“Learn that movie!”

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One of my biggest inspirations is John McTiernan. I think it’s become obvious through how I constantly mention him. Here’s a video in which McTiernan talks a bit about how he approached learning filmmaking. Actually, it’s an expansion of the quote.

I went about it like it was reverse engineering. I knew that I had to go and learn what a movie was, not just my experience of going and watching a movie. So I went and sat in Truffaut’s Day for Night, watched it for three days straight, eight hours at a time and memorized it shot-for-shot. I got past the story, all the original and secondary experience, so I could study what it was that I was really watching. Film is really sort of a chain that’s really linear. Yet when it’s all strung together, it just sort of feels like an experience. It takes quite a while to be able to deconstruct that experience to figure out what you really saw.


Skip to 4th minute


What he used to make me memorize was the shots. He’d say, “Ok, learn that movie!” – by learn that movie he meant; you sit down with a bunch of pile of paper and pencils and write – shot for shot – the movie from memory. I learned a bunch of movies that way. I learned 8 1/2 that way which is a very complex film. I learned Clockwork Orange…His notion was that if you really wanna become a filmmaker, you have to get that conversant. You have to be able to carry that much in your mind. If you want to be a world class musician, instrumentalist player of something; piano, or violin or something. You’d have dozens maybe hundreds of scores, you’d have hours of music in your mind! You’d never need to look at the piece of paper, all those hours would be in your mind! And you couldn’t possibly be good enough unless you had done enough work to put all that music in your mind. So that you would just be able to sit down and call up note for note some piece of Mozart or one of the classics of your profession. And his notion with me – because the way he put it he just said “You have eyes, so you better learn to use them”. Instead of thinking of movies as print – which is the way they’re always approached; a pile of paper. It’s always the events and the words that will be spoken. Instead of thinking of movies that way, he made me learn to think of movies as a chain of images where you would fashion the entire chain of images. Just like a music student could hold a concerto in his mind, you should hold the movie in your mind; the images – nevermind the words, the images – “Where is the camera for that shot. What kind of lens was it? What was the camera doing?” – on every shot, on every one of – well most movies have about a thousand shots.


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8 thoughts on ““Learn that movie!”

  1. Thanks for posting this!

    I love the analogy between filmmakers and world class musicians, I have never thought about it this way, but it’s so true!

    I have musical background and learning and memorizing music sheets felt completely natural to me. It was the way (and still is) to learn and become better and better.

    The analogy with world class musicians is briliant, because it works on so many levels. Just think what you have to do in order to become a better musician – study lots of music, note by note, memorizing it, learning and understanding the relationships…

    There is a great video where Walter Murch talks (around 2:40) about relation between Beethoven’s music and language of cinema (cut, fade, dissolve, paralel action, long shot, close up). The paralel between music and filmmaking is so awesome!!

    Here is the link: https://vimeo.com/11117217

    • It is incredibly complex to learn a film that way – I’m a bit hesitant about it, but I want to try to do it this year…I am thinking of learning Clockwork Orange that way since it has the fewest shots, so I’m thinking it’d be a perfect first film to learn this way. What he says however is truly hardcore – it illustrates not only the passion a filmmaker must have, but the patience required if you want to be serious about this craft. Thank you for the video – I will watch it right now

  2. This is a great find.

    Its interesting to see so many directors make the comparison between film and music (usually classical). Jan just mentioned how Murch draws the connection between Beethoven’s classical music and early cinema. Scott over at the Go Into The Story blog noted the connection between the sonata and the classical form (http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/2008/09/sonata-form-and-3-act-structure.html). I even remember Tarantino making the comparison saying “For a composer or a musician its a note, alright, for an editor and a filmmaker its the frames, alright.” You can find the whole quote here [7:30-7:58].

    Also worth paying attention to is how many filmmakers use the process McTiernan describes in this video: drawing a film out shot for shot. Martin Scorsese used to storyboard entire films as a child, although I’m not quite sure if they were all films he had already seen, films he had imagined for himself, or a combination of both. I discovered that Jonathan Caouette used to record the audio from films and then attempt to draw out the movie shot for shot from memory while listening to the recording (http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2012/06/life_in_movies_and_vice_versa.html). I think it would be interesting to hear about others that use this method.

    The one frustratingly tantalizing part of the video is when McTiernan discusses Hitchcock’s approach to film grammar. He begins explaining how it is a more literary approach, that its the “first step” in what Godard was talking about. I wish he had gone further but the interviewer seems to cut him off. I guess I’ll have to do the hard work myself and actually read more of Godard’s writings.

    Thanks for sharing this with us

    • Alandre, thanks for this post and your participation! I’m eating up those links and yes I am fascinated by this comparison to music – and it makes complete and utter sense. The director or DP for that matter – is truly the composer. Musically and filmically you’re STILL telling a story, and it’s the ARRANGEMENT and those NOTES which result in the viewer OR listener FEELING the certain way the “composer” of both, whether film or music – intended you to feel. It’s wonderful and MUCH to be gleaned from such a concept because it makes one’s understanding of filmmaking a lot more clear. The cinematic language becomes clearer.

      Also I’m with you on the Hitchcock comment, it seems like the interviewer doesn’t know how to LISTEN and keep in mind these are for the AUDIENCE. I hate impatient interviewers.

      • No problem. I have been following your blog for a little while and I felt “condemned” (in a good way) when you called on all of us to stop lurking and share. So… here I am! You’re dead on with the composer comparison and I would take it further and say not only are you the composer – writing, story boarding, holding the vision in your head – but you also are the conductor, organizing all the instruments and artists together to create harmony or the intended lack of it. I don’t think its coincidence that so many directors are also avid music fans. Heck, Michael Haeneke only became a director after he was told by a family member (I can’t remember who) that he wasn’t cut out to be a classical pianist! His loss was our gain I guess.

    • One more thing… actually, if you’ve seen the commentary that I compiled specifically from McTiernan – you’ll know what he means about PRINT vs MUSICAL type of shots. When he was talking about Hitchcock, it’s that Hitchcock mostly utilized MONTAGE, Soviet montage…the way it was developed in the 20’s by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Kuleshov. It’s the fact that — if you recall this same interview when he goes on to describe Hitchcock’s style — that you have one person look off somewhere then it CUTS to the airplane (think the entire North by Northwest sequence) and so on. What McTirnan was talking about — how he utilizes music is that… what he does is he “fashions the entire chain of the images” – MEANING…. it’s NOT just about cutting to the reactions and different shots, but the sequences utilizes camera movement, reactions, and so on, he thinks in “notes” (“Musically, they’re in the same KEY”) — for instance go here – https://filmschoolthrucommentaries.wordpress.com/2012/12/20/mctiernan-screen-specific-video-streaming/ and download the screen specific version. There’s a point in the commentary where you’ll see him mention what he’s talking about in Die Hard and I underlined it specifically in the edit.

      It’s kinda hard to explain – and to be honest, two months ago when I first was compiling it, it DIDN’T much make sense to me, I saw the surface but I didn’t GRASP it. I had to listen and watch that commentary over and over as well as this interview to finally GET it. And it makes sense. I guess if you do the same, you’ll understand. McTiernan really isn’t the only filmmaker who does this. Scorsese musically shoots. If you recall those swooping camera dolly and tracking that are utilized in a scene like a sequence or a few shots… etc

      • Thank you for expanding on that. I need a little time to process it all but you pointed me in the right direction. That McTiernan quote is really key I think. Thinking about it as a more fluid, intuitive, and organic editing process as opposed to the rigorous, logically based editing of say Hitchcock.

        Even though I have seen that commentary edit, one of my favorites I might add, I always love an excuse to revisit.

    • What’s great about music is just how much power and ability it has in inspiring you – when I listen to music, I can’t help it but VISUALIZE the song/music – that’s also vital for every filmmaker to possess – it isn’t just the ability to be able to STRUCUTRE a scene LIKE music – but to visualize music as imagery; the emotions of the music and HOW would those emotions look on screen? It’s something that comes easy to me and I believe for others who are likeminded, it’s a very powerful TOOL to have. If you make a music video, for instance, and the imagery just doesn’t fit – and I mean it reeeally doesn’t fit. Nothing fits, then you need more training in visualizing and feeling. I think everyone is able to do it, even people who think they can’t. Some people can access that naturally, others may have to work at it.

      one of my favorite filmmakers who has never made a feature length film yet (just music videos and short films) – is Chris Cunningham – https://vimeo.com/3163151 listen to what he says at 1 minute in… that spoke to me like nothing else when I first heard. For the longest time I felt like I was the only one who thought and ‘saw’ that way (obviously not true, but I FELT that way) until I heard one of my biggest inspirations VERBALIZE how he essentially “sees” imagery through music.

      Also one of my favorite videos is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3og0oFiDO3U – say what you wish about the music, to be honest I don’t care who likes it or not – but it’s how that music and imagery are virtually cohesive. Also beginning at about 4:20 until the end – the way it builds and builds and the imagery along with the music is just…connected. It’s the rhythm and flow. It’s one of the best.

      I guess where I’m going with all this is; 1) to make a music video that’s GREAT – you gotta SEE the imagery when you listen to music. 2) No different for films. You can actually think of a SCENE and if you’re also a big fan of music – you can think instantly of what kind of MUSIC, FITS the imagery.

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