Saturn Returns: The Movie Blog

On the Creative Process, Part I

On the Creative Process, Part I

The mountain that is love defies solo ascent.

This is an example of what my directing teacher Gerald Freedman would call theme. Or, what Lajos Egri would call a dramatic premise.

I articulated this dramatic premise for Saturn Returns after reading about Andrew Stanton of Pixar in the New Yorker Magazine. I was inspired to break out my journal and chip away at my director homework.

I am asked every so often what a director does. This question is usually over dinner, a drink, or at a meeting with someone who is not in the film business. It is an impossible question to answer, certainly impossible to answer over one meal.

That said, it is an important question, and one worth pondering over, writing about, and discussing. For me, the question is an inspiring one. When I ponder it, I want to get down to work.

This series is my occasional attempt to answer the question, “what does a director do?” Each time, I will come at it from the point of view that is where I am in the process. So, tonight, here goes…

Right now, I’ve written the script and rewritten the script many, many times. I’ve also got my producer hat on currently. I’m raising money with the business plan I’ve written, with the help of my producing team, making lots and lots of phone calls.

What that means is that there’s not a lot of directing work going on. But what little I’m doing is critical to the process.

Lake-Mary-Saturn-Returns

Lake Mary, Mammoth Lakes, CA

Basically, I’m looking for inspiration. I’m watching lots of different movies and television, always with Saturn Returns in the back of my mind. In Mammoth, I’m searching for the main house location, driving around town, looking at houses and trying to envision my characters in them.  I’m also looking for other seeds of ideas and images—the sign I pass on the way into town, the way a certain mountain rises above a lake, the shadows of the trees as the sun sets.

And then there is “director homework.” This is where the premise I talked about above comes in. One important part of director homework is asking the questions: What is the movie we’re making? What holds it together? What is the engine that drives it? How can I boil down all my ideas into one or two lines that I can use to convey my ideas to the cast and crew?

I’ve come at this question as a writer. Now, I’ve got to basically clear my head and reapproach it as a director. The answer to these questions will be my guiding principle, my North Star when I make decisions and choices. The more specific I am, the more this homework will serve me when I’m overwhelmed.

So, how did I come up with The mountain that is love defies solo ascent?

Well, first off, I started by asking, at the most basic level, what is the move about? Answer: love. Specifically, in this case, romantic love. More to the point, true love and what is necessary to experience true love.

In this film, our characters think they are in love, want to be in love, and deny their feelings of love. Some of them try to go it alone, immune to the power of love, or so they think. What they learn is that love is bigger than anything they want or plan or design. Indeed, love is bigger than any one individual. They learn that love demands sacrifice. They learn that love can’t be experienced alone.

One of the reasons that I set the movie in Mammoth Lakes and Mono County has to do with the salt-of-the-earth authenticity of the place. In my experience, it really is what it looks to be. People are who they say they are. It’s a place that strips one of the layers of façade. In my film, my characters are forced to confront their real selves.

So, in trying to convey the power of love in my premise, “mountain” captures it well.

Then we come to the verb. The verb is the litmus test. The conflict of the movie is often powerfully captured in the verb of the premise.

In this case, “defy” is a very human verb. So, I’m ascribing human qualities to the mountain of love. And, the verb “defy” juxtaposes solo ascent, a mountaineering phrase, with the concept of love. Basically, you can’t conquer the mountain of love alone.

I find that the best premises paint a picture. The verb conveys energy and conflict. There is a sense of irony in that expectations are confounded.

That’s all for now. For more on “premise” read Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, or William Ball’s A Sense of Direction. For the article on Andrew Stanton and his work at Pixar, go to NewYorker.com and look for the Oct. 17th issue. It’s a great read.

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