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What French Cinema Has Taught Us

The French invented cinema. They invented the language, the tone, the feeling, and the literal mechanics of making movies. They even  invented the common vernacular everyone uses to this day. The French are responsible for not only the terms in which we’re accustomed to using to discuss film but also many of the greatest moments ever captured on film. Here are a few lessons on making films that we’ve garnered from les Français. 

Surround Yourself With Like-Minded People

It’s often said that the reason so many French filmmakers are able to make breakthroughs or innovations is the simple fact that in France, film is everywhere. It’s something that can’t be denied. Film in France is ubiquitous, an intrisic part of French culture. As such, cinephiles and filmmakers place value on surrounding themselves with as many like-minded people as possible. A wide social network of people who are all attempting to create high-caliber work will only push you to make your work stronger. It also enables you access to jobs, equipment, and contacts.

Make Use of What You Have

If you have zero budget and live in a one-bedroom apartment, write a movie that takes place in a one-bedroom apartment (or maybe the one bedroom, the street corner, and the courtyard downstairs). The French are downright masters of making films with not a lot of money. They’re amazingly talented at finding the most sincere or difficult subject matter and milking it out of the most mundane of circumstances. Take this lesson to heart. Build a movie around things that you already have.

Story First

When you’re making a film, start with the story. Think of how your characters have to move through the spaces and places that you’re putting them in. Think about how you’re creating a world. What is your story really saying? What are the bare minimum number of people and places that you need to express your ideas? What are the aspects of your story that are the most important? These are the elements you want to pursue and push forward. Low budget? Go with high drama packed with ample conflict and emotions in a super-tight, super effective script. It takes nothing but blood, sweat, and tears to write a great script so get to suffering now.

Hard Choices

Put pressure on your characters. Get them in places that aren’t easy to get out of, figuratively or literally, or both. Give them reasons to be unhappy or uncomfortable, stuff we, as the audience members can identify with even if we don’t agree with their choices. Then, give those characters the means to really break themselves. Place them in positions they find morally repugnant or very, very uncomfortable. Uncomfortable circumstances can make a character extremely realistic to those watching, getting them emotionally invested in the outcome, perched on the edge of their seats.

The French definitely know how to be resourceful when it comes to making films. Check out French New Wave classics like François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless to see the magic that’s possible with very little money.

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