Did you know that every movie is actually made up of three different movies? By the time you’ve seen it, the film you’re watching has gone through metamorphosis at least three times. I’m not talking about different endings, re-shoots, and the like. I’m talking about how the film changes its form between conception to screening.
At first there is the film you write, then the film you shoot, and next the film you edit. Each of those is a different film. Sometimes the differences between each step can be drastic. Sometimes, the transitions are subtler. But it is a fact that no movie remains the same as it first appeared paper by the time you reach completion of the image.
First-time filmmakers usually struggle with this. Panicking about how to capture every line exactly as it’s written (and if they wrote the script, they’re even worse). Yelling at actors until they get it perfect. Making them do twenty takes because they keep forgetting that word. Fighting with an editor because he shifted some lines, rearranged some scenes, or got rid of them entirely.
I know I struggled with this when I started, but no one bothered to tell me this until after I’d made a few movies. But then one day, I heard, “There is the film you write, the film you shoot, and the film you edit.” It was like a new world of possibility and freedom opened up. Learning how to adapt into this way of thinking has helped strengthen each step of the process. My screenplays have benefited, my on-the-set shooting time is more productive, and the post-production and editing process comes together seamlessly.
There will always be a word in the screenplay that an actor changes, forgets, or the editor removes. There will always be sequences that flow differently when acted out than when they were imagined on paper.
Opening yourself up to the metamorphosis in the process will present opportunity when you least expect it. On a recent film project, there was a scene that included the prop of an actress blowing bubbles. You know, those small kids toys of soapy water that, when you stick the wand in and blow through, creates bubbles that float around the room. Well, I found the perfect bubbles set on eBay for $4. So I ordered them.
When they arrived, I was shocked to find a plastic gun that shoots bubbles and glows with plastic LED lights. Instead of sending it back, I thought, well, this was supposed to happen. I was meant to use this in the movie. And, you know what, the scene worked out so much better with the bubble gun then I’d have ever imagined.
Had I been the kind of hard-nosed director who wanted to stick to the written word, I’d have sent the gun back and demanded the bubbles I’d originally ordered. And, had I done that, sure, the scene would’ve played out as it was written on paper, but, it would not have been as exciting as how it ended up with the bubble gun.
The other thing I like to do when shooting is keep the writer from ever visiting the set. For me personally, I like the freedom to focus my perception on the translation of the material without having someone’s eyes over my shoulder the entire time.
Frankie Krainz is a brilliant screenwriter I’ve worked with multiple times. And I respect him as a person on top of that. He always insisted he’d keep to himself, quietly in the corner, but could be please visit the set. I explained to him that even if he did keep quiet, I would be aware of his presence, and that a voice in my left ear would constantly be second-guessing everything I was doing. What would Frankie think about that? How is Frankie feeling about this? So to prevent that distraction and any loss of my own confidence, I decided to make it a rule to never have the writer of the project appear on set while filming.
My advice is to keep oneself open to any possibilities of change along the way. From writing, to filming something differently than it was written, to editing a scene in a totally new way. Once, I re-wrote a scene in the editing room to spectacular results. Putting the first line third, and the second line first, and so on. It’s fascinating what can happen if you’re open to the possibilities.