A Dreamer Walking

John Ford- And Observation- Tension On Set

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 15, 2012

Ford was one of the top directors in Hollywood so he was given some of the most juicy scrips and greatest stars of the day. With this came a huge amount of responsibility and pressure. Unlike the directors of today, who make about one movie every two to three years, Ford usually needed to make two to three films within a year. This obviously created tight production schedules. Ford’s extremely high ambitions accompanied with his crew’s absolute dedication to satisfy him only added to this mounting pressure. With all this pressure there is bound to be a curtain amount of tension on set. Most directors try to subdue the tension by being warm to their crew members and letting them realize filmmaking is a team sport full of mistakes. Not John. He embraced tension as a foundation of his directing style.

There was always a chip on Ford’s shoulder. Maybe this came from being a son of a Irish immigrant. Maybe it came from being the youngest of five and being picked on as a kid. Or maybe this came from being picked on by the studio system through out his career. No matter what it really was one of the first things I realized when studying Ford was he was not an easy going man. Jimmy Stewart described Ford’s sets as always being tense. If a crew member did not choose his actions or words wisely they were in danger of getting hit or insulted by Ford.

Ford wanted to be in control. He wanted his crew to be ready as soon as he got on set and he did not want to be questioned when asking one of his crew members to do something- even if he was asking them to get into a real fist fight on camera or jump off of a real horse while going full speed.  Ford wanted to get each shot in one take. He had no interest in doing things the same way movie after movie, so by trying new things there was bound to be a learning curve. However, Ford had little patients when something was not working. Tension often creates a greater awareness and a more professional attitude from crew members. On Ford’s sets nobody was supposed to feel at home. They were supposed to understand the demanding requirements of the studio system. Filmmaking for Ford was a job and not something to take lightly.

Tension was created between the actors in order for Ford to get the best performance out of them. While making Two Road Together, staring both Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark, Ford took Jimmy Stewart to the side and told him to watch out because Richard was a good actor and would start stealing his scenes if he wasn’t careful. Later Stewart found out Ford had said the same thing to Richard. Ford went to John Wayne while making The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and openly asked why he couldn’t be more like Stewart. He created a competitive atmosphere so crew members and actors would be pushing each other to perform to their best. Ford told actors at times that he was thinking of taking their key scenes out of the script in order to get the best performance out of them when the time came to shoot the scene. People who did not work well competitively did not last long.

I believe there needed to be a curtain amount of tension on set to in order to create so many quality films in such a small space of time. However, the tension Ford created was not always good. I think it led to less creativity from his crew and actors. You don’t see as much nuance in the performances of most of Ford’s characters. John Wayne and Henry Fonda seem to play the same characters in all the Ford movies I’ve seen them in. If a cast or crew member was afraid he’d get punched because of a suggestion he made, he was unlikely to make the suggestion. This led to missed opportunities in many of Ford’s films.

Ford was who he was and he worked in the way he thought was best. It is undeniable he was successful. Yet, I can’t help but feel Ford was hurt by the many pressures from the studios and the many demons of his past. A curtain amount of tension is needed on any set, but when it starts to hurt creativity and collaboration one wonders if it is necessary.

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