Production constraints as catalysts to creativity

Thomas Shatz in his book ‘The genius of the system’, promotes some interesting ideas about the Hollywood studio system. Not least of these is that the constraints imposed on American film industry by the Hayes committee after 1933 in the Production code was a catalyst for greater creativity in the creative strategies that American film makers were required to employ when addressing adult issues. To take just two examples; the allure of Lauren Bacall’s character Slim’s dialogue in her first encounter with Humphrey Bogart’s character ‘Steve’ in ‘To have and have not’ (Howard Hawks US 1944). Or the stunning sensuality achieved by a simple flick of the head by Rita Hayworth in our first encounter with Gilda (Charles Vidor US 1946)

This argument can be expanded to examine other constraints which  the system placed on personnel, principle among these are the economic determinants of shooting on schedule and within budget (many contemporary film makers could well learn from this). Perhaps the best example where a film maker used this ‘catalyst’ was John Ford, lauded by the writers of le Cahier as an auteur, his many westerns reveal personal preoccupations and occasionally managed to explore contemporary issues with some eloquence, despite, or perhaps because of, the production constraints placed upon him.

When I was was teaching IB film in London, a higher level student came to me wishing to resign from the production team he’d originally chosen for his production portfolio because of irreconciliable differences. I tended to be quite strict about this kind of thing at the time and usually required students to negotiate their way out of these difficulties, but Keith came armed with a treatment for an alternative project, and his pitch was delivered with such enthusiasm, I accepted his arguments (perhaps I was having an ‘off’ day). I stipulated one proviso, his pitch had been for a skateboarding movie, I had visions of a very poor version of ‘Dogtown and Z-Boys’ (Stacy Peralta US 1992), or worse Lords of Dogtown (Catherine Hardwicke US 2005). So I agreed, only on the basis that there would be no skateboards would be seen in the film. Keith reluctantly agreed. His finished piece successfully managed to communicate some interesting and complex ideas about the community od skateboarders at the Albert memorial in London, and how they managed to amicably negotiate their skateboarding there with other users of that space. With his clever use of sound, appropriately cropped stills and unorthodox interview shooting style (one interview using a head and shoulders shot tracking along with interviewee as he rolled along at the location) it was also a stylish and entertaining documentary.

Anyhow, with my (rather lengthy) introduction over, to my idea.

So many ill considered movies waste time on expository elements, dialogue or shooting which rather patronises audiences. Among the most memorable and interesting student shorts I’ve seem eschew this predictable kind of material. So, why not try to exclude them. Write and shoot your opening scene/s constructed just from close proximity shots, limited to close-up and medium close up. The tight framing of an opening scene will tend to leave the subject/s without a broader context and may have a disorientating effect on audiences, this intrigues and helps to engage them more effectively. The next stage would be to communicate ideas without spelling them out in dialogue, use mise-en scène editing and sound. This is likely to be tougher and require more planning than mere exposition, but should be worth the risk. This is far more the essence of film-making, which is a visual medium rather than a literary one