Getting Started – Alan Parker’s Top Tips
Alan Parker is a director, producer and screenwriter who has worked across a range of genres in a career that has spanned nearly 40 years. His work includes Bugsy Malone, Evita, Midnight Express and of course The Commitments. He gave Film Ireland his top tips for anyone looking to get started in the film industry.
Frankly, filmmaking is not such a great profession these days, so be really sure you want to do it. It’s tough. For every Once there’s a thousand films no one ever saw (except for the filmmakers’ closest relatives). Last year at the Sundance Festival – the Lourdes of independent film – they had five thousand entries. Of the twenty that were picked up by distributors, only five got their money back at the box office.
Listen to no one.
As the veteran screenwriter William Goldman famously said about the movie business, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ If you’re a director you should always be truthful to yourself, to what you are trying to say and how you choose to say it. Frankly, directing is a crash course in megalomania. But always remember that a film doesn’t exist in a film can or on a DVD. It only exists when it flickers on a screen and an audience experiences it. So don’t ignore the tastes, emotions and expectations of all those people sitting there in the dark.
Listen to everyone.
Filmmaking is a collaborative art form. No filmmaker in history ever made a film on his or her own. Film crews are your best friends and the true heroes of the film business. Let’s face it, even Leonardo needed a little help painting The Last Supper; Fellini needed a hundred people to help him shoot La dolce vita.
Filmmaking is rarely glamorous. Being ankle-deep in pig shit every day is the reality.
Ok, sometimes you get to meet Andrea Corr.
It’s just as hard to make a bad film as a good one.
The moment you start a film, you take a deep breath and leap off into a big black hole of uncertainty and doubt. A film director has to have the sensitivity of a poet and the stamina of a construction worker. The trouble is that rather too many of us get it the wrong way around.
It’s not a business that accepts failure.
There’s a sort of kamikaze feeling when you set up your first shot on a film. It’s a tough, unforgiving business and mostly you only get one chance to screw up. Unless you’re Ridley Scott.
Get a good agent.
If you are hot and talented then a good agent (and lawyer) can be very useful. If you’re not, they’re not.
Be swift of foot, but don’t tap dance.
Film is a contrivance, an illusion. Each frame is a manipulation, sometimes artful, sometimes not. But too many young filmmakers get bogged down with the ‘technique’ of film. It’s a red herring. What matters is what you have to say and the story you’re telling. When I started, Ken Loach told me that when it comes to making a film ‘Don’t ask how, just ask why.’ On set, good filmmaking is about spontaneity and capturing the magic of the moment.
Directors die with their failures.
Making a movie has been likened to climbing a mountain so it’s sometimes better to quit in the foothills than to die on the slopes. If a movie looks like it’s going to tank, you won’t see a producer’s heels for dust. However, the director is there until the bitter end, suffering every interview, every spiteful insult and every critical abuse.
Most producers are an equal mix of braggadocio and Pinocchio.
Good producers are rare. If you get a good one, hang on to him or her. Often there are so many people on a film with the title ‘producer’. On The Commitments I had eight. Eight producers who are 88% nice, congenial, helpful and pleasant but 12% irritating adds up to one producer who is a complete dickhead.
Don’t do it for the money.
Nowadays, there are better ways to earn a living. Budgets are pared down to the creative bone and filmmakers rarely see profit from their films. There’s an old saying, ‘The further you are away from the cash register, the less likely you are to see any money.’ The lower the budget of the film, the more freedom you have as a filmmaker. The larger the budget, the more the financiers are going to interfere.
American cinema is the cinema of the audience.
It’s snobbish and unhelpful to think that European cinema is intellectually and morally superior to the American version. Certainly many US movies are garbage and designed only to make money but, ironically, some of the best creative films come out of the same system.
Beware of rabbits. The hardest film to make is one that has creative integrity and still connects with a wide audience.
In the final scene of an American movie they always produce the rabbit from the magician’s top hat, to the sound of cheers and applause. European films shoot the rabbit, resulting in the audience leaving the cinema wanting to kill: a) the filmmakers b) the magician c) more rabbits, or d) one another.
Beware of actors.
The casting process is exhausting but crucial. Nothing can bollix a film as fast as a dodgy actor. Do your homework and avoid the assholes. Life is too short. A director consequently behaves differently depending on the actor. Sometimes you’re seen as a best pal or benign uncle, other times as a strict schoolteacher and occasionally as a Gestapo torturer.
The script is everything.
It’s everything but it’s not a movie. It’s a blueprint for a movie. A script takes about a year of your life on average: two months to write and ten months to rewrite. (To make the movie, add on another year.) For a good script, it helps to have a sensational ending – and a terrific start – and a juicy second act, though not necessarily in that order. The holy trinity of screenwriting is character, dialogue and construction. In Doctor Zhivago, in the middle of the third act, Omar Sharif starts writing the Lara poems. That should be screenplay suicide. Except it works. Poems? In the middle of the third act? In long hand?
Scripts cost nothing.
Burn the midnight oil writing a script if you want to get a film made. The time is your own and it’s the cheapest part of the filmmaking process. Sometimes you even get paid. In London the plumbers are all Polish. In Warsaw the plumbers are all Romanian. In Los Angeles the plumbers are all screenwriters. American screenplays are far superior to the European variety. An American screenplay always asks the question, ‘What happens next?’ This is superfluous in a European script because, invariably, nothing happens anyway.
Some directors talk a good film and make bad ones.
Having a good idea isn’t the end of it. You have to persuade someone else it’s a good idea. It helps if it’s an original script with an authentic voice but you have to sell the socks off it. It’s what the Americans call ‘being good in a room.’ Pitching any film idea to a studio executive is a bit like juggling in boxing gloves, whilst tap dancing in treacle, for an audience that appears to have gone to the toilet. Most people pitch their scripts as a ‘cross between.’ As in, ‘It’s a cross between The Battle of Algiers and The Godfather.’ That’s always a good one. A cross between Reds and The Blue Lagoon is not so good.
Tom, Matt and Brad.
If you want to ensnare a movie star, it helps to have a great script that begins with the male lead description as follows, ‘Out of the ’68 Chevy pick-up steps JIM, 30-ish, handsome in a special, unfussy way; his simple but honest persona disguises a fierce intelligence.’ It also helps if you call the lead character Tom or Matt or Brad.
Princes of Darkness.
It’s imperative to choose a good cinematographer who you get on with. You will be spending a lot of time with him (it’s usually a ‘him’). Some delicately paint with light. Some use creosote with an industrial roller. A DOP who uses less light is preferable. Great light is simple light. The set should never look like a supermarket, even if it is a supermarket.
On a film set, momentum is everything because it fuels confidence on both sides of the camera. Nothing disrupts the momentum of the filmmaking process faster than directors’ indecision, child actors, animal trainers, dud special effects, unpunctual actors who can’t remember their lines and the incessant tinkering of a nervous cinematographer.
Life is not a film set.
When making a film, it dominates your every waking moment so when not making a film it’s advisable to get on with your life. After all, if you don’t live a life, how can you make films about life?
Critics suck, get used to it.
If you miraculously get your script financed and the film made and in the process probably survive malaria, divorce, bankruptcy, alcoholism and numerous nervous breakdowns, chances are you will then be shit all over by some film critic whose greatest sacrifice in life is to switch off his mobile phone in a comfortable preview theatre. Ignore them. They would love to be doing what you do.
Don’t let the tail wag the dogma.
Again, remember William Goldman, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ All film is valid and all rules are there to be broken. Film stock is expensive and few understand the complex mysteries of the film camera. So get a digital video camera. Everyone can work one and the ‘film’ is cheap. So we can all shoot and edit our own stories. It doesn’t matter how crude the filmmaking is if the story has honesty and heart. (Plus a few great Glen Hansard songs help.)
This article first appeared in Issue 124 of Film Ireland Magazine.