Seeing Through Film — Starting to Think Like a Director

When I got my first DVD player, I’m embarrassed to admit I hooked it up incorrectly. I could watch DVDs, but couldn’t access the extras. I just lived with that, and even when I finally got my wires uncrossed, I rarely even thought about the extras since I was so used to not seeing them.

That has changed. I am particularly drawn to either feature-length director’s commentaries (that is, the director doing a voice-over throughout the entire movie, explaining why things were done the way they were done), or a “making of” feature (these are sometimes done by the director, sometimes they’re a combination of cast and crew talking about the film, sometimes for an older movie, a film historian will talk about the movie). I have learned so much, and much of it can be applied to writing. Which brings me to the real subject of this post.

Those of you who were reading my daily posts in April (thank you, hardy souls that you are!) may remember that in the alphabetical A to Z challenge, B was for “Blocking,” as in blocking a theatrical play on stage, setting the actions, pacing, placement of actors, and so on. I then likened that process to outlining a writing project. Here’s the link if you want to refresh your memory. A couple of the comments on that post asked if I would pursue the idea further. Um, a funny thing happened with that…

When I started working on a theatrical view of outlining I discovered that the process of making a film, particularly of directing a film, resonated with me more than did blocking a theatrical production. I am a visual person, so thinking about a novel in terms of camera angles, shots, close-ups, camera panning, dissolves, got my creative juices flowing. I also discovered that I am not the first person to contemplate this correlation and to find it helpful (no surprise there).

I still haven’t quite solved the conundrum of outlining, I’m sorry to say. My explorations have, however, enriched the process of writing and have shown me much about how to develop a story idea. In a way, a film is a picture book writ large — the director relies as much on the illustrations  (that is, what is seen on the screen) as on the text (the dialogue in the film).

With this in mind, I will be doing two blog posts in June, one on the 4th and one on the 18th, talking about using film or theatrical perspectives to build the foundation of a writing project. On the 4th, I’ll look at casting and scenic design, and on the 18th I’ll look at the broader aspects of thinking of a novel in film terms — we will be thinking like directors as we consider the writing process. So it’s not quite outlining as blocking, but it might give you some ideas at any rate.

I mentioned DVD extras at the beginning of this post. They are invaluable in this process of thinking about writing in terms of setting up a film.

I highly recommend Nora Ephron’s commentary on You’ve Got Mail. Not only does she explain very clearly why things were done the way they were, but she talks a great deal about books in general, and about children’s books in particular, since bookstores are key elements in the film.

I have often heard/read the suggestion to use basic dramatic structure when writing, that is, to think of the plot (even of a picture book) in terms of a first, second, and third act. Nora Ephron makes the point that within this three-act structure, each act is in three parts, and she delineates them and what they do, as she goes through the movie. I found that a very helpful “take-away” for use in structuring the plot of a book.

Also, by the time I was part way through watching this commentary the other day, I was seeing things that she didn’t mention but that obviously were done on purpose. For example, when the main character, Kathleen Kelly, is gearing up to fight for her bookstore, I don’t think it was an accident that the camera shot shows the book “The Little Engine that Could”. While we can’t use such obvious visuals in our writing, we can make sure that the action and what we are telling all feeds into where the story is at that particular time. How can we enhance our story, showing (rather than telling) an emotion?

If you’re interested, in preparation for the two-part series on Writing like a Director in June you might want to take a look at a director’s commentary or two, and just see how this perspective on story telling might enhance your own plotting process.

20 thoughts on “Seeing Through Film — Starting to Think Like a Director”

  1. This is fascinating, Beth. I loved You’ve Got Mail precisely because of the bookstore/children’s book element, but I’ve never seen the extras. I’m pretty sure our copy is VHS, so probably doesn’t have the extras. I’m going to have to find a DVD copy – maybe the library has one – so I can watch that. I’m really looking forward to June 4th and 18th!

    1. Thanks, Susanna. Hope you’re able to find a copy of the DVD, because I think you’ll get a lot out of the director’s commentary. Actually it’s both the director and the producer, conversing. Hope the 4th and 18th live up to your expectations!

  2. I had the same sentiments about You’ve Got Mail as Susanna and will be getting a copy to find out more now; I ALWAYS listen/watch the extras, especially the director’s comments. I did exactly that last night on a very old movie about an otter called Ring of Bright Water. Sounds like June will be a greta month on tis blog!

    1. I have heard of Ring of Bright Water, but have never watched it. I must see if the library has it.

      I’m looking forward to June, I think it’s going to be quite a month!

  3. That’s fun. I don’t have the dvd to “You’ve Got Mail” as it is on often on cable. I have watched the director’s notes for “Unaccompanied Minors.” It is enlightening. I write plays, so this is a tremendous help as well.

    1. This is great. Three movie recommendations in a row. I’ve not seen Unaccompanied Minors, either. There’s a lot that each genre can learn from the others, isn’t there? Thanks, Mary!

  4. This sounds very interesting. I love “You’ve Got Mail”, seen it many times on TV, I must get the DVD so I can listen to the Directors visuals. Thanks! One I think you know I love listening to is VictorVictoria.

    1. The commentary on Victor/Victoria is fantastic. It’s one of my favorites, as well. I’ve learned so much from that one.

  5. I also loved the movie for the same reasons as Susanna and Joanna. Excellent post. Will look forward to your special June posts. Sorry I haven’t been responding. Wifi not working right as I travel.

    1. Thanks, Patricia. I hope my June posts won’t disappoint! I didn’t really expect you to be online at all while you were away, so this is a nice surprise.

  6. I must admit that I’m not all that big on listening to extras. Though I have enjoyed a few and found myself understanding the way things were done a lot better. Perhaps I should try to do that more often.

    I especially enjoyed watching The Lord of the Rings commentaries. Learned so much by checking out the extras.

    1. I haven’t seen the Lord of the Rings movies — but one of the people I’m interviewing in June wrote a book on the making of the movies! (I haven’t asked him any questions specifically about that project, but it’s one of his many, many credits.) I suspect you would like his book. (I think they’re out of print, unfortunately). Brian Sibley wrote both The Lord of the Rings: the Making of the Movie Trilogy AND The Lord of the Rings: Official Movie Guide.

  7. Hi, Beth!!!

    Love this post. Visualizing is wonderful!
    I’ll confess I’ve never watched a DVD. LOL…yes, hard to believe! No player, no DVDs. The opportunity has never presented itself.
    I get my movies from the nice people at the cable company; sometimes they have “making of” ones, but I now I’m missing out on the extras.
    Do you know CeltX? Here’s a link:
    (feel free to zap that out if you want to)

    Back when I thought I’d be making podcasts and writing novels, I tried it. Long time ago; it may have changed. But it was VERY cool and pretty helpful for organizing things. And it’s FREE!!!

    1. You’re saving yourself a lot of expense by not watching DVDs (although they’re available at the public library) — but I think you would enjoy the “making of” features. And I *know* you’d enjoy the outtakes. However, those things don’t justify the added expense, really…

      I will check out CeltX — I’d not heard of it before. The price is my favorite price… 😉

      (I have to confess I wish you were writing novels. I love your writing!)

    1. It’s amazing where we can find ideas that will help us in our writer’s journey. I gravitate to film direction, because the process of directing has fascinated me for years.

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