Confessions of a First Time Filmmaker
Richard Wagner, renowned German composer and theatre director, once wrote that ‘the ancient splendour and beauty of Prague, a city beyond compare, left an impression in my imagination that will never fade’. Admittedly I first stumbled upon that quote in a ‘Top 10 things to do in Prague’ article which strayed dangerously close to corny but it struck a chord in my mind nevertheless. If the city of Prague could so easily excite and enthral a psyche as talented and creative as Wagner’s, then surely it would do wonders for me as I arrived to spend a month studying at the Prague Film School – located in the geographical heart of the city.
But if Wagner’s musing was music to my ears then it was another, jarringly less captivating declaration that was playing on my mind as I first arrived in the Czech capital.
‘You really are going to be too busy to properly explore the city’. These were the worrying first words of Jitka Kubinova, director of the film school, as she addressed twenty four eager cinephiles from across the globe on the very first morning of a month long filmmaking workshop last July. The single member of the group actually from Prague shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly, altogether nonplussed at this news. From the rest of the room, however, there came an almost discernible groan. While we were there to work first and foremost to work the majority of the room had harboured hopes of soaking in the sights of the city, of having the time to experience more than just the Gothic exuberance it exudes on its surface. And, although I personally made a conscious effort to try and explore as much of the city as possible, our time spent in Prague was never really about sightseeing.
I should probably back up a little and give this some context.
The Prague Film School’s summer workshop is a four week long, intensive crash course in filmmaking. The program, which is taught through English, is designed to lead students from story idea to finished short film inside a month. This process involves two full weeks of classroom based seminars – commencing at 9:30am and finishing at 5:45pm – which act as an accelerated introduction to the essentials of film production: directing, screenwriting, cinematography, sound design, lighting and editing.
The band of students participating alongside me in the workshop hailed from a wide variety of different home countries – with nations as far flung as the US, India and Lebanon among the many represented – and each arrived in Prague with varying levels of experience in film production. Some had previously worked professionally in the industry, others were studying filmmaking at undergraduate level and had already worked on multiple short films while a few, such as myself, had absolutely no practical experience whatsoever.
In the weeks leading up to the start of the workshop I made my first attempt at writing a screenplay – based on an idea which I had had months earlier. My story, entitled Haze, follows the eponymous protagonist in the midst of a major identity crisis: he is a mime artist who, having been heartbroken, desperately struggles to express himself without words. He is stuck in an impermeable rut, the lingering scars of his unrequited love proving perennially difficult to dismiss. When he falls for a new person, he needs to decide who he is before he can learn to love again. It was a story that felt personal to me and one that I felt intensely passionate about translating to the screen.
The film school had set a strict six minute limit on each of our short films – meaning that each script had to be tightly paced in order to be effective. At first I was unsure about how to actually go about writing for the screen so I decided to read the shooting scripts for some of my favourite films in order to try and get my head around the format. These included Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist. Reading screenplays can be a bit of a grating process because, as Kenneth Lonergan put it during the Hollywood Reporter’s most recent Oscar writers roundtable, screenplays are ‘not there to be read but to be filmed’. I would agree with Lonergan’s sentiment although, having personally selected each of the screenplays I read, it helped me in each case to be able to visualise the finished film as I worked my way through the story. The Dark Knight, written by Nolan along with his brother Jonathan, was the one which flowed easiest on the page while the latter two were chosen on account of the notable influence each one had on the story which I was trying to tell.
If you’re wondering what shape my own screenplay ended up taking here’s a small sample from the shooting script:
‘ Now fully dressed in a black t-shirt and trousers, our pale-faced protagonist picks up his beret, places it neatly onto his head and makes to head out the front door. As he goes to do so, however, something catches his eye. Our music stops. His facial expression changes noticeably, innate enthusiasm wiped away by inner turmoil. We see what has grabbed his attention. It is a framed photograph of a beautiful young woman, hanging crookedly among an assortment of pictures on the wall. The glass on the front of the frame is cracked down the middle. The girl, like Haze, is wearing black and white mime artist make up on her face. A beret sits on top of her long, dark brown hair. Holding a hard-backed book across her striped t-shirt, her wide smile lights up the entire picture. Haze moves toward the photograph, raising his left hand as if going to rip it off the wall. He visibly struggles to do so. Ruefully he tears himself away and hurries out of the apartment. The picture of the girl remains.
Ext. Open Street – Day
Haze stands alone on the footpath of a wide street. Throngs of people walk by, none of whom paying him much attention. He places his beret upside down in front of him and, wiping his sweaty palms on the front of his trousers, steps back and readies himself for a performance.
Cut to a location elsewhere on the same street. We see a young woman, standing alone in front of a pale coloured wall which is soaked in graffiti. She wears a well-worn ukulele on a string across her back, which is facing our camera, making us wonder – who is this girl? What does she look like? She moves out of frame ponderously to reveal a brightly coloured mural she was studying, which shows a man and woman kissing passionately against a wall.
There was, however, one serious hiccup and it came in the form of Stutterer, directed by UCD alum Benjamin Cleary and winner of last year’s Academy Award for Best Short. Cleary’s film is excellent – it’s considered cinematography and subtly emotive performances backed by a watertight screenplay. It aired on RTÉ2 in the immediate aftermath of the Oscars and I can vividly remember watching it at home with my Mum. My problem with the film? In a staggeringly unfortunate case of coincidence Stutterer shares the exact same ending as my original idea for Haze. Upon watching it for the first time I could hardly believe my eyes: while the two stories do share some thematic similarities – Stutterer executing its own much better of course – the identical ending still took me completely by surprise.
Despairingly, I knew immediately that I’d have to change my ending. Not that I thought my film would be competing on the same level as Cleary’s or anything, far from it – I just didn’t want people to think that I had ripped off his story. I even considered scrapping my idea altogether but ultimately decided against it. I had grown too attached to my central character and the images I’d already planned in my own head. Instead I came up with a new ending – one which I thought better reflected events that were happening in my life at the time – but it didn’t fix the Stutterer shaped problem with my story. By dumping my original ending I found myself uncertain of what exactly my film was trying to say and – as a result – my screenplay ended up lacking direction. Lesson learnt: Don’t be too afraid to kill your darlings.
We were given two days each to shoot our films during the third week of the workshop. On the days that we weren’t shooting our own stories we were expected to help out on other student’s projects meaning that, over the course of ten days each of us was involved in the making of five different short films. This was coming off the back of a very hectic pre-production period, during which we had to organise the logistics for our films as well as attending classes every day. The actual process of producing a film – even one as short as ours – was much harder than I had expected as we needed to finalise a shooting script, select costumes and locations, pick what equipment to use and what students we wanted on our crew as well as organising food, transport and make up for the shoot itself. This is not to mention casting actors to actually be in the film. Luckily I was the first student to finish casting my short, as through networking I managed to find Ondrej – a professional mime artist – to star as Haze and Marley – an Austrian singer/songwriter – to play the female lead.
My shoot went well for the most part. It was the first time in my life I have ever been in a proper leadership role and I enjoyed the experience. And, much to my own surprise, I managed to avoid any major screw ups – although torrential rain did force me to change a key location at the last minute and messed up the sound recording for our last scene. The best part of it all, though, was getting to watch the idea that I’d had in my head for months come alive in front of me. Having been writing stories since I was eight or nine years old getting to see one of them acted out in real life was a very weird experience – and one I hope I get to have again.
We then spent a week editing our films – definitely the part of the process that I found most difficult – before getting to screen them in a local Czech cinema. It was really cool to get to watch everybody else’s work and, weirdly, notice how elements of each individual’s personality managed to manifest itself through their film. There were some good movies made over the course of the month, a testament to the talented group of students I was lucky enough to work with.
I don’t like watching my short film from start to finish. Every time I do I notice different mistakes and regret things that I wish I had done differently.
I don’t like watching my short film from start to finish. Every time I do I notice different mistakes and regret things that I wish I had done differently. That being said, however, my time spent at the Prague Film School was a brilliant learning experience for me – and I would strongly recommend it to any reader who, like me, has an interest in learning filmmaking but doesn’t know where to begin. I’m hoping to harness the lessons I learnt there to make my work better and, with my time in UCD quickly coming to an end, hope to gain more experience on film sets as soon as I possibly can.
David Deignan Film & Music Editor