6 Filmmaking Tips from Maya Deren

We celebrate the experimental cinema legend for her centennial.

This Saturday is the 100th anniversary of Maya Deren’s birth, making it a time to honor the filmmaker, her work, and her significance and legacy within not just the arena of experimental cinema but film history in general. Regardless of the surreal, poetic content of her films, which include Meshes of the Afternoon (with husband Alexander Hammid) and At Land, she’s important as a pioneer and theorist of independent film. It’s mostly through the latter that we can find her filmmaking advice and lessons, all of them more than 50 years old but still relevant to aspiring cinema artists today. Here are six of the tips, collected from her writings, lectures, and interviews:

1. Amateur Filmmaking is for Lovers

If you’re looking for advice on breaking into Hollywood, Deren’s tips are not for you. She was a big proponent of “amateur” filmmaking, which is more than just another term for independent filmmaking as it’s not just against the business of cinema but also the idea of it being a collaborative art. In her posthumously published essay “Amateur Versus Professional” (Film Culture, 1965) she highlights how amateur filmmaking is for those who are passionate about cinema as an art form and who seek more freedom as artists in this medium:

The major obstacle for amateur filmmakers is their own sense of inferiority vis-a-vis professional productions. The very classification “amateur” has an apologetic ring. But that very word–from the Latin “amateur”–“lover” means one who does something for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons or necessity. And this is the meaning from which the amateur filmmaker should take his clue. Instead of envying the script and dialogue writers, the trained actors, the elaborate staffs and sets, the enormous production budgets of the professional film, the amateur should make use of the one great advantage which all professionals envy him, namely, freedom–both artistic and physical.

Artistic freedom means that the amateur filmmaker is never forced to sacrifice visual drama and beauty to a stream of words, words, words, words, to the relentless activity and explanations of a plot, or to the display of a star or a sponsor’s product; nor is the amateur production expected to return profit on a huge investment by holding the attention of a massive and motley audience for 90 minutes.

2. You Are the Most Important Piece of Filmmaking Equipment

At the end of “Amateur Versus Professional,” Deren adds a tip suggesting why we literally don’t require collaborators, rather than just claiming its benefit to artistic freedom. She writes that besides the camera, all you need is yourself:

Improve your films not by adding more equipment and personnel but by using what you have to its fullest capacity. The most important part of your equipment is yourself: your mobile body, your imaginative mind, and your freedom to use both. Make sure you do use them.

3. “A Good Idea Merits Careful Enunciation”

In a letter to film archivist James Card in 1955 (published in the essential book “Essential Deren: Collected Writing on Film”), Deren recognizes how instrumental her second husband, Alexander Hammid, was in her education as a filmmaker, going on to criticize the problems of most young filmmakers of the time, how they could use such a great teacher and how they need to be less like the Marlon Brandos of film language:

My debt to [Hammid] for teaching me the mechanics of film expression, and, more than that, the principle of infinite pains, is enormous. I wish that all these young filmmakers would have the luck for a similar apprenticeship. As it is, when they revolt against the meaningless rhetoricians of film, they tend to throw out the baby with the bath water. They don’t bother to shape the lips and mouth carefully before letting the sound out, and ignore the fact that a good idea merits careful enunciation with the result that a good many of them sound, at best, like Marlon Brando… I mean, you just know he’s feelings things like crazy, but why doesn’t he take those marbles out of his mouth!

4. Patience is the Strength of Women Filmmakers

In an audio clip of Deren featured in the 2001 documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren (watch it on Fandor or Amazon Prime), she makes a distinction between the strength of men and the strength of women as artists and expresses how the latter impacts her films. Here is the quote transcribed:

What I do in my films is very, I think, very distinctively, I think they are the films of a woman, and I think that their characteristic time quality is the time quality of a woman. I think that the strength of men is their great sense of immediacy. They are a “now” creature, and a woman has strength to wait, because she’s had to wait. She has to wait nine months for the concept of a child. Time is built into her body in the sense of becomingness. And she sees everything in terms of it being in the stage of becoming. She raises a child knowing not what it is at any moment but seeing always the person that it will become. Her whole life from her very beginning, it’s built into her a sense of becoming. Now in any time form, this is a very important sense. I think that my films, putting as much stress as they do, upon the constant metamorphosis, one image is always becoming another. It is what is happening that is important in my films, not what is at any moment. This is a woman’s time sense, and I think it happens more in my films than in almost anyone else’s.

You can hear her speak the words and others herself in the video below.

5. Be Your Own Cutter

It might be obvious that the truly independent, artistically free filmmaker needs to edit her own films. When Deren wrote “Creative Cutting,” published in MovieMakers magazine in 1947, the idea seems to have not been addressed much beforehand. She writes of its economical benefit at the start of the essay, which you should read in full:

It means he is in a position to shoot to cut. For, if he has the final, cut version of his film in mind, he can save footage by filming a room, for instance, from the one angle which would follow most logically from the previous shot, instead of shooting the same action from three different angles and then discarding two of them. More important, every detail of a shot – the direction of the light source, the rhythm and speed of the action, whether the person should enter the shot or should already be in the frame – can be meticulously designed to flow unbrokenly from the end of the previous shot, whether or not it has already been recorded. This complete control of one’s film, if consciously exercised, makes possible a compelling continuity in the final product.

Certainly, it must be obvious that a motion picture consists not of individual shots, however active, exciting or interesting they may be, but that, in the end, the attention is held by the way shots are put together, by the relationship established between them. If the function of the camera can be spoken of as the seeing, registering eye, then the function of cutting can be said to be that of the thinking, understanding mind. By this I am saying that the meaning, the connection between individually observed facts, is, in the making of the film, the creative responsibility of cutting.

6. “It’s a Terrible Pain to Be a Filmmaker”

As stated earlier, Deren believed that especially amateur filmmaking should be only for those who are truly passionate about this particular medium. In another audio clip, from a lecture, included in In the Mirror of Maya Deren, she says that anyone who can do anything else should:

It would be so much easier to be a painter or a writer. You don’t have to have equipment. You don’t have to do all the things. You’re not at the mercy of the laboratories. You’re not here and you’re not there. It’s a terrible pain to be a filmmaker, because you not only have the creative problems, but you have financial problems that they don’t have. You have technical problems that they don’t have. You have machines that are breaking down in a way that paintbrushes don’t break down. It’s just a terrible thing to be a filmmaker. And if you are a filmmaker, it’s because there is something in the sheer medium that seems to be able to make some sort of statement that you particularly want to make, and which no other medium to you seems capable of making in the same way.

What We’ve Learned

Deren was a true film artist and wrote on the distinction of cinema compared to other art forms and on its distinction as a calling compared to a profession. According to the poet-turned-filmmaker, you should only work in this medium if you can’t do anything else, and you should do it as independently as possible to maintain artistic freedom. You ought to learn the mechanics of film expression for the clearest of communication, and you need to edit your own films, because shooting them is only a small part of that expression. And according to her, women filmmakers have distinctly different strengths than men and should utilize and accept those strengths.

And now a video essay for Fandor by Kevin B. Lee: