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Sunday, March 31, 2013
Directors: Part Five
I sure hope he knows what he's doing...
WTF?, you might well be thinking. Why is this goddamned juicer belaboring us with yet another post about directors? Shouldn’t he stick to a subject he actually knows something about, like how heavy cable is, how hot a BFL burns, or what a bitch it is to toil for cable rate? Fair enough, but those of you who have been with me for a while know that I've been there and done that, and there are only so many times one can drink from the cold, bitter waters of that particular well. Besides, I'm not sure anybody wants to read a blog that carps endlessly about the same three subjects -- and more to the point, I'm just not interested in flogging the same troika of dead horses every single week. When this blog becomes a tired exercise in cud-chewing regurgitation, it will be time to shut it down and move on. And one of these days, I'll do just that.
But not today... and for reasons I cannot understand, much less explain, I once again feel the urge to expound on a subject I know very little about -- directing.
Other than a few short films shot on Super Eight back in school and a thesis film (a thirty minute documentary, with sound, shot on black and white 16 mm during the late Pleistocene), I haven’t directed much of anything. And truth be told, most of the “directing” in a documentary happens in the editing room, long after the cameras and lights have been returned to the rental house. Crawling towards the finish line of my Hollywooden career, I sling cable and hang lights -- in essence, I lift heavy objects for a living – which is not exactly the Curriculum Vitae to support an intelligent discussion of directing films.
But where did I say this was going to be an “intelligent discussion?" This blog is a compendium of my own experience and opinion, nothing more. Still, I’ve spent the better part of thirty-five years on film sets working on a wide spectrum of productions, in the catbird seat to observe hundreds of directors in action. As the saying goes, “Even a blind pig occasionally finds an acorn,” which means anyone who keeps his/her eyes open over a span of time is bound to see certain patterns emerge. Not absolutes, mind you – there are very few absolutes in this world – but similarities in the way successful directors go about their work on set.
Every genre places its own demands on a director. Just as an industrial film requires a different aesthetic and approach than a glossy music video or thirty second television commercial, directing a micro-budget indy feature isn’t the same as overseeing a 200 million dollar comic book superhero movie, one hour episodic drama, or a highly formulaic twenty-two minute multi-camera sit-com. Based on what I’ve seen over the years, screamers, shouters, and uptight, iron-fisted control freaks don’t make very good directors. They piss off the crew, intimidate the actors, and turn each day on set into an ordeal to be endured. I won’t deny that a few of these assholes are undeniably talented and have been very successful, but these are the proverbial exceptions that underline the rule.
Although there is a persistent swarm of overpaid poseurs who survive in the director’s chair simply because the producers who hire them can't tell the difference between good and bad when it comes to directing, a majority of the directors I’ve seen in action over the years were at least competent. But as is the case in all aspects of life, the really good ones are rare – and in my experience, that select few work with a loose hand on the reins. Their sets tend to be relaxed and easy-going, with lots of humor all around, and that starts at the top. These directors don’t let the inmates run the asylum, but manage to get the work done on time and under budget without a lot of elbow-flapping, yelling, or undue stress. Working for such a director is a real pleasure for everyone involved.
Too bad there aren’t more of them.*
This came to mind while listening to a terrific interview with Ben Affleck on KCRW’s “The Business” recently, where Affleck talked about a good piece of advice he received from Kevin Costner, another actor-turned-director who hit the Oscar jackpot his first time out in “Dances With Wolves.”
“On Day One, make sure you have your second shot figured out before your start. Once the first shot is in the can, you’ll find sixty people standing there looking at you waiting to be told what to do. If you’ve got your second shot figured out, they’ll think you know what you’re doing, and rest of the day will go nice and smooth.”**
Speaking as one of those sixty people, I think Costner hit the nail on the head. Once the crew learns to trust a director, the tension melts and everybody relaxes. That’s a good thing.
Affleck also talks about shooting rehearsals, maintaining a low-key, quiet set, and avoiding the usual cry of “roll sound, roll camera, action” when working with non-pros -- thus capturing moments that otherwise might not survive the standard process. I’m told Clint Eastwood runs a very quiet set as well, often rolling cameras when the actors aren’t aware -- and however convoluted his political thinking might be (talking to that empty chair at the RNC truly was a low point in his career), the man is very good film director.
I have yet to see any of Affleck's directorial efforts, and can't judge his skills behind the camera, but it's a great interview. Whether or not you aspire to a directorial career, it's worth a listen.
And speaking of directors…. guess who was in the captain’s chair for the final three miserable episodes of that Disney show I recently finished? This clown, naturally, who made the experience immeasurably worse than it had to be for all of all concerned.
Which leads me to the grim conclusion that Frank Zappa was right: the torture never stops.
* The showrunner of a very popular multi-camera show currently running on CBS has made a habit of inviting some of his non-industry friends to direct an episode of the show this season. It’s a great gig – last time I looked, the DGA minimum for a half hour network show was north of $40,000.00 – and since the showrunner actually calls the shots, all his “director” buddies have to do is yell “action” and “cut.” Trouble is, the result is a seven to eight hour shoot night in front of an increasingly weary live audience, and this in a genre that typically cranks a show out in three or four hours. That's ridiculous. Not only is this clown cutting a real director out of a job, but it’s just one more example of the idiot rich getting ever richer while everybody else eats cold pizza out in the rain...
** That's the gist of it, anyway -- I'm not going to listen to the whole thing again just to nail down the exact quote.