One of the great pleasures of my work at the NFTS is the privilege of arranging, producing and hosting Q&As with inspiring, and incredibly kind, filmmakers.
Ordinarily these are private events for NFTS students, but during the pandemic NFTS Masterclass Q&As moved online for our students and the filmmakers who kindly gave online NFTS Masterclasses in the first UK lockdown of Spring/Summer 2020 generously allowed us to share clips from their Q&As. The NFTS created a compilation featuring advice from filmmakers incuding Edgar Wright, Lone Scherfig, Ben Wheatley, Krysty Wilson Cairns, Stephen Fry, Sam Mendes, Billie Piper, Corin Hardy, Elisabeth Moss, Danny Boyle and many more.
The 90minute film was originally shared via Empire magazine here and is available to watch:
“If you must blink, do it now!” That opening line of Travis Knight’s BAFTA nominated directing debut, Kubo and the Two Strings, could be advice for watching any of the animated films made by his company, LAIKA. Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls were all Oscar and BAFTA nominated for Best Animated Feature. Full of stop-motion brilliance, rich visuals and captivating story-telling. You don’t want to miss a second.
It was a treat to hear director, animator and LAIKA CEO, Travis Knight and producer Arianne Sutner talk about the making of Kubo and the Two Strings at a recent National Film & Television School (NFTS) Masterclass. Conveying the creativity and magic of the animation studio, Travis described LAIKA as, “kind of like Santa’s workshop – if all the elves had body piercings and neck tattoos.”
And they brought some friends along:
In the run up to the BAFTA and Academy Awards, scripts are freely available online. It’s a masterclass in storytelling to read those for LAIKA’s films.
Links to PDFs of LAIKA’s scripts:
Coraline script (2009. Dir. Henry Selick. Screenplay Henry Selick from Neil Gaiman’s book)
Stories bold enough to have properly scary bits, like the Other Mother from Coraline with her button eyes.
On the page you can see the complex, fully rounded characters, that yet leave room for the animators’ creative artistry. In this short extract (below) from Kubo and the Two Strings, Monkey is stern & soft, serious & witty, fearsome & loving; all believable due to script and performance.
As guardian Monkey watches the young hero Kubo conjure origami birds:
You’re growing stronger
Kubo LAUGHS. He feels it.
You might not want to look quite so pleased about that.
She sits him up, ushering him onto his feet and brushing down his robe.
We grow stronger. The world grows, more dangerous. Life has a way of keeping things balanced.
Kubo reacts to this cynical wisdom by making a face.
Monkey, do you ever say anything encouraging?
I encourage you not to die.
Monkey licks her hand, smoothes down Kubo’s hair and walks away.
In the extract above the maternal actions – all meticulously animated frame by frame – of brushing down Kubo’s robe, smoothing his hair, subtly convey the caring and affection that underlie her seemingly tough words. There is nothing accidental in animation actions. They have purpose. Sublime where those actions combine humour, character and storytelling.
In ParaNorman this opening exchange (below) between Norman and his (dead) Grandmother as they watch TV, succinctly sets up the themes the film goes on to explore – don’t prejudge, be open to seeing things from a different view, talk things through to find out the real story. A message of, and plea for, tolerance and understanding for everyone. Even Zombies.
What’s happening now?
The zombie is eating her head, Grandma.
That’s not very nice. What’s he doing that for?
Because he’s a zombie. That’s what they do.
Well he’s going to ruin his dinner. I’m sure if they just bothered to sit down and talk it through it’d be a different story.
Norman CHUCKLES, as if the idea is absurd, then winces as he hears his father shout from the kitchen.
Even brief phyiscal decriptions richly convey character, as in this short introduction to Norman’s teacher, who is in charge of the school play. A job she is taking seriously. Very seriously.
In a director’s chair far too small for the job is MRS HENSCHER, an imposing woman with spectacles and beret who looks like she smells of too-much perfume. Mrs Henscher’s knuckles clench white around her script. She attempts an understanding smile, in the same way a shark might.
And that’s before they’ve recorded the actors’ voices and started on the animation.
It was a delight to hear such talented and dedicated artists talk about their work. Very much looking forward to whatever LAIKA makes next. As Travis said, “Stories endure. Art matters.”
Q: What do you get if you put Ben Wheatley, James Moran, Corin Hardy, Neil Marshall, Simon Oakes, Rupert Preston & Paul Hyett in a room together?
A: A bloody good time.
Had the huge pleasure of organising a Horror Day a little while back with some amazing, extremely kind and generous speakers. Here’re a few of their tips on creating great Horror….
James Moran, writer of (amongst other things) Severance, Tower Block and Cockneys Vs Zombies, explained how crucial it is to create the right kind of monster/antagonist/villain –
“The first thing I do is figure out who the bad guy is – what’s their plan? Is it believable? I spend more time on the villain’s plan than the hero’s sometimes. It’s not enough for villains to turn up and be bad. So I figure out who the bad guy is, what their plan is – it can be a stupid plan, but it’s consistent all the way through”
And at the same time, to create empathy for characters –
“Ten minutes into a Horror film you should want the characters to survive and for it not to become a Horror film. If it’s a load of annoying people you want to get killed – that’s not a Horror film. If you’re not scared for them, wanting them to survive, then you’re not going to be scared at all. To be frightened you want to be rooting for them. That’s my main rule – that you want the people to survive, you want them to make it”
A sentiment echoed by Simon Oakes, head of Hammer films –
“The thing I feel strongly about with Horror is you need to care about the characters – so that therefore what happens to them becomes something the audience is emotionally connected to.”
He said it was something James Watkins, who directed The Woman in Black for Hammer, does so well: “He understood that to make a great Horror movie you’ve got to tell a great story and get the audience involved in the characters, with proper jumps and scares.”
Concluding, “The best Horror movies have an emotional arc, where you identify in some way, positive or negative, with the characters, the best horror films have got to connect with an audience emotionally.”
Rupert Preston of Vertigo Films stressed the importance of thinking about marketing, what makes the film stand out, preferably in a memorable and striking poster. – “One thing you’ve got to have if you want to make a Horror film is a great hook to it that sets it apart from all the other Horror films that’re made every year”
Writer-director Corin Hardy, whose eagerly anticipated Horror feature The Hallow is released in 2015, described the importance of being true to the heart of a Horror film.
Looking at some of his favourite Horror films – Jaws, Alien, The Thing, American Werewolf in London, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Evil Dead 2 and Return of the Living Dead he explained, “What they have in common is that each one is very true to what it’s setting out to do. Whether that’s a very intense, almost true documentary style, Horror movie or a film about a monster in the ice, they don’t betray themselves at any time in story with these crazy twists that get put into films sometimes that undermine the whole movie.”
And he discussed the art of not showing too much –
“Done with the right balance, depending on what kind the movie is, you can build up more tension with what you don’t show. It’s important to look really closely at the story in terms of the trajectory of the reveal of the creature – what you do or don’t see.”
Writer-director Ben Wheatley, whose films include Sightseers and Down Terrace, described some of his process when he began writing Kill List:
“I thought about my own fears and I wrote them down and that was my starting point for writing a Horror film. My fears are: I don’t like enclosed spaces, I don’t like bad things happening to kids, I used to have nightmares about seeing strange people in the woods doing ceremonies and then chasing me, I don’t like dinner parties. Then I wrote them into a script. We figured if it was genuinely scary to us then it would scare other people.”
He talked about working up a script from incident points, “so that you can see what sags or where you’ve run out of things to say, so you can see where the problems are. If you don’t like it at that point you can bin it and you haven’t wasted months writing a script, but if you like it you can expand it, 5-6 lines for each point and then you’ve got a screenplay.” Adding, “Remember it’s not a radio play – it’s not about talking it’s about seeing”, concluding “The main lesson is to keep it moving and don’t repeat yourself”.
Special Effects artist and director Paul Hyett talked about what he’d learned about the importance of meticulous planning from doing effects on films such as The Descent for Neil Marshall, before moving into directing his own film The Seasoning House:
“There’s a lot to think about with stunts and VFX, prosthetics and so on. Neil Marshall is the loveliest director – always quiet, always calm, lovely to the crew but he knew what he wanted and that’s why his films turn out so well.”
All of the speakers were indeed lovely as well as insightful and inspirational. They kindly also chatted to students over lunch, coffee breaks and afterwards, some of them having been there since early in the day, belying the day’s first speaker James Moran’s opening line: “I guess the definition of true Horror is getting a writer to make sense before noon.”
A few words of wisdom, inspirational nuggets and general advice from some of the filmmakers who’ve kindly given talks as part of the NFTS Masterclass programme:
“I wish my writing life were more organised, more Ernest Hemmingway, you know – ‘write for 8 hours, 3 gins, shoot a buffalo’, but it isn’t. You have to write the way that works for you.” Simon Beaufoy, writer, Slumdog Millionaire, The Full Monty
“If you explain too much, people will tune out. Just dramatise it once. The only rule you really need in a story is ‘…and then?’” Guillermo del Toro, writer-director, Pan’s Labyrinth
“I’ve been writing for 20 years and I still don’t know how to do it. Don’t try and be a grown up, I use alcohol, I talk to my wife, I make desperate phone calls. It’s good to skate on thin ice.” Thomas Vinterberg, writer-director, The Hunt
“Almost everyone said I was insane, suicidal, deluded and that it’s impossible to make a film for less than £200,000 even in Romania. I had barely a third of that. I often thought of just buying a flat, as almost everyone advised. But I asked myself, ‘Should I buy myself a one-bedroom flat in Bracknell or should I make a revenge drama in Transylvania?'” Peter Strickland, writer-director, Berberian Sound Studio, Katalin Varga
“We like to go to those uncomfortable places, because that’s where the good jokes are.” and “The earlier you realise something isn’t working the better….this also applies to relationships by the way.” Sam Bain, writer, Fresh Meat, Peep Show
“You see the world, you end up in jail three or four times, you accumulate experience. And it gives you something to say. If you don’t have anything to say then you shouldn’t be making films. It’s nothing to do with what lens you’re using.” – Chris Doyle, Director of Photography, In The Mood For Love
“Be around people who take the work seriously, but not themselves.” David Yates, director, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
“You immerse yourself in the research, then at some point you have to throw it away and trust yourself to make a film. Otherwise you might as well go be a historian.” Paul Thomas Anderson, writer-director, The Master, There Will Be Blood
“Figure out what is the song that only you can sing. That is the only thing that counts in the end.” Paul Greengrass, director, Captain Phillips, United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum
Three from Atonement director Joe Wright:
“I try to keep my eyes open in life, and see the drama and the beauty and the poetry around me and that’s what informs my films. I try and work with people who have that sense of wonder and innocence. Cynicism is the death of creativity.”
“If there’s a project you feel like you know a secret about, a way only you could tell that story – that’s the one you should do…If I’m not scared by a project then I think there’s something wrong. Fear is a great motivator. One should confront one’s fears. Or at least I should.”
“The day I stop learning I’ll give up and take up, I don’t know… rose cultivation.”
And finally, a practical tip from writer-director of ‘cornetto trilogy’ Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End,Edgar Wright: “My advice – do not try to match the characters in The World’s End drink for drink, or you will end up dead in a ditch”