Want to be a film director? Want to be the ultimate authority at a film location, with everyone hanging on your every word, willing to do whatever you ask, constantly looking to you and your decisions, doing everything to please you and your authority? Creatively, logistically, and even inter-personally being 100% in command and in charge?
Well, not me! I sure didn’t. So what went wrong?
How did i fail my way to success?
I vividly remember when i was an assistant editor, blessed with an edit bench less than 12 feet from the main cutting room where Francis Ford Coppola and his editor Anne Gourseau were editing “One From the Heart.” One day Francis came out of the room, absolutely joyous, and announced to everyone (i.e. me, right there) “Want to know what just happened? I got a loan so big from the bank, that they forgot to ask for collateral.” And he walked off with manical laugh, popping his mood elevator pills.
I thought, “if that high stress experience is what it means to be a director, no thanks, let me stick to editing.” which i happily did for years.
Eventually, despite my intentions, almost against my will, came the big break.
I was editing a documentary with a bound-for-glory deep-pockets producer and he wanted a real celebrity for the narrator. It was sometime in the 1980’s. His first choice was Richard Burton. For those of you too young to remember, it was a time where the greatest acting voice in the world was not Morgan Freeman nor Peter Coyote. At the time, the greatest acting voice in the world by clear consensus was … Richard Burton.
And the producer had to have him. He offered him $35,000. Maybe would have taken 2-3 hours work. Burton turned him down. “i don’t get out of bed for under 50k. I worked long and hard to get my rate up …” etc.etc.etc.
The producer went to his 2nd choice: Burt Lancaster. Well, Burt accepted an offer of $30,000 and the date and place was set. Not bad for plan B, i thought
On the day of the narration session, we arrived at the recording studio which had a big room for Burt to record in. Beside the microphone was a large table with some very comfortable chairs around it. There were where the producer and director sat. On the other side of a large soundproof window was the control room, where myself (as editor) sat along with the recording engineer and all his recording machines. We all had a copy of the script. My job was use a stop watch and note the times, to ensure that the lines would fit within the on-screen time of the already edited film. Simple enought, right?
Burt came in and took forever to get to work. He wanted to chat. He confided to us about his recent operation. I heard more about the bile duct and it’s problems than i ever expected or wanted to learn. But eventually Burt settled down to the work at hand, stood by the microphone and with a simple cue of “take 1” from the recording engineer, began to ready. He was soon subjected to a problem that i had been struggling with for the previous 6 months while editing. Burt finished his read and the producer and director each gave him instructions on what to do, but they were contradictory instructions. “Take 2” said the recording engineer, and at the conclusion of the read, it was the same thing again. Soon enough, Burt did what i had never dared. Within 5 minutes threw a fit, a screaming, yelling, profanity laced fit. Our star went super-nova. “you guys don’t know what the fuck you are doing, how do you expect me to find a performance with contradictory directions, you don’t know shit about acting, you don’t know shit about your own film, you don’t know your ass from a fucking hole in the ground” etc.etc.etc and by the time he was done, the terrified and abashed producer and director had gone totally still and silent and the two of them did not say a single word for the entire rest of the session.
“Take 5” Burt read another paragraph. At the conclusion, silence in the recording room. Everyone looked at me. I looked at the stopwatch. His reading was 10 seconds too long. Fully expecting to get my own tongue-lashing, I stammered out the info, “Excuse me Mr. Lancaster? That was 38 seconds. And, um, well, in the film, as it currently is edited? It should be about 28 seconds.”
To my surprise, he was entirely non-plussed. “Read it faster? Just say so. Let’s go”
“Take 6” said the engineer and so it went. After every take, all eyes went to me and for a while, i limited all comments to simple instructions, faster, slower. But in time, since i was the editor and i did know the movie well, i started giving him more information, more context about what the lines meant, more sense of the interplay between his text and the images, additional info about what music would be doing and how his read could work with that. At one point, i asked him to redo a line to accomdate a sudden sharp picture cut, (since he was reading text without picture, he would have no other way of knowing), but i suggested that his read should stop at the point where the picture cut occurred, but with a sense of interruption, so that the viewer hear the stop, yet know that the narration would soon continue, and finish the thought.
Burt paused at the microphone, “What’s your name, young man.” he said to me.
“G-g-gary. Gary Weimberg.”
“Someday you’ll be a great director Gary. That was good direction.” he said, turning at the last phrase to glare at the still silent duo in the room with him.
I slumped back in my seat, stunned, shocked, pleased beyond imagining. I heard his words play and replay inside my head, ” someday .. great director … someday great director …” over and over, no longer even in my both, but distant and floatly, like i had gone to heaven until i realized …
“How was that?” said Burt.
I had entirely stopped listening. I had no idea how his read had been, but startled back into awareness i just said, “Perfect …” and on we went.
When we finished the recording, the producer and director recovered sufficiently for pleasentries in saying goodbye. Burt shook all of our hands warmly on his way out. He looked me in the eye. “Good session.” he said simply and was gone.
The producer turned to me and in a sudden rage, said, “You’ll never work for me again!” I froze in horror and fear. He stormed off.
In fairness, that isn’t what happened. On his very next film, that very producer promoted me from editor to director and hired me to go with him around the world and director a multi-nation 2 camera shoot, a project for which we would eventually hire Sir Laurence Olivier to narrate and i got to direct him too.
But even at the time, it was a powerful lesson on the nature of Hollywood, confirming my feelings from watching Coppola. Directing is … well, lets just say that those who think that directing is fun and glamorous might be missing the point.
note from the author – oh oh, more still to write, i hope to continue the essay here about directing Sir Laurence Olivier …
But until i get around to it you’ll have to just make do with some photos that I might use to illustrate the text.
(feel free to email me to persuade me to continue … it would be a surprising confirmation that anyone has every read all the way to here …)
14. Yours truly, 1967, getting the shot! some say, this is how film careers start!