Tips: Learn From My Mistakes – And Then Make Your Own

| March 26, 2014 | Comments (0)

CJ Scuffins offers his tips for Emerging Directors

 

Learn From My Mistakes – And Then Make Your Own

I’m no expert director, but I try to learn from my mistakes. I’d like to expound on them all for you here, but Film Ireland wouldn’t have the bandwidth. Instead, I’ve chosen a few lessons that I learned on my first festival short, Prodigal Son (pictured), a sci-fi/horror about a gangster’s son being returned from the dead. I hope you’ll learn from my mistakes — and then go off and make your own.

 

1. Don’t Give Up If You’re Not Awarded Funding

There must have been an administrative error: the script I’d entered for a funding award was not shortlisted. Didn’t they realize that I’d worked on it for nearly one whole week?! Faced with such adversity, I did what any other indie director would do: cry into my bedroom pillow for 3 months. After which, I was able to read the script with clearer eyes and spot its issues like it was written by somebody else. The reworked script became Prodigal Son. Then, I contacted a writer-producer whose work I admired (Eilis Mernagh). We decided to make the film independently. I mean, what could be easier?

 

2. Do Save Money

My producing partner Jill Sartini at Story Factory has this advice:

 

‘When making a short film for little money, nothing can be left to chance. Make sure you’ve storyboarded every major set-up. That way, you’re not wasting any time on location. If possible, choose locations within walking distance of one another to save on transport. Also, ask yourself, can I shoot as much as possible outdoors during the day to save on lighting costs?

 

Have a schedule, with realistic timing that takes into account travel. You need to know exactly what you’ll be doing from hour-to-hour. Otherwise, before a director realizes it, the light is gone and they have shot 15 seconds of footage for the day…

 

Feed and water the crew properly. Plan to have something warm and wholesome cooked for the group. Make sure their expenses are paid and that they are getting a lift to and from the location. They are gaining experience and credits by working on your film, but don’t act like you’re doing them a favour. It’s nice to show that you appreciate their work and talents.’

 

3. Don’t Worry About What Camera to Use

There’s no Oscar for ‘Best Camera.’ Yet one of two questions I’m always asked at festival Q&As is, ‘What type of camera did you shoot with?’ As a director, I’m mostly concerned with making the story entertaining and original. Therefore, much more important to me is developing a good concept, a tight script, and an interesting shot-list, as well as finding the right actors to embody the characters. Working with an excellent DoP is equally important. On Prodigal we were lucky enough to have Piers McGrail, who used the Red One.

 

Beyond that, it’s a good idea to test the camera for picture quality and movement. The latter is important if you have ambitious shots in your shot-list (which I trust you will have). The other question I’m always asked at Q&As, by the way, is ‘Where did you get your funding?’ Ans: ‘Um, by fundraising?’

 

4. Do Work With Children & Animals

I thought it would make for a powerful image for Prodigal Son: a mysterious hooded assassin riding through the streets of the city on a magnificent steed. I didn’t think the horse would get pregnant in the middle of the shoot. Nor did I imagine, after the owner hauled her off the picture, that I’d have 30 minutes to find a replacement before a crucial scene at sundown. Yet, that’s exactly what happened.

 

I quickly ventured into nearby Finglas, where I rented a horse from a lovely bunch of chaps who I would cheerfully describe as looking like the cast of Love/Hate after a week-long coke and stripper binge. We got the horse to the set just before we lost light. Only one person I’ve spoken to has ever noticed that our one equine character was played by two different horses. And he was a horror-producer/rancher from Texas.

 

I’m not saying that you should never work with children or animals (unless you’re under some kind of restraining order). No, the lesson here is that you should be ambitious and make the film you want to make, even if it means working with unpredictable divas. Besides, audiences regularly get caught up in the story and will miss even the most obvious horse-sized continuity errors.

 

 

CJ Directs a Horse

5. Don’t Ignore Your Sound Mixer

On Prodigal, the sound mixer (Dave Harris) was experienced and helped me to realize the value of the role beyond recording the sound, which of course is an incredibly important function in itself.

 

At one point, an actor delivered his lines more forcefully in the close-up than in an earlier two-shot. The soundman heard this clearer than anyone and pointed out that this could make things difficult in the edit. It was a problem of my own making. I had opened up the actor to explore the part, but in this case failed to tie them down to one register of performance. Thankfully, I was able to adjust in the next take and get the perfomance level needed.

 

6. Do Embrace Non-Fatal Accidents

I hired a superb conceptual artist (David Kennedy) to create dramatic scenes from the script to help sell it to potential funders. His laptop kept misfiring and losing the script, so along with 12 amazing images, he presented me with a 13th image that he was forced to create from memory. Problem was, the scene was not in the script: a whiskey-nosed doctor had became a strange surgeon performing surgery with a pint in hand. Yet the resulting image was so powerful that I quickly created a scene with strange surgeons for the film.

 

We shot the scene in Rua Red in Tallaght, which was exhibiting an amazing futuristic sculpture. I think the scene helps to sell the sci-fi element of the film better than anything I’d written. Give that knackered computer a story credit!

 

The Concept Artist Added A Strange Surgeon

 

 

 

CJ Sets Up A Scene With Strange Surgeons

 

7. Don’t Inhibit The Actors

Not only a great producer but also a fantastic actress, Jill Sartini has just signed with the agent Annette Walsh at castannettenow.com. Here’s what Jill has to say about working with directors:

 

“I like a director to be decisive about the tone of their film, so I can make a choice on the pitch of my performance. Communicate what you need with examples, metaphor, anything but a line reading. On a low-budget film, a director can save time by meeting the actor beforehand for a chat to provide reference points such as real-life characters or other films.

 

A good way to get performances is to make the set a creative, safe environment. Otherwise, actors will find it hard to reach into themselves and pull out special moments. You don’t want to have inhibited actors on a rushed, aggressive production. That takes communication with your crew.”

 

You can check out Jill’s unreal reel here: http://vimeo.com/80058254

 

8. Do Provide A Thorough Brief For Your Soundtrack Artist

I worked with brilliant soundtrack artist Richard Jolly on two films. He and Louise Heaney made a wonderfully, chilly electronic soundtrack for Prodigal Son. Here’s his advice for directors:

 

“Although It’s difficult to convey music in purely language terms, I think it is a good idea for the director to develop a brief for the soundtrack artist. With Louise and myself on Prodigal, this came together by a combination of the director providing written notes on a scene; intimating mood, intention and tone but also backing that up with temporary guide / inspiration tracks. The tracks included precedents from other soundtracks or sound from albums or individual tracks.

 

From this, you can develop an iterative process of working, where ‘sketch’  tracks can be produced quickly, then submitted for notes and improved upon. Therefore, building to a satisfactory result.”

 

9. Don’t Audition Actors In A Skoda Fabia

I cast most of the amazing actors on Prodigal in one day at Filmbase – but I still didn’t have my lead actor. Soon after, I met with young TV and theatre actor, Ryan Andrews, outside his acting school. Unfortunately, we could not find a free room, so I auditioned him in our car. Admittedly, it wasn’t the ideal place to stage a gut-wrenching death scene. Yet Ryan, trooper that he is, performed the moment brilliantly. I thought if Ryan can pull off the scene while lying prone in the back seat of a Skoda Fabia, he can do it anywhere. When Ryan’s amazing performance in the film won him an acting award in New York, I was absolutely delighted. In fact, now that I think of it, scratch this as a ‘Don’t’. I heartily recommend that you do audition actors in a Skoda Fabia. It’s a proven way to win awards.

 

10. Do Think Critically

It’s vital to develop critical faculties beyond the ken of normal film-loving folk. One way to start doing that is to engage with serious film theory, like that of David Bordwell (http://www.davidbordwell.net/). I say this for purely practical reasons. As a director, instinct is not enough. You need principles to rely on during the white heat of writing, shooting and editing. Critical thinking is the best way to generate those principles, which during productions you will come to rely on as part of your working methods. For example, a principle of mine is that story is number one. So, when filming, I can quickly assess cast and crew suggestions (which I encourage) based on how they might enrich the story. Plus, I can use those thoughts for rambling, how-to articles.

 

Get Involved with CJ’s next project…

CJ Scuffins and Jill Sartini at Story Factory Ireland regularly collaborate with independent DoPs, editors, sound mixers, actors, producers and other like-minded production crew on their award-winning black-humoured genre films. They are currently prepping their next project for later in the year. If you are interested in getting involved, you can view their work and get in touch at www.storyfactoryireland.com

 

CJ Scuffins is a multiple award-winning writer and director. He is a former Daily Mirror journalist and Irish Film Archive festival co-ordinator. His short animation film Referee won a UK script award in 2013. CJ’s latest live-action short films Prodigal Son and The Blow-Ins have achieved award recognition in Ireland, UK and USA, with Prodigal Son acquired for worldwide distribution by Indieflix, USA.

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