by Stephen Ross
First Published: Sleuthsayers, Jul 29, 2014 READ
I’m making a movie. No, that doesn’t mean I’ve relocated to Hollywood. I’m making a short, no budget movie here in Auckland City, New Zealand. Short means 5-10 minutes, no budget means just that. Nada. The movie is a mystery story being shot on digital video, and its destination, once completed, will be a film festival or two (one day, it’ll eventually wind up on YouTube; the final resting place of all things video).
A moment for some history: When I was a kid, I lived and breathed movies and wanted to be a movie director. My father had a Super 8 mm camera, and I shot a bunch of short movies with high school friends. My first production had drama, romance, humor, skateboards, a car chase, clowns, and a gun. The one thing it didn’t have was a plot. My desire to be a director evolved into the desire to be a screenwriter, and for over a decade I practiced and taught myself the art of screenwriting.
I’m often asked where I learnt how to write; well, it was there, in the pages between countless FADE INs and FADE OUTs of countless screenplays. Screenwriting taught me structure, plotting and pacing, the economy of language, and how to write dialogue.
The movie I’m making is called The Sandcastle. The story started in my head with a basic plot outline and three characters: two women and a man. I could easily have typed out the story as prose and submitted it to either the Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines. There’s mystery, there’s a crime, there’s a twist ending. Had I done, it would have become a different story to the one that’ll wind up on the screen. When you write a short story, the characters don’t usually come to life and start writing their own parts.
The movie was put together very quickly. And when I cast it, the script was no more than notes, emails, and a Google Doc of motivation and backstory. The principal characters didn’t have names and were known simply as Woman 1 and Woman 2. By mutual agreement with the two actresses playing the parts, the characters became Olivia and Rose. The characters now had names, they had become real people, and they had input on how and why their characters were going to do the things they needed to do in order to satisfy the plot I had sketched out.
Film making is collaborative story telling. That’s part of the fun of it. Even when I start out with a completed screenplay, actors quickly get into their roles and tease out their character’s nuances and motivations. They bring a fresh mind to the story, and they’ll suggest things I hadn’t even thought of. That kind of input just doesn’t happen when writing alone, when writing fiction for the page. Part of my job as the movie’s director is to facilitate this, and to keep it on track.
Imagine when you write a short story or book, that you could go to lunch with your characters and discuss their parts, their motivation, arc, etc., that they come to life and help you build the story. I’m not advocating working with a collaborator (I don’t think I could write a short story or book with anyone else), but the change is refreshing. It’s invigorating. It’s why I’ve lately come back to making the occasional movie. Besides, it’s fun to go outside, hang out with cool people, and tell a story in a completely different medium. Sitting alone at a desk day after day can, frankly, get tedious.
So, do I subscribe to the auteur theory of movie direction? No, I don’t. And I get annoyed when I see “A Film by…” in the opening or closing credits.
The “auteur theory” arose in France in the mid 1950s. A group of movie critics, mostly connected to Cahiers du Cinéma, proposed that the director was the “author” of his/her movie — that the director’s personal style and artistic vision WAS the movie. The thinking went something like this: Picasso IS the voice of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Shakespeare IS the voice of Hamlet, Bach IS the voice of the Brandenburg Concertos… therefore, the director IS the voice of his/her motion picture. They didn’t apply this theory to every director of the era, but certainly to the more notable ones like Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was their poster boy.
But, is Hitchcock really the “author” of Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, or North by Northwest, or any of his other movies? What about the input of Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the music for all those movies (yes, The Birds has no music, but Herrmann created the eerie electronic “bird” score). What about the input of the screenwriters, cinematographers, art directors, and actors who worked on those pictures? When I remember North by Northwest, I remember James Mason and Martin Landau quietly stealing the movie from Cary Grant. When I remember Vertigo, I remember Kim Novak in that green dress. When I remember The Birds, I remember Suzanne Pleshette’s quiet despair, delivering lines written by Evan Hunter (AKA Ed McBain). Sure, Hitchcock directed all of them, but he was more the ring master of a creative circus than a sole individual alone with an empty canvas, a blank piece of paper, or a sheet of manuscript paper. An “auteur”? I don’t think so.
That many of the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma went on to become directors themselves supports my theory that what really motivated them was elevating the artistic standing of the movie director in the arts community. Cahiers du Cinéma was based in Paris, after all. Revenons à nos moutons…
Making movies at the no-budget level (an actor’s salary is lunch and a cup of coffee) means a lot is left to chance and serendipity. You really only have one or two chances at getting a scene right, and when you leave the house in the morning with the camera and the tripod, you hope for the best. But this can also be the best thing about making movies, and it’s something that simply can’t happen when you’re alone with your word processor. It’s the unrepeatable moments — the moments you capture magic. You suddenly find you’ve put the camera in the right place, the actors are perfect in their performances, and even the weather is behaving. Everything is just right and is even better than you’d imagined. Later, when you review the day’s footage, you see these shots and you think, Damn! That was good! A well written sentence really doesn’t have the same effect.
There’s a way to go before The Sandcastle is completed. There are a few things yet to be filmed and I’ve only just begun the editing process. And yes, I will be sharing the screenwriting credit.
Photos: Stills from the movie The Sandcastle