How Are Directors Chosen (when it’s a job) ?

Putting aside the fact that most movies, especially independent productions, are conceived and directed by a director and that it would be generally a mistake to have that person step aside so someone else’s “vision” of their script can be accommodated, most of the discourse on the issue of directors has to do with hiring statistics and money – the director as coveted job.  Some of the conversation or the new norms just seem to be unsustainable and not merit based. Peter Farrelly has said, “If you think you are Kubrick the crew will make your life a living hell.” So on Dumb and Dumber he and his brother had to play dumb, so to speak, and ask the crew to cover their asses.  But then how does that advice work when you actually do have a vision and – Kubrick or not – want to at least strive to follow your own taste and figure out the directorial approach yourself?

Why are Directors Hired and what are the qualifications? When asked what a director does, I say if there is only one person on the crew doing everything, that is the director. What does the director direct? Most importantly, the audience. But in the current climate, who the hell knows how people get hired to direct.  I may praise or pick on a few names trying to connect the dots on this idea and what it might mean for devaluing the skill of creating images out of story.
Jennifer Kent the director of Babbadook is therefore qualified to direct anything.
Ari Aster directed Heredity, therefore he is qualified to direct anything.
Jodie Foster is a solid director, whether or not the content of The Beaver appeals to you. She has said she believes in ideally the best shot for each moment and having it be motivated, which a TV schedule rarely allows time for, making some shows about generic coverage or mere recording and documenting of the content.
Ava DuVernay was benighted by Oprah and others in the film industry to be the next big Diversity hire as a director after 20 years of imdb credits in promotions and marketing exclusively. Maybe she made a lot of positive connections promoting the work of other filmmakers. Her documentary about the Prison industrial complex and disproportionate black inmates made her even more friends because of the importance of the subject matter. But even though the casting of Selma is good what the audience might notice is her distracting habit of crossing the camera axis in otherwise straightforward dialogue scenes. That she then got a potentially complex project like A Wrinkle in Time is almost inexplicable if shot progression is a factor at all. With her pending project New Gods for DC, there might be even more need for fans and film pundits to explore in more detail just how certain directors work.
Ana Lily Amirpour wrote and directed two dark-themed films, her skateboarding vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and her sort of Escape from New York or Walking Dead without Zombies movie The Bad Batch and is supposed to do a new version of Cliffhanger. She talks about having a “boner” for a shot. She is a hands-on director, and whether someone likes the content or story being presented, the directing itself is thoughtful and full of personality. The way she reveals or conceals an element of a scene is deliberate and authentic.
Lord and Miller like the simple coverage approach and no storyboarding and are improvisational, therefore they were the wrong choice for a Star Wars movie.
The Russo Brothers came from the point and shoot, talking heads world and the hand held improv world of The Office where every episode looks the same no matter who directs, so it is inexplicable that they got to direct MCU movies. It is said that fight scenes for the Avengers movies are done by second unit directors like David Leitch who co-directed John Wick. What were the other factors and how much of the directing comes from the director(s)?

Jon Favreau was acting in a young man’s youtube short, an improvised western, and behind the scenes he confided, “You at least have a lot of freedom here. Marvel will give me storyboards they’ve come up with and say Just shoot this.” As important as story and character are, those can be SET by a writer or writing team before the director is brought in. I think if someone else, a storyboard artist or cinematographer is the de facto co-director it is bad in the long term for our perception of direction as a craft and the director as the primary creative on a movie. I think it is safe to give Favreau full credit for Chef which is a personal allegory from his other interest, cooking.
Frank Darabont did his best directing on Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. After doing an episode of The Shield, handheld, where you can’t tell who directed without reading the credits, he applied that slapdash approach to The Mist — but even within that he found places where expert directing does shine through. There was still some stillness and steadiness allowed. His Walking Dead episodes are solidly directed, as is his Mob City series that was short lived. People may consider him too specific and too perfectionist and willing to send overly honest (rude) e-mails. Still, he is qualified and should be directing more.
Jane Campion has made well storyboarded movies on topics that don’t excite me but I appreciate her confident use of the frame.
Steven Spielberg has compromised his brand as a director by being a producer credited on Michael bay Transformers movies and other films. The general public might make less distinction between producer and director, even if Spielberg lately as a rule will not even look at the cut until it is done. But Spielberg is the master of using screen grammar and applying it in the interpretation of a script. He also has the intuition to see what might be improved by new writers on a script, as with bringing in Josh Singer the Spotlight writer to improve the Liz Hannah script that came through Amy Pascal.

James Wan is getting into a similar boat, with many projects announced as being produced by him and nothing said about he director(s). It is like if someone is a talented dancer (the director) and there is an expectation that he or she must also be able to secure a stage and auditorium in which the dance can occur (the producer). Frankly a phone call from a Spielberg or Wan may be all the producing they have to do and then they can delegate the phone calls and hiring and make notes on the scripts.
As an exercise, if you can make it through the Fifth and Sixth Fast and Furious movies directed by Justin Lin, and you take some smelling salts to wake up and you can watch Furious 7 directed by James Wan you might feel in your unconscious at least a strong shift in how the frame is used. For me watching 6 and then 7 it was like night and day. I pushed myself to make it through 6 which felt very delegated and arbitrary. Furious 7 remained engaging and had a more strict adherence to film grammar. You might think Lin did a good job on Star Trek Beyond, but I think that movie was helped by a pretty solid script by Simon Pegg and we don’t know how much was delegated. Maybe the rear shot of the impulse drives before they took off was the equivalent of a smoking tail pipe shot in his car chase movies. But in terms of overall body of work Wan is the one whose name as director will instill confidence.
Tim Burton has admitted he would not know a good script if it hot him in the head. His movies are admired for the art direction and his direction. Ed Wood is a great script, as is Big Eyes, and maybe Beetlejuice. The main criticism of his movies will have to do with plotting and script.
Kevin Smith has said that you don’t need talent to be a director. He has said of his jobs on The Flash and Supergirl that those crews will make the show with or without a director and so he just brings doughnuts for them and people like having him around as a reassuring presence but the nuts and bolts of covering a talking heads dialogue scene are basic and action scenes are mostly predetermined by a team who already have a name for any “new” shot ideas he might come up with.

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are set to be all-powerful overlords of Star Wars (maybe Knights of the Old Republic) while under the thumb of a woman who thinks of anything white or male-targeted as problematic. Are these two writers going to join the Director’s Guild? Or will they be looking at someone with proven visual punctuation skills to direct? In the current trend, it seems like writers can just be “team leaders” who delegate a lot of what we consider directing. If a Rian Johnson comes in to direct, it is possible that we would have to be less worried about his input than Kennedy’s input and that of her chosen Lucasfilm Story Group that may analyze plot the way Salon or theMarySue analyzes it, with identity politics as the primary concern. A Luke that responds to Rey aiming a lightsaber down at him with a force push he had demonstrated moments before would be logical and dramatically correct but not part of the old-man-wrong, young-woman-right nonsense that was being sold.

A movie that is mostly visual should travel better than one that relies on dialogue and and word awareness or word-play.  But a chatty script will survive a public table reading, the more it is like a radio drama.  This might also attract the sort of director who is content to do an establishing shot, over-shoulders for each character and close ups of each actor for the whole scene top to bottom – the equivalent of burger flipping.  But a visual and cinematic script will sound dry in a table reading and nobody wants to read a dense description of actions.  Images and the way they follow each other in a sequence will separate the directors from the pretenders.  It is also risky to be caught wanking with style and not having it tied to the advancement of the story.

I don’t know the solution, because either a trend or the popularity of an actor or a social movement might cause someone to be credited as a director.  I just personally cheer for those who really are creating what we see.  A Spielberg may be able to say he accepts ideas from everyone and that he finds the scene in the moment, but he also doesn’t have to prove himself now.  A new director coming up might want to be able to point to a storyboard and say, “Yeah, I’m happy to say I worked it out on paper so I wouldn’t waste anyone’s time and I was able to anticipate the equipment and the tools to achieve those shots.”  There can be a reason to hold a shot without cuts and without laying the image bare trying to be a languid “arty” indulgent director like Tarkovski.  I swear some directors have a contract for a certain running time so they will punk the audience by just letting the camera run or watching someone walk along through the desert (Gus Van Sant’s Gerry) or through the woods (Stalkyr).  Rarely is it forgivable (Lynch’s Eraserhead, where you expect to be punked and where it should be seen with an audience who gets long pauses and elevator doors that take absurdly long to close).

A mentor of mine used to say there is the film industry and then the film community.  I wouldn’t begrudge anyone to grab a camera and make some sort of movie.  It may build relationships even of one’s craft doesn’t grow in a measurable way.  But in the high profile discussion the dominates pop culture, I think it matters who is just a big personality or coasting on a third issue and those who are excited about the frame and what it can do, people who might legitimately be called movie geeks.  I want to see the artist’s hand on the brush, not someone else being talked through about how to move it. I admire the Rodriguez approach – capable of any crew position but knowing the whimsical or dramatic impact of each frame or move or cut.  And regardless of what walk of society someone comes from, if they have a grasp of that then they have a handle on movie direction.

People who come from theater too often conflate the cinematographer with the director.  They may think the director is the storyteller and that the choice of frame is something else.  They might see Ana Lily’s The Bad Batch and angrily trash it for the content but concede “The cinematography was good…”  even though the images were clearly planned by the director.

Someone like Altman would say, “I don’t like to direct.  I don’t show you what to look at.  I will stay loose and let you choose what to look at like a play.”  And that kind of thought is the enemy of cinema, as far as I’m concerned. You can let someone like that cast a movie or find a script but then let a DIRECTOR direct.  Pauline Kael controversially propped up Altman’s loose approach because it was at a time when movies were too glossy and slick. Actors prop up that approach because if they get to improvise they feel more engaged and less utility players being functional and it is the principle of conversation where if you only ask the other person what they think or to talk about themselves and you say nothing about yourself they will come away thinking you are interesting and brilliant. And it you just pontificate – even if you are right and saying something useful – they may just think you are full of hot air and a know-it-all (like, er, someone who does a blog like this – cough).

 

Shorts and Trojan Horses

I’ll post a few shorts here every now and then.  Some touch on topics that are generally considered serious but are rendered silly.  In an episode of Fatman Beyond or whatever iteration of it on the Kevin Smith youtube channel Marc Bernardin (Castle Rock) was hosting and at about 1 hour and 49 minutes in the conversation got on my raw nerve. That podcast needs a voice from at least the middle of the political spectrum.  Tactics matter. Mr. Bernardin advocated what he calls “Trojan Horsing” an element that a target demographic would not like into something they do like.  A horse by any other name could be bait and switch.

He went on to use as an example the Solo iteration of young Lando Calrissian said to be “pansexual” as if that is a step forward. (Never-mind Billy Dee Williams more recently responding by saying “What the hell is gender fluid?” since his iteration of Lando is heterosexual (as are the depictions in three novels from the early eighties, a number of other books that include the character and comics where unusual  traits would have come up by now if anything other than the default of straight behaviors were part of his character.)  Ret-conning a character to pander to a perceived shift in social media or the whims of people who live on Twitter disrespects characters, especially those that have been around for a while.

Black Panther was used as an example of under-represented audiences coming out to support something they rarely see, but Black Panther was part of the juggernaut MCU, introduced in Captain America: Civil War, and had a decades long legacy as a comic book hero so there was nothing compromised or co-opted about the character.  He diminished nothing and replaced nothing and only added to the MCU. It was an example of doing right by a property.  The same director, Ryan Coogler, had previously provided another rare example of getting something right, the Rocky sequel Creed which respected its history and added new dimensions to the ongoing drama.

I don’t know about representation for the sake of representation.  I am not James Bond or Lando or Rocky Balboa.  If I buy ice cream I don’t want someone Trojan Horsing crushed cauliflower into it.

 

 

 

Movie Business Destroying Our Myths ?

I pretty much agree with this rant by Doomcock, a youtube pundit with style.  I can’t say the same for every video he puts out but he seems to nail the concerns about Star Wars and Star Trek.  I don’t follow Dr. Who but the argument seems sound.  I don’t quite share the outrage level, but I think it can also apply to the latest Terminator and somewhat possibly Superman and so on.  Are they targeting the wrong audience, one that doesn’t exist for the material, at the expense of alienating an established fan base?  I don’t know. But there is a thoughtfully composed argument by Doomcock worth sharing as food for thought in any case.

 

Monologues

After college in the Nineties I had a good run of monologue writing, some of which I performed and most of them I cast others to play either at coffee houses or a college or on community access TV.  It felt natural, and I was about 26 years old so that might indicate it is what I should have kept pursuing as my vocation.  I like cinema too much but I am fairly happy with most of those monologues. I had wanted to do stand-up comedy but could not settle on a persona.  My own would be too bland.  Writing monologues is a satisfying exercise and it allows you to work with actors using simple production trappings and deal with each beat of the rant or scene and also have the experience of discovery and interpretation without the baggage of making a movie. It may also be handy for a performer to demonstrate the ability to plow through a whack of material in one take.

 

 

 

 

Do the Talent Thing

When I have a run-in with woke folks on social media, as recently happened in a writing group triggered by Stephen King saying that he doesn’t consider diversity – only talent – when deciding who and what films to nominate as a voting member of the Academy, what comes to mind are two movies: Alien (1979) and Do the Right Thing (1989).

I  fairness I’ll say right off the bat that the go-to terms like SJW, NPC, or Woke are not ideal designations or classifications for those with whom I clash but we make do with what we have at hand in the current state of discourse (a sorry state).  I might place myself just left of the middle of the political spectrum but have no respect for either the extreme right or extreme left.  That out of the way, onto the point.

A pivotal moment in Alien is when John Hurt’s character has been attacked and the crew want to bring him inside but Ripley says no as he should be quarantined and it could be a disaster to bring him in.  The (spoiler alert) android takes the position that the right, moral and compassionate thing to do is to let them in with John Hurt.  Ripley was the ranking officer on board and it was her call, but the android defies her for ostensibly humane reasons and opens the door.  The android in this case could be a stand-in for the Woke of today.  Ripley would be the more pragmatic left of center common person who was willing to make the hard choice and be viewed or judged as cold and insensitive.

In Do the Right Thing, the worst outcome is that (spoiler alert) Radio Raheem is choked while resisting arrest by police.  Before and after this movie, obviously police violence has claimed many lives. Arguably, the message alone is not the reason to respect the film. From the color scheme suggesting a single hot summer day to the performances to Earnest Dickerson’s achievement of images conceived by director Spike Lee.  The movie is seen as a soap box, but the filmmaking is the reason to celebrate it.  We still have the evils it depicts.  The inciting incident is that longtime patrol “Buggin’ Out” one day does a double-take to the wall of the Pizzeria (Sal’s) he has come to all his life and he is suddenly offended that there are only photos of Italian American celebrities framed up there despite the restaurant being located in Harlem.  He protests that there should be representation of black celebrities on the wall.

He stirs the pot to the point of initiating a boycott of Sal’s.  Most people don’t take him seriously. When Sal closes for the night, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem show up and implore him to let them in for a slice.  He is kind enough to do so, but Raheem has been radicalized by Buggin’ Out and he blasts the volume of his radio on the counter.  Sal asks him to turn it down but he turns it up more.  Sal sees that he is being tested and brings up his baseball bat again demanding the radio be turned off.  As a last resort, Sal bashed the radio and Raheem is devastated by this.  He leaps at Sal and tries to strangle him.  The fight makes its way into the street and police turn up and pull Raheem off of Sal and try to put him into their cruiser. Raheem resists and is choked out and collapses dead.  Spike Lee himself as Mookie the pizza delivery guy reacts by throwing a trash can through the pizzeria window. The film’s mumbling pyromaniac sneaks off and starts a fire.  Some discussion of the film, according to one of the commentary tracks may be divided between those who talk about the destruction of property and those who focus on the loss of life.  But the more interesting question is who should be held responsible.

Mookie’s actions were part of being eventually radicalized.  But by the time he is fifty, according to Spike’s movie Red Hook Summer, he will sill be delivering pizza for Sal.  Sal himself might be blamed by the Woke because of his refusal to change the photos of his Italian-owned Pizzeria and only including Itallians on the wall of fame.  It is my interpretation, regardless of Spike’s intentions, that Buggin’ Out is 100% responsible for the death of Radio Raheem.  Buggin’ Out has a loser complex and a chip on his shoulder which he believes he can fix by imposing his will on Sal and the loyal customers of the pizzeria. He has a sense of entitlement.  He is the self-righteous permanent victim who frankly would not be “represented” even if there were black celebrities on the wall because those celebrities would be winners quite unlike Buggin’ Out.  He would then have to vent his frustration elsewhere and torment or bully someone else.  When John Savage accidentally rolls a bike wheel over one of his sneakers, Buggin’ Out shows him the foot farthest away that could not have had the when roll over it.  He just wants to express outrage. That makes him the perfect representation of the self-styled Woke.

 

 

 

Is Writing Caring ?

It is said that writing exposes what we care about.  That might be true, though I’d love to deflect it.  In High School, my most active writing started out as love letters to a girl who turned out to be the last person on earth who should ever read those notes. I looked them over and found that there were some turns of phrase and some word play that I wanted to salvage, and from there started a habit of writing poems. Even got some of them published in a few poetry magazines. I had started out wanting to vent something or document a feeling or a state I was in, and eventually the best of it was what was least personal.  The shape, the sound or the presentation ended up being as important.

They say ride the horse in the direction it wants to go.  I say no, because form follows function: Unless riding itself is your goal you have a destination in mind and a need to get there. Travelling in the wrong direction, even to appease a collaborator, is not following your own instincts or drives. It may not hurt anything, but it will cause a delay.

I have been involved with enough screenwriting groups over the years that I know what it is like to get the wrong advice and be so open to options and insecure that I follow a dead end that costs months and valuable energy.

They say never look a gift horse in the mouth.  But I say no, because the lesson of the Trojan Horse should be don’t drag the bait into the gates of your fortress and endanger your community before making sure there is nothing hidden inside the offering.

Your favourite kind of dialogue may come from Neil Simon, John Hughes, Daniel Waters, or Diablo Cody where the word choices are memorable and snappy or quotable regardless of whether a person in real life circumstances would be so quick or articulate. Another person offering advice or feedback might want everything to sound like a transcript of the most banal conversation, something that only the presence and physically of an actor can breathe life into.

My preference is for the former, so I might have a run of dialogue that involves short lines back and forth with each line setting up the next and one might argue that the characters don’t have their own distinctive patter or quirky syntax. I don;t generally like to lay down accents too thick.  Variations on a line might be repeated. But sometimes what is special and of value and serves as your artistic expression can be suffocated by the supposed standards and preferences of someone who is merely regurgitating something they have read as a rule or supposed principle of the craft.

What can be objectively measured is the architecture of a story or plot.  I can crank out pages of dialogue easily. Very little of it would make the cut, and without an outline and knowing where it fits in the dialogue will be a show stopper.  Rewatching the 1982 movie Diner, I appreciate the cast and I can sit and listen with ease but I also know I would not lean toward making that kind of movie myself. Much of it included improvisation, and for me before using comic actors to get them riffing I would rather achieve that kind of patter by secretly recording real conversations and then transcribing them without all the broken sentences.  But even then, this approach in the screenplay itself would seem to take up excessive pages.

I admit caring that my credit for either writing or directing be something I can own with total honesty. That simple statement might rustle feathers, especially with so many shows using a “writer’s room” approach.  I would rather have someone say my writing is bad than take credit for someone else’ work.  And if I direct I am fussy about the frame and the cut.  If it alienates a cinematographer or an editor to be presented with storyboard drawings that I want to follow, so be it.  There is a point of view, even if the word vision sounds too pretentious.

Some people want a director or writer to just get out of the way and simply present situations that inform a crisis or an issue that needs media attention. People who like that sort of thing can comfort themselves with countless awards given in sympathy for those issues more than for appreciation of a movie’s aesthetics.

At the time of this post, I have been binge watching season three of The Expanse. It is both entertaining and able to include in its setting any concerns about politics, conscience, or diversity.  These things are part of the soup of the environs. The storytelling drives us through all of that so there is no tedious wallowing in spoon-fed messaging.  It is efficient, pure storytelling.

Another thing happening as I type this is that youtube is full of recitations and evaluations of a leaked December 2016 draft of Star Wars Episode IX called Duel of the Fates.  It also seems to be pure storytelling.  It was dated just before the death of Carrie Fisher at age 60.  Apparently, the director at the time Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed, Jurassic World) suggested having some scenes intended for Princess Leia be done by Luke Skywalker and that this would mean changing the ending of The last Jedi so that Luke would be alive. It seemed arbitrary that Luke vanished or discorporated at the end of The Last Jedi.  The more I hear about the production and resistance to having a male be the key leader the less pure the storytelling becomes and the less respect I have for the top-down Hollywood leadership when the top is not the director or writer.

I admit that caring about what adds up to movie trivia and behind-the-scenes politics means that my concerns are less focused on the larger injustices and ecological crisis of the world.  But I also know my limitations.  I know that I have little to bring as an environmental activist or advising on race relations. I would feel unqualified.  But mythology and character interplay, ultimately fun, are also worth caring about since they occupy time in an interesting way.  Some people do puzzles. I like to fuss over where an edit should land so it strengthens both shots. Much of that is intuitive, and so is the initial guess when planning it and I like to see my impulses vindicated at least within a craft.  I have cold feet about a few projects right now, so it is a matter of caring more about them than caring about my own discomfort in reaching out.