Saturday, December 08, 2012

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.


billy.harvey said...

David, I feel dumb. I've been reading your blog for couple of years I guess, and I never connected that your Dad, whom I studied with fascination in college, was lucky enough to have a interesting writer for a son, till you dropped that little tidbit tonight about the Nobel.

Anyway, if you're a member of Google+, they've started a new feature called Communities where people can create, ah, communities about a subject. One of them is on Anachro-Capitalism. You might enjoy.

Gray Woodland said...

Interesting. I hope the movie turns out well.


Part of the solution may be to remember that they will not necessarily say everything, state every argument, in the best possible way.

ninety-nine times yes! Another part, I think, is that people are not reliably accurate about why they believe what they believe. It's an entirely human thing to understand a subject to the point of great practical competence, without being at all competent at arguing about it - or even considering it analytically.

I have a couple of protagonists who have serious issues in this direction. They can be quite difficult to write for. One of them is highly intelligent, brilliantly charismatic, and almost reliably wrong about why she is right about anything.

Have you considered how highly mannered writers pull things like this off successfully? I'm thinking especially of Roger Zelazny, whose dialogue generally has a very distinctive authorial style, without making the characters interchangeable. Corwin and Merlin and Random and Oberon and so forth all sound precisely like Zelazny characters, but they seldom sound very like each other for very long.

I can't pretend to say exactly how he does it, but that's the first place I'd start looking.

Anonymous said...

One of the movie adaptations of Nineteen Eighty-Four was filmed at the locations specified in the novel at the actual dates and times in 1984 that the events occurred.

Anonymous said...

Not sure if it came out before or after the Hitchcock film you mentioned, but the original 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' was shot in chronological order. This was (supposedly) done to improve the performances given by the cast, who were all extremely inexperienced- the idea being that it would be easier to act terrified once they had shot all the scenes leading up to the murders.

However that would have been easy to do on such a small, cheap film.

Nightrunner said...

"... because the character is not the author and will not say things in the same way the author would. ... Part of the solution may be to remember that they will not necessarily say everything, state every argument, in the best possible way."

Also they may not be as modest

John D. said...

Long time reader, first time commenter:

I think you might enjoy this book on Entertainment Industry Economics:

It has a lot of good stuff on not just the economics of how and why a movie gets produced the way it does, but also on the economics of leisure and consumption of media.

Just thought I would pass that along now that you are a big movie star.

DerekL said...

"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"

Well, whoever told you that fails film history *big time*. It's not common, but it is done from time-to-time for various reasons.

One of the most famous (semi) recent example was the film Das Boot - done that way (and filmed in real time) so the actors beards would grow in, and they were kept from the sun so they steadily grew more sallow as the filming progressed.

Jonathan said...

I have sometimes read fiction in which the characters seem interchangeable: they all speak the same way and seem to think the same way. Some of Larry Niven's stories strike as examples, though not all of them.

In science fiction, it may not be a fatal flaw, because there are things of interest in the story other than the characters. But in general I think it's better for a story to include varied and easily distinguishable characters.

Chris Gilman said...

David, welcome to my world. I have often thought you would be a good choice for a character actor.
Costumes can also give the character an "attitude", something that often helps the actor focus his character.
As for shooting order, it is very rare. Way too exspensive and I would suspect that even Das Boat was only shot in order in a general sense.
Dialog is something that, depending on the director or writer, is very strict and unchangeing or with others, freely improvised.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Kings... when can we expect the sequel to Salamander?!?!

For those not in the know: David wrote an excellent short magic fantasy novel and as of June 2011 the sequel was 3/4 complete. $2.99 digital only on amazon; free for prime members

David Friedman said...

Anonymous asks about the sequel to Salamander. I've managed to do a little more on it lately, and hope to make more progress in the next few weeks, since my daughter will be home and I enjoy discussing my writing with her and bouncing ideas off.

When I get a first draft done, I plan to announce it here and ask for beta readers.

Which title strikes you as better:

Eirick (my current working title)

Pawns (an alternative I'm considering).

One problem with "Eirick" is that it might be taken as implying a sequel to Harald instead of to Salamander. On the other hand, chess titles have been used a good deal.

Jonathan said...

The Pawns of Null-A was the UK alternative title of The Players of Null-A (A.E. van Vogt, 1956).

I see from Amazon that Pawns is the title of a recent novel by Dru Simon.

Simon said...

May reaction was that I wouldn't worry about people associating the pair { Harald, Eirick }... since using person names for titles of novels is too usual to be a salient characteristic. Would be different with (say) { Knight, Bishop, Pawn } or { Gold, Silver }. But then, it could be that I'm a Scandinavian, and Nordic-sounding names are more exotic (and thus more salient) to other (non-Scandinavian) people.

David Friedman said...

To Simon:

Thanks for the comment.

The other problem is that the book doesn't really have a single protagonist. Eirick is the character it focuses on at the beginning, and he plays an important role throughout, but I'm not sure if that's enough to justify the title.

Another possible title is "Brothers." Central to the plot is the close friendship between Eirick and his cousin Kir, who swear blood brotherhood shortly after meeting. In theory they are political enemies--Eirick's father tried unsuccessfully to seize the throne that Kir is the heir to, and died in the process. But they are entirely determined not to be.

And their friendship echoes the relation between Kir's father and his brother, the current king.

Would that work better?

Simon said...

I like "Brothers"... it has emotional power and is nicely ambiguous in referring to the sworn brothers, the biological brothers, or both.