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Iconic directors bring a distinct vision

But success only comes by using skills of trusted collaborators

Director Richard Brooks, who knew firsthand how odds-on crazy moviemaking can be, liked to tell the story of how the 1952 classic “High Noon” almost never made it into release.

“The studio execs took an early look at a cut that hadn’t been sound mixed. ‘What the fuck is this?’ They thought the opening took forever. ‘No one will sit through this.’ They were irate,” he recalls. “Then they came back and heard the score.”

Indeed, Tex Ritter’s hard whiskey baritone, laced with country mournfulness, was a perfect Virgilian guide to the punishing starkness of a wide-open prairie, where good and evil were cast black and white under a pounding sun and to be forsaken was a scorpion sting to the heart.

“High Noon” was considered an Oscar shoo-in that year (it lost to “The Greatest Show on Earth”), and it has gone on to become not just an iconic Western and one of Gary Cooper’s definitive roles, but one of those emblematic films that show up in retrospectives that celebrate movies at their greatest.

Still, when director Fred Zinnemann sat in pre-production meetings to line up his cast and production crew, which included director of photography, production designer and art director, light and costume designers, sound editor, prop master and the legion of others who pitch in to make a movie physically achievable, how could he have possibly known Dimitri Tiomkin’s score would be the one thing that would save him? What’s a guy named Dimitri doing on a Western, anyway?

The answer, of course, is that Zinnemann had to believe in the people who signed on with him.

Ever since Andre Bazin and his little band of nouvelle vaguistes came out with their Cahiers du Cinema in 1951, placing the director at the Napoleonic head of his marching film company, the notion of the auteur as commander-in-chief of all things in his cinematic purview has entered the popular consciousness with an unquestioned, even official, finality. The simple title “A film by” now applies equally to the gifted director, who can genuinely orchestrate the complex and disparate elements of making a movie into an expressive point of view, and the vaunting non-entity whose hackwork goes straight to video for deadhead insomniacs.

Of course, there have been great directors for as long as there have been great movies, but in the pre-Cahiers days the names of Lubitsch, Ford, Hawks, Wyler, Stevens, Mann, Wilder or even Fleming were less of interest to the average Joe than the images of the stars who populated their movies. You would know about Cecil B. DeMille because he made biblical epics and a great cameo appearance in “Sunset Boulevard,” and you’d know Alfred Hitchcock because he made such a great blowsy self-caricature as host of his TV series and, of course, told stylishly wicked stories.

But when the revolution of the ’60s and early ’70s — the one that would not be televised — fed its energies into rock music and movies, the best of the new young directors like Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese, Polanski and De Palma all seemed worthy of a newly anointed status. They knew what they were doing. They had gut instincts and individual sensibilities. They put work into the culture that stayed there.

But not one of them thinks of himself as omnipotent, even if they’ve held their semi-mythic status among the powerful influence of a handful of movie stars and the even more powerful control of the corporate lawyers, financiers and MBA types who now run the major film studios.

On closer scrutiny, you’ll discover that, like the carousing company that went with Ford on and off the screen everywhere and the merry men who followed Preston Sturges from movie to movie, directors prefer above- and below-the-line familiars. Chances are you’ll never see a Spielberg film without hearing an accompanying John Williams score. Juliet Taylor casts all of Woody Allen’s movies. You can usually depend on the appearance of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in a Martin Scorsese film, but no one will see it before it first passes through the hands of his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

Sean Connery has never directed a film, but as a producer (“Black Rain,” “Finding Forrester”) he’s had to take into meticulous account the myriad details of making and promoting a project. Asked what’s the greatest lesson he’s learned after a long period of international renown, he replied, “Trust. Once you decide to trust someone, you’re in bed with them. Once you make that decision, you have to be willing to let go.”

That trust toward others would have to be an extension of trust toward oneself. Clint Eastwood is a case in point. The legendary production designer Henry Bumstead worked with Hitchcock, and then with Eastwood, until he died at the age of 92 — a tribute to Eastwood’s fidelity and knowledge of a good thing. And when it came to adapting the James Bradley/Ron Powers book “Flags of Our Fathers” to the screen, Eastwood turned to the writer he’d worked with on “Million Dollar Baby,” Paul Haggis, and simply outwaited Haggis’ insecurities.

“I told him I had only a 10% chance of making this work,” Haggis says. “I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t have an approach. My biggest concerns were telling the story honestly and being accurate, and honoring the characters without romanticizing them. I couldn’t tell it logically. Finally, I went for the emotional truth. It took me three months to figure it out. Clint just waited patiently. He set a high bar, but he encouraged me to make it.”

When it came to “Letters From Iwo Jima,” which some consider an even more remarkable work, Eastwood turned to Iris Yamashita, who’d never sold a script before.

“Bigger writers were submitting scripts,” says Yamashita, who a year earlier was working as a computer programmer, “but Paul Haggis responded to my approach and after a couple of meetings called Clint.” Months later, when the production was in full swing, “Other people gave notes,” Yamashita says, “but Clint wanted to keep it the way it was in the first draft. ‘You don’t need to incorporate anyone else’s notes unless you think it’ll help,’ he said.

“He’s very respectful of actors and crew,” Yamashita observes. “He’ll listen to anyone. It was like working on an indie production, with studio backing.”

Many directors will privately admit their displeasure at the “film by” honorific, but they go along because that’s the way the system is codified right now. They know being a director is more like being a sports coach. Somebody has to lead the team and accept the victor’s trophy; the same somebody has to ride the bus home in gloomy defeat. They’re all in it together.

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