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, February 13, 2011

Directors: Part Three

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 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 the 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 paid 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, a select few 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 still holds in schools today, but even if he-or-she is not exactly an “auteur,” the director on a feature film set remains the boss.** Barring a clash with the executive producer over money,  directors usually gets what they want, 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 ready 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 talk with one of these uber-production assistants -- once he or she has confessed the desire to direct -- I wait for the right moment to ask 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 be a director until you have the chance to direct), but the aim is to probe a little deeper by 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 – 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 to make a living. Although modern digital technology has made it 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 sufficient financing), breaking into the ranks of Industry professionals as a working member of the DGA presents a formidably high hurdle.

When you’re playing with someone else's money, they tend 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, but 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 what a difference a good director makes on set, be it a feature film, television show, or even a music video.

I've also learned what a long and miserable day it can be with a bad director at the helm.

I have to believe that those with a compelling desire 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 when slogging through the metaphorical mud. Those who possess such passion often 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) 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 many 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, 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 – just make sure you know what you’re doing on set.***

Just as important, don’t turn into an asshole the process.

But whatever you do, do not be that clown admiring himself in the rear-view mirror of a ridiculously expensive car sporting such utterly lame vanity plates...

*  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.


Phil Jackson said...

Great post as always. Even on the student level it's quite apparent after the first few hours of a new set just what kind of director they want to be.

Anonymous said...

I guess it's the same as asking a budding actor is she wants to act or be a celebrity. As we all know, they are worlds apart.

But this story reminds me of the time I worked on a project with students from my alma mater (it's a school in the Northeast that some believe is named after a Transcendentalist but is not) and it was brutal dealing with them. The expectation level and arrogance was palpable. When I tried to explain to them that some of their plans were prohibitive due to budgetary reasons, one kid yelled "I worked on a thirty five thousand dollar project last semester, I ain't gonna work on somethin' with no budget!"

My mouth fell open. Then I smiled to myself thinking about what a rude awakening he's going to get when he spends years of schlepping coffee after he graduates college. Perhaps then he'll realize what a nasty little dick he was.

Michael Taylor said...

Phil --

True enough -- it's hard to hide who you really are on a film set.

Anonymous --

That's a great story. A sense of entitlement won't take anybody very far out in the real world. That kid will just have to find out the hard way, like everyone else -- and his awakening will be rude.

Thanks for tuning in.

Scripty said...

Thanks for the link Michael! I love what you asked of the P.A.'s! Hopefully after meeting you they will become wise about how they manage their career!