How to Become a Film Director – Directing Subtext

– Posted in: Directing Films and Videos Directing Performance Directing Story

Subtext is the Ingredient New Film Directors Will Overlook


In this post film director John Holser shares how to recognize and direct subtext.

You’ll learn how to uncover subtext during a director’s script analysis as well as why and how to use subtext as storytelling technique that enhances your film or video. 

 Who is responsible for adding subtext to your film?

Is it the writer, the actor, or the director?

Before we find out who is responsible for adding subtext, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what subtext is all about.

Full Video Transcript

​Welcome to, How To Become A Film Director. My name is John Holser, and I’m here to help you develop serious directing chops, one professional grade tip at a time. Oh yeah. Before we find out who is responsible for adding subtext, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what subtext is all about.

This is a term that came up during a coaching session with Hunter Dimn and Chris Uhl. During a director’s script analysis of Hunter’s short film, we began discussing what was behind a line spoken by a character named Stanford, in response to a question from a character named Death.

The line we’re talking about is, “Are there many mix-ups?” It’s in response to Death asking, “Are you Stanford Miller?”

Now, there are many ways a line can be said, and as in real life, what’s behind the words can, and often, are more important than the words themselves. Let’s listen in.

John – Hunter, what, what is the subtext of this line? Do you understand subtext? Do you understand subtext Chris?

Chris – I might, what do you mean by that?

John – Subtext has to do with, not as what is said, but whats not said but implied in some way through body language or inflection.

If someone is saying something, and let’s say you have a conversation and you’re standing around with some friends, and they just had some regular conversation and they walk away, and you go to your friend and you go, ”

What just happened there?

Something wasn’t quite right about that, you know, the tone of their voice, there was something else happening underneath the words that were said.”

That’s the subtext.

That is a large part of what makes the interactions, and relationships, films interesting.

Have you ever heard the phrase, the character lacked dimension, the relationship lacked dimension?

There’s no subtext, there’s no sub-world going on.

This is where this back-story is going to help a lot with that. What’s the, what could be some of the subtext, the intention behind these lines?

What’s he saying?

Hunter – From a purely text view, you’re right, you are Stanford Miller, right, are there a lot of mix-ups, it’s just a logistical question.

But, I think that it’s throwing it back in his face, and it’s showing him that he has power in the situation.
Like count the cinematic heroes who are smart asses, every single western hero pretty much, every single science fiction hero, except Luke Skywalker, but Han and Leia are both witty, like sarcastic.


Okay, now that we’ve seen this clip, I have a question for you: as a director, how could you add subtext to make your films more interesting?

Maybe a better question is, one that Joe came up with while we were working on this video. His question is, who’s responsible for adding subtext? Is it the writer, the actor, or the director? The answer is, it’s all three.

A good writer adds subtext by writing real, multidimensional characters.

These characters have real desires, real dysfunction, and real back story. They could be insecure and fearful one moment, and determined the next, and like all of us, they love, and they hate.
When a good writer writes, she channels the character, and an attitude manifests. The attitude is flavored by what the character wants, what the other character says, as well as the storage of past life emotions and experiences that may, or may not, be triggered.

Are you seeing some of the opportunities to add character and story dimension here? Stanford’s line, “Are there many mix-ups?”, comes just after he’s entered a different time realm, and a guy he’s never met knows his name. The line could definitely be said as a wise crack, but think about it. It could also come from a place of concern, right.

If the subtext was, “Am I in the right place?”, an entirely different tone comes out. The writer could describe Stanford here as confused, and indicate the subtext.

The subtext could also come from, and must ultimately be translated by the actor. A good actor gets subtext by interpreting the script from creating back story, or by working off the other actor.

Or they can just pull it out of thin air, seriously. The good ones can, and it really flavors a scene.

Imagine this, if the character, Death, had said the line as if he realized something was terribly wrong, and the other actor had been in the moment and working off his inflection, Stanford’s subtext could be of real concern, or even panic.

What if Stanford played it as if he thought this guy was a minor nuisance? Not willing to be sidetracked by interacting with Death, Stanford could mumble the line to himself fueled by thinking, this guy’s an idiot.

Of course the director, having any of the previously mentioned insights, could use this as if technique, and take the moment into an entirely different direction.
He might say, “Play this moment as if you knew this would be a mind game, and you’re not about to give this one guy one ounce of respect. In fact, treat him as if he’s inferior to you.” Do you see how these small changes can make a big difference?

A director could also add subtext by simply cutting away. Paraphrasing Alfred Hitchcock, the larger something is in the frame, the more important it has become to the audience. There’s a lot more to directing a scene than just recording dialogue.

Scene 2B, stairs, take four.

These days, film and video production opportunities are abundant for directors and cinematographers who know their stuff, if you’d like to learn more about how you can begin a career, create more opportunities, or just how to make your next film your best film, click here right now. Don’t forget to like and subscribe.
My stomach is growling.

I know that not every production can afford to hire a full crew.

Come up with some money, you can keep feeding them pizza all the time. I hope these tips have, I hope these tips help you as much as they… Thats good. We’re done. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Happy filmmaking folks. See that’s me, the real me, not the teacher me. All right.