This Is How A Director Can Ruin A Movie Without Realizing It by Mark W. Travis
Film Courage: What are two or three things that a director cannot afford to get wrong because if they do, the movie is ruined?
Mark W. Travis: Wow! That’s a big question. Two or three things they can’t get wrong…
Film Courage: Right…cannot afford.
Mark W. Travis: Okay. There is one thing Karen I think is really important that I’ll include myself in this that we all fall into. A trap that we all fall into. And what I call it is the trap of assumption, okay. The trap of assumption is let’s say I have a script and I really like it. I’m moved by it, okay? My assumption would be that other people will it and be moved by it. Somebody else could read it, or see this film or whatever and could be moved by it. I could be wrong. I’ll even take a scene between a husband and wife and there is an argument going on and the husband is really angry at the wife for some reason and to me he’s angry at her because of her attitude. Her impatience. I’ve done something very small. And my assumption is that anybody watching it would get that. It may not be true. The problem is this: when we’re looking at a script, in a script, I’m just going to take one scene, I can read that scene Karen. And I can read it. Let’s say it’s just two pages, I can read that scene and say “I got it. I can see what’s happening. I can feel the energy between the two characters. I can feel the conflict. I can feel the resolution. I can feel all the obstacles. Everything that they’re going through. I get it. Now quite honestly those two pages, none of what I felt is there. I can tell you that right now. None of it. None of the conflict and even the characters is there. All it is, is words typed on a page. No different than a novel, it’s just words typed on a page. What happens which we all have to recognize is when you look at a script you project into that material what you believe is happening. Anybody who reads a script can suddenly hear the characters, they can see the characters. Where is that coming from? It’s not coming from the page. It’s not there. There’s no pictures of the characters there. There’s no action there. Nothing. There is no emotion there. No performance there. Nothing. So what we do, what every human being does is we project into those pages what we believe is happening. In other words, those pages are triggering me. Those pages that I am reading trigger Mark. Mark’s history. Mark’s life experience, Mark’s expectation. Everything. It’s coming from me. So I project into it. Now Karen, you’ll do the same thing. But why should I assume that your projection is the same as mine? That’s the danger of assumption. I’ll assume that you’ll get it the same way I do. Not true.
Maybe close? I don’t know. So the trap is the trap of assumption. I assume that you’re going to respond that way. I could see a scene and go “That’s so moving!” and you’re going “What? I don’t get it.” My reaction was, it was moving. Your reaction was that it wasn’t moving. The assumption was you should get it. Thinking that just because it works for me, it should work for everybody else. Yes, ironically, the flip side of that is also true. I as a director have to make the movie for me. I can’t make it for anybody else. So I have to allow a certain level of assumptions are going on. I’m assuming because I’ve made a movie that I really like that it is moving to me, I have to assume it is going to be moving to enough people that lots of people are going to like it. So we’re trapped in the world of assumption. But trapped in that we have to do it but be aware aware that it could be a problem.
Film Courage: Okay. So how is someone aware of their own assumptions? Let’s suppose you think that these two pages of very moving dialogue between two characters is just heart-wrenching because you see the world that way or that scene, but how are you bouncing that off someone else…I don’t know if I’m making myself clear?
Mark W. Travis: Yeah. I think so and I think I have an answer for it. Let’s stay with this one scene because sometimes just looking at one scene because a movie, you don’t just make a whole movie, as you know. You make all these little scenes put them together and it becomes a movie. So you have to be very focused, very myopic about that scene. So let’s say a scene between a husband and wife. And getting back to you, how do I deal with my assumptions. One of the biggest assumptions I as a director can have, any director, every director will have…I read the scene, I know how it should play. I, as the director know how this scene should play. Should…now I am the director so I get to decide. I get to decide how I want the actress to play the mother and how I want the actor to play the father. Now this is what a lot of directors will do and I can tell you right now because working with a lot of directors, I will say to a director who says this is how it should go and I’ll say “How do you know?” “Well, that’s clearly the way it should play” and I’ll talk to them about projection. So there is that assumption. Now we’re going to mix with that something else which makes it even more difficult. You have the two actors. Now those two actors read the script and they’re making assumptions. The actress will say “Oh, I know how to play this.” The actor will say “Oh, I know how to play it.” Now we have three people who have different points of view on how it should play and I can tell you right now the director, me and those two actors, right? We’re all wrong. We’re all wrong. We’re right about our assumptions. We are right about our opinion. But we are wrong. Our opinion actually does not matter. All three of us. The only opinion that matters is the opinion of the characters. The characters, the husband and wife, they know. And we’re trying to tell them how they should behave. The actors are trying to tell them how to behave by controlling them. I’m trying to tell the actors how to control the characters, how to portray the characters. If I can get to the character, get to the truth of the character my assumption may be blown right out of the water and the actress may be, too. Or not. I don’t know. But my job as the director is to serve the characters. That’s getting back to what your question was before, serve the story. Not my version of the story, their version of the story. I want to get to the truth of who they are. I want to get to the truth of the characters that the writer created that the writer is also making assumptions about. The writer may even tell me “Oh, it should go this way.” And I say “Well I don’t know if you know either?” Let’s get to the character and this gets down to the interrogation process which is talking to the character. I want to know from the character what they want, what they think, what they feel. The one thing is very important which may have been in the DVD [Hollywood Film Directing: The Masterclass by Mark W. Travis] I gave you, probably is.
One thing that is very important, this is a concept to me that is so clear and obvious but nobody talks about it because as soon as I bring it up, people go “Oh, yeah!”
The characters in your movie. The characters in this scene. These two people, husband and wife, whoever they might be, are not in a movie. They’re not. They are two people who are in their life. They are in a moment in their life which happens to be the scene trying to achieve whatever they’re trying to achieve that is just two people. They are not in a movie. They do not have a script. And we are trying to present them as authentically as we can to a viewer.
Well in order to do that we need to present them as authentically as we can to a viewer. We need to honor them, not my point of view necessarily. Not the actors point of view necessarily but them. Let’s present them as authentically as we can. I have learned so much about characters and story by talking to the characters in a way (and I mean this seriously) dismissing a little bit of what the writer says, what the actors say, and even what I think. I go and I talk to the characters and I am sometimes so educated and enlightened about who those people are. They are the ones I am here to serve. They are the ones that the writer is here to serve. And we’re all there in service of characters. So let’s talk to them of the interrogation process (which we can talk about later) as a way to get to them and get us, the writer, the directors and the actors out of the way. Many times getting to the truth of the story, the actors, the writers and the director are the biggest obstacle. We are in the way of what we’re trying to achieve.
Question for the Viewers: What are your thoughts on the “trap of assumption?”
CONNECT WITH MARK W. TRAVIS
MARK W. TRAVIS is regarded by Hollywood and independent film professionals internationally as the world’s leading teacher and consultant on the art and craft of film directing. He is known as “the director’s director.”
Fueled by the desire to generate organic and authentic performances in an instant, Mark developed his revolutionary Travis Technique™ over a span of 40 years. Not limited to filmmakers, The Travis Technique™ has proven to be an essential set of tools for all storytellers, writers, directors and actors.
Mark Travis has taught at many internationally acclaimed film schools and institutions, including Pixar University, American Film Institute, UCLA Film School, FAS Screen Training Ireland, NISS — Nordisk Institutt for Scene og Studio (Norway), Odessa International Film Festival (Ukraine), CILECT — The International Association of Film and Television Schools, and the Asia Pacific Screen Lab (hosted by Griffith University Film School, Brisbane, Australia).
Productions directed by Mark W. Travis have garnered over 30 major awards, including: an Emmy, Drama-Logue, L.A. Weekly, Drama Critics’ Circle, A.D.A, and Ovation awards.
His film and television directing credits include: The Facts of Life, Family Ties, Capitol, Hillers, and the Emmy Award-winning PBS dramatic special, Blind Tom: The Thomas Bethune Story. Also the feature films Going Under (for Warner Bros. starring Bill Pullman and Ned Beatty), Earlet (documentary), The Baritones, and The 636.
On-stage, over the past 20 years, Mark has directed over 60 theatre productions in Los Angeles and New York, including: A Bronx Tale, Verdigris, The Lion in Winter, Mornings At Seven, Equus, Café 50s, And A Nightingale Sang, Wings, Linke vs. Redfield, The Coming of Stork and others.
Mark is the author of the Number-One Best Seller (L.A. Times), THE DIRECTOR’S JOURNEY: the Creative Collaboration between Directors, Writers and Actors. His second book on directing,
DIRECTING FEATURE FILMS (published in April of 2002) is currently used as required text in film schools worldwide. His third book, THE FILM DIRECTOR’S BAG OF TRICKS: Get What You Want from Writers and Actors was published in 2011. Mark’s popular DVD, HOLLYWOOD FILM DIRECTING, is available now.
MARK TRAVIS and ELSHA BOHNERT offer workshops and consultations on all aspects of storytelling for writers, directors and actors.