By Carter B. Horsley
This is a marvelous book of
43 short, witty, incisive, brilliant, important and generally
remarkable essays by writers, many of them famous screenwriters,
about movie directors who have been photographed with great style
by Susan Gray.
This is not just a book for wannabee directors,
or film buffs, or artists, but everyone. The ideas examined, rummaged,
explored and rumored here are provocative, precious and powerful.
Ms. Gray selected the directors and they selected
The quality of writing and the photographs
is exceptionally high and very fresh and this quite inexpensive
book is an indispensable addition to anyone’s library.
"We laugh at our dreams, but we still
want them," Ms. Gray writes in her introduction.
"Let me tell you a secret - there are
people in Hollywood who actually do read, and not only that, they
know a great story when they see one. It’s just that certain
things get in the way - like verbicide or cinecide or once in
awhile something as mundane as a natural disaster...Images are
great seducers and we love being seduced...We greedily consume
images to nourish ourselves - carefully storing them in archival
Internet temples and marble libraries and monogramed museum wings.
Like our memories, images preserve, if not our flesh then certainly
our spirit. Word weavers, byronics, visionaries, moralists, or
gossips - storytellers being us our heritage, living testaments
for our personal and sacred dream files. Like old photographs,
stories are reminders of our life; they can be powerful catalysts
or soothsayers or they can be nothing more than a pleasant way
to fill our time card....Often, just by remembering a title of
a film, a slice of our life whizzes by, a single frame moves into
fast forward; an action scene freezes into a single frame....Films
can date us and yet still propel us forward...."
Some of the essays are anecdotal and others
Ariel Dorfman, author of the play "Death
and the Maiden" (1992) and screenwriter of such films as
"Missing" (1982), "Hard Rain" (1991) and "The
Resistance Theory" (1998), relates how Roman Polanski, the
director of such films as "Knife in the Water" (1962),
"Repulsion" (1965), "Rosemary’s Baby"
(1968), "Chinatown" (1974) and "Tess" (1979),
once became rather obsessed with the tint of a lamp on a set and
observes that "Roman builds each space, each universe, as
absolutely, incontrovertibly recognizable, unflinchingly familiar,
horribly believable, so as to explore what is hidden, what is
bizarre, what is absurd, so that the grid of reality can be tested
against the inner demons of his characters, so that we can experience
the liquid terror of being that person in that room, in that story,
so that we can accompany that protagonist as he, as she, tries
to change a destiny that has been imposed from somewhere else."
"Roman," he continued, "has
spent his life mastering and using the techniques of realism in
the service of the unspeakable." Polanski, he added, "once
he has launched us on this voyage, will not relieve us with conclusive
answers; his endings are almost invariably ambiguous, his heroes
and heroines (if they may be called by that name) haunted by the
bite of uncertainty even as they dash their heads against the
mirror of life....most of the time...they end up lost in the bitter
opposite of insanity: they end up lost in awareness, learning
how vulnerable they are (they always were), how difficult it is
to be moral, to be loved, in a world controlled by more powerful
William Goldman, the screenwriter of such films
as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969), "All
The President’s Men" (1976), "Heat" (1987),
"Misery" (1990) and "Maverick" (1994), relates
a couple of marvelous, moral incidents involving Norman Jewison,
the director of such films as "The Thomas Crown Affair"
(1968) and "Fiddler on the Roof" 1971. Jewison, he observes,
"tends to be the most ignored" of major directors because
"he has always been, from the start, so commercially successful."
Goldman has another essay, which is on Rob
Reiner, the director of such films as "This is Spinal Tap"
(1984), "When Harry Met Sally..." (1989), "Misery"
(1990) and "A Few Good Men" (1992). Goldman liked "This
is Spinal Tap" so much that he decided after watching it
that "Rob was a man I would happily follow into battle."
"What’s so special about Rob is this:
he can out-stubborn anybody," Goldman recalled, adding that
on "Misery" Reiner was turned down for the male lead
by "Beatty and the three D’s: De Niro, Douglas, and
Dreyfus; and let’s not forget the three H’s: Hackman,
Hoffman, and Hurt; as well as Harrison Ford, Kevin Kline and Robert
Redford. We are talking six months of ego-rattling turndowns.
And, amazingly, not once did he waiver, ask for changes, or lose
confidence. Sooner or later I knew it was all going to be the
script’s fault. Never happened. Not to me certainly. In thirty
years of movie work, I’ve never experienced anything like
In his essay on Alan Rudolph, the director
of such movies as "Endangered Species" (1982), "Choose
Me" (1984), "Trouble in Mind" (1985), "Made
in Heaven" (1985), "The Moderns" (1988), "Love
at Large" (1990), and "Afterglow" )1997), Tom Robbins,
the screenwriter of "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues" (1976),
"Skinny Legs And All" (1990), and "Half Asleep
In Frog Pajamas" (1994), writes about weirdness and "the
passionate impulse that when indulged puts a strange new spin
on the heart."
"All of our lives are at least a trifle
haywire, particularly in the area of romantic relationships. It
is Rudolph’s special genius to illuminate those haywire tendencies
and reveal how they - and not convention or rationality - channel
the undermost currents of our being. It is precisely Rudolph’s
attention to our so-called ‘off-the-wall’ behavior that
gives pictures such as Choose Me, The Moderns and Trouble
in Mind their comic and erotic freshness, their pscyhological
veracity, their ovoid contours.
"‘Ovoid’ is the correct description,
although ‘elliptical’ will do. Football-shaped at any
rate. Most films or novels or plays bounce like basketballs, which
is to say, up and down, up and down, traveling in a forward direction
in a generally straight line. Rudolph’s movies, on the other
hand, bounce like footballs: end over end, elusively, changing
direction, even reversing direction; wobbly, unpredictable, and
wild. Goofy, in other words, like so much of life itself,"
In his essay on Hector Babenco, shown above,
the director of such films as "Foolish Heart," "Ironweed,"
"Kiss of the Spider Woman," and "Pixote",
Richardo Piglia, who was his co-screenwriter on "Foolish
Heart" (1997), writes that "In the world we live in
(in the stories we tell) it seems there are only ebbs and flows
without borders, only blank spaces."
"Babenco’s work in film captures
that emptiness, yet at the same time says that, for all of us,
always, there is a place waiting for us, in our memory, a place
full of sunlight in our childhood home. Possibly, rather than
coming from there, we are going toward it," he wrote.
"If in every great director’s movies
there are sequences in which you perceive the influence of an
equally great painter, it’s impossible to see almost any
scene from any film of Terry Gilliam’s without thinking of
the sixteenth-century Dutch artist [Hieronymus] Bosch, whowithout
evident effort looked at this world and saw the one underlying,
a world no one else would have wanted to see until he made them
look. Bosch is the funniest of all the old masters. Unable to
depict heaven without reminding the viewer of hell, he was plainly
unable to think of hell without laughing - morbid laughter, granted....Gilliam
has said that his tendency to load his scenes with background
detail was inspired by his love of studying the crammed panels
of Mad magazine in his childhood. Harvey Kurtzman, who created
Mad in 1952, became his mentor in the early sixties, after Gilliam
moved from Southern California to New York. Kurtzman hired him
to work on the humor magazine Help!, where Gilliam practiced the
comic techniques he would later perfect, as well as meet others
who worked with the magazine, notably John Cleese. Although even
today there is no one working in comic art - whether written,
spoken, or visual - in the second half of the twentieth century
who does not owe a tremendous debt to Kutzman (who died in 1992)
for having created the framework upon which contemporary humor
has grown. From Kurtzman’s example Gilliam learned and developed,
I think, the ability to not merely sense and elaborate upon the
grotesqueries of everyday life, but to never lose sight of the
fact that the world and its people, even at their most malign,
almost always remain hopelessly, unavoidably human, and therefore
are best looked upon with humor, rather than despair," wrote
Jack Womack, the screenwriter of "Random Acts of Senseless
Violence" (1994) and "Going, Going Gone" (1999).
In his essay on Sidney Lumet, shown above,
the director of such great films as "12 Angry Men" (1957),
"Fail Safe" (1964), "The Pawnbroker" (1965),
"The Hill" (1965), "The Offence" (1973), "Serpico"
(1974), "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975), "Network"
(1976), "The Verdict" (1982), and "Q & A"
(1990), Peter Blauner, screenwriter of such films of "Slow
Motion Riot" (1991) and "Man of the Hour" (1999),
notes that "the rap on Lumet is more or less as follows:
He has no distinctive visual style and no overriding thematic
concerns; his films are photographed plays, they’re hectoring
and insistent; he’s shrill and earnest." Noting that
critic Pauline Kael once "hurled the reviewer’s equivalent
of a gypsy’s curse at him, saying he would never improve
as a director, because of his fundamental lack of taste and rigor,"
Blauner wondered how the "defendant" would plead, quickly
answering that "As his advocate, I’d not only enter
a plea of not guilty, I’d say rebuild the courthouse,"
adding that "Lumet’s great theme is the human heart
under extraordinary pressure."
"With his some forty films in forty years,
Lumet inspires a kind of suspicion. Instead of sitting around,
he dives from one film into another, scrabbling for the emotional
heart of each one, doing whatever it takes to make an impact,
technique be damned," Peter Blauner concluded.
Of David Cronenberg, director of such films
as "Videodrome" (1983), "The Fly" (1986),
"Dead Ringers" (1988), "M. Butterfly" (1993)
and "Crash" (1997), Norman Snider, screenwriter of "Dead
Ringers," observed that "a confirmed nonreader of newspapers,
events in the great world reach him late, as from a great distance,
if at all." "That world, too," he continued, "is
to be kept at bay. For David Cronenberg, the artist remains an
outlaw. he expects that one day, inevitably, the police will come
knocking at the door. Accordingly, there is one issue, however,
on which he remains passionate: freedom of expression."
"The movies have been suborned for propaganda
of one kind or another ever since they became popular enough to
be useful," Tobias Wolff, screenwriter of such movies as
"In The Garden of the North American Martyrs" (1981)
and "In Pharoah’s Army: Memories of the Lost War"
(1994), wrote in his essay on Oliver Stone, director of such films
as "Salvador" (1986), "Platoon" (1986), "Wall
Street" (1987), "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989),
"JFK" (1991), and "Nixon" (1995).
"Stone’s and my generation was brought
up on films designed to teach us that our leaders were brave and
incorruptible, our national past a series of humane victories
over barbarism, our people pure-hearted, our wars crusades. Stone
has had the gall to use this powerful myth-making machinery to
question the authorized version of the past, and those who profit
by it," Wolff wrote.
Bruce Wagner has a scathingly
funny memory of watching Wes Craven’s film, "A Nightmare
on Elm Street." He recalls eventually meeting the director:
"...he was supercivilized and debonair, and mischievous-looking
too, in the manner of, say, a professor of medieval languages
in Turin or Prague....I enjoyed the insect winglike whir of his
mind sorting and cataloguing; the sober intake of breath as he
delicately regurgitated something random and vile for those in
proximity to be appalled by." Wagner was the screenwriter
of such films as "Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly
Hills" (1989) and "A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream
Warriors" (1998). Craven is the director of such other films
as "Swamp Thing" (1982) and "Scream" (1996).
Clearly many of the writers
have great affection for their subjects.
In his essay on Kenneth Branagh, the director
of such films as "Henry V" (1989), "Dead Again"
(1991), "Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein" (1994), and
"Hamlet" (1996), Scott Frank, the screenwriter of "Dead
Again," "Malice" (1993), and "Get Shorty"
(1995), noted that "the thing that surprises most people
when they meet Ken is how funny he is." "Given his pedigree
and his work in the Theatuh, I think people expect this
dour stiff. Yet, instead, what they get is this tremendously self-effacing
guy with a knife-edge wit as well as a brilliant mimic who can
instantly do anybody, including you."
Wendy Wasserstein, the playwright
of "The Heidi Chronicles" and "The Sisters Rosensweig"
and screenwriter of such films as "An American Daughter"
(1997) and "The Object of My Affection" (1998), remembered
meeting Amy Heckerling, the director of such films as "Fast
Times at Ridgemont High" (1982) and "National Lampoon’s
European Vacation" (1985), in Hugo’s restaurant on Sunset
Strip: "Into Hugo’s comes a petite woman in a jumper
and clogs. It’s your basic outfit I wore to high school thirty
years ago and would still wear if only my feet weren’t flat
and my arms weren’t quite so undefined."
"Amy Heckerling is one of those women
you meet and think, I already know this person. She was my best
friend who I called after the horrible date with the guy who kept
turning around during dinner to look at other women and took me
home early. She was also the first person I called after reading
Anna Karenina, and she was the one who made me feel better about
screaming at my mother."
Directors make pretty intriguing
Katherine Dunn, screenwriter of such films
as "Attic" (1970), "Geek Love" (1989) and
"Death Scenes" (1996), notes that Gus Van Sant, director
of such films as "Drugstore Cowboy" (1989), "To
Die For," (1995), "Good Will Hunting" (1997) and
"Pscyho" (1998),, lives in Portland, Ore., where "if
the civic boosters wish he’d stop depicting their town as
a sleaze-pit, they won’t mention it to him." Dunn finds
many aspects of Van Sant’s personality interesting: "he’s
unassuming, politely eccentric, disinclined to wilderness hikes,"
adding "He prefers sidewalks."
"One visitor roamed the entire house without
being able to figure out where he sleeps....His paintings hang
in hill mansions, four-star hotels, and the occasional taco house
up and down the West Coast. Shows of his photographic portraits
draw crowds to see the local bounders, gutter poets, winos, and
other hipsters made mythic. He plays his own songs on piano and
guitar. For a while he led a local rock band called ‘Destroy
Dunn wrote that his films are "tales of
the people Mama warned us about" and that "his best
work deals with the intense lives of the despised denizens at
the grubby end of the social food chain.," adding that "Van
Sant has the gift of the bifurcated eye that sees his primary
characters from the inside and the story from the outside."
Virtually all the essays make
the reader want to go out and see all the movies made by both
the directors and screenwriters, even if one has seen them before.
The writing styles vary but are very fine.
"Martin Brest is a bomb thrower with a
heart of gold. He is unrecognized as most bomb throwers like to
be, and he also keeps the golden heart under wraps," begins
the essay on the director of such films as "Beverly Hills
Cop" (1984) and "Scent of a Woman" (1992) by Bo
Goldman, the screenwriter of such films as "Melvin and Howard"
(1980) and "Scent of a Woman."
The photographs by Susan Gray, shown above
in a self-portrait from the book, are wonderful and Leonard Maltin
has written a foreword to this excellent book.
Among the other directors highlighted are Ron
Shelton, Carl Franklin, John Woo, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Agnieszka
Holland, Michelangelo Antonioni, Lawrence Kasdan, Ron Howard,
Richard Donner, Martha Coolidge, Bernardo Bertolucci, James Cameron,
John Schlesinger, Paul Verhoeven, Milos Forman, Robert Altman,
Neil Jordan, William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack, Roger Corman, Herbert
Ross, Phillip Noyce, Penelope Spheeris, and Michael Mann. Among
the other essays are screenwriters David Weddle, Edwidge Danticat,
Russell Banks, John Ridley, Catherine Texier, Michael Cristofer,
Donald E. Westlake, Mike Werb, Damian Sharp, Richard Lourie, Seymour
Chatman, Adam Brooks, Walter Mosley, Brian Helgeland, Darryl Ponicsan,
Joan Juliet Buck, John Shirley, Michael Cunningham, Bruce Benderson,
Michael Weller, Michael Tolkin, Patrick McCabe, Joe Eszterhas,
Thomas Caplan, Steven Gaydos and Michael Sragow.