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.

 

 

Kelly Reichardt meets Richard Linklater in Harry Macqueen’s blessed debut ‘Hinterland’

Hinterland film stillDirector: Harry Macqueen
Original Title: Hinterland
Country of Production: United Kingdom

British ultra-low budget independent film is firmly back on the map with a stroke of the near impossible landing itself on big screens across the country. The stroke of this impossibility is achieving what Harry Macqueen has just shown by producing, writing, directing and starring in his own work: a mature and heart capturing piece of drama. Forgetting the thorny logistics of low-budget film production and inevitable few blemishes that struggle to hide themselves, the film stands alone as an incredibly well thought out and paced exploration of friendship and undiscovered love. It is lyrical and enchanting every step of the way. The few imperfections only serve to bolster the quality of this tender portrait that inherently blurs the cinematic boundaries and makes for a truly singular indie outing.

Harvey (Harry Macqueen) picks up his old friend Lola (Lori Campbell) from a pals burnt out apartment and sets forth on a road trip in the old reg. handed down from the parents. Cornwall is the destination and warm Dartmoor ponies, cliff-top panoramas, and melodies around the fire are just some of the delights that await the couple. However, a couple they are not to be even if such thoughts riddle under the surface. What plays out is a wonderful exposition of a beautiful friendship occurring between two members of the opposite sex.

Harvey and Lola enjoy each others company and are visibly in need of one another, but their agendas, and means of searching for something in life that seems to be missing, emerge as slightly quailed. The truth might be that even if they were so fortunate as to open their arms in love, the complications of being in your twenties and finding one’s grounding in a strange world would quickly offset things. It creates a complex of existential angst that can be felt in the running commentary of what feels like a critique of the new generation, the ennui and complexity that we have been left to face. However, such ideas are never forced in the film and given ample space for reflection.

Nostalgia beams from nearly every interaction in this film. In particular, Harvey looks to spend a great deal of time in a state of intense reflection. Scenes will fall off and be carried in a different direction by dialogue that arguably is too well intended for its own good. It’s as if we are overhearing a real conversation, yet cinema has a spell of rendering such realism superficial. Drama needs some drama, to speak in too simpler terms. I can’t articulate an answer for this explanation, as it would need to involve a dissertation on the art of the actor in some way or another! As evidence from this writing, one can take this film any which way. The beauty of such effortless moments is that there can be no definite answer to what a character believes or is thinking at any given time. We don’t all possess the skillset of a wizard like Darren Brown. In a film like Hinterland, you decide how to imagine.

 4/5

 

These Directing Tools are Easily Fastened

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Simon Phillips along with the Directors Guild of Great Britain has been touring the UK with his “Tools of Directing” workshop. The workshop is a great insight into his work as a directing consultant and illuminates some potentially much overlooked areas of film directing. As an enthusiastic and thoroughly engaging teacher, the four hours zipped by, but the information gained is worth far more. Unfortunately, the workshops have finished their tour (Leeds was the last stop), but nevertheless Simon is a busy man and he will be around again soon.

I want to talk a little about the workshop, but don’t want to give away any of Simon’s secrets (as he explicitly said, not many people know about these tools!) Nonetheless, it is beneficial to reflect and I want to offer an introduction to Simon and the craft of directing in general.

It is common knowledge that there are three principal areas for a director to focus his attention: the script, the actors and the camera. Some directors will say they only focus on the actors and the camera, at least whilst on set, but the script is always the bedrock and the core that is constantly shifting. Simon talks about all three, let’s start with working with writers (a colossal task for all directors). Simon has an effective term to use for the director’s reading of a screenplay, the “creative reading of a screenplay” that offers a unique way of breaking down a script. It is simple, read the script like a “real event” (you as the director, are fundamentally the only person treating it as such) and in doing so you reach into each character’s senses and note all the “ChangePoints” – I won’t go into “ChangePoints” because they are intrinsic to Simon’s great work, but I will say that they are a great eye-opener and magnificently simple (but not easy) way to breakdown the script, camera set-ups and yes, even the directing of actors.

A lot of discussion was given around working with actors, planning the rehearsals (which are ever lacking with today’s schedules), what to gain from them, asking questions with the actors on set, sensing the empathy and, ultimately, creating the director’s unique vision. It is not the actor’s opinion that counts, let their questions be your guide, you must have the material to formulate the answers and adjust the performance. Simon is very much in touch with the director as auteur, a true visionary, and so they should be. Such talk created some stimulating discussions and, of course, there is a complex network of answers (many consultants bring different ideas to the table), but Simon was focused on making the situation as simple as possible (good!), I am definitely intrigued to hear from Simon and attend one of his masterclasses that go into more detail with these simple methods.

Finally, and one of my favourite discussions, the tools of directing the camera summon equally abundant possibilities. Simon began with narrative strategies (mystery, suspense etc.) and how to work the camera in conjunction, though the strategies all come scurrying back to the script and the actors; everything must be in place for the camera to work its magic. I won’t give away Simon’s specific insights into working with the camera, but he offers some genuinely intriguing and original advice that you won’t find in Katz’s Shot by Shot method of directing.

Sign up to Simon’s website and gain more insight.

There is also a Facebook group for further discussion here.

Starred Up – A Revelation of Talents

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MOVIE REVIEW

Starred Up
Film4, Sigma Films et al, GB
106 Mins
UK Release: 21st March 2014

Director David Mackenzie
Producer Gillian Berrie
Screenwriter Jonathan Asser
Cinematographer Michael McDonough 
Cast Jack O’Connell, Rupert Friend, Ben Mendelsohn, Sam Spruell

It is raw, vicious and compelling, David Mackenzie has boiled up a British prison drama (our take on A Prophet) to please the tough skinned and humanist hunters, but also the subtle and complex. It is a sharp-toothed affair with the peak of human hostility on offer, yet Mackenzie brings his direction to, ultimately, what is a stirring and touching family drama, be it the cliché of a father-son relationship (interestingly, it is biological).

Mackenzie does not shy away from the jargon of high-risk convicts; the “c” word is used countless times alongside a myriad of crudeness and repulsive deeds. Whilst, this may sound off-putting for some, it is compulsory for the realist approach Mackenzie takes in order to effectively portray this nitty-gritty prison drama.

The film begins and our Starred Up teenager (19 years of age) Eric (played by the rising star Jack O’Connell) is stripped down and moved to his new cell. Immediately, we are immersed in the prison environment, which is to remain so claustrophobic for the entire rest of the movie. Mackenzie likes to linger, and his camera scrutinizes Eric, it penetrates his soul and then it unleashes the animal before our eyes. It soon becomes clear of Eric’s troubles and expertise, if you like, at his exertion of frolicking and literally pounding his opposition. What may sound excessive is in fact highly believable. The screenwriter, Jonathan Asser, draws on his experience as a therapist (similar to the character of Oliver played by Rupert Friend) to shape the immersive world. Yet, more importantly, the cast and the entire ensemble give superb performances that yearn for unfathomable insight from the audience. The question swiftly develops, do we sympathize with Eric, or is he simply a lost cause, as Governor Hayes (Sam Spruell) likes to believe?

The answer is that we wish to understand Eric’s behaviour and jaunt along with him; indeed his traumatic childhood is discussed and his inept father evident. Jack O’Connell’s performance is something of a revelation, composed one minute, explosive the next; his character turns all the emotions one might expect to see from a disfigured adolescent. Neville, the father, played by Ben Mendelsohn, is a distressed and colossally troubled character. I could watch Mendelsohn continually perform and find him evermore impressive and enthralling. The two meet each other as their match, Neville the assumed prison superior and Jack the ‘rising star’ battle it out through love, hate, jealousy and sheer animosity. The love broods through the fortification and intrinsic self-possession of a father for his child, this is present in a climax scene that exposes the shock and corruption of prison-life.

It is great to see Film4 head the funds of yet another successful British film where acting and filmmaking talents are so vivid. Don’t let this film slip under the radar, as it nearly did for myself. Eric is waiting for your support.

4/5 stars

Watch the trailer below: