Nobody knows anything
‘NOBODY knows anything’. These may be considered the truest and most useful words of advice for young filmmakers starting their careers. They come from experience, that of the legendary screenwriter William Goldman, famous for ‘All the President’s Men’, ‘The Princess Bride’ and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, films considered classics today, and films that, based on conventional wisdom, were expected to fail.
The full quote goes some way towards explaining the uneasy relationship between those who pay and those who make in the world of film: ‘Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess...’ The problem is, even though nobody knows anything, everyone has an opinion. And the people with money talk the loudest.
The influence of money often leads directly to bad filmmaking. Each radical movement in cinema has arisen from the impetus to shatter the bonds of patronage, preserve independence and open up the field to a wider group of artists. By moving from sets and sound stages to shooting on location, by leaving behind huge cameras and moving to handheld cameras, by ignoring bankable stars and using non-actors, filmmakers made the process less expensive, less rigid, less regimented, and therefore less reliant on the support and patronage of big studios and their many interfering producers.
Artistic vision and (perceived) technical quality are often dia-metrically opposed. The quality of the image and sound comes at a price, necessitating the involvement of external players, who then want to exercise more control. The best example is IMAX, the highest possible resolution of film available today, where cameras are so expensive and so proprietary that they cannot be bought, only rented, and where only the newest and most expensive cinemas can even show the completed films.
To make a movie with any IMAX footage at all, a director needs the backing of a major studio. Christopher Nolan is the leading proponent of IMAX filmmaking, but as he has become more and more focused on the technical and visual quality of his films, filming longer and longer sequences on IMAX, his films have performed progressively worse at the box office. His most recent film, ‘Tenet’ has turned out to be a critical and financial disappointment. Audiences, it turns out, care more about an interesting story well told than they do about film resolution and screen size.
This overemphasis on technical quality plagues the film industry, even while it doesn’t make for better films. Since ‘nobody knows anything’, the only true innovation in filmmaking comes when passionate filmmakers try new things with single-minded devotion to the story they want to tell, even when patrons and producers tell them that their ideas are unproven, unnecessary and sure to fail.
The careers of many ground-breaking filmmakers follow a trajectory that illustrates this point. They start small, creating new ways of working so that they can be free of interference. In doing so, they produce their best work. The well deserved buzz that follows results in interest from major studios.
Unable to resist the big budgets and glamour of the studio system, they accept the interference and producer’s notes that come tied to the money, and go on to create worse and worse films, until they are inevitably replaced. Only the most diligent and ruthlessly independent filmmakers, (for example Werner Herzog, Mira Nair) or those with such clout that they get carte blanche to do whatever they want (Anurag Kashyap, Agnes Varda) seem able to escape this system, and only because either by reputation or stubbornness, they manage to maintain as much control of the process as possible. It seems to be a law of filmmaking, that the more patrons, producers and studios get involved, the worse a film turns out.
A fascinating recent example of this phenomenon is the work of Karthik Subbaraj. His first film, ‘Pizza’, an inventive and ground-breaking horror thriller, was made on a very small budget of less than one crore, with minimal studio interference. It helped launch the career of Vijay Sethupathi, and is still discussed in film classes for its understated approach and subtle humour. This led to bigger and better opportunities for Subbaraj, with his two subsequent films being based on screenplays that he had already written independently before his breakthrough. But his most recent, studio-backed film, written to suit Dhanush (at the studio’s behest), and filmed on a budget of over 60 crore, is widely considered to be his worst film, and features none of the striking originality of his earlier work. It also barely managed to make a profit.
Consider George Lucas. He was fiercely independent in his pioneering use of manually created special effects and models, made without any computer graphics. His first, well known short and subsequent feature film, both called ‘THX’ paved the way for his original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, which undoubtedly changed science fiction filmmaking, by creating the concept of the cinematic universe, and solidifying the monomyth as the ideal source of epic filmmaking storylines.
However, when he re-emerged to create a series of prequels, he had been part of the studio system for so long that he became overly pre-occupied with technical details and merchandising concerns. The character Jar Jar Binks, regularly cited as one of the most hated characters, with his clownish Jamaican accent and disturbing minstrel show undertones, was in the film mainly to sell toys. The prequels were critically panned and underperformed financially. George Lucas never directed again, and is still hurt by the criticism that his final films received. He eventually sold Lucas Film to Disney and is no longer involved in the Star Wars franchise at all. Meanwhile, Disney seems happy to push out formulaic films that break no new ground and teach us nothing about the medium.
This very system of multiple producers and endless production notes kills the spontaneity of a film. The sheer stupidity of some of these notes have become legendary. A few examples: Damien Shazelle about his breakthrough film, ‘Whiplash’: ‘…it ends with a kind of long drum solo, which was the whole point of making the movie. And the note was to get rid of all that. The note was written out - ‘‘He’s good at drumming. We get it’’.’
Todd Black, about his Western, ‘The Magnificent Seven’: ‘… the biggest note in development and shooting it was, ‘Do they have to wear cowboy hats and have facial hair?’ And I said, ‘Do you not want them not to have horses either?’’
Barry Jenkins, about his Oscar-winning film, Moonlight (which is specifically about being black, gay and male in American society):‘So, where are the white people?’
Despite these kinds of stories about the monied backers of films, some filmmakers are still able to make good films within the studio system, while plenty of independent films are also terrible. But what cannot be disputed is that the films that revolutionized the industry and created new visual languages and techniques that we still use today were created by directors who were looking for ways to fulfil their singular vision in cheaper and simpler ways. The less money that's spent, the quicker and easier to film, the less that producers will get involved.
Eisenstein (inspired by Kuleshov) invented modern editing with his theory of montage, best seen in the seminal classic ‘Battleship Potemkin’. He was essentially the first filmmaker who fully realized that one could film at the location best suited to the needs of the story, on different days and at different times, with short, sharp shots rather than long static takes, and then edit them together to look as if they were concurrent.
Eisenstein realized that for an action sequence to have a deep effect on the audience, a director needed to juxtapose wide shots to establish context, with close ups for maximum emotional impact. The famous ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence, where soldiers massacre innocent civilians, illustrates this beautifully. We see the wide, long shots showing the size and the strength of the army. But then we see close ups of boots marching over fallen bodies, of a baby’s carriage falling down the stairs, of a bleeding woman, her glasses smashed across her face. These scenes were filmed separately, all the wide shots first when the light was best, and the close ups after, with a smaller crew. Watch any action sequence made before Eisenstein; they are passive, linear and lack emotional impact. Eisenstein’s approach was revolutionary and changed filmmaking forever.
Of course, Eisenstein’s theory of montage makes stories better, but it was born out of a need for speed and convenience. It is expensive and difficult to find the perfect locations for your film, the perfect time of day to shoot a scene; much easier to do multiple shorter shots and edit them in the most effective way later. It’s easy for filmmakers to forget this, and instead look for the perfect house to film a horror film, or the perfect sunset to film a romantic scene, without realizing that the pressure this creates can break a film.
Satyajit Ray understood these lessons well. For the Apu trilogy, Ray was in charge of the script, casting, scoring, and editing, and designed his own credit titles and publicity material. He used performers who had never appeared in a film before, because the spontaneity and universality of non-professional actors was necessary for the subtle and honest stories that he wanted to tell.
The performance he is able
to elicit from these untested actors is illustrated in a scene played with
restraint rather than melodrama, when Apu finally
meets his young son for the first time, the son he has refused to acknowledge
for so many years, blaming him for the death of his wife. Without tears or
shouting, without a wasted expression or unnecessary shot, they somehow forgive
each other in only a few
words, in a way that expresses the complications of real life. When Apu hoists his son joyfully onto his shoulders, it’s impossible not to feel for these characters.
Ray was inspired by the French New Wave, a movement within film that is perhaps most associated with the ethos of independence from interference. The use of handheld cameras, location sound, natural light, long, moving shots, and real life locations, often the apartments and cars of friends and the streets of Paris, with unknown actors, saved money and kept the production simple. Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’ and Godard’s ‘Breathless’ were ruthlessly criticized for these very qualities by the old school of cinema when they first came out.
The final shot of ‘The 400 Blows’ breaks every established rule of cinema at the time. It is an on-location, long, sometimes shaky, handheld tracking shot, following the young protagonist as he abandons a football game and runs for over four minutes onto the beach and into the ocean. He is trying to understand his adolescent angst and unhappiness, but the film does not provide easy answers. It ends with an abrupt zoom into a freeze frame of his face, with only the slightest hint of a smile. He has not overcome his problems or discovered the meaning of life. His journey is not yet over, even if the film is. Even today, few directors would have the courage to end a film this way, and perhaps that’s why the films of French New Wave still seem fresh and new.
But again, the history of the movement teaches the same cautionary tale. It only lasted a few years and all of its filmmakers went on to make higher budget and lower quality films, perhaps best typified by Truffaut’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ which symbolically marked the end of the New Wave and the beginning of normalcy for the directors who had been associated with it.
One of the most recent examples of history repeating itself is the Dogme 95 manifesto, created by Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, which was hugely influential at the time, and which prioritized independence above all else. It was created to ‘take back power for the directors as artists’, by eliminating studio oversight and interference. The manifesto directly followed the form of Truffaut’s 1954 essay in the Cahiers du Cinema which launched the French New Wave, and had the same fundamental goals: ‘In a business of extremely high budgets, we figured we should balance the dynamic as much as possible.’
Without listing every rule, which they never fully intended anyone to follow, and which they never fully followed themselves, the ethos was to create a fully independent production: use digital film equipment where possible, film on location using only natural lighting and location sound, eschew technical gimmicks and overproduction, to better engage the audience through the story and the performances.
The issue seems to be that all movements eventually fizzle out. The radical action and intense creativity of these manifestos and their creators allows the best filmmakers to be identified, but then eventually co-opted into a less exciting version of their previous selves, perhaps with higher production values and well known actors, but somehow lacking the electricity of independence, and ground-breaking innovation. Both Vinterberg and Von Trier continue to make interesting films of high quality, but while the themes of their films may still be unusual, the means of production are as traditional as they come. Their work today can no longer be emulated by first time filmmakers with no money.
So what is the antidote to wasted talent, watered down visions and bland output? Where is the revolution for this generation? The essential rule stressed by Ray, by the French New Wave and by Dogme 95, that the only way to avoid interference and maintain independence is to self-finance, and keep budgets low, are perfectly aligned with smartphone filmmaking and smartphones are perfect for these kinds of films. Focus on your own vision. Focus on technology that leads to independence, greater physical freedom, reduced cost and less reliance on external agents.
Smartphone filmmaking represents the pinnacle of this ethos, perhaps best evidenced by ‘Tangerine’, the Sundance prize-winning feature film directed by Sean Baker. Filmed with a skeleton crew on three smartphones, for a micro budget of less than USD100,000, featuring non-professional actors and a niche storyline, the film went on to win multiple international awards and changed the perception of what smartphone filmmaking could be. Yet since then, only a handful of smartphone feature films have been made. Why is this? Mainly because the power of patronage is so strong. Once you succeed it’s difficult to resist the siren call of money, even if it ruins careers in the long run.
Sean Baker never made
another smartphone feature film. The studios snapped
him up right away, leading
to million dollar budgets, more mainstream storylines and big name actors for his subsequent work, all backed by studios and their producers. In this way, patrons and producers will always have the final say, because filmmaking remains an expensive process, and good directors earn their pay checks eventually.
Perhaps we are beyond the age of the manifesto and the movement. Instead, we are beginning to create, with smartphones, a world where independence is the mainstream. Ubiquitous, readily available, and reasonably cheap, the smartphone allows anyone to tell any story, in exactly the way they want. The smartphone is the first tool in the history of filmmaking where on the same device one can film, edit, distribute and then watch the finished film. But the conventional wisdom as spouted by legacy film producers and film schools is that smartphone filmmaking is a non-starter, for all the usual reasons having to do with technical qualities.
Despite the naysayers, smart-phone filmmaking promises to be the ultimate equalizer, inspiring a new generation of independent auteurs, and making filmmaking accessible to almost anyone. But will smartphone filmmaking live up to this promise, or will the pull of powerful and wealthy studio patrons prove to be too strong? The history of radical attempts to reform the practice of narrative filmmaking suggests there may always be two streams.
Nevertheless, we have
reached a place in history where every filmmaker will also be a smartphone filmmaker. It will soon be impossible to find a
first-time feature film director who didn’t first make a film on a smartphone.
In fact we may have already reached that stage. When I teach my university
students to make their first narrative short film, many of them see that as
their first movie. But all of them have shot something on
their phones and edited it to post on Instagram or Tik Tok or Snapchat. When they pick up their phones to start telling their own fictional stories, they are already familiar with the concept of a visual language, and they are not hindered by the expectations of Hollywood or the expectation that their work should imitate that.
Instead they have already been primed to use their smartphone to tell their own story, in their own way, mainly for themselves but also for anyone else who cares to watch. They are already independent filmmakers, ready to communicate in a new way, to new audiences. And perhaps we don’t see it as a revolution, because it’s already here, and it took over without us even realizing it.