Posted by Tennyson Stead

In my inaugural Stage 32 blog, entitled Reality Checks from an Inspirational Cripple, I discuss the extent and the price of my insight into film development. For the sake of brevity (hah!), let me say here that I was a Development Executive for nearly a decade, that I’m now working as a screenwriter on some high-profile projects, and that I’m building a film company with the support of many of independent Hollywood’s best and brightest.

Just as the title of that first Stage 32 blog suggests, I’ve had the opportunity and the motivation to rigorously evaluate what it is I’m doing in Hollywood, how I’m doing it, and why. Among the many diamonds of understanding I’ve compressed and subsequently mined in my years of professional disintegration and reconciliation is this:

Most folks in Hollywood believe that spectacle is an impossible thing to define. According to the popular wisdom, spectacle is just one of those things where “You’ll know it when you see it.” What’s useful about this way of thinking is that if spectacle cannot be defined in specific terms, then there’s no way for a filmmaker to reliably cultivate it, and nobody can be blamed when a movie fails to offer spectacle to the audience.

 

What is Spectacle in Filmmaking?

 

What is Spectacle in Filmmaking And How Can Indie Filmmakers Use it


Spectacle is the effect of watching a person do something we didn’t actively realize people could do.

When we see a visual effect we’ve never seen before, the “wow factor” comes from the fact that we know some human being must have been responsible for manufacturing that image  and now that we’ve seen it, this new thing gets added to our internal list of things we know people are capable of. When we encounter a visual effect we’ve already seen, it fails to impress us. Technical or mechanical accomplishments only “wow” us the first time we encounter them. Once we know people can do a thing, we expect it.

Spending more money on a film does not necessarily make the film more spectacular. For independent filmmakers this is good news, so long as we find some other source from which to harvest our spectacle. Inserting the right plot twist into the screenplay of a film has proven to be an inexpensive, effective way to catch audiences off-guard, so independent filmmakers today are understandably focusing their attention on finding or developing those screenplays that challenge an audience’s expectations with regard to plot.

Our problem, in a nutshell, is that the construction of a plot is every bit as mechanical as the construction of a special effect. While audiences may not expect the precise plot developments we plan for them, today’s audiences have definitely figured out our overall gameplan in this regard. In the wake of filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan and Chris Nolan, we all need to stop expecting clever plot mechanics to “wow” an audience.

 

Where Do We Turn For Spectacle?

 

What is Spectacle in Filmmaking And How Can Indie Filmmakers Use it


Human beings will always, always, underestimate other human beings. When a screenplay offers the cast performance opportunities that stretch the boundaries of what an audience might expect from an actor, then the realization of that performance will always be spectacular. If we can return our focus to performance as a source of production value, then we bring ourselves back to the only reliable, renewable source of spectacle in entertainment: the craft of our performers.

When folks in Hollywood lament losing that one, indefinable thing that filmmakers from the 70’s and beforehand seemed to grasp so naturally, what they’re noticing is a focus on performance work as the core of cinema. Back in that era, most filmmakers - most executives, even - came from theater or some other discipline of showbusiness. From a very young age, the showpeople of those generations were all imprinted with a strong foundation in performance.

When screenplays were written, the focus of the writing was on creating a performance opportunity that would startle or surprise audiences. From there, the job of a director or producer was to find the actors who could deliver on the promise of a script. At that point, it was the director’s job to make sure the cast did whatever work was necessary to put those performances on the screen.

For the sake of our packaging process, screenplays today are written to be as easy to cast as possible. Ideally, the only hurdle a casting agent will need to overcome in packaging a screenplay is the availability and interest of the actors they want to attach. If a screenplay challenges the cast’s performance ability, then a casting agent has to restrict their casting to actors who can actually meet that challenge - which can hurt the strength of the package, and which is work that most of today’s casting directors aren’t even trained to do.

In other words, today’s screenwriters are encouraged to drain all possible performance risk out of their projects. If there’s any chance an actor might fail to deliver a given performance, then by our current standards of development the script itself is considered to be poorly written. Indeed, writers are firmly encouraged to write scripts that an executive with no performance training whatsoever can “see,” and can relate to, cover to cover.

 

Plot Twists and Innovative Technology Is Only The Beginning

 

What is Spectacle in Filmmaking And How Can Indie Filmmakers Use it


My friends, clever plot twists and innovative technologies do not make up for the loss of spectacular performance in Hollywood today.

First, we need acquire the performance training it takes to know the difference between a challenging role and a badly written one. Finding opportunities for clever plot twists is well and good, but what we need are roles that require more specificity than we generally expect from an actor. Finding the nuances of a performance in quantity as well as quality, realizing emotional transitions that seem excessively risky at first glance (but that turn out to be supported by the structure and scenework), and eliminating exposition, inefficiency, and waste from our writing are all good places to start digging for spectacle.

Once we know these tools are on the page, we all need to get a lot smarter about our casting process. For a number of reasons, ranging from quality control to the lack of representation in media when it comes to underprivileged people, we have all got to stop casting based on “the look.” Learn the craft of acting, people! Cast actors who have the range, the specificity, and the other tools to take what’s on the page and elevate it. Assuming you want an actor that’s more highly trained than yourself, don’t look for the performance you see in your head. Cast the actor who passes that performance up for something better, and who will keep growing with the character until the cameras are done rolling.

Once the cast is in place, rehearsal is the next vital ingredient in our chain reaction of spectacle. Putting in the time to hammer the blocking, timing, and beats of a scene into the bodies of our performers means that when the actual performance starts, the cast is digging for deeper levels of specificity instead of struggling with basic scene mechanics. Rather than making a performance stale, a good rehearsal process makes the broad strokes of the scene a matter of automatic impulse… so the actors can be free to surprise and challenge one another with details and nuance. In this way, great performances really do start to resemble something like real life.

What is Spectacle in Filmmaking And How Can Indie Filmmakers Use it


On set, when my own crew sees the work my cast and I have accomplished together, they always remark on how unbelievably lucky I am with the casting process. LUCKY?!? “Unbelievably lucky,” they tell me. “How did you get this?” “Who are these people?” When other filmmakers see the performance work my cast and I are producing, they freely admit that they had no clue actors were even capable of doing what we do.

Spectacle is the effect of watching a person do something we didn’t actively realize people could do.

If this is the response my own colleagues are having to strong performance work, imagine how watching this kind of performance must feel for the audience. All that spectacle cost me was some extra time in the casting chair, a few weeks of rehearsal… and several decades of stage experience, I’ll grant you. Even so, the dollars I invest in spectacle pale in comparison to the effect it has on our audience.

When it comes to plot twists and innovative visuals, of course I’m happy to show my audience something fun. When I do, those skeletal elements are buried under the muscle of my performance work… and ideally, the audience won’t see them coming because they’re already dazzled and blindsided by what my performers are bringing to the screen. That’s how movie magic works.

If you’re telling yourself that “nobody knows what spectacle really is until they see it,” that’s because you still need to build up the training and habits it takes to see through the magic to the work underneath. Please, don’t be afraid of that work. Embrace it. Without those habits, our films are just clever clockwork contraptions. With a performance foundation supporting us, everything we do becomes real.

With spectacle, everything we do becomes magic.

Tennyson E. Stead an award-winning writer and director who has written 25 screenplays in total, and sold or optioned eight. In addition to almost 30 years of production experience on stage and screen, Stead carries a decade of experience as an independent film development and finance executive. Today, Stead's primary labors revolve around writing, directing, and developing cinema and online content as the founder of a repertory film company called 8 Sided Films.

 

Other Stage 32 Posts By Tennyson Stead:
Reality Checks from an Inspirational Cripple - Part 1
Reality Checks from an Inspirational Cripple - Part 2
How We Screwed the Showbiz Culture Up and How We Can Fix It


How We Screwed the Showbiz Culture Up And How We Can Fix It

Tennyson E. Stead an award-winning writer and director who has written 25 screenplays in total, and sold or optioned eight. In addition to almost 30 years of production experience on stage and screen, Stead carries a decade of experience as an independent film development and finance executive. Today, Stead's primary labors revolve around writing, directing, and developing cinema and online content as the founder of a repertory film company called 8 Sided Films.

 


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