When Is the Director Done?

Made In NY Bus Poster!

Found In Time has just been released on Amazon, and user reviews are starting to come in. They confirm something that all of us suspected from the beginning – that this was a film that would divide audiences. Those who were expecting something more straightforward would be frustrated; those who could deal with more ambiguity would be happy. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about either attitude, by the way. Ambiguity can be a terrible thing (see Prometheus).

We’re still waiting on some festivals to get back to us, and our foreign sales rep, Summer Hill Films, is taking it to Cannes next month. We’re also still exploring other domestic distribution options – DVD, BluRay, and a soundtrack album.

But most of that is the work of the producer, at least in theory. At what point is the director done with a film? Is it when it’s wrapped? When post is finished? When it’s out at festivals? When it’s available online or in stores? The producer is on for the whole ride (unless the producer is only working for hire). What is the director’s role in this brave new world of the artist/entrepreneur?

J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of the tv series Babylon 5, somehow managed to write most of the 100+ episodes, EP the show, supervise the sound mix, run the online forums on AOL (hey, it was back in the day), and then went on to write follow-up movies, supervise comic and novel adaptations, and answer fan mail. At what point did he say ‘I’m done?’ The show went off the air sometime in the late 1990s but still has a loyal following. Until Firefly and Battlestar Galactica came along it was the gateway drug by which I introduced my non-geek friends to sci-fi. Does he still feel as connected to the show as he did all those years ago?

I’m wrestling with this issue now because I’m in the process of getting back into the director’s chair again for Bitter Child, but I don’t want to abandon Found In Time just at the moment when people are starting to see it. It’s been part of my life so long that I’m not even sure how I would go about leaving it… and yet whenever I work on Bitter Child part of me feels guilty. It’s an odd conundrum, and very different from what I’ve faced before.

By the time my first film, Caleb’s Door, was finished, I was really ready to be done with it and get on with the next project. That was a hundred internet years ago, when social media was just gaining traction and distributors were starting the now-familiar pattern of picking up films for a song and then putting them out into the marketplace with little if any promotion. The idea of the filmmaker taking up the promotion baton was seen as counterproductive (except for documentaries). Festivals were the main avenue for promoting a film.

I moved on to another project (which fell apart), then onto Found In Time. And the funny thing is, that while there are a lot of books out there on how to make your film, there are fewer on how to finish them, even fewer on how to distribute them, and none that I know of about how to do whatever happens after distribution. So I never really went through this before.

I can tell you that it’s a difficult process emotionally to untangle oneself from a project once its “finished,” and make plans for its entry into the world. Whenever I read the negative reviews, I wonder if I’ve made the film too inaccessible or too vague. Or I think that the marketing is off. Or I wonder if there’s a more ‘targeted’ distribution avenue out there.

Working on Bitter Child (and my television project, The Spectral City) is great, but it adds to the tension somewhat. It’s hard to work on more than one project at a time and give each one the proper attention and energy. And with The Spectral City, some more early-stage projects, and the need to make a living all jostling for attention. keeping sustained focus on any one thing can be difficult.

I still wake up every day happy to be in a position to make films and write and express myself, so don’t get the impression that it’s all doom and gloom. My grandparents and parents never had a chance to really pursue their artistic passions as fully as they would have liked. So I’m very lucky. This feeling of uncertainty about what my role is in regards to Found In Time – beyond being a sort of internet-age carnival barker (or wheatpaste band poster brigadier) – is something that’s akin to being a parent, I guess. We’ve raised the kid, and now it’s time to let it go and take on a supporting role in its life.

Script Analysis/Acting Resources

So in the last post, I promised that I’d tell you about some of the resources that have proven invaluable for me in the area of script analysis. So without further ado, here’s a combination of techniques, books and films that will help you get to the heart of your script and be able to communicate it better to your cast and crew.


There’s a lot of pressure to get it all right on set. The clock is ticking and the money is leaking out of your pocket faster than you can think. So take time NOW, when things are relatively calm, and get down to it. And DON’T expect all the answers to come right away. It’s taken me years for some of the things I’ve learned to really soak in, and the biggest thing I’ve learned about film making is how much more I have to learn.

Take Some Acting Classes

Go to Adrienne Weiss’ Directing Actors website. She’s a really good director, and taught me a hell of a lot about how to talk to actors. Adrienne is bi-coastal, but if you can’t get to her, find an acting group, play, or something going on in your town.

Get some experience, however you can. Even just watching rehearsals helps.

Get Physical

No matter what an actor’s training is, I think that the best way to boost a performance is to give them something to do. This doesn’t have to be an “action” in the running-away-from-an-explosion sense. Look at Ozu’s Tokyo Story (or frankly, almost any of his work). There’s not a whole lot of action going on – no one’s getting shot or stabbed, or thrown around. There’s a lot of dialog. But the performances are incredibly dynamic, at least in part because the actors are always DOING something. They’re packing to go on a trip, eating dinner, fanning themselves, cleaning up… I don’t know what Ozu’s directions to his actors were. But by getting your actors to move around, do things, play, walk, or anything aside from sitting down, you get their energy focused on something outside of their heads.


Judith Weston has written two really good books about directing actors. Of the two, I think Directing Actors is the most accessible.

I found The Film Director’s Intuition very slow going. I’m not sure why – it may be because of the mood I was in when I read it. But once she gets into script analysis techniques – and illustrates them with three really good examples – the book takes off and all the material in the earlier chapters comes together.

William Ball’s Sense of Direction is a nice, slim volume that really gets to the heart of directing actors pretty fast. There are some skippable chapters (it was written for stage directing), but it’s worth picking up.

Cathy Haase’s Acting For Film is geared towards actors more than directors – and for this reason it’s actually a valuable resource for you. It’s very practical, written very clearly, and is also very brief.

I’m still reading Tony Barr’s Acting For the Camera, but so far it’s a very clear guide to how to act for film; again, a very good book for you to read.

Finally, pick up a copy of Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. It’s aimed at actors who have to audition. They have to analyze a play based on a small scene and find a way to the heart of both the scene and their performance, all in a very short period of time. Sounds a lot like film acting, right? Yup. As a writer, I found the “12 guideposts” Shurtleff posits to be absolutely essential to figuring out why a scene works or doesn’t work. Similarly, I use the same guideposts to help me figure out the subtext of the scene, or prepare some playable direction to give actors.

Watch Films

Watch films with an eye towards editing and performance. Look past cinematography and production value/design as much as possible. It’s not that that those elements aren’t important – they very much are – it’s just that in many ways those decisions are made by you AND others (the director of photography, mixer, production designer, costume designer, etc.). The part that’s really YOURS on set has to do with working with the actors. The results usually manifest themselves later in the editing room as the editor (with your input) tries to build the drama from the different takes.

Some people have said it’s good to watch a film without the sound on – so you don’t get too sucked into the story. Others have suggested watching films in black and white (either watching a movie shot in black and white or turning the saturation down so that the picture is effectively monochrome). I don’t know if I buy either of those techniques whole-heartedly, but they’re there, and maybe they’ll work for you.

Floorplans, Shotlists, Storyboards, etc.

It wasn’t until I was storyboarding Caleb’s Door that I realized that I could cut big chunks of dialog out of certain scenes. The reaction shots would communicate plenty. Something about working with my hands, drawing my silly stick figures (I’m not a really good illustrator), made connections in my brain that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. During the reshoots I adopted a looser style without storyboarding but my DP and I went over the script and I did make notes on it that resulted in a shotlist and a floorplan.

Some people will argue that a floorplan done while on the shooting location is more useful than a storyboard done months before. I say whatever works for you is good. Just don’t skip this step. Anything you can do to pull the script out of two dimensions and into three in your head is a good thing. It will also help you figure out where the camera should be, what should be in front of it, and what’s important to hear – all those things that your crew needs to know too.

Okay, that’s it for now. Actual real news about the film is coming soon, I swear! In the meantime, I’m chugging away on a rewrite.

If you like this blog, visit the IndieGogo page, and express your thanks via a donation – every contribution, no matter what size, helps the film come to life.

Script Analysis – Don’t be Scared

Some news: Anthony Viera, sound mixer extraordinaire, is coming aboard the film! I’ve worked with Anthony on about 8 or 9 projects, and it’s always fun. Ben and Anthony have worked together on about a dozen projects as well. These guys understand the indie vibe and aren’t scared by it.

Working with actors still scares me sometimes, however. I’m not sure whether it’s because I haven’t done a whole lot of it, or whether it’s just endemic to the work. In a way, working on technical things is very easy for me. I understand the problem space and can nail a solution. Directing actors is about expanding on solutions, opening up more pathways – really going out on a limb.

I think this aspect of the craft turns off a lot of directors. I see their eyes glaze over as the actor asks them questions. Or I see them hit the actors with a ton of information when all they need is a sentence or two. So this past week I’ve been digging into my script analysis, hoping to get a jump on this type of situation.

The first thing I do is print out the script, dig out a pen, and go through each scene, looking for:
* Scene beats and transitions. These can be loosely defined as changes in subject. The transition is the space in between each beat. Sometimes it’s an unspoken, unwritten thing; sometimes it’s a bit of blocking or the entrance of a character; sometimes it’s a line.

* Sensory data. This includes images and sounds; also possibly textures, smells and tastes that are implied (like people eating dinner, or dressing in a certain way). Sense data are a type of fact, and facts are good to work with.

* Ambiguous lines or actions. These give you and your actors something to work with – since they could mean more than one thing, they’re like an opening into the character’s inner life.

* Facts / Backstory. Facts are always good. They can’t be judged. An actor can start with a fact and generate an emotional response more effectively than if s/he starts with judgments, opinions, gossip, etc.

* Tension/Stakes. Does the script fall flat in the middle? Does it ratchet up the tension? Does it need more or less “stuff” to get there? Since I’m working on my own script, I have the luxury of adding new stuff or taking it away at will.

From these things, I can glean the following info. This stuff I write down on a separate worksheet (I’ll post it up on the IndieGogo site).

* Thru-Line of each character for each scene. This can roughly be defined as what the character wants FROM the other character. It has to be verb-based, and it’s helpful if it includes an emotional response on the part of the other character. For example, Steve wants humiliate John can be too limiting. Steve wants John to feel humiliated opens up more possibilities for action.

* Moment Before. What happened just before the scene started. This is sometimes in the script, sometimes not. It’s very important to establish since films are shot out of order. One of my biggest failures as a director was not reminding an actor of what had just happened before a small transitional scene. The scene, which would have gone unnoticed, was instead really flat, because the actors didn’t carry the tension from the moment before into the scene with them.

* Questions. These are things I can ask the actors or myself. Sometimes a good question can open up a scene.

In the next blog I’ll get into more detail on this stuff, and post some links to some good books on the subject. The key thing is to take this stuff seriously, and work on it as early as possible. When that rollercoaster goes over the first hill (see my last entry), you’ll find yourself waist-deep or higher in production goo. Better to do your prep when things are calm.

Until next time…

The Long Ride Up the Rollercoaster

It’s been a few weeks since the last blog post. In part, this is because things are still in the early stages – I’m still gathering together resources that I can’t talk about publicly until things are “official.” I’m assembling some media (concept art, photo tests, and the like) that I’ll be able to show off soon. And I’m talking to my regular gang of fellow filmmakers, getting the word out about the film.

A lot of what I’ve been doing (apart from the above) has been spectacularly unsexy – I’ve been taking notes. Lots of notes. Notes about color schemes, about the character’s appearances and inner lives, about significant objects/images/facts in the scenes. I’m also reading and rereading film books, trying to get my head in the game again.

Once I’ve put some visual media for all of you to look at, the notes will make more sense. For now, I’m keeping them to myself, since most of these jottings and scribbles will never mature into executable ideas.

But that is in a way, what the point of the notes are. To prep myself for the real script analysis work that lies ahead. Right now I’m in the up stage of the rollercoaster. I know from experience that come May, when I start sending out casting notices, that things are really going to speed up rather drastically.

It’s important, especially if you’re a hyphenate writer/director/producer-type, to take time out every day to write some notes down about the script. The idea is to free your mind up a bit, let go of some of your preconceptions. Then when you start analyzing the script in more detail – finding out what the “core” ideas are – you’ve already shaken off a few prejudices.

The big thing for me is to find playable directions to give my cast. This is the Achilles heel of many an indie director. It’s so easy to get caught up in the producing or visual aspects of the film, that you can lose sight of what (in many ways) is your most important function on set – to direct the actors. Many times I’ve felt that the crew could do without me completely, and maybe even work better. But the cast depends on me.

I generally don’t look in the monitor for this reason, unless it’s a very specific shot. I trust my DP to get what I’m looking for – I’ll watch the blocking rehearsal through the monitor. I also don’t sit much. Sitting and looking at the monitor together feels like watching television. My body relaxes, I lose my focus, and pretty soon I’m in passive mode. Maybe this is good for some folks, but I need to be up and walking around. It’s probably insufferable for everyone else. But then most directors are insufferable on some level. The main thing is to communicate to the actors that I’m a participant, on some level, in their work. I watch them so they can focus on each other instead of themselves.

So that’s what late February/early March has been about – preparation, dealmaking, scribbling. There will be more exciting posts to come, I promise. But since I told you back in the day that I’d be sharing the experience of making an independent film, you might as well get a taste of the less exciting stuff too.