Directing in 2012
I directed my first feature film, in Australia, in 1972. I then made a number of others, through the 70’s. My greatest success in that period was BREAKER MORANT in 1979. This film was shown in Cannes in 1980 and led to a number of offers from Hollywood. I selected a very low budget film called TENDER MERCIES, written by a wonderful writer named Horton Foote. This film was no box office smash but I was nominated for an Academy Award as Best director (I’d already been nominated for my screenplay of BREAKER MORANT). I didn’t win, but Horton Foote won for best script and Robert Duvall for best actor. My Hollywood career continued through the 80’s interspersed with films in Europe and Australia, culminating in DRIVING MISS DAISY winning the Academy award for Best Film in 1990. I didn’t win Best Director as I wasn’t nominated (!) but the film also won a best actress award for Jessica Tandy and a Best screenplay award for the writer, Alfred Uhry.
To date I’ve directed 27 feature films and 8 operas.
Looking back, I think directors had an easier task in realising their concepts prior to , broadly speaking, the year 2000. Up until then everything was shot on film and the “rushes” or “dailies” were screened every night to a small group – usually just the director, cameraman and possibly the producer and one or two cast members. Studio executives, financiers, sales agents, distributors and such like had little or no access to the material. Certainly, various people at the financing studio saw footage from time to time but this was invariably in the form of uncut and ungraded rushes. They could, and did, make comments about what they were seeing; there have been many celebrated cases of films being stopped, reshot, recast and so on but in general there was not the micro-managing characteristic of film making today.
The situation is somewhat different today, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the introduction of digital film making means that virtually everyone connected with a film, and all too many not connected, can instantly be given copies on disc or simply by e mail of all the filmed material. It’s very easy to view this material at home or on an office desk, which means that snap judgements can be made by a large number of backroom meddlers. Further, the more technical of them can edit the scenes themselves on their own computers. It’s then a simple matter to get in touch with the director, on a set or on location, and inundate him with comments about what he’s shot along with advice on how to improve it. These people will frequently also give the director the immense benefit of their insights on performances, sound recording and photography as well.
Even on set the situation has deteriorated for the director. At one time the director had to look through the camera or a viewfinder and then discuss the shot with his cameraman. Now with digital technology screens are everywhere. Quite often the director himself is not even on the set – a big mistake in my view as it alienates him from his all-important relationship with the actors – but, worst of all, video screens sprout up like fungi all around the back of the set ,where they are viewed by an ever increasing band of people who have some connection, often a tenuous one, with the film. This connection is usually financial, rarely creative. Often one or other of them rushes to the set to confer with the director, or calls the director away from the set for a meeting. They can then make some complaint, invariably referred to as an “observation” and labelled “sharing our thoughts” about some aspect of the production. This could be an actors performance, a camera angle, an aspect of the lighting or any of a number of other factors which would be best left to the director to decide. The director can waste his valuable directing time explaining politely what it is he’s doing and why he’s doing it or can lose his temper and expel the entire entourage from the set. This tends to work only in the short term, as, like termites after a visit from pest controllers, they usually manage to re-insinuate themselves, if not on the set itself then from nearby hotel rooms where they continue viewing the progress of the film on their computers.
I know , of course, that a lot of money is being spent on even a low-budget film and financiers are understandably apprehensive. All the same it is by far the best policy, once a director has been chosen, to let him get on and actually direct the film without second-guessing his choices. The director should have, and most DO have, an image of the completed film in their head .They are working towards this through the complicated process of realisation – shooting, guiding performances, editing, mixing the sound and grading the image. Almost invariably, those people watching the work in progress, which is almost never filmed in sequence, have no such concept. They are reacting to moments of the film, never realising that the director is building an edifice stone by stone and only he knows the correct position for each one. I am not saying that all directors are gifted; many lack talent and some are quite mad, but the vast majority are talented artists and it’s best if the final film includes only their mistakes rather than the mistakes of well-meaning onlookers, most of whom are doing no more than trying to unconvincingly justify their jobs.
I am not saying that the director must be given total carte-blanche. Once the film has been edited into a first-cut most directors welcome input from others, even viewers chosen at random. Often , in fact, these are the ones best positioned to give advice as they want simply to be entertained. They have no vested interest in the production. Executives of production companies can also be quite astute, although, once again , many of them make decisions based not simply on the film itself but on some vague image they have of what they imagine the market will accept. Advice at this stage – after early cuts of the film, is the most perilous for the director. Definitely nervous breakdown territory, as he realises that he frequently has to deal with changes he suspects will destroy his movie. The more enlightened production executives present their “notes” as “suggestions” which the director can consider – then adopt the ones he agrees with and discard the remainder. But – all too often these days, because of tension over financial pressures and the input of distributors and sales agents, the “notes” are not suggestions but directives, resulting in a situation where the director has the depressing task of supervising changes he believes will be to the films detriment, not its advantage. I must say this has happened to me only once or twice and I’ve been lucky to work with producers as enlightened as Richard Zanuck on DRIVING MISS DAISY, Barry Spikings and John Cohn on TENDER MERCIES ,Sue Milliken on BLACK ROBE, the legendary Dino DeLaurentiis on CRIMES OF THE HEART.
Up until this point I have been writing about the characteristics of actually shooting and editing a film these days, but setting them up in the first place has also changed considerably in the past ten years.
The market has broadened considerably through dvd’s and instant accessibility through television, computers and ipads. The actual cinema going group is perceived to be , and is, mostly in the 15-26 age bracket and a lot of formulaic action films and , curiously, zombie movies, are made because of the peculiar belief that this age group wants little else. Broadly speaking, as there are always exception, production has split into two sections – big budget studio films –almost all either action movies or teen comedies – and low budget “quality” films aimed at a more discriminating market. I’m excluding material made predominantly for television. The standard of this has gone up in recent years as the best writers have found a shrunken market for their work in the world of feature films.
For the director, setting up a low budget film, say under $15 million dollars can be a heartbreaking undertaking. Almost always, no one group will supply the finance. This may be a combination of money from a private investor, a contribution from a studio’s “art house” film division, perhaps a Government somewhere or other or a state or even a country offering a rebate which is a percentage of money spent, a loan from a bank or investment firm (at an iniquitous interest rate) and a contribution from a sales agent against perceived revenue of the final film.
Putting all of this lot together would tax the organisational skill of Napoleon or whoever planned the D Day landing. Virtually all of these groups will have comments to make about the script. This is hardly surprising, but the majority of them are inept as critics and shackled by their adherence to the characteristics of previous films which proved financially successful, which explains why films as superbly written as THE KINGS SPEECH took many years to find backers. Richard Zanuck and I spent some years looking for finance for DRIVING MISS DAISY and were constantly assured by readers-, mostly young college graduates who read for the executives who are too lazy to read for themselves,- that the script was not worth filming. Among its Academy Awards was one for best Screenplay. One day, in despair, I remember saying to Zanuck – “ all these people who tell us the script isn’t worth filming….can they all be wrong and the two of us be right?”. He replied, calmly,”Yes, that is the case”.
A producer friend of mine in Los Angeles recently produced a comedy set in a ski resort. When I saw the film I commented to him that it was disappointing and asked how he – & I knew he had excellent taste- managed to get mixed up with such a 10th rate film. Wearily, he replied “ if you’d read the original script you’d have seen why I was so enthusiastic”. Like so many films, it was altered as a result of disastrous input from various groups who put in finance under certain conditions.
For the director, one of the more depressing aspects of production these days is the rise of the sales agents, who, to a large extent have supplanted casting directors. Sales agents not only comment on the scripts, with varying degrees of perspicacity, but are all too often asked by the producers which actors should be cast in order to be able to find the finance to make the film. They then supply a list of “names”, rated in order of preference. Little attention is paid to suitability for the roles under discussion, which accounts for the numerous examples of miscasting in so many current films. I’ve noticed that it’s a characteristic of these sales agents that although they may know who is currently popular – not exactly a difficult assessment – they are notoriously bad at pinpointing the up and coming stars. In my own experience, over the past few years I’ve had rejected…just before international fame struck…Daniel Day Lewis, Hugh Grant, Alan Cumming, Cate Blanchett, Morgan Freeman, Julianna Margulies, Chris Cooper, Queen Latifah, Judy Davis, Sarah Jessica Parker , Helena Bonham Carter and Michael Fassbender.
Actors agents are frequently also a nightmare for the director. Many of the large agencies represent a roster of star names and do their best to ensure that financed or could-be-financed scripts under their control are cast entirely by actors on their books. It is possible for directors to press for actors from other agencies but this is discouraged, no matter how suitable the actor may be for the role in question. If the fees involved threaten to be modest the agencies often show no interest whatever in casting anyone at all. When “Driving Miss Daisy” was in preparation ,the studio (Warners), insisted on a “name” actor to play Miss Daisy’s son, the reason being that neither Morgan Freeman or Jessica Tandy were widely known at that time -1989. Every agency in Los Angeles reported that no one was interested in the part. Richard and Lili Zanuck, the producers, were on the point of abandoning the film, I was preparing to return to Australia, when I had a phone call from Dan Ackroyd, offering to play the role. Evidently someone had told him, at a party, that we were desperate. He’d either seen the play off-Broadway or read it and recognised the excellent roles. He took the role of “Boolie” for the trifling fee we could afford and received an Academy award nomination for his performance.
Ever since the beginnings of the film industry changes have been made to films by distributors. Celebrated cases include the drastic abbreviation of Visconti’s masterpiece ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS in America and the weird alterations made to Ridley Scott’s superb BLADE RUNNER. A viewing of the “directors cut” version of these films available now on dvd show the superiority of the directors vision . Now, unfortunately, because of digital technology it is much easier technically to alter films than ever before and distributors have reacted to this fact with enthusiasm. It is true that Directors guilds and unions will attempt to preserve the director’s vision, but that unfortunate is often presented with the alternative of no distribution at all – IF he doesn’t agree to changes. Even worse is the fact a director may imagine he has final cut but a cleverly worded clause in his contract may give this to the distributor, who can then recut and remix with abandon. His intention, of course, is to broaden the appeal of the film but ,as the film has not at this stage been released at all, he is simply guessing that his changes will be to his advantage. Interestingly, a number of distributors and film executives, blinded by the ease with which they changed other director’s films, have turned director themselves. The results have invariably been disastrous.
Despite all these difficulties many fine films are made all over the world; there are great directors in every country, dedicated to their art and imbued with the spirit that conquers every obstacle.
Sydney, March 2012.