Saturday, October 29, 2005

Directing "Obsession"

Well, I finally made my cycle 1 film, "Obsession". We shot for four days in Beverly Hills, and it was an incredible learning experience. It was mentally exhausting like nothing I've done before, but man, what an amazing experience! Directing a movie with 20+ people between cast and crew, is nothing like the good old days of picking up the camera and shooting guerilla style. This is a different ball game. You're working on the set for twelve hours a day, then you're watching dailies and giving notes to your editor at the end of the night, and after that, you're thinking about tomorrow while lying in bed watching the moon slide westward. You sleep for four hours if you're really lucky, and you bust your ass the next day. I found that somehow, there is a perfectionist in me after all. I was obsessing over getting the right performance and the right camera pace for the moving shots.

There are a million things I want to write about, but I'll be brief and cover the big lessons for those interested in filmmaking.

1) Be prepared. Know the story inside out. Know the character changes and the arc inside out. Why? Because everyone will come and ask you questions that they want answers for. Because when you're filming, there's no room for second-guessing. The clock is ticking and you're trying to keep up with your schedule for the day. Because you have to be the leader of the team and if you don't know your shit, other people will start taking your movie in a direction you didn't intend. All your choices and decisions have to come from your preparation.

2) Dealing with conflict. On the first day of shooting, my cinematographer and I butted heads on every single shot. We argued about everything as if all the pre-planning I had done was ready to fly out the window. You have to be open for ideas all the time, but you have to have a clear vision and if something doesn't work with your vision, you have to stand by your convictions and communicate exactly what you want from each shot. At the end of the first day, my cinematographer saw that I was stubborn for a reason, and the choices I was making were turning out beautiful in the dailies (when you watch the day's work that night). In the end, it goes back to being prepared. If you're prepared, people will respect you.

3) Preparing. So what does being prepared really mean? For me, it's understanding the script in detail. It's about getting rid of anything that is unnecessary. It's about storyboarding the movie and previsualizing. Knowing the beats of each scene. What is really going on? What is the subtext here? When you're dealing with actors, you have to know what you want from them. You let them do their thing, but if it's not working, you have to be able to see that it's not working. You have to be able to communicate what you're looking for from those moments. For example, in one scene, the guy character goes up and asks the girl for flowers. He says "Flowers please." She says "Your girlfirend is a lucky girl, to be getting flowers so often." And his response is "No girlfriend!" Now this "No girlfriend' line can be interepreted in many different ways. But for me, the subtext of it is "Give me the damn flowers, bitch!" And that's how I explained it to the actor. As soon as I explained the subtext, he knew how to play the line, and for me, it's the funniest moment in the movie. You'll see what I mean soon.

4) Directing actors. So you can have all this elaborate production going on and everybody working like crazy putting in their 200%, but if you don't have a good performance, well, you don't have shit. Performance is the signle most important thing the camera is recording, no matter what. So when you say action, and you watch behind the monitor, you have to put yourself in the mental state of the audience watching. You have to see if this little moment fits the scene or not. You have to watch if the actor's blink takes the audience out of the moment. You have to listen to the tone of the voice. Are they over-acting anything? Is it really working? And when it works, you will see it and boy is it the most satisfying feeling in the world or what. I will write more later about directing performance.

5) Making choices. The nuances and details of all the elements will contribute to the success of your movie. All the details like camera angle, rhythm of blocking and camera motion, production design, sound, editing... the details are what elevates the movie from good to special. It's hard to make a good movie. It's even harder to make a special movie. I think I've finally made a special movie.

6) Keeping it fun. If you want everyone working with you to respect you, you have to remind yourself that making movies is actually a lot of fun. I don't know what in the world could be a more satisfying experience than making movie-magic. If you have fun and don't take yourself too seriously, then your cast and crew will have fun with you. You still bust your ass and fry your brain thinking about all the details, but you'll get more out of everyone if the environment is fun.

So having said all that, I will post "Obsession" on my web site in about a week once all the editing and post-production work has been completed.

I would also like to thank Laith for helping out on the set and taking some really great photos.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Auditioning actors for our romantic comedy

This week we started our casting process for "Obsession", the first of three cycle films I'm directing this year. We're looking for a lead guy and a lead girl. It was my first time sitting behind this big casting table listening to complete strangers and watching them interpret the roles. What I love about actors, well, the good ones, is that they have so much that they bring to a character. Most of the guys played the statistician character very plainly, going for the obvious, but then we had this one guy, who I decided is the man we're looking for, who brought a lot of back and forth energy to the audition.

The movie is about a guy who keeps buying flowers from a flower girl down by his office as he attempts to express his lover for her. But instead of talking to her, he keeps taking the flowers back to his office and plucking the petals off as he plays this game of "she loves me, she loves me not". The Obsession comes in as every flower ends on "She loves me not." It drives him nuts. In the meantime, she starts to get curious about him. She thinks he must love flowers. So while she tries to speak to him, he's in a rush to get the flowers and go back so he can pluck them off. I won't tell you the ending because I might try to put the movie on my web site when it's done.

The majority of the guys acted out the role simply by saying the lines. Then this last guy we saw on Friday comes in and asks detailed questions about the tone and the motivation. You can see he really wants to give the role his all. I love it when I see passionate people. Then he starts playing this guy. He mumbles to himself before going to speak to her. He practices his speach as he's walking up, he stops himself, takes a breath, steps forward, then slows himself down again. Very funny energy. He's our man. We're still loking for the right girl. More auditions next week.

So this leads me to a point that I had to admit one of my fellows is true in saying. Casting is everything. If you cast the wrong person in the role, then you can't make them right. A big portion of directing performance is in choosing the right person to work with. Someone who brings another layer of life to the written words. Again, this takes us back to subtext. You hire the person who can bring out the subtext in the character.

Friday, October 07, 2005


There's so much to share. Where do I start? We had our first Directing Performance class yesterday, and I have to say, it blew my mind. The instructor, Rob Spera, the most respected Directing Teacher at AFI, is eye-opening. I'll try to sum up some of the things that really stood out.

The two most basic rules he preaches are:

1) The camera photographs Subtext.
2) 2+2=5

If we can master these two rules in our films, then we're well ahead of the game.

I talked briefly about subtext yesterday, but I'll restate the point. The script provides the Text, the spoken word. Everything else should work to create the subtext of the moment. By everything else, I mean the following:

Camera motion, lighting, the lens, the depth of field, the angle, the framing and composition, the actor's performance through the eyes, the body language, the music, the editing, the make-up, special effects, Production design, the costume, the color, the sound design, the staging, the blocking of the camera relative to the actors, the film stock, the type of location, the use of space (flat vs. deep), the use of shapes, ... and the list goes on. There are hundreds of possibilities that a director has to make choices on. So if all these elements restate the text, then you're just ruining your movie. The art of filmmaking is in the use of all these elements to create something unique.

Anyone can shoot a scene with the traditional coverage approach (Master wide shot, Over the shoulder shots, Close ups, and medium shots). One does not need to to go film school to learn that. What this film school teaches with regard to coverage is to think of the beats necessary to deliver the emotional truth of the moments and execute them through thought-out choices true to the scene and not cliched.

So what does he mean by 2+2=5?
Well, if you asked a banker, the banker will tell you that 2+2=4. That's the boring answer. As filmmakers, the possibilities are infinite. We have to go out and creatively seek them. 2+2 can mean anything we want it to mean, because in film we are not recreating reality. We are creating a fictional universe where we create the rules and bring our audience into our universe.

People in movies don't talk like people in real life. Stories have to keep moving, exposition has to be created, and we only have two hours to tell the whole story. But back to the 2+2=5 concept, all the elements I listed above are tools that can be played with to create effectivelness... things like irony. As an example, a killer being pleasant is a lot more interesting than a killer looking like a stereotypical angry bad guy. How much more interesting is it that Hannibal Lecter listens to beautiful Bach melodies. I'll tell you another terriffic example from a wonderful movie I just watched this week. At the end of Road to Perdition, Tom Hanks shoots all the mobsters. They took out all the sound from the scene, the slowed it down, and the effect was just beautiful. It was poetry instead of action. And instead focusing on the guns, the camera focused on the eyes of Tom Hanks. Conrad Hall's Cinematography and Sam Mendes' direction worked brilliantly.

I'll give you another bone-chilling moment from a film I absolutely loved. In 21 Grams, there's a moment around the middle or latter half of the film where the camera holds on a gardner with a leaf blower in a wide shot from across the street. The wide shot holding for as long as it did, with no music, just the sound of the leaf blower and the quiet suburban street, made me feel like something unusual is about to happen. And as soon as my brain registered that the accident will now take place, shortly after the father and daughters walk off screen, I got a sudden chill. And as soon as the chill hit me, the truck flew past the screen. The accident happened in the distance off screen. I cannot tell you how powerful that moment was. Watch 21 Grams and you'll see what I mean.

So, it's this wonderful thing to play with these tools to create moments that pull the audience in through participation. Great films engage their audience. Okay, now I have to go to our production meeting. More later. I can talk about this stuff forever.

Website hits

It's amazing to me. Within three months, Suffi Suffi has had 3,000 hits on my web site, and my homepage has had over 10,000 hits. I've received dozens and dozens of emails from Jordanians around the globe telling me they've enjoyed my movies. It's very gratifying to get this feedback, and it only makes me more enthusiastic about making my next comedy.

Subtext and Bad Egyptian Films

Okay, so now I'm going to start delving into the meat of the matter. Why are most Arabic films bad? Why is Jordan TV worthless when it comes to narrative programs? Subtext. The complete lack of subtext. Let's look at something almost every Arabic film has in common. When a character is sad, the director tells you to feel sad through the actor's behavior, through music, through statement and overstatement (the Arabic cliche "3indi suda3" "I have a headache"). There is no subtelty to the stroytelling technique. That defines bad directing.

So what is subtext? Subtext is anything and everything that is not said by the character. If the TEXT is the line from the script (ie "Hey, it's great to see you!"), then the subtext is the underlying meaning behind that line. Let's say the actor says this line to the other character while walking really fast and away from him/her. The truth of the line is not told by the actual line but by the mannerisms in the performance. The line is almost unimportant in film. Not always, but most of the time. Think about it. Intelligent dialogue is when the writer and director don't undermine the audience's intelligence. As a director, you have a gazillion tools at your disposal to convey the subtext of the scene.

The actor's eyes: they are the window to the truth.
Body Langauge: the actor's body language can be in complete contradiction with the words being spoken. This makes the audience think. It makes them wonder if this person really means what he/she just said. It engages the audience, pulls them into the story, and makes them part of your film. I hate films that dumb everything down. Now I know exactly why I hate Adam Sandler movies. They are the epitomy of bad filmmaking that dumbs everything down for a stupid audience.

So as a director, my job is to find creative ways to guide the actors and the surrounding elements to convey the subtext and emotional truth of the scene without stating the emotion through spoken word.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Coming Soon

For those who enjoyed Suffi Suffi, here's what I'm planning for January when I go to Jordan. It's on my site.

Happy Ramadan!