We all want to make powerful films, but aren't quite sure which elements are integral to the process.
Actor Jake Gyllenhaal and director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Prince Avalanche) discuss just that during an event at SXSW, going over what makes a story great, what actors look for in directors, and how to make films that can ultimately change the world.
Here are several takeaways:
Your story should have something to say
We all know that story is king, but to Gyllenhaal, the films that "have something to say" are the ones he finds most interesting. This doesn't mean that your film has to have a grand political or social agenda, or speak about the ills of the world from a soapbox — you could have something to say about any facet of the human experience, whether it's physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. Gyllenhaal says:
It has to have something to say beyond just, "This is an entertaining story." It has to have a resonance — I believe really deeply in the unconscious of a story — not just the [consciousness] of the story. So, it has to have something underneath.
Fear is good
If you're not scared, there might be something wrong. Fear is a great indicator — sometimes it indicates that the movie you're working on is horrible and you should run away screaming, but sometimes it indicates that you're being pushed as an artist and being given an opportunity to grow in your craft. So, if your project scares the hell out of you, good! Find out why — find out in which direction you should run.
Character vs. Concept
It's easy for a story, especially ones that have complex ideas, to spend too much time developing and explaining a concept rather than doing so for the characters. You see this in films all the time — the plots are really complicated and interesting, but the characters seem to only be there to explain the plot. Really it should be the other way around, yeah? If you need an example, look at Christopher Nolan's films Memento and Inception. Both have very intriguing concepts, but in one film the plot exists to reveal more about the multi-dimensional characters, rather than the other way around. Can you guess which film it is? (It's Memento.) Director David Gordon Green talks about this in his conversation with Gyllenhaal:
I think a lot of films get lost in the overall scope and scale of the concept and forget the little nuances of character. I really do think it's something fun to watch a performance that's drawn from the intimacy of character rather than the enormity of concept.
Allow an actor's instincts to come through
The job of a director is really nuanced; there's no one way or correct way to do it. But Gyllenhaal shares one thing he truly appreciates when working with certain directors is their willingness to forgo their ego, collaborate, and allow him to act on instinct. You have to remember that when a director and an actor begin to work together, many times it's the actor, not the director, who shines a light on the obscure edges of a character, performance, or scene, and a good director knows how to allow actors to do this. He says:
I think all the best directors I've ever worked with have always allowed for those ideas to happen — and then sneakily, in the smartest way, they get their way.
"How do you create movies that do change the world?"
An audience member asks Gyllenhaal how to make a film that can change the world, and his response was:
I think it's a balance of self-reflection — enough that you ask yourself what you actually believe in. I don't think it's all about making movies that people "deem important" or political. I do inherently believe that all movies are political regardless of what they are or what they're saying. I think it's just about being able to ask yourself what you actually love — I think I've discovered that — if I ask myself what really moves me, people start to gather around.
No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom.