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The film director as commanding general

John Cameron Mitchell, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher and the Coen brothers get the job done in very different ways.

January 11, 2011|By Randee Dawn, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • There are as many different ways for making a film as there are directors in the DGA.
There are as many different ways for making a film as there are directors… (Ken Fallin / For The Times )

On the set of his first movie, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," future "Rabbit Hole" director John Cameron Mitchell was decked out in drag — and running around the set barking orders at Teamsters. His father, then an Army major general, was visiting the set that day.

"He told me, 'Oh, you're doing what I do,'" recalls Mitchell.

On most sets, that's the truth: A director's vision may be one thing, but how he or she achieves it through managing cast, crew and a thousand other tiny details is another. Once cameras start rolling, a director is the master of his or her domain, and every decision is ultimately his or hers.

But mix art and management and a strange beast emerges — not every personality is suited to handling temperamental underlings and, in the end, there's no one exact route to success. Being nice does not guarantee an Oscar, and a difficult, domineering director can easily generate a masterpiece.

Mitchell says he likes to "create a benevolent dictatorship. You want everyone to feel wanted — and I run around like an overactive host at a party."

Generating a genial, family atmosphere is often a default move for lower-budgeted films and filmmakers; "Black Swan's" Darren Aronofsky is used to such circumstances and has learned that eschewing trappings like a personal trailer can help unite a set.

"I'm from Brooklyn, and I'm not too highfalutin, so people are already comfortable with me," he says. "My general approach is open communication — explaining what we're doing, trying to get everyone on the same page. I'm not really a screamer."

Legendarily, however, the screamers have it: Alfred Hitchcock was notoriously difficult, and today's box-office topper, James Cameron, has turned off actors with his aggressive style. (The "True Lies" crew was rumored to have sported T-shirts with a phrase echoing his attitude: "My way or the highway.")

But box-office success makes all of that just part of the Hollywood legend.

"If a great film arrives, it's all justified," says Ian Nathan, executive editor of Empire magazine and author of the forthcoming "The Alien Vault." "Some actors suffer awfully at the hands of brilliant directors, but from the studio's point of view, it's by any means necessary."

Fortunately, most sets operate somewhere along the family atmosphere-dictatorship continuum, though every director has his own style. "True Grit's" Coen brothers both write and direct together and are famous for being detail-oriented, able to catch a missed beat or syllable and finish one another's sentences.

"With a lot of directors, it's very organic on the day of shooting," says their longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins. "We come to shoot every day well-briefed for the day's work. And after the first take, maybe Joel will talk to one actor and Ethan will talk to another, and you'll do another take — and they'll swap. They're so on the page that it's a cohesive unit by the time you start shooting."

Game-playing is a popular tactic of many directors, who manipulate their sets and actors to achieve a specific performance. William Friedkin, for example, was said to have fired a gun and lowered the temperature on the set of "The Exorcist" to rattle his actors; directors like Stanley Kubrick or, more recently, "The Social Network's" David Fincher insist on dozens of takes, in part to grind the "acting" out of their stars.

"When we heard about David's infamy in the number of takes he does, we were a little worried," admits "Network" costar Andrew Garfield. "But it turned out to be useful: Actors never feel like they have enough time on a film set, so this was luxurious and rare and appreciated. [David] doesn't waste any time, and for an actor that means you can get into a rhythm and not let the ball drop."

But what Garfield, who plays Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, and costar Jesse Eisenberg didn't anticipate were the quiet confidences the director shared with them individually.

"This was a movie about different points of view, and the characters had arguments about who was in the right, so he'd pit us against each other. He'd quietly give notes to Jesse and tell Jesse that Eduardo has no imagination, so he shouldn't feel guilty about ousting him from the company," Garfield says. "But at the same time, he'd come to my side of the table and say quietly to me, 'This guy really did you wrong.' He was helpful in getting us to believe in our own subjective intent and drive. That was very useful and subtle of him to do that."

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