Versatility in the Cinematic Arts

How can we navigate a growing career in an industry always evolving?

When I think of my favourite directors; Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, James Gray, David Fincher & Terrence Malick, I'm always reminded of one specific skill they all hold in their respective careers... One of versatility and growth.

Yes, all filmmakers and practitioners, whatever their role, grow into their careers (as all individuals do regardless of their respective career choice), and yet not all filmmakers partake in a purposeful self-reinvention, or what I like to term as an artistic realignment.

Genre shifting auteurs such as Spielberg or Scorsese can move so seamlessly between tone, narrative and genre while still imbuing their own unique emotional sensibilities, stylistic flourishes and aesthetic landmarks. Spielberg particularly has carved a enviable balance between the Hollywood blockbuster he created with Jaws (1975), which one could arguably class as a horror film, adventure with Indiana Jones, historical drama with Schindler's List (1993), war (Saving Private Ryan (1998), among others) and children's film, with the BFG, ET and The Adventures of Tin Tin... Just to name a few. There are then, of course, so many sub-genres and genre fusions that Spielberg has utilised over his illustrious career, one can be forgiven for sidelining him as a "Hollywood darling", where his filmography would suggest a maturity in his work, both in narrative and tone, that has, at times, gone against the grain of the Hollywood standard.

Maybe one can place this ability on the status they hold in the industry, and an ability (unlike most filmmakers) to retain control of these factors. But, perhaps it stems not from the environment these individuals are placed in, but rather an assertion of the value of their artistic choices and moral alignments. Another particular factor in this is also their alignment with people around them who believe in their artistic value. It can never be overstated how important collaboration is in this industry, of surrounding yourself with people who will walk alongside you on the journey that is making a film.


Narrative alignment

Any narrative can be realigned to any genre... That's a broad assertion to make, but I believe that. Perhaps with difficulty, perhaps by losing the entire "point" of the film or filmmaker is wanting to say, any narrative can be placed inside any convention of genre. It is with this that individuality is created. After all, Christopher Booker famously proposed in his 2004 novel that there are only seven plots.

Now, while I feel that's a gross generalisation to make of all films, nay all narrative art, it can be argued that the presentation is what sets filmmakers apart from one another. Famed director Xavier Dolan has said "let’s get real: ideas travel and everything’s been done, it’s all a matter of interpreting things again now. [1]

So it is this essential skill, one of interpretation, of reinvention, of the creation of something new off the backbone of the old, that stands the test.

We hear all too often how Hollywood films nowadays are sequels, prequels, reboots and franchises; and yes, that's true, but it's also, somewhat ironically, produced some of the most original 'anti-Hollywood' films of all time through a desire for filmmakers to explore something different.


What I really mean

When I speak of versatility, I don't speak of simply being able to move between genres at will with no great difficulty. No, I speak of the ability of a filmmaker to look back on what they made, absorb the content they are surrounded by, and reinvent that content into something wholly original. Terrence Malick's stylistic choices and narrative ideologies, whether you enjoy them or not, have remained consistent across him career, spanning genres, locations and time. He hasn't, arguably, reinvented his style to remain relevant in an industry easy to let go of the old.

One can argue that this repetitive nature can become tiresome and underwhelming, and perhaps that is true. Malick's recent filmography (post-The Tree of Life) has been more generally criticised as a rehashing of style-over-substance and an inability to allow the general public to find his films accessible. There is certainly a line in this argument where over over-saturation is just as bad. Nevertheless,


So where do I go?

I'm a director, an editor, a producer, and a writer... And a lot of other roles I've partaken in in my journey so far.

1.2.1Overcoming the Monster1.2.2Rags to Riches1.2.3The Quest1.2.4Voyage and Return1.2.5Comedy1.2.6Tragedy1.2.7Rebirth


My Top 5 Pieces of Advice

So, my top 5 pieces of advice for remaining versatile in an industry that is always evolving

1. Understand the world around you.

There is nothing worse than a filmmaker who has no idea of the films and industry they so desperately want to break into. How can you claim to understand what to do, if you don't even know what is being done?

2. Learn. Apply. Repeat.

Learn new skills. Maybe it's an editing program (like I partook in early 2019), maybe it's how to operate a specific camera; whatever the skill - Learn it. Then apply that skill into an environment. Maybe you've been asked to work on a short film with a friend. Maybe you're doing a commercial. Whatever it is, apply that skill as best you can. Then repeat that process over and over.

3. Take time to reflect.

I hate this process as much as the next, but there is so much value in looking back on your own work and reflecting on what worked and what didn't.

4. Actually try new things.

Now I don't mean just anything, I mean explore your style, narratives, themes, characters or tone... Change it up and see what happens. Through exploration we learn. It's a instinctive skill we hold as children. Maybe you'll like the results, maybe you won't, but "play" is so imperative to growing as an artist.


[1] Myers, Emma (24 June 2013). "Interview: Xavier Dolan". Film Comment.

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