Review: ‘My First Movie: Twenty Celebrated Directors Talk About Their First Film’

Stephen Lowenstein might just as well have titled his collection of interviews with directors "My First Time," rather than "My First Movie." If his subjects are to be believed, the initial mounting of a director's chair is a sacred act laced with joy, terror, struggle and regret.

Stephen Lowenstein might just as well have titled his collection of interviews with directors “My First Time,” rather than “My First Movie.” If his subjects are to be believed, the initial mounting of a director’s chair, like the loss of virginity, is a sacred act laced with joy, terror, struggle and regret.

To Lowenstein’s credit, the 20 directors he chose as his subjects reflect a wide range of backgrounds and sensibilities, from Mira Nair to Bertrand Tavernier, P.J. Hogan to Oliver Stone and Ken Loach to Pedro Almodovar. Yet there is a common thread: Each endured mighty, often suicide-tempting, adversity on his way to the director’s chair. It is the specifics of the way each director conquered roadblocks that makes this book a pleasure.

As each tale unfolds, it becomes clear that no matter where one hails from, talent is simply not enough to secure a chance to direct — it doesn’t even close come close. It requires a worthy script, a singleness of purpose bordering on monomania and more than a fair share of luck. The most poignant stories are those that depict the director overcoming a moment of such hopelessness that a weaker soul might have thrown up his hands and quit the business altogether, or become an agent. There is P.J. Hogan, whose first feature was scrapped during pre-production — from its ashes “Muriel’s Wedding” was born. And Ang Lee, who, after an auspicious start, spent six years writhing in development hell. “I’d lost my freshness, my confidence,” Lee says. “I pretty much sank to the bottom. I couldn’t sleep at night. I felt this big void under me.”

Kevin Smith reveals how, when faced with seemingly insuperable financial adversity, he enrolled in a one-day course at the New School called “Roasting Suckling Pig” in order to get a college ID that would entitle him to a discount on film stock.

Directors discussing their work is nothing new — our airwaves are full of it — but, perhaps because Lowenstein narrowed his inquiry to directors’ debuts, the speakers often display an ingenuous, sometimes reckless, candor.

“Actors are like babies,” Lee explains. “They need to be cuddled.” Anthony Minghella describes his chagrin after the debut of “Truly, Madly, Deeply”: “People were not remotely interested that I had written the screenplay,” he says, “whereas to me that was the most significant thing about the film.” Stone explains that after the debut of “Salvador,” “I felt good in my guts because Bob Dylan went to a screening and said it was a great movie.” Stephen Frears confesses that the director seems to him “the most redundant person on the set.” Minghella agrees: “You get too much credit and too much blame as the director, because you are working with many other people, all of whom are better at what they do than you are.”

Along these same lines, the directors time and time again admit that at the start of their first features they were largely ignorant as to the technical aspects of filmmaking. Says Almodovar: “I don’t think it was until the fourth or fifth film that I started to notice the difference between a 40 or 50mm lens.”

The most insightful and potentially enduring contributions to Lowenstein’s enterprise. are that of James Mangold, director of “Heavy.” Bright, passionate and voluble, Mangold, like all born teachers, cherishes the lessons imparted by his teachers — in this case, Sandy MacKendrick at Cal Arts and Milos Forman at Columbia University — and he eloquently repays his debts by passing these lessons on to the reader.

A note of caution, though: Despite this volume’s many virtues, built into the very nature of the work is an unevenness. For just as movies vary, so, too, do the conversational skills of their creators. Make no mistake, these are indeed conversations. Lowenstein has left them largely unedited. Some might call this lazy journalism, but it honestly renders the speakers, flaws and all. American auteurs, it seems, are rarely very authorial; their speech too often is marred by bad grammar, lazy idiom and the use of “went,” “goes” and “was like” in place of “said.” Their foreign counterparts, as a rule, make a far better showing, speaking in complete sentences with a clarity of diction that bespeaks a background as literary as it is visual.

While “My First Movie” makes fine reading for any lover of film, it seems particularly well-suited to the needs, both creative and psychic, of young filmmakers. It will provide them with hope and inspiration. It will also disabuse them of the all-too-prevalent rumor that filmmaking is a one-person job. They will be reminded in these pages that film is truly a collaborative medium and that there is no shame in depending on the talent of others.

Allison Burnett is a screenwriter and director living in Los Angeles. He made his directorial debut in 1998 with “Red Meat” and wrote the original draft of MGM’s “Autumn in New York.”

My First Movie: Twenty Celebrated Directors Talk About Their First Film

Pantheon; 458 Pgs.; $27.50


By Stephen Lowenstein
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