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Directing means always having to say you’re sorry

Book Excerpt

Making a movie can be a first-class blast most days. This is not one of those days. The only blast is coming from the Northeast at 30 miles an hour. It’s midnight. I am freezing as I stand on the upper level of the Verrazano Bridge that connects Brooklyn and Staten Island. We are supposed to be making “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” fortunately renamed “Saturday Night Fever.” A 22-year-old John Travolta is refusing to do the scene as staged by the director — me.

Rewind to 1976. My first feature film, “The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings,” is not traveling anywhere today. In the hot sun I am looking at a very angry Richard Pryor planted 18 inches from my face, demanding an apology. I allegedly endangered his life the previous day by asking him to drive by the camera. Who knew? Today I have again put him in harm’s way by asking him to slide into second base. Pryor is so mad he has booked a flight back to Los Angeles unless I apologize to him now. I am young, stubborn, and above all, stupid. I tell myself I have done nothing wrong, so of course I won’t apologize. This is why directors die young.

Thank God I’m not the only one who has bad days.

There are directors on the planet that stoutly maintain they have never had problems with actors. I am thrilled for them, I would envy them but … they are lying. Not just through their teeth, but through their eyes, ears, nose and throat. If there is life on another planet, there are actors out there making directors miserable. It is part and parcel of the often-dubious joy of being a director.

On the flip side, and just as grimly, there are plenty of directors everywhere making life miserable for actors. There are passive-aggressive directors, called “Stealth Directors,” who keep a distance from the actors. Not surprisingly, the directors that actors do remember like Mike Nichols or Sydney Pollack or Martha Coolidge are known for being good with actors.

How can a director, young or old, beginning or experienced, talented or not, learn how to survive? Every bit of psychology, street smarts, anything that could pass for human relations skills will be called into play in a director’s career. The sooner the director learns to confidently cope with the knotty problems that persistently arise, that will not go away, the sooner that director will radiate the kind of ease and sureness of direction that make them a leader people want to follow.

(This is adapted from “I’ll Be in My Trailer: The Creative Wars Between Directors & Actors.”)