What Makes A Good Film Good?

I had an email from a friend of mine, Jase, who asked me a question I thought I’d write a blog post about.

I’d be interested to hear from you, perhaps as a blog post subject, as a filmmaker, what makes a good film good, and a bad film bad? Are there times when you may be writing a script, and you just have to give up, cos it’s not good? If you’re almost through shooting a film, and you’re suddenly not happy with it, do you just cut your losses and quit, or keep moving and finish it, having a final cut you don’t like.

Obviously no-one goes out to make a flop. What happens through the whole process, and at what point do people decide to either give up, or continue making the film?

This is almost an impossible question to answer. I’m sure much smarter, much more experienced people have tried and also failed.

The thing with this is that movies are completely subjective, so there’s no right or wrong answer to this question. I don’t like Napoleon Dynamite, yet it’s a massively popular film. I wasn’t totally convinced by The King’s Speech, yet Oscars abounded. That’s not to say that either of those are bad films – I enjoyed The King’s Speech, but wasn’t overawed by it. Napoleon Dynamite is a slightly different story.

I think the answer to Jase’s question is that you have to trust your instincts. And to trust your instincts, you have to hone them. Read scripts. Watch movies. Don’t just read films you like, read films you don’t like. Figure out why you reacted negatively to a film. Why do you want to turn it off? Why did you love it? What was it about the film that sucked you in and kept you watching? Figure out what makes you tick as an audience member and you’ll start progressing as a filmmaker.

Be prepared to be your own worst critic. But don’t be afraid to acknowledge if your work is good. If you get excited about your work, chances are there’s something in it. If you’re struggling to write it, figure out what it’s missing. But don’t depend on your own opinion. Talk to other people about it. This is so important. These other people are your audience. Find out if they like your idea. Pitch the idea to other people and see how they react. If their eyes light up and they want to know more, there’s a sparkle in the idea. If they nod politely then change the subject, then maybe you need to work on the sparkle a little more. There’s no point in making a film if you aren’t thinking about the audience.

If you stop believing in your project, stop working on it. Put it to one side, let it rest in a drawer and move on to something else. The more work you do on something you don’t believe in, the harder it becomes to fix. You remember the hard slog it was to get it to that point and become reluctant to undo your work. Give it breathing space. Let your head clear. Come back to it later when you’re refreshed.

It’s rare to get to the point where you’ve nearly finished shooting a film and realise that it’s rubbish. It has happened though. In Hollywood, actors will get fired or the whole movie will be reshot. In low budget filmmaking world, that’s not an option. But, in low budget filmmaking world, if you’ve managed to inspire enough people with your words and script and vision for the film to come on board and help you make it, then perhaps that shine is coming through again.

Once you’re in post production, it becomes almost impossible to let go of something if it’s not working. I’ve lost count of the amount of productions I’ve worked on where editors, sound designers, visual effects artist, almost every department in post complains about how dire the project is. How awful the film is. But they’re going to make their element the best it can be for their reel/for money/for pride. Post production often feels like the final stretch. If you can just get through this bit, then the film will be done and finished and reap all the prizes at every festival known to man.

It doesn’t always work like that, of course. It would be great if it did.

You just need to remember why you wanted to make the film in the first place.

I think the elements of what makes a good film good come down to this:

Good script.
Good director.
Good producers.
Good actors.
Good heads of departments.
Good rushes.
Good sound.
Good editing.
Good music.
Good visual effects (where required).

You put all of those in a jar and shake them up, you’ll most likely end up with a good film. They’re not all that hard to find, either, you just need to know where to look. Reverse them and you get the elements of a bad film.

But me, personally, I always aim for great films. At the least. That way, even if I make buckets of mistakes along the way (which I always do), I’ll always end up with a film that’s good and a whole bunch of lessons for how to get even closer to great the next time around.

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