I’ve never wanted to direct films.
Watch them? Definitely. Write them? Eventually (I’ve always envisioned it being an adaptation of prose, not being a habitual screen- or scriptwriter, although a good friend and I have been batting around a TV series idea for ages). Write about them? All the time, whether I’m asked to or not.
But I’m not a filmmaker. Which is why when I first became aware of the BAFTA Guru Live sessions, I wasn’t sure if I really should grab a ticket. I mean, they’re open to everyone and you don’t need to give any reason for attending, but I felt a directing masterclass might be more for filmmakers than writers. Still, I simply couldn’t resist nabbing one while I had the chance.
So, as a different flavour of creative, was it worth me going along? Unquestionably.
The session I attended – with my TV series idea pal, no less – was billed as a ‘Masterclass’ with Luca Guadagnino, long-time director of shorts, feature films and documentaries whose already vastly successful career went stratospheric after the release of my LFF favourite from last year, Call Me By Your Name. (I’m already down to see his remake of Suspiria at next month’s festival, even though I’m a total wuss and scared to death). What transpired was a lengthy chat with the British Council’s Director of Film, Briony Hanson, and a Q&A with students, interspersed with small snippets of Guadagnino’s work.
In around an hour and half, we covered substantial ground – from his early, formative obsession with cinema to his first experiences in film making; his attitudes to success and critical failure; his working relationships with mentors and regular collaborators and his views on directorial ethics. Guadagnino is ebullient and charming – he tells it as he sees it; I’d call it impulsive, but it all came across as deeply, carefully considered. He’s a natural storyteller – a perfect dinner party guest – and a disarming mixture of grandad jumpers and big ideas. I warmed to him immediately, particularly his generosity in sharing his thoughts, his frankness in admitting his missteps and his wisdom in considering the progress of his own life. What I thought would be a fun collection of anecdotes and a few snippets of useful advice turned out to be one of the most inspiring sessions of its kind that I’ve ever attended.
Here’s what I got from it.
Hold steady to your vision of your work, but evolve your vision of yourself
One thing that’s very clear about Guadagnino is how vitally important he finds the director’s vision. As suspicious as I can be about the god-like implications of auteur theory, you can see he feels very strongly that a production needs clear North Star – and when that’s lost the whole suffers. He spoke eloquently and with measured regret about the project he loved that he believed had its edges blunted and soul gutted by studio interference (Melissa P.), and how he promised he would only ever make what he wanted after that, good or bad. At the same time, he talked about never having all the answers – a director who claimed to, he announced, was “a bad director” – and gave endless examples of things that he had learned, ways he had grown and collaborative decisions he’d been a part of over the years. So it’s clear his “inner megalomaniac” is also an eternal student.
This, I think, is the balance that anyone creative finds endlessly challenging. Without the inner steel to defend our ideas, we end up creating by committee – and result is diluted by so many cooks it can barely be called a broth anymore. But without the elasticity to embrace and mull over ideas and past criticism, we’ll never grow. We need to drive each project with the consistency and passion it deserves, but be prepared to look back with a critical eye and learn something.
Redefine your idea of success
Guadagnino’s first feature film, released following a wave of positive buzz for his earlier work, was a critical flop. It opened to jeering and sneering, and he himself looks back on it as maybe a mistaken project. He questions whether he would have made The Protagonists in the same way now, given his evolved ethics. But there was no sense of regret there. It needed to happen in order to iterate for his next project. Crucially, financial and critical success didn’t mean a great deal to him. Even now that doors have long since flung open left right and centre he continues to work in the same methodical, passionate way, with the same kinds of people – sometimes the very same people – he always has. He calls it ‘guerilla’ filmmaking, in that he has often had to scrape for funding, work on a shoestring and sacrifice the heft of a studio for the freedom to make the picture he wants to make. Because he has always sought the project first, and then the means to make it, career climbing has always been secondary to creative satisfaction.
This sounds like the kind of thing that’s easy to say when you don’t have networks, access, money or time. Maybe it is. But the attitude of redefining success as satisfaction with one’s art, rather than external validation, strikes me as essentially healthier. In my own writing I’ve second-guessed myself for years trying to create things I think other people might want to read; I think I’m finally producing work I might one day be proud of by writing – at least in the first instance – only for myself.
The old designer’s maxim – Keep It Simple, Stupid – will never not apply. I’m in no hurry to compare myself to such a vastly advanced – and different – talent, but there was one thing of myself I saw in Guadagnino. We’re both garrulous verbal storytellers, full of asides and tangents. But we both also really admire economy of expression. The authors I have the most passionate admiration for are the ones who can deploy a really finely honed metaphor, or pack worlds into a brief aside. I love it in visual artists too; a few soft lines that suggest the rich complexity of the human body. Over time, Guadagnino has learned the admirable power of restraint, and is still learning it – indeed, it sounds like we should be eternally grateful to Sufjan Stevens for forcing the director’s hand by refusing to be, among other things, the on-screen narrator of Call Me By Your Name. Unless you’re doing set design for a baroque period piece, there’s almost nothing that can’t be improved by smoothing away intricate, unnecessarily detail.
This is the hardest advice for me to take – not because I generally overwrite, but because I can struggle to develop themes enough. It might be hard to believe as we edge towards 1,200 words in this piece, but I was repeatedly told during my academic life to add more padding – and my professional writing career has largely been built on single-focus blog posts, 90 or 140 character posts for social media, concise emails, straplines. So in my own fiction, I can be reluctant to let these things breathe. Depth, however, is not the same as overcomplication. I never want to sacrifice that glorious simplicity; in the end, I’d rather my work was indigestible due to still being chewy and vital than because I’ve rendered it stodgy and overcooked.
Watch Luca Guadagnino at BAFTA Guru Live in full below. Oh, and please, someone: give this man the musical he wants.
No disclaimer necessary; tickets were purchased by me.