Thinking About Time

Time is very much on my mind these days. What follows is a set of observations about it. It’s a bit of a departure for me from the lecture/how-to format. Think of it as a window into my brain (aka “this is your brain on a rewrite”).

Every day brings me closer to the start of production of the film. Every hour I spend working on other projects is one less that I can apply towards prep. Every minute that passes between my last film and this one my directing wheels get that much rustier. And so on.

Time is also a big theme in the script. Our hero keeps moving forwards and backwards in his experience of time. Much of this idea came out of watching films like Persona and Memento; reading books like Catch-22, Ubik, and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity; and looking at my own experience of time.

On the one hand, I feel I that talking about time is like being a fish trying to describe water. Water has properties, it can be measured, it can be understood chemically, but the very “wateriness” of the water, the experience of it, is impossible to separate from from a fishes’ being. Fish are designed to swim in water; we are designed to exist in time. Whenever you try to get at the essence of time you end up talking about yourself.

The obsession with timekeeping and quantification of time is much-lamented, as is our apparent inability to keep focused on more than one thing for very long. Endless cliches are trotted out about how we’re losing out on the beauty of life by endlessly trying to cram more stuff into the available time; how time-saving devices ultimately don’t translate into more leisure, just more cramming; and how we’ve become slaves to an impersonal, mechanical version of time.

I suspect, however, that our time obsession is nothing new. While hunter-gatherers may appear to be more “relaxed” than us about when things happen, or farmers’ lives a little “slower,” their brains are wired just like ours are. I think they count the seconds just as much as we do. The main difference is in their expectation of what time will yield is probably different.

One day for a hunter-gatherer might mean preparing ones’ tools, eating something; catching one big animal, or collecting a bundle of plantains; bringing the food back to the base camp; and cooking it. Counting is usually done by ratios, rather than absolute numbers; this is also how we tend to think (without training in number theory) and how our bodies themselves work.

This would suggest that time is indeed something akin to a volume or dimension. Physicists treat it as such. Non-physicists graph time along an axis (usually the x axis) of a chart.

But by and large, the equations of physics run equally well whether the flow of time is backwards or forwards, whereas a chart of the S&P 500 does not. So why does time only appear to run in one direction? Here physicists seem to be rather dumbfounded. Some philosophers (and physicists) have argued that time is a solid “block” like a volume of space. We move through it, it doesn’t flow past us. This means that the moments past and future already exist, we just can’t see them. Why not?

If I were to stand still in time, all my momentum would be transferred to space (this is what Einstein says; this is why less time passes for you when you travel at relativistic speeds). Does a photon, which travels at the speed of light, experience time? Would we, if we were to travel that fast? When we have gaps in our consciousness (from epilepsy, blackouts, drugs, etc.) some part of us is still in “record mode.” Another part of us manages to edit our experience of time together so that there’s no gap, no apparent discrepancy between what the different parts of us experienced (though it’s obviously not a flawless system).

Does the universe perform a similar function at the quantum level? Some string and quantum loop gravity theorists feel that there’s an atomic structure to space-time – a Planck-scale “smallest discrete unit” of space and time. If this is true, then events can’t take less than a certain (VERY VERY VERY small) period of time to occur. The appearance of a seamless progression of events could really be the universe’s equivalent of going through a flipbook – or projecting frames of film or video – at a high enough speed.

Perhaps time IS just an artifact, a feature like persistence of vision. Sadly, I don’t find this comforting. I rather feel more as though I’m really just a big hunk of stuff that’s being shuffled through a really, really fine deli slicer.

Perhaps I can show a little bit of this onscreen – by picking the right cut points, moving the story in just the right direction, I can make the audience aware of the water around them, without throwing it in their faces. Here’s hoping.

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…