There’s so much gratuitous advice available to prospective film-makers today, that sometimes it can pay to investigate what not to do and how not to do it, before moving on to consider examples of movies that actually hold up as robust specimens of the filmmakers’ art.
A bland TV movie, not an unlikely gem such as Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) but perhaps one of those generic crime thrillers of the kind routinely cranked out by television networks throughout the 80s and 90s is almost criminally easy to make. Any idiot with a budget, a camera, a cast of ex-glamour has-beens and a smattering of props can cobble together a forgettable movie experience. A perfunctory script helps of course, but who’s really paying any attention? Such projects are box ticking exercises for the folks in accounting, nothing more. For a new movie to stand out from its peers takes a true appreciation of craft and scrupulous attention to detail. With this in mind, let us examine how the various elements of filmmaking can come together to create movies that are infinitely more than the sum of their parts.
Set the scene (and get it right)
Location can be the making of a film, or conversely the point at which it all starts to go wrong. A film set around a specific location must in the final cut accurately convey the jumble of sensory impressions one might associate with such a place. If your film centers around scenes set in a casino for example, like Scorsese’s eponymous 1995 gangster flick, or the successful James Bond reboot Casino Royale of 2006, it helps considerably if these scenes feel on an intuitive level as if they exist in a fully-realized continuum, rather than merely as a static set in a studio corner, to be disassembled and tidied away at the end of the shoot. Such establishments come with a history, a bustling ambience all their own, and have been used to varying degrees of success using a casino themed backdrop, including Barry Levinson, Terry Gilliam or even Joseph Kahn for Katy Perry’s music video “Waking up in Vegas.”. It is not enough to just depict patrons and croupiers grouped around gaming tables, we must hear the background murmur of their conversations, the raffle of cards set down upon baize, the chatter of slot machines and the discreet clatter of the roulette ball as it settles into its groove. Gilliam took this approach to the extreme with the casino floor hallucination experienced by Depp and Del Toro in Fear and Loathing.
These separate components, coupled with suitably atmospheric lighting and attention to the fittings and furnishings of the place, in the hands of the right director make for a convincing granularity of detail. Half the battle is won already: we, the audience, want to believe in what we are shown, so the real trick is to unveil location in a way that suggests and engages but does not jar us into disbelief.
Sound design too plays a large and crucial part in building credibility and evoking a sense of time and place. Or indeed any emotion the director might care to conjure. The capacity of music and sound generally to trigger emotional reactions and act as cues to recall is well documented and a canny director can use this to play the audience like they are his or her personal string section.
The long-standing creative partnership between director David Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti wraps films like Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (1999) in dark and sensuous enigma, they become disconnected surrealist dreams that hover throughout on the threshold of nightmare. Lynch pays close attention to sound design, layering it carefully into his films and television projects as if adding tiers to a cake. If you haven’t watched the eighth episode of the limited third series of Twin Peaks, just do it.
David Fincher too soundscapes his movies with more than an ear for choosing a good soundtrack. His breakout film Se7en (1995) showcases a director in the prime of his talents, probing the ragged edges of darkness that fringe urban society like a tongue exploring a sore tooth. Howard Shore’s unsettling score picks up themes and motifs from the nameless city itself, which breathes exhaust fumes and despair and from which violence rises in a brooding swirl of electric guitars and strings. Noise here comes sudden and brutal; the rusted squeak of abandoned shopping trolleys on an empty street, the tortured shriek of metal on metal that defines an industrial society.
Edit to a plan
A completed film project is a gestalt organism. Everything from soundtrack selection to choice of cinematic filter can be harnessed to fashion a grand design. The plot and the screenplay, the cast and the crew, hundreds of specialized personnel pool their efforts into what we watch at the cinema over popcorn and stream from Netflix. With a bit of luck and some forward planning, they won’t all be pulling in different directions. Good cinema shows us just what people can do if they work together in pursuit of a common goal. Bad and indifferent cinema shows us the consequences of just going through the motions. Making films should be a vocation, not a day job. There has to be room enough for creativity and artistic expression and if there is, it will shine through accordingly. Unless of course it’s just a TV movie being shown at 3pm on a weekday when no-one is watching.