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Love Is the Answer

Posted by Gil Bettman on Wednesday, April 25th, 2012


If you want to launch your career as a director the smartest thing you can do is to write a script for a film which can be made for little or no money because it is 90% people talking in rooms. And yet, this script must generate great narrative drive – as much narrative drive as is whipped up by 200 million dollars worth of action sequences in the Hollywood franchise films: Batman, Spiderman, Transformers and the like. It is not easy. You have to be a gifted screenwriter and great student of human nature. But it can be done. Asgar Farhadi did it in “A Seperation”. Alfonso Cuaron did it in “Y Tu Mama Tambien”. Neil LaBute did in “In the Company of Men”. Stephen Soderbergh did it in “Sex, Lies and Videotape”. Spike Lee did it “She’s Gotta Have It”. All of these films suck you in and compel you to watch them with the same rapt attention as any film made for any budget, but they can do it for a fraction of the cost by simply showing you people talking in rooms. This is because what is at stake in all these films is love, rather than life and death.

Not surprisingly, we human beings are hard-wired to want love almost as much life over death. Many would argue that life without love is comparable to death. Nobody has too much good love in their life. We could all use a little more. And so Fahardi, Cuaron, Soderbergh et. al, under the cover of darkness, in the movie theater, drive their hooks into our hearts by throwing a likeable protagonist up on the screen with whom we identify, and then dangling the possibility of they’re getting more good love in their life if only events do (or do not) unfold a certain way. The more good love at stake, the more precarious the balance between it all being lost or gained, the more passionately we hope for the fortunate outcome, the more anxiously we dread the bad outcome. This generates a freight train of narrative drive and fuels a level of suspense as high as in any film made for any price.

I would argue that Fahardi’s film does this more effectively than any of the others I list. Certainly, if you could write a script as good as “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, “In the Company of Men”, “Sex Lies and Videotape” or “She’s Gotta Have It”, you would be one monumental step closer to doing as the directors who wrote those scripts did and launching your career. But if you could write a script as good as Fahardi’s “A Separation” you would have one foot in the pantheon of all-time-great directors. And he does this primarily by using each scene in the film to make us feel more palpably how much the main character, Nadar, loves his daughter and his father and how he will do anything to nurture and grow the good love which they bring him. At the same time, Fahardi, brilliantly, makes us feel how much the antagonist, Razieh, loves her daughter and her husband and how Razieh will do anything to nurture and grow the good love she enjoys with them, even it means not telling the complete truth in court and thereby creating the very real possibility that Nadar will go to jail and lose the love his daughter and father.

Perhaps I am just a sucker for love and that is why “A Separation” affected me so profoundly. But my guess is that anyone who truly values the love they share with their parents, their spouse or their children cannot watch this film without hoping with a passionate intensity that Nadar can keep the good love of his daughter and father and fearing with equal dread that he will lose it all because Razieh, in the same way as Nadar, will do anything to keep the good love which she has in her life. It will tear your heart apart. And, amazingly, Fahardi did it simply by shooting two-shots and close-ups of people talking in rooms.


Posted by Gil Bettman on Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Just to make sure I got it right in my last blog, I went out and saw “A Separation” for a second time. I got it right. If you aspire to break through like the Coens did with “Blood Simple” or Tom McCarthy did with “The Station Agent”, which is to say, if you will max out your credit cards to make an ultra, low budget feature with your name on it as writer and director, you must go see “A Separation”. This film should become your Holy Grail, because, as I said in my last blog, a movie on this scale is within the reach of every aspiring filmmaker. It is 90% close ups and two-shots of people talking in rooms.

Far too many of my students in the film school at Chapman University have been weaned on the big Hollywood franchise films – Batman, Spiderman, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. When they set out to make their first great film, they try to make a scaled-down version of one of these monster budget films. This is a formula for disaster. If you want to launch your career as a director you must think in terms of stories which can generate narrative drive by showing people talking in rooms. More about the key to this kind of small scale story telling in a later blog.

As a visual stylist, Fahardi is completely current. He knows perfectly well that contemporary audiences, whether they are sitting in a theater in Tehran or Topeka, will get bored and tune out if he does not present them with a kinetic image. So, when it enhances the story, he moves his camera. He does this the cheapest way possible – by hand holding the camera. Interestingly, when the story does not call for camera movement, he often continues to hand hold the camera and shoots many shots which are otherwise static with a hand held camera. By continuing to hand hold he introduces a slight jiggle into the shot which keeps the frame energized.

Thirty years ago, when I started my career as a director, this little bit of jiggle was unacceptable. If you were gunning to make a film which would be shown in theaters or on mainstream TV you expended a lot of time and money to make sure the product was jiggle free. Static shots had to be rock solid static and moving shots had to be mirror smooth. Then, starting with “NYPD Blue” and continuing up to “CSI”, mainstream TV cop shows went completely handheld. Audiences started developing a taste for a little jiggle in the frame. Then director Paul Greengrass pushed this trend into theatrical features by shooting all the “Bourne Identity” films handheld. Now what was once eschewed is considered a plus. A little jiggle is good.

Fahardi is completely down with this trend. Because jiggle is now good, the cheapest and easiest way to move the camera is now sexy. This is a win-win for anyone with little or no money to spend who wants to make a film which will rock the world. Fahardi has done it in “A Separation.” By following his example, you too can do it. Jiggle your way to the top!