Writers on Directors

Conceived and photographed by Susan Gray

With a Foreword by Leonard Maltin

An Artists’ Choice Book, Watson, Guptill Publications,

New York, pp. 184, 1999, $21.95

 

By Carter B. Horsley

This is a marvelous book of 43 short, witty, incisive, brilliant, important and generally remarkable essays by writers, many of them famous screenwriters, about movie directors who have been photographed with great style by Susan Gray.

This is not just a book for wannabee directors, or film buffs, or artists, but everyone. The ideas examined, rummaged, explored and rumored here are provocative, precious and powerful.

Ms. Gray selected the directors and they selected the writers.

The quality of writing and the photographs is exceptionally high and very fresh and this quite inexpensive book is an indispensable addition to anyone’s library.

"We laugh at our dreams, but we still want them," Ms. Gray writes in her introduction.

"Let me tell you a secret - there are people in Hollywood who actually do read, and not only that, they know a great story when they see one. It’s just that certain things get in the way - like verbicide or cinecide or once in awhile something as mundane as a natural disaster...Images are great seducers and we love being seduced...We greedily consume images to nourish ourselves - carefully storing them in archival Internet temples and marble libraries and monogramed museum wings. Like our memories, images preserve, if not our flesh then certainly our spirit. Word weavers, byronics, visionaries, moralists, or gossips - storytellers being us our heritage, living testaments for our personal and sacred dream files. Like old photographs, stories are reminders of our life; they can be powerful catalysts or soothsayers or they can be nothing more than a pleasant way to fill our time card....Often, just by remembering a title of a film, a slice of our life whizzes by, a single frame moves into fast forward; an action scene freezes into a single frame....Films can date us and yet still propel us forward...."

Some of the essays are anecdotal and others are analytical.

Ariel Dorfman, author of the play "Death and the Maiden" (1992) and screenwriter of such films as "Missing" (1982), "Hard Rain" (1991) and "The Resistance Theory" (1998), relates how Roman Polanski, the director of such films as "Knife in the Water" (1962), "Repulsion" (1965), "Rosemary’s Baby" (1968), "Chinatown" (1974) and "Tess" (1979), once became rather obsessed with the tint of a lamp on a set and observes that "Roman builds each space, each universe, as absolutely, incontrovertibly recognizable, unflinchingly familiar, horribly believable, so as to explore what is hidden, what is bizarre, what is absurd, so that the grid of reality can be tested against the inner demons of his characters, so that we can experience the liquid terror of being that person in that room, in that story, so that we can accompany that protagonist as he, as she, tries to change a destiny that has been imposed from somewhere else."

"Roman," he continued, "has spent his life mastering and using the techniques of realism in the service of the unspeakable." Polanski, he added, "once he has launched us on this voyage, will not relieve us with conclusive answers; his endings are almost invariably ambiguous, his heroes and heroines (if they may be called by that name) haunted by the bite of uncertainty even as they dash their heads against the mirror of life....most of the time...they end up lost in the bitter opposite of insanity: they end up lost in awareness, learning how vulnerable they are (they always were), how difficult it is to be moral, to be loved, in a world controlled by more powerful others."

William Goldman, the screenwriter of such films as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969), "All The President’s Men" (1976), "Heat" (1987), "Misery" (1990) and "Maverick" (1994), relates a couple of marvelous, moral incidents involving Norman Jewison, the director of such films as "The Thomas Crown Affair" (1968) and "Fiddler on the Roof" 1971. Jewison, he observes, "tends to be the most ignored" of major directors because "he has always been, from the start, so commercially successful."

Goldman has another essay, which is on Rob Reiner, the director of such films as "This is Spinal Tap" (1984), "When Harry Met Sally..." (1989), "Misery" (1990) and "A Few Good Men" (1992). Goldman liked "This is Spinal Tap" so much that he decided after watching it that "Rob was a man I would happily follow into battle."

"What’s so special about Rob is this: he can out-stubborn anybody," Goldman recalled, adding that on "Misery" Reiner was turned down for the male lead by "Beatty and the three D’s: De Niro, Douglas, and Dreyfus; and let’s not forget the three H’s: Hackman, Hoffman, and Hurt; as well as Harrison Ford, Kevin Kline and Robert Redford. We are talking six months of ego-rattling turndowns. And, amazingly, not once did he waiver, ask for changes, or lose confidence. Sooner or later I knew it was all going to be the script’s fault. Never happened. Not to me certainly. In thirty years of movie work, I’ve never experienced anything like it."

In his essay on Alan Rudolph, the director of such movies as "Endangered Species" (1982), "Choose Me" (1984), "Trouble in Mind" (1985), "Made in Heaven" (1985), "The Moderns" (1988), "Love at Large" (1990), and "Afterglow" )1997), Tom Robbins, the screenwriter of "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues" (1976), "Skinny Legs And All" (1990), and "Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas" (1994), writes about weirdness and "the passionate impulse that when indulged puts a strange new spin on the heart."

"All of our lives are at least a trifle haywire, particularly in the area of romantic relationships. It is Rudolph’s special genius to illuminate those haywire tendencies and reveal how they - and not convention or rationality - channel the undermost currents of our being. It is precisely Rudolph’s attention to our so-called ‘off-the-wall’ behavior that gives pictures such as Choose Me, The Moderns and Trouble in Mind their comic and erotic freshness, their pscyhological veracity, their ovoid contours.

"‘Ovoid’ is the correct description, although ‘elliptical’ will do. Football-shaped at any rate. Most films or novels or plays bounce like basketballs, which is to say, up and down, up and down, traveling in a forward direction in a generally straight line. Rudolph’s movies, on the other hand, bounce like footballs: end over end, elusively, changing direction, even reversing direction; wobbly, unpredictable, and wild. Goofy, in other words, like so much of life itself," Robbins wrote.

Hector Babenco photographed by Susan Gray

Hector Babenco

In his essay on Hector Babenco, shown above, the director of such films as "Foolish Heart," "Ironweed," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," and "Pixote", Richardo Piglia, who was his co-screenwriter on "Foolish Heart" (1997), writes that "In the world we live in (in the stories we tell) it seems there are only ebbs and flows without borders, only blank spaces."

"Babenco’s work in film captures that emptiness, yet at the same time says that, for all of us, always, there is a place waiting for us, in our memory, a place full of sunlight in our childhood home. Possibly, rather than coming from there, we are going toward it," he wrote.

Terry Gilliam photographed by Susan Gray

Terry Gilliam

"If in every great director’s movies there are sequences in which you perceive the influence of an equally great painter, it’s impossible to see almost any scene from any film of Terry Gilliam’s without thinking of the sixteenth-century Dutch artist [Hieronymus] Bosch, whowithout evident effort looked at this world and saw the one underlying, a world no one else would have wanted to see until he made them look. Bosch is the funniest of all the old masters. Unable to depict heaven without reminding the viewer of hell, he was plainly unable to think of hell without laughing - morbid laughter, granted....Gilliam has said that his tendency to load his scenes with background detail was inspired by his love of studying the crammed panels of Mad magazine in his childhood. Harvey Kurtzman, who created Mad in 1952, became his mentor in the early sixties, after Gilliam moved from Southern California to New York. Kurtzman hired him to work on the humor magazine Help!, where Gilliam practiced the comic techniques he would later perfect, as well as meet others who worked with the magazine, notably John Cleese. Although even today there is no one working in comic art - whether written, spoken, or visual - in the second half of the twentieth century who does not owe a tremendous debt to Kutzman (who died in 1992) for having created the framework upon which contemporary humor has grown. From Kurtzman’s example Gilliam learned and developed, I think, the ability to not merely sense and elaborate upon the grotesqueries of everyday life, but to never lose sight of the fact that the world and its people, even at their most malign, almost always remain hopelessly, unavoidably human, and therefore are best looked upon with humor, rather than despair," wrote Jack Womack, the screenwriter of "Random Acts of Senseless Violence" (1994) and "Going, Going Gone" (1999).

Sidney Lumet photographed by Susan Gray

Sidney Lumet

In his essay on Sidney Lumet, shown above, the director of such great films as "12 Angry Men" (1957), "Fail Safe" (1964), "The Pawnbroker" (1965), "The Hill" (1965), "The Offence" (1973), "Serpico" (1974), "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975), "Network" (1976), "The Verdict" (1982), and "Q & A" (1990), Peter Blauner, screenwriter of such films of "Slow Motion Riot" (1991) and "Man of the Hour" (1999), notes that "the rap on Lumet is more or less as follows: He has no distinctive visual style and no overriding thematic concerns; his films are photographed plays, they’re hectoring and insistent; he’s shrill and earnest." Noting that critic Pauline Kael once "hurled the reviewer’s equivalent of a gypsy’s curse at him, saying he would never improve as a director, because of his fundamental lack of taste and rigor," Blauner wondered how the "defendant" would plead, quickly answering that "As his advocate, I’d not only enter a plea of not guilty, I’d say rebuild the courthouse," adding that "Lumet’s great theme is the human heart under extraordinary pressure."

"With his some forty films in forty years, Lumet inspires a kind of suspicion. Instead of sitting around, he dives from one film into another, scrabbling for the emotional heart of each one, doing whatever it takes to make an impact, technique be damned," Peter Blauner concluded.

David Cronenberg photographed by Susan Gray

David Cronenberg

Of David Cronenberg, director of such films as "Videodrome" (1983), "The Fly" (1986), "Dead Ringers" (1988), "M. Butterfly" (1993) and "Crash" (1997), Norman Snider, screenwriter of "Dead Ringers," observed that "a confirmed nonreader of newspapers, events in the great world reach him late, as from a great distance, if at all." "That world, too," he continued, "is to be kept at bay. For David Cronenberg, the artist remains an outlaw. he expects that one day, inevitably, the police will come knocking at the door. Accordingly, there is one issue, however, on which he remains passionate: freedom of expression."

"The movies have been suborned for propaganda of one kind or another ever since they became popular enough to be useful," Tobias Wolff, screenwriter of such movies as "In The Garden of the North American Martyrs" (1981) and "In Pharoah’s Army: Memories of the Lost War" (1994), wrote in his essay on Oliver Stone, director of such films as "Salvador" (1986), "Platoon" (1986), "Wall Street" (1987), "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989), "JFK" (1991), and "Nixon" (1995).

"Stone’s and my generation was brought up on films designed to teach us that our leaders were brave and incorruptible, our national past a series of humane victories over barbarism, our people pure-hearted, our wars crusades. Stone has had the gall to use this powerful myth-making machinery to question the authorized version of the past, and those who profit by it," Wolff wrote.

Bruce Wagner has a scathingly funny memory of watching Wes Craven’s film, "A Nightmare on Elm Street." He recalls eventually meeting the director: "...he was supercivilized and debonair, and mischievous-looking too, in the manner of, say, a professor of medieval languages in Turin or Prague....I enjoyed the insect winglike whir of his mind sorting and cataloguing; the sober intake of breath as he delicately regurgitated something random and vile for those in proximity to be appalled by." Wagner was the screenwriter of such films as "Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills" (1989) and "A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors" (1998). Craven is the director of such other films as "Swamp Thing" (1982) and "Scream" (1996).

Clearly many of the writers have great affection for their subjects.

In his essay on Kenneth Branagh, the director of such films as "Henry V" (1989), "Dead Again" (1991), "Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein" (1994), and "Hamlet" (1996), Scott Frank, the screenwriter of "Dead Again," "Malice" (1993), and "Get Shorty" (1995), noted that "the thing that surprises most people when they meet Ken is how funny he is." "Given his pedigree and his work in the Theatuh, I think people expect this dour stiff. Yet, instead, what they get is this tremendously self-effacing guy with a knife-edge wit as well as a brilliant mimic who can instantly do anybody, including you."

Wendy Wasserstein, the playwright of "The Heidi Chronicles" and "The Sisters Rosensweig" and screenwriter of such films as "An American Daughter" (1997) and "The Object of My Affection" (1998), remembered meeting Amy Heckerling, the director of such films as "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982) and "National Lampoon’s European Vacation" (1985), in Hugo’s restaurant on Sunset Strip: "Into Hugo’s comes a petite woman in a jumper and clogs. It’s your basic outfit I wore to high school thirty years ago and would still wear if only my feet weren’t flat and my arms weren’t quite so undefined."

"Amy Heckerling is one of those women you meet and think, I already know this person. She was my best friend who I called after the horrible date with the guy who kept turning around during dinner to look at other women and took me home early. She was also the first person I called after reading Anna Karenina, and she was the one who made me feel better about screaming at my mother."

Directors make pretty intriguing character studies.

Katherine Dunn, screenwriter of such films as "Attic" (1970), "Geek Love" (1989) and "Death Scenes" (1996), notes that Gus Van Sant, director of such films as "Drugstore Cowboy" (1989), "To Die For," (1995), "Good Will Hunting" (1997) and "Pscyho" (1998),, lives in Portland, Ore., where "if the civic boosters wish he’d stop depicting their town as a sleaze-pit, they won’t mention it to him." Dunn finds many aspects of Van Sant’s personality interesting: "he’s unassuming, politely eccentric, disinclined to wilderness hikes," adding "He prefers sidewalks."

"One visitor roamed the entire house without being able to figure out where he sleeps....His paintings hang in hill mansions, four-star hotels, and the occasional taco house up and down the West Coast. Shows of his photographic portraits draw crowds to see the local bounders, gutter poets, winos, and other hipsters made mythic. He plays his own songs on piano and guitar. For a while he led a local rock band called ‘Destroy All Blondes.’"

Dunn wrote that his films are "tales of the people Mama warned us about" and that "his best work deals with the intense lives of the despised denizens at the grubby end of the social food chain.," adding that "Van Sant has the gift of the bifurcated eye that sees his primary characters from the inside and the story from the outside."

Virtually all the essays make the reader want to go out and see all the movies made by both the directors and screenwriters, even if one has seen them before.

The writing styles vary but are very fine.

"Martin Brest is a bomb thrower with a heart of gold. He is unrecognized as most bomb throwers like to be, and he also keeps the golden heart under wraps," begins the essay on the director of such films as "Beverly Hills Cop" (1984) and "Scent of a Woman" (1992) by Bo Goldman, the screenwriter of such films as "Melvin and Howard" (1980) and "Scent of a Woman."

Susan Gray photographed by Susan Gray

Susan Gray

The photographs by Susan Gray, shown above in a self-portrait from the book, are wonderful and Leonard Maltin has written a foreword to this excellent book.

Among the other directors highlighted are Ron Shelton, Carl Franklin, John Woo, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Agnieszka Holland, Michelangelo Antonioni, Lawrence Kasdan, Ron Howard, Richard Donner, Martha Coolidge, Bernardo Bertolucci, James Cameron, John Schlesinger, Paul Verhoeven, Milos Forman, Robert Altman, Neil Jordan, William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack, Roger Corman, Herbert Ross, Phillip Noyce, Penelope Spheeris, and Michael Mann. Among the other essays are screenwriters David Weddle, Edwidge Danticat, Russell Banks, John Ridley, Catherine Texier, Michael Cristofer, Donald E. Westlake, Mike Werb, Damian Sharp, Richard Lourie, Seymour Chatman, Adam Brooks, Walter Mosley, Brian Helgeland, Darryl Ponicsan, Joan Juliet Buck, John Shirley, Michael Cunningham, Bruce Benderson, Michael Weller, Michael Tolkin, Patrick McCabe, Joe Eszterhas, Thomas Caplan, Steven Gaydos and Michael Sragow.

Bravo!

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