「Global Entertainment」 Personal Interview_Well-known Hollywood Creative Consultant,Director, Teacher and Author Peter Markham’ World of Story

Peter Markham’s Bio

Peter Markham is a creative consultant,director, teacher, author, and former directing head at the American Film Institute Conservatory. His alumni, award winners at major festivals, have notable careers in film and TV. Prior to teaching, he was a director in the UK, and worked with filmmakers including Anthony Minghella and Martin Scorsese.

Well-known Hollywood Creative Consultant,Director, Teacher and Author  Peter Markham and Sunny Xiang

Special guest well-known Hollywood creative consultant,director, teacher, author Peter Markham attends an interesting interview with Sunny Xiang at Global Entertainment in Los Angeles. Peter Markham elaborates on his process of becoming a well-known Hollywood filmmaker. The following is the Q&A interview.

1.Could you share your experience of working with Anthony Minghella? Are there any interesting things that you can share about your time working on 9 times Oscar winning The English Patient?

I could spend this entire interview and much, much longer talking about working with Anthony. Because we had been in university together in the north of England studying drama, and we had a band together there. Anthony had written my short piece for the BBC Director’s Course in London and I had been his first assistant director on his first film Truly Madly Deeply. He asked me to direct second unit for him on The English Patient.

But being a second unit director is a strange thing, I know there are many forms that this takes, but for me it was very special. He was a very good friend. He was going to be the best man at my wedding in New York. So, we worked very closely together. We had lengthy discussions even in pre-production in London, even before we’d gone to Italy, to start the pre-production there and he talked about what his intentions were for the film and how he saw it. He said, “well I want it to kind of look like a David Lean movie, and I said, “Well, that is easy for me to do!” I was terrified! How was I going to make anything look like David Lean’s amazing work? And he talked about how it was rooted in his belief that we are all human beings together. He was of Italian extraction but grew up completely English. And the desert for him, the texture, color, and the contours were a kind of metaphor or symbol for humanity. So, I kind of knew what he was after, and he trusted me to go 4 or 5 hours away to the Sahara Desert to shoot with a crew while he was shooting with the main crew, and that was a wonderful experience for me.

Particular things that I remember about it include a day when we were filming in Tuscany and Anthony suddenly threw his script pages up into the air, and I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “What was the writer thinking?” Well, of course, he was the writer, but he realized that now, he was the director, and those are two different modes of working and thinking. That was very interesting to me. Another moment was when we were watching dailies with Walter Murch, one of the greatest editors in film history. And Walter said, “I can’t understand what they are saying.” And Anthony and I looked at each other, “What does he mean? You mean the audience is supposed to understand what the actors are saying?” and then we realized of course they should. And I think this is the problem with a lot of films today in that the directors who make them know what the dialogue is but they don’t listen to it as someone who’s never heard it before. And I’m not saying it has to be perfectly spoken or that the intonation and the articulation have to be perfect, but audiences have to be able to understand it. And I find I often cannot understand what people have said in plain English. I can’t understand it because it’s not delivered with enough care.I’m not saying actors should be out of character but it’s a basic thing that surely the dialog should be understood.

Another moment was when Stuart Craig, the production designer, explained to Anthony about a location and a shot and how Anthony should do it. And Anthony later turned to me and said, “Can he do that?” And I didn’t know. For us, it was a wonderful lesson on how collaborative filmmaking is, with all the different department heads coming to make a contribution to the visual language, to the storytelling. That was a wonderful bit of education for me. My first AD for the second unit was a man called Gianni Arduini and he had been the first AD to Fellini and Antonioni, so he’d worked with these giants of cinema history and that was quite terrifying for me to be working with somebody like that. But we got on very well. When he didn’t like something he would criticize it very honestly and that was helpful. And when he did like it he would say so, that was very encouraging for me. I could continue to talk about it, but it was a very powerful experience to be with a filmmaking crew from many different parts of the world together in Italy and the Sahara Desert, in Tunisia. It was an extraordinary experience for me.

2.Could you share your experience of working with Martin Scorsese? Are there any interesting things that you can share about your time working on 10 times Oscar nominated Gangs of New York?

I had an interview with him in New York for the job of directing second unit on that film, and he said, “Why should I let you do this? These are all my favorite things. I want to do all the inserts, I want to do the second unit work, why should you do it? And I thought, “I really want this job. What am I going to say?” How can I possibly convince Martin Scorsese, whose movies I love so much, worship them? What can I possibly say? So, I thought a little bit and said, “Mr. Scorsese, I’ll give you exactly what you want. I will do my very best to give you what you want and save you the time so that you can focus on other work. But for me it would be an honor and a privilege to work with you, and I would want to serve you in the best possible way.” And that was all that I could say, and later on I discovered that I had got the job. But I still had to earn respect and I worked very hard to do that.

 Working with him day by day was an incredible education for me. First of all, he is so incredibly film literate. He has seen so many films and remembers them and has such interesting insights and perspectives on the films, on the filmmakers and on film history. Which isn’t purely theoretical; it’s very practical, it’s about the language of the screen, the different ways of approaching things. Although he has this fantastic knowledge and wisdom and although he is a master, what surprised me was, and this was true of Anthony too, he never stopped asking questions. It wasn’t that he would say, “I know how to do this and I won’t bother to tell you.” He would say, “We can shoot it this way, we could shoot it that way.

This might mean something, this might mean another thing. Will these two shots cut together?” And I thought, “Wow, I thought he knew everything.” But he uses questioning, challenges, exploration as a means of finding how to do something and that to me was very interesting. And what’s amazing is it does not result in any loss of authority. A lot of people would say, “I don’t know how to do this. What on earth am I going to do?” And everybody would lose respect for them. But it’s not like that for Martin Scorsese. He says, “How are we going to do this? We can do it this way or that way and there are other ways, aren’t there? What are those other ways?” He is asking questions of himself, of course.

The other thing about him: he is so concerned with the screen, the shot, with the framing, the angle, with the lensing and all the elements of the language of the screen. I’m not necessarily talking about purely technical or technological elements, I’m talking about the visual language of the moving image. And yet he is one of the best directors working with actors I’ve ever seen. The freedom he gives the actors, the way that he works with actors, on their terms. To see him working with Daniel Day-Lewis was astonishing because he would do 2 or 3 takes, get what he plans to get, then he would see what Daniel had to offer and then Daniel would come up with some different interpretations. And I found myself working with Daniel, little shots of his hands with coins or cards which I would do, because Daniel

Day-Lewis insisted on doing his own second unit work—he wouldn’t have a stand-in. And to see Daniel

do a different take each time was like watching a dancer improvising. It was very precise in its conception and in its execution, and you can say that about Martin Scorsese as well. So, it was a wonderful time for me. It taught me a lot. It was lovely to meet him about 15 years later at AFI when he remembered me. We had a lovely conversation, so I’m always honored to think of that.

3.What is your goal as an instructor?

What I want is to help filmmakers become the filmmakers they must become. I don’t want them to become a mini-me, I don’t want them to be like myself. I don’t want them to be like the other filmmakers that they admire completely—although, of course, they are going to be informed by and enriched by the work of those that inspire them. I want them to be their own filmmaker, they need to find their own sensibility and be true to it. I don’t want them to become one-size-fits-all directors who could be anyone, any director. Not somebody who’s like everyone else, but at the same time they might do very well in television and not be ostentatiously quirky or idiosyncratic. I don’t want to get in their way. I want to accompany them, enable and facilitate them for as long as they wish this to be the case.

4.Could you share your experience of working with fellow students at AFI?

It’s a wonderful opportunity, with very good filmmakers when you are at one of the best filmmaking schools in the world. Many people want to go there. Over the years that I was there, the diversity of the directing class, and indeed the other disciplines as well, increased. So, there were people not only from different parts of America, but from different parts of the world. Different ethnicities, different sensibilities and outlooks, different acculturations, different genders. And that was tremendously enriching because I would see them challenging each other and learning from each other, and I would be learning from them all the time. And it was really good for me because I am a straight, English male, originally working class but nevertheless I’ve had many advantages in life because of how I look. And it is wonderful for me to feel myself as a part of humanity, and I felt the fellows at AFI were representatives of humanity that I very much wanted to be part of.

I would say is that working with younger generations as one gets older is vitally important, and I feel sad for those people of my age who don’t work with younger people. Because younger people always come up with new questions, new perspectives, new sensibilities and never cease to surprise you. And I’m very lucky actually, I was there for 17 years, and I’ve been teaching since as my own independent self. And to see the changes of the generations, the change of sensibilities, to see fashions, modes come up and then pass and then fade away and new ones come in, is pretty great. And it’s important not only from a teaching angle, but also in terms of enriching one’s life, one’s experience of being alive.

5.Why did you write the book “What’s the Story? The Director Meets Their Screenplay”? What was the book’s purpose?

 Alfred Hitchcock said that a lot of people think that directing starts on set, working with the actors. And when I left AFI, I had one of the people who called me and wanted me to work at their school. He said, “When you get on the set and the teaching starts–”, I said, “No, no, that’s not directing.” The director does not simply work on the set with the actors and allow the cinematographer to cover it, and the editor to cut it together. That’s not directing at all. It’s also interesting to me that when people applied for teaching jobs, when I was the head of the department, they would always say,“I want to teach a class about working with actors.” Nobody ever said that they wanted to teach a class about the language of the moving image.Nobody ever said they wanted to teach a class on composition, camera placement or movement or the relationship of the camera to the actor. Nobody ever said they wanted to teach about dramatic narrative, the nature of it and its forms and structures, and what “character” means, and how all of those things can be presented on the screen. Or how a film is an address to an audience and how one thinks of orchestrating that address, manipulating the audience, prompting them to react emotionally to the film. And so I thought that since I had left AFI and wasn’t constrained by 3-hour sessions anymore, I could write at length about what really interests me about the entire process from story to screenplay, how a director can engage with that and then look towards the screen.

So, I decided I was going to write this book. It wasn’t going to be limited to 3-hour classes, it was going to be many, many pages and people could take their time to read through it once, or two or three times. This was something I very much wanted to do. And also, I wasn’t in a classroom regularly with 20 directing fellows, I needed to be addressing a broader readership. So, in my head, I would imagine the fellows reading it. It replaced their classes, although I was doing live classes in LA before the pandemic, but then I went online.

In general, I think the word “preparation” is a misnomer, because it suggests pre-stuff before the shoot starts and I think it’s a really bad word. But I cannot come up with a better one. I think filmmaking starts the minute you have an idea for the story, or the moment you write the screenplay, or the moment you read the screenplay if you haven’t written it, and it continues all the way through till the film is taken away from you. It’s cut together, post-production is done, color timing is done, and it’s gone, and you can’t do anything about it. It’s an entire process that has many different facets and involves many different skills and collaborations. It’s a glorious thing. So, the new book that I’m writing is about the language of the screen itself and follows on from that and I’m deep into the writing of that book.

Also, I wanted to write the first book as a tribute towards all the fellows I taught at AFI, because I had learned so much from them. And I wanted them to continue to take from me, from what I was able to offer them.

6.What’s the key to storytelling?

You could spend years talking about this and still never find the answer. Maybe there are many answers and may  there is no answer. I don’t know, I’m trying to think of a simple answer. I think the most important thing is you have a story you really need to tell. You may not know why you need to tell it, but you just have the urge to tell it, and also you have an instinct for storytelling. You just enjoy that activity, you like to tease your audience, make them afraid, make them want something, make them feel something, that’s essential. You make them want to know what’s next, you kind of want to wake them up, you want to keep them at the edge of their seats, you want them to care about the story and the characters more than anything else as they watch it. I also think that you may need to tell a story because you don’t completely understand why you want to tell it, and by telling it you think you might come to understand it. Also, it can be that there is some kind of connection. Maybe something in your personal life or something you’ve experienced or maybe it connects you at a very deep level. Maybe it’s in a different fictional world, maybe about different characters. But something in it you think is truthful within yourself and has a resonance within yourself. It feels authentic to you. And you feel that if you make it, “I am the authentic filmmaker to make it.” It’s not like you are taking it from somebody else who is more justified in making it. It is something you can make your own without depriving it of its own identity. I’m not saying that you simply change it, I mean that you can be faithful to it and still be faithful to yourself. But I think in the end, the key to storytelling remains mysterious. If it becomes something you can systematize, something you can set down in concrete terms, something that those in the industry, in the business and in marketing and distribution would understand, it wouldn’t mean anything. It is a puzzle, and it is a mystery, and that is how it has to remain.

7.If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I wish I could have started teaching earlier. I didn’t understand what an incredible experience and activity it is. There are many things I would like to change. I think anybody who’s realistic about life and about themselves and learns anything, tries to change. I hope I have tried to and need to change more, but that’s the most important thing that I would say: the very thing that I said I didn’t want to do was the very thing I should have started to do much, much earlier.

8.You’ve worked in this industry for a long time as a well-known Creative Consultant,Director, Teacher and Author . What are some words of advice you’d give young filmmakers?

You need to free yourself from common thinking and groupthink. You need to challenge ideas, challenge the stuff that everybody else is coming out with. You should listen to your teachers openly and respectfully, but you should also challenge what they teach you. Then you should accept the wisdom that stands up to your challenges. But when wisdom doesn’t, you should search for something to replace it.

Be patient, but don’t wait around. Watch films and think about how they work. Try to get into the minds of the filmmakers by reverse engineering from the screen into a practical working head of the person who made the movie. Go out and make films, even if you do it on your iPhone or smartphone. Get things wrong; don’t be afraid of getting things wrong and learning from them, because you are never going to get things completely right. That’s good, because you are always going to keep learning.

Another thing I would always say to the fellows: aspire to be a student, don’t aspire to be a master, because the masters are the best students of all. And that’s what I learned from Anthony Minghella and Martin Scorsese. Martin Scorsese has to be one of the best students of filmmaking there’s ever been, that’s why he’s a master. Because he keeps being a student. Don’t be seduced or distracted by the industry, by the business, by marketing and distribution and all that stuff. There are many good and lovely people who help people in those areas but that’s not what you are about. If you are a filmmaker, screenwriter, director, a cinematographer, production designer, costume designer or editor you need to concentrate on your craft and on storytelling.

Finally, always tell the truth in your work no matter how much it hurts you to do it.

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