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Book Review

The True Grit of First-Time Filmmakers

MY FIRST MOVIE: Twenty Celebrated Directors Talk About Their First Film; Edited by Stephen Lowenstein; Pantheon Books; $27.50, 460 pages


You wouldn't want to be married to anyone directing a first film. They don't sleep for anxiety dreams. They're at a crisis of confidence and identity such that you couldn't trust them with your credit card or your automobile--let alone your daughter.

Virgin directors behave like scoundrels and complain of the loneliness. They have one-track minds headed for Sundance, Harvey Weinstein, Cannes and Oscar night, and they would do or say anything to get their thing done.

Very likely, if they make it all that way down the line, the spouse of the early ordeal will be cast off: You have to marry up to your own fresh grandeur. Nor is all the sacrifice repaid in gold. Sometimes the novices have bargained away 155% of their creation, and sometimes the first film is best forgotten. On the other hand, American firsts include "Badlands," "Diner," "Fingers," "Hard Eight," "The Great McGinty," "They Live by Night," "Stranger Than Paradise," "The Night of the Hunter" and "Citizen Kane."

Stephen Lowenstein has had the simple but knockout idea of talking to first-time directors about their debuts. Twenty may be a few too many for readability, but this is an enthralling book. It's full of inside information and sordid instruction yet often rises to great insights, too. It not only is the perfect book to give to any young person similarly obsessed, but also offers a set of lessons that should be drummed into them until their own jitters and pretensions have become one marvelous throb and hum of readiness.

It's a credit to Lowenstein that he has gone far and wide--not just to American independent heroes such as the Coen brothers, Steve Buscemi, Allison Anders and Kevin Smith, but to an international cast that includes Pedro Almodovar, Bertrand Tavernier, Mira Nair and Ang Lee as well as such Brits as Mike Leigh, Anthony Minghella, Gary Oldman and Stephen Frears. The only thing omitted is the past: It might have been useful to contrast how someone made it in the 1950s or even the '30s. But I'd guess that this young generation of independents believes that life has never been as intense as in their time.

Attitudes vary, but the majority of these youngish people are still haunted by their ordeal and the determination it took. Indeed, they've taken on a kind of armor that, in some other arts, you might find disabling or restrictive. No one admits that. They are in love with their own zeal and cunning, and the way they overcame doubt. Thus, Oldman on how he willed "Nil by Mouth" into being: "I had a vision. I had a passion. I knew what I wanted. I knew what I could see. I didn't know whether it was going to be any good, but it was going to be my film. I was going to stand or fall by it. If it was no good, then it was no good because of Gary. So I was happy to have the responsibility."

The same problems affect everyone: the terrible indignity of it all; the impossibility of being taken seriously; the Kafkaesque search for money free from complications; how to handle actors while commanding a crew; how to cover action economically and stylishly; how to watch your own work without committing suicide. And, perhaps most intriguing, how to find something in the language or power of film that ensures that this is only a first--that other films must follow.

There is rich comedy: Nair juggling hypothetical amounts of money in the effort to get an actual check; Mike Figgis proposing that Tommy Lee Jones might improvise, and then scuttling away at the great man's wrath; Tim DiCillo getting calls from the Spielberg office and the Coppola office, calling back and finding that no one knew why they had called; Frears realizing that the thing he feared most was self-expression (because it was so contrary to his middle-class upbringing); Smith hearing that Spielberg works out before making a movie, while he (Smith) put on 30 pounds taking his uncertainties to and from the snack table during "Clerks."

It's hardly surprising that the most valuable pieces come from the most interesting directors. But Minghella's interview reads like an essay from a searching intelligence, while Lee's words always testify to the maturity that accompanies his shyness.

But along the way there are observations that could start a whole book on theory, as when Figgis observes that dialogue in most films is "so simplistic. It's not until a camera has film in it and you start turning over that you get any kind of tension. Actors know if a camera's not running, it ain't happening.

So there's something for everyone here, as well as a cheerful overlooking of failure.

Getting your picture sold, reviewed and liked--that's another problem to go with the making. And the whole process adds up to an obstacle course that may, or may not, encourage winning more than sensitivity. As one film teacher observed about a new class of students: "Watch for the monsters. They will become famous."


David Thomson is the author of "A Biographical Dictionary of Film."

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