Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of making choices

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Bradley Cooper, David O. Russell, and Jennifer Lawrence

Who is the author of a movie? As with most collaborative art forms, it’s a question that gets tricker the closer you look at it. A screenwriter like William Goldman might argue that the author of an original screenplay deserves most of the credit, which seems reasonable until we remember that most stories are radically altered, often by anonymous hands, from initial draft to shooting script, and equally significant changes may take place in the editing room. An editor like Walter Murch plays an enormous role in finding the final structure and rhythm of a movie, but here, again, there’s a huge range of potential influence, from editors who simply reflect the director’s wishes to artists like Ralph Rosenblum, who discover a shape for a movie while working on their own. Then there’s the producer, who often shepherds the entire process from the initial idea to the marketing campaign, oversees major creative and hiring decisions, and is there to pick up the Best Picture award on Oscar night. This says nothing of the cinematographer, art director, sound designer, composer, and others, who can enormously influence our final experience of a film, or the actors, including a star whose involvement may have been crucial to securing funding in the first place, and who is often the only face the public associates with the finished product.

Usually, of course, we tend to think of the director as the final author of a film. This is a surprisingly recent development—the auteur theory as we know it wasn’t developed until the early fifties—and it’s often been criticized as unfair to the many other talents whose work is essential to filmmaking. Yet the auteur theory, while inherently undemocratic, is like democracy in at least one way: it’s the worst theory of film, except for all the other theories that have been tried. And it’s the only way I can explain a movie like Silver Linings Playbook. It’s funny, beautifully acted, and ultimately very touching, yet the screenplay is manipulative, contrived, sometimes superficial, and doesn’t always escape the trap of smug, affected quirkiness. Watching it, I realized that you could shoot the same screenplay, word for word, with most of the same actors, but in the hands of a different director, the result would be unwatchable. And the only explanation for its ultimate effectiveness is that David O. Russell, who also adapted the screenplay from Matthew Quick’s novel, is a director who understands his own strengths and limitations, and particularly his ability to make specific, subtle choices that can take otherwise routine material and make it compelling.

Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook

Because a director’s ultimate role is that of someone who makes choices, thousands of them, starting in preproduction and continuing on an hourly basis until the final cut is delivered, covering everything from the color of the wallpaper to which of three possible endings to use. As David Mamet says of his experience directing House of Games:

[The crew] came over to ask me my opinion regularly, not because of any talent on my part, or because of any expertise I had demonstrated, but because the film is a hierarchy and it was my job to do one part of it: to provide an aesthetic overview, and to be able to express that overview in simple, practicable terms—more light on her face, less light on her face; the car in the background, no car in the background.

This may sound straightforward, but anyone who has confronted the endless series of choices that a work of fiction presents, even for a writer working in solitude, knows that it’s the hardest thing in the world, especially when conducted in public, with thousands of dollars at risk of being lost with even the smallest delay. Those choices, as much as the individual talents of the creative team involved, are what give a film its flavor and individuality. Nearly everyone involved in movies on the studio level, from the color timers to the supporting cast, are there because they’ve reached the peak of their profession, but it means nothing if their gifts are squandered or misdirected.

And some of the most crucial choices that a director can make are, by nature, invisible. It’s no exaggeration to say that the best performance in the world can be turned into the worst by a deliberate selection of bad takes in the editing room, and Russell’s approach to Silver Linings Playbook is a reminder of how subtle this process can be:

There’s an extreme version we shot that’s very dark. You know, we had to cover it several different ways on a 33-day schedule. And the De Niro character was written harsher or warmer…So you have to be careful with it and it took a lot of careful work in the editing room with Jay Cassidy to calibrate it.

Which is why the role of a director, even after all this time, remains so mysterious. It’s about calibration, or finding the right balance and tone for elements that can be combined in an infinite number of ways—which is why it seems to go wrong more often than it goes right, despite all the talent involved. Novelists do much the same thing: every word represents a choice, as does the direction of the plot, the actions of the characters, and even the decision of which story to write in the first place. Craft is about learning to plan as much of this process as possible in advance, while developing enough intuition and experience to make smart choices in the moment when confronted by the unexpected. And when a director, or any artist, can bring this sort of craft to bear under pressure, when it’s needed the most, it’s then that he deserves to be called an author.

Written by nevalalee

February 18, 2013 at 9:50 am

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