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In the beginning of film, there were no directors; there were only cameramen. The first movies had no plot, only the real-life silent spectacles of 1890s street traffic, ballerinas dancing coquettishly, armies on parade, and most famously, in 1895, a locomotive that seemed to be bearing down on the thrilled, frightened audiences of the fairgrounds.
By the turn of the century, two new elements would give lasting shape to what we came to call “the movies”: scripts and actors. They’d been together in the theater practically forever, of course, and now those masks of comedy and tragedy had a technician with a cine camera to record them for distant audiences. Well into the first decades of silent, ten-minute films, their production was loosely supervised, usually by the main actors.
But when movies grew to feature length, or what passed for it 110 years ago, a couple of veteran hams fighting it out wasn’t enough of a management structure anymore. Someone, one person, had to decide if the villain’s makeup looked scary enough, or if the love scene was romantic enough to make the ladies swoon. Someone had to say, “That was no good—do it again,” with the authority to make it stick.
A separate new role for a film director was tacitly accepted by the actors and cameramen by then. At last, somebody was clearly in charge. Sooner than you’d think, this modest coordinating job became exalted to the heavens by delirious publicists, gullible journalists, and not surprisingly by the preening egos of the cocky young class of “megaphone men” with their names on the canvas backs of their folding chairs. From D.W. Griffith to Christopher Nolan today, the idea of the director as the genius creator of the movies has grown. Sometimes, as in the case of those two guys, it’s even justified.
Here’s a contrary view from artist and underground filmmaker Andy Warhol, describing what a director does: “It’s like being the hole in a phonograph record.” Like a lot of Warhol’s drolleries, it’s cannier than it looks: That void in the middle is what the whole record spins around. Writers do their thing, actors act, the cameraman films it, and professional editors cut it all together. What, really, does a director have to do, other than making sure that everyone else on the set does their job?
Unless directors not only originate projects, but pay for them themselves, they are hired supervisors working to someone else’s blueprint. Look at the opening credits of any episode of Bonanza (1959-’73). The illustration behind the writer credit is a man in a book-lined library; the producer rates a prosperous banker, with gold stacked in his vault; the director is illustrated as a grim, watchful foreman on horseback, supervising laborers in the field. The role doesn’t have to be more than that, but it can be more, a lot more, especially if the director is a “hyphenate”: a writer-director, or a producer-director.
Screenwriter William Goldman, reflecting his profession’s love-hate relationship with their eternal frenemies and daily collaborators, the directors, struck a fair note when he said that good directors, and he worked with quite a few, can really help a script come to life and are, at their best, very helpful to actors. He added sarcastically that, on the other hand, he’d never met a director whose “cosmic worldview” would fill a thimble.
While a movie is in production, the director is the one person on the set who is proxy for the audience. The script suggests a mood and a pace, but it takes a director to intuit how the day’s work is going to come across later.
Jaws was based on a best seller, and like The Godfather, many people in the audience knew roughly what to expect based on the book. But take one night scene as an example of what a director does. The great white shark that has terrorized the beaches of Amity is half-beaten, with hooks in its mouth and strong lines tethering it to a rickety wooden pier. A couple of drunk fishermen are celebrating. Suddenly, the shark pulls on the lines so hard that the end of the pier breaks off and starts being pulled out to sea. The fishermen fall off. As soon as the film switches to the view underwater, with the men writhing clumsily in the ocean, we know what could happen now.
And so does the shark, who we never see in this scene. What we do see is that floating wooden wreck of the end of the pier, as it gets dragged out to sea, slows down…and to the alarm and excitement of the audience, begins to reverse direction, heading back to shore. As the men try to drag themselves to dry land, unaware of the danger, the pier accelerates, getting closer and closer. By now the people in that 1975 theater were screaming and shouting at them to get out of the water. Peter Benchley, the writer, didn’t do that. It took Steven Spielberg to do it, in collaboration with composer John Williams and film editor Verna Fields, launching the first real mega-hit of the modern era, and a filmmaking career that’s lasted half a century.
You’d think Stanley Kubrick would have had a rarefied notion of his own job, but he described it as simply being an all-day decision machine, some of the questions being merely practical (is the doorway wide enough for the camera, is Marisa’s gown right, can we get the crowd shots done by 4?) and some are questions of taste and judgment (She tires easily after 20 takes, but he doesn’t even warm up until then. Can I fix it, or will I just have to nurse them through the next two weeks?) Kubrick described the filming process as like trying to compose a masterpiece while sitting in a bump-‘em car ride.
You have to plan everything but be open to anything. One cold night in 1944, Billy Wilder’s location shoot for Paramount’s Double Indemnity, at a local Southern Pacific railroad station, called it a wrap. They’d just filmed a critical scene where murderer Fred MacMurray and his scheming accomplice, husband-killing hussy Barbara Stanwyck, jump in her nearby car, a fancy LaSalle, and make their getaway. Some good shots and they finished early.
But when director Billy Wilder got to his own car for the ride home, it wouldn’t start. The battery was dead. Wilder had a sudden inspiration and, shouting, called the cast and crew back to their posts. On the spot, they re-shot the getaway to include MacMurray’s agonizingly drawn out starting her car, which parked near to the murder scene, was incriminating enough evidence to send them both to the gas chamber even if they left on foot. This improvisation became one of the most suspenseful moments in the movie, helping make it a film noir classic.
The image of film directors as mysterious Svengalis, able to coax Oscar-winning performances out of grateful, hypnotized actors, is a considerable exaggeration. There have been periods of Hollywood history that played that up.
One area where actors need help is keeping track of where they’re supposed to be, dramatically and emotionally at that point in the story. One big reason for this is movies are seldom shot in sequence. You have to work with location requirements, weather, seasons, the scheduling of actors’ other commitments, you name it. Yesterday, you shot script pages 38-40. Monday, we’ll do the ending. Tuesday, we film the opening scene. If you’re young Al Pacino, you might appreciate some directorial guidance. It might not have been much more complicated than, “It’s a couple of scenes too early for that kind of anger.”
Of course, whenever an actor becomes an on-set bottleneck while the clock is ticking, directors have been known to use other methods, too—amateur psychologist, coach, buddy, nursemaid, whatever it takes to move on to the next scene.
“Women’s director” was often a Hollywood classic era euphemism for “homosexual,” but it was true that actresses appreciated someone who didn’t treat them like cattle, and understood how to help them deal with onscreen emotion or difficult dialog. Suppose you were Vivien Leigh on the set of Gone With the Wind, carrying the weight of the entire production on your shoulders. Director George Cukor’s sympathetic, “Darling, you’re doing just fine! Really! But just maybe you’d like to take a little break. I’ve been working you so-o-o hard today” is going to be easier on your nerves than Cukor’s brusque successor, Victor Fleming. “Aw, jeez, Viv, get it right just once, can’t you?”
In the Fifties, acting teachers like Lee Strasberg and his Actor’s Studio made “method acting” famous at a time when live TV drama was on-the-job training for a postwar generation of actors. By the way, what’s a live TV director? It’s a very different kind of job than making feature films: For example, a television director in live sports is a quick-thinking wizard who instantly directs and edits the output of a dozen or more cameras on the air, plus integrating instant replays, pre-recorded, and graphic elements. It is a remarkable skill, akin to simultaneously conducting a musical score while improvising a visual jazz solo in front of millions of people. It’s a gift that few film directors have. But other than a similar job title, the jobs themselves are very different and deserve a different post. @ejhill is the Ricochet expert for live TV.
Sometimes, directors do play mind tricks in pursuit of better performances. Most of these are “honest tricks” at least half out in the open. When Francis Coppola filmed two S.E. Hinton young adult novels in the Eighties (The Outsiders, Rumble Fish), the actors who played the rich kids slept in better hotels on location, which the young actors who played the poorer kids later admitted was a helpful motivator of realistic rage and resentment.
Usually, major stars go out of their way to be just-folks with younger, starstruck, and intimidated actors. Sir Lawrence Olivier was “Larry” with his co-stars. But when David Frankel filmed The Devil Wears Prada, he encouraged Meryl Streep, playing imperious fashion editor Miranda Priestley, to be polite but, though not unfriendly, distant towards Anne Hathaway, playing her soon-to-be-less-naïve young assistant. There was nothing cruel about this; both actresses understood. There were natural on-set effects of unequal fame and experience that he wanted to use.
Christopher Nolan is both a storytelling visionary and a visually-oriented movie master. He combines Stanley Kubrick’s drive towards perfection, with Sidney Lumet’s (Ten Angry Men, The Verdict, Prince of the City) TV-born abilities to get great performances from actors while working carefully but relentlessly fast.
Nolan has quirks, personal rituals, and rules, and by now, actors are lining up for miles to follow them. He requires actors on the set to be in costume, in character, and ready to work on a few moments’ notice. As easily as someone would pull out an iPhone, Nolan will reach for a handheld IMAX camera. By now, he’s acquired the legendary popular image of a Cecil B. de Mille or an Erich von Stroheim.
Eighty-plus years ago, screenwriter Robert Riskin read plenty of publicity gush about his frequent co-worker, director Frank Capra. He sent the three-time Oscar winner a hundred pages of blank paper with a good-natured but barbed challenge: “Go ahead, give this ‘The Capra Touch’!”Published in