Friday, December 03, 2004


You hear the refrain all the time, and it is strictly disingenuous: “Film is a Collaborative Art Form.” While this may be an accurate observation regarding the majority of today’s cinema, it is a poor practical philosophy, and should be discouraged. Those who cling to this idea practice the kind of equivocation that serves as a blockade to individual expression. Deliberate cinema is not an option for its adherents.

Not surprisingly, the individual who is least comforted by such a statement is the one who is actually held accountable for the final product of the filmmaking act: the director. In fact, let us be clear about this: there is typically an inverse correlation between the urgency of the “collaborative belief” of a film technician and the net effect that technician has on the final picture.

I will state the very obvious: the moment a director chooses a piece of material to film and begins attaching other technicians to his enterprise, he is starting down a long road filled with potential impediments to his vision. Each time he answers a question posed to him by his "collaborators," he is offered an unspoken choice: to deny their deflection and insist yet again on his own vision, or to allow that vision to be watered down yet one more time.

Here is a famous story. On the set of The Killing, Stanley Kubrick worked with cinematographer Lucien Ballard. At the time, Ballard had been working as a cameraman for twenty-seven years. Kubrick had been working with motion pictures for only five, and The Killing was his first studio (which is to say: non-independent) picture. There was no doubt about whose tenure was greater, and the two were working together for the first time.

In the film, there is a tracking shot that rakes Elisha Cook through his apartment. Silhouetted bookshelves and furniture intermittently separate Cook from the camera. Kubrick asked Ballard to place the dolly track close to the furniture and mount a 25mm lens for the shot. Upon returning to the set shortly thereafter, he discovered that Ballard had moved the track back and mounted a 50mm lens instead. When Kubrick asked him why he had disobeyed his instructions, Ballard responded that moving the track back made his work easier, and that replacing the 25mm lens with a 50 made up for the difference in the track’s position. “What about the change in perspective?” Kubrick asked. “It doesn’t matter,” Ballard replied. Kubrick’s response was the correct one: “Move the track back where I asked it to be, and mount a 25mm, or get off my set.”

Few first-time directors would allow themselves the conviction required for such a response. Filmmaking is an expensive business, and therefore imposes upon a director a very real responsibility. Weak personalities placed in such a position will look for comfort where they can, and the statement “Film is a Collaborative Art Form” can seem to provide it. But it is a comfort that is self-nullifying. It produces an “art” created by bet-hedgers, which is to say, no art at all. It supports the dictum of the studio, which is: “generalize.” The familiar equation is relentless: the greater the expense, the blander a film needs to be to turn a profit. How easy, then, to take comfort in the “collaboration” of your more experienced D.P., or Art Director, or Assistant Director, or Producer, or Actor, who “knows better.” After all, if you continue forward with such “collaborations,” you may yet be spared the ignominy of having to explain yourself when you fail.

It is weakness and weakness alone that causes a director to deviate from his plan, or worse yet, to allow others to dictate it. But the other side of the coin is equally pale: it is vanity pure and simple that causes a technician to intrude upon their director’s vision. There is a difference between offering a professional opinion and inflicting one, and the difference is a belief in “collaboration.”

“But my director is not great,” you will say. “He needs my help.” And indeed, lacking that help, he may fail. On the other hand, consider that you may be wrong: he may not. But whether he fails or not, he should be allowed to come by his fate honestly, which is to say by his own doing. When he says he wants a red door instead of a green one, whether he is right or wrong in the matter, a red door is in fact what he deserves. It is what he is owed.

And again, we must be clear: none of this is to say that using your skills to offer suggestions is not productive. It is, after all, one of the reasons you were hired. Hopefully, you are talented, and have an opinion. But it is your job, too, to understand the difference between a useful suggestion and a harping series of annoyances. And to comply when your director selects against your recommendations and judgments.

In True and False, director David Mamet warns actors against the fashionable-but-indulgent practice of “the Method,” noting that “the work of characterization has or has not been done by the author. It is not your job, and it’s not your look-out.” Rather than try to “help” the play by “creating a character,” Mamet advises actors instead that their challenge is to “open the mouth, stand straight, and say the words bravely,” and thereby perform an act which serves the play and its audience rather than themselves.

The same is true for the film technician. If you are a Best Boy, and the director has asked that a light be cut in a certain way, do not adjust your flag because you think something important has been left dark. If you are a Costume Designer and the director has asked that you fit an actor with a porkpie hat, do not insist instead upon a tweed cap because you feel “it’s what the character would wear.” And if you are an actor, and the director has told you to forget your preoccupation with backstory and instead speak your line clearly, then do so – and if you find that you are incapable of the performance without inventing such a backstory, then get on with it in silence and do not inflict it upon your employer.

Finally, here is some truth: if you want to direct a film, you should go direct a film. Otherwise, do your job. If you are not the director, then your job is not to “collaborate” with the director. It is to serve the director. If you believe otherwise, you are not only acting as an impediment to his work, you are also lying to yourself. Only a fool would consider such a course advisable.