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”
As soon as there is language, generality has entered the scene.
“… musicians, writers and critics [imagine] that they have got hold of an apparatus [THE THEATRE] which in fact has got hold of them”
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 imagination, 41.