So you want to make a movie and you are not lucky enough, like Michael Douglas, to have a famous father (Kirk) give you the screenrights to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Let us say you are more like Cassavetes trying to make and market A Woman Under the Influence or Soderbergh trying to make sex, lies, and videotape or even Sanchez and Myrick trying to do something along the lines of The Blair Witch Project. If you examine some of the greatest movies ever made, you can begin to see certain themes that will help you understand what it takes to make a great movie. (I am assuming that you don't just want to make a mediocre movie.)
First, get your hands on a copy of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1973), Werner Herzog's almost unbelievably eloquent film starring Klaus Kinski and set in the jungles of South America. This film was not filmed on some Hollywood back lot. The actors, director, and film crew slogged into the depths of the rain forest to recreate the efforts of conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro, who led a body of men into the Peruvian rain forest, lured by stories of a lost city of gold. When Pizarro begins to realize that his efforts may be in vain, he sends a small party to explore farther upriver and you follow this group into disaster. The story is about "men haunted by a vision of great achievement who commit the sin of pride by daring to reach for it and are crushed by an implacable universe" (p. 20, Ebert). Almost a decade later, Herzog and Kinski return to the rain forest to make Fitzcarraldo (1982), which is "also about an impossible task: a man who wants to physically move a steamship from one river system to another by dragging it across land. Of course Herzog literally dragged a real ship across land to make the film despite urgent warnings by engineers that the cables would snap and slice everyone in half. A documentary about the shooting of that film, Burden of Dreams (1982), by Les Blank, is as harrowing as the film itself" (p. 21, Ebert). Mind you, Herzog sometimes didn't know what his actors' lines were going to be until 10 minutes before they began shooting! Everyone, director included, were driven to the very edge of collapse; however, the result in both films was masterful. They create a "mood within us---a spiritual or visionary feeling….you feel like detached observers, standing outside time, saddened by the immensity of the universe as it bears down on the dreams and delusions of humankind" (p. 18, Ebert). Herzog was born Werner Stipetic in 1942 in Munich, Germany. He was raised in a small Bavarian village and at age 12 he returned to Munich with his divorced Yugoslav-born mother, where they lived in abject poverty. He developed a strong passion for cinema and at age 14 began submitting ideas for film projects to local producers without success. While still in high school, he worked nights as a welder in a steel factory and invested his entire income in the production of amateur shorts. He made a movie with a stolen camera during his first year at the University of Munich. In 1966 he came to America and attended Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and then returned to Germany and made a short film in 1967 that won a major prize at a film festival and his career took off. He is "admired as one of the most creative and exhilarating artists on the film scene today" (p. 624, Encyclopedia).
So, theme #1, question #1: Movies are more likely to be great if those involved in making them are willing to commit themselves fully (some would say obsessively), without reservations, to the endeavor. Are you willing to make such a commitment? Before you say yes, remember that Herzog has warned you that you can be crushed by an implacable universe!
In the 1960s, when I was working and living in New York City, I spent 9 straight hours sitting in a movie theatre watching, more accurately, mesmerized by, the entire Apu Trilogy , the product of Satyajit Ray. Ray (1921-1992) had little money and no connections when he decided to make a movie. He had never directed a scene and his cameraman had never photographed one and his child actors had never even been tested for their roles---yet, the scenes he shot those first days with a borrowed 16mm camera were so impressive that they won the meager financial backing that he needed to continue making his movie.
Ray graduated with honors from the University of Calcutta where he majored in economics. He also attended a university run by the Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore where he studied painting and art history. He became the art director in an advertising firm and began illustrating books, one of which, Pather Panchali, deeply impressed him. He was thinking of the idea of filming the novel when in 1950 he saw DeSica's The Bicycle Thief, which was shot on location with nonprofessional players. This gave him the idea of moving ahead with his movie despite the lack of resources. He spent his entire salary, sold all his possessions and pawned his wife's jewels to keep the project going.
The first of the trilogy is Pather Panchali and it was filmed between 1950 and 1954. Here Ray begins following the life a young boy and he will continue following the boy and his family in the next two films, Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959). The end product is almost unbelievably poetic and spiritual in its telling of life in India in the 1920s. "The great, sad, gentle sweep of the Apu Trilogy remains in the mind of the moviegoer as a promise of what film can be. Standing above fashion, it creates a world so convincing that it becomes, for a time, another life we might have lived….(these films) swept the top prizes at Cannes, Venice, and London and created a new cinema for India…Never before had one man had such a decisive impact on the films of his culture" (p. 43, Ebert). Ray wrote the scripts and often wrote the music and helped with the costume design in the movies he made over his 40 year career in movie making. The trilogy, however, benefited from the exquisite and lyrical music of Ravi Shankar---who at the time was just another unknown drafted by Ray to help make the movie.
So, theme #2, question #2: Money, experience, and connections all can make movie productions easier; however, none of them are necessary for the production of a great film. What excuses does that leave you with when you say you can't make a movie?
Rainer Werner Fassbinder was between two big budget films when he shot Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and he did it on a shoestring with his real life lover El Hedi ben Salem, as the male lead. The female lead was a little-known supporting player. It tells the story of these two people, an older woman who falls in love with a garage mechanic from Morocco working in Germany. "Fassbinder said he made the film just to fill the time between bigger pictures, yet Ali may be the best of his forty or so films" (p. 24, Ebert). "The film is powerful but very simple. It is based on a melodrama, but Fassbinder leaves out all of the highs and lows and keeps only the quiet desperation in the middle. The two characters are separated by race and age, but they have one valuable thing in common: They like one another, and care for one another, in a world that otherwise seems coldly indifferent to both of them" (p. 24, Ebert). Fassbinder was himself an outsider. His father died when he was young, his mother used the movie theater as a baby-sitter, he was gay when that was not acceptable, he was short and unattractive. Fassbinder died in 1982 at the age of thirty-seven, of drugs and alcohol. The real life Ali, Fassbinder's lover, stabbed three people and hanged himself in jail. So, you are beginning to wonder what positive lessons or themes I am going to draw from all of this???
So, theme #3, question #3: It doesn't take a lot of time to create a masterpiece. You can't use the old excuse of "I don't have the time" to do it and do it right. Magnificent works of art, be they a film, a book, or a great painting like one by VanGogh, sometimes are completed very swiftly. Quick, however, doesn't automatically translate into good. Why was Fassbinder's movie great? Because it touched upon profound concerns that he was intimately aware of, issues that were painful to him that he was willing to confront. Are you willing to carefully and deeply look at yourself, your life, with honesty?
You most likely have seen an animated version but have never seen the classic Beauty and the Beast (1946) with regular actors by the great director Jean Cocteau (1889-1963). Cocteau was a poet, a painter, a sculptor, and wrote novels and plays as well as made movies. He was gay, a skinny, chain-smoking wreck who was in constant pain while filming the movie. He had a painful skin disease that required penicillin every three hours. In his journal he recorded how he persevered despite his health. The following is an entry from that journal: "Woke up with unbearable pain. As I can neither sleep nor walk up and down, I calm myself by picking up this notebook and trying to shout my pain to the unknown friends who will read these lines."
Jean Vigo made two great films before he died at the age of 29 from tuberculosis. They were Zero for Conduct (1933) and L'Atalante (1934). He was so ill when he made the last one that sometimes he directed from a stretcher.
So, theme #4, question #4: Distractions can come in many forms, including physical ones. They can be the distractions of wanting to make money, have nice possessions, drive a fast and sleek car. They can be the distractions of sex and drugs. They can also be the distractions of ego and illness. However, none of these distractions can stop you from making a great film. Cocteau didn't get distracted despite the pain. What pain are you letting distract you from being creative?
Roger Ebert feels that 8 1/2 (Eight and one-half) is the greatest film ever made about filmmaking. It is the work of the great Federico Fellini (1920-1992) and won him the Academy Award in 1963 for best foreign film. "Details of Fellini's early life are muddled in confusion and contradiction since the chronology of events underwent several transformations in the director's own fertile imagination. This obscurity is all the more tantalizing in the case of a director like Fellini, whose films are often autobiographical and contain many flashes of memory, probably distorted and embellished by poetic license and Fellini's self-admitted penchant for lying" (p. 445, Encyclopedia). Fellini's first movie was made in 1951 and it was a flop. So he made another in 1952 and it also was a failure at the box office. You would think he would get the message! In 1953 he made I Vitelloni and it was an overwhelming….success which established him as a director of international standing. He followed that up with La Strada (1954), Le notti di Cabiria (The Nights of Cabiria) in 1957---both of which won him an Academy Award as best foreign film. Then came La Dolce Vita in 1960, which won the grand prize at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. Amacord in 1973 won him his fourth Academy Award for best foreign film. The great American director Robert Altman once said: "The thing that depresses me the most is that people say they've seen one of my films when what they mean is, they've seen it once." This is particularly true with Fellini's films. You can't just watch one once and think you understand what he is saying. You need to watch them several times. Also, if you watch 8 1/2 (the title relates to how many movies Fellini had made up to that point in his career), then you should make sure you watch the DVD version where the features include an interview with the great director Lina Wertmuller who had her career launched by Fellini and worked with Fellini on the film. She will help you appreciate how Fellini is making fun of life and of himself in the film. He is outrageously creative to the point where he can be confusing. "The film weaves in and out of reality and fantasy" (p. 14, Ebert).
So, theme #5, question #5: Just because you fail at first doesn't mean you should quit. Let go, be the wondrously creative person you can be, that all of us can be! That is the legacy of Fellini! Are you ready to accept rejection and still go on with joy? Are you ready to be full-blown gonzo creative when others around you are only puzzled by your behavior or irritated by it? Are you ready to laugh at life and at yourself rather than get depressed by the world around you?
At the top of most lists, the film that is considered to be the greatest ever made, you find Citizen Kane. This masterpiece was the very first film made by Orson Welles (1915-1985). "The second son of a wealthy inventor and a beautiful concert pianist, he showed remarkable gifts as a child, excelling at poetry, painting, cartooning, acting, the piano, and magic. At the age when most children first learn to read, he was versed in Shakespeare, staging his own modest productions of the Bard's plays in his playroom" (p. 1447, Encyclopedia). When Welles graduated from highschool at age 16 he turned down college scholarships and went off to Ireland on a sketching tour. At Dublin he lied his way into an audition and landed a leading role in a play. He tried to break into the acting world in London and New York but failed so he took off on a trip to Morocco and then Spain where he fought in the bullring. When he returned to New York this next time he was more successful and landed a role on Broadway and his career began to take off at the age of 19. He helped create the Mercury Theatre group which soon became famous for its original bold productions and they then branched into radio broadcasting and their dramatization of H.G. Wells's 'The War of the Worlds' on a Sunday evening, October 30, 1938 became history making as people were convinced that we really were being invaded by aliens from outer space. He then went to Hollywood and made the greatest movie ever made! "Even while it was being shot and edited, rumor and speculation abounded about the subject and content of the impending work of the 'boy wonder' from the East. Welles's contract with RKO gave the tyro director total artistic control over production within the boundaries of a rather thrifty budget. He used this freedom to create a film of cataclysmic power, a screen work whose inventive construction and innovative cinematographic and sound techniques have greatly influenced filmmakers in American and elsewhere" (p. 1448, Encyclopedia).
Two key factors influenced what happened next. First, William Randolph Hearst, the powerful and rich newspaper publisher, did his best to destroy the movie because he felt it was based on his own life. He offered first to buy the movie so he could destroy it. When RKO didn't cave in to his wishes, he banned any mention of it in his newspapers across the country and then when that didn't do the trick he had his reporters give it terrible reviews. Second, the movie opened to rave reviews, the critics loved it! It was a box office success in big cities…but failed to sustain a box office in smaller cities across America. How much this failure was related to Hearst's attack is impossible to say. The commercial failure was disappointing to RKO and they were no longer willing to give Welles creative freedom on subsequent projects. For the rest of his career, Welles, despite being acknowledged for his genius, was never able to have the resources and the freedom to put that genius to effective work---he never topped or repeated the quality of his first movie. He did make some memorable movies after that and he performed as an actor in some excellent roles. He never lost his talent; he only lost his ability to fully employ that talent. What he was reduced to over time was having to save his own money to finance a film project or beg others to put up the money---and he never had enough resources to do what he could do if the studios would have just let him utilize their resources. He spent a lot of his time in Europe acting and making or trying to make films. (You can see him at his best playing the role of a black marketeer in The Third Man (1949) which was made in Europe under the direction of Carol Reed.) "His reputation as a master filmmaker, albeit a frustrated one, has grown even stronger since his death" (p. 1450, Encyclopedia).
So, theme #6, question #6: No matter how great you are, no matter how great you even prove you are, films ultimately are about the making of money---so if your films don't make money, then you have no future in films. But, you say, what about Ray? He didn't have any money! True, he started out on nothing, however, people recognized that what he was doing had potential and were willing to support it financially. Also, once the first movie of his trilogy was completed, it was successful financially and that makes all the difference. Ultimately you have to please more than just the critics. You have to create a product that reaches out to the masses---if you want their money in ticket sales, if you want the studio dollars and resources for making big budget films. Now you can develop a career making low budget financially unsuccessful but great films. That I think is a worthy journey. Just don’t expect it to be an easy one.
So, what is the last question? The last question is: "What kind of filmmaker do you want to be?" Who is your audience? Why them? What are you trying to accomplish? What is it that bubbles within that you want to put on film? Are you willing to make the sacrifices to put it on film? Are you willing to be creative and make whatever sacrifices are required?
Sources of quotes used above:
Ebert = The Great Movies by Roger Ebert, Broadway Books, N.Y., 2002.
Encyclopedia = The Film Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition, Ephraim Katz, HarperCollins, N.Y., 2001.