Time flies when you’re not blogging, it seems, for it was only in my last post that I was announcing my intention to make a short film, and now I have shot it.
Being a writer first, and possessed of a seemingly primordial urge to be seated in front of my laptop typing sequential lines of words, it always surprises me how invigorating it is to be involved in the practical manufacture of a film. I had this realisation on the Isle of Dogs as I unleashed a canoe from the ropes that tethered it (this sentence gets less interesting from now on) to the roof of a van I had come to borrow from my housemate’s dad. But it’s not often that I unleash a canoe from the roof of a van, or equivalent. And it struck me at the time that participating in this act – and knowing that it was an act that formed part of the making of a film – was not without its value.
Nevertheless, in the practical preparations pantheon it was a minor occurrence compared to the international, continent-spanning operation that I enacted in order to ensure that my actors’ dialogue was delivered without a hitch. The premise for my film involves a young civil servant who is attempting to learn Greek in preparation for a business advisory position in Athens. In theory he has been teaching himself for several months – which unsurprisingly, is not the case for our intrepid actor James Norton. So last month I found myself in Operations HQ – namely my friend’s kitchen in Berlin – with my Greek friend Vasilis who had translated James’s lines into Greek for him. (This, incidentally, was no mean feat, given that they contain such phrases as “you fucking foetaloid dickie-bow eurocrat”, and “my wife’s popped a kidney” – a colloquialism for a nephrological eventuality I think I probably invented).
On top of this of course, the Greek alphabet is (GAG WARNING) all Greek to me. So while Vasilis patiently repeated the lines in Greek, I transcribed a sort of cod-transliteration. Then – because what is language learning without suspect multimedia? – Vasilis and I recorded ourselves saying the lines in Greek and English respectively, resulting in an MP3 file that resembles the outtakes to a Common Entrance mock listening exam recorded in 1998 by a camp language teacher at a prep school in a remote part of Dorset who lost his job a few years later following a dodgy incident in the changing rooms after a particularly muddy game of house rugger (he maintains it was a cold-hearted witch hunt, his sacking).
The file was duly dispatched to L.A., where James was out prospecting for work with rather less auspicious pre-production methods. And four weeks later there he was on set, delivering his fluent rendition of “the equity bonds are losing their value” as though he could tell you whatever the fuck you liked about the equity bonds, so long as you asked in Greek. All I could do was smile, nod, and make sure we’d got a couple of good takes. In other words, do nothing. In fact, as we reached the last day of filming, I was hit with the realisation that I had, on several occasions that day, found myself doing nothing.
Indeed, a friend who was visiting the set more or less commented to that effect – though far more diplomatically. The truth, of course, is less trite – and thank god, because the idea of me standing on my own film set doing absolutely nothing, then coming on here to boast about it is pretty abhorrent. But I wasn’t simply doing nothing. I was making sure that everything on the monitor before me – from the the shot composition I had settled upon with the cinematographer minutes earlier, to the actors I had rehearsed the day before, the costumes and make up and set design I had agreed upon with their respective wizards in the weeks previous and the dialogue I had flown to Berlin for and pinged to L.A. and back – were all being realised in accordance with their imagined blueprint in my head and in the script. And they were. So I did nothing.
When I put it like that it sounds a bit facetious, and the reality of a film set is a constant whir of conference and adjustment and experimentation, all of which must be led by the director, as it was by me, for most of the time. But my point is that when our van needed to parked in a restricted car park during filming, our locations manager knew that it would be possible, because she had asked me a few days earlier if I knew how tall it was. Did I know how tall it was? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? I, who stood atop the van on the Isle of Dogs and unleashed canoes from its roof. And lo, the van descended into the restricted car park, while I, on set, did nothing.
Which is not to paint a picture of me as someone so meticulous and judicious that I have the capacity to make all my decisions before I even step on the set. Far from it. My point is that if I ever was doing nothing, it was only because other people were. And surely for any director who believes in sharing creative control with his fellow collaborators, the logical extension of this ideal of film as a collaborative medium is the capacity for the director, at some points, to do nothing. Only by accepting that possibility do you truly acknowledge the importance of your collaborators’ contributions and your faith in their ability to realise them.
So I hope I’ve made my point. And if not, I think I compared myself to God a couple of paragraphs back, so I should probably wind up anyway. But – for the masturbators at the back – it seems that perhaps it is more important to worry about where you are and what you think when costumes need choosing or sets designing or canoes unleashing, than whether you are acting directorially enough on set. Because if you have worried enough, and let your worry lead you into the calm and considered hands of your co-collaborators, there is a risk you may find yourself the odd moment to practice the elusive directorial art of doing pure and uncontained fuck all.
For a slideshow of stills from the rushes click here.