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Directing Feature Films

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I’m not a film director, nor do I have any particular aspirations to be one. So you might ask why on earth I’m reading, let alone reviewing, Mark Travis’ book, Directing Feature Films. Well, there are a couple of reasons. First of all, as an avid student of cinema I’m always interested in learning more about the “collaborative nature of film” as an artistic medium, and I thought Travis’ book might offer some interesting insights in that regard. Second, as an aspiring screenwriter, I thought the book might provide some useful information in the context of script development. And finally—well, finally it must be admitted that I’m a sucker for books, which means I’ll read just about anything. (My “Mikey” moment caveat: that doesn’t mean I’ll like it—just that I’ll try it.)

Mark Travis graduated from the Yale School of Drama and has directed theatrical films, television programs, and stage shows. His PBS dramatic special Blind Tom: The Thomas Bethune Story won an Emmy, and he has served as a “directing consultant” on a number of feature films and top rated television program. He’s also taught a number of seminars and written books, including this one, on the art of directing. His writing style is unpretentious and conversational, his advice is practical and concrete—all the sorts of things you want in a “how to” guide. As he notes, “Filmmaking is not a precise science. It’s not even an imprecise science. It’s a craft, an art form.” He makes no bold pronouncements, no guarantees that he has found “the” way to direct a film, save that he does believe that directors must be passionate about their material, find meaning in it, and become the unifying voice which pushes the project to completion.

Travis begins the book by noting the “easy” way of storytelling:

The storyteller sits at the edge of the circle, the flames from the fire leaping, playing shadow games on his face. His listeners sit patiently, politely, attentive. The storyteller can feel the tension, all eyes on him, waiting for him to begin, waiting for the first few words that will start them all on a journey together. The moment arrives, the moment when the story must commence. The storyteller picks his words and his tone carefully. “Once upon a time . . .”

This is “storytelling in its purest form,” with the direct link between teller and listener doing much to define the contours of the story itself. Filmmaking is a far more arduous process, a process of making a puzzle out of disparate pieces without that direct connection. According to Travis, the director therefore has to assume both roles: “The director has to picture an audience sitting in a theatre months from now and imagine their response, their reactions, and the feelings that are generated within them.” In essence, Travis suggests that one of the director’s principal responsibilities is not only to manage the collaborative efforts of the cast and crew, but to create another collaboration out of whole cloth: namely, the one between the filmmakers and their ultimate audience. The director is not only the creator; he or she must strive to be a “surrogate audience” as well.

I found it amusing that Travis notes late in the book that when people ask him whether the book describes the way in which he directs a film, he responds with “No. My book describes the writer I aspire to be.” That director intimately explores the script, defining the characters and relationships anew, before ever spending much time “working with” the writer. That director carefully synchronizes each aspect of the filmmaking process, from auditions to rehearsals to editing and more, with the overall cinematic “vision” for the project. That director breaks down the story and identifies the importance of each scene, determines objectives, collaborates with the writer, analyzes the characters, carefully establishes a creative team, works through the audition process and defines how best to create intimacy between the actors, carefully stages the story, and deals with any problems on the set quickly and efficiently.

It may well be that Travis’ book outlines something like the perfect director—namely, one that would probably cease to exist the moment he or she achieved that status (or, more likely, would simply never work in Hollywood again). But it also touches on things that many directors do and helps articulate the importance of them. A significant portion of the early part of the book details how the director needs to become intimately familiar with the intricacies of the script and break down each scene to define its objectives and purpose. There are those (mostly aspiring screenwriters, I think) who fuss about how some scenes don’t really have an “up” or a “down” (or a positive/negative) effect on the story. Travis largely nixes that perspective, highlighting the importance of trying to focus on only those scenes which genuinely advance the overall story in some fashion.

His principal example in the book is Forrest Gump. Now, many folks might complain that he’s using a poor example, or at least one that took considerable revisionist critical lambasting in the years since it won an Academy Award for Best Picture. But it is an excellent example for Travis’ purpose, in that it allows him to explore how a director might examine each character in a search for meaning, how those characters might be cast, and ultimately even how various scenes might be staged. The audience often forgets how many choices a director has in terms of where or how to set up the camera and how to decide the ways in which characters sit, stand, or even enter a room (he breaks down a scene in Forrest Gump where Forrest comes to Jenny’s room after he rescues her from an overbearing boyfriend—as Travis points out, so many little alterations in how the scene is established can help define how it is interpreted by the audience).

He also takes on the “myth of self-staging,” which is to say the form of staging in which the actors establish for themselves the physical characteristics of the scene. As he points out, “we have all been raised to do two very important things in our daily existence: seek comfort and avoid conflict.” In that regard, he thinks that self-staging often leads to situations in which the actors place themselves in comfort zones rather than engaging in staging that will produce the most visual conflict. In truth, this is something that directors can also do: Travis’ point is that through the staging, the director must be focused on defining and emphasizing the conflict inherent in each scene.

As an example, he cites an experience he had during a directing workshop in which the students were staging a scene from The American President. The scene involved the President calling Sydney (the woman he is romantically interested in) into the Oval Office after she makes a derogatory comment about him. The actors’ positioning “lacked any dimension or tension,” and they tried several changes. Finally:

Then I asked the director, “What does the President want and what does Sydney want?” He answered: “The President would like to be free to come and go as himself and free to approach her on a personal level. And Sydney would like to be anywhere but here; she’s uncomfortable and embarrassed.” I then placed the President looking out the window (with his back to Sydney) and Sydney in the middle of the room away from all the furniture (giving her no support). We ran the scene again and the change was extraordinary. The President was removed, powerful, isolated. Sydney felt trapped, unsupported, embarrassed.

From the standpoint of someone interested in the study of film, I think Directing Feature Films is worthwhile because it gives significant insight into the directorial process and the sequence of decisions associated with making a film. Likewise, as someone interested in screenwriting, I found the book useful simply because it gave me more perspective on how a script’s words might ultimately be shaped visually. But for someone actually considering stepping behind the camera for the first time—either of a full length feature or a short film—I would have to believe that Travis’ book would be an excellent resource. It provides lots of details regarding how to handle auditions, how to work with actors, how to handle production and postproduction. And Travis does it without ever sounding pretentious or condescending. His basic perspective seems to be not so much that he is dispensing wisdom from on high but that he is offering whatever insights he has, all of which makes Directing Feature Films a solid, engaging conduit into the world of filmmaking.

About Bill Wallo

  • DrPat

    The nuance involved in a visual presentation can be either more complex and simpler than the visualization we provide ourselves when we read – and that difference is often supplied by the director.

    Thanks for the well-written review, Bill!