The Crack of Dawn
The Crack of Dawn
The sky is black.
The most basic, standard, and commonly used approach to directing a scene is to start with the wide shot that includes all of the actors, then move in for close-ups. When I directed Anthony Quinn in one of his last roles, he was 80 and an obstinate prick who wouldn’t take direction. I had watched three directors before me get overwhelmed and abused by Quinn, who derisively called all of them, “Boy.” My first scene directing him, we set up the wide shot, and I said, “You enter there, and stop on your mark there.” Quinn said, “Bullshit. I’m entering over there, and stopping there.” And suddenly a half-hour worth of lighting was unusable. I put up with that shit for exactly one day. The next day I said, “We’re beginning with Mr. Quinn’s close-up, in front of this tree.” Quinn took this as a compliment and show of respect. Good. We shot his close-up and he gave it everything. I then backed the camera up to the wide shot and said, “Mr. Quinn, you enter from there and stop on your mark in front of the tree. If you don’t hit that mark, we have to reshoot your close-up.” Since there was no chance on earth he would reshoot his close-up, he hit my mark. Problem solved. Mr. Quinn saw what I was doing, and from there on out, instead of being “Boy,” I became “Son.”
Several years later I attended a Director’s Guild “Special Committee Meeting” regarding “The problems a director faces.” I went strictly because the committee was chaired by the late great director, John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, The Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May), and I wanted to meet him. Fifty directors sat in a room at the DGA and for an hour did nothing but bitch about actors. One of the directors of X-Files complained that David Duchovny would not do anything he asked, nor hit any of his marks. Every director in the room chimed in saying that they had the same problem, but nobody was offering any solutions. I raised my hand and John Frankenheimer pointed at me. I said, “Start with their close-up,” then explained what I had done with Quinn. Every director in that room, including Frankenheimer, was dumbstruck. Could that possibly work? And if it worked with Anthony Quinn, it might work with anybody, even David Duchovny. My suggestion ended the meeting. John Frankenheimer told me, “That’s a good idea.” I’ll bet you a zillion dollars none of them has ever tried it.
At that same meeting I went up and introduced myself to Allan Arkush. He’s probably best known for his 1979 low-budget hit, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, starring the Ramones, but what he’s known for at the DGA is that he has directed so many TV shows—literally hundreds—that it’s ridiculous. So I told Allan Arkush that I had seen his Showtime film, Elvis Meets Nixon (1997), on TV in New Zealand when I was directing Xena. I laughed so hard that I fell off the couch. I watched again the next night and laughed just as hard. Arkush looked stunned and said, “Nobody watched that movie.” I said, “I did. Twice. It was great.” It was, of course, remade and ruined in 2016 with the truly odd casting of Kevin Spacey as Nixon and Michael Shannon as Elvis. But what Allan Arkush did was get two actors—Rick Peters and Bob Gunton—who could really do Nixon and Elvis, but didn’t look like them and it didn’t matter. And the script by Alan Rosen, the producer, is hysterical.
I never went back to that DGA Special Committee meeting. I certainly didn’t need to listen to directors complain about actors.
As a final note, John Frankenheimer’s career was made by Burt Lancaster. Burt starred in one of Frankenheimer’s first movies, The Young Savages (1961), a studio film that wasn’t very good, didn’t make money, and the actor and the director didn’t get along. Burt Lancaster produced and starred in his next movie, The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). When Burt’s partner, Harold Hecht, asked, “Who do you want to direct?” Burt said, “Get the kid Young Savages.” Hecht said, “But you two didn’t like each other.” Burt said, “Yeah, but he sets up a great shot.”
For your information, the sky is blue.