Lessons from Ramin Bahrani

Posted by on May 15, 2012 in Blog | One Comment

Bahrani at The New School (photo by Sam Ishii-Gonzales)

Ramin Bahrani (director of Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo, and Plastic Bag) held a directing masterclass during the Dorothy H. Hirshon Film Festival at The New School. The professor who organized the event, Sam Ishii-Gonzales, was tasked with choosing five students to take part in the practical directing exercise during the masterclass. Out of those five students, I was chosen to be the director.

The focus of Bahrani’s lecture and the directing exercise was visual clarity.  More specifically, Rahmani suggested that while narrative or “story” ambiguity is acceptable in filmmaking, visual ambiguity can prevent the director from producing a clear and cohesive work. He used Rosetta Stone software to demonstrate the importance of visual clarity–students were asked to match simple phrases with still photographs, which became difficult when the image wasn’t clear; for example, students had trouble identifying “girl eats” because in the photo the girl’s hand was obstructing both her mouth and the apple she was putting in it.

Rahmani spoke about scene work and the fact that directors should always be able to describe their characters’ emotional motivation in simple terms. Each scene should be treated like a full story — it should have an inciting incident and turning points. These turning points should be emphasized with blocking, camera placement/movements, and the use of props. Along with the performances, these are the tools the director has to make a dramatic story come to life.

Rahmani had a long list of recommendations for the class of young filmmakers, including:

  • Read Alexander Malkendrick’s On Film-Making.

  • Don’t abuse shot selection. Save close-ups for when you really need them.

  • Camera motivation can come from inner states.

  • Know who your main character is.

  • Wants can be conscious or unconscious.

  • Expected result vs. actual result leads to reevaluation.

  • Dramatic irony is not used nearly enough.

  • Read books.

We began the directing exercise after Bahrani completed his lecture, with his advice fresh in our minds. Five days before the exercise, our team of five had been given a pared-down scene devoid of names, gender, and scene descriptions from Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It. We were to come to class prepared to shoot the scene with actors. I decided to make it extra difficult for myself by interpreting the scene in a wildly different way than the original film: I cast two women as ex-lovers, set the scene in an art gallery instead of a restaurant/bar, and made the “fishing” dialogue an inside joke between the couple to add subtext about their dynamic.

As we were setting up the scene (setting up props, determining camera position, figuring out blocking for the actors), Bahrani asked what we were doing. I told him. He told me that that wasn’t the scene — we had to do the scene. It had to be in a restaurant/bar and it had to be at a table while the one character writes. He also told us that our producer, who was serving as one of our actresses, could not be in the scene. We had to pick a new actress from the class.

Essentially everything we had prepared was for nought, and our scene became a challenging exercise in thinking on our feet and finding ways of adapting what we had already prepared within the constraints Bahrani had created.

The crux of the directing exercise was to use blocking, props, and camera movements to denote the turning points and tell the story. Bahrani advised us that even before bringing the camera to the set the director should work with the actors to prepare blocking and the use of props. The way an actor stands during a particular line or handles a prop conveys the subtext of the scene and helps illustrate the turning points. The camera doesn’t come in until later. Once the director brings the camera in, he or she should consider the most economical way to shoot the scene–in other words, do what is absolutely necessary to best convey the story/turning points/mood in a way that involves the fewest camera setups.

Young directors will often think of a scene in camera moves.  This is only natural since film is a highly visual medium–it is easy to fall in love with a pretty shot. But we need to get out of this habit–we need to consider the shots after we have considered everything else happening in the scene. Only then will we arrive at shot selection that truly contributes to the scene.

What Bahrani wanted us to learn was the importance of individual scenes. There should be no throwaway scenes–every scene should have meaning and reveal something new and push the story forward. With this philosophy guiding our process, a deceptively simple exercise became incredibly difficult and thought-provoking.  It was one of the most nerve-racking and rewarding moments of my grad school career.

Andrew Garfield at Bahrani’s Masterclass (photo by Sam Ishii-Gonzales)

1 Comment

  1. Film Capsule
    May 17, 2012

    Sounds awesome, Shaun. It’s really cool you got to work with Bahrani, and it seems he shares advice from Werner Herzog: read!


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