There is a very strong argument to be made that ‘90% of directing is casting’, and that same logic could be argued for the pre-production process as a whole. While many Directors crave their moment on set with the actors and crew, it’s the amount of prep work that they’ve put in before hand that allows them to excel in those moments above all else. Below are 3 reasons why the greatest Directors of all time place such a heavy emphasis on prep.
If you’re a Director or Producer (or aspiring to be either), there is no doubt that have a love for being on set. When things are going well on a shoot there is something about the energy in the air that is truly unique and creatively satisfying… This feeling is what so many filmmakers thrive on, but unfortunately reaching that creative sweet spot on set is rare as many Directors haven’t put in the legwork beforehand to set themselves up for it. In other words, if the work hasn’t been done in development & pre-production to allow for a smoother and more creatively satisfying experience on set, then you can’t expect any miracles once you start shooting. Although prep work is one of the phases of the filmmaking process that can truly feel like ‘real work’ for lack of a better term, it is an extremely crucial and often times undervalued aspect of the process.
I’ve always believed that the greatest films are those that are the richest in detail. This applies to the characters, setting, story, music, and just about every other creative aspect of the craft. Details are often felt and not seen, in the sense that the Director understands why they exist and is consciously aware of them (as are the producers, crew & actors in many cases), however the audience experiences them subconsciously – which is exactly why they are so powerful. Rich details and nuances make films feel more truthful, and therefore are far more impactful with audiences. They also help to get the story and scenes away from cliches, and challenge the filmmakers to develop more specific and unique choices that define the film in an organic way.
As the captain of the ship, it’s the Director’s job to ensure that the realism and truthfulness of the story are understood by the cast & crew and felt by the audience, and there is no way to fully realize that task other than to put in the hard work during the early stages of the process. Here’s why putting in the extra legwork during prep will separate your film from the rest –
Working with actors in the right context
For many Directors (myself included), working with actors is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process – at least it is when things are going well… However in order to get to that optimal point with your talent, you need to be working with them in the right context and setting. While working on set, not only are you as the Director juggling ten other things at once, but there is a finite amount of time that you have actually work through the scene creatively with your talent, leaving very little room for error or experimentation. On the flip side though, during pre-production you have all the time in the world to rehearse with your actors, work through scenes with them, discuss their characters, and so on. There is a limit to how much you’ll want to do this of course, and your personal style will dictate that (some directors don’t like to rehearse at all), but nonetheless there must be some form of prep work in place to ensure that everyone is coming to set prepared, whatever that may mean for the context of your production.
An example of what I consider to be brilliant prep work comes from one of my favorite films: Blue Valentine.
In the film, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a couple at two very different points in their relationship – the beginning and the end. Before shooting the ‘before’ scenes of the couple first meeting, Derek Cianfrance (the Director) avoided over rehearsing the actors, and even gave the actors specific details and information to bring out in the scenes (that the other actor didn’t know was coming) to capture the spontaneity of their relationship. Later though, when they were going to shoot the ‘after’ scenes of the couple going through a breakup, they took a one month break from shooting and actually had the two actors live in a house together for a month. The idea was that they would spend so much time together that they would start to get on each others nerves, get in little tiffs, and genuinely experience what it would be like to live together. In the end, the prep work that went into that film paid off massively and it really shows in the finished product.
Risks can be taken
On a professional set, there isn’t a second to waste. Budgets are tight (no matter how big or how small the film may be), meaning that there is a very specific amount of time to capture the scene, shot, or sequence on any given production day, and going overboard on time means going over budget. Ultimately this means that in the vast majority of shooting scenarios, there is very little room for trial and error on set. If all goes according to plan, at the end of the production day every last shot has been covered and the rest of the shooting schedule can remain in tact and unaffected. Obviously doing your homework during prep (whether it be working through scenes with the actors, pre-lighting with the DP, or making any final script revisions) will serve the purpose of keeping the production on schedule and on budget, but that’s really only the tip of the iceberg.
The bigger consideration in my opinion, is creating an environment that is conducive to risk taking… This applies both on and off set. For instance, while shooting you might have a great (but risky) idea for where to take the dialogue, or a certain angle to shoot it from, but if every last second on set is spoken for you’ll never get to try those ideas. And in many cases, those could be some of the best ideas that you have, and they run the risk of never being fully realized. By putting in your time in prep you are effectively achieving two things: First off, you are giving yourself the freedom to come up with those out of the box ideas beforehand and can therefore think them through in a much more logical and clear manner (choosing to include them or not at your discretion). But also, if you know that you may want to try to experiment on set (whether it be with those ideas or just in general) you can prepare your shooting schedule in a way that allows for wiggle room. At the end of the day, great filmmaking involves risk taking on every level and if you don’t put in your time during prep, you are leaving yourself with the least amount of ability to take risks during production and post.
Creating invisible details and texture
We’ve already gone over why it’s so important to create a film that is rich in detail, and I gave an example in the context of Blue Valentine of how important it is to texturize performances. However, this notion applies much further than just the actors – it extends all the way to the props, wardrobe, art direction, make-up, music, and just about everything else in between. Once again, I can’t stress enough how crucial these details are to creating a unique a distinctive world for your film that will allow the audience to truly be immersed in what they are watching and experiencing. The details are what allow a great film to be more than just the sum of it’s parts, even though the details themselves are often overlooked as they are experienced less obviously by the viewer when compared to many of the other elements of a great film. To give a brief example –
Take the film Black Swan, which is so thoroughly textured and nuanced with symbolism that gently guides your understanding of the lead character and the choices that she makes. There’s a staggering amount of symbolism in the film, but to give a specific example for the context of each article I’ll highlight the use of reflective surfaces.
Nearly every single shot in the film has some sort of reflective surface in it (some far more obvious than others), whether it be a mirror, water, shiny floor, etc. with the notable exception of the climax moment of the film when Nina is performing on stage, and her character has fully transformed. Obviously the choice to include this subtle (but powerful) visual cue could have only been made in prep, and while it may seem like a throwaway detail that doesn’t matter – I would argue that it matters hugely. This detail in conjunction with all of the other symbolism in the film is what makes it so gripping to watch. Just because it can’t be quantified in the same way that a great performance is or a powerful music cue can be, doesn’t make it any less important. There is a reason why the best Directors pay attention to detail, as at the end of the day this is still an art form… And art is all about how it can make you feel on a visceral level.
Some final thoughts…
When it comes time to make your next film, whatever you do set as much time aside for prep as you can. While you may not initially be as excited to jump into prep as you would be to shoot or cut your film, it will make each of those respective stages so much more enjoyable and meaningful for you and your collaborators, and you will eventually learn to love that process too. Always remember that just because you can take the easy way out and avoid long prep days, doesn’t always mean that you should. In some cases, you might want to skip out on prep for certain days or scenes as a means to create some sort of spontaneity or challenge for yourself on the day, but in 99% of cases you are better off doing the homework so that you and your audience can enjoy the final product to it’s fullest.
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