Collective Creativity: A Few Thoughts on Filmmaking

Rob Cohen on the set directing The Fast and the Furious (2001)

There is the dream.

There are the layered and complex logistics required to realize it.

The dream, often formulated in the script development stage, has a purity of purpose, but that is the last time in the long, multi-year process of delivering a movie to the public that such shaping of a personal vision can be unilaterally created. After that, it’s the hoards.

The actual making of a film is a military endeavor with the director as “Commander-in-Chief” and the producer as a cross between Congress, the Joint Chiefs, and the Secretary of Defense. Under this level come the Department Heads: assistant director, production designer, cameraman, editor, on-set special effects (explosions, squibs, rain, etc.), stunt coordinator, prop master, VFX [visual effects] supervisor, location manager, casting director, composer, production manager, sound designer, title designer, transportation captain, colorist, to name some of the normal array. It’s a complicated relationship varying on every film.

An actor in an evening gown enters a room where the bad guys are waiting for her. They fight. That’s what the script says. Now let’s deconstruct the scene, like I do a thousand times a day: the actor making an entrance. Hmmmm… What is the costume? Should it break-away during the fight? Sexy, exploitative? Where’s the balance? Special costume construction. Can the pieces be re-assembled with Velcro or does it mean a wardrobe change after every take, too much time wasted waiting, what fight style does she use, Krav Maga, Jeet Kune Do, Muay Thai, how well did we train her, how good is her stunt double, how close can I get on the double, high kicks without showing too much crotch? Talk to the stunt coordinator. More leg sweeps, how much dress can I break away without threatening the contractual PG-13 rating, how much can I get the actor to do, does she have nudity clauses, partial nudity clauses in her contract, how to approach her, get her excited about the potential, is it tone, does the sexiness damage the danger—but the action/striptease could be amazing. Time/money/result. Cut extras pay for extra half-day to pay for the break-away dress, producer will want more cuts to pay for it. Discuss with him. Should the gown be light silver chiffon or red silk but underneath reveal jet black Agent Provocateur garters, Fugals, Christian Louboutin heels, no, too expensive, we will need doubles, triples in case a heel breaks, or have a shoemaker on set and use only two pairs—which choice costs less? Accessories, will they get in the way, could they be used, a necklace that can be used as a garrote, talk to the costume designer, make her see it as purity of intent, not a violation of the character’s much-discussed fashion sense, rings that work as brass knuckles, carve up the light into pools, no overall lighting effect, chiaroscuro, silhouette to pool of light, in and out, will help cover some of the choreography and leave some to the imagination, especially that complex part where the double must be used, discuss with director of photography, he wanted a single source of light through the window, must ease him out of that concept, change the scene from day to night, adjust the script’s time sequence, talk to the writer who will write it, of course, music, score here, or a song, yes a song, Cole Porter “I get a kick out of you…” Kick is good. Sinatra, Rage Against the Machine, yes, rock it out hard, no camp, talk to the music supervisor, how much for the track, too much dialog, cut to the song, let the song say it all, cut the lines, actor will resist, she loves those lines, discuss it with her at lunch….

Every day for the eighteen months or two years it takes to make my kind of film (action movies with special effects), the stream of internal questions and answers go on in my head about every detail, character, prop, weapon, dab of make-up, choice of light, and nuance of dialog. The Dream is fixed yet fluid in the imagination and each deconstructed piece of the puzzle must be brought out of that imaginative state and fixed firmly in reality in front of the camera and onto the digital sensor where it is recorded for all time.

When I see starlings flying in their dense and ever-transmogrifying clouds, I think that is what film-making is overall. It’s millions of elements struggled into reality matching some abstract plan in someone’s imagination and, like a Ouija Board, once the many hands are on it, it starts to move in an organic way. As the director, I try to control it and force it to be what I first imagined, but that is often swimming against the tide. From the billion choices I have made, something emerges, through all those questions, all those people, all the amalgamated talents, this thing finally stands on its own, a child launched into the world where it will wander quite independent from me. People will love it or hate it or be indifferent to it. It will either make money or it won’t.

Long after all the technicians, the money, the materials, the egos, the clashes, and collective creativity are gone, somewhere, on a channel or a site or a well-worn theater reeking of stale popcorn, floors sticky with generations of spilled soft drinks, that dream, my dream, will unspool for a few souls who have no idea who any of us were. They will laugh or be excited or maybe they’ll be bored but my dream and my hand will still reach out and stroke the face of the future.

Contributor

Rob Cohen

ROB COHEN was Head of Production at Motown Records at the age of 24; he put the company into the film industry, producing Mahogany (1975) and The Wiz (1978). He has since had a long career as the director of many well-loved Hollywood blockbusters, including Dragon (The Bruce Lee Story, 1993), Dragonheart (1996, a pioneering use of cgi technology), and The Fast and the Furious (2001), launching the biggest franchise in the history of Universal Pictures. His new film, The Hurricane Heist is being released March 9th.

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