A Dreamer Walking

Martin Scorsese – An Observation – Character Studies

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on April 23, 2014

Scorsese #2One of the reasons movies like Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, and his latest The Wolf of Wall Street rub audiences the wrong way is because of director Martin Scorsese’s determination to not show the big picture. What Scorsese is interested in is the individual perspective. Almost all his films revolve around an individuals point of view and Scorsese is unwilling to leave that point of view for sentimentality or political-correctness. He has faith his audience will bring a broader perspective to the films they are watching, but Scorsese is focused on showing a world seen through the lens of his flawed characters. This is what makes Scorsese’s movies so interesting.

The first Scorsese film I chose to watch when I started studying him was Taxi Driver (1976). After seeing the movie I couldn’t believe how frustrated it made me feel. “Gosh”, I thought, “they said this guy was a good director!” What I saw was a completely unlikable character, in Travis Bickle, with little arc. I first thought I just picked the wrong movie. However, after watching Raging Bull (1980), The Aviator (2004), and Shutter Island (2010) I found the same problems arose: the characters were all hard to warm up to and there was little to no character growth. In fact, one of my first papers on Scorsese revolved around the problem I had with the lack of arc in his films (check out the paper here).

After listening to many of Scorsese’s interviews and commentaries I began to realize he was never interested in movies about characters who ended up overcoming their flaws and winning the day. I don’t believe Scorsese felt capable of telling many of those kinds of stories in an authentic way. Most of Scorsese’s movies don’t revolve around huge life altering events that send his characters on specific adventures. He is actually known for his lack of interest in narrative driven films. And, though I still hold to my point I made years ago about Scorsese not having much of an arc for his characters, I have come to realize that has never really been his intent. What he wants us to see is the effect a changing environment has on his unwavering characters. Again and again in Scorsese films we observe characters who are unable to change and adapt to the shifting world around them.

We see the characters in Scorsese’s films show their inability to adapt to a changing world in many different ways. In Gangs of New York there is Bill The Butcher. From most accounts audiences considered him the most interesting and colorful character in this Scorsese epic. Bill deals with a the world around him by demanding it stay the same. The story takes place in the city of New York during the Civil War. This represents a huge evolution in the United States, yet Bill refuses to acknowledged it. He tries his hardest to keep New York the same way it has always been. He ruthlessly undermines newly elected officials and continues to hold onto his hatred towards immigrants and African Americans. Bill represents the old New York. I believe this character most resonated with Scorsese because he also fell in love with a New York (the place he grew up) which has since gone away.

In the movie Goodfellas change is dealt with in a completely different way. The main character of the movie is gangster, Henry Hill, and unlike Bill The Butcher he is not in a position where he could force his environment to stay the same. The first half of the movie shows us exactly why Henry is the kind of guy he is. We see how enticing life as a gangster can be. Scorsese brilliantly displays the glamor, excitement, and power that comes with gangster life and then he pulls the rug out from under Henry. Soon the struggle for power puts friends against friends. Henry’s luxurious lifestyle and excessive amounts of money get him into drugs and allow him to support mistresses which in turn brings more chaos to his life. He soon finds he can’t support the glamorous life he and his wife have grown accustomed to and things begin to crumble around him. Though you can’t say Henry’s lifestyle ends up benefiting him in the end, there is no attempt to show Henry having regret for the life he lived. He doesn’t seem to feel remorse for cheating on his wife and helping to cover up the murders of several people. At the end of the story we see his situation change dramatically but he is no different.

If you enter a Scorsese movie wanting to see characters come to their senses or pay for their crimes I am afraid you will be disappointed. The latest Scorsese film, The Wolf Of Wall Street, is proof of just how little Scorsese cares about appeasing his audience byshowing any kind of justice or redemption. The protagonist of the film is one of the most despicable men you will ever see, Jordan Belfort. The film revolves around a team of stockbrokers, lead by Belfort, who cheat, lie, and double cross their way to the top of the Wall Street food chain. The film is based on a true story yet not even a second of the film is focused on any of the many thousands of people Belfort ruined because of his scams. Instead we are are exposed to an excessive amount of drug use, prostitution, and partying. Many asked what the point of the movie was. I don’t think Scorsese had a particular message he wanted to send. However, I think he made the movie because he wanted to get into the head of someone who could do such damage without thinking twice about it. Scorsese didn’t show any of the victims of Belfort’s schemes because Belfort didn’t care about his victims. As I said at the top of this post, Scorsese is relying on his audience to bring a bigger picture to his movies.  His job is to show us an unflinching example of what goes into the mindset of a character like Jordan Belfort. Scorsese isn’t interested in having us like Belfort, but rather he wants us to understand him. Like the movie or not Wolf Of Wall Street produced a huge amount of dialogue about the corruption of Wall Street. This dialogue was generated because of Scorsese’s unwillingness to create false sympathy for the character of Belfort and because of Scorsese’s ability to let us see through the eyes of such a corrupt character. The movie forced us inside the head of a man few of us would ever care to know in the real world.

Scorsese is completely focused on transporting his audience inside his characters head. In fact, what almost all Scorsese films have in common is they are deep character studies. Scorsese wants his audiences to be consumed by his characters. And once we are in his characters heads, he refuses to let us out. We end up seeing the world of Scorsese’s protagonists rather then the world we know. In the commentary for Taxi Driver the film professor Robert Kolker talked about how we don’t know what is real or not in the movie because Travis Bickle isn’t seeing the world in a realistic way. The same could be said to an even greater degree for the movie Shutter Island. (SPOILER) At the end of Shutter Island we learn the whole story we just watched isn’t real at all but was simply imagined by the protagonist, Teddy Daniels (END OF SPOILER).

Scorese’s focus on the psyche of his characters is obsessive. Scorsese wants us to question what we thought we knew about people in this world. Repeatedly he refuses to give us characters we can completely root for or against. Instead he shows his audience a much more colorful world, filtered through the eyes of his protagonist. We can see ourselves being entranced by the same demons that send people like Travis Bickle, Howard Hughes, and Jordan Belfort into madness. And, we are never given any easy answers as to how to fix their problems. Instead we are made to come up with the answers for ourselves. In many ways it would be easier for Scorsese to create an out for himself by giving into the audiences desired outcomes for the characters in his films. But it is by forging his own path and taking an unflinching look at the people he concentrates on that Scorsese has become one of the most admired filmmakers in the world.

Akira Kurosawa – An Observation – The Past

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on December 30, 2013

Akira 1One of the filmmakers I have been most reluctant to study is Akira Kurosawa. Not because he isn’t worth looking into, rather because he is considered such a legend in the great history of filmmaking. He is also the first foreign language director I have studied. The culture of Japan is much different then that of the United States. As a dyslexic who can’t read very fast it has been hard for me to watch some of his films. I hate reading subtitles because I need to pause at times and am hardly able to look up and cherish the visuals unless I do repeat viewings. However, with all these problems studying him has been completely worthwhile. Every movie I have seen is interesting. Three of his films, Ran, Red Beard and Ikiru, are among the greatest films I have ever watched.

Akira Kurosawa was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. He is hailed as a master of the craft of cinema. Many filmmakers have said he is a film school in himself. They say if you want to know about film study Kurosawa. However, Kurosawa would tell you to study the world. He studied the great artists– the filmmakers, poets, and musicians– and allowed them to inform his stories and the way he told them. He also used his personal life to push his storytelling.

As with many of the filmmakers I have studied, school was not Kurosawa’s strong suite. In his biography, Something Like An Autobiography, Kurosawa described himself as too honest and rebellious in school. He said when he did something bad and the teacher asked who did it he would always raise his hand. He talked about giving snarky answers on his exams, forging papers so he could get out of activities, and messing around with dynamite in school. He never got the best grades. He never really cared enough to apply himself in school. When it came to art Akira said the teachers gave the best grade to the student who could copy something the best. He found this incredibly dull. The more I read about his childhood the more I can resonate with it. Kurosawa wasn’t the greatest athlete. He was even sent away after his third year of middle school to his older cousin’s to, as his father put it, “be cured of his physical weakness”.

Cinema was chosen by Kurosawa out of an overwhelming feeling of not belonging. His movies for the longest time concentrated on the outsider, people breaking away from the system. In Japan movies were considered extremely questionable when Kurosawa was a child in the 1910’s and 20’s. Yet, his military father took him to see many films. This was one of the few things his farther broke from tradition to do. I believe there was a tremendous strain between Akira and his father. The strain was great because Akira so badly wanted to be like him and earn his respect. Kurosawa had three sisters. He said he could relate with them way more than his older brother. He played games with them and was much more emotionally vulnerable with them then his brother and father.  Akira lost one of his sisters to illness when he was in fourth grade. His autobiography reveals he had great feelings for this sister and it was a deeply painful loss.

In middle school Kurosawa began to grow up quickly. He observed the great earthquake of 1923. Though nobody close to him was killed his brother took him out to the city and both of them observed the mass damages. He said they went one place where as far as you could see there was, “every type of corpse imaginable”. Akira’s brother ended up committing suicide when Akira was in his early twenties. These things along with the great destruction of the atomic bombs in the 1940’s gives great insight to why Kurosawa’s stories so often revolve around destruction and war. Kurosawa needed to grow up quickly and he began to apply himself physically and built up an appreciation for athletics, military, and discipline.

Through the midst of all the destruction and war Kurosawa has been able to retain a powerful grip on his films emotions and the inner journey of his characters. The plots of his films are only used to dig deeper into his characters emotional conflict. This is what separates his work. Though Akira Kurosawa was forced go grow up at a very early age, he never lost touch with his emotions. This might be due to the fact he developed a relationship with his sisters. It might be due to wanting to reach out to his father. Akira said in his autobiography he believed his father was an sentimentalist at heart. One of the places where his father seemed to be willing to open himself up was in the movie theater. I can see Akira trying to reach that sentimental side of his father with his movies. I can easily say he did it with me.

The Films of Kurosawa touch on powerful inner conflicts. I am constantly stricken by how universal the themes in these conflicts are. Yet they originated from personal memories. It was Kurosawa who said, “Creation is memory”. He believed as artists we must hold on to the present and the past in order to inform our future. As with the great John Ford, in Kurosawa’s later films you see a tremendous desire to hold on to what once was. The great filmmakers have this desire because the past is where their great memories rest and where their greatest creations originate.

Joe Wright – An Observation – Telling a Story

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on March 5, 2013

Joe Wright 1Joe Wright is one of those filmmakers who likes to let his audience know he is telling a story. At the beginning of Pride and Prejudice the main character Elizabeth is reading a book, which Wright described as the beginning of the story she is about to go on. In Atonement the first thing we see is Briony typing out the last part of her play. At the end of the story we find out she is in fact the author of the story we are watching. The Soloist revolves around a group of articles the main character Steve Lopez wrote for his newspaper.  Hanna was described by Wright as a sort of fairytale and we see Wright express this motif constantly; through the main character Hanna reading out of the Brothers Grimm book, the way Wiegler dresses in green and red to resemble a witch, and the fact the whole third act takes place in a deserted circus land which resembles something you would see in a classic fairytale. In Wright’s latest feature Anna Karenina he goes a step further in making it obvious what we are seeing is made up. He fictionalizes the story by setting it in a theater. Wright makes it obvious the actors are on the stage when performing.  Instead of cutting to another scene we at times see prop men come out and change the location in front of our eyes. We even have scenes take place in the prop room, backstage, and up on the catwalks.

If you really think about it most films have very little resemblance to real life. Even the ones based on true stories are completely manipulated in order to express a curtain view. Whether these views are of substance, accurate, or worth your time has everything to do with the storyteller. Joe Wright is a master at using the tools of cinema to manipulate the audience’s view. Wright doesn’t even try to hide this fact. He wants you to understand you are watching a story and not reality. He tells you this through the way he composes shots,  uses music, and edits his films. In fact every time a filmmaker chooses to make a cut, use a curtain angle, or bring in music he is manipulating the audience’s emotions. Wright just is a master at it. His job as a filmmaker is not to tell the literal truth, it is to use the tools of manipulation he has at his disposal to tell the emotional truth of his story.

 “A storyteller is someone who hides the truth in fiction so you can see it better”
Steven Parolini

This is one of the best explanations of a filmmaker’s job. We have the power to send people off to lands where gods and giants rein, to galaxy’s light years away, or to worlds that resemble ours but have toys come to life and animals talk. Wright makes no attempt to make you believe what you are seeing is real. He understands the power of the audience understanding they are watching a story. He wants to exaggerate what we see in real life and create an experience. His job is to understand the heart of his story to such a great extant he could manipulate whatever he needs in order to make the heart of his film resonate with the audience. Wright has experienced life. His films are proof of this.The heart of his stories come from a real and truthful place in his heart.

The reason films like Hanna, a story of a child trained assassin, or Pride & Prejudice, a 17th century drama, resonate with the audience is because they go beyond their genre and show universal truths. Whatever Wright thinks he needs to peel away in order to express those truths more clearly he will take away. It is why we see such impressionistic work in a movie like Anna Karenina. Wright felt the story of lust and love would work better if he heightened the surroundings. He uses extreme color schemes in order to express the emotions of the story and his characters. In the movie Wright does not waste time cutting to different scenes. He has many of the sets change in front of our eyes because his characters’ lives are in constant flux. In Wright’s films we follow his characters’ emotional arcs. The surrounding is completely changeable depending on where his characters are emotionally.

Telling a story requires a lot of talent and technique to get it right. The director needs to be thinking about the framing, music, lighting, sound design, costumes, actors, camera movement, how all those things contribute to the scene, and how the scene contributes to the whole, through out the whole filmmaking process. This takes a lot of devotion and study to get right. You will not get someone who is interested in putting in the countless hours of time and effort unless he is completely devoted to telling the story he has to tell. Joe Wright is a storyteller and his art is telling a story. No wonder he likes acknowledging this in his films from time to time. Yet, Wright doesn’t care whether you catch his acknowledgments. He actually wants you to get so interested in his worlds and so close to his characters you get completely invested in the story. He wants to reveal to you the wonders of the worlds he creates and the emotions of his characters. He wants to tell you a story you will never forget.

Joe Wright – An Observation – Responding

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on February 15, 2013

From my studies I have found there are two very distinct kinds of directors both of which I have tremendous respect and admiration for. There are the Fincher’s and Kubrick’s of the industry who are known for being perfectionists. Many say they already have the movie in their head before they shoot their first shot. Their job is to get what is in their head into the camera. Usually this involves countless hours of tedious work, where the director is trying to control as many details as the time allows to get his vision onto the screen. The other type of director I have encountered is the “Go with you gut” directors. These directors are the Eastwood’s and Spielberg’s of our day. Every day is a inspiration to them and they let these inspirations drive their directing. They do not obsess over flaws in the frame, in fact they capitalize on mistakes a actor makes or the weather creates and bring a more authentic feel to their films.

Joe Wright is a director who falls under the category of “go with your gut” directing. He has done his research but he relies on the performances, costumes, and locations to guide his directing. He wants to be inspired. This is one of the main reasons he does not like working on sets. No matter if he is shooting a period piece, a thriller, or a buddy movie, Wright wants to find actual locations to do most of his shooting. He get’s inspired by the locations and they become just as involved with his story as the characters. His mission is to inspire the crew and the actors to do their best work. He sets things up so the actors can actually mingle with the extras when they are not shooting. He plays music and gets rid of as many distractions as he could so his crew stays on task. During inmate scenes Wright said he tries to have only him, the sound recorder, the grip, and the cinematographer present with the actors so they could feel as comfortable as possible while executing their scene.

One thing you will notice with almost all of the personal scenes in Wright’s movies is his use of the a handheld camera or steady cam. In his commentary on Pride & Prejudice Wright talked about how most of film is about the technical part of filming but the handheld empowers the actors. The great Italian director Federico Fellini  is widely known for making the handheld style of filmmaking popular for the coming of age generation in the 1970’s. The first Rocky film was a breakthrough movie with the steady cam. Through the use of the hand held and steady cams filmmakers found they were less limited with the camera and could explore more personal things and create a more realistic feel in their stories. Using handhelds and steady cams allows the camera man to react to the action on screen in a much more intimate way. Wright likes to respond to what he sees and what he feels. When we watch Wright’s brilliant multiple minute single shots in Pride & Prejudice, Hanna, and Atonement, they are successful because they allow us to take a uncut second person view of the situation and soak in the environment, characters, and story as though we were there. We feel like we are in a 17th century ball, walking in the midst of beaten down World War II soldiers, and trying to escape from secret spies, all because of Wright’s superb ability to transport us into his worlds through the intimacy of the camera.

Even music is used in many of Wright’s films through the response of natural sound effects in the environment. Atonement starts off with the main character Briony at her type writer finishing her play. The typing from Briony slowly transitions into Briony’s theme music with the type writer noise maintaining the basis of her themes beat. At the end of the first act when Robbie is taken away, his mother begins to bang on the front of the police car. The banging becomes the main beat for the powerful climatic music used to end the first act. We see a similar use of sound in the movie Hanna, where helicopter propellers, traffic sounds, and combat noise transitions into the main themes used in the Chemical Brothers score. This is just another example of how Wright is inspired by the world around him and lets it guide him even in post production.

A good directer needs to balance between being prepared and leaving room to be inspired. After watching Wright’s latest film Anna Karenina it seems he brings his response oriented directing style farther then ever before. Unlike Wright’s other films Anna Karenina is mostly shot inside a set. He wants to bring to attention the story he is telling is piece of fiction intentionally dramatized to provoke emotion. Everything seems to be a response to Anna’s emotions.  There is even a time where everything stays still until Anna’s vigorous passion awakens them. Wright wants to awaken his audience . He will hit us with emotions that sometimes defy logic. In most of Wright’s films he does not even try to hide the fact we are watching a story unfold.  He has no intetion in making these stories look real. Instead he wants them to feel real and he will dramatize whatever he needs to to get the desired effect. He is looking for the audience to feel anger towards his characters, love, sorrow, and happiness. In short, Wright is looking for a response.

Joe Wright – An Observation – Dyslexia

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on February 8, 2013

Joe Wright 2I first started to research director Joe Wright when I found out he was dyslexic. He has said in interviews his dyslexia made him feel stupid and is one of the big reasons he didn’t finish school. The man just didn’t read as fast as other students and he wasn’t a linguistic thinker. I am sure the school system was, like it is to so many other dyslexics, not kind to Mr. Wright. It is interesting however that Wright says his dyslexia is also the reason he has been so successful in the film profession. In a interview on The Telegraph Wright stated, “I think my dyslexia was a vital part of my development because my inability to read and write meant that I had to find knowledge elsewhere so I looked to the cinema”.

A fair question to ask is “why did Wright fail in school but find substance through the cinema?”.  In order to understand you must learn a little more about dyslexia. Dyslexia is usually labeled as a learning disability. Those diagnosed with dyslexia usually have a hard time with organization, reading, writing, and spelling. The majority of school systems rely heavily on verbal and linguistic teaching creating a huge disadvantage for dyslexics.  Knowing this it is easy to understand why Wright failed in the school system. However the cinema can also be a learning tool. The cinema teaches through the use of images. Through the cinema’s stories we learn lessons on politics, geography, evolution, religion, humanity, and so on.

I don’t believe Dyslexia is a learning disability. It is a different way of thinking. Dyslexics think through images. Some of the strengths associated with dyslexia are the ability to think spatially, being able to look at a problem from multiple angles, advancements in the imagination, and being able to see the big picture of any given problem or project. If you watch Joe Wright’s movies you can see how he has a firm grasp in all these areas.

When listening to Wright talk about his films it seems he relies more on instinct then any literal reasoning. He has done the research for his project but he wants to let the locations and visuals dictate the way he films. Because of this we find every frame in his movies stimulating. His main mission is to provoke emotion through his visuals. Wright never lets the details of the plot get in the way of his characters’ emotional growth. As a dyslexic myself I remember taking tests and always doing badly because I didn’t remember names and dates. What fascinated me and the things I constantly talked to my parents about were the emotions of the events I had learned about, how those impacted the people during that time period, and how they related to me in the present. I understood the material but didn’t have the ability to express my understanding through writing or the the tests I took. I can imagine Wright had a similar problems.

For Wright the literal facts seem to be the farthest from his mind. In Wright’s first feature film Pride & Prejudice he doesn’t care about the fact that Elizabeth Bennett is at a much lower class then Mr. Darcy as much as he cares about the emotional effect that fact has on their relationship. In Hanna the whole plot point of the title character Hanna being genetically altered in order to be a better killer was described by Wright as no more then a “macguffin” (a plot device with little to no explanation, used to propel the story). What mattered is this plot point propelled us into an emotional story.  We see a child grow up and emotionally go to battle with what she was made to do verses what is morally right.

One of the most important things a director must be able to do is have the big picture of the film in his mind while shooting individual scenes. It has been clinically proven that dyslexics use their right brain to a much higher extant than most non-dyslexics. The right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for seeing connections that tie things together and seeing how parts relate to wholes. The beach scene in Atonement and the exploration of Skid Row in The Soloist are examples of Wright leaving the main characters entirely in order to observe the bigger picture. He is able to ground his individual stories by showing us the world around the stories.

Wright creates connections in his films in many ways, including the use of mirror imagery, musical themes, and repeating pieces of dialogue. In Hanna we see the title character use the same line of dialogue to start off the story and to end it; making us reflect on how or if the events she went on had created any change. Two of the key scenes in Atonement are when the main character Briony tells the great lie to the investigators towards the beginning of the story and the truth to the reporter at the end of the story. The lie is what sends us into the conflict the rest of the story revolves around and the truth is what resolves the story and brings the audience closure. Wright binds the two scenes by using the same framing, background, and has the main character Briony looking straight into frame both times. We instantly see how these scenes are connected and how important they are to the narrative of the story.  At the beginning of Pride & Prejudice we hear the musical theme we come to associate with Elizabeth and the Bennett Family. However the same music is played by Mr. Darcy’s younger sister when Elizabeth visits Mr. Darcy’s house. Though Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s worlds look quite different the music unites them emotionally. Wright’s ability to understand the complete story gives him more insight on how to direct these individual scenes and connect them to the greater narrative.

No matter how much a dyslexic has worked to overcome his or her natural weaknesses the struggles are never completely resolved. Wright still says it takes him much longer to read a script or a book then most people. However he has found ways to change these perceived  weaknesses into strengths. Wright has said, “Because I think visually, not being able to read meant that other parts of my brain were pushed further, and so when I read a book, I have to see it”. It is not a accident that three of the five movies Wright has directed have been based on literary classics. It’s not that Wright is against reading, very few dyslexics are. It’s just the words come to Wright’s mind as pictures. Wright’s ability to see what he is reading allows him to translate the written word to film in a much more visually expressive way.

There are many others who have struggled in the classroom to become some of the greatest filmmakers in history. It is suspected that the great filmmaker David Lean struggled with dyslexia as a child. He hardly got by in the school system and was constantly made fun of by peers and his father for being a slow learner. Steven Spielberg is another diagnosed dyslexic who also severely struggled in the school system. These filmmakers did not just overcome their dyslexia they have used it do miraculous things in the cinema.  I feel Joe Wright is on his way. Many would call movies like Pride & Prejudice and Atonement some of the best films of this new century. It is hard not to call his five minute shot of the Dunkirk evacuation one of the most awe inspiring shots in all of cinema. Wright continues to explore his art form and he is going in an ambitious direction. His last two films have been criticized for being over the top and against the grain of established cinema. However “against the grain” is a perfect description of dyslexia. We think in a different way and are often called failures in the established system because of it. Still, many of these school system failures, such as Steven Spielberg, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison, have the greatest success stories in our history.

John Ford – An Observation – A Thousand Fights

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on May 21, 2012

John Ford 1In the 1930’s and 40’s Hollywood everyone was under contract, especially the directors and actors. For the most part Ford had little say in the movies he made. He needed to work with the scripts the studios gave him. Ford said he would tell the studios if the script would make a lousy, good, or great picture, but no matter what he was given he would do the best he could with it. This, along with the little time Ford was given to plan, brought about some mediocre films in his career. Very few could really fight against the studio system and make it through with a strong career. Frank Capra and Orson Welles are examples of directors who fought tooth and nail against the control of the studios. As a result both directors had great beginnings to their careers but ended up burning out or slowing their success down considerably ten to twenty years into their career. You might say ten to twenty years is good, until you contrast it with Ford’s forty plus years of success.

Ford said he got into a thousand fights with the studios in his career and he lost them all. I disagree with Ford here. He might not have completely won many, if any, of them. But, he rarely lost a fight. Unlike Capra or Welles, Ford was a master at working the Hollywood system. He learned to work in a way that gave him the power over most of the movies he made without exhausting himself or making the studios too mad. Ford was a shifty fellow, he would not fight through direct defiance, but rather through being more clever then his opponent.

Ford knew the studios had the power in the editing room. So he fought this by giving the studio the minimum amount of coverage to work with. In Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) there is a beautiful scene where Angharad, the most beautiful woman in the town, is just leaving after being married to a rich man who she is not in love with. The minister, Mr. Gruffydd, is the person she is truly in love with and we see him come out of the Church in silhouette looking at Angharad before she leaves. Ford was asked while shooting if he wanted to do a close up of Mr. Gruffydd. Ford replied, “Jesus no. They’ll just use it”. Most of Ford’s pictures were already cut in his head before he started shooting. He was usually so convinced in his interpretation of the story that he only shot what he absolutely needed. Even though the studios had power over Ford to edit his pictures, they could only edit in a limited amount of ways because Ford only gave them a limited amount of film to work with.

Whenever Ford had the opportunity to shoot on location he did. Ford wanted to be as far away from Hollywood and his producers as possible. One of the reasons Ford shot so many of his films in Monument Valley was because it was away from all the distractions of Hollywood and its control. There were no phones, producers, or set limitations in Monument Valley. Without the restrictions of the studio we see greatness at work. Great classics such as Stagecoach and The Searchers were made in Monument Valley. Ford’s pictures at Monument Valley are so legendary directors today refuse to shoot there out of respect of Ford and fear they would do the Valley and Ford a disservice.

The studios might have picked the scripts but it was Ford who chose what he used and what he discarded. Ford was just fine with improvisation and using the script only as a guide.  He was known for getting rid of dialogue or even getting rid of a scene or two entirely if he didn’t think it helped the story’s purpose. I have come across the story, more then once in my research of Ford, where he was given a hard time by a producer for being a few days off schedule. Ford angrily called for the script, ripped several pages out and said, “There! Now we are back on schedule”. Whether this story is true or not, it does represent Ford’s philosophy on scripts; they were never set in stone. He was always looking for the happy accident or the improvisation that enhanced or out did what he read on the page.

Ford’s tough guy demeanor was also a way to defend himself in fights. To prevent himself from always needing to argue his case when directing his crew Ford created an image of being a “hard ass”. Deep down Ford was a compassionate man with a great amount of insecurities. The sentimental scenes in Ford’s films work because he believed in them and his crew knew if a “hard ass” like Ford believed in them, they could too. No matter the insecurities, what drove Ford was ambition. Ford would never let his crew or producers see his soft side. Failure did not bring Ford down it just made him want to prove himself even more. Ford’s crew and the studios he worked for knew he was not someone to mess around with.

Movies like The Quite Man, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were ambitious pieces of cinema that would never have been made without Ford. Ford needed to fight for these films. Ford was able to get the go-ahead for his more personal films by first making the films the studios wanted him to make. Ford worked on several mediocre, at best, stories in order to get the green light for his personal projects. He understood the system better then anyone. He knew he could not get his way every time. Filmmaking was an expensive medium and Ford needed the studios in order to participate in it. He was willing to sacrifice in order to get the opportunity to perfect his art form and tell the stories that really spoke to his heart.  It took him thirty years to get the okay for The Quite Man.

As I said at the beginning of the post, I do not think Ford lost very many fights. However, I do think he was beat up. Ford was abused through out his life and he became an abuser to many people, especially the ones closest to him. Fighting has consequences. Unlike Capra, Welles, and countless others, Ford did not allow the studios to kill his creativity. He did lose many friendships through being a bully and we do see a much more cynical view on life in Ford’s later films. Ford’s last great Western, The Man who Shot Liberty Valence, is considered one of the most melancholy westerns of all time. In it we don’t see the vast landscape shots and great action scenes we are so used to seeing in a Ford Western. Instead we are given a story about the ineffectiveness of law against the true evil of the world. We see a love story that does not end the way most want. And, we are shown how the world rather believe a myth over the truth when it is more convenient.

In order to understand the unbelievable length and strength of Ford’s career all you need to do is look at his Westerns. He started by defining the Western in the silent era in the shorts he did with Harry Carey Sr. and the epic western The Iron Horse (1924). In the middle of his career he made the Western one of the most powerful genres in Hollywood with the movie Stagecoach (1939).  Ford ended his career turning Hollywood and the public’s concept of the Western on it’s head, with movies such as The Searchers (1954) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1960). To have the kind of career Ford had you needed to be a pretty good fighter. Ford wasn’t a fighter without a cause. He fought with the studio systems, his crew, and the changing ideals of America in order to bring us his visions of the country and ideals he loved and believed in. He fought to tell his stories in the best ways he knew how. He fought with conviction, courage, and an unwillingness to stay down. Because of this he had one of the greatest careers in the history of filmmaking.

John Ford – An Observation – The Old School Director

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on May 10, 2012

John Ford 2John Ford consistently got his films done on budget and on time. He made films full of character and story without convoluted plot. He used a minimum amount of dialogue in his movies and did not move the camera unless he needed to. Ford did not consider himself an artist. Filmmaking was his job and his mission was to create an entertaining picture for the rest of the world to see. John Ford is an example of someone who did not learn filmmaking from a school or book, but rather from on the job experience through trial and error. He stands toe to toe with the great filmmakers of the past who were not just masters at using the language of film but the ones creating it from scratch. With little money, demanding schedules, and constant monitoring with excessive restrictions from the studio systems, Ford was able to bring us classics that are hailed even now as being some of the greatest films ever made.

John Ford is the definition of an “Old School” director. He was part of the group that started it all. He was one of the ones who made us realize the power and importance of filmmaking. He was not artsy or self-indulgent. Ford’s only objective was to do well at his job. Ford wasn’t interested in showing the world the man behind the camera through huge tracking shots and clever compositions, rather his interest lied in letting the action unfold as if the camera wasn’t even there. The camera hardly moved in Ford’s films. When he moved the camera it was for a thought through reason. If he moved in on a character we knew we needed to pay attention to what the character was doing or saying. If Ford made a cut it was because he was finished exploring that particular moment in the story. These days filmmakers are afraid to keep the camera still. They will use handhelds and cut excessively just because they are worried about boring the audience. Ford believed in his crew and his directing abilities enough to follow his ambitions and not cave into the public’s demands.

The advice Ford gave for making good films was simple, “Photograph the eyes”. He knew the power of film came through human connection. Sure we liked the fist fights, horse charges, and gun fights in Ford’s films, but what kept his movies relevant was the simple study he did on the human psyche. He explored the individual and his or her obligations to family and society. He constantly contrasted the individual with the development of what many would consider the progression of History. Many filmmakers of today do not spend enough time connecting the audience to the characters and world of their film before moving on with plot. We often have BIG ideas but usually don’t have the patience to explore them or understand them. Ford didn’t care for big ideas, he explored simple things. Like the obligation a child has to his father in the movie How Green was My Valley (1941), the overpowering remorse that comes when betraying a friend in The Informer (1935), or the concept of finding worth when everything seems to be taken away in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

John Ford made a name for himself through simplicity. He made simple stories and he filmed them in simple ways. He did not feel the need to make a blockbuster time and time again, like so many high profile directors do these days. He did not treat the actors as if they were the most important members of the film crew. Ford’s school was the films he worked on and the movies he went to. All the film student of this generation can do is stand on the shoulders of the great directors of our past. Ford was one of those great directors. In 1971 Ford said, “I never felt important. Or as though I was a career director or a genius, or any other damn thing”. This is the very reason he was a genius and why he has become an important filmmaker to study today. Ford put his art form ahead of himself. He did not make movies for fame and admiration, but rather because he had a passion for telling a story.

John Ford – An Observation – Clear Direction

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on April 18, 2012

John Ford 3Directors 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.

John Ford- And Observation- Tension On Set

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series 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.

John Ford – An Observation – Beginnings

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on April 9, 2012

John Ford 5John Ford was a poet and a bully. He was a natural at his art form. A man who always seemed to know where his films needed to go. Ford was not a likable man. He has admitted he was somewhat of a slave driver who really only  had a talent for composing a shot. However, as mean as he was to his crew he had a lot of people stick with him. Ford was known for making both Henry Fonda and John Wayne into big stars. He started off his directing career with the silent film star Harry Carey. They made twenty six pictures together. From the 1930’s on everyone wanted to make a picture with John Ford, including Shirley Temple; who did so in 1937 with Wee Willie Winkie.

The persona John Ford gave to the public was one of a rough manly man who wouldn’t take no shit from anyone. However, Ford was not the kind of filmmaker who was good in just one genre. Even though he was most known for his Westerns, Wee Willie Winkie is proof that he could explore completely different types of stories. Ford’s greatest achievement was his ability to explore cultures and show the world the fragility of family. Movies like Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley give us insight on how the world tends to break families apart. His films often concentrate on the outsider, something Ford had personal understanding of being as a son to an immigrant.

One could not go up to Ford and ask who he was. If you did you would almost always receive a lie. Ford made sure he did not share with the public who he really was. When being interviewed Ford would give short answers, even though he knew the interviewer wanted more. He stretched and even fabricate the truth to make himself look better or to make the story sound better. If you asked Ford the wrong kind of question you would need to watch out, he wouldn’t hesitate to throw something at you or hit you. He was known for his cruel practical jokes. He was a man who wouldn’t hesitate to cuss one of his crew members out. But, behind John Ford’s persona there was a man with deep emotion and conviction. Ford fought to keep each film’s integrity alive. He understood the value of life and made his audience laugh and cry as well as anyone.

If you want to know John Ford watch his films.

Here are some suggestions: The Iron Horse (1924), Four Sons (1928), Pilgrimage (1933), The Informer (1935), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Stagecoach (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).