Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Deep Focus

A still taken on the way home from Phoenix.

Beautiful country, Arizona.

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A brief update on Discount Kid.

I've shelved it.  Now is not the right time.  

Eventually, when the time is right, I'll pick it up again.

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The best part of the Temescal experience was the group of filmmakers I met who have remained committed to working with me.  

We've begun to develop a new film project -- Service Interrupted.  My executive producer assures me that she can raise the money to produce it.

More about that later, as I build the screenplay.

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Ever since I decided to begin directing again, my life has sped up.

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One of the most significant things I learned in Temescal?  That I should follow my own directing instincts.  In preparing to direct the Kid, I listened to people who hadn't actually directed anything themselves.  Bad idea.

My experience as a theater director taught me a lot.  Every time I apply those lessons to filmmaking, I've found success.

When it comes to building a team, my experience has proved invaluable.  I just need to believe in myself.

For example, before I directed my first major theatre production, The Music Man (Steubenville 1992), I spent almost a year in preparation.  I researched the technical side of theater, I talked to other directors, and I read voraciously about the best directors -- their methods techniques.

After Temescal, I decided that to approach my film directing career in the same way.

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Currently, I'm working my way through Print the Legend:  The Life and Times of John Ford by Scott Eyman (John Hopkins UP 1999).

I like the way Ford approached directing. 

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"People ask me about John Ford's genius," wrote Madge Bellamy near the end of her life.  "I don't think it lay in his direction of individual scenes; it lay in his panoramic view of the whole picture--his ability to achieve artistic unity.  The timing, the emphasis, his grasp of the whole drama constituted his art" (82).

Ford's quixotic, increasingly evasive personality made him afraid to reveal anything about himself.  On the other hand, artistry requires the expression of an inner personality.  It would be years before Ford achieved sufficient self-confidence as a man and artist to make the films he wanted to make, all of the time (93).

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Movie Tip:  If you decide to view Ron Howard's Cinderella Man, do yourself a favor. 

Fast-forward to 00:25:00, and press PLAY.  If you do this, you'll love the movie. 

No, seriously.  No one needs to see the first 25 minutes.  Why the editor didn't get this?  I have no idea.

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Ford was already avoiding the accepted industrial style of shooting entire scenes in long master shots, then moving in for medium shots and close-ups and dumping all the footage in the lap of the editor to cut as they saw fit.

Rather, he would shoot only those portions of a given shot that he needed for the scene as he mentally formulated it.  This severely limited editing choices,and meant that Ford had to be right the first time....

Said Charles G. Clarke, "What I did not realize then was that John Ford edited his picture as he directed it, and that his casual manner was only a cover for the actual planning and thought that lay behind his direction all along" (98).

 "The quality of universality in pictures is in itself a pitfall, for the director who strives too hard to represent humanity by rubbing down the rough edges of racial and personal traits is likely to make his work drab and colorless.  The picture likely to attain great and wide success must have its theme of universal appeal, but its people vivid."

Ford's broad Irish humor is indispensable as seasoning, but insufficiently varied to sustain an entire film by itself (112).

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"I am a silent picture man," Ford would say as an old man.  "Pictures, not words, should tell the story" (113)

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In one area, they were in explicit agreement, for Merian Cooper's view of America and its history replicated Ford's:  "He believes," wrote Gilbert Seldes of Cooper, "that by concentrating on the life of a few individuals, a single family perhaps, the character and tradition, the habits of life and the sufferings, the accidents and the adventures of a race can be embodied" (139).

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With Stagecoach, Ford found the subject that meshed perfectly with his calm style.  Ford had been experimenting with two- and three-plane composition for some time, often holding sharp focus throughout, and his collaboration with Gregg Toland on The Long Journey Home and The Grapes of Wrath would extend the style still further.  But Stagecoach was a more integrated example--one of the reasons Orson Welles looked so intensively at the film before embarking on Citizen Kane.

It was a style particularly suited both to Ford's aesthetic and emotional sensibilities--meditative compositions in depth, usually medium shots, with the characters reacting to each other within the shot.  It gave the actors more to work with, and the studio less.  From this point, Ford's camera would be predominately still, so that when he did move it--the sudden quick pan to the Indians on the cliff, the furious tracking shots during the attack--the simple fact of the movement would add excitement to the scene (206).

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Ford chose now to unleash a fully developed directorial personality:  picturesque, ample, meditative, self-assured films of history and longing composed with what John Wayne would call Ford's "simplicity of delivery."  His characters would go about their business with a mournful weight, befitting the grandeur of the stage on which they were playing.

For Ford, America and democracy grew out of the encounter between wilderness and civilization, and Monument Valley would be the meeting ground for the palpable and the possible.  The complexity of the pictures he was about to make meant that John Ford's themes were, at long last, the full equal of him images (208).

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One of my professors once told me that my background reminded her of Ford's film How Green Was My Valley.

I could certainly direct a remake of the film.

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Criticisms about the film being an inaccurate depiction of a mining town are irrelevant; it is life seen through the eyes of a child.  Although it is narrated by a man, the characters are drawn with the broad strokes of an awestruck boy, bathed in the golden glow of an adult's remembrance of his childhood.

And it is one of the most cogent statements of one of Ford's deepest themes:  the way that time's flow destroys the old ways, which must die in order for the future to take hold.  Ianto stands up at the dinner table and says that if manners prevent him from speaking against injustice, then he will be without manners, and we understand both his anger and the pain of his father's loss of control of his sons, his house, and his life.

Working with material that was inescapably dour, Ford turned it into a masterpiece about the tenacity and universiality of family feelings (242).

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