(From the pages of the March 26 issue of Variety.)
Memo To: Jon Stewart
From: Peter Bart
Consistent with my habit of dispensing unsolicited advice, Jon, here is my response to your announcement that you plan to direct your first movie: Don’t do it.
It may seem exciting to take a three-month leave from your hit comedy show to assume the role of auteur, but the plan has never worked for anyone else. First pictures are always failures, Jon, especially in the case of stars and celebrities, and you are the type of person who disdains failure.
The classic was Bob Dylan’s first (and last) film, “Renaldo and Clara,” a four-hour snoozer that opened (and closed) in one week in 1978. As such, it probably did better than “Filth and Wisdom,” Madonna’s first directing effort in 2007.
The hard reality is that, while novelists occasionally strike magic in their first try (think Hemingway or Harper Lee or Margaret Mitchell), film directors usually strike out initially. George Clooney is Mister Perfect, but his “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” went nowhere. Neither did Sean Penn’s “Indian Runner” or Martin Scorsese’s “I Call First” (later re-titled “Who’s That Knocking at My Door”).
In his memoir, Elia Kazan acknowledged that it wasn’t until his fourth film that he really knew what he was doing as a filmmaker. His first effort was a mushy movie titled “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” but, to be sure, he ultimately graduated to “On the Waterfront.” In the same vein, it took a few years for Oliver Stone to grow from “Seizure” to “Platoon.” Or for Francis Coppola to go from “You’re a Big Boy Now” to “The Godfather.”
You’re very good at what you do, Jon, but are you really prepared to take another hiatus after your first picture bombs and risk yet another directing venture? You’ll have to watch Stephen Colbert ultimately move into your time slot and maybe even see one of two Jimmys — Kimmel or Fallon — become the new King of Latenight.
The trouble with making movies is that, while it looks easy, it is in fact a very exacting discipline. It helps if you know how to talk to actors (not just interview them) and also have a command of the camera and a mastery of film editing. Then there’s also the craft of appeasing film financiers and bludgeoning distributors into good release dates.
Of course, your producer is Scott Rudin, the king of the bludgeon. You’ll want final cut, Jon — Rudin can tell you about what that entails as well (it involves lots of fighting).
Some first-time directors display their keen sense of self preservation by selecting very accessible and commercial subject matter. Ron Howard, who grew up on television, went with “Grand Theft Auto” first time out. He knocked it out of the park (if you can do that with autos). By contrast, you have selected a political drama titled “Rosewater” (what is that title supposed to connote?) dealing with the imprisonment in Iran of a journalist named Maziar Bahari (no, not Joy Behar).
It sounds like an absorbing story, but how will you persuade filmgoers to buy tickets? We’ve all visited Iran once in “Argo,” but I’m not sure many of us are up for a return trip.
I’m aware that you’ve always liked to break the rules, Jon, and I hope you defy conventional wisdom once again this time. The problem is that most of us always want to become something we aren’t. TV hosts want to direct. Stars like James Franco want to be college professors. Seth MacFarlane wants to be Lenny Bruce; or maybe Frank Sinatra.
I like you the way you are, Jon. I hope you ultimately decide to stay that way.