Despite the increasing popularity of academic filmmaking programs in the United States, some of contemporary America’s most exciting film directors have emerged from the theater world. Directors: From Stage to Screen and Back Again features a series of interviews with directors who did just that, transitioning from work on stage productions to work in television and on full-length features.
Taken together, these interviews demonstrate the myriad ways in which a theater background can engender innovative and stimulating work in film. As unique and idiosyncratic as the personalities they feature, the directors’ conversations with Susan Lehman range over a vast field of topics. Each one traces its subject’s personal artistic journey and explores how he or she handled the challenge of moving from stage to screen. Combined with a foreword by Emmy award-winning screenwriter Steve Brown, the directors’ collective knowledge and experience will be invaluable to scholars, aspiring filmmakers, theater aficionados, and film enthusiasts.
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About the Author
Susan Beth Lehman, a former actor, director, and screenwriter, is assistant professor of TV and film at DeSales University in Pennsylvania.
Read an Excerpt
From Stage to Screen and Back Again
By Susan Beth Lehman
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Paul Aaron, August 2010
Paul Aaron believes that creating a great ensemble is the key to being a successful director.
Aaron grew up in Hoosick Falls in the 1950s, the prototype setting for Thornton Wilder's classic American play Our Town. Aaron graduated as a Drama Fellow from Bennington College in the mid- 1960s. Shortly thereafter, he was the Casting and New Programs Director at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. There, he founded an actor's workshop and directed several plays, including a critically acclaimed production of The Threepenny Opera.
Upon returning to New York, his directing career was firmly established with his production of the national tour of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, starring Academy Award winner Kim Hunter. Off Broadway, he directed the rock musical Salvation in 1969, starring then-unknown actors Barry Bostwick, Joe Morton and Bette Midler. In 1974 Variety called his direction of Ugo Betti's drama The Burnt Flower Bed" ... nothing less than masterful." His directorial debut on Broadway was Paris is Out in 1970.
In 1977 he was awarded the Los Angeles Drama Critic's Award as Best Director for Paddy Chayefsky's play The Tenth Man, starring Richard Dreyfuss. His film career followed with A Different Story in 1978, the first Hollywood film to depict gay people as positive protagonists.
His follow-up feature was the action film A Force of One in 1979, staring Chuck Norris and Jennifer O'Neill, with a screenplay by Academy Award winner, Ernest Tidyman.
Aaron entered television in 1979, helming the Emmy Award- winning NBC Special Event of William Gibson's classic The Miracle Worker. His work has garnered the Christopher Award, Director's Guild and Golden Globe award nominations and the Director's prize from the Monte Carlo Film Festival.
Aaron continues to direct on both film and stage with some of the most esteemed actors of the past half-century, including Lillian Gish, Claudette Colbert, Jane Alexander, Fritz Weaver, Glenn Close, Mandy Patinkin, James Earl Jones and James Woods.
In the 1980s, he created Elsboy Entertainment, where he manages artists and develops projects as a writer, producer and director. He guest lectures at many universities, including UCLA and the University of Washington.
Paul started our conversation asking me what led me to this project.
SL: Since switching from teaching theater to film, I've noticed that a greater percentage of my theater students had much more intellectual curiosity about history, and the world, including all aspects of their own art than many of my film students. And though my film students are extremely bright, a majority of them didn't do theater in high school and just want to play with the toys of filmmaking. Because video has become so accessible, students easily come into our program with wonderful technical skills, but lack an interest and understanding of the importance of character and story that results from studying literature and theater.
PA: The academics insist on separating themselves: theory, or technology, or aesthetics. Film is a constantly evolving technical medium, as you said, "They want to play with the toys." But it's very important to know the evolution of those toys, and what the artists in directing, writing, cinematography and so on, have done in the past that pave the way to the future.
One of the great weaknesses of film programs is that they do not study the language of acting. The language, the very core of the communication, is one of the very few things that are similar in terms of theater and film. Most other ways they are very different.
SL: Where are you from?
PA: Brought up in a little village in upstate New York called Hoosick Falls known mostly because it is the home of Grandma Moses. If you pick any Grandma Moses paintings you'll know my childhood.
SL: And you went to Bennington College?
PA: I went to Brandeis University first and then got a fellowship to Bennington.
SL: When did you start in theater?
PA: I was directing in my little town in the community theater when I was 16. I was still in high school but directing adults.
SL: Okay, so to the manor born?
PA: I didn't grow up in the alleys of New York. You know, I mean in Shubert Alley, going to plays when I was seven or eight or nine. I don't think I saw a play in New York until I was probably 16, 17. The Diary of Anne Frank  was the first play I ever saw. But it didn't matter what play it was, because somehow that's always what I wanted to do. That's always how I saw myself. Before I knew what directors did, I was directing.
When I did my first Broadway show, on the opening night there are always lots of flowers and gifts. There was also a special delivery envelope from Dorothy Niles who was my second grade teacher back in Hoosick Falls. Inside was a yellowed mimeograph program, from the days when purple mimeo was the way of copying. It was a program from second grade: "The Adventures of Ichabod Crane, adapted, produced and directed by Paul Aaron." So who knows? As you said, "to the manor born."
SL: You went to Brandeis University?
PA: I went to Brandeis after high school. Actually, I spent a year in Israel, and then I went to Brandeis for two years. Bennington College was not yet coed, but they had Drama Fellows in dance and drama. And there were, I think, 12 of us. The school mandated that you couldn't matriculate from high school. You had to have gone two years elsewhere before they would invite you to finish with them. It couldn't be a very serious program of drama or dance if you didn't have men and women. A year or two years after I graduated, the school became coed. So, I was one of the last of the Drama Fellows. [The all-female college became coed in 1969] Alan Arkin was Drama Fellow. Oh yeah, lots of great people.
SL: And why did you pick theater over film?
PA: Because I could do it. Because it didn't involve technology. There was no video at the time. I mean the idea to be able to work with film, and your parents going out to buy you equipment was impossible. Now you can have a MAC computer, and for a few grand you can make a feature-length motion picture. But what I could do was get five kids together and do Ichabod Crane. I did it because I could do it. I have never been technically interested or gifted. I'm a storyteller, and I could do that best in theater. And it was not until later that I went to do film.
SL: What brought you to film?
PA: What brought me to film was that I was casting for Seventy Girls Seventy , the Kandor/Ebb musical I was directing. There were several girls in Hollywood being considered for the lead, so, I went out there for casting purposes.
I had been in Los Angeles for two years right after college. I had been director of new programs at the Taper [The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles] and helped get the Rockefeller Grant that got the New Plays and Playwrights Programs.
When I was in LA those years, I made a lot of friends. Among them were Richard Dreyfuss and his friend Carl. Later, when I was casting the play Tenth Man [Richard Dreyfuss starred in the production at the Solari Theatre in Beverly Hills in 1977], I had lunch with a friend of theirs, who ran a very large commercial house. It was in the days when tax shelters for film had just begun. There was suddenly an influx of capital to make movies. The company had only made commercials and industrial films but wanted to go into the feature business. They had cinematographers, editors and commercial directors. But, they didn't have anybody who understood story and actors. So after that lunch he decided that I was the guy he wanted. Even though I had never shot a frame of film, didn't even take still pictures and had no great interest in cameras. He said, "Aaron, I know you are going to be directing a show on Broadway, but I would love you to consider coming to California, and I will give you this job and you will come to work here." I told him that I didn't know. He said, "That's exactly why I want you. I have a zillion people around here that will show you everything you want to know. I have all the equipment, I have editors, I have DPs [director of photography]. What I don't have is you. So you can help to teach them and they can help to teach you."
I went back to New York and finished mounting the show. Six months later, after the play closed, I felt it was time to make a move. I went back to LA and took the job. And it's exactly what happened. He raised some money and I was going to produce a film called A Different Story. I prepared a list of directors I thought would be perfect. And they said, "Your name isn't on this list." I mean, there were great people on this list, like Mike Nichols. We're talking about 1978. So they said, "Why isn't your name on the list?"
I have directed lots of theater. I've got lots of great reviews; Clive Barns and John Simon. I don't have any credit in the movie business, and I understand enough in the production that money needs to follow credibility. They said, "Why don't you let us worry about that." I had already developed the screenplay with them so I'd been in many meetings. They said, "Nobody knows this movie more than you. You certainly know the actors. You certainly have learned a lot about cameras and whatever. We have people here who will work with you. We'll find you a great DP. We think you should direct this."
So, what was I going to say? I was blown away. It was a gift. And I didn't even consider myself as a possibility, they did. And so, I directed it. That was my first film, and it was an amazing experience. I got thrown into the pool.
Since the film was successful, it let me do other things. The next thing they were developing was A Force of One , the first big Chuck Norris movie. They had fired the director and asked me to step in. I said, "Guys, you know, I just did a romantic comedy about two gay characters who are evolving in their lives. I could relate and discuss. But I don't know anything about Martial Arts, other than I took my stepson to every karate movie there was."
I went to meet Chuck and wound up rewriting the script and directing that movie and that established his career. Suddenly I had a film career and people were calling from studios and asking to work with me.
At the time if you were directing features you certainly didn't direct television because it was a step down. But they offered me The Miracle Worker  as a television special event that IBM was sponsoring. Three acts with only three commercial breaks- the initial three act form of the play. I was going to work with Bill Gibson [the playwright, William Gibson] in creating the teleplay. Certainly Arthur Penn had already done the movie. But, I was going to do it in color. Patty Duke was to play Anne Sullivan. [Patty Duke performed the original role of Helen Keller on Broadway and in the 1962 film where she won the Academy Award for best supporting actress.] My agents didn't want me to take it, but I knew I had to.
I saw the rehearsal schedule and knew I needed to be more creative with the time. I called a friend of mine at the Palm Beach Playhouse in Miami and said if I can bring you this cast for three weeks, will you put this show on at the playhouse? He said he didn't know if he could afford it. We've Patty Duke, Melissa Gilbert, just pay Equity [Actors' Equity Association] minimum and we will sell out every night. We only had an 18-day shoot and I wanted the ensemble, the time to rehearse, which is a thing film directors can't do.
Because no one had ever done this, I went to the producers and to the network with my plan. "Three weeks to shoot the movie and now you're asking for six weeks before that to rehearse and do the play? So, you're asking them for nine weeks and basically they will be earning Equity minimum salaries for most of that time?" I said, "How about I if I tell you that I am only hiring actors who care enough about their performance that they will be thrilled to do this and they will tell their agents to go fish? They will get the opportunity to be on film having been rehearsed and having evolved characters to the depth that the camera now will truly see."
And that's exactly what happened. That's what we did. Patty won an Emmy. Melissa won an Emmy. The show won the Emmy for the best movie. And that's why. Not because I was a great film director. It was that I could do the process that makes for potentially great storytelling, whether it's in film or in theater.
SL: What is your process?
PA: It has definitely evolved over time. When I first began, my process was theater, and I put theater on film. All the films that I had grown up with and loved were of that process. The directors like George Cukor and Frank Capra are theater guys. They all came from a world of storytelling. They had learned from Ernst Lubitsch and the people who had come early on to Hollywood and who had all come from theater. Whether it was Czechoslovakian theater, or Russian Theater, or wherever it was, they understood the nature of the story.
It was like linear, representative painting. We were all painting clowns. When I'm teaching, I say paint clowns because that is what Picasso did. Before you can paint a woman with three breasts you have to paint some clowns. You have to play some scales before you can go off and flow that piano and know it. You ultimately have to understand the nature of technique, and the nature of theory, and then you can go wild with it.
SL: There are different techniques and theories out there. What techniques and theories do you use?
PA: I suppose I use a combination. If you're talking about theater, it's all Stanislavsky based, which is all based in truth. It is true that if you're crying and I believe you're crying, then you're crying. But the point being if you're crying and I see you crying, whether you're doing it mechanically or by remembering the day your dog died is absolutely of no significance. So why bother going through the sense memory?
There are teachers and directors that want to wipe out all sense memory, or any of the truth that Stanislavsky worked with. They say you can be as mechanical as you want. They don't care if you have a moment of truth in anything, its just as good, and it's just a waste of your time to have to go and dig as an actor. I disagree. I can tell you in an instant on a film where the tears are coming from. I can look into those eyes and I can see that. The argument would be, "Aaron, you're full of it, and you absolutely can not know if the actor is doing his job well. If it's not good technique, of course, you can tell either way. You don't know that Meryl Streep is using any truth at all. Meryl Streep is an incredible technician. You can't tell me that in any given moment, in any one of those roles, if she is being evocative of sense memory, the truth, or whether it is all technique." And I disagree. And I say I can, and I'd show you, I think that she does both.
SL: Meryl Streep once said that she learned a lot from watching Liza Minnelli perform. That you can have all the emotional life in the world, but you still got to reach the back row.
PA: But that's theater because there is no back row in film.
SL: It is still all for an audience.
PA: Yes. Absolutely.
SL: What elements of stage still directly transfer into film for you?
PA: I think instinct. I think the actors' instinct that comes from their training and gives them that sense that I am always in wonder of. I love actors. There are many directors in film who don't love actors. They would tell you, "If only they could do it without actors." And now some are doing it without actors. Don't ask Jim Cameron if he loves directing actors. Don't ask Steven Spielberg if he loves directing actors. They don't and he doesn't. Go talk to actors they have worked with. Like Hitchcock, Steven [Spielberg] sees it and he knows what he wants, he knows the result. He knows nothing about the process of acting. He can't help you with the process. He will just keep shooting until somehow or another you can deliver it.
You and I can look at each other and ask why the hell does anybody shoot take number 47. What the hell are you looking for that you can't help that actor get to, and you want them to do it 47 times? Because maybe you'll get it the way you want it? That's absolutely unforgivable as far as I'm concerned.
Excerpted from Directors by Susan Beth Lehman. Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Good Story, Well Told
Brief History of the Modern Director
1. Paul Aaron, August 2010
2. Gilbert Cates, October 2010
3. Judy Chaikin, October 2011
4. Lenore Dekoven, August 2010
5. Gordon Hunt, June 2010
6. Neil LaBute, August 2011
7. Rob Marshall, June 2011
8. Jiri Menzel, July 2011
9. Oz Scott, May 2010
10. Matt Shakman, September 2010
11. Jerry Zaks, April 2011
12. Joel Zwick, July 2010
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Originally, I got this book to give to my daughter, who has both directed and written plays, but book-lover that I am, l read it first. I was greatly impressed by the expertise of the author, which seemed to engender an instant rapport with her interviewees. Although Directors might be best received by a true theater or film enthusiast, I discovered many memorable quotes from some of the industry's greats and gained a new appreciation for what they do.