How I became a Director

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, looking to you and your decisions, striving to please you and your authority?   Being 100% in charge creatively, logistically, and even inter-personally?

Well, not me!  No thanks.  Sounds like way too much authority and pressure.  Sounds … very stressful.  .

So what went wrong?  Why am I a film director?  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 a 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. I loved to edit, it’s what I like most.

Eventually, despite my intentions, against my will, came the big break.

Shaq and Gary on the set
I was editing a documentary for a bound-for-glory, deep-pockets producer who 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.  For maybe … 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?

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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 read.

He was soon subjected to a problem that i had been struggling with for the previous 6 months.  Once Burt finished his read the producer and director each gave him instructions on what to do, what to change, and what they wanted from the next take … which was all fine except for one big problem – they were contradictory instructions.

“Take 2” said the recording engineer, and after, it was the same thing again.  And our star went super-nova.  Burt blew up.  He did what i had never dared – threw a fit, a screaming, yelling, profanity laced fit.   “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”

By the time he was done, the producer and director had gone totally still and silent.  Terrified and abashed,  the two of them did not say a single word for the entire rest of the session.

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The silence in the room seemed to last forever.

“Take 3”  said the recording engineer and Burt moved on in the script to read another paragraph.

At the conclusion of this reading he glared at the producer and director, as if daring them to speak at all.

They didn’t.  They looked at me.  Burt looked at me.  The recording engineer looked at me.  In silence, everyone looked at me.  I looked at the stopwatch.  No good.  His reading was 10 seconds too long.

I stammered out, “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.”

Fully expecting to get my own tongue-lashing, i held my breathe.  But 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.

For a while, i limited my comments to simple instructions, faster, slower.  But … I was the editor.  I did know the movie very well – every shot, every cut, every pause was there by my choice and each choice was based on good creative reasoning and those creative ideas … could be helpful to a narrator.

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 reading could work with that, the extra awareness to have every reading … perfect .

At one point, i asked him to redo a line. I wanted his voice to accomdate a sudden sharp picture cut right in the middle of his sentence.  Since he was reading text from the page and without the movie playing in front of him, he had no way of knowing that.  So I suggested that his read should stop at the word where the picture cut occurred, but with a tone that implied a sense of interruption, such that the viewer would hear the stop, yet know that the narration would soon continue and finish the thought.

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Burt paused at the microphone, “What’s your name, young man.” he said to me.

“G-g-gary.  Gary Weimberg.”

“You’ll be a great director someday, Gary.  That was good direction.” he said, turning at the last phrase to glare at the still silent duo in the room with him.

My mouth dropped open.  I slumped in my seat, stunned, shocked, pleased beyond imagining.  I heard his words over and over inside my head, “great director … someday … great director …”  It was as if I was no longer even in my body, but distant and flatly and far away “great director … great director…”, like i had gone to heaven until i heard …

“How was that?” said Burt. “Was that what you wanted?”

I had no idea.   I had entirely stopped listening.  However his read had been, I had no way of knowing.  I was startled back into awareness by his question and so i just went with it and said, “Perfect …” and on we went.

When we finished the recording, the producer and director recovered sufficiently for goodbye pleasentries.  Burt shook all of our hands.  He looked me in the eye. “Good session.” he said simply and was gone.

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In the silence of the room after he left we all breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The producer turned to me and in a sudden rage, said, “You’ll never work for me again!”  He stormed off.

In fairness, he didn’t follow through on the threat.  In fact, on his very next film, that same producer promoted me to director.  He hired me to go with him around the world with him and be the director of a multi-nation 2 camera 16mm film project, and expensive and demanding shoot, a project for which we would eventually hire Sir Laurence Olivier to narrate and i got to direct him too.

But that was the future.  On that day, my trip to heaven in directing Burt Lancaster came crashing and thudding down to earth before Burt had even left the building and i was left confused and agonized … what had i done?  what mistake had i made.  It was a powerful lesson on the nature of Hollywood.  It was my own directorial moment that confirmed my feelings from watching Coppola.

Directing is …

Well, lets just say that those who think that directing is fun and glamorous and cool … might be missing the point entirely.

 live fire drills

live fire drills

post blog note – oh oh, more still to write, i hope to continue about directing Sir Laurence Olivier …

But until i get around to it, join me in enjoying this wonderful photo.  Not my session with him, but a great visual to illustrate my future text of the great Olivier and I.

(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 …)

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5Gary Weimberg, Director

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 Gary Weimberg, Producer-Director
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Gary Weimberg, Director

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Gary Weimberg, Director

9Gary Weimberg, Director

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11Gary Weimberg, Director
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On location in the rainforest in Tena, Ecuador

14.  Yours truly, 1967, getting the shot!  some say, this is how film careers start!

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17Wendy Interview prod still-9488

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GW at PBS Listening Tour

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Gary Weimberg, Director in Thailand, 1986 w/ soundman Dave Kirchnercomp_j

20.M&D crew w.nedra

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directing at ft jackson, SOC

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preparing to film live fire drills, basic training, ft. jackson, SOLDIERS OF CONSCIENCE

preparing to film live fire drills, basic training, ft. jackson, SOLDIERS OF CONSCIENCE

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SOC live fire drills

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