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6 Filmmaking Tips from Matt Reeves

Or, six reasons ‘The Batman’ is in good hands.
Matt Reeves
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By  · Published on July 12th, 2017

Give Matt Reeves a preexisting property, and he’s probably going to give you back a smart movie that is personally satisfying to himself and to his audience. Whether it’s a remake, a sequel, an adaptation, or an overly familiar genre, he can make it his own (lately, and as a director, anyway — don’t @ me about Under Siege 2: Dark Territory). What is his secret? It might be in the combination of the following filmmaking lessons.

Watch Them, Make Them

Reeves is a cinephile filmmaker. He loves movies, he watches many in preparation for his projects, he gets his own advice from the likes of Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, and he’s a fan of DVD commentaries (he’s also a fan of social media celebrations of perfect shots). Reeves turned his love of movies into a love of moviemaking at an early age, producing amateur 8mm films inspired by Planet of the Apes and Star Wars. He even met his longtime friend and collaborator J.J. Abrams when they were both 13 and submitting work to a local public access short film showcase.

So this first tip, from a 2012 interview on the Croatian film website FAK, is not surprising at all:

The way to learn how to make movies is to watch them and to make them. When I was a kid you could make 8mm movies, and now more than ever you can do them on your phone, edit them on your computer. The access to the technology for a filmmaker and a visual storyteller is right there, in your hand. So, that is really what you need to do to learn how to become a filmmaker.

This recent Twitter exchange with a fan shows that he still believes in the advice:


Stemming from that idea of just doing it, Reeves revealed in a 2014 Reddit AMA (shared with his regular music score composer, Michael Giacchino) what he believes you need in order to take your amateur interests further into a professional career:

I think if you want to be a filmmaker that you need to find a story that you have to tell, and then you’ve got to go out there and tell it any way you can, even if it means making it yourself and paying for it yourself and you just have to let people see what you’re passionate about. And I think the most important trait that a director or filmmaker can have is tenacity. You have to decide you’re going to stick at it, until you get there.

The same year, he gave similar advice to film students during a junket interview (alongside Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes star Andy Serkis) for College Web Media:

“A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success”

This tip may seem like just nepotistic marketing for a friend’s book, but I’m accepting this quote from Reeves featured on the cover of childhood friend Mark Sanderson‘s book “A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success” as genuine advice:

I have known Mark my entire life, and he is absolute living proof of the grit and tenacity it takes to make it as a writer in this business. Take your first steps toward your own career by reading the words of this true fighter.

If anything, the book provides more stories of Reeves, with Sanderson, making amateur silent 8mm movies as kids and entrepreneurially forming their own production company complete with a newsletter. Also, Sanderson has a great website called My Blank Page, which is full of screenwriting tips.

Matt Reeves and Lizzy Caplan on the set of ‘Cloverfield’ (Paramount Pictures)

Genre Films Can Be Personal

These days, a lot of genre films are based around a high concept and little more. For Reeves, it wasn’t his intention to primarily make movies about monsters and superheroes and stories about the future, etc., but he’s managed to make a career out of being a sort of journeyman auteur who writes and directs blockbusters that are great cinema and that express deep ideas through his singular voice. He discusses how he ended up here in a 2011 Collider interview:

You know, I never would have guessed I would be making science fiction and horror films. That kind of stuff. They were the kind of movies that frankly as a kid scared the hell out of me and so I really had a hard time watching them… I never thought I would be making them and then after ‘Cloverfield’ happened it obviously created a lot of opportunity for me to do those kind of films. I discovered the fun of genre is…you get to explore your fears and you get to use the metaphor of the genre — whether it’s a giant monster or a… 12-year-old vampire. Whatever it is you can sink something underneath the surface and make a personal film under the guise of great fun romp.”

Matt Reeves on the set of ‘Let Me In’ (Overture Films)

Plans Are Fallbacks

You can tell Reeves puts a lot of work into the planning of his movies, as they’re so meticulously crafted — and often have to be given the technique of doing a monster movie in the found footage style or working with as much performance capture and effects as the Planet of the Apes movies entail. But surprisingly he doesn’t rely on his pre-vis or other prep once he gets to the set. They’re just something to fall back on. From a 2010 DVD Talk interview:

What I like to do is storyboard a lot of stuff. Greg Fraser, my cinematographer, and I will walk with stand-ins, and he had a digital camera that actually had a place on it to take the anamorphic lenses we were using and we would stage some of the scenes in advance. We would always come with a plan, but the thing that I like to do that is very important not just working with kids, but especially working with kids, is when you get to the set you have to have your plan ready and are ready to abandon that plan. The ideas that really matter are the ones that have vitality at the moment you’re shooting. If you have a plan you always know you have a fallback point, but when things happen on the set that is when you’re getting magic.

I try to have a plan I can let go of and try to be invisible by, I don’t know. I try not to do anything that feels too self conscious. I like the sense of it being restrained, letting the actors do what they do, and letting there be a level of simplicity to what we’re doing. That was sort of the idea even with the car crash, there is meant to be a level of restraint to all of that. I wanted it to be simplistic and I didn’t want to cutaway to all the kinetic things. I wanted you to go through an experience with the characters. What I’m always really interested in doing is finding a way to be intimate with the characters and to go through an experience with them.

Watch Reeves and his War for the Planet of the Apes discuss his process and how new ideas would keep coming about during production:

Nerves of Passion

Reeves is a brave man. He remade (or re-adapted) a beloved Swedish vampire film with basically the same target audience as the original. Then he took over a rebooted franchise with a long history and sizable fanbase. Next on his plate: Batman. Is he nervous about taking on the Caped Crusader? Sure he is, but that’s a good thing. Only a filmmaker who doesn’t care about the project or its audience is free of fear.

In a 2014 Grantland interview, Reeves admits that he and J.J. Abrams were nervous going into Apes and Star Wars, respectively:

Here’s the thing: When I started, I was incredibly excited and, for obvious reasons, incredibly nervous. This is the world of my childhood, and it’s a lot of people’s childhood, then there’s following up ‘Rise,’ so it’s a continuation of a beloved film — that puts a certain kind of pressure on you. It was exciting, but nerve-racking. And I’ve spoken to J.J. and I know how nervous he is, and that to me is the best sign. It shows that he cares that much. I’m sure he’s gonna do something remarkable.

What We’ve Learned

For one thing, it seems like it should be pretty simple to deliver strong blockbuster entertainment these days, so long as you love movies, love the material you’re working with, are well-planned yet intuitively free, and can find a personal connection to the project at hand. Why more directors aren’t like Reeves and why more movies aren’t like his, who knows? But for the other thing, we should realize that The Batman is in good hands given the care and passion he puts into his work.

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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.