Book Review: Making Movies
Approximately once a year, I watch two documentaries, usually within a few days of each other.
The first is OVERNIGHT, a documentary which was initially going to be about the making of the film BOONDOCK SAINTS, but instead became a study of the meteoric rise and fall of Troy Duffy’s career. Duffy, the writer-director, systematically burns every bridge he stumbles upon, on camera, in a glorious flameout of self-reinforcing arrogance. And yes, it can be argued that some of it was created in the edit, but certainly not all of what goes on. After a viewing of OVERNIGHT, it will be little wonder that it took Duffy a decade to get BOONDOCK SAINTS II off the ground. Frankly, it’s a wonder he ever did.
The second is LOST IN LA MANCHA, another film that starts off as a standard fly-on-the-wall making-of documentary which suddenly becomes the chronicle of a dramatic implosion, this time of the film and not its filmmaker. Poor Terry Gilliam. Saddled with a reputation for going wildly over schedule and budget, his attempts to produce his pet project THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE are met with one disaster after another — none of them within his power to anticipate or prevent — until at last the insurance company shuts the production down.
I watch both films regularly to keep my head on straight, and my expectations realistic. OVERNIGHT reminds me that no matter how successful I might get or how many people say nice things about my work, the most important thing is that I never let it go to my head. I work hard on all the projects that I do; if they’re any good, it’s that hard work — not some innate and effortless genius I channel mystically from the aether — that makes them that way.
LOST IN LA MANCHA reminds me that even if I were a genius, even if I did everything right, the universe doesn’t owe me a movie. I can dot all my T’s and cross all my I’s and the project can still go utterly to shit. I have to care about what I’m doing — if it’s going to be good, I have to care very deeply — but I also have to be ready for the unforeseeable, and prepare myself emotionally to deal with the challenges that will inevitably arise. And to keep in mind that if my project is destroyed, that doesn’t — and shouldn’t — destroy me, too.
Both films (and both BOONDOCK SAINTS films, too) are available on Netflix Watch Instantly.
I’m now adding to my “pull/keep my head out of my ass” rotation a book: MAKING MOVIES, by Sidney Lumet.
I first became aware of this book after discovering that it gave Vin Diesel the confidence he needed to make a short film. Really, he’ll be glad to tell you all about it, repeatedly.
I’ll be honest, that put me off the book a bit, and for a while. But having read the book now, I see where Vin’s coming from.
The book itself is as unpretentious as its title. It’s largely an overview of the filmmaking process, as you’d expect. If you’ve never read a book on how movies are made, Lumet communicates all the important ideas with a clarity and candor that makes it accessible and I highly recommend you start here, as a primer.
It was written in 1995, just before the digital revolution really started to pick up steam, so some of the technical information is essentially obsolete. With the advent of the digital intermediate, the brief discussion of answer prints and color timing is rendered largely irrelevant. And the special effects limitations which prevented him from realizing his full vision for THE WIZ would never occur today.
Still, though the technical details may no longer be accurate, the creative principles involved are still fully relevant to the digital age. And I think reading about how they had to do everything the hard way gives a greater appreciation for the stellar work they somehow achieved.
If you’ve read other books on filmmaking — particularly low-budget filmmaking books written prior to the digital revolution — it’s all information that you’ve heard before. What sets it apart, first of all, is how easily Lumet gets the information across. Even without having seen any of Lumet’s films (I’ve only seen NETWORK, which knocked me on my ass), you can tell that the man is a fucking great director. You can tell because it’s the director’s job to communicate ideas, and Lumet does so masterfully, even in writing. Without having seen THE WIZ, or SERPICO, or DOG DAY AFTERNOON, Lumet sets the stage for each anecdote so clearly that it doesn’t matter. I understand the situation well enough to track easily with the story he’s trying to tell.
And the book is, in the main, stories of Lumet’s experience making movies. While as I said he occasionally delves into technical details — always managing to simplify them to their core without oversimplifying — this is always done primarily to create a context of what filmmakers do, in which he can tell you why he’s done things the way he has.
Without, as I said, being too greatly familiar with Lumet’s oeuvre (which I intend to do something about very soon, never you worry), I still find his meditation on each aspect of the craft greatly inspiring. He explains his thought process in a way that opened my mind to thinking about how this, that, or the other might be leveraged to communicate the underlying theme of the film more clearly. He speaks candidly about experiences, films, and people he’s loved, and those he’s hated. He openly admits to having taken some projects because he needed the money, of realizing two days into an eight week shoot that the movie he was making just wasn’t going to work and he was going to have to fake it for the duration of the shoot and do his best to salvage it. He admits his mistakes, often naming the people or films which he feels he made the wrong choice.
I’d heard the story many years ago of Lumet (though I don’t think he was named when I was told the story) taking drastic measures to get an actress to cry on cue when she couldn’t convincingly do so. Just before the take, without warning her, he hauled off and slapped her, then immediately rolled, using her genuine shock and confusion and pain in the performance. The actress, a consummate professional, immediately understood what he had done and reacted with gratitude that he had extracted a powerful performance, in the knowledge that pain is temporary, but film is forever.
A lot of people repeat this anecdote as an apparent encouragement to think outside the box and do whatever it takes to get the performance, but I’ve always been disgusted and horrified by the idea. It seems to me that actors need to be able to trust a director to keep them safe, both emotionally and physically, and it seemed to me that such an action — despite the actress apparently taking it well — is a complete violation and betrayal of that relationship.
So it was gratifying for me, and I gained respect for Lumet, when he followed the anecdote with the confession that he hated himself for doing it and made a silent promise that he would never do anything like it again. He made a mistake, recognized it, learned from it. It’s not always being right that makes him a great director, it’s being able to recognize when he wasn’t. That, I think, is the big idea that this book really communicates.
So whether you’re highly experienced or have only a passing understanding from Behind-the-Scenes TV specials how a movie set works, whether or not you’re familiar with the work of Sidney Lumet, I highly recommend that you pick up and read (and occasionally re-read) MAKING MOVIES.
(And if you buy it from this link I’ll get like a nickel or something. 🙂 )