The Sticking Place

Shoes of the Audience

By the time a film you have created is seen by an audience, it has probably been on your mind for weeks, months, even years. Everything – every narrative beat, every nuance, every shred of characterisation – is, doubtless, absolutely crystal clear to you. To borrow a line from a vintage limerick that Mackendrick liked to recite to students, you know at every moment who is doing what with which and to whom. You know precisely what the audience is looking at. You know exactly what things need to be emphasised over others.

But all this knowledge will help you as a filmmaker not one bit if you are unable to consider everything that you are striving to put onscreen from a different – and more important – point of view. As a filmmaker, it’s vital that you learn to place yourself into the shoes of your future audience and consider precisely what it is they are most likely thinking about during each and every shot, scene and sequence of the story you present to them. Fail in this simple task and you are liable to commit a classic error, with the result that audiences are confronted by nothing but a murky and impenetrable story. When asked by an interviewer if students make the same mistakes, Mackendrick replied, with his usual shrewdness: “I don’t even like the word ‘mistake,’ because that seems to suggest that there are rules, things you should do or not do, and there aren’t. Any statement about film in general has got to be from a personal point of view, and all you can say is, ‘Yes, that’s fine, if that’s what you want to do.’ There are two mistakes that you can make in film. One is to create in the audience an impression that you didn’t want to make and don’t need. The other one is fail to make the impression you did want. These things are so basic that they mean there are no rules at all.” In short: ensure at all times that what your audience knows is unequivocally what you want it to know.

Mackendrick’s thoughts on this subject are, as usual, simple and effective. In a handout entitled “The Movie House on Your Shoulders,” for which he created this image, he wrote the following:

shouldersOn the set, a film director is apt to have a preoccupied, absent manner, as if his mind was inhabiting another time and space. In a way it’s true. He isn’t really there. In spirit, he has removed himself into the future and is already sitting in some movie theater beside his audience, looking through a rectangular window into another world, an imaginary world. A member of the audience, he is feeling what they feel, reacting as they react. The abstracted attitude of the director comes from his attempt to screen out all activity that is irrelevant to the creation of this new time and place. He looks at the mobs of people surrounding him on the studio floor in a weird way, blind and deaf to much that is going on. His mind is fragmented. Concentrating on what only he can see, he is busy rearranging the short, narrow segments, those disorientating bits and pieces of a not-yet-assembled reality which will be seen and heard through that open window of the screen in the movie house. While he is on the studio floor, the crew thinks that he is out of his mind, since he appears to see what they cannot see and hear what they cannot hear. He is living not only in the future but, in another sense, also in the past. A while ago, when he was in the scriptwriting stage, he was able to “see” the movie fairly well. Now, looking through the viewfinder, he is working to a memory of that vision, using it as a guide to the hundreds of decisions he has to make as he puts together all the pieces of the jigsaw.

© The Estate of Alexander Mackendrick