Storytelling: The Art of Listening.
The truth is that I’m average at best at most things I do in life, especially as it relates to my career. I know a lot of guys who are way better cinematographers than I am. I know a lot of guys who are way better directors and producers than I am. And, I know a huge amount of guys who are better writers, too. But, the one thing I’ve learned to do well over the years is to learn well, whether it’s from others in my profession or not. Learning is crucial to living and growing, but to learn you have to first learn to stop talking and start listening. And not just listening, but really hearing.
Don’t be fooled by the cool photos and behind-the-scenes video snippets of green screens, flying cameras and pretty actors. Filmmaking is nothing more than telling stories. It’s a technologically glorified version of a child sitting on the couch with mommy or daddy and listening to their rendition of “The Cat in the Hat”, “Tootle” or “Goodnight Moon”. Truthfully, if we could recall the first 25 times those books were read to us, we would see that the telling of the stories got noticeably better as the repetitions continued. Just like being a parent reading a Little Golden Book – great storytelling takes practice.
Nobody learns to be a storyteller by waking up one day and magically being good at it. I did a lousy job of it for a long, long time. And the reason I was lousy at it was because I was self-consumed. Call it age, call it experience, but at some point if you’re going to be not just a storyteller, but a great storyteller, you have to get over yourself. And by that I mean just what I said. Get over yourself. The world does not revolve around you.
For me, that lesson came in multiple installments, but it was firmly and finally implanted when I became a husband and then a daddy. Being self-absorbed when you have babies to care for does not go well for either party, which is why God built in the maternal and paternal instincts of loving and nurturing and protecting our children. The moment the doctor handed me our first child, Elizabeth, my heart melted completely, and I knew that my life had been forever changed for the better. Such a small word like love can hardly contain what you feel, as a parent, for your children.
People who are preoccupied with themselves make poor decisions about everything. And when it comes to filmmaking and storytelling, it shows up in painfully obvious ways. Self-absorbed writers write trite dialogue that only exists in their therapy-laden, perverted minds. You see it when you watch a scene and laugh at the absurdity of dialogue and say things like, “Who writes this garbage?” I’ll tell you who – self-consumed, self-pronounced screenwriters. That’s who.
Self-absorbed directors make poor casting decisions and even worse directorial decisions. They put all the wrong people in roles and distract from the storyline by putting in unnecessary camera moves and effects that have no purpose but to say, “look at this cool thing we can do.” Why? Because a self-absorbed director always and only wants the audience to look at them and what they can do. How can we possibly go through life without being mesmerized by their artistic brilliance?
Self-absorbed cinematographers miss the point of an entire storyline altogether and “shoot for their demo reel” instead of taking their role of being an invisible part of the equation seriously. When you walk away from a film remembering most how the film’s lighting looked – as pretty as it may have been – that’s a bad cinematography job. The photography shouldn’t be the thing – it should be an imperceptible thing – that moves in harmony with the rest of the film. Self-absorbed cinematographers light to show off, to use their work to move to the next gig.
And self-absorbed filmmakers, like I was for a good part of my early career, miss the mark on virtually every one of these points – and then some – because they’re not trying to tell a great story. They’re trying to tell their own story. They just keep hijacking someone else’s dialogue to do it.
So, how to be a great storyteller? I would write this advice to myself:
Step 1 – Humble yourself. Who are you to place yourself above anyone? Did you create yourself? Can you make your own heart beat? Realize your place – life is not about you.
Step 2 – Be quiet. Better to remain silent and let them think you’re a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
Step 3 – Don’t just watch. Listen. And don’t just listen. Hear. And don’t just hear. Love. Love for others is caring enough to watch, listen and hear them. The stories present themselves to you.
Great storytelling isn’t about thinking up some great storyline. It’s about seeking, listening, and re-telling the millions of great stories already out there.