Observations of Film Making
Quite a long time ago, a libertarian by the name of J. Neil Schulman wrote a novel, Alongside Night. He is currently in the process of turning it into a movie. He asked me to play a bit role, and I have just returned from doing so.
The invitation did not reflect any misguided belief in my acting ability—the role consisted of playing the King of Sweden for about ten seconds in a simulated Nobel Prize award ceremony. The reason he wanted me, pretty clearly, was that his protagonist is the son of a Nobel Prize winning free market economist. So am I—and I expect Neil believes he can get a little free publicity out of the parallel. He told me, many years ago, that the father's personality is actually based on his father, not on mine, but I do not expect that to be obvious to the random viewer or reviewer.
The main payoff for me was the opportunity to spend a day or so observing the process of movie making and chatting with the people involved. I learned a number of interesting things.
Perhaps the most interesting was from a conversation with the costume person, who was making sure that the very formal outfit he had rented for me would fit. By his account, his job is not simply providing costumes from the right date, nationality, social class and the like. As a character moves through the plot line, different shades, textures, appearance of clothing reflect changes in his role, mood, personality.What the costumer is doing, as he sees it, is creating a work of art one of whose dimensions is time.
Another feature of the process, one which I had only partly allowed for, is how much of a patchwork it is. There is no attempt to start filming at the beginning and go on to the end; one of the people I talked with said that the last person who made a film that way was Alfred Hitchcock and that doing so was unconventional even then. The approach instead is to shoot individual scenes, each of them many times over. The order in which they are shot is determined by considerations such as which actors are in them or what set they are being shot on.
I was told that, for a low budget film like this one, the filming typically takes four weeks or so. Assembling the movie from the output of those weeks takes something more like four months. Most of the assembly requires only two people, while the filming seems to require a total crew of about thirty. The finished film will be about one percent as long as the time spent filming it—and the ratio of filming time to film time is substantially higher for a higher budget production.
Another point that struck me about the experience was my own reaction to the dialogue. My natural inclination, as an author and public speaker, was to critique it, to notice places where what the character said could have been said better. In some cases I may have been right. But I suspect that in others, my critique was really of neither the scriptwriter nor the actor but of the character. What he said could have been said better—but would not have been by that character in that situation. I was reminded of my own dictum after writing my first novel: No plot survives contact with the character. For the same reasons, the author's words ought to change when put into the character's mouth, because the character is not the author and will not say things in the same way the author would.
Which may be relevant to my own writing. One of my weaknesses is a tendency for my characters to sound too similar; I have not yet got the trick of giving each of them his own distinctive voice. Part of the solution may be to remember that they will not necessarily say everything, state every argument, in the best possible way.
It was an interesting twenty-four hours or so. I look forward to seeing, sometime in the next year, how the movie turned out.