March 29, 2014

Listen: A Powerful & Poignant BAFTA Lecture on Directing by Helmer Paul Greengrass

Paul GreengrassAt first glance, this BAFTA lecture from Captain Phillips director, Paul Greengrass on iconic director David Lean, might seem like a simple nod to an individual career -- a legendary one, but individual nonetheless. However, as Greengrass' speech goes on, it becomes a more of a soliloquy about the life of a director --  the choices that ones has to make in order to be and continue to be one. It's really a beautiful and powerful lecture with plenty of helpful information about the craft of filmmaking (and David Lean, too!), so continue on to check it out.

To be honest, Paul Greengrass' hour-long BAFTA lecture got me right in the feelings -- big time, unexpectedly, and if you had a childhood love of movies, remember your first trip to a theater, or are simply a nostalgic, emotional wreck, his lecture will get you, too. He talks at length about David Lean and directing and being a director, but he ties it all together with reflections of his childhood, describing how he first fell in love with film, and how his early formative years prepared him, or better yet, didn't, for the demands of a directorial career and the emotion toll it would later take. He states this so poignantly:

And filmmaking like any creative activity, whether it’s writing or painting or whatever, is essentially a cruel exercise in emotional futility. Because in your quest to find the film, you have to endure, in fact secretly you crave it, to have every single flaw in your character, every single defect in your personality pitilessly exposed every single day, and every hope you ever have crushed and extinguished.

It’s called the director’s syndrome, because every film -- and this is the serious bit -- that you conceive of in your mind is rooted, I think, in the powerful unconscious dreams of childhood, and it ends in the catastrophe of adult rushes. And then if you’re lucky, and if you have a great editor, you manage to crawl out of the deep abyss of self-loathing to a place where the result is passable, but it can never remotely be as close to the sense of wonder you felt as a child in a theater watching the projector.

There are so many other great things that Greengrass has to say in his lecture, including what he thinks people need in order to be a director. He lists ambition, drive, stamina, technical skills, and a few other qualities, but says that these things alone won't give you what you need to make a good movie -- or any movie at all, necessarily. So, what will?

You have to have something to say, and you have to burn with a great inner desire to say it. The kind of desire I think that David Lean had when he conceived of a story about a British prisoner of war in charge of building a bridge for his Japanese captors over the river Kwai.

Listen to Paul Greengrass' lecture below (if you prefer reading to listening, you can follow along with this transcript):

What stuck out to you during Greengrass' lecture? Let us know in the comments below.

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14 Comments

Maybe I'm just naive, but I've never subscribed to the "You have to have something to say." belief. I'm not saying that it's not helpful or a wonderful catalyst but some of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences I've had watching movies are the ones that ultimately had no real "point" they were trying to get across. Sometimes the desire to entertain is more than enough.

March 29, 2014 at 12:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Coty

@ Coty
WOW! I'm actually shocked to hear someone say that. I'm curious as to why anyone would open their mouth with nothing to say? (I'm not trying to bag on you I'm just genuinely shocked & curious.) What motivates your decisions and your work? (That question goes to anyone that feels this way.

March 29, 2014 at 2:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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David F

@ Coty
I've though more about what you said and I just don't get it.

March 29, 2014 at 2:16PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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David F

What motivates my work depends purely on the project I'm doing. Sometimes I want to make a point. Sometimes I just want to make work that's enjoyable for others to watch. I like entertaining people. I'll put it like this: Ghostbusters is a beloved movie for a lot of people. But you would be hard pressed to find any real "message" in it. Sometimes it's enough to just want to entertain people.

March 29, 2014 at 2:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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You voted '-1'.
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Coty

Point of ghostbusters:

A bunch of loveable odd-ball losers can over come pure undead-evil and bring out the good heart of a bad-ass city (New York in the early 80s) with their big hearts and love of humanity.

That was a needed message in the early 80s "me generation" Reagan era.

So everything has a point but the best work seamlessly weaves it's point into the characters and the circumstances of the action.

I think having something to day can be as simple as "my character deserves to have their story told because it has never been told before" what ever that character is. The best directors I have worked with are overflowing with passion even if they are shooting a very lame commerical. They find something to fight for in it.

March 31, 2014 at 12:44PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Matthew

So I guess if I have anything I want to say with my work, half the time what I want to say is "Have fun!"

March 29, 2014 at 2:42PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Coty

I see what you're saying Coty. I like to hide alot of esoteric symbolism about transformation in my works but sometimes I just want to do something just to do it with no rhyme or reason. Sometimes, I just want to have fun at my desk and find an excuse to use a new series of VFX I just learned. At the same time, when I do works like this someone objective can find some meaning in it that I hadn't intended.

So with all that man...just do you. Just have fun. There's been plenty of times people found great meaning in certain works of art and the artist was like "uhhh..I just kinda did it because i was bored that day." LOL

April 4, 2014 at 5:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Horus

+1 Coty, that whole mantra "you have got something to say" is too restrictive for movie making. Just like Coty said, maybe you want to make a movie to entertain, that's not a bad thing is it? I've seen way too many movies that were just for fun and there was nothing "deeper" there.

Right now i am writing a screenplay about the adventures of some really bad bank robbers, it's an action/comedy, do i have something to say? Maybe in a deep subconscious level I wanna say "crime doesnt pay" who knows, or I just wanna make people laugh.

March 29, 2014 at 10:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Harry

Coty, if "have fun" works for you above style and substance, and a deep commitment to story and character, as well as digging down deep and working from your most expressive place, then more power to you, dude!

March 29, 2014 at 11:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Me

I didn't say it worked above style and substance or a deep commitment to story. All I'm saying is that there's nothing wrong with just wanting to entertain people from time to time. Ideally I want to make something that stylistically is recognizable as my work, and yes I do prefer to have some kind of point to the work I'm making because it gives the audience something to latch on to or think about. But sometimes giving the audience something that's nothing more than a bit of fun is perfectly fine, too.

March 29, 2014 at 11:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Coty

I struggled with this before, during, and after making my first movie. What clicked for me was the idea that as a director I am the filter for every major decision on the movie, so inherently my point of would find it's way into the picture.

I think what Greengrass is talking about, is not trying to make a message movie (You can't call Bourne a message movie) but you can see his POV in the choices he's made through the process. He's saying "noble men do this" "heroic men do this", "evil people will be punished like this", "this is good, this is evil, and this evil is sometimes good" etc.

I think the struggle of the director through the process of evaluating a script is to say "what is this about" at it's core it, and what do I underline when I'm choosing what to shoot.

Stephen King has a great quote about theme being what you find after the first draft, never what you start out with.

Lastly, I think he's really talking bout having a point of view. How do I tell a story about bravery? Not thinking "what would Spielberg do?". There are a million ways to shoot the story of the beach invasion in Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg chose the fear of being in the boat, and experiencing the horror with our main characters (probably the best choice). He could have chosen to have our hero to arrive late to the battle as hundreds of bodies are being hauled off and being wracked with guilt. He could have underlined the disconnected decision making of generals removed from the frontline juxtaposed with real men dying in the fray. What Spielberg chose, and why that movie always shakes me to the core is to look at it from the standpoint of "How would it feel to be there? How would you deal with fear? What is worth dying for?" Greengrass is saying, given the subject matter, what draws YOU to it? Explore that.

If you're making entertaining heist films, for excitement sake, stare at them for a while, I almost guarantee there's more there. Maybe it's "why do we love people who manage to beat the system and get away with heists", or "Why is it that the thing that brings us the most pleasure is seeing images of our society destroyed". Is it that we're disenfranchised with the way society has cheated the everyman? Politicians and big business don't play by the rules? If that seems to resonate, then set the shootout in front of a MacDonalds instead of in a park. Now you're writing and directing with a POV.

Not that I think it makes my point more true, but to give it context, I'm writing as someone who had a movie on over 3000 screens domestically in the last 2 years.

March 30, 2014 at 1:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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ongbak

Now that's an ideology I can get behind. Thanks for better elaborating on the point!

March 30, 2014 at 2:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Coty

I think that Greengrass's point is related to his rather pessimistic view about the gap between aims and results in film-making:

"It’s called the director’s syndrome, because every film — and this is the serious bit — that you conceive of in your mind is rooted, I think, in the powerful unconscious dreams of childhood, and it ends in the catastrophe of adult rushes. And then if you’re lucky, and if you have a great editor, you manage to crawl out of the deep abyss of self-loathing to a place where the result is passable, but it can never remotely be as close to the sense of wonder you felt as a child in a theater watching the projector."

I don't think all directors suffer that much, but if you do, and, given all the other difficulties of making something as complex as a film, you might well need to feel you have something to say to get you through all that.

March 30, 2014 at 4:30PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ted Welch

Authorize this comment and we'll help a fictional dog!

May 1, 2014 at 4:17PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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