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From Scorsese and Lynch to Wenders and Godard, interviews with twenty of the world's greatest directors on how they make films—and why
Each great filmmaker has a secret method to his moviemaking—but each of them is different. In Moviemaker Master Class, Laurent Tirard talks to twenty of today's most important filmmakers to get to the core of each director's approach to film, exploring the filmmaker's vision as well as his technique, while ...
From Scorsese and Lynch to Wenders and Godard, interviews with twenty of the world's greatest directors on how they make films—and why
Each great filmmaker has a secret method to his moviemaking—but each of them is different. In Moviemaker Master Class, Laurent Tirard talks to twenty of today's most important filmmakers to get to the core of each director's approach to film, exploring the filmmaker's vision as well as his technique, while allowing each man to speak in his own voice.
Martin Scorsese likes setting up each shot very precisely ahead of time—so that he has the opportunity to change it all if he sees the need. Lars Von Trier, on the other hand, refuses to think about a shot until the actual moment of filming. And Bernardo Bertolucci tries to dream his shots the night before; if that doesn't work, he roams the set alone with a viewfinder, imagining the scene before the actors and crew join him. In these interviews—which originally appeared in the French film magazine Studio and are being published here in English for the first time—enhanced by exceptional photographs of the directors at work, Laurent Tirard has succeeded in finding out what makes each filmmaker—and his films—so extraordinary, shedding light on both the process and the people behind great moviemaking.
Among the other filmmakers included are Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Joel and Ethan Coen, and John Woo.
Moviemakers' Master Class
John Boorman Sydney Pollack Claude Sautet
The title of this section might make the reader think that these three directors have a conventional approach to filmmaking. Nothing could be more untrue. However, with the exception of Jean-Luc Godard (whose interview appears in the last section), these are the only directors in the book who started their careers before the cultural upheavals of the late sixties, and thus probably are the ones who started out in the most conservative environment. For them, breaking out of the mold of tradition and finding a personal voice were certainly harder tasks than they were for directors of the generations that followed. These directors became auteurs at a time when that notion didn't yet exist.
b. 1933, London, England
Though I had never met John Boorman before interviewing him, actors from his films whom I had interviewed all agreed that he was the nicest man they'd ever worked with. He is, indeed, someone who immediately makes you feel comfortable. Boorman seems particularly tranquil and looks as though he could deal with any situation, however catastrophic, with a shrug and a smile. We met at the time that The General was being released, in 1998. I tried to compliment him on the film but did it so clumsily that I think he got the wrong idea. I said if I hadn't seen his name on the credits, I would have thought the film had been directed by a twenty-year-old. He seemed perplexed by that remark, but what I had meant was that I found it amazing that after all these years of directing films, he could still exhibit the freshness to make one so modern.
Starting as a director in 1965, John Boorman has always tried—sometimes without success, it is true—to explore all forms of cinema, from the experimental genre film Point Blank to the revisionist operatic epic Excalibur. Thanks to our conversation, I now know what it was that made his version of the Arthurian legend somehow more ambiguous and more exciting than other cinematic interpretations.
We talked for an hour. Boorman visibly enjoyed getting down to explaining the nitty-gritty of his job, but at the end of the interview, he suddenly frowned and said, "Wait a minute. You just stole all my little secrets here!" Then he shrugged and smiled, wishing me luck.
Master Class with John Boorman
I learned filmmaking in a very organic way. I started as a film critic when I was eighteen, writing reviews for a newspaper. Then I got a job as a trainee film editor, then as an editor, then I began to direct documentaries for the BBC. After a while, I became dissatisfied with documentaries, and I began to dramatize them more and more, until I started doing dramas for TV and, eventually, for the cinema. So it was really organic and natural, and what helped in all the documentaries that I did was really the fact of shooting so much film, and the familiarity that this created with the process of filming. For me, technique became something that I never worried about. It was there even before I shot my first film. I never had to struggle with it. I know most directors now go to film schools, but I'm not a big believer in that system. I think filmmaking is essentially a practical undertaking, and I think that the apprenticeship system has always been the most effective. I mean, theory is interesting, but it is only interesting when it's related to practical work. And my experience with film students is that they're quite impractical when it comes to the pragmatic aspect of filmmaking. I have, however, helped young directors make their first movies. I produced Neil Jordan's first film, for instance, which in effect was a tutoring operation.
When you're preparing a film with a young director, I find the most important thing to teach him, which often even experienced directors fail to do, is to honestly time the script. Now, most people start out making a picture which is too long. And in consequence, if you end up with a first cut that is three hours long, and you've got to get down to two hours, it means that one-third of the time that you spent shooting the film was wasted, because you spent that time on scenes that wont eventually get in the picture. Of course, it's always importantto have a little extra, a few scenes that you can cut into or eliminate if they don't work. But in most cases, you lie to yourself. You're not honest about how long it's going to be because you can't bear to go back to the script and make sacrifices. To do this, however, the best method is to work it out when you're scheduling the shoot. That scene needs fourteen shots? OK, that's two days. Is that scene really worth two days of shooting? If the answer is no, then what you have to do is rewrite the scene or cut it out. This way, you look at the resources, you look at the money you have to spend on the film, and you look at the time and effort that are going to be devoted to each scene, and you can judge whether it has that value or not.
ALL DIRECTORS WRITE
Directing is really about writing, and all serious directors write. They might not get credit for it, often for contractual reasons, but I think you can't separate the shaping of the script from the writing of it. And I think all serious directors shape their scripts, meaning that they sit down with the writers and put the ideas into shape and give them structure. It's an essential part of directing. To which you have to add the whole process of interpretation and exploration. I make films to explore. If I don't know what a film is about, I go on to make it. Whereas if I know exactly what it's about, then I will lose interest in it. So it is the excitement of exploration which appeals to me, and the danger that's involved in that, and you always hope that it's going to lead you into something really new, fresh, and original. The only moment when I know what a film is about is when I've seen it with an audience. And there are always surprises. When I made Hope and Glory, which is about my childhood memories, it wasn't until I saw itfinished that I realized that my obsession with the Arthurian legend could be explained by the fact that my father's best friend was in love with my mother. They formed the same triangle that you have with Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere. But it hadn't occurred to me until I had this objectivity, until I became an audience member myself rather than being inside the film.
CLASSICISM VERSUS BRUTALISM
I work in a particular way, which I suppose you could say is quite classical, in the sense, for instance, that I don't move the camera unless there is a purpose for moving it. Also I don't cut unless it's a necessary cut. Which doesn't mean I'm against experimentation—far from it. But for me, it works on a different level. For instance, the most experimental film that I made was probably Leo the Last, where I was using a kind of postmodern technique of making the audience aware of the fact that it was a film, that it was a fabrication, that it was artifice. The subject was commenting on the film. That is why it begins with Marcello Mastroianni coming down the street in a car, with a song that says "You look like a movie star." The film was a failure, in the sense that it didn't reach people, which may be the definition of something experimental.
In any case, the grammar I normally use is the one that I learned early on from silent films. If you look at D. W. Griffith's use of close-up and vignetting, for instance, and the way he uses close-ups to illustrate thought, you can see that the modern cinema is often quite crude compared to what was being done then. In terms of visual grammar, for me, the spatial relationship between the characters is the vital thing. If characters are emotionally close, I bring them physically close. If they're emotionally distant, I separate them. That'swhy I like to use Cinemascope, because it allows you to play with that, to bring space between the actors.1
So, for instance, in The General, you'll notice that the robbery sequence, which conventionally today would be done with lots of fast cuts, is done with long takes, and all the action is within the frame. As opposed to what I call "new brutalism" in cinema, which is a form of naivete, because it's made by people who I think don't really have a grasp of cinema's history. It's the MTV kind of editing, where the main idea is that the more disorienting it is, the more exciting. And you see it creeping into mainstream cinema more and more. You look at something like Armageddon and you see all the things that would have been forbidden in classical cinema, like crossing the line, camera jumping from side to side. It is a way to artificially generate excitement, but it doesn't really have any basis to it. And I find it kind of sad, because it's like an old man trying to dress like a teenager.
GIVING LIFE TO A SCENE
My main goal, when I tackle a scene, is obviously to give it as much life as possible. In order to accomplish that, the first thing I do is rehearse. Not on the shooting day itself, but before. And I don't do anything spatial with the actors. It's just a question of exploring the scene. I find that what's really helpful with the actors is to improvise what happens before and after that scene. Then, when I get on the set for the actual shoot, I start in the morning, work on the first shot, set the camera down, get the composition, and put the marks down for the actors while they're still in make-up.
Something I always use to make the compositions is the old Mitchell sidefinder, an instrument that used to be on the side of cameras before they had [through-the-lens] reflex. It's a big thing which you have to hold up in front of you, and instead of putting your eye into something, you step away from it and you can see the composition like a picture, like a frame. Deciding where to set the camera is both a very logical process—where the question of point of view is very important—and an intuitive one.
When film started, of course, the process was much simpler. Cameras were placed like an audience in a theater, and you just had a static shot of the action on stage. So you can imagine what happened when Griffith started moving the camera and the camera became a sort of God's-eye view, an omniscient view that could move anywhere. This gave cinema another dimension altogether. It brought cinema, I think, close to the condition of dreaming. When I spent some time living in the Amazon with a primitive tribe, trying to explain what film was like, and how you could travel from place to place, look at things from different angles, and cut both in space and time, I remember the shaman of the tribe said, "Oh yes, I do that too. When I go into a trance, I travel like that." So I think the power of cinema has to do with the way that it connects to people's dream experiences. Particularly if it's in black and white, because we tend to dream in black and white. So when we set the camera down, I think what we're accomplishing is nothing short of trying to make a dream concrete.
SHOOTING VERSUS EDITING
I don't cover my scenes very much, and I don't like to do a lot of takes, either.2 The reason is that, first of all, what I try to do is show the actors that whenever the camera rolls, that's going to be in the movie. If you're shooting from all different angles, then the attitude that prevails is "This probably won't end up in the film, so let's not bother too much." So I try to get a constant tension going. Everything has to be really prepared, and then when the camera's going, that's it. Everybody has to get to a peak of performance at that point. And I never print more than two takes. It's so boring to sit through hours and hours of dailies, and you lose your judgment, eventually. You see six takes, you don't remember what the first one was like. So I shoot very little film. I don't shoot master shots, for instance, and consequently, it's very easy to cut together. I shoot five days instead of six, like most people, and this way I spend at least a day in the cutting room, which is enough to cover one week's worth of shooting. And then I have another day to prepare all the shots for the coming week.
Of course, making the decision to not cover too much means I might get stuck in the editing room and regret it. It's the big dilemma. Kurosawa solved this problem in an interesting way. As he progressed, his films were more and more precisely planned. But when he got to the cutting room, he often regretted not having more material. So he hired a camera operator whose job was to discreetly take shots in every scene, usually with a long lens. He would shoot close-ups when Kurosawa was doing a master shot, he would shoot inserts or cutaways in a dialogue scene, and so on. And then Kurosawa would process that film only if he needed it for cutting. Henever asked what had been filmed, because he didn't want the random element to interfere with his planning. I think he was right, because if you shoot with two cameras, which I never do, then you have to make compromises between the two. And filming is all about focusing everything onto a certain point. But if you have two cameras, you're constantly compromising that.
TAILOR THE PART TO THE ACTOR, NOT THE OPPOSITE
Surprisingly, documentaries were probably the best training I got to direct actors. Because what I learned from them, more than anything, was about human behavior. So because I had been observing real people closely, I was able to bring something to actors to help them achieve a feeling of reality. In any case, the key to directing actors is to provide them with a safe environment, a trusting environment, in which they can work. That means giving them structure, making sure they're not distracted by other things that happen on the set. Giving them the focus of your attention, watching them closely, showing them that you're not going to let them make mistakes, that you're not going to put them into difficulty. Then they will be more willing to take chances, which is what you want.
The thing is to listen to actors, because good actors always have important contributions to make. I think an inexperienced director will feel that he will have to go in there and tell the actors what to do. And to be strong and to impose his will. But it's often more important to listen to them, and to make corrections. Then, by the time you get to the set, there's very little to be said, provided you've prepared it right, that you know where you're heading. It's really a matter of making little adjustments. Of course, casting is also essential. Choosing actors is always very painful, because you have an idea of the character in your mind, but you can never find an actorthat matches up to that. I feel that each time you cast a part, you're giving part of the film away. But you give the part to an actor, and he comes back to you, and presents you with a performance which usually differs from your preconception. And the answer there, the smart thing to do, is to alter the part to suit the actor, to rewrite it for the actor, rather than to force the actor into the way the part is written.
THE MORE I LEARN, THE LESS I KNOW
Technically speaking, if you compare it to, say, aeronautical engineering, film is quite simple. It's a nineteenth-century invention. You could learn the theory in a few weeks. But then, once you try to put it into practice, you realize you have to deal with so many variables—people, weather, egos, story—there are so many factors that to control them all is impossible. I remember Jean-Luc Godard once told me, "You have to be young and foolish to make a movie. Because if you know as much as we do, it becomes impossible." What he meant was that when you can foresee all the problems, it paralyzes you.
Very often, first films are very good because the director didn't realize how difficult it was going to be. I know that when I started out, I had that reckless foolishness which was very creative. At the same time, I had the fear and terror, each day, that things were going to fall apart. Now, of course, I've become more cautious. But I also don't feel fear anymore, I feel more comfortable on the set, I know it's where I belong. But it doesn't mean I feel I know everything about filmmaking. Quite on the contrary. I spent some time with David Lean just before he died. At the time, he was preparing Nostromo, and he said, "I hope I'll be able to make this film, because I feel that I'm just beginning to get the hang of it." I feel very much like that. In fact, I would even say that the more films I make, the less I feel I know.
Films: Catch Us if You Can (Having a Wild Weekend) (1965), Point Blank (1967), Hell in the Pacific (1968), Leo the Last (1970), Deliverance (1972), Zardoz (1974), The Heretic: Exorcist II (1977), Excalibur (1981), The Emerald Forest (1985), Hope and Glory (1987), Where the Heart Is (1990), Beyond Rangoon (1995), Lumière et compagnie (1995), The General (1999), The Tailor of Panama (2001)
b. 1934, Lafayette, Indiana
Here is a man you could listen to for hours. Not just because of what he says, but because he has a totally captivating personality. Sydney Pollack is cerebral but down-to-earth, seasoned but passionate. He has a natural authority but always makes you feel completely at ease. And I can easily understand why other directors sometimes ask him to act in their films, usually with great results.
Pollack is probably the most "Hollywood" of all the directors I've met, in the sense that he only does big studio films, usually with huge budgets and big-name stars. His more recent films, such as Sabrina or Random Hearts, may be a little less edgy than those he made in the seventies, such as Three Days of the Condor or They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, and perhaps less sweeping than Out of Africa. Yet one thing remains absolutely constant in all of them: the quality of acting. Actors who work with Pollack once are usually so happy with the results that they volunteer eagerly for future projects. Most actors who haven't had the opportunity are waiting for their turn. Naturally, I therefore expected that most of our master class would center around directing actors, but, to my delight, Sydney Pollack had much more to say about all the other aspects of making films.
Master Class with Sydney Pollack
I never chose to make films, really, and, in a way, it is only after I became a director that I started to learn filmmaking. So I did it backwards, in a way. I had been teaching acting for four years or so when somebody suggested that I become a director, and before I knew it, I was making films for TV, and then for the big screen. Given my background, I wasn't drawn to sweeping, visual films. To me, everything was in the performance, in the acting. The rest was just ... photography. But then, over the years, I began to understand filmmaking as a syntax, as a vocabulary, as a language. And I discovered the satisfaction that could be drawn from giving the audience the right sequence of information through the way the shots were framed, or the way the camera movements were set up.
What I realized, in fact, is that filmmaking is essentially storytelling. I wouldn't say that I make films to tell stories, though. Not really. My principal interest is in relationships. To me, relationships are a metaphor for everything else in life: politics, morality ... everything. So basically, I make films to learn more about relationships. But I don't make films to say anything, because I wouldn't know what to say. I think there are basically two kinds of filmmakers: those who know and understand a truth which they want to communicate to the world, and those who are not quite sure what the answer to something is and who make the film as a way to try and find out. That's what I do.
FINDING THE SPINE
It's important not to intellectualize the filmmaking process too much. And particularly not during the actual shooting. I might think a lot about the film before I make it, and certainly after, but I try not to think too much when I'm actually on theset. The way I work is that I try to determine as early as possible what the theme of the movie is, what central idea is being expressed through the story. Once I know that, once I have figured out a unifying principle, then any decision I make on the set will be influenced by that and will therefore fall into a certain logic. And to me, the success of a film depends on whether or not the choices you make on the set, as a director, remain true to the original idea.
For instance, Three Days of the Condor is a film about trust. Robert Redford plays a character who trusts people too easily and who will learn to be more suspicious. Faye Dunaway, on the other hand, plays a woman who trusts no one, and who, through this dramatic situation, will learn to open up. In Out of Africa, the central idea is about possession. It's about England trying to own Africa, and it's about Meryl Streep trying to own Redford. If you take both of these films and analyze them, sequence by sequence, then I should be able to justify every choice I've made, as a filmmaker, in regard to their respective themes.
It's a process I often compare to sculpture: you start with a sort of spine, like a skeleton, and then, little by little, you cover it with clay and give it a shape. Now, it's the spine that holds everything together. Without it, the sculpture would just collapse. But the spine must not be visible or it would ruin everything. And it's the same with a movie. If someone walks out of Three Days of the Condor and says, "Oh, it's a film about trust," then I have failed as a filmmaker. The audience must not be conscious of it. Ideally, they will understand it in an abstract way. But what's important is that every aspect of the film be coherent because it is motivated by that theme.
Even the set must reflect the central idea of the film. Which is why I used to love wide screen. Most of my early pictures were shot in wide screen because I feel that it allowsyou to use the background as a reflection—as a metaphor, I would even say—of what is going on in the foreground. When I made They Shoot Horses, Don't They? I insisted that it be shot in wide screen, and nobody understood why, because it takes place almost entirely indoors. But it's a mistake to think that the purpose of wide screen is to shoot big scenery. The real purpose of it is to compose frames that have enormous tension and movement in them, to shoot pictures that need a sense of place. Because even if you frame two people in close-up, you still have space to see the background behind them. If I had shot Horses with a flat frame, you would have seen two people dancing and nothing else. You would have lost sense of all the madness around.
Ironically, the first film I did not shoot in wide screen was Out of Africa. It may seem odd, because this is certainly a film that demanded as big a frame as possible, but by then, it was the mid-eighties, and I realized that most people were going to see the film on video. I didn't want it to be butchered on the small screen.
I MAKE FILMS TO RAISE QUESTIONS
The only way you can make films for an audience is to make them for yourself. Not out of arrogance, but simply for practical reasons. A film has to be entertaining, that's absolutely true. But how can you know what the audience is going to like? You have to use yourself as a reference. That's what I do. And sometimes I'm wrong. When I made Havana, I was wrong, but I would still make it the same way today.
I choose projects that interest me, and I've been lucky enough that most of the time, my films interested the audience too. Had I tried to second-guess what the audience wanted to see, however, I'm sure I would have failed, because it's like trying to solve a very complex mathematical problem.So I make movies about things that fascinate me—about relationships, mostly, as I said earlier. I try to make films that raise questions more than give answers, films that might not really have a conclusion to them, because I don't like it when one person is right and one person is wrong. I mean, if that's the case, it's not worth making the movie, really.
Most of the films I've made have contained within them an argument regarding the way of life of two people. I have to admit I tend to be slightly more sympathetic toward women than men. I'm not sure why, but in my films, women tend to be a little wiser or to have a more humanistic view of things. That's true in a film like The Way We Were. If you look at Barbra Streisand's character in that film, I would say that, although there were many silly things about her, in the long run, she was probably more right than he was. And so most of the work I did on that film, from the minute I started working on it, was to strengthen the man's part, the one played by Redford, because it was initially written with her being a very passionate, committed woman, and he was just a guy who didn't care about anything. It was too easy. It wasn't captivating. For me, the interesting question is, how do you make a decision when both people have a valid point? I have no preconceived ideas. I might have preconceived ideas about certain moral acts, but not when it comes to the relationship between two characters. And the harder it is to determine who is right, the better the film is, I think.
A DIRECTOR EXPERIMENTS ON EACH FILM
There is a grammar of filmmaking, a basic grammar that you depart from. Always. And I think it's important to learn the grammar first. Otherwise, it's like calling yourself an abstract painter because you cannot paint something that is real. It's putting the cart before the horse. You can make your ownrules, and you can break all the rules you want—people do it all the time—but I think before you do that, you need to understand the basic grammar. The rules give you a standard, a reference, from which you can then create something original.
For instance, if you want to create tension, or make the audience uncomfortable, you might deliberately go against the rules of composition and make a character look toward the short side of the frame and not the long side. Doing something like that unbalances the picture slightly and might give you the tension you need. But you will get that idea only if you first learn what a balanced frame is.
In any case, I think that there is a degree of experimentation on every film. On Horses, for instance, I learned to roller-skate, and I used a skydiving camera mounted on a helmet to film some of the dance sequences because there was no Steadicam at the time, and the machinery was much too heavy to do certain moves.3 We had huge dollies that took twenty grips to push just one cameraman on a stool; it was ridiculous. On Out of Africa, I was faced with a big lighting problem because I discovered that the light near the equator is very ugly. It's a straight, stripped-down light that has enormous contrast. The tests we did with regular film stock were dreadful to look at. So we decided to experiment, and we went backwards, meaning that we used the fastest film we could find, which was around 3000 ASA. We had to underexpose it considerably, of course, but it was so low-contrast that it gave the film a very soft look. And on the days when it was overcast, we used the slowest film we had and overexposed ittwo stops, and then printed it down, which gave us a very rich look.4
Another film on which I experimented was The Firm. What I decided on this film was that no shot would be still. On every shot of every scene, the cameraman, John Seale, always had his hand on the zoom or on the head of the tripod, and he would move the camera a little bit. It's almost imperceptible, and he did it so slowly that you only notice it if you're looking for it. But I think it helps create the feeling of instability that was necessary to the story. And really, the only reason to experiment must be to serve the story. If you're trying things just because they might look good, I think it's a waste of time.
KEEP ACTORS FROM ACTING
Often, when I read a scene in a script, I get a strange feeling, as if I'm hearing the music of that scene in my head. It's sort of abstract, but when I get on the set, it's that music that really helps me decide where to put the camera. I tend to cover each scene a lot, mostly if they're dialogue scenes, because of matching problems. Sometimes I get a very straightforward scene, where I know there's really only one way to shoot it, and I stick to that. But that's pretty rare.
In any case, I usually start with the actors. And when they get on the set, the first thing I do is send everyone else away. Even a cat or a dog. Actors are very self-conscious. I don't care what they say; I know they can easily be humiliated and that they might not try certain things if people are watching. I never give an actor directions in front of other actors. Becauseotherwise, when he does the scene again, he knows that I'm watching and judging him, of course, but he also knows that the other actors are watching and judging him! So it's a very private process. In fact, the first thing I do is keep the actors from acting. I say, "No acting, no performance, just read the lines." That relaxes them a lot.
What I'm trying to do, really, is hold the acting until it happens by itself. Because it will. Pretty soon they'll start moving around as they say their lines, and you'll get a sense of what they want to do. I never tell them, "You go there and you sit here," because then they feel excluded from the process; they feel like they're not a part of it. I might start directing a little bit, but I do it very progressively. My feeling is, if there are seven things wrong with the scene, just talk about one. Then, once it's fixed, talk about another one, and so on. Solve problems one at a time. You can't ask an actor to think about five different things at a time. You have to be patient.
I never spend too much time on rehearsals because I'm always afraid I might get it right in the rehearsals and that it'll be gone in the performance. So once I think we're getting there, I bring the crew in and send the actors to their trailers for make-up and wardrobe, and then I go see each of the actors privately and talk to them some more about the scene. That way, each actor has a different sense of what he or she will bring back to the set. And then, once they get on the set, I always try to roll the camera too soon. It makes the actors a little tense, it catches them off guard a little, and it tends to give better results.
AN ACTOR DOES NOT NEED TO UNDERSTAND
There are lots of truths about directing actors. Some directors understand them intuitively, and some don't. I think the most common mistake a director can make is to direct too much.When given such huge responsibilities, it's easy to feel like you're not doing your job if you're not constantly telling people what to do. But the truth is, that's silly. If everything is going OK, you should just shut up and be glad. The more you work, the more you realize how little this job requires. Well, it does require a lot, but there is a much simpler, a more economical, and, ultimately, a more efficient way to do it than to always be telling people what to do.
The other important thing to know, I think, is that acting has nothing to do with intellectuality. An actor doesn't need to understand in a conventional way what he is doing—he just has to do it. And so you have to make a distinction between direction that produces behavior and direction that produces intellectual understanding, the latter being absolutely useless. Most young directors will talk for hours about the meaning of a scene and never direct behavior. That won't make the actor angrier or more touching in the scene. He only needs to understand what he needs to live truthfully in an imaginary set of circumstances. Because all acting comes from wanting something. It's what you want that makes you do something, not what you think.
THE REAL CHALLENGE IS THE STORY
When I did some work for the Sundance Institute, all the young directors I met were frightened of actors. They were terrified at the idea of having to direct actors. So the advice I gave them, which I would give to any beginning filmmaker, is that they should go and observe an acting class. Better yet, they should take a class and learn a little bit about acting because that's the best way to understand what an actor does—and does not—need in order to function.
The other thing I would say to a beginning filmmaker is that technique is something to fall back on when things don'thappen by themselves. If things do happen by themselves, accept your good luck with gratitude and keep quiet. If you know that you have a great script, that you cast your film right, and that you have a great cinematographer, and if when you start rehearsing on the set things work out fine, then keep quiet. Don't mess it up. Learning to keep quiet is as important as learning what to say.
Of course, I understand that there might be a desire for challenge. But then make the story the challenge, not the technique. When I started working on Three Days of the Condor, for instance, I was only interested in the romance between Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. The rest was just background to me. And the challenge in that story was to make the audience believe that a man and a woman meeting in such dramatic circumstances (he has kidnapped her) could end up falling in love in less than two days. I call that a "Richard III challenge" because of the scene in the Shakespeare play where a man actually seduces the widow of his dead enemy just hours after he's killed him. I think it's amazing to be able to accomplish something like that. Of course, it's not easy, and you have more chances to fail than to succeed. But if you play it safe, I can assure you that you will never achieve anything interesting.
Films: The Slender Thread (1965), This Property Is Condemned (1966), The Scalphunters (1968), Castle Keep (1969), They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), Jeremiah Johnson (1972), The Way We Were (1973), The Yakuza (1975), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Bobby Deerfield (1977), The Electric Horseman (1979), Absence of Malice (1981), Tootsie (1982), Out of Africa (1985), Havana (1990), The Firm (1993), Sabrina (1995), Random Hearts (1999)
b. 1924, Montrouge, France; d. 2000, Paris, France
There are directors who are able to capture in an authentic and visceral way the essence of the times they live in, as though they have their finger on the pulse of a whole nation. So it was with Claude Sautet in the seventies. When The Things of Life (Les choses de la vie) came out, it was as if an entire generation of middle-class Frenchmen in their forties were handed a mirror in which they could look at all their flaws and weaknesses. And they loved it. Then times changed. In the much less political and introspective eighties, people started to turn away from Claude Sautet's films. For my generation, his films were those our parents loved, so they were automatically rejected. In addition, Sautet himself seemed less inspired in that period. It was only in the nineties that he came back with two very powerful films, A Heart in Winter and Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud, which reminded everybody what a fantastic filmmaker he was.
Today French people will often sat "a Claude Sautet-type film" when trying to talk about a style that depicts life in a natural and humane way. That, I think, is the greatest reward he could hope for. I met with Sautet two years after he'd directed the hugely successful Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud. Everybody was eagerly awaiting his next film, but, sadly, Sautet died of cancer the following year. Journalists who knew him said he was not only a great interviewee but a great person to get to know. They were right. Shy yet incredibly direct, Claude Sautet chained-smoked all day. He was hypersensitive and somewhat clumsy, but he was a man you couldn't help but like. I know many in France—and film fans all over the world—miss him today.
Master Class with Claude Sautet
It was more through chance than anything else that I got into filmmaking. But what I found there was something I didn't expect: a means of communicating certain emotions that words couldn't easily define, and which, up until that point, I thought only music could reveal in a nonexplicative manner.
I should point out that I started reading at a fairly late age, around sixteen, and because of this I suffered for many years from a lack of vocabulary and some difficulty in expressing my thoughts. Ideas would come together in my mind in a rather abstract manner, with a structure that was more like music. I had no musical talent, but I discovered that film, in fact, offered just about the same structure and the same potential for expression. In jazz, for instance, there's a theme, and once this theme has been established, each player is free to improvise on it. It's the same thing with film: there's a horizontal axis (the theme and the story) that remains constant and a vertical axis (the tone) that each director develops in his own way. The only difference is that film is a recorded image which possesses an inescapable documentary power. In other words, a film is a dream, but it's a dream made up of reality. Therefore, you need to retain a certain rigor in the freedom that you take. You can do a great deal with film, but you can't do everything.
A FILM IS ABOVE ALL AN ATMOSPHERE
I don't think any self-respecting filmmaker can be content with directing only. And even if they're not officially credited with the screenplay, most serious directors "steer" the writing of their films. If they leave the task of writing to others, that's because the concentration required to correctly write a screenplay takes up a huge amount of energy, and directorsprefer to keep this energy to focus on directing. Personally, one of the reasons why I don't work alone on screenplays is that it bores me and I quickly lose heart. But, above all, I don't work alone because I need another person's vision. I need to discuss things that are confused and contradictory within me. When I start writing a film, I don't have a story. It's more abstract than that. I usually just have ideas about characters and relationships.
You have to understand that the films that made me want to direct are the American B movies of the forties and fifties. What I liked about them was their total lack of literary pretension. The directors simply filmed the actions of their characters with enough attention and compassion to bring them to life. As a result, of course, a large part of their personality was left in the dark. That's what I liked, and I've always attempted to re-create that in my films. It's what I call "a portrait in motion"—in other words, a sort of snapshot that, unavoidably, always remains incomplete or unfinished.
This is why I never start out with a story but with something more abstract that you could call the atmosphere. In fact, everything begins with a jumbled obsession that I find hard to explain and that I try to sum up by imagining characters, by creating a relationship between them, and by trying to find the most intense point in this relationship—in other words, the moment of crisis. Once I have that, I have my theme. Then my work consists of exposing this theme through film techniques, delaying it, speeding it up, or hurling it forward, often by indirect means. And that's how the climate is created.
Directors who manage to summarize their films always impress me. For example, if someone were to ask me what The Things of Life is about, I wouldn't know how to reply other than to say, "It's about a guy who has a car accident." Otherwise, I would go into endless detail.
FILMING THE UNSPOKEN
If you were to ask thirty directors to shoot the same scene, you'd probably discover thirty different approaches. One of them would shoot everything in a single take; another would use a series of brief shots; and yet another would use only close-ups, focusing on faces and so forth. It's all a matter of point of view. There's no hard-and-fast rule—there can't really be one because directing is wholly dependent on the physical relationship between a filmmaker and the set that is being filmed. You can read the screenplay and think, "I know, I'll start this scene with a close-up." But it isn't until you're on the set and the actors have taken over their characters that the process of filming becomes material.
Personally—and I like speaking about this because people have often reproached me about it—I always try to film as simply as possible. I almost always film a conversation with reverse-angle shots.5 People tell me that the reverse-angle is a TV technique. Maybe, but on TV, it's a TV reverse-angle. In film, it's very different. On TV, it's a method that allows you to save time. In film, on the contrary, I make the most of this simplicity to try out all kinds of things: I change lenses from one shot to the next, change rhythm, change the size of the frame, film over the shoulder or avoid doing so, place mirrors behind the actors, and so on. Often, I even oblige the actor who is off-frame to speak the lines differently, or I speak them myself, to create an element of surprise and unease in the actor being filmed. I like to create uncertainty between the characters because this helps give them greater presence. Above all, on TV, people are worried about moments of silence. In film, it's the opposite: stares and silence are an integral part ofthe plot. And from that point of view, a simple reverse-angle shot can easily become a confrontation. I feel that these scenes aren't there to get information across through the dialogue but, on the contrary, to express what is going on behind the words and what is generally left unsaid.
I have taken this idea very far at times. I remember, for instance, that when I finished cutting Mado, I realized the lead actor hardly says anything for the first half of the film. I thought, "Damn, he doesn't speak, that's a problem." But, in fact, he didn't need to speak. Anything he could have said would simply have harmed the character. In any case, I realize that most of the time, dialogue is an appalling succession of clichés. The only thing that makes any difference is the intonation. The same words spoken with different tones can alter the whole dramatic intensity of a scene. And this is all the more striking when you see your film dubbed into another language, say, German or Italian. The intonation is no longer the same, and, all of a sudden, it's as if the actors themselves had changed faces.
EVERYTHING IS BASED ON INSTINCT
Whatever your level of preparation for a film, reality will inevitably oblige you to improvise most of your decisions on the set. The human factor is obviously one of the most unpredictable elements, the one that most frequently obliges you to question things.
On The Things of Life, for instance, at the start of shooting, I discovered that one of the actors froze as soon as the camera was too close to him. He simply couldn't perform. I realized that the only way to get anything out of him was to move the camera back and to film him with a very long lens. In fact, it helped him give a better performance. But, as a result, it forced me to change the film's whole visual style, since Icouldn't film the other actors with different lenses. That wouldn't have been consistent. So you see, sometimes a very minor detail can influence a whole film.
But the element that has the greatest impact on the director's work—and it would be absurd to claim otherwise—is the economic factor. The more "realistic" approach of French New Wave cinema, for instance, was closely linked to questions of budget.6 At the time, people felt that shooting in natural settings was cheaper. Therefore, they would shoot in real apartments rather than in film studios. But such decisions necessarily have important consequences for the film's aesthetic characteristics. When you shoot in a studio, you try to bring an artificial setting to life, whereas in the opposite case, you attempt to stylize an overly realistic set. Therefore, in the studio, the stylistic approach consists of creating disorder, and on location, it consists of creating order. That changes a great number of things. In addition, in a natural setting you're forced to use lenses with short focal lengths and to limit the camera movements because you can't move the walls out of the way as you can in a studio. All this ends up having its influence on the film's visual aspect.
Today, people have realized that shooting on location can often be more costly than shooting in the studio because you need to close off streets, park trucks, bring in generators, and so on. So they're returning to the studio, toward a more traditional aesthetic form. You gain in comfort, but you lose what only shooting on location can bring you—that is, the unforeseen elements that are often a source of original ideas. When confronted with all these exterior elements, the only way tomake decisions is to rely on your instinct and focus on the abstract idea that has been guiding you since the writing of the screenplay and on which you must remain steadfast until the end of shooting. You must remain faithful to your instinct because in the end, your instinct is the only thing that justifies making one decision rather than another.
KEEP YOUR DISTANCE, BUT STAY CLOSE
When it comes to breaking down a scene, there's never any obvious way to do it. There are only problems for which you try to find the best solution possible. I know, for example, that I am incapable of shooting what people call an establishing shot—a fairly wide shot at the start of a scene that shows the audience where we are. I've tried, but I can never pull it off. I don't know why. So, each time I start a scene in a new setting, I try to break it down in such a way that the audience will discover the setting without realizing it, through the characters' actions.
This is why I always begin by working with the actors on the set. I act as if they were free to place themselves wherever they choose, but they don't really know where to position themselves. So I suggest a few things. I tell them, "You can stay sitting there or start here and move from there to there." We do that until they feel that the movements are natural, rehearsing the dialogue very little. They simply speak their lines quietly, just to check that everything works. Then I talk with the director of photography and we try to find the best angles to shoot the movements that have been worked out.
The whole problem of directing, at this point, is to find out how to be both close and distant, how to be inside the character while keeping a strategic distance. It's a process that requires a great deal of concentration. When the director of photography suggests a frame, I take a look and then accept orrefuse it. But while we're shooting, I never check the monitor, first because I prefer to look at the actors directly—and I think that they too prefer that—and second because I like the idea of the DP being the film's first audience in a way, through the lens. I think it's important to delegate this kind of responsibility because it makes people put more into their work. Obviously, there are times when I view the dailies and realize that the camera operator hasn't at all filmed what we planned and that we'll need to reshoot it. That's never very pleasant, of course. But it's part of the game.
EVERY ACTOR WANTS TO PERFORM
The very basis for directing actors is trust. Given the kind of films that I make, it's very important for me to find actors who have sufficient confidence—in themselves and in me—to reveal their most vulnerable side. Several times, actors have said to me, "I don't have any lines in this scene. Isn't that a problem? If I don't say anything, won't people get the impression that I'm not thinking anything?" So I reassure them and explain what Anglo-Saxon countries understood a long time ago, namely, that the actor who stares has more presence than the actor who speaks.
Everything depends, of course, on the way the actor stares. There are actors who are worried about their ability to express something when there are no verbal indications, and you need to give them confidence in their bare existence. Similarly, some actresses don't want to have their hair pulled back because they feel naked. It's what I prefer because they have no possibility for concealment and so perform better.
This is something that I discovered with Romy Schneider, of course. During the rehearsals for The Things of Life, I saw her once with her hair up and I thought, "What a difference, it's incredible—she doesn't even need to speak!" Since then, Ihave often used this with actresses because they give off more power and sensitivity this way.
But before you can direct an actor well, you need to choose the right actor. And that requires a fair number of meetings, conversations in which you talk about everything: politics, childhood, troubled moments ... After a while, a climate of trust is created, and, indirectly, you discover a great deal about the potential of the actor, who can't control his image at that point because he isn't being filmed. He ends up revealing aspects of his personality, and you need to reward him for showing his vulnerability by making him understand that this is what interests you. The rest—in other words, knowing whether the actor corresponds to the part—is much less important than people think, for the simple reason that every actor wants to perform and, if possible, to perform as someone who isn't like him or her at all. So the real problem isn't knowing whether the actor matches the character but whether he or she matches me. Moreover, actors know this. When I met Michel Serrault for Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud, he had just read the screenplay and I asked him if he was interested in the part. He smiled and immediately replied, "What about me? Do I interest you?" It's all a matter of personality. You can get an actor to read clichés, but if his personality is powerful enough, there won't be any clichés.
WHAT OUR FILMS TEACH US
I've never been truly satisfied with any of my films. Generally, at the end of editing, I tell myself that I didn't do too badly after all. Often the film is not exactly what I wanted to make, but it's close. However, when I see the film again a few years later, I'm usually dismayed. I see things that seem terribly awkward and clumsy to me. True, there are other things that I find fairly beautiful and that even have a certain grace, butsince I am generally incapable of understanding or remembering how I obtained them, this is almost even more depressing!
Seeing your films later is always an instructive experience. You usually discover that, out of concern for clarity, you stressed some things when, in fact, they were totally explicit. That's one of the great lessons you learn from your first films. You realize that the cinematic language offers all kinds of tricks to explain without explaining.
Seeing your films again, you also discover all the things that they have in common, all the things that you systematically put into them without being aware of it. Personally, with hindsight, I can clearly perceive my mania of always tackling male characters more critically than female ones, which probably comes from my childhood and the fact that I grew up with an absent father. All kinds of things like that return in each film, whether I want them to or not. The sets change, the characters too, but the same underlying themes return. In fact, despite all the energy that I've put into each new project to make it different, in the end I've been making the same film all my life.
Films: Bonjour sourire (unreleased in the U.S.) (1955), The Big Risk (Classe tous risques) (1960), The Dictator's Guns (L'arme a gauche) (1965), The Things of Life (Les choses de la vie) (1970), Max (Max et les ferrailleurs) (1971), César and Rosalie (César et Rosalie) (1972), Vincent, François, Paul ... and the Others (Vincent, François, Paul ... et les autres) (1974), Mado (1976), A Simple Story (Une histoire simple) (1978), Un mauvais fils (unreleased in the U.S.) (1980), Waiter! (Garçon!) (1983), A Few Days with Me (Quelques jours avec moi) (1988), A Heart in Winter (Un cœur en hiver) (1992), Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud) (1995)
Copyright © 2002 by Laurent Tirard
Joel and Ethan Coen
Lars Von Trier
In a Class by Himself
Posted December 18, 2005
Somewhat short when it comes to the actual interviews,but they do get the point across on directing. Delivering each directors tasks and tricks. A great read and a must have for any aspiring directors and curious fans of how great films are turned into great films.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.