It’s a fallacy that great filmmakers emerge fully formed, as if they emerge from some “great directors cave” knowing exactly what to do and how to do it. Consider a fine arts painter. Think the first time he put paint onto canvas he was able to capture the look of a cloudy harbor or a green field bathed in golden sunlight? Of course not. The painter had to develop his craft, build his technique to gain mastery of his brush.
The same goes for filmmaking. You’ve got to learn by doing i.e. through practical application of the craft. But here’s the upside. Mistakes are lessons in themselves. Learning to recognize and actually appreciate “mistakes” in filmmaking can remind us of what to look out for when we’re in production, alert us to the pros and cons of certain choices, and generally inform our knowledgebase.
The Overly Visual
The first mistake a plethora of filmmakers make when they’re first starting out is not thinking about their story and focusing mainly on the visuals. Getting caught up in being the “director” without first fully envisioning a story really is putting the horse before the cart. We, as lovers as cinema suffer any time the director fools themselves into thinking their creativity and ability to frame a shot will compensate for story. See an overly-visual art house film with a few stellar shots? See a chance for a good drama, missed? Take note so that you can see where the visual actually works to undermine the story or purpose of a particular scene.
The Too Precious
Filmmaking is a journey not a destination. The story you’re telling is a journey not a destination and your main character? Well, he or she is the one doing things, making that journey happen or, as in the case of the reluctant hero, having that journey or experience happen to them. Hence, it’s all about dropping those breadcrumbs into the woods, getting that story and it’s theme to unfold scene-by-scene, step-by-step. If your characters are making sweeping statements about humanity or telling their best friend their deepest desires, you’re probably committing the writerly equivalent of Blush n’ Bashful, i.e. too much damn pink. As for those screenwriters and directors guilty of the crime of being too precious, take your pick of about a million female romances.
The “Let’s Be Tarantino” Film
You know who’s really good at telling stories in a non-chronological manner and doing so in such a way that the tension doesn’t lag but rather rises only to crescendo in an ending that feels masterfully complete? There’s one guy— a little someone named Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps you’ve heard of him before. But seriously, why not watch a Tarantino flick, then one of his wannabe’s (there’s a slew to choose from). See how the seams show? Don’t Tarantino your film. Just tell an interesting, engaging tale for now. Don’t hide behind fancy structure, just write well. If you’re directing, direct well.
The Films that Lag
If you’re watching a suspense thriller and find you’re glancing at the time, cue into that moment. What page would that occur on in the script? What’s failing to grab your attention? If you’re watching a romantic comedy and find yourself lacking interest in the lead female, ask yourself why. Is something lacking in the character development? Is she too sweet, flawless, and hence flat? In the case of the thriller, is the war veteran hero just too stereotypical and one dimensional or maybe the conflict just isn’t interesting enough to keep you invested during that super long and expensive chase sequence.
Great filmmakers do not emerge fully formed. Trial and error is a fundamental part of learning. Luckily, when you can really see into what works, what doesn’t and why in the films of others, you can gain foresight and begin to formulate the solutions to problems before they arrive. As your creative thoughts percolate, so will your awareness as to the intricasies of filmmaking, the common blunders, and the things you need to look out for.