Filmmaking: A Mutual Adventure

Posted by Richard D Pepperman on

"Whether he likes it or not (and as a rule he does not like it much), the man who wants to express himself on celluloid is part of a group. If individual and personal self-expression is what he wants, he is in the wrong business."
-Alexander Mackendrick

The Auteur Theory - proposed by French New Wave directors of the late 1950s - notwithstanding, Mackendrick's reflection is sensible, egalitarian and true.

It should come as no surprise that the politique des auteurs (author's policy), which became known as the auteur theory in the United States, is the fancy of film critics turned directors - François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard among them - who were energetically adolescent beyond their years.

I hold their work in high regard. It is impossible not to be enthralled by "The 400 Blows" or "Breathless," but I find suspect a theory offering self-service as its conclusion: Au-teur [aw tur] noun [Mid-20th century. French, "author"]: A film director whose films are so distinctive that he is professed to be a film's creator.

I confess that my response likely stems from my Aunt Becky who cautioned her son and all his cousins, "Self praise is no recommendation!"

If, instead of exiting the theatre at a picture's end, you remain seated (probably standing so as not to have your view blocked by departing moviegoers) after the final fade to black, you'll be amazed at how much time is taken by the end credits rolling upward and off the screen. There are lots and lots and lots of people named.

Director Ingmar Bergman demonstrated incalculable respect for the group process by inviting each and every crew member to his home shortly before production was to begin. All had been furnished a copy of the screenplay, and all were invited to present suggestions, criticisms and especially their concerns with moments that brought confusion.

Director Sidney Lumet expressed an inverse collaborative assessment: "there are a hundred and fifty people who can screw-up a film."

The fact is that making movies is, in large and small - and very large and very small - part, an intricate, and often obscure, alliance. There is a hierarchy, as in nearly all communal undertakings, which is clearly documented in a film's head credits: The rank of the contributor is signaled in the arrangement, the progression and distinction of display. Still, the extent and worth of any (let alone every) individual's contribution is not so tidy to estimate.

I find it undeniably pleasing to hear that a film was 'made' or 'saved' in the editing room. I am an editor; but the notion is far beyond overstatement.

The idea can only be true in its mention of place. That is, it is accurate to say that a film becomes a film in the editing room. Serious and (apparently) insurmountable difficulties that can plague a movie do become evident during post-production. A simple example might be found in the inevitable differences between the screenwriter's request, CUT TO: or DISSOLVE TO: and the constructed order of any two scenes. It is easy to direct such transitions on paper - well, that's easy to say; and it is vital that the writing be clear to the reader. But! When the produced images and sounds are assembled a new need is sure to surface.

Ed Dmytryk, in his book, "On Film Editing," modestly suggests that fixing problems and finding a structure, and a pacing, that provide excellence in storytelling are what the film editor is expected to do; it's his job. That ought to keep heads in the cutting room from puffing! It would be suitable to say, "It's her job." A career in editing was, of all the film crafts, among the most welcoming to women. It might be said that it was the earliest advocate of behind-the scenes gender collaboration.

I have found frequently that storytelling dilemmas, and even their solutions, come to mind less in the editing room than in the bathroom; about a third of the time in the shower. I'd bet that film troubles and fixes are more likely to emerge when I am about to fall asleep - or, already sleeping - than when I am in the editing room.

A bit of rephrasing and a deliberate expansion of Dmytryk's attitude holds that the editor did not write the script, cast, shoot or act in the film. The editor did not design the production, create the sets and costumes, scout locations or plan an efficient and effective production schedule, nor direct the actors or establish camera coverage for the scenes. I need not list the dozens of additional prerequisites, nor the team members required; or what every other one of them did not do, for you to get an overview of the case for collaboration.

The issue, without a doubt, embraces many complex permutations measured in responsibility, ego indulgence, social maturity and (at least a little bit of) humility.

I once commented to Igor Sunara, a talented Director of Photography (DP), colleague at the School of Visual Arts, and friend, that, "the more film footage I screen, the more I realize that you guys are given credit for what the location scout and production designer did!" "Shhhhh" Igor reacted (with a smile and first finger across his lips), "Don't go telling that to anyone."

Igor did disclose a seldom acknowledged occurrence: There are times when a preference in scene location ― Interior; Exterior; Day; Night; Place and/or Weather ― recommended by the screenwriter, or producer, or director, burdens a scene's value or an actor's performance. A change in Space can make all the difference.

So, let's add ― to our complex permutations ― pragmatic calculations that arise from an actor's "peculiar" requirements:

Actor Donald Sutherland justifies his insistence that a film, that includes him, must have the production manager schedule his (DS) initial shooting day with a scene somewhere near the middle of the screenplay, by acknowledging that it takes him a few days of work to "get it" - a comfortable bearing in tone and rhythm of his character - because, if he doesn't "have it" in an early, or late, scene it is much more apparent to the audience than if "not having it" crops up well within the body of the story.

In fact, watch Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Jack Crabb in "Little Big Man." Listen to his exaggeratedly puckered inflection (DVD Chapters 16 & 17) in his encounter with Wild Bill Hickok; and most especially in his scene with Mrs. (Lulu) Pendrake. If you randomly select other chapters you'll not find such obvious 'puckering.' Hoffman (and Crabb) is easily forgiven; though I've never heard him blamed!

The two hours of a character's life on the silver screen are drawn from over 500 hours of production time and more than 1000 hours of post-production. It makes picture perfect sense then, that when Orson Welles was asked to describe his work as a film director, he answered, "You might define a director as someone who presides over accidents."

If I were to append Lumet's, "All good work is a result of accidents", with director Andrei Tarkovsky's, "And then one fine day, when we somehow managed to devise one last, desperate rearrangement, there was the film", the very sensible, while nonetheless enchanted, mutual adventure of moviemaking, may finally and decisively be applauded!

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