Filmmaking Tips from Monster Cinematographer Steven Bernstein
Steven Bernstein is the cinematographer of White Chicks and Oscar-winning Monster, writer/director of Last Call with Rhys Ifans and John Malkovich is also a screenwriter, an actor, teacher, the author of the best-selling book ” Film Production”, a writer for various film magazines, a lecturer and a motivational speaker.
With over thirty years of experience in the biz, he is creating Instagram posts that are a “film school” goldmine to anyone.
I know a lot of people have an Instagram page and share movie clips but Steven’s feed stands out because with every post he explains the who, where, what, how, and why. And because he has a broad overlapping skill set plus the experience of working on over 50 feature films and television shows to results in posts full of invaluable information.
There is too much stuff to go into so I will just drop some amuse-bouches for you and let the rest of his “feed” feed the rest of your appetite. Ya dig? (Sorry that’s the Sam Jackson in me talking)
I don’t know about you, but as a screenwriter, I have not had much access to sets yet. So just getting the hang of who the DP’s, Gaffers, Boomers, and Key Grips are and what they do was already handy. But Steven Bernstein filled a much bigger gap than that. A gap I didn’t know was the size of my cat’s black hole stomach until I started reading his posts.
As I am about to direct my first short film, I feel way more confident knowing about book-lights, squibs, fill-lights, fly swatters, hinge-shots, and a poly.
Now, my budget is as low as my cat’s opinion on the size of his bowl. I will only use a few of these things now. But one day, I might use them all. So, my notebook filled up pretty quickly.
I feel way more confident now in talking to the crew about my vision and bringing it to life. And I am sure you will do too. That’s why I was so happy when Steven and his cat-writing partner Rupert texted yes when I asked him If I could write this for you. (Rupert was making coffee while this picture was taken)
You learn so many rules as a screenwriter that they can feel confining. The third act structure and beats hang over your creativity, like my lap over my laptop, and stifle the hell out of you.
Steven writes about his experiences with it and gives tips on how to free yourself. By writing a sloppy first draft for instance. He explains how you can get the audience to connect with a character. Emphasizes the importance of inviting an audience to understand a character instead of just inviting them to like it. And how to change a character’s dialogue from just chasing beats to becoming more real.
Steven inspires you to create a story that has a more visceral and dream-like quality. he challenges you to think beyond the linear because in life it just isn’t like that. You jump back and forth between your thoughts, feelings, dreams, memories and imaginings. He believes that as film writers we can lose our way and think more about the box office and the rules than providing insight. Of course, we want our film to earn money, but he thinks that when we write truthfully about important things that will happen organically.
Reading how he does things made me feel liberated. I felt understood and encouraged to bend the rules and make them work for me. I felt challenged to look at writing differently. He has opened my eyes to a new way of creating.
Steven on writing:
“Please. Be brave. Take risks. Act. Invent. Write. Create. Today. While there is time.”
Steven also takes you along to his sets. He shows you the behind-the-scenes, how he lights the set, what camera he uses. He explains why you should show a character by itself, how he prepares a scene and why the moment before an event holds the drama. Like my cat doing his shoulder blade movement as he sneaks towards me while I dangle a piece of string and contemplate death.
In one of his posts, he shares how he gets the best performance out of his actors. Like always telling them the truth about their performance. Because if you don’t, and always say that they did great, you lose their trust.
Always talk to them privately, up close, and not yell for behind the monitors. Having a quiet set and eliminating distractions is important to help the actors get into character and feel safe.
Not having rehearsals for scenes and improvisation helps to let the magic happen in the moment. He even shows you how he directs on video.
Here is an Instagram clip of him directing actress Romola Garai for Last Call.
What is also great to see is the behind-the-scenes preparation in relation to the finished filmed scene. Here are two clips of Last Call.
First, the behind-the-scenes preparation of an autopsy scene starring John Malkovich.
And then the actual shot scene.
Isn’t it amazing? What a beautiful shot scene of a magical performance by John Malkovich. Just awesome. And so funny! My cat fainted though…
Right, now where was I? O yes, Steven. Steven also gives great tips like not skimping on foley artists and sound mixing (which is often done) because they can lift your movie to a completely different level. And there is much, much, much more.
Steven on directing:
“There is one principle in your career which will guide you towards success. Doing what is right. The reward is almost never immediate. But when you get to the cutting room and you see the light you fought for made the set magical, or the scene you knew you needed, but “they” wanted to cut, you kept…and you needed it; when these things happen and so many more you realize the thin line between a good film and a bad one is narrow and you can fail with a single bad decision. I can’t anticipate the decisions you will have to make. But wed yourself to quality. That is always right”
Charlize Theron, Yoki the camera PA, Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) and Steven Bernstein on the set of “Monster”
Just like the Stage 32 peeps, Steven’s attitude is one of positivity. He keeps it real, has his feet on the ground and respects others. And I am big on all of those things.
I love seeing insuring messages that encourage me to do the best that I can be for myself and others besides my cat. He wrote a five-point suggestions list once called “Things to do at Sundance” I think number five says a lot about the kind of man Steven Bernstein is:
“Help each other. Everyone is frightened and worried. It is hard to make films, harder to sell them. But I hope you do. And make more.”
And don’t we all want to feel understood and be cheered on in life?
If your appetite for learning is as big as my cat’s love for string then Steven’s Instagram might not be enough for you. Then his new book might be just the thing.
The first three hundred people to pre-order the hard-cover will have access to a FREE exclusive live webinar where you have the chance to get your questions answered by Steven himself.
An e-book version will be available as well in the future.
A final word from Steven:
“Persevere. Succes keeps itself hidden until it arrives. Don’t think it isn’t there waiting for you just because it is good at hiding. Don’t quit now.”
P.S This is Steven’s writing partner Rupert (left) and my writing partner Dobby (right)