We are exactly two weeks away from shooting my new film, OF DUST AND BONES, and the last week or so, my life has been devoted mostly to one thing: working on the shot list with the Director of Photography, TJ Hellmuth.
For me, this is one of the most pleasurable parts of preproduction. It’s when I‘m forced to tune into the movie that pre-exists in my head in a whole new way.
Normally, it goes like this. I read the scene aloud. Then I explain to TJ how I saw the scene in my head, and why I wrote it the way I did. I try not to be attached to this, because often it’s not the best version – I stay open to there being a better way. We then discuss the scene in depth – why is it in the script? What is it really about? What’s the story within the scene? What’s is the scene’s essence? What are we learning about the characters, the story? As we answer these questions, it usually becomes pretty clear how we need to shoot it. Intuitively you sense the camera close to one character, profile of another; as you dig in, you know why you felt that way. And of course, if you’re lucky and are working with the right DP for the project, they’ll keep suggesting ideas that you never would have come up with on your own. The joys of collaboration.
Watching the movie in your head is the real pleasure. It’s also deceptively hard work. You play different versions…what if we went from a medium wide to a close-up there? What if we stayed on that character? What if we dollied in super slow? And each question requires you to close your eyes for a moment and play the scene in your head again, trying out different shots until the scene in your head plays most effectively.
Shot listing is slow work. Other movies are discussed (for this movie, we’ve talked a lot about Gus Van Sant’s GERRY, Abbas Kiarostami’s TASTE OF CHERRY and Ingmar Bergman’s WINTER LIGHT and PERSONA), as well as photographs and paintings (all about Rembrandt for this). References are googled, shared, discussed. It’s painstaking work.
No matter how time consuming, I think this is an absolutely crucial part of the process of preparing for a film.
Obviously there are logistical reasons for it. The DP can make a solid list of gear that’s going to be needed, and share the detailed plans with the gaffer and grip so everyone’s on the same page and knows what to expect before they get to set. Also the First Assistant Director will know how to schedule effectively (although a scene might be only 1/8 of a page, if it involves 7 shots, it’s going to take a while).
But for the director, it goes beyond this. It’s becoming cognizant in a practical way of the language of the film you want to make.
Sometimes when I’m doing this, at first it feels like the film in my head is always in my peripheral vision, and that I can never quite see it…but as the process goes on, it comes into clearer into focus. I become more and more certain of what it is we’re trying to capture, and that fills me with excitement and hope, because the film in my head is always amazing. A perfect film, before the realities of shooting kick in.
Of course, the shot list is not written in stone. On the day, you might discover in blocking with actors a far better and different way of shooting a scene. Only an idiot (or a control freak) would stick stubbornly to their shot list and not be alive to the truths unfolding before their eyes when on set. But if you’ve done the groundwork of a thorough shot list, guaranteed you’ll make better decisions on set. You’ll have built a solid creative vocabulary with your DP, dug deep into film that you are making, and together, moment to moment, you’ll always know the best way to shoot your scene, no matter what you might have thought before.