“I’m really a freak in every place I go. I don’t quite fit in the independent scene, I don’t quite fit in the art scene, and I don’t fit in the Hollywood scene, so I’m a weird strange fat motherfucker. I’ll tell you this: I plan to stay that way, because there is something to be said.”- Guillermo del Toro

“I’m really a freak in every place I go. I don’t quite fit in the independent scene, I don’t quite fit in the art scene, and I don’t fit in the Hollywood scene, so I’m a weird strange fat motherfucker. I’ll tell you this: I plan to stay that way, because there is something to be said.”- Guillermo del Toro

Moonrise Kingdom — Where Story Meets Style

In Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s style is the perfect match for the story. He uses details to create a believable world, establishes the rules of this fantastical story, and creates a tone that forms a connection between the audience and the characters of Suzy and Sam.

David Fincher: From a Distance

by @jacobtswinney

Swinney’s last David Fincher video examined the filmmaker’s use of the extreme close-up. It seemed only right that his follow-up video would do the opposite. Fincher’s use of the long/extreme long shot is something of beauty, lending a majestic sense of scale to his often cramped and grimy little worlds. Whether he employs the shot to communicate isolation, express magnitude, or even just to give us a much needed breath, Fincher’s approach to distancing us from his subjects is masterful.

Alien 3 (1992)
Se7en (1995)
The Game (1997)
Fight Club (1999)
Panic Room (2002)
Zodiac (2007)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Social Network (2010)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Gone Girl (2014)

5 Films That Influenced Christopher Nolan


Before Christopher Nolan was a blockbuster director, he was a kid who loved movies. Here are the five films he identifies as his biggest influences.

Christopher Nolan has established himself as one of the blockbuster directors of this generation. The skills he has acquired as a filmmaker can be credited to the countless movies he’s seen in his lifetime.

“Movies become indistinguishable from our own memories,” Nolan said in an interview with Wired magazine. “You file them away and they become very personal.”

Here’s a look at how five specific films played a major role in establishing Nolan’s blockbuster worlds.

2001: A Space Odyssey

In May of 1977, Star Wars reinvigorated the world’s love of sci-fi and space films. That summer, theaters in the UK re-released Stanley Kubrick’s space epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“My dad took my brother and me to Leicester Square, which is where you’d find the biggest theaters in London. I remember very clearly just the experience of being transported to another world. I was a huge Star Wars fan at the time. But this was a completely different way of experiencing science fiction. I was seven years old, so I couldn’t claim to have understood the film. I still can’t claim that. But as a seven year old, I didn’t care about understanding the film. I just felt this extraordinary experience of being taken to another world. You didn’t doubt this world for an instant. It had a larger than life quality.

When I tell people this story, they often find it unusual that a child of that age would want to see 2001. But the truth is all of my friends went to see 2001 in the year after Star Wars. We would all sit and talk about what it meant. It was ‘pure cinema.’ The fact that it’s challenging cinema in an intellectual sense doesn’t bother you when you’re a kid. You just appreciate the feeling of the movie.” — Entertainment Weekly

“It just has that sensory stimulation of pure cinema that speaks to people of all ages. People forget kids like it too — because we were all into spaceships.” — Empire Magazine

It’s obvious that 2001 highly influenced Nolan’s Interstellar, but director Stanley Kubrick would be the one that really shaped Nolan as a filmmaker. Not only did Kubrick’s work leave an impression, but so did his personal approach to the craft.

“From a storytelling point of view, from a directing point of view, there is one thing I associate with what he does, which is calm. There is such an inherent calm and inherent trust of the one powerful image, that he makes me embarrassed with my own work, in terms of how many different shots, how many different sound effects, how many different things we’ll throw at an audience to make an impression. But with Kubrick, there is such a great trust of the one correct image to calmly explain something to audience. There can be some slowness to the editing. There’s nothing frenetic about it. It’s very simple. There’s a trust in simple storytelling and simple image making that actually takes massive confidence to try and emulate.” — Entertainment Weekly

It’s not Kubrick’s filmmaking alone either, as the director also influenced Nolan’s approach to studio collaborations.

“I think anyone who is working [for the studios] looks to Kubrick as the great example of someone who is able to make films that were very personal to him, very idiosyncratic, with a great degree of passion, while collaborating with the studios and making what he did fit within the economic models of their times.” — Entertainment Weekly

That mindset has since helped Nolan’s production company, Syncopy, establish itself as a blockbuster powerhouse in a matter of years. Syncopy has collaborated with Legendary Pictures, DC Entertainment, and Warner Bros. to produce films that have hit nearly $4.7 Billion in box office sales — in less than a decade.

Blade Runner

Director Ridley Scott had just blown audiences away with Alien when his 1982 follow-up film, Blade Runner, hit theaters. The films established Scott as a blockbuster filmmaker during Christopher Nolan’s most influential years.

“I have always been a huge fan of Ridley Scott and certainly when I was a kid. Alien, Blade Runner just blew me away because they created these extraordinary worlds that were just completely immersive.” — Media Factory

This film has influenced nearly all of Nolan’s movies. He considers Blade Runner a key touchstone of science fiction. The film’s production design and style were key to establishing the base of Nolan’s Batman universe. Nolan even cast Blade Runner star Rutger Hauer in Batman Begins.

“It’s hard to say what was conscious homage, and what was my analysis of why Blade Runner was so convincing in its production design and in the way it uses its sets. From a pragmatic point of view, Blade Runner is actually one of the most successful films of all time in terms of constructing that reality using sets. On Batman Begins, unlike The Dark Knight, we found ourselves having to build the streets of Gotham in large part. So I immediately gravitated toward the visual treatment that Ridley Scott had come up with, in terms of how you shoot these massive sets to make them feel real and not like impressive sets. And immediately we started looking at the rain, the handheld cameras, the longer lenses…

So myself, my designer Nathan Crowley, and my cinematographer Wally Pfister, we started to throw all of that into the mix of how you can help the look of something, how you can create texture, as Ridley Scott has always been the absolute master of. Creating a texture to a shooting style that maximizes the impact of the set, and minimizes the artifice — the feeling that this world has edges to it that you would see at the edge of the frame. Blade Runner is one of the examples of how you can take a camera and get down and dirty… and really envelop your audience in the atmosphere of the world you’re trying to create. We definitely tried to emulate that style, and I think in doing so we actually created homage, particularly where we used the rain very much.” — Forbes

The Spy Who Loved Me

Released the same year Nolan first watched Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1977′s The Spy Who Loved Me may be the most well-known Roger Moore Bond film. To the eyes of a kid, this was the coolest Bond ever. To Christopher Nolan, 1977 may have been the greatest year ever.

“One of the first films I remember seeing was The Spy Who Loved Me and at a certain point the Bond films fixed in my head as a great example of scope and scale in large scale images. That idea of getting you to other places, of getting you along for a ride if you can believe in it — in The Spy Who Loved Me, the Lotus Esprit turns into a submarine and its totally convincing, and it works and you go ‘Wow, that’s incredible.’” — IndieWire

Nolan frequently cites this particular Bond film often, but he is a huge fan of Bond films in general. He credits the franchise for creating threats that played on audiences fears.

“Interestingly, the Bond films, back in the 60s, they were very specifically about Cold War fears — They introduced the threat of nuclear terrorism very specifically for the first time in movies and they were closer than people realize, in pop culture terms, to what people feared at the time. And I think that one of the things in taking on an action film set in a great American city post-9/11, if we were going to be honest in terms of our fears and what might threaten this great city, then we were going to come up against terrorism and how that might feature in the universe of Batman. And I think we approached it with a great deal of sincerity.”

It wasn’t only the Dark Knight trilogy that benefitted from the influence of 007. In fact, the closest thing we may get to a Christopher Nolan James Bond film is Inception.

“The Bond influence on the film was very intentional because, for me, growing up with the Bond films — they’ve always stood for grand-scale action.” — BBC

The Spy Who Loved Me was not the only Bond film to be a major influence, as Nolan also cites On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as his favorite Bond film. Overall, it was the world of James Bond that showcased an expansive cinematic universe.

“I think for me, when you look at the idea of being able to create a limitless world and use it almost as a playground for action and adventure and so forth, I naturally gravitate towards cinematic worlds, whether it’s the Bond films and things like that. So without being too self-conscious about it or without too much intention as I was writing it, I certainly allowed my mind to wander where it would naturally and I think a lot of the tropes from different genres of movies, heist films, spy films, that kind of thing, they therefore sort of naturally sit in that world.” — Collider

The Thin Red Line

Terrence Malick‘s 1998 film, The Thin Red Line, is listed as one of Christopher Nolan’s all-time favorite films. The film helped Nolan realize that there were no set boundaries in film editing, which helped him set up the story in Memento.

I also see a lot of attempts to do what I saw Terrence Malick doing, in terms of the portrayal of mental states and memory. If you watch The Thin Red Line, that was a revelation to me. He’s cutting to memories and flashbacks with simple cuts; there are no wavy lines or dissolves. There are moments [in Memento] where Guy’s character is remembering his wife that were taken very much from that film. — Movieline


“One of the great films that I am very influenced by that we haven’t talked about was Dick Donner’s Superman. It made a huge impression on me.” — The Hollywood Reporter

“Donner took on the character of Superman, he made the image of how people my age saw Superman. I still remember the trailers. I remember going to the cinema to see something else and seeing these epic trailers — the character standing in the cornfield, Marlon Brando’s voice — and that stuck with me.” — IndieWire

One of Nolan’s biggest takeaways from the film was the realistic setting.

“… the world is pretty much the world we live in, but there’s this extraordinary figure there, which is what worked so well in Dick Donner’s Superman film.” — The Hollywood Reporter

“When I talk about reality in these films, it’s often misconstrued as direct reality, but it’s really cinematic reality. It’s about trying to find the translation and credibility in the events and fantastical nature of what is going on.” — IndieWire

That cinematic reality played a huge role in the world of the Dark Knight trilogy, and once again appeared in Superman’s universe with the Man of Steel franchise, which was produced by Nolan.

The Prestige: Hiding In Plain Sight

by Evan Puschak

How Alfred Hitchcock Blocks A Scene

by Evan Puschak

Joel & Ethan Coen - Shot | Reverse Shot

by Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou

Hands of Nolan

SXSW 2016: Joe Swanberg Gets Honest About Making a Living in Indie Film

By Chris O'Falt | Indiewire

“When shooting a movie, it’s better to have no money, than some money.”

Joe Swanberg

Joe Swanberg’s keynote today at SXSW was not unlike one of his movies: Unscripted, personally revealing and brutally honest. As Swanberg worked his way chronologically through his career, he kept pointing out how he wasn’t some trailblazer, but rather that his career had just intersected with tremendous advances in technology that changed how films were made and distributed. The reality, however, is that Swanberg has consistently been at the forefront of experimenting with how to be an uncompromised filmmaker, while still carving out a career and living for himself.  

Using examples from his career, the director provided plenty of filmmaking principles and advice with the many aspiring DYI filmmakers in the audience.

“We Need To Share Information”

“If we just talked to each other we’d fuck shit up,” explained Swanberg. Using an example from when he was making a the web series “Young Hard Bodies” for IFC and Nerve, Swanberg said that he was happy to just get paid anything to make the series. That was until his good friend Ti West (who is at SXWS this year with “In a Valley of Violence”) told him he was getting paid $5,000 a episode. Swanberg had started making his series for $500 to $1,000 an episode.

“If I didn’t know Ti, I would have been happy with [getting a raise] to $3,000,” but instead IFC, didn’t blink when he asked for $5,000.  

Joe Swanberg at a Nitehawk, Brooklyn screening of Magnolia Pictures’ “Drinking Buddies.”

“Marriage is Also a Business Partnership”

Swanberg credits his marriage to fellow filmmaker Kris Swanberg (“Unexpected”) as being vital to allowing them both filmmakers ability to experiment and create. Although he was honest about how the couple spent a decade barely making ends meet, that having two potential income earners — and as long as one of them was working and able to pay the bills — has allowed them to both continue to make art and start a family.

“No One Reads Anything”

“No press is bad press,” Swanberg joked. His larger point here was that simply being written about in major publications, especially The New York Times, gave Swanberg’s early ventures into micro budget filmmaking and VOD the credibility he needed. He said that biggest lesson came when a number of people would congratulate him on reviews he knew said “god awful” things about his films. It was at this point he realized that being important enough to be written about was what would be vital to him being able to make films for $10,000 to $15,000.     

“Digging for Fire”

“You Can Shoot A Good Movie in Four Days”

Swanberg spent a great deal of time during his keynote highlighting the key role that his friend and collaborator Adam Wingard (also at SXSW with the TV show “Outcast”) has played in his career. When the two directors first met each other in Birmingham, where Wingard lived, Swanberg thought he was “the weirdest and most memorable dude ever,” but he didn’t take him seriously. When Wingard asked Swanberg to come to Alabama to act in two segments of his four-segment feature about date rape, Swanberg joked, “that was literally the last thing I ever wanted to do.”

After watching the first two segments, however, Swanberg was impressed, but when he learned that Wingard had shot each segment in a day, his mind was blown. He went to Alabama to see how Wingard could possibly shoot a quarter of a movie in a day and for it to still be good. He was so impressed by Wingard, he hired him to be his cinematographer and mirrored his process in shooting “Autoerotic.” The film went on to be Swanberg’s first project to make a major profit (it sold for $70,000 and cost only $15,000) and set into motion Swanberg making seven films in one year.  

Swanberg encouraged the young filmmakers in the audience to attempt to making a four-day feature themselves, highlighting that it’s great for performances and it really sharpens and focuses you as a director.  

Movie Stars Are Important

In discussing “Drinking Buddies,” Swanberg insists he did nothing different in the way he made the film, except that he worked with stars like Anna Kendrick and Jake Johnson, and that results were career- and life-changing.

“It’s this weird thing that when we see famous people do things it feels real [to us],” explained Swanberg. He admitted that while he dreams of going back to the days of living with his cast and crew for a month while improvising a movie like “Hannah Takes The Stairs,” the reality is he’s fallen in love with working with Hollywood stars. This has meant that he now needs to write a script, so that he can have a real plan to accommodate busy actors’ schedules.

“Invest in Your Own Movies”

Swanberg revealed today that since “Drinking Buddies,” he has rolled his income from one movie right into his next one, owning an increasing larger percentage of his work with each new project. He realizes this is counter to every piece of advice filmmakers are told, but he insists that gambling on yourself is the only way you will ever make any real money in this business.

“Drinking Buddies”

“Three Truths About Money”

1.  According Swanberg, when making a movie, “it is better to have no money, than some money.” He insists having some money causes major headaches because everybody is going to want a piece of it and there’s not enough to go around. He stated that he’s had much better success paying people more money after the film has been sold.

2.  The less you need money, the more they want to give you money, but when you are struggling, the smell of desperation means no one will give you a dime. Swanberg discussed how this truth is infuriating, but that advices filmmakers to take meetings like you don’t need funds.

3.  Time and happiness are money. If you don’t factor your happiness into what it is you do for money as filmmaker you will not succeed. He added, “People don’t like bad movies and never have I seen a filmmaker hate something they made, that makes money.”

The Judo of Quentin Tarantino

by Christopher S. Pratt




noun: judo, In short, resisting a more powerful opponent will result in your defeat, whilst adjusting to and evading your opponent’s attack will cause him to lose his balance, his power will be reduced, and you will defeat him. This can apply whatever the relative values of power, thus making it possible for weaker opponents to beat significantly stronger ones. This is the theory of ju yoku go o seize.


Robert Rodriguez’s show Director’s Chair features compelling storytelling and solid interviews. The Season 1, Episode 2 - Quentin Tarantino is a must see. At 21:00 QT tells a story about the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack:

“We spent our entire music budget on the rights to Stuck in the Middle With You… but we got the idea that if maybe we got a record deal, that record deal would pay for the rest of the songs. We actually had one guy who was stringing us along, it never came through, but he gave us enough confidence for this idea by stringing us along that we went forward with it. I don’t think we would have gone forward if we didn’t have someone lying to us, but then we were committed, we actually made it happen.”

This is awesome.

This speaks to me.

How often are we strung along by a producer, studio, actor, whomever. Someone telling us they have the ___________. Money, connections, power, relationships, etc. This is Tarantino’s Judo. He uses the momentum of his enemy, in this case the BS record guy, to put forth the effort, to do the work. Fantastic.

The hardest thing to explain to non-professional writers is that none of it is for them. Every bit of the work is for you. YOU need that record deal, just like you need to learn how PIXAR structures character arc. YOU need to believe it can be done, in order to do it. The scumbag, liar, bullshit artist stringing you along is an essential part of your Judo. Don’t hate the obstacle, embrace it. Use it. Become empowered by the opposition.


Marcus Aurelius. His book Meditations is free. Find it, read it, let it wash over you. Ask yourself how this opposition, this obstacle, is actually the way.

Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way is a great distillation of his theory. Very effective. Steven Pressfield is equally powerful.

Channel Tarantino’s Judo. No work is wasted. Find the poetry in the opposition. Do the work. Get that record deal.

“I think hatred is wasted energy, and it’s all non-productive…I know we’re only human, we do go in for these…negative emotions, but when all these are removed and you can look forward and the road is clear ahead, and now you’re going to create something — I think that’s as happy as I’ll ever want to be.” - Alfred Hitchcock 

“I think hatred is wasted energy, and it’s all non-productive…I know we’re only human, we do go in for these…negative emotions, but when all these are removed and you can look forward and the road is clear ahead, and now you’re going to create something — I think that’s as happy as I’ll ever want to be.” - Alfred Hitchcock 

‘Always leave the door open to allow life to enter the set.’ - Jean Renoir

‘Always leave the door open to allow life to enter the set.’ - Jean Renoir

Finding the Next Lost: What Is an “Operational Theme” and Why Don’t I Have One?

By Javier Grillo–Marxuach

One of the many perks afforded a journeyman writer/producer in television is receiving scripts for network television pilots as they are being made. It’s like the best possible version of the TV Guide Fall Preview Issue I used to compulsively reread under the covers with a flashlight as a kid. Except that now I have the added thrill: if my agents do their job, if I am good in the interview, if a million other moving parts click in the correct order, I help the people who created these shows realize their vision.

This inside window into the totality of network development puts us journeyman television writers and producers in an interesting position to spot and track trends as they develop, fade, or mature. One trend that persists — almost a decade after its inception — is every broadcaster’s ongoing quest to put on the air the next great serialized high–concept sci–fi show: to find the next Lost.
Of course, it seldom works.

My own modest contribution to the evolution of Lost — and having worked on a number of shows with similar goals in the years since — provides something of a vantage point from which to judge the success — and failure — of these attempts. More often than not, it boils down to the presence or absence of a crucial element I call “the operational theme.”

In high school and college, most of us could pick a lofty word or idea and designate it the “theme” of a play or novel: “power,” “alienation,” “banality of evil,” or (my personal favorite) “the shallowness of modern life.” We could then write a coffee–and–Red–Bull–fueled paper, using choice quotes from the partially–skimmed bit of required reading, and have a pretty good shot at not winding up ashamed to show the report card to our parents in the morning. Sadly, for the professional television writers — even the really astute ones — this is neither enough to create something that will connect with an audience — nor will it survive the production goal of many seasons and possible syndication.

Television is a populist medium with little patience for intellectual phumphering. Hour–long drama is — first and foremost — about creating characters driven by internal forces that, melded to the right situation, can fuel every action, every line, every scene, and every plot for hundreds of successful episodes. This is the operational theme: a situational vector that cleanly delineates the potential variations of action in service of the protagonist’s consistent emotional need. This is crucial to the success of a television pilot. It is crucial to the successful episodes to come. It is, indeed, what television pilots should see as the first order of business to establish. And yet, it is most often the part that’s missing — especially from the sci–fi shows.

In a procedural series, the operational theme of the protagonist is usually pretty cut–and–dry. He or she is — sometimes quite literally — dedicated to bringing about law and order. The reason cops, doctors, and lawyers rule — and will probably always rule — the airwaves in some form or another is that their operational theme is baked into their personality. It is a function of their job — the eradication of suffering and injustice at any cost — and is usually fused with personal obsession brought about by past trauma.

If television is to be believed, the most dangerous thing to be in the world is the spouse of a detective. Most of them wind up dead at the hands of some psychopath who remains uncatchable for the span of episodes it takes to score a lucrative syndication deal for the series. Television thrives on workaholic protagonists who sacrifice — or have sacrificed for them — their personal relationships in favor of protecting people like us — the viewer!

As television has evolved to include more serialized, heavily “mythologized” drama — even in the stock genres of crime, medicine, and the law — the operational theme of the protagonist must remain front and center for the series to succeed. In Breaking Bad, Walter White’s operational theme — “to save everything I love I must become something everyone hates” — creates an endless supply of drama. Every situation Walter enters requires him to tell, develop, and sustain a lie.

This brilliant operational theme requires every single scene in the show to be front–loaded with deception and subterfuge. It’s a recipe for perfect ongoing drama that allowed the show to slowly string out and develop its more academic theme: the seduction of a good man by the infinite charms of wealth, power, and his descent into darkness. But make no mistake, academic is the right word for those themes. It was the initial simplicity of Walter White’s operational theme that consistently opened dramatic avenues episode after episode.

It doesn’t end with Walter White. The current “golden era” of television is littered with very easily identifiable operational themes that burden their protagonists. Tony Soprano wants to remain a sadistic mobster even though his unconscious musters every weapon at its disposal to get him to turn away from his horrific life. Don Draper continually tries to keep up the idealized appearance of the successful mid–century man in the grey flannel suit as his inner demons plague him with the truth that his entire life is a lie. Doctor House wants to be left in peace to be a belligerent drug addict but is forced to put his basic instincts aside and perform the job of genius diagnostician.

Outside of TV, my favorite example of the perfect fusion of situation and character into operational theme is the film Die Hard. The entire narrative is an extended metaphor for marital therapy: a husband trying to earn back his estranged wife. The terrorists are the physical manifestation of the emotional barriers that keep John McClane from familial bliss. As with any person in couples counseling, McClane systematically loses his metaphorical armor as he fights to the point of exhaustion. He ends up shoeless and bloody, blubbering to his “therapist” about his love for his wife — bleeding both thematically and practically.

The bathroom confession in Die Hard could have just easily been an episode of HBO’s In Treatment: a man denuded through adversity of all the trappings of macho pride, forced to confront his raw emotional wounds.

It seems obvious, and, frankly, inevitable — in the way that a Mark Rothko painting, or an Arne Jacobsen chair, appear inevitable — that simple operational themes are the key to serialized success. And yet, by and large, most attempts at serialized, mythologized sci–fi fail to pull off this trick. Think of all the genre series that have attempted to capitalize on the serialized mystery/heavy–mythology vogue triggered by Lost: Flash Forward, Kingdom Hospital, Surface, The Event, Invasion, V, Threshold, Awake, Journeyman, Dollhouse, Persons Unknown, Terra Nova, the American remake of Life on Mars — the list goes on and on.

Most of the sci–fi shows we now regard as classics — and the majority that are currently successful and truly long–running, like Supernatural — are not Lost clones. Rather, they are straightforward procedural franchises with simple operational themes.

The brothers Winchester, Nick Burkhardt in Grimm, Mulder and Scully in The X–Files — even Buffy, the Vampire Slayer — are all basically cops: rolling into a new case week after week, interrogating suspects, finding lore that matches the methodology of the villains, confronting evildoers, serving justice, and moving on to the next week’s transgressor. In the best of these series, an overarching theme buttresses the set–up: Mulder and Scully’s dynamic was defined by opposing viewpoints which fueled every scene. In addition to being thrust into stories by their occupation every week, they always had a basic ideological conflict that spoke to their character.

Even the beloved crew of the Starship Enterprise are hyper–competent trouble–shooters placed into stories weekly by dint of external mission as opposed to internal need. In the best Star Trek series, this necessity was supported by an interesting character dynamic: Captain Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are a three–man representation of the ego, superego, and id. The drama of the series lied in watching these three archetypes integrate into a coherent solution to the planet–of–the–week’s problem: McCoy would shout, “dammit, man, we gotta do something!” Spock would reply that “to do something would be illogical.” Kirk would eventually say “I have a plan.”

Compare that infinitely fruitful character interaction with the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation — a long and tedious stew of underdeveloped, under–thought characters kept afloat by the exigencies of a procedural franchise. On Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first two years there was always a potentially interesting issue with the planet–of–the–week. But it took almost two years for the characters to become anywhere as interesting as the show’s premise. (It’s a miracle of the extant love of Star Trek in the core audience, or the innate intrigue of the show’s premise, or the economics of first–run syndication in the late eighties — or maybe some combination of the three — that the show survived long enough for its characters to find their way into being fully–realized people who could carry a story like “The Inner Light,” “Chains of Command,” or “Tapestry.”)

Had the writers merely dropped the original characters of Star Trek: The Next Generation on a desert island — a place with no innate sense of mission — the series would have surely collapsed.

Lost succeeded in telling a longitudinal story because it managed to create a central operational theme for every single one of the characters in its voluminous ensemble. In the earliest days of the creation of the series, the creative team behind Lost — co–creators Damon Lindelof and J.J. Abrams, with the assistance of Paul Dini, Christian Taylor, Jennifer Johnson, and myself — came upon the idea of using flashbacks to develop the operational themes for each character. The flashbacks to the crash of Oceanic 815 first presented in the pilot transformed into full–blown plots extending through the course of the series. The island stories were presented in direct contrast to who the characters were in their former everyday lives. Every action in the island — present became an attempt to compensate for shortcomings in the past’s real world.

The operating theme of Lost is simple and applies to every character: who do you say you are when you can reinvent yourself with impunity? Every member of the Lost ensemble was living a lie on the island. These lies dictated their behavior and led them to try — either successfully or unsuccessfully — to remake themselves into their most desired version of themselves.

Jack strove to lead in spite of a life of personal failure and the scorn of an unloving father. Kate yearned to prove herself a good person in spite of being a wanted criminal. Michael tried to be an able parent after being absent from his son’s entire life. Charlie struggled to be a caretaker to Claire and her unborn child while concealing his drug addiction. John Locke — mysteriously healed of his paralysis by the island — was hell–bent on proving himself a man of action and principle after a lifetime of meek submission. Sun pretended to be a dutiful Korean wife, concealing even her fluency in the English from the brutal husband — whose brutality itself was a smokescreen to conceal a deep yearning for his own broken dreams — whom she was preparing to escape. The list goes on. What’s important is that every character had the same operational theme. The synthesis of personal desire for reinvention in contrast to the reality of each character’s previous life propelled one story after another for the course of Lost’s first two seasons: forty–eight hours of television that cemented the show’s place in the popular culture.

The operational theme of Lost — obvious as it seems in retrospect — did not become clear to the creative team until after the pilot had been shot and we were tasked with figuring out how exactly the series would work in episode after episode. We were very close to falling prey to the fallacy that makes for the downfall of most of the proposed serialized sci–fi pilots that come down the pike: we were almost — almost — seduced by a shiny concept — the mysteries of the island, from the smoke monster to the presence of ghosts from the past in the present. We almost focused on the mystery instead of the operational theme of the characters.

To this day, I thank god we had the epiphany early.

By dealing with the unknown, beguiling, and generally spectacular (aliens! robots! vampires! alien robot vampires!), sci–fi as a genre has the sneaky ability to fool otherwise extremely capable writers into believing that a nifty concept with a lot of unanswered questions is enough to carry a television series. It isn’t.
To have something spectacular take place — the arrival of aliens, a space/time conflagration that causes everyone to see a few minutes of their future, a plane crash in a mysterious island — and then spend twenty–two episodes showing how the characters figure out merely what happened, how, and whether it can be fixed, is not only the biggest failure of the imagination possible in sci–fi drama, it is also an insult to the genre. It assumes that sci–fi is somehow “easier” than a deeply character–driven kitchen–sink narrative (like Mad Men) that requires the protagonist to have a rich inner life in order to motivate conflict.

The island on Lost served the same purpose as the ad agency on Mad Men: it was a space where the protagonist sought to invent a new life in spite of all evidence to the impossibility of that endeavor. The conspiracy inOrphan Black is nothing more or less than a perfect physicalization of a young woman’s struggle to define her own identity: one which just so happens to cause her to come into conflict and allegiance with numerous clones of herself, all of them living vastly different lives with remarkably different outcomes.

Many big and shiny ideas can tap dance around a lack of an operational theme for a while — the length of a pilot, maybe even a season of decompressed cable–style narrative. But no amount of spectacle can obscure the truth that a protagonist or ensemble with a stark, robust, and recognizable operational theme is the source of all televisual drama.

Ironically, sci–fi, the genre that most often suffers from underdeveloped characters on TV probably demands more character from its characters than any other genre. Why? Because it is, at the core, a metaphorical exercise. Sci–fi poses a question that extends beyond the easily understandable stakes of the cop, doctor, or lawyer. How are the aliens, robots, mysterious islands, viral outbreaks, and vampires an external manifestation of your main character’s self–concept?

If you are writing a genre pilot and your premise can’t answer that question — while placing your protagonist in a place where the pursuit of their most prescient emotional issue is in consistent, discernible, and direct opposition of those aliens, robots, islands, viral outbreaks, and vampires — then, like any other writer in any other genre, you have to dig deeper. Because the privilege of having a scholar find and explain your lofty thematic concern like “power,” “alienation,” or (still my personal favorite,) “the shallowness of modern life” doesn’t come right away. Scholars and bloggers don’t proclaim the deep meaningful metaphors of your creation you have done the hard spade–and–trowel labor of putting an interesting main character on the screen. You must first put your characters in the one, singular (and preferably, for my money, science–fictional!) situation that mostchallenges their true self. That’s your operational theme: challenge your character’s innermost identity, do it week after week, then have your agent call my agent.

The Binge Director

Steven Soderbergh can make a whole season of The Knick almost as fast as you can watch it.

Article by Matt Zoller Seitz

Steven Soderbergh is in motion. It’s a warm day in Greenpoint, and the 52-year-old director, cinematographer, editor, and executive producer of Cinemax’s late-Victorian-era hospital drama The Knick is on the show’s main set, camera in hand, circling a table in a surgical theater, blocking a scene in which a patient’s gallbladder is removed. Soderbergh speaks softly. The cast and crew hang on every word. Then he starts shooting. He is moving, pausing, repositioning the actors, and moving some more. Technicians and writers gather just out of camera range, staring at an iPad that’s patched into Soderbergh’s camera via wireless, as the scene is sculpted and refined in real time. If you watch the screen, you can see aesthetic questions being asked and answered by the shifting positions of the actors in relation to Soderbergh’s lens. What is the point of this scene, this shot, this camera movement? Where is the best place to begin? On André Holland, who plays Algernon Edwards, the hospital’s acting chief of surgery? Or on Clive Owen, who plays Edwards’s onetime boss, the brilliant surgeon, medical inventor, and self-destructive opium addict John W. “Thack” Thackery? Perhaps the first shot should both start and end with a close-up of medical instruments used in the procedure? Would that be repetitious? Okay, maybe the shot should end farther away from the actors, and then the next shot should pick up in close-up? Ah, yes, there we go, that worked. Much better. With its elaborately choreographed and composed long shots, this is the kind of scene that might take three hours to complete on network hospital dramas and even longer on Hollywood movies. Soderbergh knocks it out in less than two.

His direction of The Knick is unusual in pretty much every imaginable way, but let’s start with the fact that it’s all his: Soderbergh helmed the entirety of the show’s first ten-episode season, which aired late last year, and did the same for season two, which premieres on October 16. For all of its visual evolution in recent decades, TV is still a writer-producer’s medium where series directors rotate in and out as needed, rarely overseeing more than two or three episodes in a row. Occasionally one person might direct eight back-to-back episodes of a limited-run project like The Honorable Woman (Hugo Blick) or True Detective’s first season (Cary Joji Fukunaga). And once in a great while you’ll see the majority of a long-running series directed by a single person, as with Louie (Louis C.K.) — but rarely on a show with as many moving parts as The Knick, and in such a punishingly tight time frame. Soderbergh has now directed 20 hours of a lavish costume drama at the speed of a run-and-gun indie film: Both seasons wrapped, according to The Knick co-creator and co-writer Jack Amiel, in about 150 days, “which is less time than a lot of crews would spend shooting one big movie.” The Knick shoots eight to nine script pages a day, double the typical rate for a TV drama, and burns through an hour-long episode in just seven days, versus the industry norm of ten to 14.

The Knick’s second season opens with a good portion of the main cast scattered to the winds: Thack has been ousted as chief of surgery for his drug use and is feeding his addiction by performing facial reconstructions on syphilis victims; the former nun Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) has been kicked out of the order for facilitating abortions; hospital-board member Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) is in San Francisco agitating against the quarantine of Chinese-Americans during a bubonic-plague epidemic. The first couple of new episodes maneuver them back into the Knickerbocker Hospital and set the season’s plot in motion, mixing in more signifiers of the city’s ongoing evolution toward modernity, such as the replacement of the hospital’s horse-drawn carriage with “horseless” ones and the increased prominence of electric lightbulbs.

The show’s style is different, too. More so than in season one, scenes in season two often consist of long, sinuous camera moves and a few tight close-ups. Sometimes, during a scene with long monologues, Soderbergh will focus on the face of a single listening character and not cut away. “There are moments when you don’t think it’s your scene, but it is,” says Eve Hewson, who plays ER nurse Lucy Elkins, Thackery’s lover. The Knick can look more like a John Ford or William Wyler or Orson Welles movie, in which every image is carefully considered, than most modern scripted TV, where the goal is mainly to capture performances and push the story along. Soderbergh mentions Welles’s The Trial and Chimes at Midnight, in particular, as influences on the look of season two, with their “sustained shots that go on forever.” “It’s kind of like the arcade game with the water-filled tube and the ball,” he says during a lunch that lasts exactly 18 and a half minutes. “How long can I keep this shot interesting, dynamic, and narratively appropriate to what’s going on, given the elements that I want to emphasize?”

Soderbergh shoots with a handheld camera, sometimes while being pushed by grips on a small, wheeled platform that he calls a “dolly du derrière.” This allows him to participate in scenes as an equal with his actors, rather than being “50 feet away, behind the monitor,” he says. “I like the intimacy of that, and I think the actors like knowing how close I am.” Watching him direct is akin to witnessing an athletic performance. Soderbergh walks, jogs, runs, sits, lies on the floor, and hangs half off dollies while PAs grip his ankles. “When I tell other cameramen what goes on with Steven, they’re flabbergasted,” says Soderbergh’s longtime second cameraman, Patrick O’Brien, who works on only about 30 percent of The Knick — usually when Soderbergh needs him to gather extra close-ups in a scene with a lot of characters, operate a crane that he’s sitting on, or shoot the other side of a two-person conversation. “He’s like a dancer,” says Holland. “One time, on the first season, it was bitter winter and we were shooting outside, and he was in this awkward, crouched-down position, holding the camera and moving at the same time, and midway through the take, his knee gave out and he jumped up and winced in pain. You could hear a pin drop, because you know that his physicality is such a huge part of the show.”

Everything and everyone on set is enabling Soderbergh’s endurance test. An assistant cameraperson shifts focus via remote control from another room, freeing Soderbergh to concentrate on movement and framing. The Knick’s standing sets are lit with visible (or “practical”) lights — desk lamps, chandeliers, and so forth — to let Soderbergh and his actors move anywhere they want and still get a lovely image. Everyone knows that they have to be as politely relentless and focused as their boss. There are no stand-ins on the set of The Knick, no Gulfstream trailers for producers and cast, and no canvas chairs, because no one sits still long enough to require them. A workday here is a nine-to-six sprint, with an hour off for lunch. “Actors love working with this guy,” O’Brien says, “because they’re not sitting around all day waiting for the set to be lit.” Soderbergh tells me: “It keeps the actors on the boil, nobody leaves, and — like we just did — you can power through the whole scene and it’s done.”

Scenes from inside the Knickerbocker Hospital. Here, costume storage next door to The Knick’s main set. Photo: Mary Cybulski/Courtesy of Cinemax

Costumed actors break for lunch. Photo: Mary Cybulski/Courtesy of Cinemax

Soderbergh’s preferred digital camera, the Red Epic Dragon, also helps. Its low-light capacity has let him shoot handsomely composed scenes, starkly illuminated by a naked lightbulb, a gas lamp, even a match — cinematographic flourishes in the spirit of one of his favorite movies, Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 drama Barry Lyndon, the first feature to shoot scenes by candlelight. At one point during our conversation, Soderbergh digs his cell phone out of his pocket and calls up a two-minute tracking shot from season two in which Cornelia Robertson moves “through a house with a candle and we follow her, and that’s it. Just one candle, and you can see everything!” he says, marveling at the flickering image on his phone.

Most directors would not get handed a handsome period drama to treat as their own personal train set, but that’s because they don’t have Soderbergh’s track record of making stylish, innovative, occasionally commercial art cheap and fast and without much fuss. Since his 1989 debut, the Cannes Palme d’Or winner sex, lies and videotape, he has directed 25 features (including the four-and-a-half-hour, two-part biopic Che) plus nearly 30 hours of TV (including the 2003 HBO political satire K Street, each episode of which was plotted, scripted, shot, cut, and broadcast in five days). He is one of the few American directors to claim two Oscar nominations for Best Picture during a single calendar year, for 2000’s Erin Brockovich and Traffic; he won Best Director for the latter. Every one of his movies — including the comparatively glossy heist thrillers Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen — was produced for what is, by contemporary American studio standards, chump change.

And he is endlessly, perhaps helplessly, prolific. In 2010, he told his friend Matt Damon that he was “retiring” from making theatrical features because he felt he’d exhausted the medium — a statement that was widely misinterpreted to mean that Soderbergh was quitting the business entirely and that launched a thousand jokes along the lines of “In the time it took you to read this tweet about Soderbergh’s retirement, he directed a remake of Berlin Alexanderplatz.” Right now he’s got The Knick; a show in the works at HBO with Sharon Stone; and an executive-producer credit on Amazon’s new Red Oaks, a circa-1985 period drama directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express). He’s fascinated by long-form storytelling, which he says is “very different” from features and offers more possibilities for experimentation, because TV’s aesthetic hasn’t been developed as deeply as cinema’s. Whole seasons of The Knick are written before a frame is shot, and any subsequent revisions are about in-the-moment problem solving. “Having all ten scripts beforehand allows me to sort of think on a macro level for longer, and that’s good for me,” he says.

Handmade, period-accurate women’s hats. Photo: Mary Cybulski/Courtesy of Cinemax

In the wardrobe trailer where main characters’ costumes are stored. Photo: Mary Cybulski/Courtesy of Cinemax

Soderbergh thinks like an editor while he’s shooting, never wasting anyone’s time on anything he thinks he might not use. “Steven doesn’t cover the same thing 19 times,” says Amiel. “He’s going to do it once and know that’ll be his first half of the scene and we’re not going to shoot it again. [For] the second half of the scene, he may shoot three or four pieces of coverage, but it’s because he’s already cut the whole scene in his head. He already knows.” “Often the shot that ends up in the show is the first one that we got,” says Holland. “Early on he said to me, ‘I don’t see any reason why we need to make things any more complicated than they have to be.’ ”

At 6 p.m. each day, Soderbergh climbs into the backseat of a van and starts cutting the day’s footage on a laptop on the way home from the set. He finishes by eight, posts the results on a password-protected website, and goes to dinner, a play, or a movie with his wife, Jules Asner. “People on the crew will say, ‘I can’t wait to see what we did today,’ ” says production designer Howard Cummings. Changes in technology have allowed Soderbergh to become imaginatively fused to his digital cameras, laptop, smartphone, and the internet. “I have to show this to you; I can probably pull it up on my phone,” Soderbergh says, hunting through footage folders on The Knick’s postproduction website and calling up an acrobatic long take that follows actors through a fund-raising ball. “If I had this shit at the beginning of my career,” he says as the phone screen fills up with costumed extras, “the movies would’ve been a lot better.”