Our patron and renowned film, television and theatre director and Wells resident James Cellan Jones wrote this advice as part of his autobiography. Part of our remit is to inspire young people in theatre. To that end, James has kindly allowed us to reproduce chapter 39 of his novel.
I intended, at one stage to call this book Screen Directing for Pleasure and Profit, in the hope of sales to young aspirant directors. So what follows is a series of single words which they might find useful and you might find amusing.
Keep your ears and eyes open every day of our life. People want to impart their knowledge to you. Let them know you really appreciate what they can tell you.
When I was young the first thing I had to learn was the lenses of a TV camera. They were measured in angles of acceptance 9°16°24°and 35°a wonderfully easy way to envisage the shot each lens would take. Of course we quickly learnt that dividing the angles into 72 gave you the approximate focal length in inches.
By looking carefully at the pictures, you can see the characteristics of each lens. The longer the focal length the shorter the depth of field, and by choosing a lens carefully you can make an apparent change in a person’s features. Thus, the best lens for a close up of Emma Thompson is 37mm (or 75 on 35 mm film) which will shorten her attractive but slightly long nose.
Lamps used to be, first, brutes which were in fact large arc lights; novelists and journos use the term to describe any bright light when they should really call them inkies. The other lamps were 10 kw, 5 kw, 2 kw, pups and inkiedinks.
Not long after I started, with the arrival of small or more portable lamps everything changed. When you see a lamp working look at what it does and remember.
As a Director you should be able to operate a camera, hold a boom, know the characteristics and field of a microphone, cleat a flat, paint a straight line, act small parts, know what good costume design and maintenance is, draw a scale plan of a set, write simple dialogue and do electronic editing.
You will not be able to do any of these quite as well as your crew. If you can, you shouldn’t be employing them. Don’t overstate your talents. A director I know likes to operate the camera himself on all the films he directs. He can do it reasonably well but not nearly as well as his operator and he is not nearly so inventive.
Learn from actors. If an actor says a line is unsayable he might be right but you must make him try to say it. Sometimes with the experimenting it can be made to work and too many rewrites can run into chaos. Listen to an actor who may have a very good grasp of his character. Don’t let him subdue his instinct with his intellect. Above all don’t let your intellect subdue his nature instinct. It’s unforgivable.
KEEP ON LEARNING UNTIL YOU ARE DEAD
To be pompous for once (once?) you should give back something to the trade you love. (If you don’t love it, you shouldn’t be within a couple of miles of it).
It’s hard to avoid being didactic. It is useful to say: This is what I’ve found, your experience may be quite different.’ Try and learn to make your students as excited about what they’re doing as you do your actors – or at least hope you do. Remember Reinhardt said, ‘The director is the communicator of enthusiasm’.
An infantry soldier looks at country with a particular eye. If he is well trained and enthusiastic, he can scan a landscape for cover, obstacles, clear paths of advance and killing grounds.
You have to develop your own eyes so that on a recce you automatically store away shots in your mind and the problems you will have in shooting them. Carry a compass with you so that you always know where the light is coming from at any hour of the day.
A recce may happen long before the shoot; try and imagine what the land will look like in a few month’s time.
Not just for problems like aeroplane noise but for the particularity of sound which complements the picture. Learn the quality of silence. The desert may seem awesomely silent but as night falls there is an almost unbearable fervid rustling as all the animals which have buried themselves beneath the sand to avoid the heat come to the surface. Listen together with your sound recordist and compare what you hear.
To other directors, it’s a lonely job and it’s difficult to find some to share your hopes and fears. Producers are rarely suitable. Join the Directors’ Guild and listen before you talk.
Technicians, actors and all other directors. They will want to talk about their problems. Let them talk. Sometimes they don’t want advice they just want a sympathetic ear. Let them tell you about their problems before you burden them with yours.
Shouting or swearing at an incompetent actor or technician is not going to make his work better, quite the reverse. It’s surprising how suddenly a performance can change and what seemed disastrous suddenly becomes better than you dared hope.
You may have to sack people. It is a cruel moment and you must do it as quickly and as cleanly as you can. Don’t have the person’s replacement waiting in the wings while you are doing the job.
I was doing a play in Scotland. One of the younger leading men was obviously not interested. During the rehearsals, he would read a novel and never seem to be able to learn his words. It became obvious that I would have to sack him. I took him into the panelled boardroom at the theatre and explained that I was going to have to let him go.
‘I will kill myself,’ he said.
‘No you won’t,’ I said ‘I know you have a good part in the next play the theatre is doing and you’ll make a great success of it.’
I talked to him for some while and then said, ‘Well I must go back to the rehearsal.’
We had both seen Truffaut’s film La Nuit Americainerecently. In it, the leading lady couldn’t get her speech right and blew take after take. Finally she got it right and instead of going through the door made an exit into a broom cupboard and fell in a welter of brushes and buckets. The room was panelled like the room the actor and I were in. I made for the exit and walked straight into the broom cupboard falling most dignifiedly onto the floor surrounded by mops and buckets. The actor gave a sardonic smile and I left. I think it helped to soften the blow.
The reason so many feature film directors (though not usually TV directors) carry on well into old age is that they learn to pace themselves. Take every opportunity to rest. I used to work with the actors in the morning, block a scene, rehearse it and when the set was being lit and the actors made up, lie down on the set and go to sleep. I learnt to have ten or even five minutes’ slumber and rise like a giant refreshed.
If it rains re-write the script and make it a sunlit scene. If an actor is missing try the scene without him. If you have to improvise, pretend to your actors that this is a wonderful chance to do something new and exciting. Sometimes you can make them think that they thought of it themselves.
When you find talent of any sort, nurture it, not for your own sake, but because a light hidden under a bushel is an offence to God and Man.
Excerpt from ‘Forsyte and Hindsight’ or Screen Directing for Pleasure and Profit- The Memoirs of James Cellan Jones (Chapter Thirty-Nine). James is particularly associated with the ‘Classic Serial’ during the golden age of BBC drama, and some of his most notable work has been in televising late 19th-century and 20th-century British literary works.