The term “film production” has routinely been used as a way to indicate the stage in the making of a movie where actual filming takes place. While this usage is shared by both the public and filmmakers, it is somewhat misleading in that it draws attention to just one aspect of filmmaking at the expense of a fuller understanding both of the different stages of production and of the key relationships at the heart of the filmmaking process.
The earliest stage of production, also known as pre-production or development, involves a handful of people who are in a position to shape a film project. Traditionally an idea is developed or picked up from existing material (be it in the format of newspaper news, books, previous films, etc.). There are several people who are in a position to develop the initial idea and bring it to the attention of a studio. Producers, writers, actors, and directors all have a share in this process, though the relative contribution of each will vary substantially from case to case. In particular, the actual influence of the director at this stage of the process is rather difficult to quantify. He or she could be the very initiator of the whole project (though this is not very common). More likely, a director will be hired once the main features of the story have been sketched out and the studio expressing an interest in acquiring the project begins assembling what they see as the right team for the project. Apart from the director, writer(s), and producer(s), actors, especially recognizable names, are attached to the project as early as possible to enhance its financial attractiveness.
This stage is a very delicate one; despite lengthy negotiations involving a number of professionals, many projects never get past this first hurdle. Indeed, it is not uncommon for directors to be replaced at this early stage, and for projects to change hands within a studio or even go to a different studio altogether. This instability can become problematic since financial backing needs to be secured, and this depends heavily on how effectively studio executives and filmmakers can present their case to potential backers. When the ever increasing cost of production is factored in, it becomes easier to see why this phase of production should be one of the most complex, difficult, and often frustrating aspects of filmmaking. The popular belief that Hollywood operates according to a “cookie cutting” approach does not adequately account for the complications and pitfalls of the film development stage. While it is true that studios and filmmakers sometimes opt for the apparently “easier” option, often due to the huge financial risks involved in mainstream production, this does not guarantee them a smoother ride to success than that which filmmakers going against the grain will endure.
Pre-production is also one of the least standardized stages of the production process. Time, budget, and, most significantly, individual personality combine in a number of potential combinations so great that it would be unwise to even begin to suggest “the way Hollywood does things.” The director and the producer are usually in charge of the project at this stage. The distinction between financial and administrative duties (the domain of the producer) and creative tasks (understood as the domain of the director) that is traditionally understood as regulating this key relationship is somewhat artificial.
The nature of the working relationship that some producers have with directors with whom they have collaborated on other projects goes well beyond such a schematic division of duties. It is fair to say that some producers will stand aside and let the filmmakers get on with their job (so long as they remain on schedule and on budget), while others will chose to be more involved throughout production to ensure that the director and other key personnel are given the opportunity to deliver the best possible film. The enduring image of the overbearing, dominant, crass producer hell bent on making money at the expense of artistic endeavor is mostly a caricature of reality. While there are producers who fit that mold in some sense, the vast majority of producers today do not exhibit those characteristics. Despite these variations in practices, there seems to be agreement on one point: the producer is perhaps the only figure who can ensure that all the filmmakers involved in the production of a film work to the same brief and find some common ground where the same “language” is spoken.
The ultimate aim of pre-production is neither entirely clear nor obvious. On the one hand, engendering a common sense of purpose (something that filmmakers often refer to as “vision”) of what the film would ideally ultimately feel, look, and sound like would appear to be a basic requirement. However, even this “basic” aim often proves difficult to achieve due to lack of proper communication, clash of personalities, or a lack of a properly developed script idea. On the other hand, there are filmmakers who meticulously plan their production in order to enter the filming stage with as few variables as possible. Extensive storyboarding, early discussions with the key members of the cast and crew, and working toward achieving a workable script are all part of this process (for a fuller account of the key individual roles in filmmaking, see Goldman 1985). Both approaches present their advantages and pitfalls, and other variables, such as the composition of the filmmaking team (some directors and producers prefer to work with the same skeleton crew, whenever possible, to be able to establish a close working relationship that can be replicated on different projects), budgets, and the time allocated to the project, can mean the difference between failure and success.
Despite these variables, there would appear to be universal agreement on one aspect: the quality of the script is paramount. Cinematographer John Bailey summarizes this perfectly when he says: “The more experience I get the more I see that a problematic or mediocre script in the hands of a brilliant director is still going to have problems. A brilliant script in the hands of an okay director can still be a very good film” (Schaefer & Salvato 1984, 68). Indeed, in most cases the lack of a properly developed script is likely to cause serious tensions among cast and crew, leading to confusion, misunderstanding, delays, and budgetary issues. Despite this general agreement among filmmakers about the importance of scriptwriting, there is still a prevailing view among some critics and the general public that the making of a film is in the filming, where directors can put their vision into action. Screenwriter Caroline Thompson makes this point forcefully: “screenwriters work really hard at what we do, and it’s a very distinct job. I did feel hurt by the pieces written about Edward Scissorhands when it was always Tim Burton’s vision, or ninety percent of the time it was Tim Burton’s vision. There was a lot of me in that movie, and anybody who knows me can see me in it. But to the public at large, it wasn’t mine at all, it was Tim’s completely” (Schanzer & Wright 1993, 238).
Once the production team has been assembled, locations have been selected, and a draft version of the script is available, the project moves into the filming stage, also known as “production.” As in pre-production, individual and artistic personalities will determine how filming is organized. While there are producers and directors who wish to take as active a part in every stage of filmmaking as possible, there are others who are content with delegating creative decisions to key members of the crew. This distinction in approach has less to do with budget constrictions than it has with individual preference. To mention two notable examples, James Cameron prefers to be involved in virtually every decision that is made during the filming stage whereas Steven Spielberg prefers to delegate to trusted members of the crew, especially those with whom a working relationship has already been formed in previous films.
Key relationships form at this stage, the most important of which are the director–actor and the director–production designer–cinematographer relationships. Production designer Richard Sylbert illustrates the latter thus: “I take care of how the picture looks. The cameraman takes care of the lighting. And the director takes care of the emotions” (Heisner 1997, 159). Once again, filmmakers involved in this stage of the production are quick to point to the script as the key: a poorly developed or badly written script can make life very difficult: “One of the big challenges for this movie [Silence of the Lambs] was, how do you depict some of the shocking scenes described in the screenplay. Like when the police officers burst into the room in Memphis to discover their fallen partners. Ted [Tally] wrote ‘What greets them is a snapshot from Hell.’ Thanks Ted.” (Heisner 1997, 159).
Interestingly, many directors indicate this stage as the least enjoyable phase of the filmmaking process. This view is mostly due to the huge pressure that is placed on filmmakers, directors especially, to make a great deal of decisions in a very short amount of time. Indeed, many see the cumulative effect of the inevitable mistakes that are made along the way as a direct threat to the ultimate success of the project. Director Spike Lee illustrates this issue very effectively: “a director is asked five million questions every single day. And you’ve got to make all those decisions very fast. And over the course of eight, nine, ten weeks, an accumulation of the wrong choices and your movie is fucked up!” (Breskin 1997, 179).
A further key reason for identifying filming as the least pleasurable part of filmmaking is the difficulty in rationalizing a process where a badly timed poor weather front can nullify in a matter of hours the months of careful preparations that had taken place in pre-production, while sending budgets spiraling out of control in the process. There are countless examples where weather inclemency threatened to derail an entire project and some have been very publicly documented. Eleanor Coppola, wife of director Francis Ford Coppola, shot a documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now. The documentary, Hearts of Darkness, remains one of the best accounts of the difficulties of making a film in hostile weather and terrain conditions. There are clearly too many variables at work in this stage of the filmmaking process to suggest that there is “one way” of doing things. To state the obvious, each project and each set of filmmakers will present different challenges; this requires a flexible system, one that, though based on established hierarchies, is capable of accommodating change and innovation.
Once filming has been completed, the film moves into its final stage of production. Often referred to in the industry as “editorial,” this stage is most commonly known as “post-production.” Crudely, this is divided into two areas, image and sound. The image part of this process will involve mainly image editing and visual effects, whereas the sound part will involve sound editing, designing, and mixing as well as music composing. As before, practices vary substantially according to who is in charge of the project. Some directors and producers prefer to have film and sound editors on board a project very early on, sometimes during the development stage.
The majority, however, still follow a longstanding approach whereby editors put together a rough edit of the film (using a temporary sound track), to which both the composer and the sound team will work. Some filmmakers suggest that, though evidently viable, this approach is fraught with problems. Their argument is that early involvement in the filmmaking process would ensure a smoother and less troublesome (hence more cost effective) transition from stage to stage. In particular, bringing in key personnel, such as editors, sound designers and composers, and visual effects, so late in the project will inevitably limit what they can achieve. Sound designer Randy Thom illustrates this eloquently: “[Directors] tend to ignore any serious consideration of sound (including music) throughout the planning, shooting, and early editing. Then they suddenly get a temporary dose of religion when they realize that there are holes in the story, weak scenes, and bad edits to disguise. Now they develop enormous and short-lived faith in the power and value of sound to make their movie watchable. Unfortunately it’s usually way too late, and after some vain attempts to stop a haemorrhage with a bandaid, the Director’s head drops” (Thom 1999).
This sense of having to put things right that had gone wrong in previous stages of the filmmaking process is felt strongly among all filmmakers involved in these late stages of the process, as this rather sanguine quote from film editor Peter Frank confirms: “The picture editor is responsible for the film being a success, period. No matter what it takes. Sure, he can hide behind the director and the writer and the producer, but the mandate is simple. He’s just supposed to make it work, and if it was shot wrong, he’s still supposed to make it work. If it was misconceived, he’s still supposed to make it work. And if it was miswritten, yep, he’s supposed to fix that too. There is really no limit to the responsibility, in the ultimate sense, of the film editor”(Oldham 1995, 238).
This already difficult situation is compounded by the rather limited time available to the post-production crew. Often working to accelerated schedules due to a combination of unchangeable release dates and delays in finishing filming, the editorial teams face a constant race against time. It is also not rare at this stage of the project for the director and other members of the original crew to have begun work on a different project. This in effect means that a considerable amount of delegation of responsibilities may have to take place from the director to the film editor and the supervising sound editor. This is one of the key reasons why so many directors prefer to work with the same crew wherever possible: the relationship they develop over the years ensures that working to the same brief does not require their constant presence at every stage of the production. Put succinctly, key decisions concerning the look and sound of a film will likely be taken by filmmakers other than the director.
Film Production As Teamwork
Although in film studies scholarship the figure of the director has traditionally been singled out as in effect shaping the whole production process through his or her “vision,” actual filmmaking practices in vigor in Hollywood today would seem to suggest a much more complex situation. The unstable nature of pre-production, the quantity and nature of the choices that need to be taken during filming, and the highly accelerated post-production schedule films need to follow to meet release dates paints a picture that is manifestly too broad and complex to be understood as managed by the director or any one person alone. Similarly, it would be unwise to underestimate the importance of directors: they are ultimately held responsible for their choices, and their decision-making power is accordingly larger than those of other crew members.
Ultimately, whatever the objectives of any film project and the relative creative input of cast and crew, film production remains a hugely complicated enterprise involving hundreds of people, several specialist languages, different creative and personal sensibilities, and extremely large sums of money, even in the case of an average mainstream film. In this sense, the complexity of film production is one of the very things that set cinema aside from other media: put simply, no other creative enterprise of any kind requires anywhere near the amount of people, money, and organization (with their attendant risks) than filmmaking. Perhaps it is no accident that the most effective way that filmmakers have to signal the complexity of film production is to compare it to another hugely complicated, expensive, and risky enterprise: going to war.
- Breskin, D. (1997). Inner views: Filmmakers in conversation. New York: Da Capo.
- Goldman, W. (1985). Adventures in the screen trade. London: Futura.
- Heisner, B. (1997). Production design in contemporary American film: A critical study of 23 American films and their designers. London: McFarland.
- Obst, L. (1996). Hello, he lied: And other truths from the Hollywood trenches. New York: Broadway.
- Oldham, G. (1995). First cut: Conversations with film editors. London: University of California Press.
- Schaefer, D., & Salvato, L. (1984). Masters of light: Conversations with contemporary cinematographers. London: University of California Press.
- Schanzer, K., & Wright, T. L. (1993). American screenwriters: The insiders look at the craft and the business of writing movies. New York: Avon.
- Thom, R. (1999). Designing a movie for sound. At www.filmsound.org/articles/designing_for_sound.htm, accessed August 1, 2007.