Last night, I saw Belgian Bavo Defurne’s hypnotic debut feature “North Sea, Texas” and was struck throughout with his adept usage of color to convey emotions and theme in a picture that pointedly veered away from reliance on dialogue. During the first viewing, the colors worked completely on a subconscious level for me. In the moment, I wasn’t aware of why certain vivid colors were selected at certain moments, but knew they were purposeful and effective without knowing why (this is why great films merit a second viewing). Like his lead character, I can only imagine Mr. Defurne’s pathway to directing came from an early childhood fascination with drawing, color and aesthetics. He uses one of his sparing lines of dialogue to point out the importance of color when the child’s mother even says, “Red is the color of love.”
Of course, I come to directing from the completely opposite end of the spectrum, having focused most of my career on acting and creating narrative stories, through screenwriting, through my work with writer Mardik Martin and through years of reading scripts for Paramount Classics/Paramount Vantage. I’ve had the opportunity to observe how the script changed or evolved into a piece of moving art projected onto a screen. And I know how to tell a story. I’m that shy guy at the party who’s quiet for most of the night until it’s my turn to talk and then I say, “So, the other night, I’m at the ATM when….” and everybody shuts up and listens.
Filmmaking all starts with the inner lives of the characters for me, their dreams, desires and conflicts with one another and the world. The aesthetics of the film come second to that, after I’ve worked most of the conflicts and characterizations out in my mind and on paper. And yes, because I wrote plays before I wrote films, I’m turned on by dialogue revealing characters rather than the opposite. But still, film is a visual medium. In our years of working together, Mardik often told me, “With a movie, don’t write with your head or your heart. Write with your eyes.”
So maybe (I’m guessing) Defurne’s impulse to make a film starts with a drawing and mine from a character’s inner life and conflict, but it doesn’t mean I can’t learn from him about the importance of color psychology both in terms of expressing something about the character and provoking emotion from the audience with the palette selected. When I first saw the film, I thought, “Maybe I should just wait and figure out this color stuff after the rewrite. This comes later.” But, as my previous blog post on mindmapping shows, I did include a branch for color for each character. So why not do the work and look into color and try to peg the color schemes for each character, for the situations they face? Although it may not directly change any lines of dialogue, it might help me discover another layer of the characters, which could impact the rewrite. And if I know what characters embody certain colors, I just might add a line to reflect that, as the “North Sea, Texas” screenplay did with its comment on the color red, which works perfectly to reveal that character. It also sounds pretty damn fun.
The biggest fear I have in delving this deep at this point in the process is the fear that all this “extra” work will mean nothing if the film doesn’t get made (I’m a little jealous when I see European film credits that indicate they got funding from their government). My fear says, ‘What if after diving in and realizing that the antagonist should wear purple here and lavender here, we end up with only 25K to make the film and we don’t even have time to buy a purple shirt (or some ridiculous thought like this)?’ This fear of the film not being made has to be confronted frequently (at least for me), but investing more time and energy on deepening the characters, the look, the script and yes the color psychology involved with the film will only pay dividends when the time comes to make the film, no matter what budget we raise. And if i’m armed and prepared to answer every question about not just the characters and their conflict and the script’s structure, but also exactly how I see the film down to the colors of the costumes, I’ll spark more confidence in investors (or even established actors) taking a gamble on an indie film.
Jung has written on color psychology, as have tons of others. I’ll include here a brief video that shows lots of film visual references to color, with suggestions on how they shape our perceptions.
Hunter Lee Hughes is a filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and the founder of Fatelink, an open source production company. Our filmmaking blog charts the progress of each of our projects. If you enjoy the blog, please support our team by following us on Facebook, Twitter (@Fatelink) or Instagram (@Fatelink).