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Directing Mistakes

I am almost finished watching season one of Cowboy Bebop on Netflix. Sorry to say, I am having a lot of problems with it.

I have a policy on this blog that I do not say anything that I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to the person’s face (if they asked). So I don’t want to belabor any of this.

I don’t know the Cowboy Bebop Netflix creators—and it’s bad for my career to lay down a paper trail of dumping on people’s work when, in truth, I would give my right arm to have anywhere near the professional opportunities that they are having.

Suffice it to say, my criticisms of the show have been pretty well laid out by a number of the reviewers, and I’ll write about them later, myself...perhaps.

My entire directing career, at age 47, consists of one 15-minute short film that averages three stars (out of five) from Internet reviewers. A little above average, but hardly hailed as a work of genius. (And it’s not like the phone has been ringing!)

Directing stressed the hell out of me—but I felt like I was good at it.

Especially when it came time to direct the actors, with my grand history of zero directing projects, I think I had an intuitive sense of the blocking, motivations, intentions, etc. to set the cast up to succeed: so the lines felt natural, the emotions truthful, and the human behavior recognizable.

It must have been intuitive because I certainly never took any lessons.

And I got very lucky with Jess Gabor and Tom Maden, above—talented, trained, professional working actors who are totally game to work hard and take direction. (We had no rehearsal time, by the way.)

I’m sure I talked too much, and too fast—but if they were annoyed, they were professional about it.

By the way, the #1 mistake I see people mistake in short films—they think it’ll be easier to direct one person exploring a creepy place, rather than a two-hander with dialogue.

Directing one person is way harder, because that person has no way to show thoughts and feelings without any dialogue or a scene partner (without an obvious device like a phone call). It’s super difficult writing and acting! Whereas with a two-hander, it’s a play—those two characters can talk about anything you need them to, and you can make it lively and fun and, above all, human.

Anyway, back to our short. Time to direct! So, clock ticking, people standing around, you look at the text (which, helpfully, I had written) and figure out—what would I, as actual an actual human, be feeling here?

Would I be afraid of this person? Angry? Suspicious?

Would I be needing this person to like me, to help me with my problem?

And then, you translate that feeling to some kind of “doing” that fits the physical space.

Each emotion carries with it an implied body language: open or closed, warm or cold, all the degrees in-between. You must choose the right one, or else the scene feels phony.

And it’s best to translate that feeling into some kind of action—so the actor has something to do instead of just, for example, trying to emote, unsolicited (phony baloney).

They call this “playable direction” (perform an action) instead of unplayable (perform a feeling).

If the writing has contradictory needs, you’re kind of screwed—if the scene suggests one outcome, but the plot needs it to go in the direction of a polar-opposite outcome, then it’s bad writing...and you just try your best to cover it up.

All of this is called the “blocking,” when you rehearse the scene and decide where the camera goes, what the camera and actor movement is, and so forth. (You often have to choose between one or the other: camera or performance. The great directors have a way of nailing both, like Spielberg, who is the directing Mozart.)

It’s mentally exhausting but, also, absolutely critical.

Let’s look at a scene from Cowboy Bebop, episode nine, a flashback episode to Spike and Vicious’ days together as blood-brothers in the Syndicate—and their falling-out.


Vicious is the series’ bad guy. He’s a homicidal asshole!

Spike is our hero. He has honor, humor and heart.

Spike feels obligated to Vicious because Vicious’ high-up Syndicate family took him off the streets as a kid.

So far, so good—we’ve seen this a thousand times, but it always works.

Two-thirds of the way into their flashback episode, Vicious has totally screwed up a Syndicate deal—because he’s a psychopathic prick—and the Syndicate has ordered Spike to kill Vicious, his best friend.

Spike goes to Vicious’ flat with a blade behind his back, and they have a dialogue scene that is actually short, but feels super-long, because Vicious sits in one place, his back to Spike, and complains about how nobody loves him...

Oh dear, Netflix won’t let me screen-cap their show, it comes out black...I sure hope there isn’t a workaround, like just taking a picture of the screen:

Forget the fact that Vicious looks goofy in this image—that was just an accident of where I snapped the pic. He’s brooding like hell.

Vicious has a gun on the table in front of him—but it’s just out of arm’s reach.

The shot lasts around 40 seconds—with one brief cut (insert) to the blade that Spike holds, to make clear: he could kill Vicious at any moment.

The camera move is one of those slow move-ins (hey, Dan Marks, my DP on our short—sorry dude, I still don’t know what camera moves are called) that is now a cliché for, “Character intimately bares his soul.”

Basically, Vicious loves and trusts his blood-brother, his only friend, so much, he has no fear whatsoever that Spike might turn against him—the point of the staging, and it is a good composition, photographically—when, in fact, Spike has come to assassinate him.

It’s WRONG!!!

On Sky Fighter, we dealt with constant paranoia of the main character, John, that his copilot, Mo, is secretly an alien spy/operative. So, what does he do...?

Well, at those moments when he has newly triggered reasons to suspect her—he never takes his eyes off of her!

Vicious is an asshole, a thug, a maniac—and in many ways, impulsive and stupid. But he is NEVER stupid about one thing—what is best for Vicious!!!

There is no way, none whatsoever, that Vicious doesn’t stand up and face Spike, ready for battle, utterly paranoid about this very real (and true) possibility that Spike is here to kill him.

He can unload all his feelings, sure—that Spike is his one true pal—but to me, he also takes the maximum defensive position.

In fact, I think he unburdens himself of his absolute love, faith and trust in Spike while physically acting like he’s ready for mortal combat.

Because that would seem absolutely demented and psycho...and that is Vicious’ true character, exactly: even as he pledges loyalty to his friend and wants that loyalty for himself, deep in his core, he is paranoid, ruthless, alone, and, well, vicious.

But it wouldn’t work for the plot. They need this scene to be about Spike’s honorable act of sparing Vicious out of friendship. The scene ends with Spike putting away his blade and pledging his loyalty anew—he next goes out and singlehandedly John Wick-slays all the people Vicious had a beef with, against Syndicate orders (to a very cool Yoko Kanno song).

They wanted to give that heroic moment to Spike: that he would put his personal loyalty to Vicious (who doesn’t deserve it) above his own career advancement—even above his own life.

But they mutilated Vicious’ character in order to give Spike that moment. They made Vicious act in an entirely un-Vicious way.

If Vicious behaves as I am suggesting: stands and faces Spike, and they have the exact same order for them to get to the same story outcome, well, they’d need some other device.

You know what? I’m not going to rewrite Cowboy Bebop.

The blocking threw me out of the scene. I thought it was phony.

But it was really a writing problem, not a directing problem. The directing fix would have caused a writing problem.

What I really want to know is...did anybody there feel the same way? On the set? In the writing room?

Did Alex Hassell (Vicious) say, “Hey guys, aren’t I paranoid? Don’t I suspect he’s here to kill me? What kind of villain am I if I’m that stupid as to be unaware?”

And did the writers and/or director say, “No no no, we need to show that you love him so much, you have that one weakness for him that it gives you a blind spot.”

And did Hassell go, “Oh, okay, that’s cool.”

But that wasn’t in the scene! Vicious monologues about how his dad killed his mom and made him watch. It’s emotional and pathetic—but it’s not about Spike. That monologue needed to be about Spike. Which means, Vicious needed to have done the monologue about his dad killing his mom at some earlier point.

You know what they really needed? To set this up early where Spike similarly sneaks up on Vicious and jokes, “Dude, I could have totally just killed you.” And Vicious says, “My friend, obviously I knew it was you—but if you ever need to do that, just do it, because I don’t want to live without your friendship.”

Whoa. That would have worked. Find that one moment where we see the little boy in Vicious, where Vicious is treated like shit by his family and Spike truly is his one friend. Something where Spike soothes Vicious and the truth of their past and bond is revealed: Vicious really does care for Spike.

Then Vicious’ giving himself up makes sense. He is putting his life in Spike’s hands. Daring him to do it. He’s not stupid—he’s asking the one person in the universe who just might love you love me?

It makes Vicious smart. A smarter villain is always better. Vicious acts impulsively and foolishly—he’s kind of an idiot. What good is an idiot villain?

Having the two guys aware of their bond, and emotions, also would make Spike’s betrayal of Vicious—his stealing of Julia—all the more resonant.

This stuff is in the episode now, but only sort’s buried.

It’s not on-screen, it’s not in the text.

Good writing is about making the important stuff appear on-screen, naturally, via the story. And burying the boring stuff off-screen—because we get the general idea and don’t need to see stuff we already know.

Do they have that one character moment I’m suggesting? Maybe—I don’t remember, but I could have missed it.

I mostly remember they have Spike and Vicious joking about shaving their balls or whatever.

Well...good thing I am an unemployed filmmaker explaining how to fix a multi-million dollar, super-popular Netflix show.

See you, Space Cowboy!

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