NFTS graduate Daniel Montanarini on film school and becoming a FILM DIRECTOR

nftsFilm school or no film school? I won’t begin to give my own answers to this debate, and any answers are almost decadent after the spoken words of Paul Thomas Anderson: “You can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school. Film school is a complete con, because the information is there if you want it.”

This is very true – we live in an age of information overload – but is this a good or bad thing? Hence ‘overload’! Can film schools not condense such information and give you a clear direction? Information to one side, the practice is probably the best thing you are likely to get out of film school, so let us look in more depth at the practice film school can offer.

I caught up with Dan Montanarini – who has consumed all of these experiences – and was fortunate enough to pick his brains on the subject of film school and filmmaking in general. Dan is a recent graduate in directing fiction from the prestigious National Film & Television School (NFTS) in the UK, so this article will be outrageously bespoke towards the NFTS film school. First-hand apologies.

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Dan’s first short film The Guest, starring Olivia Williams, premiered at the Krakow International Film Festival and his graduate film Seahorse will be making the rounds later this year. Below is my (very particular) interpretation of this conversation with the very occasional quote from Dan thrown in to testify his presence.

From 14 Dan knew that he wanted to direct films, but what was the next step to be? There are two things to take into consideration when approaching such a mammoth task as film directing: how to crack the industry open and secondly, perhaps most importantly, how to ground yourself in the craft and the magnificent history that precedes you. Film is an “art form” – study the history and theory of storytelling and aesthetics. Dan expresses a hungry appetite for the world that film occupies, which means watching a lot of films and exploring film culture. You can’t get away without watching lots of films folks. This should be a task to relish in. Of course, a director should enjoy the physical elements of life on a film set, but equally essential as to finding your feet as a film director is being able to talk of your place in the surrounding culture.

Like anything in life that requires making something happen, it won’t transpire at the flick of a switch. Dan graduated in English literature and film from Warwick University and went on to find a full-time job. While earning his living, Dan produced and directed his aforementioned film The Guest on the side. And here is where film school comes in; it is a time to focus solely on making films without the burnout that one encounters trying to do everything at once i.e. maintaining a ‘normal’ living. However, Dan had never planned on the film school route because he had the sense that if one needs £10,000 to spend on film school then why not make a film yourself? Along the lines of the old Rodriguez and Tarantino motto I believe. But isn’t this a restricting approach to the matter? As Dan explains, film school offers far more opportunity to enrich your craft then the piggy bank; he had two full-scale set builds at NFTS!

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Getting into NFTS is almost entirely based on your short film. It needs to be good. If it is good enough then you get an interview. Dan says that the interview was actually a very pleasant experience; NFTS looks for honesty in their applicants and play to a focused, yet relaxed environment. A quality any great director needs is surely to remain relaxed with an all-pervading sense of focus. Once at the school, you are free to explore your craft with great freedom. While the contact hours are very decent, Dan is sure to note that the tutors do not impose regulations. They do, however, provide detailed feedback and hold an intense reviewing process. From rushes to sound lock, every step of the phase is thought-out and given attention to detail. It looks like film school must do one thing well: harden you to feedback! When was the last time you received a fleshed out piece of feedback on your own film? Go to film school and you will never have to force someone to watch your film again!

But, how does one keep their own direction with all these opinions? Well, as Dan clarifies, don’t feel pressured to have all the answers, be honest and you will learn quickly. By staying flexible you will eventually be lead towards your goal – “Know that it is going to come, it is going to happen.” A director does not need to always provide the answers, they just need to be confident in what they do and don’t know. This sounds well, but what happens when a director says, “I don’t know?” Quite simply, remain open to an idea and take it on board sensibly. Directors are not super-humans, but super-talent does often surround them – use it!

What’s the best method for working with actors? Give them the script, understand their interpretation, let them rehearse it and then work with them towards your vision. There is no right way to do this, the environment, the story, and personality of the actor will inform this. This is Dan’s view and he goes on to talk about other directors, including a screening he attended of 12 Years a Slave with Steve McQueen who gave some miraculous advice: “I am a director and not an illustrator”. I.e. you cannot be too rigid on a film set; rather you should work with what you have, in the moment, so to speak. A film director needs to direct on the day, not everything can be done before (unless you are Hitchcock). Every director has his or her own way of working, which must be a paramount reason for the source of beauty and wonder that comes with this craft. Each director is unique – an art form, indeed.

 

Here’s an interesting method of directing that Dan picks upon, but, let’s be clear, does not salute to himself: letting the actor working it out for themselves until they inevitably reach a point were they become desperate for direction. Who else would play these psychological games but Lars Von Trier, or so it is rumoured. But, have you ever seen a bad performance in one of his films? More likely, the answer is to be a blistering performance of harrowing proportions – a very good thing for drama! Film directing is a form of manipulation, and working with actors is no different. There is some honesty in this approach however, not least in the opportunity to wholly understand what your actor can bring to the scene in his or her own capacity. Nevertheless, it is up to each director to eventually find their own way.

Dan continues to talk about his love of movies and directors, moving on to the one and only Martin Scorsese – an obvious choice, but a choice that makes sense for a first-love. Hearing Scorsese talk about the movies is like spreading jam on toast or taking a close shave with a clued-up razor. It raises cinephiles to an ecstatic level of insight and comprehension. If you ever run out of steam in this business, or feel lonely, spend on hour on YouTube (or preferably a criterion Blu-ray) with Scorsese talking about the cinema – but, if you aspire to be like Paul Thomas Anderson then make sure you stay equipped with John Sturges also!

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Perhaps the next step to reignite your imagination with dreams, memories, and alternate realities would be to stop in with Fellini. Dan talks about his first experience as akin to being “stabbed.” Not quite spreadable, but an experience far closer to reality, as Dan explains the mixture of memories and textures of reality on display are for more adjacent to the thought-patterns that occur in our own everyday existence – undeniably, a truism of lateral proportions. Finally, if you are really looking to challenge your taste, a desire for Luis Buñuel’s spectacle of curious and sometimes laborious cinema will serve well.

Can you think of ten minutes that changed your life? This question was asked to Dan during his time at NFTS and is a great way to connect with your beliefs and potentially re-write your past. Film directors must find something personal in the material that they work with. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that they must understand the nuts and bolts of their own lives and the various transformations occurring within. You might be thinking why ten minutes and not, more likely, a split-second (a tragedy) or a few months (a romance), but ten minutes of change and we have a movie scene! Give this one some thought.

What happens when you finish film school? Other than being highly versed in your craft, full of debt (bear in mind NFTS has super scholarships for British citizens) and geared to rev any film production to full virtuoso, you must, quite simply, just keep going. You may find yourself in the position of Lars Von Trier’s actors: you have no idea what is going on, but you eventually find yourself acclimatising and succeeding with sheer greatness – trivial, but somewhat true. A director can only keep developing their ideas, stories and writing. A director must be ready to present their greatness. Think beyond your present moment (even if Eckhart Tolle tells you not to); be aware of the past, present and future. Where are you from? Write about this. Where do you want to be? Write about that journey. Who was your first love? Write about that. These are all ideas that Dan wants to inspire and he reminds me that we are all living and, therefore, we all have telling stories to tell. We mean, all of us.

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To sum up with some key ideas and NFTS specifics:

  • Film school may be a fantasy factory, but it also requires serious hard work:
  • Rigorous review processes include showcasing each step of a films maternity to the entire school of students and professors for merciless feedback:
  • Confidence building. Tougher skin. Objectively shrewd.
  • You can find your own voice: teachers will adapt to each individual while keeping the student open to new experiences and ideas.
  • On set: “you have all these talented people around you, why would you not want them to contribute?” Enough said.
  • Actors – discover first what you are working with. Points highlighted from Steve McQueen and Lars Von Trier.
  • Scorsese will make you fall in love with cinema. His conviction is infectious.
  • Be confident even if you don’t know the answer – it is okay not to know everything! Enjoy directing!

In the best sense, watch this curious and unruly short film from Dan below.

 

Visit Dan’s website here.

You can also join him on Twitter.

 

 

Thinking seriously about short films

“For me there’s no greater art form than the short film.”

Peter Mullan is a prolific Scottish actor and director whose short film Fridge (1996) was considered a masterpiece in the form. The above quote is from Mullan and leads me into an enquiry exploring the artistic nature of the short film and its many advantages and disadvantages over the longer form we all know so well – the feature.

There is no greater art form than film itself. Film captures all the arts under one lens: the light and colour of the brush, the composition of the photographer, the performance of an actor, the design of an architect, and the music of a great composer. There is a simple answer for this, film’s principle triumph is in being able to reproduce something close to reality, and thereby capturing the essence of what all art seeks to model: an experience reborn. James Ryan seizes the importance of film when he says, “I believe people come to the movies for the same reason they read a novel or attend a play, to have their emotions aroused, mind engaged, and spirit exalted” (2000: 4).

The short film is a condensed structure of the industry standard “commercial” feature film, typically running from a few minutes to half an hour in length. The short film is therefore distinctly different in narrative scope to the feature film, even if it does come under the same artistry of the audio-visual medium. I want to explore those differences. A short film is still a film by form; “the two forms rely on visual action for exposition and characterization, as well as on the visual medium” (Cooper, Dancygen, 2012: 10).

Short films are often used to capture a more pressing and unique artistic expression. For example, Roman Polanski’s film Two Men and a Wardrobe is a remarkably absurd fable that captures the essence of innocence and growth. We witness two men coming out from the sea bearing a huge wardrobe and beginning a series of surrealist encounters with the local community. The idea of experimenting like this with the short film was no new feature of the art form. For example, Un Chien Andalou, a film created by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali in 1929, paints a unique and disturbing portrait that stubbornly refuses to hold a definite meaning. While the film isn’t easy going, it certainly “cemented a relationship between film and the visual arts and ideas closely tied to art” (2012: 64), such as surrealism and cubism. From 1929 the short film most definitely became an expressive art form.

A very accurate fact is that short films cost less money to make. This can allow the director to have more creative freedom, which can allow for more courageous motifs and autership over the medium. For example, the film Beast, by Danish writer, Lars Pederson, is a hard-hitting depiction of domestic abuse that tackles the nature of violence. It is a very simple storyline – the mother and daughter escape the abusive father – but significant attention to detail, character and props, drive this scenario to tipping point, a point of explosion. This would not be sustainable in feature form, as there would need to be three acts, yet this simple tale has most impact when told in one act. Short films are often a one-act structure, much like a one-act play, a short story, a poem or even a photograph; all these art forms can be incorporated into the short film, which can make for a very rich audience experience.

The audience has a very different experience watching a short film. They don’t expect to wait hours for a climax; they expect a new experience, something that is immediately shocking, funny or eye opening. Sean Penn comments “we have become a cinema of impression rather than a cinema of expression” (cited in Ryan, 2000: 7). No such remark retains of the short film, which always seeks new expressions. The audience release any preconceptions about genre and method and allow their minds to focus on something that is different, and the filmmaker realises this, which gives them the comfort to explore uncharted waters. There is no reason for the audience to hold expectations when they are only giving ten minutes of their time and most likely not paying for it, as they would be for the feature film experience.

Often audiences do not want feature films to be different; they want a code, a genre and a method of storytelling that engages with the status quo because they know that this method will entertain them; it has been adopted in storytelling for 100’s of years. As Christopher Vogler claims of the ‘Hero’s Journey’: “all stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies” (2007: xxvii). However, short films can get away with avoiding a ‘universal structure’, audiences are happy for something different, another reason for this might simply be because there is less time for an audience to become passive in ten minutes. This point largely applies only to the Hollywood audience, but unfortunately this is very considerably the majority.

Doodlebug and The Big Shave, both short films by now world famous directors Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese, are experimental, perhaps even prosaic ideas, but executed with technical diligence and cinematic virtuoso all in the space of five minutes. If these films ran any longer they could quite easily lose their steam. Nolan and Scorsese now make films running nearly three hours long: Casino (178 minutes), The Wolf of Wall Street (180 minutes), The Dark Knight Rises (165 minutes), Interstellar (169 minutes). One reason they are able to tackle these grand narratives is because they have matured as filmmakers from the short film. This is another advantage, it is a place in which filmmakers can practice and hone their craft to seek a voice true to themselves as individuals before running up the feature bill. You might wonder what Doodlebug has anything to do with the themes in Nolan’s films, when in fact all his recurrent ideas of a psychological nature – seen from Memento to Inception (dreams, visions, magic, new-life, power, the art of possibility etc.) – rest under the surface of this three-minute short film.

The mechanics of filmmaking are not simple, and filmmakers are fortunate enough to have a small canvas to practice with – the short. This is not just unique to film as an art form: writer’s write short stories, painter’s sketch, performers do one-act, and so on; one always has to start small and grow. However, as Peter Mullan makes clear, the short film is not just a building block or a step in one’s career, it can in fact be the highlight, or the greatest art form to explore one’s needs as a storyteller. In today’s cinematic landscape, the short form is used more and more by experienced filmmakers to tell new stories that otherwise wouldn’t be commissioned or even suit the longer form.

When Mullan directed Fridge, he made a very conscious choice of using the short film with formidable effects. The film shows the harsh landscape of a poor Glaswegian neighbourhood and the consequences of such conditions for a local boy who becomes a victim of aggression. It has a clear message and, in a short space of time, it shows the audience the effects of urban hostility. It’s also worth noting that short films don’t have censorship restrictions, so filmmakers are further encouraged not to shy away from courageous material. Soft, a similar film in substance by Simon Ellis, captures the aggression of youths in suburban London. These films might not have the same impact if they were longer because the short form allows them to run directly on point and raise the appropriate awareness. Fish Tank is a memorable feature film from a comparable context, however it is not as easy to reprocess in our minds as Soft because the latter has a more distinct and specific target, it has to because it only runs 15 minutes. It is not so easy to forget a single act.

Despite these great virtues of the short film, there are significant limitations, as there tends to be with anything classed as ‘short’. It is evident that the short film is not a commercially viable product in relation to the feature, but, more importantly for the artist, it can limit narrative developments and, therefore, a certain depth. A television series may run for five seasons, which is likely to be over fifty hours of character development, sub-plot, and other narrative techniques. The audience will become very well shaped with the story and probably feel like the character’s are their friends. Narrow this down to an hour and a half and it takes a great effort to create the same structure and connection. The short film is even harder: one must create strong characters and a narrative arc in a very short space of screen time.

Narrative constraints are likely to be an excuse as to why many short films drop the storytelling conventions and reach for something more experimental, a fixed moment in time perhaps (i.e. a single scene), or an extended-montage sequence. Likeness and Quicksand are two examples of this. In Likeness we see a girl with an eating disorder navigate the landscape of a party, the film is shot through her eyes and becomes a very unique experience. Quicksand is a collection of memories from a man diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and features scattered imagery that would not be possible in a feature, again using the short film as a unique form. In both of these cases, the short form is the message (the “medium is the message”, as Marshall McLuhan would say), the medium allows the content to exist in the way that it does, and does so successfully.

During the process of writing my own short screenplays, I prefer not to take an experimental approach. I am not after originality in the form, but rather I want well-developed characters with powerful feelings. “The story is the outcome of a writer trying to give clarity and meaning to intense feelings and experiences” (Ryan, 2000: 5), this quote rings true with what I like to aim for. With less room to explore, one has to make a character’s actions more explicit, to make their philosophy momentous and therefore draw attention straight into the heart of who they really are. The best way I find to achieve this, is to continue writing until you feel like you have found the characters, regardless of how much consecutive waffling might occur. Consequently, you might end up with 40 pages of material for a 15-page script. But, this means dialogue can be sharpened and time can be spent doing lots of re-drafts (because re-drafts are apparently very good)!

The old lesson from Strasser rings true: “producing shorts teaches one to eliminate non-essentials, and to condense one’s story into the smallest possible space” (1990: 7). Often in a longer script, one can introduce ‘foil characters’, another character that can create a sub-plot for the protagonist and often aid them in their journey. There is not the time or space to develop these sub-plots in a short film, a reason why short films often focus on a singular theme. Personally, I find this is the most challenging task in storytelling, to focus on a defined theme that can resonate with the audience. However, writing a short film is a great way to develop this skill; it will take you deeper than you ever could have expected.

The process of writing a short script spurs a desire to expand on your character’s lives, to make them live and breathe for another sixty pages and see where life takes them. But, in essence, this is what makes the short form so exciting; you take a snippet from a life and extract meaning from it. You are confined to this space. The disadvantages of the short film – principally limited time and space – become the advantages; they also help to define its specific character. In fact, it is often the limitations of the filmmaking process – regardless of the form – that create unexpected and innovative results, even when it comes to budgetary constraints. The limits of our world are the boundaries of another i.e. they can be broken by thinking outside of the line.

Also, creating a sense of urgency in what you are writing will find its way into your characters, which, in turn, will help bring them to life. A short film creates this sense of urgency. Thinking about short films, it is not only the exhibition of the form that is exciting – the audience experiences a courageous tale in a short space of time – but also the process of creating a short film that creates more fresh ways of seeing than first meets the eye.

Written by Charlie Bury

 

References

Cooper, Patricia. Dancyger, Ken (2012). Writing The Short Film. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Gates, Tudor (2002). Scenario: The Craft of Screenwriting. London: Wallflower Press.

Ryan, James (2000). Screenwriting From The Heart: Character-Driven Screenplay. London: Billboard Books.

Vogler, Christopher (2007). The Writer’s Journey. 3rd ed. New York: Michael Weise Productions.

Films Cited

Beast (2012). Super8 Production, Belgium.

The Big Shave (1967). Tisch School of the Arts, US.

Un Chien Andalou (1929). Les Grands Films Classiques, French.

Doodlebug (1997). Cinema16: European Short Films, UK.

Fish Tank (2009). BBC Films, UK.

Fridge (1995). Cinema16: European Short Films, UK.

Likeness (2013). Candescent Films, US.

Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958). Polish Film Academy, Poland.

Quicksand (2012). Lance Oppenheim, US.

Soft (2007). Perfume Films, UK.

A Psychological Warfare

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My new short film takes us on a delrious girls journey alongside her fracturde mind. She has distorted vision and perspective on her actions caused by drug addiction, but also due to a lack of love and well-being. This lends part of the film to having surrealist qualities.

She is nestled in the detached basement of an upper class home, but she soon comes to realise that this home is all too familiar. The themes raised are far beyond that of addiction and paranoia, but more about family status and equality.

I shot the film single-handed with my lovely actress, who also did the make-up and set design. Thank you to Toby Archer for creating a perfectly abstruse score and to my brother, Tom Bury, for his wonderful piano skills.

Watch the film for free below:

Films of the Week #42

My favourite films this week are as follows:

Short – North Atlantic

Narrative – Stoker

In Theatres – Captain Phillips

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North Atlantic is initailly a short film about a lonely traffic control officer lamenting over his night shift in the Azores. However, this is duly interrupted by a veteran straddler who is cut adrift from his flight course and low on fuel. Both men know he doesn’t have enough milage to make it back safely – it a case of accepting your fate and dealing with it. This, of course, puts the traffic control officer in an uncomfortable position of comforting the pilot, of which he does a very good job indeed.

This film is very well constructed and we feel a real sense of empathy for the characters, not just the pilot, but the officer’s loss of a new best friend.

Watch it below:

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I missed Stoker in the theatres when it came out in March. That was a grave error. The film was beautiful, we can expect no other than a masterpiece at work from Chan-wook Park. His whole aesthetic is wonderfully disturbing, not just the menacing characters he portrays, but the hoodwink sound design, the cynical production design, the luring visuals and enchanting color grades. This film may send shivers down your spine, it may repulse you or it may bore you. But, it is by far the best attempt at a psychological thriller I’ve seen so far this year. A more detailed review to come soon, but don’t let this film go any further under your radar!

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I’ve just come back from a screening of Captain Phillips. Paul Greengrass lets Matt Damon of the hook and gives Tom Hanks the performance of his career. A very bold statement, but Tom Hanks blew me away. You strike a strong connection with his character from the get go and this strength glues you to your seat throughout. It’s an intense ride and the Somali pirates sure as hell arent going to make it any smoother. The Somali cast are also incredible and on fire in their performances as the hungry pirates. It’s top stuff on all accounts, go see this movie! (Movie review coming soon).

Short of the Week: A Brief History of John Baldessari

My short film of the week: A Brief History of John Baldessari

This short documentary stands out from the crowd. It is a witty and a suitable companion to Baldessari’s life – the playful artist and six foot seven friendly giant.

The documentary profiles Baldessari’s life and career in five and half rapid minutes. Tom Waits narrates in a non-linear style, sharply in conjuction with Baldessari’s blithe dialogue. It creates a provocative mix and occasionally lends itself to surrealism – not to mention Baldessari’s artwork!

There is a profane connection with the audience, as Baldessari is made to seem like a normal guy – he has a messy desk, a chair and a coffee machine. These everyday objects are symbolic of Baldessari’s artistic obsessions with the ordinary. His art flairs from his daily life.

This clever little profile of an extraordinary man is certainly extraordinary and, most of all, a pleasure to watch.

Short of the Week: Knife Point

My short film of the week: Knife Point

I’m not exactly keen on short horror films, but this film absolutely nails the genre to a pole.

There is a creepy essence throughout the film, you’re never sure which route it will take. It’s an awkward, warped type of suspense, which will leave you at ‘Knife Point’ of the malfunctioning human mind.

This film is worth your time, it has cinematic roots and a dark, moody undertone (beautifully shot by Chris Dapkins). It is slow, but anything from formulaic.

The film is directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis who is currently working on his debut feature (more info).

I hope you enjoy it:

 

Other honorable mentions this week:

Cargo – Another horror film that defies popular convention. It somehow manages to put empathy and human nature into a zomblie flick – watch it online here.

Wretched – A gritty drama acting out the dark trappings of drug addiction and relationship insecurities – watch it online here.