The Midas Touch

How and why directors make their presence felt ☛

Watch a film by many celebrated filmmakers and, even if you missed the opening titles, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to name the director. You don’t have to do the sort of word-by-word analysis needed to work out whether or not a play is by Shakespeare – the director puts their mark on a film like a pharaoh puts their mark on the desert. Some examples:

• Large cast of characters, 70s colour palette, quirky kids, everything shot from flat angles = Wes Anderson.

• Hand-held camera following speed-walking characters who talk over each other = Paul Greengrass.

• Stuff blows up every ten minutes = Michael Bay.

I could go on. But how is this achieved, and why such distinct signatures?

As you can see above, there are many different strategies that directors can use to make their presence felt. Here are a few: continuous shots are a popular choice. Some directors, like Steve McQueen, impress their skill up on us by holding a shot forever (I’ve written more about this). Conversely many directors like to make their mark by editing more, rather than less. They might speed up, then slow time right down again like Guy Ritchie. They might jump cut. Show us just the key moments. Directors might choose to drop natural sound away so that the music takes over in a place where you wouldn’t expect that to happen, like a dialogue scene. Any element of filmmaking can be called into service to deliver a directoral trademark, whether it be the assured swoops of Scorsese’s camera, the costumes in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover that change colour when the characters move from one room to another, or the candy-cane gothic set design in pretty much every Tim Burtonfilm.

The cast of “The Cook, The Thief…” in the red room.

Now, I have to distinguish all these examples from the everyday techniques of cinematic storytelling. Slowing down time in a gunfight expresses the hero’s heightened awareness in a life or death situation – it adds emphasis to the telling of the story. Slowing down time to show a group of guys in black suits walk across a parking lot is just Tarantino making his mark. Watching Clive Owen in Children of Men negotiating the battlefield in real-time and without edits has a definite narrative purpose, it heightens our empathy with the peril of his situation: the camera seems to hold its breath and we do likewise. The sustained opening shots of Touch of Evil or Boogie Nights, however, are mainly there to show off the directors’ skill at camera choreography.

As an editor, this sort of directoral monogram can be the bane of my life. So many times I’ve found myself fighting directors trying to persuade them to let go of a developmental shot that, for all its elegance, is utterly redundant to the story. Or maybe they get me to try a bit of quirky editing for no justifiable reason. Producers too often despair at the self-indulgence of directors and add their voices to that of the editor. “Get rid of it” we cry, “It’s not necessary!” Often we’re right… but not always.

There are reasons why directors present us with this flourish introduced for its own sake. In part it’s about their career development: if the audience identifies the experience of the film as being down to the director, they are more likely to seek out that director’s next film. If this happens, producers and investors are more likely to make the director’s next film happen, knowing that there is an audience eager to see the maestro’s next offering.

But there is an artistic purpose for this self-aggrandizing behaviour. It’s not just showing off… okay, it is just showing off, but it’s showing off for a good reason. It’s all about showmanship. It’s the same reason why the circus master, the conductor and the magician all wear tail-coats and carry themselves with an assured theatrical flourish. They are not only the maestros whose vision ensures our entertainment, they are the front-men for the entertainment. Because they present their own work, rather than being an MC who introduces others, their costume and assumed manner creates a theatrical mask that allows them to big themselves up, to create for themselves an air of genius.

Alfred Hitchcock, the master of self-promotion.

While film directors aren’t visible to their audience as magicians are (with the notable exception of Hitch in ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’) there are still ways in which they can draw attention to their talent in order to persuade the audience that they have a voice worthy of attention. Holding the opening shot on the back of the character’s head is like the stillness of the conductor’s poised baton, before finally it twitches the music into life. A bold jump cut is the flick of the wrist with which the magician presents a silk handkerchief.

So much of really good storytelling is about confidence: the confidence of the storyteller inspiring confidence in their audience. The story rides on that magic carpet of belief in the storyteller’s skill. Directoral touches are about creating this belief, about creating buy in.

So, editors like me should just relax and let the director produce a coin or two from behind the ears of the audience before the show begins in earnest? Not quite. For a start, it’s better for these moments of panache to be delivered while the story’s moving forward, rather than interrupting its flow. For my money, the film Undertow contains a demonstration of panache back-firing. In the first reel of this otherwise naturalistic film set in the backwaters of rural Georgia, the image occasionally freezes and turns to a colour negative for no discernable reason. These moments are surprising, very quickly become irritating and are then soon abandoned. The result is to make an assured and experienced director look like a first-timer still trying to find their voice.

Sometimes the director’s touch is a grace note, something that could be lifted out without being missed. If so, it has to fulfill one simple criterion: it has to be very impressive. After all being impressive is its only role and, if it’s going to delay the story, it’s got to be worth it. Sadly many such attempts at panache fail to meet this standard, and cutting room floors (or, as they’re now called, ‘DVD extras’) are littered with ‘nice touches’ and ‘good ideas’ that failed to produce a ‘WOW!’

The smart director bakes his or her trademark into the rushes, so that it can’t be dug out. This is one reason for the virtuoso developmental shot. If you’ve hired in a crane or a stedicam operator to get your first scene all in one shot, you’re not likely to shoot coverage as well; that would be a waste of time and kit hire. Everyone on the production is committed to making the ambitious shot work, and the editor merely has to slice off ‘action!’ and ‘cut!’ Anything that happens in the middle of such a shot cannot easily be removed. Even if they’re not shooting every scene in one take, experienced directors learn how to shoot scenes in such a way that there’s pretty much only one way that they can be edited. Luckily most directors who have the skill and experience to do this have developed the judgement to know when a grand flourish is warranted, and when they should just get on with the business of telling the story. If, however, you’ve learnt to be clever before you are wise, you can end up looking very foolish for having painted yourself into a corner.

Quiet man of cinema, Curtis Hanson

Finally I want to say a word for those directors who do not attempt any such panache. Hollywood movies and television drama are full of these quiet craftsmen. They just get on with the job of telling the stories they’ve been given, putting their ego aside while they concentrate on talking to actors and putting the camera in the right place. While these directors’ credits are in the same point size as those of Tarantino or Lars von Trier, their names often go unrepeated except by those very much in the know. When we leave the cinema saying “what a great story!” or “wasn’t Russell Crowe excellent? I hadn’t realized he could be so good” in both cases credit is due to the screenwriter and to Mr. Crowe but without the sure hand of, say, Curtis Hanson at the helm it could be that we would have been leaving the cinema in silence.

Edited by Dr. Sara Lodge.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2012

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One Response to “The Midas Touch”
  1. Ivan says:

    Yes, good points, as usual.
    From a director’s perspective it is obvious that input from experienced editors regarding strictly non-narrative moments are essential, to remind him (lest he travelled too far in his own personal world) of certain (market and otherwise) realities.
    However I think that should be the limit of it: the editor can clearly explain why the scene is redundant, the director can justify it, and the editor counter-explain. The final decision has to be the director’s and has to trust himself enough, and not be overly influenced by others for these reasons:
    1) Too many films are so ‘diluted’ by the influences of so many in a large production they lose their ‘soul’. I am a strong believer in the invisible ‘soul’ of a film, behind the story.
    2) Not all (whacky) ideas could be understood by another, and they may not be appreciated by everyone.
    3) I do believe that the need to push films ONLY in a narrative direction is a symptom of today’s short concentration span, a certain loss of poetry to the service of an easier market sell. Some of the ‘redundant’ moments can, for me, be the very ‘life’ or ‘soul’ of the film.
    How many times do we stop and watch beautiful landscapes in Malick’s films, like in ‘Days of Glory’? Yet I feed off those, adore those moments.
    It is similar to the ‘cadenza’ by a soloist in the midst of a concerto: quite apart from the otherwise strict musical structure, it is a moment of freedom when one is allowed to go in one’s direction, show off, play with the audience with something that is other than thematic development. I love those moments.
    But concertos and cadenzas were invented 300 years ago.

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