From Hitchcock to Assayas, Directors Present Their Vision of Filmmaking

Christopher Karr

 

Filmcraft: Directing

Michael Goodridge

Focal Press

192 pages

 

Focal Press’ latest addition to its Filmcraft series focuses on the art of directing. The previous volumes explore cinematography, editing, and costume design through interviews with a variety of professionals from the movie industry. The author of the newest installment, Michael Goodridge, readily admits in the introduction that this particular book “presented a variety of additional challenges because directing [is] perhaps the greatest of the crafts in this collaborative art form...the buck stops with the director.”

 

Filmcraft: Directing is composed of 16 interview-profiles of internationally acclaimed filmmakers. Goodridge also devotes five Legacy chapters to “innovators and pioneers in the filmmaking field.” The directors he chooses “to represent the first 115 years of cinema” are the usual suspects: Kurosawa, Bergman, Ford, Hitchcock, and Godard — the filmmakers whose films you wind up watching eventually, dutifully.

 

Goodridge acknowledges that this as an “arbitrary and personal shortlist,” as are all lists that attempt to abbreviate the complexity of film history in the form of a few dazzling personalities. His shortlist is fair enough, as is his selection of filmmakers. The overall presentation of the book is first-class — the profiles are accompanied by drawings, screenplay pages, notes, photographs, and other artwork. What surfaces is an in-depth examination of the filmmaker’s process. As we read, we make surprising discoveries about what it takes to be a film director.

 

Despite the fact that the director is constantly collaborating with others, the position is essentially an isolated one. This is a fascinating point that Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a regular at the Cannes Film Festival, makes in his interview: “When you are shooting, in reality, you are all alone because nobody really understands what you are intending, not even the person closest to you.”

 

While this sounds inhibiting, even chaotic, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas (“Demonlover,” “Clean,” “Carlos”) explains that this aspect of collaboration is perhaps the most useful: “Chaos is the filmmaker’s best ally. I would get on the set and describe the shots to the cameraman, to the grip, the soundman and the actors, [but] I knew they wouldn’t be able to absorb the whole thing and they would have to adapt.” Guillermo del Toro, the Goya-esque and imaginative director of “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” puts it this way: “The director is alone on one end of the lens and the actor is alone on the other. That’s why the great, most satisfying partnerships on set are when a director and actor come to love and support each other.”

 

 

A considerable amount of page-space is dedicated to the sensitive relationship between actor and director. According to Michael Haneke, “There is no way to teach how to direct an actor because every actor is different...and they need to be pushed a little.” Several directors believe that great performances are only possible when the actors feel comfortable in their environment.

 

Jean-Pierre Dardenne, whose collaborations with his brother Luc have yielded films like “Rosetta,” “L’Enfant” and 2011’s “The Kid with a Bike,” explains that most actors have a tendency to protect their own image, a tendency that causes inhibition. “It is necessary that they abandon these images that close them in,” Jean-Pierre says. “Our job is to enable this abandonment, mainly by creating an environment where we are all equals and they have no fear.”

 

Clint Eastwood, who has directed 32 feature films in the past four decades, echoes the same sentiment: “It’s very important to have a comfortable and calm environment on set.” He wants the actors to submerge “themselves into the character to the greatest degree, and the best way to do that is to give them full confidence and ensure they don’t feel like they’re riding a ship that’s on the brink of disaster.” Though Eastwood admits he has certain objectives when making a movie, he isn’t confined by them. “I’m always flexible, I always improvise,” he says. “As long as you remain open to new ideas...it’s a very enjoyable process.”

 

Aside from establishing a comfortable environment, the director must always be prepared for improvisation. Assayas believes “you need to have the space in every single shot for improvisation....room for your actors to bring their own words, instinct and intuition to the scene.”

 

 

South Korean director Park Chan-wook says “collaborating with the actors is the biggest joy I get out of filmmaking because everything else is planned during pre-production. The only thing that remains a variable on set is an actor’s performance and that keeps me on edge in a good way.” Haneke agrees: “Actors can give you pleasant surprises, something that is more than you sought out before.” In order to prompt these surprises, Assayas will “constantly change the dialogue so that the actors are not dependent on something they have rehearsed or anticipated.”

 

Several moviemakers profiled in Filmcraft: Directing emphasize the importance of playing with the audience’s emotions. Park Chan-wook attempts to provoke the audience in order to “kick-start an intellectual process in their minds, and in order to do that, I need to provoke them emotionally.”

 

Emotional manipulation is one of the greatest strengths of film as an art form. Movies have the potential to elicit such visceral, emotional reactions because they assault and even overwhelm the senses. “It’s not through philosophical dialogue that the audience members start to...question their world, but through emotional stimulation,” Chan-wook says.

 

Perhaps one of the reasons film, as a medium, has such powerful potential is because it exists in a strange sort of fourth dimension. It happens in a realm that is absolutely real and, at the same time, completely fake.

 

 

Paul Greengrass, the hyperrealist behind “United 93” and “The Bourne Supremacy,” compares the filmmaker to the scientist in search of the Higgs boson particle: “I am trying to find these little bits of the fourth dimension and capture them. Because that’s what film is: You are watching something that isn’t real, yet it plays to your conscious and unconscious mind. For the moment you watch— it is real.” Because movies exist in this dream-like plane of existence, the audience is in the perfect position to have their emotions manipulated. According to Michael Haneke, “You have to have a talent for creating tension and fear in your audience. If you lose the viewer, it’s over. You have to always think what you can do that will keep them with you....Because film is manipulation. Always.”

 

The filmmaking process is usually broken down into three general phases: pre-production, production, and post-production. But there’s also an unmistakably important fourth phase, wherein an audience sits down in the dark and watches the movie together.

 

Hungarian director István Szabó believes the correspondence between audience and actor is the most distinctive trait of cinema: “In filmmaking, the only unique thing is a living human face with emotions. The audience has to care about the faces that appear on screen because the audience is represented by those faces.”

 

This interesting idea prompts a new version of an old thought experiment: If a movie plays and no audience is around to view it, does it make a sound? It surely would, but without an audience, movies lack life. That’s why, as the interviews in Filmcraft: Directing confirm, the wise director always keeps the audience in mind. Without the audience, there is no cinema.

 

Author Bio:

Christopher Karr is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. 

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