response to several interviews I have given attacking Hollywood filmmaking,
a number of readers have written me asking if I could provide a more positive
statement. In a word, now that Ive hatchet-murdered the studios,
could I offer a few rules on how to do it right? I hesitated at first,
since as far as I am concerned, rules are the problem with most of the
movies we now see. The shortcoming of Hollywood is that its confections
are whipped up from recipes (you know: a dash of romance blended into
a cup of suspense with a dollop of social relevance thrown on top to create
the perfect post-dinner entertainment). I had no desire to offer my services
as a French pastry-chef of independent cinema. Real art is not created
from formulas. No matter how fancy the name we give them ("story
structure," "creating a character," the "three-act
screenplay"), rules and formulas are ways of avoiding what art is
really about. Thats why I initially thought a how-to-do-it essay
was a bad idea, but after mulling it over, I decided that maybe there
was something worth saying. So, for anyone who is interested, I hereby
offer ten anti-rule rules:
1. Accept no imitations.
Imitate no one and nothing. I teach university film courses. Most of them
are devoted to screening and discussing cinematic masterworks: Renoirs
Rules of the Game, Dreyers Ordet, Ozus Tokyo
Story, De Sicas Bicycle Thief, Rossellinis Voyage
in Italy. But sometimes I wonder if seeing these films doesnt
do more harm than good to the young filmmakers who are my students. The
problem is that too many of them seem to take the wrong lesson away from
the courses. They think I show them classics so that they can go off and
make movies that look like the ones I screen. They think I want them to
weave spaces and bodies together the way Renoir does in Rules of the
Game; or to keep looking around and behind their characters, through
windows, into doorways, and around corners, the way De Sica does in Bicycle
Thief; or to slow events down, silence the characters, and induce
meditative states the way Ozu does in Tokyo Story. The right lesson,
of course, is precisely the opposite one. I show masterpieces not to persuade
students to look like these movies, but to inspire them to dare to look
utterly and completely like themselves. Thats the lesson all great
art teaches us. De Sica, Dreyer, Renoir, and Ozu didnt get to be
great artists by imitating someone else, by making movies that resembled
the ones they had seen, but by being brave enough to break all of the
then-established rules in order to express their own distinctive, unique,
personal visions of life. They teach us the value not of imitation, but
of resisting influences, even their own. And they teach us how hard it
is to do that–how hard it is to create a style that will be true to our
own vision of life, and how bizarre and idiosyncratic such a style will
always look (at least at first blush).
2. Film what you really
are. One of the reasons
Hollywood films can get away with being so fraudulent is that most of
them are set on a fantasy island populated with characters who bear no
resemblance to anyone who ever lived on planet Earth. Dare to make a movie
about yourself. It doesnt, of course, have to be true to the superficial
details of your life (though that wouldnt hurt), but at least make
it deeply true to you honest feelings and beliefs, your genuine doubts
and uncertainties, your actual interests and fears. Dare to film what
you really are, what you really feel, what you really see around you.
Dont be afraid of being too personal. Your most private emotions,
most secret puzzlements, most idiosyncratic obsessions are the only legitimate
subject of your art. Thats another lesson the masterworks teach
A further reason to hold tight
to your actual experiences and feelings is to avoid the clichés
that lurk everywhere waiting to entrap you and your characters. As soon
as you take one step away from your actual life, your work is in danger
of turning into a cartoon or a soap opera. Its easy for Spielberg
to slide into sentimental pieties when he presents what other people,
in another country, felt and suffered fifty years ago. What would keep
him honest would be to show what he himself actually feels like when he
goes to lunch to close a big deal, or how he treats his wife and children
that evening if it falls through. The Hemingway-patented bullshit detector
is that much more sensitive if your characters and situations are close
to your own life. Its just too easy to fool yourself, to cheat or
exaggerate for effect, if your movie takes place in a galaxy far away.
Make sure there is no "them" in your movie. It should be all
"you." Make sure you are as kind to your characters (or as hard
on them) as you would be on yourself. Make sure they are as interesting
and complex (and self-justifyingly self-deluded) as you are. Let them
never think they are doing anything wrong, just as you never do.
A corollary is that your characters
should be at least as intelligent and self-aware as you are. Half the
movies in Hollywood would evaporate if a character simply asked himself
why he is behaving in such an idiotic way. Every character ever played
by Schwarzenegger or Stallone would stop dead in his tracks and sign up
for counseling if he were allowed to have one second of normal self-awareness.
Why am I lugging this bazooka around anyway? Why do I feel such anger
toward everyone? What did my parents do to me to make me feel this way?
These are, of course, Neanderthal examples. But why do characters even
in movies by allegedly highbrow directors (Woody Allen, Mike Nichols,
Steven Soderbergh) invariably understand less about themselves and their
true situations than the audience does? Why are they all so limited? Its
time we had a few characters who were smarter, more sensitive, more morally
complex than the average viewer is. Why do we need movies that make us
feel superior? Its time we had a few characters who humble or chasten
us, who dont yield to trashy journalistic understandings of what
makes us tick. Look at Rossellinis General della Rovere or
Dreyers Gertrud for illustrations.
3. Film what you dont
know. Does not contradict
the preceding; though if it did, it wouldnt really make any difference.
I only mean that there is no point in writing, casting, directing, and
editing a film if you know in advance where you are going to come out,
how you feel about your characters and events, and what it all means.
If you can storyboard your film, save your time (and that of your actors
and crew), skip the shooting, and publish the story-board. There is no
need to make the movie. If you dont learn anything, no one else
will either. If you dont change your feelings about your characters
and events as you go along, your audience wont either. If your mind
isnt twisted into pretzels, theirs wont be either. If your
heart isnt torn and conflicted by the situations your characters
are in, you havent created complicated enough situations. Youve
reduced life to the "lite" experiences television or the newspapers
Your movie should help viewers
see things about their lives that they didnt realize before they
went into it. Of course, learning something, being forced out of your
mental and emotional ruts, is precisely what never happens in Hollywood
films. Movies like Pulp Fiction, L.A. Confidential, and
Wild Things represent a button-pushing sense of art where the only
goal is to force the viewer to jump through a set of pre-programmed emotional
hoops. Art becomes a game of emotional tiddlywinks where youre judged
not on whether anybody actually got anything valuable out of the whole
experience, but on finesse points–on how well you keep the nonsense moving
right along. The director and producers decide what points they are going
to make before they begin. They cast, shoot, and edit the movie so as
to be sure to make them. The audience goes in and "gets" them.
Then the critics come along and assign marks for how well they did it
all. The reviews of these movies remind me of the chestnut about the comedians
convention: A comedian calls out number 43 and everybody laughs. Another
gets up and calls out number 12; there is even louder laughter. A third
calls out number 37; nobody laughs. Explanation: Some people just dont
know how to tell a joke.
The experiences in these films
are canned. Nobody involved in them–from the writer and director to the
actors and editors–actually learns anything new. No one changes his mind.
No one is forced out of his or her old patterns of understanding. They
are vast emotional recycling operations. You put clichés in; you
get clichés out. The only sermons the director or his viewers stumble
on are the ones he's already cleverly hidden under his own stones when
he began. It's the difference between the way Picasso painted, and filling
in the outlines in a coloring book.
That's not art. That's not
even good conversation. All valuable acts of expression are acts of exploration.
Even a minor one like writing this piece. (Why would I waste my time doing
it if I already knew in advance where my argument would take me?) Film
the parts of your life you don't understand in order to try to understand
them. Film the aspects of your dealings with others where you don't know
what went wrong (or whether anything went wrong). Use film to blaze a
trail through the emotional jungle we all live in. Consciousness cannot
precede creation. Every movie Tarkovsky and Cassavetes ever made was an
attempt to understand a part of their experience that they didn't understand
before they began it. Along with spoken language, art is one of the greatest
inventions in the history of the universe for discovering the meaning
of our lives, our times, our culture.
A corollary: Dare to fail–abysmally
on occasion. If you function as a genuine explorer, you can never know
in advance where you'll come out (or if you'll come out anywhere valuable).
It's always safer to cook from a recipe, and always risky to throw the
book away, but that is the only way you'll ever make anything new. Like
any other mass-produced product, if Hollywood films never rise above a
certain average level of achievement, by the same virtue they never fall
very far below it either. With a non-standardized approach, nothing is
guaranteed. Your film may be a disaster. It may not work out. But that
is the case with all truly creative experiments–Charlie Parker's solos,
Paul Taylor's dances, Einstein's late theorems. Working the way a documentary
filmmaker does, discovering your purposes and meanings as you go along,
necessarily means performing without a safety net. But the greatest art
is always made by taking the greatest chances. The road not taken is the
only path along which real discoveries can be made (which is why imitating
yourself is as deadly as imitating someone else).
4. A movie should be at
least as strange as life. I don't know about everyone else's experiences,
but the emotional lives of myself and the people I know are stranger and
more complex than anything I've ever seen in Hollywood films. Their characters
are too logical, knowing, and articulate by half. They have clear motives
and intentions and act in accordance with them. If they have problems,
they know what they are, and have game plans for dealing with them. They
execute complex courses of action in pursuit of a definite goal. I don't
know anyone in life who is this clear about things–including myself.
I don't have intentions, motives, and goals in this way. I don't know
what I really want most of the time. I dont understand my emotions.
I don't know why I do or feel most of the things I do. When I am in real
emotional trouble, I am the last one to realize it. Having a real problem
is not knowing you have it. (Think of your former boyfriend or girlfriend
for confirmation of this.) I don't have a road map for where I'm going.
I usually don't even know where I have gotten to until long after I've
arrived. The people I know (including myself) are more mixed-up, more
contradictory in their behavior, more changing in their feelings than
characters ever are in the movies. Who of us is a character in the Hollywood
way? (Dear reader, what is your character?) Even the most ordinary life
is stranger and less rational than these movies assume.
When Hollywood wants to present
a character who behaves less "normally," it gives us a hockey-masked
slasher, has Jack Nicholson turn into the Joker or a Wolfman, or has Jim
Carrey do one of his wild and crazy impersonations. But these characters
separate the weirdness from everyday life too much. They make it seem
too exceptional and rare and fleeting. They imagine our strangeness too
externally and superficially. Our casual remarks cut more deeply than
Freddy Krueger's razor-fingers. The masks we wear are much scarier than
Jason's–and not removable. Our animal natures can be far more savage
and unpredictable than a wolf's. Our emotional lives are much spookier
and more mysterious than anything in a John Carpenter movie. You can't
pound a stake through this aspect of experience. You can't lock it up
at the end of the movie. Everyone I have ever known–landlords, bosses,
businessmen, parents, lovers, and friends–has an interior life that is
knottier and more out-of-control than Hannibal Lecter's. Capture some
of the real strangeness of our emotional lives. If you don't think it
can be done, look at a tape of Cassavetes' Faces or Tom Noonan's
The Wife. The kinks and twists in their characters' psyches put
a horror movie's to shame.
5. Leave the 'toons to Disney.
It's a truism that most American feature films and the performances in
them are indistinguishable from cartoons. But the problem is deeper than
our cultural infatuation with superheroes or the cults that have grown
up around Jack Nicholson's or Jim Carrey's cartoon versions of acting.
Even most so-called serious movies (from Easy Rider to Thelma
and Louise, Malcolm X, and Schindler's List) are dumbed
down to the level of comic books. Characters are generic; situations are
archetypal and representative; and the morality is as black-and-white
as a children's book. The actors might as well wear signs around their
necks telling us how we are supposed to interpret them. The audience is
more or less told what to know and how to feel every step of the way.
American film needs to move
beyond the Boy's Book and Harlequin romance stage. We need films where
characters are not generalizations and stereotypes, but particular, prickly
individuals. We need figures who are neither good nor bad, neither heroes
nor villains, whose motives are impure and mixed. We need films where
the drama is not premised on external conflicts, but on internal confusions
and ambivalences. Why can't we have movies about characters that viewers
will not be able to figure out and situations they will not be able to
make up their minds about? We need movies that go into the gray and fuzzy
places–movies that capture the murky irresolution of life as it is actually
lived. We need scenes that explore the in-between places of life, where
there is no clear problem and no clear solution. We need scenes that are
pitched at tonal in-between places, scenes that don't allow the audience
the luxury of figuring them out too easily or settling back into a simple
relationship to them. If you think it can't be done, check out a competent
stage production of any of Chekhov's plays. He made a career of doing
6. Make adult movies.
Another way to put the preceding is to say that it's time we recapture
the "adult movie" category from the pornographers. There are
enough movies for teenagers. It's high time we had some genuine adult
films–movies made by adults, about adults, for adults, where there is
more on the characters' minds than getting laid or stoned or shot. One
way to go about making adult movies would simply be to leave out everything
that is there strictly to suck in teenage boys (the nudity, sex, car chases,
tough-guy theatrics, shootouts, thriller plots) or girls (the lovey-dovey
romance stuff, dating game comedy, mood-music melodrama, and soap operatics).
The standard reply is that
a movie that lacks these sorts of things wouldn't be "entertaining"
enough to sell tickets. But it's a circular argument: what is being invoked
to justify childish movies is a child's definition of entertainment. We
need to forget about being entertaining in this sense, and redefine entertainment
to include sophisticated adult interests. Complex adult social interactions,
the play of adult emotions, the difficulties of a difficult life are the
most interesting things in the world for someone with an adult perspective.
Our movies are too simple,
too obvious, too easy, and ultimately too boring. An adult movie will
necessarily be hard and challenging, just as all real adult relationships
are. Kids may want things easy, but an adult knows that no important experience
(or person) yields up its meanings casually or lightly, and that the more
it resists you or forces you out of your habitual patterns, the more exciting
and valuable it is. That's as true in art as it is in life. Great works
necessarily make demands on us; they test us; because they force us to
enter into new states of awareness, new ways of knowing. You can't experience
a really great work of art in a relaxed or passive way. You can't listen
to Bach on your back. He forces you to answer his energies with your own.
He rouses you to activity. That state of tension, engagement, and activity
is not an accidental side-effect of a great work, but the very heart and
soul of what all important art does.
The moral of the story is
that there is no reason to apologize if a viewer has to see your movie
three, or more times, or to struggle for months or years to work through
it emotionally. I've seen Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice and Stalker
at least ten times each, and still can't get comfortable with them, am
still puzzled and mystified by aspects of them. That's not what's wrong
with them, but what's right–like the best, most challenging, exciting
experiences and people we come up against in life. Even if it's not
in aerobics, in art (as in life) "No pain, no gain" really is
a reality. New experiences, fresh insights, new points of view are going
to leave your emotional muscles a little sore at first. They'll have
you panting to keep up with them. It has to do with the way our brains
wired. Our emotions are inertial. Our hearts always rest on the last
experience. Every genuinely new way of seeing and feeling is disorienting–because
it does brain surgery on us.
Of course, given our channel-surfing,
easy-listening culture, many people will still prefer Happy Meal movies.
They may storm out of your film muttering about its incomprehensibility;
but what if they do? You are better off without them. If people aren't
willing to exert themselves to the degree the work demands, they can't
have the experience you want them to have even if you physically chain
them to their seats (or psychologically chain them by adding sex scenes,
shoot-outs, and suspense). If they are determined to lie on their backs,
they are not going to hear Bach anyhow. If you play Beethoven to the supermarket
crowd, you only succeed in turning the Ninth Symphony into supermarket
music. You can't make someone have an experience they aren't ready to
have. You can't give someone an emotional gift they are not mature enough
to receive. They may need to grow up some more, live a little more, or
fall in love before they are ready for your film. And, of course, they
may never be ready for it; but that is their loss, not yours. Don't dumb
it down in an attempt to reach everyone, or you will lose the very viewers
you should most care about reaching.
7. Forget sets, props, locations,
are where it's at. Hollywood spends hundreds of millions of dollars every
year getting the cars, furniture, haircuts, and period music right. Spielberg
thinks nothing of constructing an entire city block or a country estate
in order to re-create a past era. Unfortunately, in his obsession with
the authenticity of objects and events, he overlooks the fact that the
only thing that matters is emotional reality. The people who make these
movies are clearly more comfortable dealing with props and costumes than
feelings, which is why they will fuss over the most minute details of
the sets, but don't see the emotional fraudulence of the scenes that are
set in them.
Take sex scenes as an example.
I've seen hundreds of them in Hollywood movies, but I don't think there
has been even one where the woman was embarrassed by the size or shape
of her breasts or hips or where the man was anxious about his ability
to perform. I've seen scores of depictions of one-night stands, but I've
never seen a single film where the two strangers express a profound sense
of emptiness, regret, shame, or violation after making love. I shouldn't
even use the word love. There is lots of glycerin, lust, and infatuation
in these movies of course, but where is the trust, admiration, devotion,
self-sacrifice, or deep emotional vulnerability that constitutes real
What is true of romantic attraction
is true of the other feelings in these works. They are cheap, plastic
knockoffs of real emotions–with only the faintest, superficial resemblance
to the actual ones. (It doesn't take a Hamlet to make us realize that
even reptilian emotions like anger and revenge are more complicated than
the Hollywood versions of them–more tangled up in double- and triple-thinking.)
The feelings in these films are as clichéd and unreal as the plots
or the mood music on their sound tracks. The characters bear about as
much resemblance to humans as computer animations do. Watching them is
like watching a drag queen: all the externals are there, but something
deep down is missing.
Ninety-nine percent of the
American movies released in a given year simply recycle five or ten of
these fake emotions over and over again–canned, condensed, instant anger,
revenge, lust, fear, romance, and a few others. They are like well-worn
counterfeit coins passed from hand to hand, from film to film, as promissory
notes for the real thing. The very fact that we can assign these emotions
names at all proves their fraudulence. Our emotional life never comes
to us in such simple bundles. It can never be labeled like this (since
it is not static, but a continuous flowing and melting transformation).
Most of the feelings we have every day of our lives are utterly unnameable
and indescribable. We aren't even conscious of most of them.
All of this, needless to say,
represents a great opportunity for independent filmmakers. The artist
moves beyond the known world of clichés, exposing the emotional
wildernesses that are not on our charts. He or she moves into the "here
there be dragons" sections of our souls, and maps the true emotional
geography of the present, reporting back his or her findings for the benefit
of the rest of us.
8. Plot–not. One of
the most limiting aspects of American film is that the plot is all that
matters at virtually every stage of the process. Movies are pitched, scripted,
and budgeted on the basis of the cleverness of their plots. In the directing
and editing process, characterization, emotional nuance, mood, and psychology
are thrown to the winds to keep the plot zipping along from event to event.
Filmmakers like Spielberg actually pride themselves on "telling a
good story" in this children's book sense of the phrase. The great
works of literature–Huckleberry Finn, Paradise Lost, Shakespeare's
plays–are not reducible to their plots; only hacks like O. Henry and
Agatha Christie confused narrative art with "telling a good story"
in Spielberg's sense. No one ever sat through the classics of cinema for
their plots. Who ever watched The Passion of Joan of Arc for its
plot? Reduced to their plots, Ozu's movies are hokey melodramas. Plot
has almost nothing to do with a great film's complex pleasures.
What capitalistic, materialistic
myth have we enslaved ourselves to? Why do we think life is about achieving
something or attaining a goal? Why do we think it is about getting somewhere
or doing something? Why would we make movies about actions and events?
Whose life is reducible to its events? Whose soul can be summed up by
its actions? What we are is infinitely more interesting than what we do.
Dare to make a film that shows that people are more interesting than the
crazy events taking place around them. Show how what we do to ourselves
emotionally is more interesting than anything anyone else does to us.
Dare to push the pause button on the narrative and let your actors actually
interact with each other. This is different from merely turning them loose
to chew up the scenery in the Meryl Streep, Harvey Keitel, or Jack Nicholson
way. Interaction is subtle, nuanced, and responsive; not flamboyant, ostentatious,
and scene-stealing. Dare to make a movie where everything is not all tied
up narratively with pink ribbons in the final scenes. Why does everything
have to be resolved and explained? Make a movie that is narratively inconclusive
or open to different interpretations.
A strictly personal request:
make a tragic film. America is the culture that invented the sitcom and
the happy face, and we seem to have lost sight of the enormous expressive
power–and truth–of tragedy. Tragedy has almost disappeared as a cinematic
form in America. Suffering and loss reveal things about our hearts and
souls that no happy ending ever can. In rewarding their central characters
with money, power, fame, and success at their ends, our films tell us
a lie about life. They define its value too economically, too externally,
too materialistically. In its deepest wellsprings, life is not about attaining
rewards (or punishments), but about testing our spirits, deepening our
souls, and enriching our consciousnesses. Make a film about that–a film
in which a character may lose the world but gain her soul.
9. Why should your movie
look like a movie?
Who says you have to use master shots or shot-reverse shots or closeups
or music on the soundtrack or anything else that other films have? It's
another occupational hazard of being a film teacher that after I spend
a few weeks with students teaching them some of the possibilities of cinematic
syntax, many of them think that I am telling them that they should shoot
their films like Hitchcock, light them like Sternberg, edit them like
Eisenstein, or score them like Bernard Herrmann. What I'm actually trying
to teach them is the lesson a novelist or poet presumably learns from
reading great writers: to invent new forms of language to express their
own particular thoughts and feelings. Don't hesitate to bend the forms
past the breaking point if it will allow you to catch the little wiggle
in life that only you see and feel. No more than there is a right way
to paint a painting or score a symphony, is there a correct way to light
or shoot a movie, a best way to edit it, a right or wrong way it should
look. Hollywood has brainwashed us by flooding the market with movies
that look, sound, and feel almost identical. But the question to ask is
why would anyone want their movie to look like a Hollywood one? Why would
you want your hand-crafted personal expression to look like it rolled
off an assembly line? It's the uniqueness of our voices that makes us
interesting; the most boring voices in the world are those of professionally
trained radio announcers. Let your own squeaky, twitchy, nervous voice
emerge; don't polish and smooth the roughness away.
A filmmaker friend of mine,
Robert Kramer, made a movie called Starting Place. There are many
amazing and powerful moments in it, most of which represent completely
new imaginings of the possibilities of what you can say on film. There
is an extended conversation in which Kramer repeatedly cuts away from
the principal figure's face to show views of his feet and hands (and not
as a twitchy indication of guilt in the pseudo-Freudian cliché
60 Minutes employs). There is another conversation in which Kramer intercuts
tight closeups of a woman's eyebrows and hairline and ears rather showing
her eyes. What Kramer does is simply what every artist does: He gets us
to see with fresh eyes, to think and feel in new ways. But to do that,
he has to fracture and dislocate conventional cinematic forms of presentation.
He must reinvent the language to make it capable of carrying the meanings
he wants it to bear. It's a question of who is the master, and the true
artist is always the master of the forms he uses. And make no mistake
about it: If you don't use the forms, they will use you. If you dont
twist and torture them, and beat them up, they will twist and torture
you and beat you up. If you dont ride them, they will ride you.
They will homogenize and blandify your ideas. They will blend and flatten
your eccentric wiggles and curves into their own cookie-cutter shapes
and mass-produced meanings.
10. Who's afraid of the
dark? Why do movies
have establishing shots? Why does mood music tell us what characters are
thinking and feeling? Why are characters' goals and intentions made visible?
Why must everything be explained? Life isn't like this. I don't know what
people in life are thinking. I can't see inside their hearts and read
their minds. Why do we expect to be able to do that in our movies?
In fear of losing viewers,
Hollywood explains more or less everything. The goal is not to leave viewers
in the dark for a single minute. It's why most Hollywood movies are improved
by catching them on television a half-hour or so after they have begun.
Characters and events become much more fascinating when we can't figure
them out. Why do we want things in our movies to be clear? Why do we want
actions, events, and outcomes to be so logical and rational (since so
much of life is not this way)? Why do we insist on knowing, knowing, knowing
so much about everyone and everything? Life is full of mysteries, darkness,
unknowns, randomness. What we are is, of course, the greatest mystery
A little dark would be preferable
to this blinding insight. Make a movie where people's surfaces are as
opaque, their insides as invisible, as they are in life. Make a movie
where the ending does not clear everything up. Make a movie where people
don't progress step-by-step toward goals. Read The Sacred Fount
or The Awkward Age if you want to see it done in words. Cherish
the mystery of experience. Respect what can never be known–even about
those closest to you: friends, relatives, and lovers. In a word, honor
That's ten, and as good a place
as any to stop. The perceptive reader will have detected long before now
that these ten rules are really only one rule repeated ten times: Tell
the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Which leads to
one meta-rule that overrides all of the others: Violate any of these rules
rather than betray the truth.
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