Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Disquiet on the set

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Touch of Evil

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What movie scene would you have wanted to be on set for?

“The most exciting day of your life may well be your first day on a movie set,” William Goldman writes in Adventures in the Screen Trade, “and the dullest days will be all those that follow.” Which isn’t to say that filmmaking is more boring than any other kind of creative work. Vladimir Mayakovsky once compared the act of writing poetry to mining for radium—”The output an ounce, the labor a year”—and that’s more or less true of every art form. Moments of genuine excitement are few and far between; the bulk of an artist’s time is spent laying pipe and fixing the small, tedious, occasionally absorbing problems that arise from an hour of manic inspiration that occurred weeks or months before. What sets the movies apart is that their tedium is shared and very expensive, which makes it even less bearable. If star directors have an annoying habit of comparing themselves to generals, perhaps it’s because war and moviemaking have exactly one thing in common: they consist of hours of utter boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. (You could argue that the strange career of Werner Herzog can be explained by his determination to drive that boredom away, or at least to elevate the terror level as much as possible while still remaining insurable.)

In general, there are excellent reasons for members of the creative team who aren’t directly involved in the production process to keep away. Screenwriters don’t like being around the filming because it’s all to easy to get caught up in disputes between the actors and director, or to be asked to work for free. Editors like Walter Murch make a point of never visiting the set, because they need to view the resulting footage as objectively as possible: each piece has to be judged on its own terms, and it’s hard to cut something when you know how hard it was to get the shot. And while a serious film critic might benefit from firsthand knowledge of how movies are made, for most viewers, it’s unclear if that experience would add more than it detracts. The recent proliferation of special features on home video has been a mixed blessing: it can be fascinating to observe filmmakers at work, especially in departments like editing or sound that rarely receive much attention, but it can also detach us from the result. I’ve watched the featurettes on my copy of the Lord of the Rings trilogy so many times that I’ve started to think of the movies themselves almost as appendages to the process of their own making, which I’m sure isn’t what Peter Jackson would have wanted.

Touch of Evil

And a thrilling movie doesn’t necessarily make for a thrilling set, any more than a fun shoot is likely to result in anything better than Ocean’s 13. Contrary to what movies like Hitchcock or The Girl might have us think, I imagine that for most of the cast and crew, working on Psycho or The Birds must have been a little dull: Hitchcock famously thought that the creative work was essentially done once the screenplay was finished, and the act of shooting was just a way of translating the script and storyboards into something an audience would pay to see. (So much of Hitchcock’s own personality—the drollery, the black humor, the pranks—seems to have emerged as a way of leavening the coldly mechanical approach his philosophy as a director demanded.) Godard says that every cut is a lie, but it’s also a sigh: a moment of resignation as the action halts for the next setup, with each splice concealing hours of laborious work. The popularity of long tracking shots is partially a response to the development of digital video and the Steadicam, but it’s also a way of bringing filmmaking closer to the excitement of theater. I didn’t much care for Birdman, but I can imagine that it must have been an exceptionally interesting shoot: extended takes create a consciousness of risk, along with a host of technical problems that need to be solved, that doesn’t exist when film runs through the camera for only a few seconds at a time.

Filmmaking is most interesting as a spectator sport when that level of risk, which is always present as an undertone, rises in a moment of shared awareness, with everyone from the cinematographer to the best boy silently holding his or her breath. There’s more of this risk when movies are shot on celluloid, since the cost of a mistake can be calculated by the foot: Greta Gerwig, in the documentary Side by Side, talks about how seriously everyone takes it when there’s physical film, rather than video, rolling through the camera. There’s more risk on location than in the studio. And the risk is greatest of all when the scene in question is a crucial one, rather than a throwaway. Given all that, I can’t imagine a more riveting night on the set than the shooting of the opening of Touch of Evil: shot on celluloid, on location, using a crane and a camera the size of a motorcycle, with manual focusing, on a modest budget, and built around a technical challenge that can’t be separated from the ticking bomb of the narrative itself. The story goes that it took all night to get right, mostly because one actor kept blowing his lines, and the the shot we see in the movie was the last take of all, captured just as the sun was rising. It all seems blessedly right, but it must have been charged with tension—which is exactly the effect it has on the rest of the movie. And you don’t need to have been there to appreciate it.

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