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once they were clotheshorses

Oh, for the Sartorial Splendor of Cecil B. DeMille! For Today's Director, You're Only as Good as Your Last T-Shirt.

March 26, 2000|glen freyer

Last year I directed my first feature film, a low-budget production that cost between $200,000 and $2 million, depending on who's asking. My role, as I quickly learned, was to put out fires. In a 60-second period I was once asked which wall of the bedroom should be movable for the reverse-angle shot in scene 87, which college a character with only one line had attended and whether the stripper's costume should be red leather or something "more tasteful."

I tried to answer each question with calm confidence, but, really, the most important question had already been answered, one that would set the tone for my film and perhaps my entire career: Which T-shirt should I wear the first day of shooting?

Now many of you might think I should have spent my final days reviewing the shot list or running lines with actors. But no. The T-shirt question plagued me. It is every modern director's defining moment.

Remember that the first day on the set, about 65% of the crew members have never met you. It's essential to command their respect right out of the box. "Who is this young tyro?" they'll be asking. "Is he aesthetically hip enough to lead us?" And "When's lunch?"

That's why, the night before shooting, I pulled out all my shirts, kicking myself for not planning ahead. My friend Steve in Chicago has this great "Brady Bunch" T-shirt with pictures of the nine cast members in black and white from the second or third season. It has no text and is not a reissue, which makes it particularly cool. Why didn't I have him FedEx it? It's the kind of shirt the crew would have worked through dinner for without calling the union. I still believe if I 'd worn that shirt, my film would have domestic distribution by now.

My next favorite shirt was one my friend Leon made on a plain white T-shirt with the word "Loser" printed upside down and backward in black letters. I'm all for self-deprecating humor, but what if the crew didn't get it? How embarrassing would that be? In all fairness, the movie I'd written was called "Suicide, the Comedy," so the crew should have had some idea I didn't take things too seriously. Even so, if the second second thought I really was a loser, he might fail to rack focus at a crucial moment and cost me a Sundance berth. I couldn't take that chance.

Third up was a shirt my friend Erik brought back from a convention. It has a cartoon of sperm swimming upstream with the caption "Future People." I can't remember (or, for that matter, imagine) what kind of convention it was, but I was glad to get the shirt. It was quirky enough to impress even the most cynical grip, but the sperm were so small, I didn't want a bunch of guys staring at my chest when they should be setting C-stands. What if a light fell and injured one of the actors? I'd never forgive myself.

I've heard that some people long for the past, when directors wore suits and ties, perhaps a beret tipped jauntily to one side, but such fashion simply doesn't inspire the modern crew, except perhaps as a retro statement, like when the Beastie Boys appeared on the Grammys. Spike Jonze could pull it off, perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson, but not on their first film.

The real problem is people want and expect directors to wear the uniform: old-school, low-top colored sneakers, preferably Converse All Star; jeans, ripped in the knee and ass; hard-to-find T-shirt with oversized button-down Oxford; hip lightweight jacket with car-related sticker (STP, GTO); nerdy-cool glasses and, of course, the ever-present backward baseball cap so that no one knows if you've showered.

Was this uniform chosen to offend, to bring down the stature of the director? I think not. To the contrary, it elevates him and separates him from the suits. Today's director chic should not be taken as an indictment of directors, but merely a reflection of our times. The dress-down look says "Outsider," "Nonconformist," "Unemployable." We all want artists to lead us, to rebel against convention so that we won't have to do it ourselves.

We also want a director's style to appear (though not necessarily be) totally effortless. Art doesn't work when it's forced. I think it was Da Vinci who first said, "Art happens." Only later did our generation bastardize this expression. Who isn't drawn to the cool-looking slouch, the disinterested slacker? It is strangely attractive.

And yet the director must command respect. How does he distinguish himself from those around him? How does he look like the common man and be above him at the same time? He plays the slob, but not just any slob. He plays the slob who leads, the king of all slobs. He plays the ber Slob.

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