Monday, October 7, 2013

The Great Man Directs - Part 2 - The Best and The Brightest

"I feel my job is to create an atmosphere where creative people can do their best work."
-John Frankenheimer

I love the picture and quote above for so many reasons.

Along with Billy Wilder, John Frankenheimer is one of my favorite directors. His work in the early days of live television dramas in series like Playhouse 90 was about as good as it gets, yet his work never got bogged down in one period, he was constantly growing and changing, so while his career starts with these old anthologies, they go through a film career that starts with classics Birdman of Alcatraz and Seven Days in May, and go right up to Ronin with Robert DeNiro and Reindeer Games with Ben Affleck. While he was best known as an action director, the drama in his films was what was most compelling, and no two of his films look alike.

Oh, and he directed one of my dad's favorite films, The Train, with Burt Lancaster. My dad would scour the TV Guide (no "channel guide" on the remote - and no remote!) for it, and, much to my mother's dismay ("How many times are you going to watch that movie?") he would never miss it when it played on one of the old movie channels (then WPIX and WOR in NYC - this was WAY before cable).

He also started as an assistant director, and is one of the rare folks who went the route from AD to director in the US, a path much more common in other countries.

Next, I love the classic pose. In today's WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) world of film-making, one can trust the monitor to tell you precisely what you will see. I remember DP's in the 35MM age telling directors not to worry about the lighting because the monitor didn't show that. No more.  There was a time a director had to collaborate and work with his Director of Photography and then trust him, as the only one following the image was the trusty cameraman, and that through the small eyepiece.

In those days, figuring out shots could work by using your hands as a "frame," later, viewfinders did a better job of that.

This leads to the quote, which gets to the heart of filmmaking, which is collaboration, and, in turn, trust.

One of my motto's for successful filmmaking is :"Hire good people and let them do their job."

Most people would nod at the first part of that statement, fewer take the second part as seriously as I do.

I've spoken of my process of choosing crew as well as casting; because, in this case, as it would be very small, there were fewer concerns, but they were more important.

The casting decision had been made when I did the play; I cast a woman who I had worked with on her short film, a film she wrote, directed and acted in called The Retreat. I was also very impressed with her in a short called Resolution of Two, in which she played a much different character.

The female lead, Elizabeth, was crucial, as she drives the story. I was sure Chelsea was perfect for it, so I saw no need to audition people for the role. Was there possibly someone who would impress me more in an audition? Surely. However, how would I ever really know what they were capable of the way I did with Chelsea. Watching someone work, you know so much more.

She had done a lot of film, and no stage. That didn't bother me; I had directed stage and knew I could work with her on those things she needed. She turned out even better than I could have imagined.

For the role of her husband, she suggested Jimmy. After he auditioned, I thought he was a good fit. The fact they had worked together was a big plus for me. Before I made my final decision, Chelsea shared that they were a couple, and living together. From my perspective, that was only a plus, but I appreciated her professionalism in being straight about it. He did have stage experience, and also worked in the business as an editor.

From my perspective, and that of just about everyone who saw it, the play had been a success. That is why Dennis , the executive producer of the series, asked if I wanted to shoot it as a short. I had worked with Dennis on a reality show a year earlier, and on one of them, I was story producer. When I first cut it, it was a good, professional, story - and not too exciting. We discussed it, and, though not convinced, I re-cut it as a reality show, and from the first moment, I knew he was right. I knew there was a better story there, and Dennis pushing me helped bring it out.

A sample below - it is in multiple parts on Youtube if interested.

Dennis was the impetus behind making this a short, though I also have to thank Deepika, who did a great job producing the play, and Laura. the master organizer working with Dennis.

I said in the last post that I had been a snob about how I would direct my first project, that I would want a full crew. So, why did I let go of my resistance to a small, almost-no-budget project?

We were shooting what amounted to two scenes (I added a scene to the play) in one location with two people. I saw how it could be done if we had the right DP, and that right DP was Adam Richlin. I had worked with Adam as a producer, but never as a director, but I really believe he is one of those young DPs who is going to be a star.

He has worked other positions on crews for me, including AC and gaffer, and that was even more reason why I liked him. Some people dabble at a lot of things and are master of none. Adam has, in the (relatively) few years he has been doing this, made himself as master at every position. which only makes him a better DP.

Too many DP students come out of film school calling themselves DPs, when they haven't worked their way up. Adam is just the opposite. You know how baseball announcers always pine over players they call "throwback" players, guys who remind them of the hard-working players of the past? In the best sense of the word, Adam is a "throwback" DP, old-school, call it what you want.

He gets it.

With all of that, he also is as sharp about the latest gear, and how things work, as anyone. In that respect, he reminds me a little of my old friend, John Rosnell, who we used to jokingly call "Geppetto" after the fictional character who tinkered and made Pinocchio. Adam knows the ins-and-outs of gear as well as anyone I know.

He brought with him two amazing folks,  a gaffer and an AC, and together, they were like an army.

I sent Adam two things - a script lined with what I saw as my shots, and an example of how I wanted to do my singles. which, in many cases, were more like dirty twos, favoring one character. The example, from Frankenheimer's directing of Days of Wine and Roses for Playhouse 90, can be seen below.

This is a style Frankenheimer employed in other shows as well, singles that clearly favored one character but still had the reaction from the other. Profiles. Done badly, it looks like clunky, stagy soap opera. Done well, and cutting well, it can tell more of the story in a fuller manner.

I actually thought Adam might fight me on it, as it's an odd framing. He made it work, and got why I wanted it immediately. However, when he thought it didn't work, he would push for clean singles, and in at least a few instances, he suggested it just as I was thinking the same, that this style wasn't working for these lines.

That's collaboration.

Trust was important, as we only had the on-board monitor, and once I saw the original framing, I had to trust that Adam was getting what we discussed on moving shots, or with character movement. This may seem like heresy to those who only know digital, but monitors are not as old a convenience as many might think. I love video village as much as the next guy, but I worked many 35mm films where the DP would get to see the shot through the camera lens, then leave it to the DP.

The shot list was a guide for me. Knowing what I wanted. Adam and I went back to my age-old favorite method.


This does not mean I do not encourage people to do shot lists or storyboards - it is essential homework. For me, however, once that guide is established, I like to leave room to see how it plays in the room. This is a truly personal preference, and, admittedly, I am always thinking of how best to capture the performance and tell the story, not "how can I get the coolest shot."

A story is a living, breathing thing, and I think forcing actors to stick to pre-determined actions can lead to losing some spontaneity.

I'm sure the above will be misinterpreted as "you don't need a shot list or storyboard." I encourage you to read what I said again, but will accept what comes.

It is, in part, why the DP earned the respect they get - they were not just an extension of the director; they were, indeed, directing the photography. I think I asked Adam to see playback three times all day, and one of them was for the final shot, which had many moving parts. I had to know that I had my ending. Other than that, I trusted him, and looking at the footage now, I know I did the right thing.

If I regret anything, it was not bringing on a script supervisor. I have preached the importance of one, and yet, at the last minute, thought I knew how I wanted to cut well enough that I could work without one.

It was a mistake, one I realized early on in the day. It is not that I was concerned with continuity - I'm sure we got that - but rather, that one more objective eye, and notes for things you can't remember.

Still, my theory of how I wanted to shoot prevailed. Hire the best and brightest. The phrase was made popular by the title of the David Halberstam's brilliant book on President John F. Kennedy's cabinet. and it referred to the strong belief of our youngest President that bringing the best informed leaders from academia and industry would lead to good policy.

Halberstam's title was meant ironically, as he felt these "whiz kids" relied on great theory rather than practical application, and that those choices led us to the war in Vietnam.

I use the term genuinely, and with genuine thanks to those I try to have around me, and to trust their choices.

More about the shoot in the next post.