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in Filmmaking
on Jun 28, 2009

I was working with a young director who was very talented, but who was also prone to panic — causing her to lose her perspective and clarity (an issue I’ve had to deal with myself at times). So I wrote this ‘”cheat sheet” for the fellows to carry with them for when they felt lost. To be honest, I created it just as much for myself…

The Unofficial Sundance Shooting Cheat Sheet

You may never need this, but if you’re feeling a little lost, or out of control, or not sure, remember…

1. Breathe. Calm down. Fear and anxiety are the enemies of complex, open, creative thought. A calm leader inspires confidence. If you need a minute to clear your head, or decide what you want, take it. Everyone can wait.

2. Slow down — rushing is not the same as efficiency.

3. Remember what your scene is really about: Why is this scene in your film? What do you want the audience to feel or understand from it? What are you trying to achieve emotionally with your use of camera and image? What do each of the characters want in this scene? How are they trying to achieve it? Which character’s scene is it? What is their journey in this scene?

While all of the above SHOULD seem obvious, there isn’t a director alive who hasn’t lost sight of some or all of the above while they were shooting a difficult scene.

4. In both rehearsal and shooting — try giving your actors actions — things their character is trying to achieve in the scene, instead of emotional states to play. Get back to what the character WANTS.

Let’s say you’re doing a scene where one character wants to intimidate another.

If you tell the actor “yell” you may just get a general, obvious performance.

But if you give them something to DO (e.g. ‘try and scare the crap out of the other character’), you will allow them into the creative process, and they may find ways of achieving what you want that weren’t what you expecting, but that are more interesting. Maybe instead of the screaming you imagined, you’ll discover they’re more frightening with a whisper. Maybe a chilling smile is more effective than a glare.

Be brave enough to let your actors (and your crew) make you better. No one is genius enough to do it alone. Then you can gently guide those creative impulses, picking the ones you like best, and helping the actor shade what you find together

5. When you have the scene on film the way you think you want, if you have a little time, do an extra take or two in a different way. Why not see what happens if you try something a bit different. If your actor has been intimidating the other with a lot of outward emotion and intensity, suggest they try one with everything held in, like a snake. See what you get.

What’s the worse that happens? You hate it and don’t use it. What’s the best that happens? Unexpected magic. Plus, a good actor will often have something they want to try, but are scared it might not work or will look foolish. Give them their chance to go out on a limb.

6. Remember the scene will NEVER be just like it is in your head. It may be better, it may be worse, it may just be different. But if you get stuck trying to make it “just the way you imagined it” you may well get stuck on the road to hell. Remember what Truffaut said: “The secret of good directing is knowing exactly what you want, but having no ego about giving it up the second anyone has a better idea.”

Remember the script is a blueprint, an outline. But when building a house you often deviate from blueprints to make things better. — Keith Gordon

7. Remember to thank, praise and take care of your cast and crew. They’re your team. They’re your army. If they feel unappreciated and ignored you will not get their best efforts and thus your best scene. Don’t leave your actors standing out in the sun, wondering what’s going on while you talk to your DP for a half hour.

8. Have fun. Breathe. Smile. There are so few people lucky enough to have the adventure you’re on.

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