annie Atkins, who has designed props and visual materials for such works as The Tudors and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Her account of how a misspelled word nearly made it onto a crucial prop in the latter film is both hilarious and horrifying.) But my favorite story that she shares is about a movie that isn’t exactly known for its flashy art direction:

The next job I went onto—it would have been Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which was a true story. We made a lot of newspapers for that film, and I remember us beginning to check the dates against the days, because I wanted to get it right. And then eventually the prop master said to me, “Do you know what, I think we’re just going to leave the dates off.” Because it wasn’t clear [what] sequence…these things were going to be shown in. And he said, you know, if you leave the dates off altogether, nobody will look for it. But if you put something there that’s wrong, then it might jump out. So we went with no dates in the end for those newspapers.

As far as filmmaking advice is concerned, this is cold, hard cash, even if I’ll never have the chance to put it into practice for myself. And I especially like the fact that it comes out of Bridge of Spies, a writerly movie with a screenplay by none other than the Coen Brothers, but which was still subject to decisions about its structure as late in the process as the editing stage.

Every movie, I expect, requires some degree of editorial reshuffling, and experienced directors will prepare for this during the production itself. The absence of dates on newspapers is one good example, and there’s an even better one in the book The Conversations, which the editor Walter Murch relates to the novelist Michael Ondaatje:

One thing that made it possible to [rearrange the order of scenes] in The Conversation was Francis [Coppola]’s belief that people should wear the same clothes most of the time. Harry is almost always wearing that transparent raincoat and his funny little crepe-soled shoes. This method of using costumes is something Francis had developed on other films, quite an accurate observation. He recognized that, first of all, people don’t change clothes in real life as often as they do in film. In film there’s a costume department interested in showing what it can do—which is only natural—so, on the smallest pretext, characters will change clothes. The problem is, that locks filmmakers into a more rigid scene structure. But if a character keeps the same clothes, you can put a scene in a different place and it doesn’t stand out.

Murch observes: “There’s a delicate balance between the timeline of a film’s story—which might take place over a series of days or weeks or months—and the fact that the film is only two hours long. You can stretch the amount of time somebody is in the same costume because the audience is subconsciously thinking, Well, I’ve only been here for two hours, so it’s not strange that he hasn’t changed clothes.”

The editor concludes: “It’s amazing how consistent you can make somebody’s costume and have it not stand out.” (Occasionally, a change of clothes will draw attention to editorial manipulation, as one scene is lifted out from its original place and slotted in elsewhere. One nice example is in Bullitt, where we see Steve McQueen in one scene at a grocery store in his iconic tweed coat and blue turtleneck, just before he goes home, showers, and changes into those clothes, which he wears for the rest of the movie.) The director Judd Apatow achieves the same result in another way, as his longtime editor Brent White notes: “[He’ll] have something he wants to say, but he doesn’t know exactly where it goes in the movie. Does it service the end? Does it go early? So he’ll shoot the same exact scene, the same exchange, with the actors in different wardrobes, so that I can slot it in at different points.” Like the newspapers in Bridge of Spies, this all assumes that changes to the plan will be necessary later on, and it prepares for them in advance. Presumably, you always hope to keep the order of scenes from the script when you cut the movie together, but the odds are that something won’t quite work when you sit down to watch the first assembly, so you build in safeguards to allow you to fix these issues when the time comes. If your budget is high enough, you can include reshoots in your shooting schedule, as Peter Jackson does, while the recent films of David Fincher indicate the range of problems that can be solved with digital tools in postproduction. But when you lack the resources for such expensive solutions, your only recourse is to be preemptively ingenious on the set, which forces you to think in terms of what you’ll want to see when you sit down to edit the footage many months from now.

This is the principle behind one of my favorite pieces of directorial advice ever, which David Mamet provides in the otherwise flawed Bambi vs. Godzilla:

Always get an exit and an entrance. More wisdom for the director in the cutting room. The scene involves the hero sitting in a café. Dialogue scene, blah blah blah. Well and good, but when you shoot it, shoot the hero coming in and sitting down. And then, at the end, shoot him getting up and leaving. Why? Because the film is going to tell you various things about itself, and many of your most cherished preconceptions will prove false. The scene that works great on paper will prove a disaster. An interchange of twenty perfect lines will be found to require only two, the scene will go too long, you will discover another scene is needed, and you can’t get the hero there if he doesn’t get up from the table, et cetera. Shoot an entrance and an exit. It’s free.

I learned a corollary from John Sayles: at the end of the take, in a close-up or one-shot, have the speaker look left, right, up, and down. Why? Because you might just find you can get out of the scene if you can have the speaker throw the focus. To what? To an actor or insert to be shot later, or to be found in (stolen from) another scene. It’s free. Shoot it, ’cause you just might need it.

This kind of preemptive ingenuity, in matters both large and small, is what really separates professionals from amateurs. Something always goes wrong, and the plan that we had in mind never quite matches what we have in the end. Professionals don’t always get it right the first time, either—but they know this, and they’re ready for it.

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