Director Mike Newell recalls giving the following note to Hugh Grant during the filming of “Four Weddings and a Funeral”:
“Hugh, it needs to be a little quicker — thus, I feel perhaps a fraction slower.”
Confusing, perhaps, but not to Newell, who says, “What I was trying to do was produce nuance in him. That’s my torment, is to try and get spontaneity with nuance.”
Newell’s recollection is one of the many revelations about the nitty-gritty details of directing in a new book that draws from interviews with helmers nominated for best film by the Directors Guild of America. Held every March since 1991, and conducted by Jeremy Kagan, the interviews are standing-room-only affairs. But with the Focal Press publication of “directors close up,” the best of those interviews is available to everyone.
Edited by Kagan, the book presents the remarks of 25 directors, culled from roughly 50 interviews and organized based on the main stages of filmmaking: the script, pre-production, production and post. Also included is a chapter that focuses on career paths and influences, another on the best and worst aspects of a director’s job, and an essay by Elia Kazan on what it takes to become a director.
Kagan decided to include the Kazan essay as an appendix because “of all the statements I’ve read about what it takes to become a director, I found his to be the most poetic and insightful.”
There are few, if any, jobs that demand as much from both sides of the brain as directing, says Kagan. “You have to be a good storyteller, a good motivator of human behavior and a good organizer.”
Vive la differance
But if there’s one thing the book makes clear it is that within those broad skill categories there is a world of difference from helmer to helmer.
“Some directors rely on what’s preconceived and others are more free and open,” says Kagan. “And though they all need great willpower to make a film, it’s expressed differently: Some have a quiet perseverance about their vision, while others are more insistent.”
A writer and director himself, Kagan has gotten a number of tips from the DGA nominees over the years that he later applied to his work.
In the casting process, for example, Steven Spielberg never uses scenes from the script, opting instead for readings that capture the point or tone of the original.
“He does it so as not to make the material stale,” says Kagan. “It’s a very good idea. I do that too now in my readings.”
Kagan also has benefited from James Cameron’s (“Titanic”) suggestion of flipping a film during the editing process so things are seen going in the other direction.
“Once you’re in the editing room you see the same thing so often that you can find a freshness flipping it,” he says.
But while “Directors Close Up” is chock-full with practical information, the interviewees find themselves in awe of a process that can be bigger than even the most capable director.
“In the final analysis you’re not sure how you got it all done,” says Barry Levinson (“Bugsy”). “You don’t know how it all came together.
“And it’s all of those people and all of those moments that make up a film. And it’s magic. And you can’t explain it.”