"DETOUR: Hollywood: How to Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter)" Book Review
Written by ZigZag
Published by Kettle of Letters Press
Written by William Dickerson
2015, 165 pages, Reference
Book released on April 14th, 2015
I have worked in the world of low-budget film production for nineteen years and I’ve seen a lot of smart people make some pretty dumb mistakes. The idea that anyone would undertake the monumental task of directing a movie without taking the time to prepare for the job is unbelievable, but it happens all the time. In addition to working in film, I have been reviewing movies and books for this website for seven years, and in that time I have covered a lot of technical film books that either reflect on the industry as a whole, or focus on one specific aspect. Most dissertations are a bit dry and difficult to maneuver, while other guides approach the content with a sense of humor; either is appropriate as long as it conveys the relevant information to the reader in a direct manner. I have particularly enjoyed the material that relies heavily on discussions with the filmmakers themselves, as they offer insight and experience that is invaluable to anyone either starting a career in the industry, or with a deep appreciation for the cinematic trade.
DETOUR HOLLYWOOD: How to Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter) is the latest in a long line of instructional film books to appear in my collection, and author William Dickerson relays a great deal of important information in a relaxed, conversational tone. Using his independent feature Detour as a source, Dickerson shares some hard lessons learned about the process of directing his first feature film and lays out the experience in a chronological tutorial that aspiring filmmakers will find invaluable. He begins with a brief personal introduction before moving on to define what exactly a director does, and how the job description is likely to shift from one day to the next while actively in production.
Dickerson encourages anyone hoping to fill the iconic chair to surround themselves with intelligent people and to follow their advice. It is of utmost importance that the director be a team player and not instill a sense of distance from the crew or anyone else helping create the project. He goes on to explain how one of the chief responsibilities of the director is to champion and defend the story being told. On the surface, Detour is about a man buried alive in his car following a mudslide, and his determination to escape. It is paramount in the early stages of script development that the subtext of the material be fully explored in order to fully understand what the script is really about. This allows for the content to be presented in a manner as compelling to an audience as possible.
The second chapter is devoted to the filmmaker’s “Big Binder”, a production Bible if you will, that contains the script, storyboards, shot list, schedule, character breakdowns, notes and references. This is the most valuable item the director will carry at all times, and if there is one main shortcoming of this book, it is that this chapter could and should be three times as long in order to properly describe how and why each element is important. Dickerson offers an abundance of information, but some vital points are glossed over in a disheartening manner in order to keep things moving at a brisk pace. There is simply not enough space devoted to some of the finer points, particularly where it comes to breaking down the script and building a manageable shooting schedule. I cannot recommend strongly enough that readers take the time to do additional research into what goes into a director’s “Big Binder” and why.
Chapter three is the shortest (8 pages) and focuses on the difference between style and theme, the importance of knowing the difference and finding your own voice as a director. This is quickly followed by an in-depth chapter on financing and Pre-Production. It is here in chapter four that Dickerson’s anecdotes from Detour really take flight. He relates the tale of being offered a substantial boost in his budget if he would consider casting a popular television actor in the lead role. The actor proved challenging and at one point tried to have Dickerson replaced as director before shooting ever began! Another financial incentive came in the form of product placement and how such items could be incorporated into the story organically. Dickerson discusses how he responded to each challenge while remaining true to his original vision for the film and the lessons are pretty interesting.
Chapter five is the most detailed in the book and centers on the actual shooting of the picture. Set etiquette (or what I call “setiquette”) is addressed with particular attention to the importance of safety and the need for a strong assistant director. Blocking of people and equipment, rehearsals and establishing a strong sense of trust with the actors also receives in-depth coverage, and aspiring filmmakers will want to read this section more than once. The production stories from the set of Detour are alternately humorous and harrowing and frequently show how lateral thinking and resourcefulness often leads to the best solution to a problem.
The next chapter moves on to Post-Production and how the material is shaped through the editing process and he stresses the importance of a strong sound mix. Dickerson shares an anecdote that whenever an airplane would fly over set, he would instruct his actor to react to the sound as though it were something happening within the confines of the scene. While mixing the audio, the director substituted the appropriate sound effect over the plane audio and the actor responds accordingly within his performance. Dickerson also urges filmmakers not to be afraid or timid when it comes to cutting content (no matter how favored) if it ultimately detracts from the finished product. The most complicated and beautiful shot that took all day to achieve is fair game for the cutting room floor if it adds nothing in the end. Some cuts will come naturally, but he also points out that watching the film with a test audience will allow you to gain a fresh perspective on what does and does not work.
The final chapter focuses on the elusive art of securing distribution at a time when the market model is radically changing. There is not a magic bullet, but the author points to some helpful avenues that helped him including finding ways to stick out from the crowd. This proved particularly challenging for Dickerson, as the concept of Detour resembles the Ryan Reynolds picture Buried (about a man buried alive and his determination to escape). One of the strengths Dickerson brings as an author is his ability to make this material appealing to casual readers that have no interest in actually stepping into the director’s chair. He successfully relates a series of anecdotes involving personal challenges at often ridiculous odds in pursuit of a dream that many will find either inspiring or at the very least entertaining.