Directing Feature Films by Mark Travis (book review).

November 25, 2015 | By | Reply More

As always with the books from Michael Wiese Publications, there’s a lot that can be learnt from film production that can be applied to general story writing. With director/teacher Mark Travis’ book ‘Directing Feature Films’, which has been extensively revised since its 1996 edition, there is proof that some books are never completed.


Travis uses two films for his main examples and urges you to watch ‘The Fugitive’ (1993) and ‘Forrest Gump’ (1994) although he details so well, you might not need to do so. The use of ‘American Beauty (1999) at the end tends to suggest this is one of the later additions.

In the early stages of production, the director is something of an editor, which is important for the scriptwriter(s) to know and I recognised. Ensuring that there are no ‘black holes’ where there is no illogic as to how some things happened is a job common to us both. In other words, don’t just chuck something in that has little bearing to the overall plot or at least justify its usage. I think that has to be true in any medium but as this appears to happen a lot in the USA, I have to wonder if this sloppiness is a result of knowing that a script is likely to be overhauled so why should they make the extra effort? Travis makes a good point that the director needs to work with the writer so if the script is good enough or can be polished by same, then it becomes a shared vision, although with the amount of rewrites that go on that appears not to be so effective. I would also think it would save a lot of extra money by bringing in a lot more writers if the initiator got things done correctly. There is also a lot more emphasis on relationships between not only the characters but also with the events that are taking place which I just see as part of the story.

Looking at the techniques in selecting crew and especially casting, I do have to wonder how the latter can be applied in those of you who are exploring amateur films. After all, you only have voluntary help and if a backer wants a prominent role but can’t act for toffee you might be stuck. Applying what Travis shows here, you might well see how to make even the teeniest role have prominence and satisfy everyone.

Something I wasn’t fully aware of was the role of the casting director. Their job is primarily to find actors and actresses not to make the final selection which is down to the director. All of which is centred around interviews and the director is as much being interviewed by the cast, too, as they have to work together for a few months. Respect from both sides is therefore essential and neither should balk from meeting each other whatever the pretext title is called.

I like the way the casting interviews are conducted as well as how key production and cast get to know each other although I might have been inclined to also give them badges so they have a better idea of their purpose or first names as well. All of which serves to ensure that everyone pulls together on a film and I can see how some of the anecdotes between the cast now gets out as they draw upon experiences to give the right emotional responses. I do wonder at more recent films where the cast only sees a little of the actual script though in terms of preparation.

I can understand why upcoming directors read this book because when it comes to production and post-production, it gives ample tips on preparation on a daily basis and I can understand why it’s an all consuming obsessive time. It also explains all the delays on the day before anything is actually filmed that it’s a wonder anything gets done in front of the camera. Even when everything is settled, you, as director, will still want to play around with aspects of the scene to see how it changes things.

There are some things that do have parallel to us prose writers. Having other people acting as watchers during filming is to give their perspective of a scene is equivalent to beta readers before going to the general population. No director is perfect so having people with no specific job other than to watch and comment directly to him or her has to be an asset.

Having a month off before doing the director’s cut also allows you to getting your perspective sorted out is equivalent to us taking a break between drafts. Even having producers thinking the film is aimed at the wrong audience and often wrong has some similarities as well to who publishers see as the target audience. Seeing how its handled here might give you some ideas in compromising on such choices.

In the final chapters of the book, Travis gives the figures for how much film is used and how 91% of it is discarded. No wonder directors have been so enthusiastic switching to high definition HD as it must be infinitely cheaper.

There is also a lot of pep talk of how the director preps the character rather than the actor in regards motivation in the scene which both parties really need to read to understand the mindset. Seeing some of the techniques used here, I can understand why and how British actors who don’t used the ‘method’ can be more effective.

I’ve often talked about the emotional content of a scene in prose and seeing a graphical demonstration for multiple characters in films is an interesting insight if you want to how conflicting characters function.

As you should tell by the length of this review and my comments, I’ve found this book a great learning experience. A lot of the lessons for directors can also work for editors in terms of motivating people which means elements of this book can extend beyond the original target audience. Travis is fluid in his explanation and always adapting from what’s he’s learnt. If you can pick up even a fraction of this for managing skills as a director, let alone in other professions, then it can also improve your effectiveness.

GF Willmetts

November 2015

(pub: Michael Wiese Productions. 399 page enlarged paperback. Price: $26.95 (US), £14.18 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-94118-843-2)

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Category: Books

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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