Ideas On My Film Narrative So Far…

Ideas On My Film Narrative So Far…

Ok, as well as theorising I have been working on a narrative which I will I share in this blog. I am not fixed on the idea as it stands, yet,  for a number of reasons ( it may be too long – it may be too contrived) but iI think it will help me to get it off my chest and commit it to paper (ok, not paper but similar) so that’s what i will do.

My Story – for now…

My story involves 3 characters, Paul Welles, a name-dropping, insomniac language coach in his 50′s,  Toby Flowers, an excitable, successful  actor in his early twenties and Peter X (? no idea for name),  a 40 year old spiritual bum. The story takes place at Paul Welles’ house in North London where the owner is extremely pleased to have been chosen to give accent coaching lessons to the very successful, Toby F,  who is in the UK to take part in an edgy West End Play in which he plays a part of a Londoner with a cockney accent. Toby is not so sure about working with Paul, though, and is concerned that the ‘arty’ play he is has been cast in  should be a great success and that his London accent and characterisation is absolutely authentic and not fake. Peter, an itinerant wanderer,  who, (depending on your point of view)  is either, suffering from a mental illness – or – has achieved a state of satori – or enlightenment  – is sleeping rough, unbeknown to the Paul, in the shed at the bottom of Paul’s garden.

I’m not really sure about how the story starts so what would be most useful would be for me to create a step outline of the events in the story to see how they work. I can always tweak and rearrange them afterwards. 

Story Outline – Working Title: “Shapes In The Fog”

Peter is sleeping in a shed.

Paul cannot sleep and we show that he is someone suffering from some kind of soul sickness – inner malady.

Not sure how to communicate this (options – symbolism – we see a shrouded character – voice over etc. music) 

Paul goes to put his cat out.

Peter is woken by the cat coming in through  the shed door. Peter lets the cat in and feeds it chocolate.

He sees a light from Paul’s study come on.

Montage/jump cuts – Paul is reading the script of the play ‘Sea Of Fog’ – he is making notes on a dictaphone. Quite critical reviews. He speaks in a cockney accent. He listens to recordings and video footage of Toby he made the day before. Toby being crazy and madcap.  He is aware of the time. He talks to a friend about how good it is to be working with Toby and all they did so far.

Toby arrives hung over.

Toby and Paul talk about their progress.  Toby is concerned for the play to be deeply authentic. The play is an enigma  (could be fun to hint at a story that we never see – think – Clockwork Orange)

Small talk. Toby reads from the play. His cockney accent is bad.

Paul offers more physiological suggestions – dropping the tongue – palette etc.

Peter is in the shed – he is just staring at something –  the shapes made by the trees and the light.

Toby is concerned about Paul’s method – he wants a real person to learn from not just to get the sound right. Paul reassures him and tells him all the people he has worked with. Toby tells him he doesn’t want to sound like Dick Van Dyke. Paul is hurt he watches Toby in the garden. Doing mad stuff and shouting in a cockney accent. Paul feels worthless and a sham.

Peter looks though his bag for food. Nothing. He has a hand full of change. He goes out through a hole in the fence.

Toby, who is practicing his lines in the garden sees Peter leave the shed and go through the fence. He looks in the shed and sees Peter’s sleeping things. He goes back into the house and we see him saying something to Paul.

Peter returns to the shed to eat his fruit and bits. The door opens it is Paul and Toby.

Paul grills Peter about what he is doing in the shed. Peter answers in a cockney accent. Paul starts to call the police when Toby stops him. He takes Paul to one side. Toby is happy – Peter has exactly the voice that Toby is after. He asks Paul to record Peter.

Jump cut to Peter being invited in. Paul looks pissed off but keeps up the sham. Toby gets Peter to speak about anything. Can you say this – he gives him a line from the play.

Toby tells Peter to ‘just talk’ – tell me about your best dream. Peter talks about something spiritual.

Toby is impressed. He speaks to Paul – let him stay here tonight. Toby is making progress. I will pay you more.

Paul listens to Toby talking – he hates him.
Peter stays over…

Observations and reflections on the above. 

This is all I have so far but reading through these notes and ideas I am starting to see that this narrative is way too long for a short film that ought to be about between 10 to 20 minutes long. I am also very aware of how I am allowing myself to be pulled into the ‘script first’ approach of mainstream movie making and how i am NOT letting myself enjoy the riskiness of the alternative approaches of Copti, Leigh etc.

Anyway, this was worth archiving and doing so helps me see how important it is that i remain conscious of the film process.

Notes From Yesterday’s Acting Workshop

Notes From Yesterday’s Acting Workshop

The notes I  based yesterday’s acting workshop session on! 


Rules – no clapping – don’t try and entertain – will be recording so no noises – full attention 

1. Couple Talking 

2 people talk about what they did today

tell both actors the guy always hogs the conversation and that you have to assert yourself

This session was OK – and could be run again with different people… 

2. The Visitor (her and him) 

Tell her – he loves you but has been hurt so often doesn’t know how to let you in

Tell him – get rid of her

This didn’t really work and needs to go somewhere… 

3. Group Meeting 

Tell  – A and B always agree with C –

Tell C – you want to get out of this meeting – just say anything no one… nonsense… say what you like

D – be diplomatic – you are running the meeting but don’t accept any old nonsense

If this meeting was about something it might go somewhere – could be good to use with gangsters… or something genre based – what else? Have a think about it 

4. The Lodger 

tell her – he might kill himself stay with him at all costs – be nice but stay with him

tell him – she might be a psycho – try to get her out of the house – think of reason – but be gentle

Could be better if you pushed the dramatic intensity -but how? 

Father, and 2 sons… 

Tell father – A not successful encourage him – but of liar

B – is successful you don’t worry about him

Tell A – boost your father with your successes

Don’t let B bring him down

Tell B – you want a bit of attention from your father your brother hogs him

This really worked – was magical – but how to run it again with the same actors? This is a problem with the method – no room for refinements without following Mike Leigh’s methodology which somehow seems counter productive. Things to think about! 

Results Of First Improvisation Workshop

Results Of First Improvisation Workshop

So, today I held my first acting workshop based upon the techniques and methods I mentioned in yesterday’s blog. I Invited 5 friends to the first session, 2 of whom had previous acting experience and 3 with none. The session was a great success and, as well as being a great way to try out ideas on how to run an improvisation, it was also lots of fun, and genuinely surprising for all involved.

The method…

At first I was a bit unsure about the acting method i wanted to try and was torn between choosing a Mike Leigh approach, where I would work with my actors individually on back story and characterisation, or Scandal Copti and Ulrich Seidl’s method where actors are given discreet instructions and scenes are allowed to play out spontaneously. I decided for the latter and am pleased I did as it gave my non-actors a great boost to know they could ‘act’ before involving them in  rigorous development sessions and also helped them to trust me and my hands off approach.

What was fascinating about the session was how philosophically rich the experience of giving my actors discreetly different world views was, (which will be apparent if i reflect upon a couple of the sessions.)  For example,  In the scene below, which i have titled the “Two of Us” – I first spoke to my characters as a unit telling them the objective details that they would all know – such as: John – was the father in his 60′s – Caroline was the older daughter and Sarah was the younger daughter and that both sisters  were visiting their father over the weekend at his house. After this I took my characters into a separate room where I gave them very simple accounts of how they FELT about the other characters. This is what I told them…

JOHN (the father) – You want to give your attention to SARAH because she is fragile and needs your support. CAROLINE is much stronger but can be a bit too dominating.

SARAH (blonde daughter) – You want to tell give your father JOHN, who is a bit depressed,  a big boost by telling him all the good things that are happening in your life and to be cautious of Caroline who is a trouble maker.

CAROLINE – You want to spend time with your father but your Sister always steals his time – maybe tonight is the night to tell them how you feel.

It took a few false starts to try and stop my actors from feeling the need to ‘act’ and to relax and wait for the scene to evolve naturally. After a few moments, though, this is exactly what happened as John and Sarah established a natural bond with Caroline being naturally excluded.

The scene i have attached is a few moments after John and Sarah have been talking together as Caroline picks up a magazine in protest.

“The Two Of Us”

What was interesting in this scene is the way in which all the characters have the feeling that they are justified in how they interact with the other characters. No one is playing a ‘bad’ character – everyone has  a completely warped sense of reality that they are trying to impose upon the others. In fact, thinking about the scene, what is really interesting is, that rather than there being 3 distinct characters in the scene, there are in fact many more. (I am working this out as write so please bare with me).

The Interpretant: and what i mean when i say there were more than 3 actors in the ‘two of us’ scene?

Well, for example there were 3 Carolines – Sarah’s competitive sister, John’s competent daughter and Caroline’s own excluded version of herself.

There were also 3 versions of Sarah – John’s delicate daughter, Caroline’s attention greedy sibling and Sarah’s version of herself as the bringer of positivity

There were 3 versions of John – Sarah’s needy father who wanted picking up – Caroline’s unloving father who needed a truth lesson and John’s version of himself as a caring father who wants to help his allot attention where needed.

I find this idea to be extremely interesting and puts me in mind of a semiotician and philosopher I have been reading recently called, Charles Peirce,  and his notion of a triadic semiotics and his concept of the interpretant.

What is that? (here’s a quote from Stanford’s philosophy website and a link to the article  if you are interested to learn more)

Peirce’s basic claim is that signs consist of three inter-related parts: a sign, an object, and an interpretant. For the sake of simplicity, we can think of the sign as the signifier, for example, a written word, an utterance, smoke as a sign for fire etc. The object, on the other hand, is best thought of as whatever is signified, for example, the object to which the written or uttered word attaches, or the fire signified by the smoke. The interpretant, the most innovative and distinctive feature of Peirce’s account, is best thought of as the understanding that we have of the sign/object relation.

The importance of the interpretant for Peirce is that signification is not a simple dyadic relationship between sign and object: a sign signifies only in being interpreted. This makes the interpretant central to the content of the sign, in that, the meaning of a sign is manifest in the interpretation that it generates in sign users.

For example the sign of – MARMITE – is not just a signifier and a signified it is many things – depending on how it is interpreted… for example

Not sure how this really relates to acting but it does seem like a useful conceptual tool when I stop to think about the complex relations between people I want my films to capture. Each of us reading each other in our own unique way – interpreting everything differently so that 2 characters are always 4 – and 3 characters are always 9. Every action being read in multitude of ways. (Very interesting stuff to ponder and does make me feel like I am grappling my way towards BAKHTIN’s  ideas of polyphony and multiple voices. MMMmmm…)

Next steps towards creating a film?

Anyway, that’s enough about Peirce for now – So what next?

Well, I am aware that I have used up some of my arsenal of acting tools by running the session the way i did it. For example I will never be able to run the father and daughter scene with the same people and every be able to capture the same levels of spontaneity again. However, I can use different actors or the create new scenarios for the same actors all of which i really need to think about… Having said this – i am aware that Mike Leigh does use the content generated from his initial improvisations as material from which he can then develop a written script which he then has actors relearn. Not sure why but this does seem like an odd thing to do and a part of the process i feel (for the moment) i should avoid replicating.

One technique of Mr Leigh’s I would like to use, though,  is to have my actors develop characterisations based on people they already know and with this in mind following our last session i asked my actors to think of 3 people they know well (same gender, similar age) who they could use as a basis for a character profile, explains to them that i would help them develop these characters in  follow up one-on-one sessions. I haven’t run these sessions yet but I am hoping that when i do that some kind of vague story will start to suggest itself following which  I can help my actors to settle on and develop in full one of their 3 characters chosen.

Anyway, here is another clip taken from our recent session – this one is called Dodgy Geezer

Alternative Acting Methodologies.

Alternative Acting Methodologies.

My research into mainstream vs. alternative cinema has proven to be  very rewarding especially in regard to the way in which  film production and film product are inextricably linked and that how a film is made impacts greatly on the qualities of the final film  produced.

This observation seems especially applicable with regard to how actors are employed in the film production process and how the qualities of the resulting movies made can be greatly augmented when the rules which dictate the levels of involvement an actor may have in the creative process are redrawn to allow actors greater creative participation.

This is especially apposite when considering the work of the 3 filmmakers – Mike Leigh, Ulrich Seidel and Scanda Copti  all of whom  deviate, to varying degrees, away from the mainstream ‘intensified continuity style’ production processes i described in my earlier blog, Alternative Cinema vs. Mainstream Cinema.

First Acting Session – TOMORROW! 

Anyway, as I will be hosting my first acting session tomorrow it feels like the right time to start moving away from theoretical pondering into a more hands-on participatory approach to acting methodology. With this in mind  I would like to use this current blog  as a place to  outline the alternative approaches to acting, script writing and film production of Leigh, Seidel and Copti – and to start working out how I will use these techniques during tomorrow’s session.

So, in no particular order are a few notes on their approaches to preproduction and acting methodology. Starting with –

Mike Leigh…


The following chronological outline of Leigh’s approach to film development are taken from P. Clement’s book”The improvised play : the work of Mike Leigh” (1983) and R. Marchand’s publication (1985) Making Plays the Mike Leigh Way (1985).

1.Back Story Session – The first session is to establish existing characters with the Actors – Through one to one discussion, key character traits are communicated to the actor until an initial understanding of the character’s persona can be reached. It is important that the actors must not talk amongst themselves outside the workshops about character. Notes are taken and any new ideas and discoveries about character through these initial discussions are documented but set aside to avoid preempting the process.

2. Isolated Improvisations – Allow the actor to be the character without the pressure to perform – The actors are isolated in placed in a mundane setting with no direction for drama. This allows the playwright to witness their characters in moments outside of the story. Discussions are conducted with the actors during the exercise, concerning when the actor felt out of character. This is done to further the understanding of the character for both playwright and actor.” “Notes are taken on character as well as any impetus for potential conflict during group improvisations.”

3. Shared History Session – Establish shared history between characters by bringing selected members of the cast together. Cast members that share a joint history are brought together and through discussion of key shared moments in their past, a back-story is created. There should, however, be no discussion of emotion. Improvisations are conducted on this back-story, building a sense of familiarity and memory for the character. This again allows the playwright to experiment with story world moments that have occurred outside of the script. Discussions are conducted with the actors and notes are taken on potential story avenues as well as further impetus for conflict during the group improvisations.“

4. Group Improvisations – Improvisation exercises using all (and or different combinations) of the cast. This process is aimed at directly enhancing the plot and getting motivations of character clear and consistent. Actors perform improvisations in character with differing aims and goals given by the Playwright. For some cast members, this may be the first time they have met the other characters.” “Notes are taken by the Playwright to further establish character and any new potential scenes or storylines are documented for future drafts of the script.”

Ulrich Seidl…


The following outline of Seidl’s unique approach to filmmaking  is taken from the ICA’s website.

1. Documentary Style –  The working method is: Shoot fiction films in a documentary setting. So that unexpected moments of reality can meld with the fiction.

2. No Script –  There is no script in the traditional sense. The script consists of very precisely described scenes – but no dialogue.During shooting the script is continually modified and rewritten. Seidl: “I see the filmmaking as a process oriented by what has preceded. In that way the material we’ve shot always determines the further development of the story.”

3. Actors/non-actors – The cast consists of actors and non-actors. During casting equal consideration is given to professionals and non-professionals. Ideally the audience should not be able to say with certainty which roles are played by actors and which by non-actors.

4. No Script – The actors have no script on set.

5. Improvisation – Scenes and dialogue are improvised with the actors.

6. Shoot Chronologically – The film is shot chronologically, making it possible to continually adapt and develop scenes and dramatic threads. The ending is left open.

7. Real Locations – The film is shot in original locations.

8. No Non-Diegetic Music –  Music is present only when it is an integral component of a scene.

9. Open Working method – The “open working method” also applies to editing. Rushes are evaluated and discarded at the editing table.The film is rewritten at the editing table. Several extended phases of editing are needed to identify what is and isn’t possible for the film. In this way, to take the example of PARADISE Trilogy, what had been planned as a single film became three separate films, each of which stands on its own, but which can also be viewed together as a trilogy.

10. Seidl Tableau – In addition to the fiction scenes, so-called “Seidl tableaux” are filmed – precisely composed shots of people looking into the camera. The Seidl tableau (which was born in the director’s first short, “One Forty,” 1980) has become a trademark of Austrian film and is now used by other documentary and fiction film directors. On each of his films Ulrich Seidl shoots numerous tableaux, even though they may not make it into the final cut.

“At some point I‘ll make a tableaux-film with all the unused tableaux-scenes that were shot over the years in all of my films,” he says.

Scanda Copti

Scandar Copti_3.jpg

The following outline of Copti’s  approach to filmmaking  is taken from the Filmlab website.

1. Finished Script – Unlike other forays into improvisation, SC often used a very precise screenplay and a well-constructed plot that demands precise emotional responses from its actors.

2. Surprise – Often uses the element of surprise to direct actors for certain scenes to get authentic emotional responses  – his actors often acting out his stories without being aware that they were being directed according to a pre-written script.

3. ‘Real Fiction’ –  The film  (Ajami – 2009)  is a work of fiction which shows “real” people acting in situations that are orchestrated by the directors, but very “real” to the performers, resulting in the actors projecting emotions on camera that they actually experienced at the time.

4. Workshops – This was achieved over specialized workshops, in which the actors were brought to each character’s emotional and psychological state as written in the script.

5. Psychological Profiles – In these workshops, the participants didn’t learn about text, goals, mise-en-scene or acting tricks. The focus was on the psychological journey of the characters through dramatic role-playing. Eventually, each actor deeply identified with his or her character as though the character was an extension of their own personality.

When the cameras started rolling, something magical happened – the actors forgot that they were in a fictional situation and their minds believed that what was happening was real.

Clements, P. (1983) The improvised play : the work of Mike Leigh, London: Methuen.

Marchand, R. (1985) Making Plays the Mike Leigh Way, Sydney; AFTRS.

Bakhtin’s Polyphony – A Carnival Of Voices

Bakhtin’s Polyphony – A Carnival Of Voices
Just been reading an extremely interesting book by G. Morson, entitled  Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a prosaic. (1990) which  I feel to be somehow related to my previous blogs about cinema’s delimiting influence. Here are   a few thoughts regarding the book – 
Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) was a Russian formalist/phenomenologist philosopher who lived in the USSR through the bolshevik revolution and saw the rise of the totalitarian state machine with all its repressive functions. The experience of seeing the positive aspects of a communist revolution and all the accompanying hopes for a better future replaced by Stalinism and a single monolithic structure of power, rather like a huge one-way conversation barking out orders through a tannoy, greatly effected Bakhtin who  started to develop philosophies about the nature these hegemonic power structures.
Bakhtin called this move towards a single dominant narrative, voice or discourse, “monologism” – and thought, quite rightly, that in a closed, one dimensional world, that people must become objectified and that human consciousness would be reduced to nothing. For to MB, a true society should be made up of a multitude of voices and narratives – and he spoke of how each of the unique human subjectivities contributed equally to a vast, carnival of interaction, in which could be glimpsed a truth; not a singular solitary truth, but a messed-up and vibrant discourse eternally searching for meaning in relationship with each other. He called this notion – the ‘dialogic’.

“Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction.” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.110).

In an way it’s possible to say that Bakhtin was at the same time, both, a phenomenologist and a structuralist. For to him ‘things’ (people, art, words) didn’t exist ‘in themselves’, in isolation, but only in their relations to all other elements within the structure they shared. Yet, unlike other structuralists,  Bakhtin wasn’t satisfied to build cold organisational frameworks of binary oppositions to  objectify and know the world. He was theorising freedom – his own utopian vision – a place that would allow for coexistence of differences, free from the overarching regulation of the monocular world view where people could become their uniqueness, self actualising themselves into their full being. Bakhtin’s utopia then is a state of civilisation he refers to as the ‘carnivalesque’ where all the individual human subjectivities are allowed to come together in a chaos of dialogic voices.

“Life by its very nature is dialogic. To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds. He invests his entire self in discourse, and this discourse enters into the dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium” (1984, p.293).

Interesting stuff I am sure you will agree, but written during a different time and  of little or no relevance to us? For don’t we live in a culture that promotes diverse voices and multiple view points? Political theorist and writer, Andrew Robinson, is a little less sure, though, seeing our present cultural situation  falling  far short of Bakhtin’s dialogic vision. Here he is discussing the continued relevance of Bakhtin’s concepts in Ceasefire Magazine (2011) 

“The emphasis on non-negotiable demands and compliance enforcement in policing, the emphasis on fixed boundaries and ‘consequences’ in parental and classroom management, the corrosion of union negotiation in the workplace, and the closure of public space to protest and dissent are symptoms of this stance.” He goes on to say, “the only way to create spaces for dialogue today is through radical gestures of dissensus or interruption of the monologue, usually as insurrectionary acts. But the space for such acts is itself ‘cramped’ by the techniques of preemptive counterinsurgency.”

He has a point. Especially when you stop to consider some of the incredible statistics that describe our age. Here’s one for you. (Not sure where I heard this so forgive me if it’s BS) There are up to 4.2m CCTV cameras in Britain – about one for every 14 people. Even if that is remotely true – it’s still pretty shocking and hardly sounds like the kind of place to host Bakhtin’s carnival of equality. Why are we so scrutinised? or so controlled? And by whom? And why is the gaze so unequal – why can’t we look back?

Anyway, Bakhtin was ultimately optimistic and did not think monoglossical dominance could last for long. He saw it as being doomed to failure, predicting that the dominant discourse would soon be interrupted by other voices.

“Because language always ultimately orients to the other, it is primordially dialogical. There is ultimately no unified literary medium, but rather, a plenitude of local social languages.”

Bakhtin saw the artist and the writer as being in a position to encouraging this transformation by making art works that reflect this multiple subjective really.

Relationship of Bakhtin’s work to filmmaking…

I find this idea of multiple voiced realities – or the dialogic – extremely interesting especially as this concept helps me to articulate what it is about hollywood and mainstream movies that bothers me. For, to me, even though mainstream films are made by a multitude of different artists they do not reflect a polyphony of voices. I think this is something to do with the hegemonic, totalitarian structures that stand behind film production and the assumptions and methods that have grown up under these specific industrial, social and market forces. For under such top-down power structures  the possibilities inherent within filmmaking are restricted. All roles are demarcated – writers write – actors act – directors imagine and direct. I am struggling to say exactly what is wrong with what I am describing but it is somehow as if all these enforced conventions and methods produce only work, which to use Bakhtin’s terminology, suffers from a terrible and tiresome monologism; as if every film we see these days speaks with the same limited set of tired language conventions – the same characterisations (maverick cop), the same story tropes, the same cartoon like motivations for bad guys and good guys, the same dispensable non-characters who can dispatched and killed off without a care to the audience… the list goes on.

There are films that do reflect the dialogic, though.  Films by Mike Leigh, Shane Meadows or Andrea Arnold which somehow manage to capture something of the richness of human subjectivity.  In which the characters utterances are not there only to advance the plot but have within them something of the magic and mystery of real human beings. Anyway, with this rich tapestry of voices in mind, here is a scene from Mike Leigh’s “Naked” which I am pretty sure Mikhail Bakhtin would have approved of.


Morson, G. S., & Emerson, C. (1990). Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a prosaics. Stanford University Press.

“Multi-Story” – an experiment in improvised filmmaking

“Multi-Story” – an experiment in improvised filmmaking

Some time back I started to grow bored with mainstream Hollywood cinema – with  its over use of CGI effects, the lack of emotional depth or complexity in the characters, the acting style in general, and the limited range of subject matter the medium seemed able to deal with.  Not only this, but after a long, creatively active period, during which I was always working on one film or another, I started to feel as if there was no point in making another film – almost as if I had lost my faith in cinema as a tool that I could ever use to communicate or articulate whatever it was that was inside me.

It was around this time, too, that I started to make connections between some of the critical theorists I had been reading; theorists, who followed both a neo-Marxist perspective like Mikhail Bakhtin, Louis Althusser and Fredric Jameson, as well as other non-Marxist theorists, such as Max Weber and the school of New Institutional Theory which had grown out of his earlier work. All of whom seemed to be suggesting that the various forms of cultural production (i.e. literary forms, art styles, methods of production etc.) were constituted like ‘languages’.

On reflection I can see that these concepts and ideas were the probably the result of the cross-fertilisation of Marxism and structuralism, which typifies the cultural landscape of the early 20th century, being largely built upon the semiotic theories of Charles Pierce and Ferdinand Saussure – two theorists who independently posited the idea that languages were made up of units (words) which, having no intrinsic meaning, instead derived their meaning from their structural relationship with other words.

The point these theorists were making, though, was that if these various forms of cultural production (the novel, the poem, the newspaper, the film) were language systems, they also had built into their architecture, just like other systems, a whole array of structural limitations that would be invisible to the artist. In short, what these theorists are alluding to is the unconscious aspect of any sign system, language or mode of production.

Here are a few quotes to help me make the point.

 “…language is never innocent”

R. Barthes,

As soon as there is language, generality has entered the scene.

J. Derrida,

“… musicians, writers and critics [imagine] that they have got hold of an apparatus [THE THEATRE] which in fact has got hold of them” 

B. Brecht.

And finally a quote from adherents to new institutional theorists, drawing the parallel between language fields and the ‘cinema field’ (their term for the language structure that constitutes cinema)

“A cinema field experiences a range of isomorphic [generalising, restricting]  forces. Film-making conventions, endorsed throughout formal schooling and/or with award giving, provide a normative ground for standardisation.” “…which constitute ‘coercive’, ‘normative’ and ‘mimetic’ isomorphic pressures … leading to standardization of practices and isomorphism”

After reading and thinking about these theories, my conception of cinema started to shift and rather than seeing it as a set of fixed conventions, I started see to the world of film as a structure; a language field, made up of a vast number of interconnecting parts that extended across objective and subjective worlds and a multitude of frontiers – technology, architecture, film conventions, subjective experience, audience expectation, business systems, history, regional differences, standardized production methods etc.

This new way of thinking about film also went some way to explaining why I had grown disenchanted with the movie industry, as it began to occur to me that the conventional method filmmakers had learned, and were using, to create their films, was an entirely arbitrary system – that had grown up at a unique time under unique historical and cultural circumstances. A system which, for me at least, had become sclerotic and sick, but could be changed – and that these changes would lead to new systems with a set of new limitations and possibilities.

I started to see, too, that the filmmakers I already admired had already started rethinking these structural codes –  Andrea Arnold’s use of non-actors and “A” list film-stars in her powerful film, Fish-tank, for example; Shane Meadow’s extensive use of workshops to develop character and story, again with his largely, non-actor cast; Mike Leigh’s narrative styles that thwarted the extremely linear and rigid conventions of most mainstream films, with story growing out of character backstory;  Ruben Östlun’s insistence on prioritizing acting over technology and his radical “one camera set up per day’ on his notoriously lengthy film shoots which allowed his actors as much time as they need to improvise and explore; Ulrich Seidl’s blending of documentary and narrative techniques and his insistence on shooting everything chronologically, with each scene growing out the previous one. So it was that back in 2011,   with these ideas in my head, I decided to turn theory into practice and to make a film using some of these new approaches.

Obviously this list is not exhaustive and many of these approaches to filmmaking are not new (examples being – Cassavettes’ use of improvisation, or De Sica’s use of none actors). What was exciting for me, back in 2011 though, was the idea that production methodology might be changed so radically – and I was very eager to put these ideas into practice. At first I was unsure how to take my ideas forward, the normal starting point for my earlier films being a well-written script, around I could build a production. As this wasn’t my aim, though, along with a couple of other artist friends, I decided to start running acting workshops and to let the story develop from these workshops. This was a relatively new approach for all of us and at first we resorted to more traditional theatre workshop techniques that didn’t really produce any interesting results. One breakthrough, for me, however, was discovering the working method of Scandar Copti, a Palestinian filmmaker who guided his non-actor cast, by individually feeding them secret character motivations, that only they would know about, letting these conflicts play out in front of the camera.

This approach was very powerful, yielding nuanced and motivated improvisations that soon led me to the idea of basing my new film on the failing relationship of a newly married couple – and the effects of their constant bickering on their small daughter. Another improvised scene using this method led to a very funny improvisation in which a night-club bouncer, who was trying to sleep in his car, was disturbed by a car park security man with an interest in modernist poetry. This collaborative style of filmmaking was proving to be fruitful and it wasn’t long before, my two creative partners and I, had agreed on a setting and name for the film, which was to be called “Multistory”, and was to tell the story of how the lives of a group of unconnected people might brought together by the disappearance of little girl from a multi-story car-park.

With this idea as a core I then wrote a rough script developing the story elements utilizing my usual screenwriting methods – beat sheet, act-structure etc. However, once this was written I removed all the dialogue – with the intention of letting my actors improvise their ways through the scenes in front of the camera.  As a team we also decided to work with actors who had not attended our workshops, so as to keep the interactions between our cast fresh and exciting.

After a number of individual meetings with the cast, during which we worked on developing their individual backstories and motivations, we arranged a mutually suitable date to shoot the film. As well as this, we decided to shoot the film in a guerilla style in only 1 day, with a very small crew consisting of: myself and my partner as DOP’s, a sound recordist, a 2nd acting director and a runner. Despite these restrictions the shoot went well and, as I had hoped, we managed to capture a series of extremely powerful and subtle performances, which following some exhaustive editing and the use of multiple screens was complete.

The making of Multi-story was an important lesson, which showed me how liberating critical theory can be, allowing me to make choices that I might not have made if I had relied only on my instincts.


Barthes, R., Lavers, A., Sontag, S., & Smith, C. (1977). Writing degree zero. Macmillan.

Derrida, Jacques. “Unsealing (“the old new language”).” Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Points… Interviews 1994 (1974): 115-31.

Brecht, B. (2014). Brecht on theatre. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Alvarez, J. L., Mazza, C., Pedersen, J. S., & Svejenova, S. (2005). Shielding idiosyncrasy from isomorphic pressures: Towards optimal distinctiveness in European filmmaking. Organization, 12(6), 863-888.

Bakhtin, M. (1981). From the prehistory of novelistic discourse. The dialogic imagination41.

Brecht on Theatre, Ostlund on Film…

Brecht on Theatre, Ostlund on Film…

So, still no major breakthroughs in terms of subject matter for the film I need to make next year as the major project for my MA in TV and Film and instead I have been reflecting on broader notions of  ‘what exactly cinema/film is?’, and more importantly, how,  if taken at face value, an unreflective approach to filmmaking can seriously limit originality.

I also mention in my last blog reading F.Jameson’s book  ‘The Political Unconscious: Narrative As A Socially Symbolic Act’  which has helped me further develop concepts of an unconscious aspect to film production. While reading the book, however, I was interested to see that my ideas about hidden ideological limitations buried in modes of production are not new and that other creator/theorists have made similar connections. One such creator/theorist being Marxist playwright and theatre director, Bertolt Brecht. With this in mind I have been reading “Brecht on Theatre; The Development of an Aesthetic” which gives a first person account of how Brecht, as a revolutionary marxist  sought to circumvent the ideological limitations of theatrical production with a view to using theatre as tool for bringing about ‘class consciousness‘ and the overthrow of the capitalist system of production.

After reading through this fascinating book it is clear that one of Brecht’s main concerns seems to be his desire to challenge the notion that theatre (early 20th century) existed as a form of ‘entertainment’. He is also very critical of the way theatre engages the audience at an ’emotional level’ and how this level of engagement renders the audience intellectually passive. He goes on to describe how in his approach to theatre he actively works to keep his audience emotionally disengaged so that they still have the capacity to reason and think about what they are seeing on the stage.  The term he uses for this disengagement  is ‘alienation’ which he sees as an essential ingredient if the theatre is to work as a dialectical relationship between audience and players, and not as a one-way conversation. He also makes it clear that he is not interested in realism – stating that he never  wants his audience to forget that they are watching a play! (Or a film??)

It is very clear from his writings that Brecht saw the theatre of his day as an extremely corrupting force, and like Jameson, puts forward the idea that although the theatre (the apparatus) seems to offer the writer unlimited means of expression that, in fact, this is an illusion and that any writer who doesn’t see how ideologically loaded the game is will inevitably lose it. (here is a long but very relevant quote from BB)


“….This muddled thinking which overtakes musicians, writers and critics as soon as they consider their own situation has tremendous consequences to which far too little attention is paid. For by imagining that they have got hold of an apparatus (THE THEATRE) which in fact has got hold of them they are supporting an apparatus which is out of their control…” 

Brecht’s notion of the hapless creator controlled by production mechanisms outside of his/her awareness, as well as being in parallel with my own thoughts,  also  seems to have similarities with the thoughts of the Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostend (to whom I dedicated my recent blog posting – see here)  in which i quoted Ostlund as saying –

“So often you have content, but then you just put it into the same production machinery as everything else, and what’s coming out of that production machinery in the end is quite similar to all the other films.”

Obviously Brecht as a revolutionary Marxist has different objectives to Ruben Ostlund but what is clear from the comments of both creators is their joint emphasis on the need for artists to be wary of the way in which various mechanisms for production – e.g. theatre or film – have built within them tendencies to distort the intentions or objectives of the artist; almost as if these various modes of production had  within them a life force of their own.

To make my point and very much for my own benefit I will now list some of my own questions related to the unquestioned tacit assumptions that surround mainstream film production:

Why must the script be written before filming? Or if all all? 

Why do actors pretend not to know what they are going to say next – or even what will happen to them later in the narrative? Why do they wait for each other to finish speaking before speaking themselves? 

Why are actors called in to the production at a later stage but are not integral to the writing and formation of the characters they will play? 

Why are actors called upon to ‘act’ – when they could ‘be’ the characters. 

Why should there be a difference between documentaries and fiction film production methodologies? 

Why must scripts contain emotional arcs? And characters have epiphanies?

Why must films entertain? 

Why should the audience expect to be entertained? 

Why should films appear to be real when they are in fact artificial?

Why should the audience expect realism? 

Why should the bottom line be financial and not philosophical or cultural? 

Why should we sit quietly through a film and feel as though we got our monies worth – Is it better to hate and never forget a film? or to like and never remember a film? 

It’s fun to ask these questions – even though it is pretty clear that the path i am treading doesn’t seem to be leading me to box office success.. 🙂 


Jameson, F. (1989). The political unconscious: Narrative as a socially symbolic act. London: Routledge.

Brecht, B. (1964). Brecht on Brecht. Columbia.