Whether it’s documentaries, mockumentaries, feature films, or wildly popular television shows, you can probably find it somewhere on Alex Buono’s résumé. Although he’s primarily known as a cinematographer, he’s also a successful writer, director, producer, and workshop instructor. Oh, and he’s been nominated for an Academy Award.
It’s impossible to say what makes a film great. Useless to prescribe any rules, since often the best films break them anyway. A more helpful discussion, then, might be to talk about what makes a film bad — and what can be done about it (this is the helpful part).
Matthew Porterfield, a 39-year-old filmmaker from Baltimore, Maryland, has written and directed four feature films, including Hamilton, Putty Hill, I Used to Be Darker, and the soon-to-be-released Sollers Point. His work has been screened at acclaimed festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, and the Berlinale. And in 2010 he was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. It’s an impressive CV for any filmmaker, let alone one who claims, for the most part, to lack ambition.
Tom Levinge’s comedic short, Mister Biscuits, is silly. It suspends reality by putting humans in the roles of beloved pets. There’s the occasional poop gag. And it’s unapologetically a “dog movie,” whereby the power of one’s pet’s affections is strong enough to help the protagonist recover, repair, and move on with their life — despite undergoing some pretty significant hardships. And yet, that’s exactly what makes this piece such a fantastic filmmaking achievement. It’s recognizable but inventive. It’s impossible, but it’s honest.
Creativity is full of paradoxes — not the least of which is the fact that having absolute creative freedom is often highly uncreative. It’s a phenomenon called “paralysis of choice.” The more options we have, the harder it is to choose anything. So we do nothing. When everything is an option, somehow we find ourselves optionless. Which is why almost every artistic medium develops its own limitations over time.
Why wait around for the perfect script to come your way, when you could spend time writing a script of your own? Probably because it’s a lot easier to have someone else do it. But with that strategy comes some serious risk. Mainly that the script never comes at all. The smarter, if much more painful, option is to take control of your creative destiny and write it yourself. Which is exactly what commercial director Lloyd Lee Choi is doing right now: hacking away on a feature-length script in hopes of breaking through the creative ceiling he’s reached while creating 30- to 60-second spots. We called him recently to see what he’s learned about writing. Here’s what he said.
If you gave five different filmmakers the same prompt, you’d get five different films. That’s because every objective element of the process (plot, characters, story) passes through the most subjective filter of all: our perspective. What results is an infinitely nuanced version of reality, with all of our biases, opinions, and values attached. This perspective is what makes films unique and it’s defined by our first-hand experiences, which is exactly why U.K. Director Charlotte Regan’s films are successful — she writes what she knows. Nothing more, nothing less.