Mad Max's And X-Men's Josh Helman Writes About Directing His First Film
Josh Helman, from Mad Max: Fury Road and X-Men: Days Of Future Past writes for Bleeding Cool,
You should know that, at this very moment, I'm shitting my pants. Fortunately for both you, me, and everyone within a twenty-foot radius, I mean that metaphorically. But it feels like I might cross into the literal realm with nothing more than a hearty slap on the back, and here's why: You see, I am an actor. That is what I know how to do, what I'm good at (though of course some may disagree), what I've always done. Later this year, I'm going to act in a film called Kate Can't Swim, a film with a story that I love and a cast that I admire. So why, you may ask, am I filling my imaginary drawers? For this simple reason, dear friend: not only am I going to be in the movie, I'm going to direct the movie, too. Which I've never done, nor even attempted. So, in addition to shitting my pants, I'm in two minds. Every question I have ricochets back and forth across my mind like some insanely fast game of Pong played between my fear and my hope. And the question that I keep coming back to, the question that my dark half won't let go of, the question that I have to go to war with, is:
Why, having never directed before, do you think you're ready for this?
An excellent fucking question, me. It just so happens that I have some thoughts on the matter, so let's sit down, have a cup of tea, and see if we can come up with a good enough answer.
I LOVE MOVIES
Sure, okay, I'm not a professional. I never went to film school, and I wasn't given a Super-8 at the age of six to prove myself a cinematic prodigy. I am a f*cking actor, that's it. But I do really love movies. I've been infatuated with movies since I was a boy. In my teens, I would come home from school every Friday afternoon, go straight to the video store and rent anything I could — the sexier and funnier it looked, the better (NB: a lot of shitty movies look sexy and funny). At Blockbuster (R.I.P.) I would take full advantage of the 7 Weeklies for $11 deal and be done with all of them in two days. Yes, I do Really Love Movies. But here's the thing: in my opinion, when "Hey, I really love movies!" is used as a motive for creation, it's a big ol' dirty red flag — so much so that even the thought of this reasoning gets me spewing vitriol at myself:
So what if you love movies, asshole? You think that means you can make one? That's like walking into a hospital and yelling, "Someone hand me a scalpel, because I love knives, I love blood, and that makes me the perfect guy to take out some tumors!" Nope. It doesn't.
We're in agreement there. Really Loving Movies does not a great director make. After all, I love dogs but I'm pretty sure that if I tried to make one, 1) it wouldn't work; and 2) I'd be arrested.
So what else do I have that could make me a decent director? Well, maybe there one facet of mine that might get me through the hellfire of a debut feature on little to no experience: the fact that I'm pretty sure, when it comes down to it…
I UNDERSTAND MOVIES
Here's the other thing that happened during those glorious Blockbuster days: I began to develop a subconscious understanding of how moviesworked. How actors worked, how story worked, how scenes worked — and when and why each of those things didn't work. But I wanted to know more — to know who made movies and how — and one day at the age of 12 or 13 I ran across William Goldman's Which Lie Did I Tell? and read it cover to cover. As soon as I finished it I went straight to Dymock's and bought Goldman's Adventures In The Screen Trade. I pored over them both, imbibing every detail and anecdote and joke. I've been addicted to the world of movies ever since, and also to Mr Goldman's writing. I still have both books, and I recommend them to everyone who loves movies and good reading. (So, uh, everyone.)
Since Goldman, I have read as many interviews with directors as I could find (so much better to get their thoughts directly rather than through some secondary scholarly evaluation). Sidney Lumet's book Making Movies is popular for a reason; it's brilliant and straight-forward, much like the man himself. I admire his style; he threw himself at the mercy of the story, always letting the content dictate the form — and that is the kind of restraint that masters possess. Elia Kazan's Kazan On Directing is another fabulous read. He helped forge the path for filmmakers like John Cassavetes (one of my true favourites) who championed emotional realism and truthful behaviour over stylised, traditional Hollywoodisms. Hitchcock/Truffaut is another fabulous book, giving you a fascinating and informative glimpse into the mind of one of the most clever directors in film history. The American Film Institute also published two volumes of interviews with directors — everyone from Cukor to Spielberg.
Okay, bozo — you know a few things about movies from reading books. Whoopdi-f*ckin'-do. That doesn't mean you understand moviemaking.
Another great point, me, and look — I don't disagree. It is. Reading a book doesn't necessarily make it easier to create a shot list or shape an actor's performance. But here's my retort to that: the people whose books I have read are exceptionally good at what they do. Some might even call them great. I'm going to listen to whatever they — Bogdanovich, Kazan, Brando, Lumet, Goldman, Mackendrick, Chayefsky, Welles, King and the other men and women whose work I love — say, because only a fool refuses to learn at the feet of the greats.
And though I haven't read everything they've ever written, I've read a lot and I've learned a lot. I've learned about framing from Orson Welles and John Ford because Bogdanovich learned first and wrote it down. I blocked off three weeks of rehearsal for Kate Can't Swim; standard practice for Sidney Lumet because he came from the theatre and loves actors. I've learned more about directing actors from him, too, in no small measure because he wrote about directing Ralph Richardson in Making Movies. Lumet discovered, after spending minutes explaining a complex piece of direction, that Ralph preferred his direction to be described in musical terms: "Got it, Sidney: A little less oboe, a little more flute." (I'm paraphrasing.)
I've learned about the camera on sets by pestering DPs and ACs and Camera Operators with questions, and now I know that I better not move my head too much if I'm being shot on a 75mm lens at a 2.1–2.8 split because it's basically WFO and unless the focus puller anticipates me I'll go blurry.
Hitchcock and Fincher taught me about shot selection. Fincher's sequencing is immaculate. I believe it was him that said (and again I'm paraphrasing):
"There are hundreds of choices of where to put the camera, but in the end it comes down to two. And one of them is wrong."
So yeah, I've read a bunch and I've learned a bunch. I know how good writers construct their scenes from reading; and I know how good directors can cross the line without incurring vertigo (cutaways!). I'm still certainly no expert, and don't claim to be, but I'll damn well try to get there one day.
You said it, champ — you're no expert. Maybe you have some basic understanding about making movies, but why do you think your film will be any good? After all, good directors have made bad films. Knowing a little something is no guarantee against sucking the big one, pal.
You know what, you're right. There is no guarantee. But here's my final reason to think that maybe, if I play my cards right, I could make it well:
I LOVE AND UNDERSTAND THIS MOVIE
I knew that the first movie I ever made, by necessity, would be small. There's nothing wrong with that — The Duplass Brothers have made a number of excellent films for almost nothing — and in fact sometimes it can be an asset. A frustrating asset, but an asset nonetheless. What small movies can do well, in my opinion, is draw exceptional drama from ordinary people. It's all about good story, good construction, and personal truth.
And here's my personal truth: at twenty-nine years old, am starting to yearn. Yearn! What the fuck? I constantly find myself thinking back at my life and wishing I could relive hours, days, even seconds of it. My heart positively aches with the feeling. And yet, at the same time, I'm excited by the future. What work might come next? What new friends will I meet? What adventures are just around the corner? How soon can I get there? It's bizarre: I want to live in the future and the past simultaneously. And that, to me, is what this film is about: a woman who doesn't know how to live in her present. She tethers herself to two people, one from her past and one who may be her future, and tries to be with them both at once. Well, many of us have tried this, and just about all of us have failed. (I know I have.) This is a movie that looks into how we mistreat others— our friends, neighbors, lovers, teachers — and how we mistreat ourselves. I know a little bit about that. So, if I were looking for a bad-poetry way of saying that, I might say:
This movie is a piece of me.
That, more than anything, is why I think I can make it. And I really don't think I can do any better than that — regardless of my ability, all I can do is put myself into the work. That's the only thing I really know how to do. It's my job to do it as an actor, and I have to do it as a director. So maybe it's not about being ready for it, though I think I am; maybe what's important is just that I make it mine. I'm going to make mistakes, I'm going to learn from them, and it will always be that way. So fuck it. I'm going to do it, because I know what I mean to say.
And a year from now, when it's said and done — we'll have our answer then.
Josh is currently fundraising with an aim to shoot his film in the fall. If you'd like to support his pants-shitting enterprise, visit the campaign here.