|John Pallotta conducting an acting class|
Monday, June 27, 2016
Frank Capra's The Name Above the Title, I came across this gem on what distinguishes great directors from the pack. It could have been written yesterday (just add "CGI" to paragraph 3). Here is what he said:
"This is the artistry of the film director: convince actors that they are real flesh and blood human beings living a story. Once actors are themselves convinced, then, hopefully, they will convince audiences....Does a star, paying his hotel bill, pay it to a bit actress or to a real cashier? A bit actress, perhaps hired for one day, will be just a bit actress to herself and to audiences. But let the director give her an identity--an only daughter worried about her mother in the hospital, a wife anxious about her husband losing his job, or a woman in love going to a party that night with the man of her life--and that bit actress becomes a woman. She many not say a single word in her brief appearance on the screen, but her "identity" will fix her mood, her thinking, her attitude. And audiences will sense her as a real person, not an actress....
"Extras walking on sidewalks as backgrounds to a scene can walk through as a flock of sheep or as real pedestrians, depending on the wit of the director. He must give each one an identity. One extra is late for a dentist's appointment, another is looking for the address of his wife's lawyer. That one is going to a poker game. This woman is shopping for her kid's shoes. That young one has a lunch date, that other one hopes men will notice her new hairdo. It doesn't matter who the director tells them they are, as long as they are somebody as they walk through the background. One simple detail changes the scene from ersatz to real....
"Another distinguishing mark of top directors is the absence of obvious camera moves. Undisguised camera tricks are the mark of beginners who fall in love with bizarre camera angles and hand-held moving camera shots. Wrong. Fall in love with your actors. All else is machinery, and director's vanity. The audience must never become aware that there is a camera within a thousand miles of the scene. Mood scenes? Fine. Necessary. But establish moods subtly, suggestively. Don't let your cameras hang up figurative sign posts giving mileage and directions. Audiences cannot both feel and think at the same time. If they notice your "show-off" camera, the mood goes out the window. Stanley Kramer's 360-degree pan shot in the courtroom of Judgment at Nuremberg served only to distract attention from his tense drama.
"Therefore, young directors, forget techniques, forget zoom lenses and subliminal cutting; remember only that you are telling your story not with gimmicks but with actors!
"I have heard an extra ask the assistant director (he generally handles groups of extras in crowd scenes): 'Who am I supposed to be in this scene?' To such a question, vital to all actors in all scenes, the sweating assistant is apt to answer: 'Who the hell cares who you are, lady? Just sashay through the scene, will ya?'
"That assistant will never make a director. But the background extra who asked, 'Who am I?' lit a bulb toward her name in lights."
Reading Capra's opening paragraph above finally provided the answer to a question that has puzzled me for a very long time: Why so much of director Michael Curtiz' Casablanca, from the opening shot in the souk to the bit players and the stars, is so alive and magical? It's because great directing requires a love of actors, even background actors, and a passion for believability.