Three Things Learned from Pakula

Filmmakers don’t read enough. There’s a shameful lack of curiosity in most of my peers. Why are they not pouring through the biographies and interviews of their favorite directors? Why do they not have subscriptions to the last remaining film magazines?

We should be diggers, always searching for a new way to make movies or at least learning how someone did it the old way. If you like a filmmaker or actor, shouldn’t you explore to the best of your ability who that person is and how they work?  If this is your chosen craft, you should have an unquenchable appetite for all things (books, articles, movies, etc.) which relate to the cinema.

I cannot stop reading about filmmakers. The current one I’m studying is Alan J. Pakula, a filmmaker I’m afraid will only drift further and further into the background of film history. Jared Brown wrote a book about Pakula. He’s one of my favorites and I learn wonderful things about my craft by reading his words and words about him. Here are some I’d like to share:

1. Every Film is its Own Beast

This is nothing new so-to-speak to my experience as a filmmaker but Pakula’s reassurance gives me peace about the films we’ve done and the ones to come.

“The solutions that you’ve used on one picture don’t help you too much on the next picture.”

This quote speaks volumes. So much is learned on each film set and for the longest time I have gone into the next project hoping that these lessons will make the ride a smoother one. Some do but most often, it’s just as rocky albeit in different ways.

“There are some filmmaking experiences where you feel the wind’s in front of you and you fight just to raise your hand and take a step forward, and other times when the wind’s in back of you and you feel freed.”

Pakula’s perspective about the unpredictable nature of films rings true. No matter how well-planned a film might be, it seems as if each one has its own free will, deciding whether to let you coast through or fight an uphill battle. In similar respects, when a movie is done, some are easy to market (almost marketing themselves) and others you have to struggle to find an audience with. It’s an odd thing but I loved hearing this veteran director confirm a similar experience.

2. You Don’t Need a Script

I was pretty shocked to learn that there was no completed script for Pakula’s paranoia thriller The Parallax View. The film apparently had a beginning, middle and end sketched out… that’s about it! Because of a union strike, the filmmaker went into production with Warren Beatty as the lead, writing out scenes on the day of and often times flying by the seat of his pants.

What came of all that is a very complex (but comprehensible) picture. It’s amazing and in my opinion shows that completed and perfected screenplays don’t have the weight that filmmakers and the studios often give them. Perhaps film is best made in a more fluid environment with less of a written plan.

3. A Different Way to Make the Day

On Sophie’s Choice, Pakula worked with the great actress Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. I love this description of how a day would go:

“Although shooting was now in progress, the rehearsal process continued each morning. For several hours, Pakula and the actors would rehearse the scenes they were about to film. As Streep described the process, ‘When we came in in the morning, we’d get into makeup and we’d report to the set, and then he’d send the entire crew away to what he called the tent, which was the catering facility. They would all have a three- or four-hour coffee break while we rehearsed and blocked, changed our minds, and did it over and over again until it felt like something lived. And then he’d bring Nestor [the cinematographer] in. Nestor would look at it and decide how to light it. We’d go away, Nestor would light it while we had lunch, then we’d come back and shoot all afternoon. We’d shoot three, four, five, maybe more pages a day, which in movies is very ambitious. In those days I was still shopping for and cooking dinner, and I was able to do that every night. We were always off by six-thirty. It’s extraordinary. I’ve never seen any other director be able to do that.”

Now, I’d like to try that! It may not work with our budget and shooting schedules but some modification of this method would be a good experiment. Perhaps I will try it first on a smaller, more intimate film. The term and idea of “making your day” has been very attractive to me lately. In the simplest way, it captures exactly what being a director is all about.

-Travis Mills

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