DIRECTORS: CAN’T LIVE WITH THEM, CAN’T KILL THEM-Part II


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(When asked what a director does) I help.
                Krzysztof Kieslowski
blog1In the last essay, http://ow.ly/PAgv308jiAh, I had a lot of fun trying to poke some holes in the role of the director in the creation of a film. Especially when he’s given all the credit for what is ultimately seen on the screen. However, I never did answer the question I originally posited: just what does a director do?
Well, I’m not sure I can give you a definitive answer. But I’ll try and explore that question in this second part of the essay.
I would first like to say that little in film can ensure a movie’s success (at least artistically) than when a director with vision is matched to a screenplay of vision, whether or not they are provided by the same person. Second to this is when a perfectly acceptable piece of direction is paired with a screenplay with vision, or even a very strong and solid screenplay. But little can help any movie with direction, great or not, that is stuck with a screenplay that just really isn’t particularly good, or worse.
Usually it’s the screenplay that makes a difference in the success of a film, not the direction.
Now, for those of you who go to live theater on a regular basis, you are already ahead of the game here. Whether you realize it or not, you already have a better idea as to the director’s contribution than most movie goers.

blog2Remember any theatrical production that you have seen in more than one staging? Were they carbon copies of each other? Was the interpretation the same for each? Was there any difference at all? If so, what was the difference?

Well, it certainly wasn’t the script.

What was usually the difference was the interpretation a director brought to the equation.

This is even true for my own plays. I have had multiple productions of my works. Each one was extremely different, yet the script was the same. In fact, I wanted each to have its own Interpretation. The last thing I wanted was a play that could only be interpreted one way.

I think there are some cinematic examples of this as well.

blog3But before I begin, I do have one caveat. I have often heard people say that there are things that work on stage, but can’t work in film. I disagree strongly here. For me, film is not some magic wonderland that has its own personal rules and restrictions. There are some differences in film and stage, though not inherent ones. Film tends to have more characters, less dialog and more locations. But only tends to. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule.

For me, when it comes to film v. theater, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

So for my first example, let’s look at two movies with the same basic screenplay, but with different directors: Laurence Olivier’s Henry V and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V.

There are some differences in the screenplay, mainly in what was left out (film rarely does a complete Shakespeare, but tends to edit it for time).

blog4Olivier’s interpretation is a bright and optimistic bit of agitprop designed to make our side feel confident that we are on the right side of history when it comes to WWII and that we will win. Whereas Branagh makes the film about a country in existential crisis who are trying to decide whom they want to be.

Same screenplay, different films.

All one has to do is look at the St. Crispin’s Day speech in each to immediately see the difference.

Another example like this is Olivier’s Hamlet and Franco Zeffirelli’s version. Olivier’s is a film noir drama with neurotic overtones. Zeffirelli’s is a fun melodrama that emphasizes the humor of the piece.

And finally, Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet as opposed to Baz Lurhman’s. Zefferelli’s is a flower child interpretation influenced by the counterculture movements of the 1960’s. Luhrmann’s is a fever dream directed with all the frenetic pizzazz he usually brings to his films.

I start with these examples since in these films the script really doesn’t change much (again, mainly in what is left out).

blog7But there are some other examples that are not just different in interpretation, but also have larger differences in screenplay. But I still think they can give you a better idea as to where the director comes in and what he contributes.

Here is a list of makes and remakes that I think might demonstrate what I’m suggesting:

The Great Gatsby (1949, 1974 and 2013, this last being another Luhrmann production)

blog8Viktor und Victoria (1933), First a Girl (1935), Victor Victoria (1982)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1954), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Body Snatchers (1993)

The Maltese Falcon (1931), Satan Met a Lady (1936), The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Though each generally have the same story, each is also its own thing, thanks largely to the direction.

There is another way of perhaps recognizing what a director contributes to a film and that is to look at examples where a number of films are written and directed by the same writer and compare them to ones where the screenplay is not directed by that writer, but by someone else.

For these I direct you to two screenwriters, John Sayles and David Mamet.

blog5David Mamet is one of America’s finest playwrights. I, personally, find his films, when he’s the director, less thrilling. But he has his own style, vision and way of directing that is his own. This can especially be seen in his direction of the actors, requiring them to give somewhat muted performances. However, I find that his two best films are ones he wrote, but didn’t direct: Glengarry Glenn Ross (directed by James Foley) and Wag the Dog (ditto by Barry Levinson), both exciting movies with strong performances. Watch one of these two, then watch The Spanish Prisoner, and you’ll immediately see the difference.

blog6As for Sayles, he is one of our finest screenwriters. But his direction is somewhat unexciting and uninteresting. It’s more of just getting the job done than anything else. Perhaps his best film, again, is one he didn’t direct, the rather unknown Breaking In, which was directed by Bill Forsythe. And there’s just something about Forsythe’s affectionate and light touch approach that elevates this movie Sayles’s others. Watch Breaking In back to back with something like Matawan and Passion Fish and one can easily see the difference.

A special note, perhaps, should be made about Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho. I have only seen parts of the movie, but it is generally considered a horrible blunder. But consider. Though Van Sant did make some changes (Van Sant’s is in color, has nudity and ups the sex), it is supposed to be a shot by shot remake. In other words, he did very little to bring his own personal interpretation to the story.

blog9I should make one final observation. I’m not suggesting that movies being made the way they are now, with the director having the power he does now, are making the quality of movies as a whole any worse or better.

Generally speaking, the ratio of good films to mediocre and bad ones are probably equal to that in any art form, whether theater, television, music or the visual arts.

If there is any real damage to film is that respecting the writer can be inefficient and costly. Rather than wait until the screenplay is in prime condition and shooting it, the director often brings in other writers, at added cost of time and money, and usually ends up with a screenplay that was no better and often worse than the original.

The point I’m trying to make is that I believe screenwriters often get a raw deal, criticized when a movie is bad and, when the movie is good, all they contributed is assigned to the director. I think even many screenwriters think this, as well, not giving their fellow writers their due.

blog10But when trying to figure out what a director brings to the table, be sure and start with what a screenwriter brings: the script, the characters, the dialog, the themes, the structure, many of the visuals and more often than not, perhaps, the concept.

Which leaves what for the director?

Let me know what you think.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: The Large Association of Movie Blogs | LAMBCAST #360 Best Picture Winners Draft

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