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7 Filmmaking Tips from Bill Condon

How to make movies that win awards and break box office records.
Bill Condon
By  · Published on March 22nd, 2017

Forget Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh. Bill Condon’s career really began with Gods and Monsters, for which he won the adapted screenplay Oscar. He would go on to receive another writing nomination, for Chicago, and over the past 15 years he’s directed award-worthy performances, some of them surprises, he’s drawn non-Twilight fans into that franchise, and he just released what’s looking to be the most successful musical of all time.

Obviously, after the massive opening weekend Condon had with Beauty and the Beast, he’s a filmmaker worth looking up to. He hasn’t always delivered hits or Academy favorites, but the director of such movies as Dreamgirls, Mr. Holmes, Kinsey, The Fifth Estate, and both parts of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn is a distinct talent in Hollywood, one who regularly makes a kind of pop prestige picture, or maybe it’s prestige pop.

Either way, the following advice is worth taking. We’ve rounded up seven lessons to learn from Condon going back almost 20 years, on writing, working with actors, and directing musicals. Be our guest and take a look.

Stick With What You’re Interested In

Condon’s filmography may seem like an odd mix, but for the most part even when he’s worked for hire on projects, he’s only written and directed material he’s passionate about. He realized the importance of this a while ago, as shown in this response to a request for screenwriting advice during a 2004 Washington Post readers Q&A:

You really have to stick with what you’re interested in. It’s a lesson it actually took me a while to learn, as I worked in more overtly commercial area to which I probably wasn’t that well suited, in the first part of my career. “Gods and Monsters” actually was the first personal movie that I made. It was satisfying on absolutely every level.

Never Stop Writing

Condon actually gave two pieces of screenwriting advice in the Washington Post Q&A, the other being on the importance of not giving up and just continuing to write until you break through, and even after that. He says:

Now that I’m old enough to have watched aspiring writers who either had careers or didn’t, I find that the successes have one thing in common and that is that they simply never stop writing. A script gets finished, it gets exposed as much as possible but it’s followed immediately by a new one and then another and then another. That seems to be how it really happens for people.

This is great advice, though not necessarily a tip he’s always followed himself. He does clearly continue to write, having worked on the script for the upcoming musical The Greatest Showman, which he didn’t direct, but here’s an interesting quote from two years earlier in a 2002 interview for Backstage:

I can say one thing but I think it might sound obnoxious. It’s a piece of advice I would find annoying to read because I have so much trouble with it. But it does feel like the people who do make it are the ones who never stop writing. They finish a script and they’re starting another, and six or seven or eight later, they hit and it just goes like wildfire. I can’t do that. I’ve got no discipline. I have trouble getting down to it. and I would have been discouraged by reading that. But it’s true.

Be Sensitive to the Needs of Actors

Here’s one those unsourced inspirational tips found on quotation sites as attributed to Condon:

I do think that’s so much a part of what being a director is ‐ in working with actors ‐ to really try and be sensitive to what each actor needs to get to where he wants to be.

For someone who has worked on very different kinds of movies with very different kinds of performances, including five he directed to Academy Award nominations, Condon is unsurprisingly focused on his individual actors’ needs. The below tip may seem rather accommodating, but keep in mind that two of the mentioned stars garnered Oscar nods, and one of them won.

On Dreamgirls, from the book “Directors Close Up 2: Interviews with Directors Nominated for Best Film by the Directors Guild of America: 2006–2012”:

We rehearsed solidly for two months, and then there are people like Eddie (Murphy) who didn’t like to rehearse. But he’d come to the recording studio and pre-record songs, so that became a way for Anika [Noni Rose], for example, who acts all of her scenes opposite him and who craves rehearsal, to kind of sneak in rehearsals because she’d just hang out and she’d short of push through and get to know him, and they wouldn’t literally do scenes, but they’d get to know each other and start to talk about the movie…

I think one of the things a director has to be sensitive to [is] the needs of the actor, and in this case with Jennifer Hudson, it really was that kind of specific, making it real, until she really got comfortable with it. It was like, “Lift the glass there, turn the thing,” that sort of thing at the beginning, and then she would find it on her own. So to go from that extreme to the Eddie Murphy extreme, which is fort of just you give him one idea like that this number’s a nervous breakdown on stage, and he says, “Okay, I got it,” and he goes and does it, and then there are little adjustments you make. You need to be open to whatever an actor needs.

Directors Can Be Emotional, Too

Condon isn’t the first filmmaker to show a sensitivity to the actors in that way, but he is a rare breed of director who discusses sensitivity to the material. He was asked by Twilight fans at the 2011 Comic-Con about whether it’s difficult to let go of emotions when directing emotionally draining scenes. Here’s what he replied (via ROBsessed):

Well you have to because you’re on to the next one either an hour later, or the next day, but man, absolutely, there were all these things along the way that you just have an adrenaline rush when you finally get there and get through it because so many things could go wrong. Like the childbirth, I keep going back to it, but that was unbelievably intense. Taylor, his heart is pouring out of him, but Rob, you see this where he’s trying to bring her back to life and the anguish of it and the panic of it all, and then Kristen just giving it all. In the way that you’ll see, all the effort of giving birth but she is the best dead person I’ve ever seen (everyone laughs) and that’s not easy because there were takes that were a minute long and she never blinked, she never seemed to breathe, I don’t know how she did it but that cold area was very intense. And at the end of the shoot in Louisiana we’d been shooting for four months already, kind of tired and everyone is worn down, all of our defenses were down and it was also one of those things where you get there and you do it, and it lifted everybody up for the rest of the shoot because it just felt like something real had happened. That’s the thing that is great on a set, when you know something real has happened, it’s when the crew is suddenly incredibly quiet and everyone is paying attention, is sort of like you know it’s happening right in front of you and everyone’s aware of it, you know.

Always Follow Your Own Vision

Whether he’s adapting a hit stage musical to the big screen or remaking a hugely popular animated feature as a live-action movie or taking over a franchise like Twilight, Condon has had to be mindful of fans. But not so much that he loses his own focus and vision, especially when he’s also a fan of the source material. He recently addressed fan ownership, particularly for Beauty and the Beast, in a recent interview for The Hollywood Reporter:

It’s a double-edged sword. The great thing about that is that there are so many people who are so eager to see the movie, and that’s what you crave as a filmmaker, that there’s an audience waiting and committed. But in terms of expectations, you can only make your personal version of what this is. Because I feel like I’m such a true fan of that original film, I could only use myself ultimately as a gauge. But I think, for example, there would have been people who would’ve preferred that kind of Austrian-curtain yellow dress for Belle [that she wore in the animated movie], but we couldn’t do that and stay true to the period.

In the below interview from 2012, Condon acknowledges the difficulty of focusing on what connects him to something like Twilight while also not wanting to disappoint the fans.

Musicals Need to Keep Moving

With a lot of musicals, the numbers kind of stop the show, interrupting the narrative for a bit of song and dance and then picking things back up afterward. Condon is a believer in musicals that keep moving. He told the South China Morning Post in 2015 after he wrapped on the Beauty and the Beast shoot:

I think in movies, the secret is that you can never stop. You can never let a song just settle in; it’s got to push the story forward. You have to be somewhere different at the end of a song than when you started.

He thinks this sort of movement keeps people who don’t usually like musicals and get bored during most numbers interested. He similarly says, “The basic rule becomes the characters should wind up at a different place from where they began.” in a 2006 Baltimore Sun article on him reinventing the musical film.

Then in 2007, he told Charlie Rose:

You know, I always quiz people, those unfortunate souls who don’t like musicals and ask them what is it about them? And one thing they always say is that, oh, God, you know, here comes another song and we have to wait for two minutes now until the story, you know, picks up again. And I think one of the ‐ one of the things that, you know, I tried to do here is keep the story going through the songs, you know. So it becomes this seamless thing. And you’re sort of not aware of when the music starts and stops.

Musicals Are All About Transitions

Also in the Charlie Rose interview, and very closely related to the last piece of advice, he says the most important thing he learned about directing musicals from Chicago director Rob Marshall is how the “transitions in and out of songs are almost as important as what happens within them.”

Interestingly enough, on the audio commentary for the movie he does with Marshall, he says it differently as: “Musicals are all about transitions. How you get in and out of numbers is more important than what happens inside of them.”

In the January 2007 issue of Vanity Fair, he said it this way:

Chicago was like a crash course in getting inside a musical. Just things that now seem obvious that you don’t really know until you’re in it. One of them is that musicals are all about transitions: how you get in and out of numbers is more important than what happens inside of them. In
Dreamgirls, for example, the first time Eddie Murphy sings, you have him teaching the song to his three new backup singers, and suddenly he takes one step back and a curtain comes in behind him and then you swoop around and you’ve made a transition to him on the stage. You could do it in a cut, but there’s something about taking you from one place to another with theatrical devices that’s really thrilling.

There’s also a detailed and illustrated example of this point in a 2007 DGA Quarterly article focused on the “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” number in Dreamgirls. Here’s the sequence in full:

What We’ve Learned

From the more common writing tips to the specific rules for directing actors and making modern musicals, Condon’s advice is both inspirational and instructive. And he makes dabbling in many different pots sound like nothing, so long as you find something of interest in each project and in such a variety of work.

A few of his tips are about pushing forward, whether it’s the idea of always writing the next thing or finding ways to keep the narrative moving, especially in a musical. More generally, he recommends serving your own interests and vision and serving the actors very personally so that they may in turn serve that vision, as well.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.