Lessons Learned from Fictional Directors
Praise for the fake movie makers
With the advent of star worship in the golden era of Hollywood, a certain mythical lore began to build around a film director. The director was the person that the stars everyone was told to adore adored. In the early days, the producers had all the clout, but the stars heaped praise on their partners in crime, the directors. Then the French New Wave twitched to life causing a rumbling that would explode in the seventies launching directors in the realm of artistic heroes, celluloid intellectuals pulling the strings on everyone’s favorite beautiful people. With each new class of directing talent, the legend of the director grew and grew bringing words like mise en scéne and auteur in to the vernacular and planting ideas of fame and hobnobbing with beautiful women wearing elegant evening gowns in the minds of every suburban boy. And since there are no director apprenticeships and everyone can’t have parents that are friends with the director of Traffic’s sound guy or parents messing around in the SoHo fine arts scene, the mystery of the director continues to build. Well, we here at Donnybrook Writing Academy are going to shed a ray of light on the mystical inter-workings of being a director.
Now, it is impossible and admittedly boring to use a director universally loved and admired to be the basis of my guide to characteristics a perfect director, and using a hodgepodge of directors to build a composite of a perfect director would be a blatant attempt to bait the audience in to a meaningless battle in the comment section over who stole what trait from whom, which is something the high minds at Donnybrook would never stoop to. So, with nothing more than my knowledge of cinema and mis-used vocabulary words I will paint the perfect picture of what every good director needs to be. To do so I must delve into the fictional world to mine traits from the great directors of letters and celluloid past. For if there is a better representation of reality than fiction, I have yet to find it.
To begin with, a good director needs to have a clear vision of what they want their film to be. For a perfect example of this look at Boogie Nights’ Jack Horner’s pitch speech to Eddie Adams of Torrence. He lays it all out for the phallicly-blessed novice. He knows what an audience wants to see, they come to see the big robots and the big explosions (edited to apply to the figurative pornography of blockbusters instead of literal pornography he’s speaking of), but he wants to give them what they don’t even know they want. Jack wants to give his joy-juice-soaked audience the gift story and he’s inviting Dirk and all of his closest friends to come along and help him with that endeavor. He shows that a director can’t spend calories tricking himself into thinking he’s going to reinvent the wheel with their film, but what they can do, once they’ve mastered the basics, is give their audience a film that is “true and right and dramatic.” That should be the directors equivalent to Hippocratic oath.
After the director has his vision they must begin dealing with their cast and crew. The best example is this is a pair of directors from Inland Empire and Mulholland Dr., Kingsley Stewart and Adam Kesher respectively. Adam Kesher makes this list because he was forced to cast Camilla Rhodes in The Sylvia North Story, but after he put a nine iron through the window of limo, he made the best of it. He made what he had work and developed such a connection with his forced-upon actress that he got to the point of seducing a Camilla Rhodes on set. That is some good flexibility and a strong connections. Kingsley Stewart builds that rapport with his talent by telling them the secret story of the scripts cursed past. Which may seem like an odd choice to build a cohesive cast, but the rapport he builds is so strong the leads nor the crew seem to mind that his deadbeat friend hangs around the set all day asking cast and crew to borrow money. These two directors show us that, regardless how your cast is assembled, it’s vital to create a trusting environment on set.
Once the trust has been built, the director Eli Cross from the film The Stunt Man shows how a good director uses that trust to manipulate actors and crew to giving him something “true and right and dramatic.” Eli Cross’s manipulations run the gambit from small time manipulation of the writer, or tricking his lead into an emotional scene by showing her parents a sex scene she’s in, to the making the stunt man think he is actively trying to kill him. Sure, sometimes manipulation ends with a dead body in a car at the bottom of a river, but those are just the risks you have to take when making a film, be it a film about chasing windmills or a comic books or a movie where your star plays the whole movie in drag and a fat-suit. Cross’s biggest manipulation is his ability to make everyone on his cast and crew feel 100% responsible for the final product of the film, like they were the most important cog in the machine turning out the cinematic masterpiece he created.
However, the director’s hands don’t get any cleaner after the film has finished wrapping. Max Castle of Theodore Roszak’s novel Flicker shows that the biggest manipulation is required for the audience. In the book Castle inserts subliminal unsettling cryptic images and messages in the black shadows and the light between the frames to play the audience like a game of free cell. The root of this manipulation is the shadowy cult-like group, The Orphans of the Storm, who think the best way to spread a message is through deceit and emotional manipulation, which I think is an homage to the Catholic church. Max Castle on the other hand sees the the techniques he’s learned from the cult as the ultimate tools for making “true and right and dramatic” films. He uses the flicker to create art that engages his audience with emotions so new they can’t properly identify them. He manipulates his audience in such a subtle and effective way they won’t ever know they’re being manipulates, which should be a sub-clause in the theoretical director’s equivalent of the Hippocratic oath.
While first time director Damien Cockburn from Tropic Thunder fails to manipulate his cast or his audience, he does bring something to the table of attributes of a successful director. That is his willingness to die for his project, and granted there was a huge possibility that he wouldn’t willingly die for this film, the ends are what are ultimately important. A good director has that twinge of desperation where they are willing to do anything for their film. Cockburn sacrifices his body into a thousand and one small, presumably cross-shaped, pieces to get the shots he needs. He didn’t get to see his final project on the silver screen, but it’s almost a sure thing that while his body was being torn in to tiny pieces, the last thought in his head was, “Well, at least these guys are going to learn valuable lessons about team work, and the fat one will get over that crippling drug addiction.” Damien Cockburn: a truly noble example of a fictional director, willing to die so his fictional film can reach his fictional audience, and who’s death will only add to the fictional box office. A finer man has never died for a finer cause.
All of this talk about fictional things brings me to the most prolific fictional director Himself, James Orin Incandenza, Jr. The director of such classics as Blood Sister: One Tough Nun, Medusa v. the Odalisque, (At Least) Three Cheers for Cause and Effect and the deathly engrossing Infinite Jest series. This director has so much to teach the aspiring novice, that there could college courses devoted to studying his footnote-24-filmography. This piece will only focus on his films The Joke and Found Drama series. Both The Joke and the Found Drama series are excellent examples of the type of disdain a good director must have for his audience. That’s right, all this talk about “true and right and dramatic” isn’t for making friends with the audience, it’s to let the directors know their better than them. In The Joke James Incandenza just sets up a camera pointed at the audience and forces them to watch themselves as long as they can stand it. He’s giving the audience exactly what they claim to want, characters and situations they can relate to. Is it his fault they become frustrated by being spoiled by being given everything they want? And if Incandenza accidentally piqued the interest of a few intellectual minds with The Joke, he makes it a point to show his disdain for his loftier thinking crowd as well with the Found Drama series. In this series of conceptual, conceptually unfilmable films, he creates a hoax that is hailed as an achievement by film scholars. The hoax consists of a new kind of drama where the drama is just the drama of a random person, at a random time and place for 90 minutes, which sounds an awful lot like the idea behind most mumblecore films. Incandenza’s distain for his audience is rooted in his fundamental desire for making films and the conflict between exploring himself and exposing himself. He explores himself in many different ways in films like It Was a Great Marvel That He Was in the Father Without Knowing Him, As of Yore and Valuable Coupon Has Been Removed. Going into such deep personal situations isn’t easy, but what makes it so much harder is an audience basing their pleasure on the director’s examination of his life. And the only way to make something “true and right and dramatic” is for the director to mine themselves for the truth and righteousness and drama.
To recap the traits of fictional directors that real-world directors needs are: an understanding of film and a vision of something greater, a rapport with his cast and crew, the ability to manipulate his cast, crew and audience, a twinge of desperation, the willingness to mine the person depths and a complete disdain for your audience. Sounds like a formula for success, if I’ve ever heard one. Future directors of the world use the lessons taught by these fictional brothers to go forth and films that are “true and right and dramatic.”