Do you want to do something, or be something?
All is vanity
Book of Ecclesiastes
(Anyone interested in the two previous posts in this series can find them here and here.)
A couple of months after my arrival in Hollywood, I was driving up Highland Avenue one miserably hot and sweaty afternoon when some guy in a brand new red Ferrari blew past me into the smoggy haze of the Cahuenga Pass. I caught him at a stoplight a few minutes later, where a close look at his personalized license plate revealed the word “AUTEUR” in big, bold letters.
As callow, uninformed, and utterly unemployed as I was at the time (having yet to break the ice in Hollywood with my first job), the sheer hubris of putting such a plate on a car like that – or any car, really – utterly blew my mind.
Thirty-some years later, while day-playing at one of the major studios, I spotted another shiny new Ferrari (this one a beautiful metallic gray) with a plate that read: “CRE8TOR.”
My first thought was that it must be the same clown -- or maybe his son – but then I remembered just how many shamelessly onanistic jerks there are in this town, growing like toadstools in the dark shadows beneath that big white Hollywood sign.
And more coming every day...
Every now and then I’ll spot a production assistant on a job who stands apart from the rest. Where most PAs (male or female) tend to act their very young age, these ones project an aura of maturity, humility, and confidence beyond their years. They go about their work in a business-like manner, unburdened by nervousness, reticence, or the false bravado and inflated sense of self-importance typical of so many not-ready-for-primetime PAs. These kids are going to make it in Hollywood – that much is abundantly clear. Smart and ambitious, they have a realistic grasp of what the Industry has to offer, and know exactly what they want to do.
And most of them want to be directors.*
It’s only natural. When I was in college, Auteur Theory and the primacy of the director as artistic master of the medium had captured the imagination of film critics and teachers alike. I don’t know whether this is still true in schools today, but even if not exactly an “auteur,” the director on a feature film set remains the boss.** Barring an occasional clash with the executive producer over money, the director usually gets what he or she wants, so it’s no wonder that so many young people enthralled by the magic of film see their future selves issuing orders to a professional film crew assembled to breathe life into their directorial vision.
They sure as hell don’t fantasize about carrying hundred-pound coils of 4/0 on their shoulders, but I too was once blissfully ignorant of such harsh Hollywood realities.
When I have a chance to talk with one of these uber-production assistants -- and after he or she has confessed their desire to direct -- I listen for a while before asking a particular question: “Do you want to direct, or be a director?”
This might sound like a meaningless chicken-or-egg parsing of words at best (or at worst, a truly stupid question -- after all, you can’t really be a director until you have the chance to direct), but the aim is to point a little deeper in rephrasing a more philosophical query: do you want to do something, or be something? Deep down, is your goal to put meaningful, heartfelt stories up on the screen, or simply to ride the magic carpet of power, prestige, and money that comes with success as a film or television director in Hollywood?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Like every other serious human endeavor, directing is a skill requiring considerable time, effort, and ambition to learn. Ambition can be a squirrelly thing -- a boiling stew of complex emotions pushing up from the dark recesses of one’s inner self, creating a powerful desire to accomplish something – but you've got to have it to succeed as a director. Even a hack director (and there are plenty of those around) must acquire a reasonable level of competence on set in order to make a living. Although modern digital technology has made it much easier and cheaper to direct a film these days (so long as the would-be director can come up with a script, assemble a cast and crew, then beg, borrow, or steal the financing), breaking into the ranks of Industry professionals as a working member of the DGA remains a formidably high hurdle.
When you’re playing with someone else's money, they get to be very choosy about who sits in the director’s chair.
Given sufficient drive and effort, I suppose anyone can absorb the basics of the craft. Learning to be good will take a little longer. “Good” isn't the same thing as gifted, nor does brilliance always lead to a successful, happy conclusion (see: Orson Welles), but it’s a lot better for everyone involved when a director knows what he's doing. I’ve been putting my shoulder to the Hollywood wheel long enough to know that a good director can make all the difference in the world on set, be the project a feature film, television show, or even a music video.
And so can a bad one...
Still, I have to believe that those with a burning desire to direct – a compelling need to tell stories their own way – are more likely to succeed in Hollywood than the kind of person whose large but wobbly ego needs to be stroked by having the power to yell at a film crew all day. When push comes to shove (and sooner or later, it always does), a deep passion for what you’re trying to do can be of immense help while slogging through the metaphorical mud. Those who possess such passion have the right stuff to succeed, and a select few might even go on to break new ground in the art of film.
At this point you may be wondering what the hell a humble juicer (a neck-down workbot who toils on those incredibly irritating laugh-track sit-coms, at that...) is doing prattling on about the “art of film?” Good question. I don’t claim any artistic expertise in the cinema, but you can’t spend a life in the front-line trenches of Hollywood without learning a little about the medium, however unstructured and informal that knowledge may be. Although I’m billions of light years away from the giant brains of Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris (the critics I grew up on) -- much less Manhola Dargis, David Denby, Anthony Lane, or Mick LaSalle (modern critics I read and respect) -– I know a good director when I see one on set.
Every Industry veteran does, and unfortunately, we don’t see enough of them.
And that’s why I ask the question of those promising young Production Assistants; I want them to think about what they’re really trying to do. If you’re a young person dreaming of becoming a director, I hope it’s because you want to tell great stories on screen. Being human (well, everyone but Joe Pytka, that is), our motives for doing pretty much anything are impure at best, so if you want to tell compelling stories and wallow in the power of being Mr. Big Shot Director, fine – so long as you know what you’re doing on set.***
Just don’t turn into an asshole in the process.
And whatever you do, please don’t be that clown admiring himself in the rear-view mirror of a ridiculously expensive car sporting such utterly lame vanity plates...
* Not everyone, though. I’ve met a few of these uber-PA’s who want to be writers, and some on the road to becoming producers. I find that refreshing.
** Film is still a director’s medium, while television has long been the arena of writers and producers.
*** If you are an aspiring director, you might want to read this roundtable discussion with several prominent, successful young directors that appeared recently in the LA Times. It offers an eye-opening view of what it takes – and means – to be a director.