A Dreamer Walking

John Ford- An Observation- Clear Direction

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 18, 2012

Directors from the 30’s through the 50’s did not have nearly the control directors have now. I am not saying directors have complete control now but in areas like editing and scoring a picture directors back in the early days had little to no say. John Ford disliked the editing room and was hardly in it. This made me question whether Ford was a true director or not. A director in my opinion is the man who is personally guiding the picture through all the steps of production. How could Ford guide the editing of a project if he hardly saw the editor?

Through further study of Ford I have come to realize Ford was the main editor of his films. Ford edited the picture far before it got to the editing room. He actually edited most of his pictures before he started shooting. Ford had a clear idea of what he wanted his films to be. In the editing room the studios had the power and Ford knew this. No matter what the directors intentions might have been, the studios back in the old days would take control once the film hit post-production. Ford battled this by not giving the studio heads anything more then the bare minimum. He would not shoot like the other directors of his time–capturing the whole scene in first a master, then a medium, and then a few close ups. Scott Eyman in his biography of Ford explains, “[Ford] would shoot only those portions of a given shot that he needed for the scene as he had mentally formulated it. This severely limited editing choices, and meant that Ford had to be right the first time”. Ford needed to have such a clear idea of what he wanted he could stop in a middle of a scene and go to the next shot he had pictured in his head.

The extreme conviction in the direction he wanted to go is one of the things that made Ford such a great director. Cinematographer Charles Clarke made a few films with Ford in the silent era. He said when he first worked with Ford on Upstream (1927) he did not see the relationship between the scenes they were filming. A few weeks later the picture was announced finished and Charles was under the impression they were just getting started. Even though he could not find any rhyme or reason in what they had been filming, when released Charles saw the film and thought it was quite a good picture. Charles explains that Ford had been editing in his head while they had been shooting and although it didn’t make sense to most of the crew, Ford knew how everything was coming together.

Ford knew what was needed and what wasn’t. He Understood story as well if not better then any of the great screenwriters of the day. He knew what needed to stay in the picture and he knew the scenes and pieces of dialogue he didn’t need to even bother shooting. With the old western epic The Iron Horse (1924) the only script the Fox Studio has ends half way through. The rest of the film was basically created by Ford on the go. He didn’t bother writing anything down, he just knew what would make a good story and improvised many of the scenes on the spot. Nobody but Ford understood exactly how the film was going to come together, yet lo and behold it ended up turning into one of the greatest westerns of the silent era.

We can learn a lot from Ford here. The digital era of filmmaking has brought about a curtain amount of indecision. We like to experiment and try many different things. Sometimes this can lead to brilliance but often it ends up leading to stories with no clear purpose or direction. When creating a story we need to have a clear idea of what we want. We can only know what we want if we understand what the story is about. We need to know our material well enough that every shot, piece of dialogue, and choice of music is made because we think it will get us closer to our destination. Ford’s directions were so clear because he understood what the destinations of his movies were and he believed in his abilities to get there.

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