Ramin Bahrani (director of Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo, and Plastic Bag) held a directing masterclass during the Dorothy H. Hirshon Film Festival at The New School. My professor who organized the event, Sam Ishii-Gonzales, was tasked with choosing five students in the class to take part in the practical directing exercise in the masterclass. Out of those five students, I ended up as the director.
Most nerve-racking moment of my grad school career. For sure.
Before I get into the directing exercise, I’d like to discuss Bahrani’s lecture. Bahrani’s main point was visual clarity. Ambiguity in the story is okay, but the image always needs to be clear. He used Rosetta Stone software as an example. We went through a few examples from their website. The students had no trouble matching phrases with the images — except when the image wasn’t clear. For example, students had trouble identifying “girl eats” because in the photo the girl’s hand was obstructing both her mouth and the apple she was putting in it.
Bahrani asserted that when talking about your film, you should be able to explain the story in a way that a 12-year-old who doesn’t speak English can understand it. Don’t over intellectualize; do simplify.
He spoke of scene work and that we should be able to use the word “want” when describing a dramatic scene. Treat the scene like you would a complete script — it should have an inciting incident and turning points. These turning points should be emphasized with the blocking, camera placement/movements, and use of props. Along with the actor’ performances, these are the tools we have to make a dramatic story come to life. (We watched scenes from North by Northwest and Paper Moon to illustrate these points.)
Some other points he made:
And then the directing exercise began. Our team of five (producer - Noelia Santos, director of photography - Ryan Garretson, grip - Matt Simon, assistant director - Lit Kilpatrick) was given a pared down scene devoid of names, gender, and scene descriptions from Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It five days before the exercise. We were to come to class prepared to shoot the scene with actors. I decided to make it really difficult on myself and interpret the scene in a wildly different way: I cast two women (Annika Franklin, who also stars in my short film How Will We Cross the Seas?, and Noelia, our producer) as ex-lovers, set the scene in an art gallery instead of a restaurant/bar, and made the “fishing” dialogue an inside joke between the couple and subtext about their dynamic.
As we were setting up the scene, Bahrani asked what we were doing. I told him. He told me that that wasn’t the scene — we had to do the scene. It had to be in a restaurant/bar and it had to be at a table while the one character writes. He also told us that our producer cannot be our actress. We had to pick a new actress from the class. Liliana Dalen was nice enough to volunteer.
Basically, everything we prepared was for nought. But that’s okay. It was a great exercise in thinking on our feet and finding ways of adapting what we had already prepared for the scene. I managed to keep my cool during the whole thing and had explanations for all of my decisions.
The main crux of the exercise was to use blocking, props, and camera movements to denote the turning points and tell the story. He advised that even before bringing the camera to the set the director should work with the actors to prepare blocking and the use of props. The way an actor stands during a particular line or handles a prop conveys the subtext of the scene and helps illustrate the turning points. Camera doesn’t come in until after. Once you bring the camera in, the director should consider the most economical ways of shooting the scene. Do what is absolutely necessary and what best conveys the story/turning points/mood in a way that involves the least amount of camera set-ups.
What he wanted us to learn was the importance of individual scenes. There should be no throwaway scenes. Every scene should have a point and reveal something new and push the story forward. A deceptively simple exercise that was incredibly difficult and thought-provoking.
Often times young directors will think of a scene in camera moves. It is a visual medium, so it is natural for us to imagine the scene with the shots we have in mind. It is easy to fall in love with these shots. We need to get out of this habit. We need to consider the shots once we have considered everything else happening in the scene. Only then will we arrive at shot selection that truly contributes to the scene instead of devaluing it.
Oh yeah. Andrew Garfield was hanging in the back for a little bit.
tumblrize ramin bahrani masterclass andrew garfield new school directing