Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Eternal Struggle

A couple of years back, I was thinking about the push-pull dynamics in the struggle between cinematic art and the economic imperatives that rule the film and television industry.  It’s a right brain/left brain thing, and although bridging that yawning chasm often seems impossible, anyone who hopes to achieve something beyond merely making a living in the creative end of this business will have to find a way.  Unfortunately, talent alone – however extraordinary – is seldom enough. Orson Welles managed to craft brilliant, ground-breaking movies, but like the hapless protagonist of “Gulliver’s Travels,” eventually found himself tied down by a studio brain trust who could never understand – and were too frightened to trust -- his protean artistic instincts. 

There are plenty of big-time directors who rake in gobs of money cranking out formulaic, CGI-intensive cinematic garbage for the suburban multiplex mass-market (Exhibit A: Michael Bay), and God knows how many earnest, deeply committed film-makers living on a shoestring while shooting and editing small, intensely personal films with cheap digital equipment.  Although neither is an easy road, the former is more of a logistical management task than an artistic endeavor, while the latter remains a bare-bones labor of love.  But there’s a lot of territory between those two extremes, where a few writer/directors are exploring the misty gray demimonde between art and commerce by making smart, interesting movies that do well enough at the box office to keep their careers alive. *

That’s no easy balancing act, but it can be done. 

It appears that Derek Cianfrance, who made a splash with Blue Valentine back in 2010, is one such director.  He discusses his new film, The Place Beyond the Pines (among many other things), in a fascinating interview that recently ran on KCRW’s The Business.  Whether you're still in school or are a graduate staring at the harsh realities of trying to jump-start a career, anyone interested in writing and  directing movies really ought to listen – and listen carefully – to what Cianfrance has to say.  He speaks with startling honesty about the tortuous path he took, the mistakes he made, and the lessons learned along the way to becoming a bankable writer/director.  There is so much distilled truth in this interview about the internal battle between art and commerce, the virtues of collaboration, the importance of continuing to work no matter what the venue, medium, or subject matter, the value of finding the right people to work with, and the need for those involved in any project to “crush their egos” in support of the group effort. 

Whatever you think of his films (and having seen none of them, I have no opinion on his work), Derek Cianfrance is a man who has (as we all do over the course of time) learned his lessons the hard way, via the Joe Frazier School of Higher EducationHe took his licks, then got up off the canvas to stay in the fight, find his footing, and eventually prevail -- older, smarter, and mentally stronger than ever.

I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a more honest, real-world dissection of what it takes to survive, grow, and succeed as a creative artist in the film business. His story should provide hope and encouragement that those with sufficient talent and drive really can find their way to writing and directing feature films.

It that’s your goal, then do yourself a favor and listen to what Derek Cianfrance is telling  you.  He’s been in your shoes, and knows what it takes to get where you want to go.  Neither he nor anyone else can tell you exactly how to get there – everybody has to find their own way – but if you listen and learn, you just might be able to avoid a few self-inflicted bumps and bruises on your own long and winding road through the dense labyrinth of Hollywood.

At only twenty minutes or so, this one is well worth your time – so check it out…

*  To my mind, a fine example is Christopher Nolan’s Memento


Anonymous said...

Interesting article. I recently read a great post by the Theatre Doc (his blog name; the post "Why do you want to Act?" is so beautifully written and a must read!
who said "Talent is cheap and plentiful. What is rare is the person with talent who also has the personality traits to remain positive in the face of negativity. Finally, the best thing anyone can do when faced with a negative situation, is to get to work making it a positive one. "
I have noticed that a lot of people who have been really successful in the biz are those who are able to be focused and stick with it..the process/means may change, but the focus is the same. Within five years of being in LA, it is quite interesting to see how already people have left, changed careers, etc. It's a very difficult thing to make anything stick in this town.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

Thanks for the tip -- I checked out the Theatre Doc, and he's got some interesting things to say. The re-print of Frank Langella's piece was particularly interesting.

Persistence may be the most crucial factor in achieving any kind of success in Hollywood and beyond. I think it was Woody Allen who said something like "90% of success is just showing up," and there's a lot of truth in that.

Those who bail on Hollywood within the five years you mention were clearly not meant for this town. I don't mean that in a critical way -- everybody has to find their own path through life -- but better they find out early and move on towards something else than remain here and be miserable.

Thanks for tuning in...

Amy Clarke said...

It's interesting when he says he had to keep practising film directing on commercials, how when he stopped doing it he became rusty at directing.

I work with a lot of directors who spend years developing there feature film projects, only to forget how to direct when they start production.

Like a professional footballer, musician, writer, or any artist you have to keep practising to be the best at what you do. If your going to spend years between feature film projects, directors should make shorts, commercials, music videos, during those years off - it is possible to forget a skill if you don't keep in practising.

Jesse Pogoler said...

Who wants to watch Hollywood pictures anyway? What a waste! Spanish, English, French, Cuban, Mexican, Italian, Russian, Chilean pictures are juicy and unpredictable.
May I recommend Ivan's Childhood by Tarkovsky?

Michael Taylor said...

Amy --

Agreed. Directing is a skill like anything else, and although practice doesn't always make perfect, it will certainly make the practitioner a lot better.

Jessie --

It's been said that 90% of everything is shit, and that's certainly the case with Hollywood movies, most of which are a waste of time. Still, millions of people here and abroad like to see them. It's a matter of personal taste, that's all, which is limited by one's personal experience -- and someone who has never had the opportunity to see a good foreign film has no way of knowing what they're missing. Thanks for the recommendation -- I'll put that one on my list and throw another one back at you: "Dirty Pretty Things," by Steven Frears. Not a new offering, but a wonderful film from England.

That said, I'm not a fan of broad-brush condemnation, and despite Hollywood's many failings, a few good films do get made here. What I found interesting about Derek Cianfrance's interview was his commitment to make a different kind of movie -- not the usual predictable Hollywood pabulum -- and thus remain true to his artistic sensibilities while serving the bottom line. I won't know whether he succeeded or not until I have a chance to see his films, but I'm impressed by his approach.

Nice to hear from you, Jess.

Anonymous said...

great article and was a pleasure to read it.