Lessons from my favorite film directors

In this post I will share some skills and lessons that I learned from some of my favorite film directors. Some quick points:

1. None of this should be taken to imply that these films are mandatory material for filmmakers – I enjoy sharing, but you should feel free to follow whoever you admire.

2. Never let anyone tell you that you have to study a particular filmmaker in order to become skilled. Indeed, if you are very new to filmmaking, you should watch an enormous amount of films of all qualities, because there is a lot to be learned from masterpieces and disasters alike. You will eventually grow out of watching every film under the sun, but it is certainly very healthy in the first phase of your learning curve.

3. All of these films are timeless masterpieces and achieved the rare accomplishment of excelling in every element that goes into filmmaking, but this list will focus on specific lessons that I learned from each film, over and above the fact that they got everything right.

4. I learn from every film I watched and this is not a comprehensive list of my favorites, but it is a representative sample from the group of films that have really influenced me.

“Schindler’s list” (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Schindler's List, directed by Steven Spielberg

Pacing – “Schindler’s list” is a model of excellent pacing. At 3 hours and 15 minutes it is a very substantial film, but those three hours go by incredibly quickly, because the pacing of the film is fast and every scene is narratively very meaningful and satisfying. There is no redundancy and self indulgence in this film – nothing to make it drag. “Schindler’s List” is a very long film, but it does not feel long, because it is exceedingly lean and sharp. The lesson I take from this is that the audience’s perception is more important than the actual length: there are plenty of 90-minute films that feel interminable because their pacing is off; conversely, “Schindler’s List” is a 3-hour film that goes like a bullet.

Lighting – Janusz Kaminski’s lighting in “Schindler’s List” is worthy of careful study. It is quite simply some of the most beautiful and effective lighting in the history of cinema. If you want to move away from bland lighting and take your work to the next level, I would encourage you to take a look at “Schindler’s List.” This is also the film that I have watched more than any other – I have watched it literally dozens of times, and learn at least one new film technique every time. When I was editing my very first film I would often tell myself that I would take a break, watch the first half of “Schindler’s List” and then get back to editing. It never worked out that way: the film goes so fast that I would get to the end without even realising it.

Performances – One of the reasons for which “Schindler’s List” has not aged and probably never will is that the performances are so incredibly understated and mature that the film bears up under repeated viewing. Indeed, I get more out of it every time I watch it, which is surely the highest compliment that can be paid to a film. In particular, notice how nothing is stated directly in this film: all facts about the characters are shown either with action or with subtext – never explicitly. Again, it is my hypothesis that this is why “Schindler’s List” will probably never age.

“Minority Report” (Steven Spielberg, 2002)

Schindler's List, directed by Steven Spielberg

Quirky characters – This film stands out for the highly textured and quirky secondary characters. I am referring to Dr Iris Hineman, the hacker, the surgeon, the pre-crime custodian, and of course the main precognitive. These characters add depth and texture to the film, and are well worth studying if you want to leave bland characters out of your next screenplay.

Lighting – The lighting in “Minority Report” (by Janusz Kaminski) is brave, experimental, tonally appropriate and irresistibly beautiful. It was the bleach bypass process, in addition to Kaminski’s distinctive style, that gave the lighting in “Minority Report” its unique look.

“Romeo and Juliet” (Franco Zeffirelli, 1968)

Schindler's List, directed by Steven Spielberg

Beauty – Beauty of the actors, of the locations, of the design, of the music – Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” is a masterpiece of sensitivity and good taste. Franco Zeffirelli has an extraordinarily sharp sense of beauty, and also appears to have a special communication channel with the human condition.

Casting – Franco Zeffirelli spent many months on a worldwide search of his Romeo and Juliet. He did not settle for actors who would be okay; he went out and found Romeo and Juliet and put them in front of the camera. When it comes to casting such young actors, it is particularly important to find actors who can deliver the goods without too much effort. This may displease those who have idealistic notions of being able to direct anyone in any role, but the truth is that strong film directing skills cannot completely compensate for weak casting – one of the many issues that can make or break a film.

Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” is now 43 years old and has hardly aged. Not many films from half a century ago have stood the test of time so well.

“Terminator 2” (James Cameron, 1991)

Schindler's List, directed by Steven Spielberg

Screenplay structure – The structure of the “Terminator 2” screenplay is a textbook example of an impeccable three-act structure, with the added value of James Cameron’s dazzling understanding of pacing and buildup. In “Terminator 2” every setpiece is more riveting and high-energy than the previous one, and there is the judicious use of quiet, more contemplative scenes, because, as James Cameron said in the DVD commentary, “if everything is loud, nothing is loud.”

Character arc – The character arcs of Sarah Connor and the Terminator in “Terminator 2” are very impressive. Sarah goes from not trusting the Terminator to fully trusting him, and the Terminator himself goes from being a clumsy killing machine to someone for whom we have feelings at the end. The fact that it is nothing more than a machine learning to be more human does not make the character arc less impressive. By the end of the film, do we not fully accept the Terminator as a warm human being? Such is the power of films.

Highly dynamic camerawork and editing – James Cameron’s camerawork and editing are extremely fluid and seamless. James Cameron is not just a brilliant director, but also brilliant editor, and as I keep reminding my readers, directing and editing are inextricably entwined: you will never be a brilliant director if you are not also a brilliant editor. James Cameron’s editing in “Terminator 2” is so smooth that it is sometimes quite difficult to be consciously aware of the cuts, even if one is paying careful attention. In other words, the editing in this film is so good that it is difficult to study! One way around this is to watch the film without sound. In this way you will pay a lot more attention to the camerawork and the editing and you will learn an enormous amount (but do make sure that you put what you have learned into practice as soon as possible).

“Blade Runner” (Ridley Scott, 1982)

Schindler's List, directed by Steven Spielberg

Mood and texture – “Blade runner” has become a cult classic, and with good reason. It is the epitome of film noir: extremely high-contrast lighting, a cynical take on the human condition and a powerfully moody atmosphere throughout. If you want to make your films more moody, “Blade Runner” is worth studying, even if you don’t plan to go that far in terms of mood. Night scenes, rain, strong backlight, smoke – these are all classic tools in crafting mood, and they are used to considerable effect in “Blade Runner.”

Learning from our favorite films: concluding remarks

I will conclude by telling you that you should not worry if your work does not resemble that of the filmmakers you most admire: being influenced by a director does not mean that your work should look the same. For example, Franco Zeffirelli has said on more than one occasion that the filmmaker he most admires is Stanley Kubrick. This is absolutely fascinating, because Stanley Kubrick’s legendary coldness is the polar opposite of Franco Zeffirelli’s equally legendary romanticism and sensitivity. Franco Zeffirelli’s favourite director is Stanley Kubrick, but Franco Zeffirelli’s films do not look anything like Stanley Kubrick’s films.

Another example: James Cameron has said in more than one interview that his favorite film is “The Wizard of Oz” (dir. V. Fleming, 1939). I think we can all agree that none of James Cameron’s films look or feel anything like “The Wizard of Oz.”

Learn everything you can from the filmmakers who most inspire you, and do not be surprised when your work looks nothing like theirs – it is a healthy sign that you internalised the lessons and let them serve your own vision rather than attempting to mimic something that has already been seen.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from my favorite film directors

  1. Thanks for sharing. I’ll try to catch up all the films you mentioned. I love the lines you wrote on the phase of the first film and character arcs about Terminator 2.

  2. Now, that was a brilliant read. I loved the way you dug out the details…impressive read 🙂

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