John Sturges is considered by many to be one of the most underrated filmmakers since the beginning of cinema. His films The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, and Bad Day at Black Rock tell stories about courage and the "essential decency of man," all with the noble intention and ultimate goal of entertaining an audience. Director Paul Thomas Anderson once said that he learned everything he knows about directing from Sturges' commentary on the Bad Day at Black Rock LaserDisc, so here's the opportunity, if you haven't already taken it, to listen to it and, as Anderson says, avoid 20 years of film school.
A genre-mixing western noir (or noir western -- either way,) Bad Day at Black Rock was the first MGM film to be shot in CinemaScope, and Sturges showed a talent for composing images in the widescreen format. In fact, the film was also filmed in the standard 4:3 ratio, because the studio weren't completely confident that widescreen would work. However, the 4:3 version was never released, and the widescreen version of BDABR went on to receive good reviews by critics, as well as inspire future filmmakers, like Anderson, toward better filmmaking. So, check out Sturges' commentaries from Bad Day at Black Rock below, and scroll down to see a few select quotes.
When first starting out, it's understandable and expected for filmmakers to use the films that inspire them as guides for camera technique. Although this can definitely help you in many cases, it's very necessary to be aware of what kind of movie you're making, because not all camera techniques fare well for the same genre, story, tone, etc. Sturges says:
A lot of people have asked me about camera technique -- angles to use, why you use them, camera style, camera movement. One answer is that it depends on the kind of film you're making. If you're telling a story and it's told in an apartment house in New York -- really not much point in trying to see how fancy you can get the film angles. If you're doing a picture such as this one, Bad Day at Black Rock, there's a wide opportunity to use what I'll call "effective angles," because everything you look at has interest. But now you get into the purpose of the film. The perfect camera technique is one that the audience doesn't even know is existing.
Film is about reaction
We're not talking about a simple shot/reverse shot sequence here. Yes, it's important to understand that technical convention, but it's more about being fully aware that an audience gets their information about what's going on in the story largely from the reactions of your characters toward something in the diegesis.
Film is reactive. What counts is what your players react to. So, if you go past your principal actors at what's happening, then you cut around, reverse back onto that actor -- automatically you're in a close shot, which is what you wanna be, and automatically you're cutting off what happened to see how it affected him. That's the name of the game in films. Hitchcock said it all. He said, "Cutting means the ability to make an audience feel what you want them to feel by the reaction of somebody to something.
Having a good cinematic vocabulary is essential if you want to keep your films fresh and alive, and understanding what your shots and images convey is incredibly important. Not being aware could rob you of the greatest shot of your career, or say something to your audience that wasn't intended. Find out how to ramp up the aesthetic energy generated in your shots. Study aesthetic theories -- find out what the human biological and psychological responses are to certain colors and color schemes, spacial constructions, sizes, shapes, etc.
Part, of course, of good photography is what you're photographing -- spectacular locations, spectacular faces, spectacular characters, a streamline in a desert is pretty spectacular. So, you start with stuff that's worth seeing -- Jack Ford, I guess the man who everyone agrees made the best western, he shot it backlight. Backlight means the mountains are dark and heavy and ominous -- that the faces of the characters are dark -- He used big big things behind people. He shot up at them to make them look menacing by taking on the character of the mountains behind them.
Here, Sturges talks about how Dore Schary of MGM and screenwriter Millard Kaufman, who wrote the script to Bad Day at Black Rock, came up with two elements for the story and how they work together to form a living narrative:
One: He was a man whose life was saved by a Japanese boy in Italy. The boy died and he was given a metal for his heroism. He's looking for the father of that boy to give him the metal in an expression of thanks. Two: He's lost the use of his arm. He feels mutilated, unneeded, defeated, and leading a pointless existence. Put those two elements in this and you have a story. And it moves. It's alive, and you identify. It goes somewhere.
What do you think about John Sturges' commentary? Do you agree with Paul Thomas Anderson, that it's better than 20 years of film school? Let us know in the comments.