“We owe it to ourselves to go out and do it!” – NFTS graduate Shady El-Hamus talks film directing

Skyhigh

Do you want to know a lot about directing films? Then chat with Shady El-Hamus, a recent graduate in directing fiction from the National Film & Television School (NFTS), or modestly read on and decrypt the messages below.

Shady’s short films focus primarily on relationships within the family and how pressures from one’s background, social status, and psychology all impact one another. After watching Over Zonen (About Sons), winner of the Dioraphte Award at the 2012 Netherlands Film Festival, I felt compelled to contact Shady and discover more about where he came from and how he manages to create such a compelling drama in the space of 15 minutes. The film secured Shady a place at the NFTS in the UK to study his craft in safekeeping for two more glorious years.

There was no one anecdote that secured Shady’s interest in filmmaking, rather both his parents have been writers and actors for years, so an impressive feat for accomplishing artistry must come as second nature. More specifically, Shady always loved storytelling and film fell into this love quite naturally. But, at eighteen, he admits not entirely understanding much about the process other than that a director essentially tells the story. However, the film school in Amsterdam (a 4 year BA) divides writers and directors – a long time to commit to one discipline! Despite enrolling in writing, Shady’s desire to direct his own scripts surpassed the schools regulations and he was able to convince the school to make Over Zonen. Without this go-getting attitude, film directing (and NFTS) would never have happened – I believe this is the case for anyone getting into the business – you have to have an element of single-mindedness that allows you to do what it is you actually want to do.

In a dream world, Shady does want to find a co-writer, another mind that can gel with his own to explore the many themes that he is curious about. Two minds can be greater than one. If you find someone with qualities you lack, for example, then it is likely to be most prosperous working with another writer. Let us not be misinformed, Shady is adamant about his love for collaborating, it is clear from his thoughts that it would not otherwise be possible to become a director. A director works with many people, something that Shady believes should be an enjoyable experience and come effortlessly, collaboration as a kind of disclosure. Shady targets another interesting thought that you have to be positive in order to be and stay creative. He then goes on to say that communication should go beyond language. It is a matter of getting other people inside your head. Whether right or wrong, this director understands how to work and evidently knows how to achieve what he wants – a bridge more fundamental in the craft than arguably anything else – essentially understanding yourself, “your mind”.

Shady has been fortunate (and wise) enough to focus solely on directing his films without wearing the producers hat too. The producer is not just the person to hold onto all the logistical and budgetary baloney and to force him or herself away from screaming in public, but actually to aid the director in vision, according to Shady’s welcoming experiences. He believes a producer should guide you in the right direction, “to keep you on the right path” throughout rehearsal, production, or whenever. But, the producer needs to understand first what the director is trying to achieve, and then help him to reach that specific goal. Shady is incredibly humble and talks about a habit of getting carried away with actors, or being overcome with excitement in the moment, and, therefore, finding someone who can remind him of a scene’s essence, or the core of the film, broadly a sustainability, is the most valuable asset that a producer can have.

When talking with Shady about actors, he underscored some central characteristics that are essential to a director. He explained his method, but then concluded with the philosophical truism that “everything will always be different.” And, therefore, the director “must have a very progressive state of mind.” It sounds quite simple really – just don’t be a conservative! But, we all know it is never that easy to give up that little piece, or a core idealism, that you wrote on that one long stormy night at 3 in the morning. Another interesting point is raised when thinking about the language used to engage with actors. It should never be from an audience’s point of view, but rather always that of the character. For example, “This guy is an asshole,” shouts a young lad at the screen – a very judgmental comment, but the director should not shout at the actor, “play an asshole!” There is no one way an actor can know how to play an asshole. The character just needs to know the why of what he is doing and the audience can judge in any which way they feel is appropriate. A director would be at a complete loss if he or she started making direct judgments about a character. Give Shady a message if you need this bit explained better!

After a chat about our favourite filmmakers, Shady talks crucially about coming at autership and cinephilia, as it were, from a place of theme. Watching a director for whom you recognise a certain theme within. “To me, that means that they have something to talk about.” Theme is not like style; style resides on the surface, whereas theme runs deeper, and ever deeper. It is enthusing to hear Shady talk about theme with such profundity. “The story is the vehicle, the ride… the theme is the core… not present, but existing in there somewhere.” Shady also believes that it is theme that essentially allows a film to be “timeless and universal”, look no further than Yasujirō Ozu for a few examples. It seems there are no bounds to the philosophy of film and its makers!

Fairuz

The reality is that the director is on a suicide mission. They have to clench the confidence to carry a bag of elephants up a mountain and not be told otherwise. No matter what it is that they are carrying, it has to SAY SOMETHING. “What is it that you want to tell me?” Shady realises that a film had better be good and say something if you are asking people to pay a tenner and relentlessly sit in front of a big screen for two hours. This is the responsibility of the director. A director needs to be truthful if they are taking on this task. If not, then “why the hell are you saying it?” There needs to be a REASON, “you need to know what you are saying, and you need to know how to say it.” There really is now nothing more to say! That is directing folks!

Here is an overview of talking points and insights from our chat:

  • Preparation is key for the director – Know what you are saying and how to say it!
  • The task of the director is to get other people inside your mind. This is the art of collaboration. Enjoy collaboration – You have to be positive in order to be creative!
  • Becoming a director is a gradual process of discovery. Shady discovered directing by screenwriting and views this story component as essential to directing. In other words, learn to write too!
  • The importance of theme – the story is the vehicle for the theme that runs far deeper than any style. Theme is often what resonates most with an audience’s understanding. Remember: understanding and enjoyment are two separate things, for example, one might connect with Tokyo Story thematically, and yet be more entertained by Mad Max: Fury Road.
  • For young Tarantino’s – the story will determine your style, not the other way around!
  • The director’s responsibility – the material needs to be personal in order to be truthful. Although, personal does not need to mean autobiographical!
  • Actors are collaborators too. Shady uses the analogy of giving road directions when speaking to actors – be clear and know where you are taking them. Also ensure that the actor understands what you as the director want to achieve.
  • The producer is not an enemy, they are there to guide you in the right direction and keep a tab on that core driving the film.
  • Last advice: Stick to it and make sure you are prepared; rarely does one get a second chance in film directing!

Be sure to watch Over Zonen online, for free, right here:

 

Advertisements

The Limelight Index: Dan Montanarini

nfts

Film school or no film school? Well, according to 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? Can film schools not condense such information and provide a way through all the slosh? 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, a recent graduate in directing fiction from the prestigious National Film & Television School (NFTS) in the UK, to pick his brains on the subject. He promises no bias.

seahorse

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.

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, as a time to focus solely on making films without the burnout that one encounters trying to do everything at once (and putting food on the table). 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? Similar thinking to Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Despite all this, Dan explains that film school offers far more opportunity to enrich your craft than the piggy bank; he had two full-scale set builds to work with!

seahorse_set

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. 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 very well: harden a director 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 led 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. In other words, feed off the talent around you.

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. Each director is unique in their approach. Film is the medium of an artist.

 

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. It is rumoured that Lars Von Trier plays these psychological games on set. And have you ever seen a bad performance in one of his films? An ethical question is raised. But film directing is arguably an form of manipulation, and working with actors is no different. 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 sharpened razor. It gives cinephiles an ecstatic level of insight and comprehension. If you ever run out of steam in this business, or feel lonely, spend an hour on YouTube (or preferably a criterion Blu-ray) with Scorsese talking about the cinema. And don’ forget about John Sturges too.

_MG_2230

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 far more adjacent to the thought-patterns that occur in our own everyday existence – a truism of lateral proportions. Finally, if you are really looking to challenge your taste, a desire for Luis Buñuel’s spectacle of curiosity will serve delightfully.

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 technique some thought!

What happens when you finish film school? Other than being highly versed in your craft, full of debt and geared to rev any film production to as an accomplished virtuoso, you must 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. 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, 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. All of us.

SEAHORSE REFERENCE00026

To sum up with some key ideas and NFTS salutations:

  • 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!

Watch this curious and unruly short film from Dan below.

 

Visit Dan’s website here.

You can also join him on Twitter.

 

 

Film Producers – “What Don’t They Do?”

Christine-Vachon

(The title quote is from a book called Shooting to Kill: How an Independent Producer Blasts Through the Barriers to Make Movies That Matter written by Christine Vachon – above).

Christine Vachon, a film producer who gave life to such stimulating independent films as Happiness and I Shot Andy Warhol (plus many more), gives a fine insight into her working life and the countless scuffles of the filmmaking process. Ultimately, the book is a reflection of her practice as a film producer and a rousing discussion for aspiring filmmakers to get ahead of the game, which moves ever so fast.

Christine’s grounded and somewhat taxing approach is actually refreshing to hear and she offers predominant insights into personal experience of film havoc, despite her wonderful success. It is essentially real; diary interludes offer a further taste of Christine’s approach and the inevitable tasks of filmmaking. Though, the discourse can at times be overtly self-conscious, it doesn’t set out to be a clear and concise guide of A to B, it is a meditative medium after all.

Whilst running through the filmmaking process in chronological order, Christine is generous in her offering. She provides full-budget feature film write-ups, cost reports and production reports etc. Whenever something is clearly daunting for the reader, she lightens the mood with her witty thought on the subject – “Stay sane and embrace the madness.” Descriptions like, “No cut is painless; the trick is to avoid slicing a major artery” (on budgeting whilst Shooting to Kill) are memorable and entertaining for the reader. Frankly, there are a number of quotations one could pull from this book and use as stimulus or however else you like to use intuitive information.

I wish to note a few points in the book that struck me as areas for deeper thought (not relative to practical tuition, however). Christine briefly mentions (to paraphrase) that she is intrigued by how disparate the continuity between a movie itself and moviemaking process is. The parts that make up the constituents of a film have obsessed film theorists as far back as Eisenstein (such as the process of montage editing), so yes, technical aspects of filmmaking have been studied in regard to continuity. But, the aesthetic of actually being on set (actually making a movie) – the chaos – is absurd in its discontinuity. How can cinema appear so pure on the screen? This is, of course, the magic of filmmaking (and all the hard-work that goes into it!).

Furthermore, Christine notions a lot towards the personality a film producer should have towards their work. It varies, but she gives some valuable thought. Of course, respect and equality reigns on set, yet balancing this with authority and sixty egos is no easy feat. Of the finished film, it is understandable that the producer and their team will expect everyone to think it amazing, how couldn’t they after their concentrated long-hours? Christine says, “Not everyone is going to like it, nor should they be expected to.” If you want to produce controversial work, or work that is going to be seen for its difference (often the only way in a saturated independent market, like today) then you have to keep a level head and respect peoples opinions. Okay, if it’s your last chance at a distributor and they read it completely backwards, feel free to go out into the backyard and scream a little.

Find Christine on Twitter.

Her book can be bought on Amazon by clicking here.