The Road to Futility
A little sympathy for the director...
It never fails. When, as happens very occasionally, all the stars align for a letter-perfect first take – the lighting, performances, camera moves, sound, everything just right -- it’s magic, like catching lightning in a bottle... but as sure as the morning sun rises in the East, the director will be unable to resist the siren call of Take Two. And as sure as the afternoon sun will sink into the West, that second take won't be quite as good as the first. Nor will Takes Three, Four, or Five.
Thus the Gods of Hollywood so decree.
I’ve seen it happen a hundred times, and saw it again at the bitter end of a long shoot night last week. After putting in twelve-plus hours on stage, there was one last shot before we could all go home: two actors running up a flight of stairs to huddle at a door on the balcony above as the camera rose with them and closed in. This was a simple one-camera shot with no dialog -- all the actors had to do was hit their marks at the right pace, which they did flawlessly. With the camera on the business end of a twelve foot Jimmy Jib, the operator nailed the first take: the rise beautifully-timed, followed by a smooth push-in than ended in a perfect frame. That shot was in the can, quite literally as good as it could possibly be, and the whole crew knew it. The director knew it too, but rather than nod to the first AD and say “that’s it,” he wavered on the razor’s edge of uncertainty for a crucial moment, then turned to the writers and producers huddled around the big flat-screen monitors in Video Village.
The veterans on the crew exchanged looks. Having been around this block a few times, we knew damned well what was coming: Take Two.
And sure enough, the timing of that second take was just a tad off, so we did it again, and again, and again, with none of the successive takes able to equal the perfection of Take One. Finally -- with the clock ticking deep into expensive overtime -- the producers pulled out of their paralytic Death Spiral and called wrap.
It was all there in Take One, of course (which will certainly end up in the final edit of the show), but human nature seldom allows us to trust anything that seems to come so easily. No matter how many rehearsals, we expect a few stutter-starts and fumbles during the first two or three takes before everything comes together, so when Take One is so effortlessly good, the lure of another, potentially even better Take Two is all but irresistible. It takes a very strong, very secure, all-but-fearless director to stand against the powerful lure of such temptation.
I’m told by crews who have worked for Clint Eastwood that he often goes with the first take, resorting to further takes only if an obvious problem crops up during the shot. He knows what he wants and when he’s got it, and isn’t afraid to move on. But in that, he is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. I’ve seen a director or two settle for Take One, but very rarely, and it's not always their fault. A director must earn the trust of his/her actors, and since actors are perhaps the most insecure people on earth, that sometimes means indulging them a little bit now so that they'll trust your judgement later. I’ve never met an actor who felt he-or-she delivered their best possible performance in Take One; like everybody else on set, they expect to improve over the course of several takes. If a director won’t allow them that chance, things can start getting weird deep inside that complex thespian psyche.
Eastwood's depth of experience in front of and behind the camera -- along with his formidable presence on set -- causes any actor to think twice before demanding another take.
“You think you can deliver a better performance?” he’ll ask, a seemingly simple question that can make an actor shrivel up like a spider on a hot griddle. If the actor says “yes,” the implication is that he-or-she didn’t give the first take their best effort, which is not a comfortable admission to make to a director who has earned the status of demigod in Hollywood. Actors just have to trust him because he's Clint Eastwood, and that's enough.*
I don't know if any other feature director has such clout or self-confidence these days, and the situation is even worse in the arena of television, an upside-down world where most directors are just passing through, and thus play second-fiddle to producers and writers. Especially in the lower budget realm, a sit-com director always has to check with those producers – the people who hired him -- before moving on to the next scene or shot. Otherwise, he may not be asked to come back for another episode.
That's why I felt some sympathy for our director the other night, who had moved us through the show in a smooth and efficient manner until that moment. Like the rest of us, he knew damned well that first take was perfect, but protocol required that he defer to the gaggle of producers and writers, none of whom had the balls to stand up and say; “Hell, we’ve got it. Let’s go home.”
This group-dynamic of contagious timidity is prevalent throughout the world of television, which is probably one reason the legendary Ernie Kovacs came up with his famous phrase; “Television is medium because it is neither rare nor well-done.”
Just as our director had no choice but to wander down the road of futility all the way to Take Thirteen, we on the crew had to follow. But at least one good thing came out of it – another thirty minutes of time-and-a-half to pad the paycheck next week.
At this point, we take what we can get.
* Clint lost a lot of his Hollywood mojo with that surreal performance at the GOP convention the other night. As one who prefers to keep politics out of the Industry conversation as much as possible, that was disappointing... but I won't hold it against him for long. He's got another movie coming out soon, and if it's good, that should hit the reset button.