Welcome to Directors Commentary, in which I discuss my favorite film directors’ work. In each blog post below, I will talk about a different director, detailing the elements that attracted me to their work in the first place and the strategies, styles, and approaches that continually intrigue me about their craft.
I typically have difficulty choosing “favorites.” Although I love films, I don’t necessarily have a favorite. If I were to make a list of movies that I really love, though, a handful of Fincher’s films would definitely be near the top. Among directors working today, the amount of precision and control that David Fincher displays on a movie set is unparalleled. I admire him partly because of his perfectionist approach to filmmaking.
He’s notorious for shooting a lot of takes, which many actors find tedious and frustrating. And it’s not just the long, elaborate, drama-filled scenes that he shoots numerous times, either. I once watched a behind-the-scenes clip in which Fincher shot 36 takes of his lead actor placing a book on the passenger seat of a car. Mark Ruffalo, who worked with Fincher on Zodiac, tried to justify the director’s approach: “Somewhere along the way I think [Fincher] said to himself, ‘Good enough is not f***ing good enough.’”1 As a perfectionist myself, I find this reasoning sound (enough). Plus, the general approach seems both logistical and financially efficient, too. It’s not uncommon for years of planning and millions of dollars to be dedicated toward getting the actors and film crew on set, which might be the only opportunity to get the “right” shot—ever. Why not ensure that you’ve “gotten it,” instead of gambling on the first or second take, the way Clint Eastwood often does?
I also value Fincher’s conception of what the best movies attempt to do. He’s said before that he’s always interested in movies that “scar” rather than simply entertain or amuse. He wants the person who leaves the theater to be different from the one who entered it. For example, the reason he regards Jaws so highly is that he hasn’t gone swimming in the ocean since he saw it.2 Although “feel good” classics such as Forest Gump and Back to the Future have their place in the movie world, that’s not what Fincher’s aiming for. As Ruffalo phrased it, “He’s taking a stab at immortality—he knows that.”3
Here’s a great video that summarizes much of Fincher’s work and his personal filmmaking philosophy: Every Frame a Painting – And the Other Way is Wrong.
1, 2, 3Quotes and paraphrases from David Fincher: Interviews, edited by Lawrence F. Knapp
Perhaps I’m wrong, but I get the feeling that general movie audiences typically don’t care who directed the movies they see but are drawn to the theater by a particular actor instead. In the current movie landscape, Christopher Nolan is one of the few exceptions to this rule. During a movie trailer, all the producers have to do is pair Nolan’s name with Inception and The Dark Knight, and they’ve likely got a hit on their hands. Nolan himself and the irrefutable success of his past films combine to make a simple, fool-proof marketing strategy.
Owing to his films’ ratings on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb, the most reliable and popular website for measuring the public’s sentiment about films), Nolan has made some of the most seen and some of the most beloved films ever, especially within the sci-fi genre. (He’s directed three of the IMDb’s top seven highest-rated sci-fi movies—The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar.) Of his eight major motion pictures, six are in the IMDb’s top 63 rated movies of all time. In addition, he’s helmed seven of the IMDb’s top 26 most rated movies.
So what, in particular, makes his work so attractive and accessible? Jeff Bock argues that Nolan’s success stems from his ability to combine “cinephiles’ intelligence with a blockbuster mentality.” He’s not afraid to confront vast, complicated, yet relatable epistemological questions, such as the nature of love, time, and space. In Memento, perhaps Nolan’s most inventive (and one of his least seen) movies to date, he employs a “puzzle-piece” style of editing that places the viewer in the same frenzied state of mind as the protagonist. This revolutionary scene structure was the most notable shakeup to a movie’s chronology since Pulp Fiction’s non-linear formula six years prior. In fact, Memento’s complex narrative is so riveting that people are debating it to this day. I can honestly say that Nolan’s last four original projects have “blown my mind,” stretching my conception of what movies could achieve. Like me, many people watch movies to be both visually entertained and mentally stimulated, and Nolan strikes the balance with aplomb.
In addition, with the exception of his Batman trilogy, the second of which many argue is the greatest superhero film ever made, Nolan has worked almost exclusively with original ideas, written by himself, often in tandem with his brother. Arguably, it’s his own writing that strengthens his directorial efforts. If the IMDb ratings are any indication, Insomnia, his only “miss,” and the only one of his films that I haven’t immensely enjoyed, is also the only film that he’s directed without having also written.
With his sci-fi and superhero background in mind, I’m interested to see what he does with Dunkirk, his first film based on real events. If he can extend his creative, ambitious filmmaking formula into a historical context, it’s going to be something to behold.
Further reading about Nolan’s exploration of love in Interstellar: Why Do We Reject Love as a Powerful Force in Interstellar?
Tarantino, one of the most distinctive directorial voices in the film industry today, is also one of the most divisive. While some say his movies’ success and charm rely on his tropes, others grow tired of them—his quick-witted and realistic dialogue (or his slow, often meandering discourse), his propensity to pay homage to (or “rip off better”) movies, his loyal affinity to vintage Hollywood (or his inability to accept change), his strategic (warning: major spoilers in the previous link) depiction of excessive violence (which, critics jokingly state, stems from his belief that the body is 99% blood), his tendency to employ profanity (or his lack of vocabulary forcing him to shock us with vulgarities), his incessant pop culture references (or his lazy reliance on “better,” established material) are often debated.
I don’t think that much of this criticism sticks to Tarantino, though, and his devotion to these film features throughout his 23-year moviemaking career leads me to believe he won’t change any time soon. Plus, if you believe that he’s going to retire after making his tenth film, he’s only got two films left to dramatically alter his style.
Aside from some of the commonalities mentioned above, two major elements of Tarantino’s films stand out to me. First, I appreciate Tarantino’s ability to select existing music tracks that drive home the emotion of a scene. My favorite is the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs because of the contrast between the upbeat song and the inhumanity of the visuals. It’s jarring, yet fascinating. If there were ever a scene that could distort and twist a classic song, it’s that one.
Second, I’m struck by the way Tarantino uses dialogue in his portrayal and development of unsavory characters. Rather than always hatching evil schemes and talking about “bad guy stuff,” his criminals speak in everyday language about mundane subject matter, often infused with casual racism and references to violence and pop culture. Such talk makes these characters both more relatable and, paradoxically, more vile. My favorite example of the juxtaposition of evil and normal in a Tarantino film is from Reservoir Dogs. While a man instructs his partner in how to execute a bank robbery through intimidation tactics, such as smashing employees’ noses with the butt of a gun and cutting off a manager’s finger, he realizes he’s famished, and says, “I’m hungry; let’s get a taco.”
Without relying on flashy camera work or multiple genres, Tarantino has managed to become one of the most influential directors of his generation. Even his earlier films, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, feel as fresh and revolutionary today as when they were released over 20 years ago. I’m hoping that, in order to properly cement his filmmaking legacy, he can maintain his distinctive, controversial style for his final two films…
The first Cuarón film I saw was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and I had no idea who directed it—nor did I care, being 11 years old. However, I could tell that something separated it from the two previous Potter films. Except for Azkaban, when I watch the Potter movies, especially the Yates-helmed ones, it seems as though the filmmakers had a list of the plot points they needed to shoot in order to constitute a film, so they shot them and organized them in the correct order. Cuarón, on the other hand, captures the mood of Rowling’s books so that the movie feels like a realistic, cohesive, lived-in, expansive world—largely due to his complex, creative camera movement and shot composition.
Cuarón smartly approached the third installment of the Harry Potter Franchise as a coming-of-age film, transitioning the three main characters from children to young adults. The most artful, quirky Potter film, Azkaban is a needed transition from the playful and whimsical first two films to one more serious, nuanced, and darkly comic. Cuarón also introduced to the series a more inventive use of magic and decided to allow students to wear “regular” clothes instead of their formal school robes, thereby differentiating and developing the characters’ identities. Here are two videos that outline Cuarón’s unquestionable impact on Azkaban, the Potter franchise, and the future of the film industry:
Although Cuarón’s contribution to the Harry Potter lore can’t be ignored, his best work is after Azkaban. In my recent Cuarón viewing, namely Children of Men and Gravity, I grew fond of his integral use of long takes. In both films, as these extended shots develop and the viewers become more involved, an uneasy sensation of horror and wonder intersect, further immersing his audience in the experience. Children of Men, my favorite Cuarón film, has 147 shots longer than 22 seconds (a long take for most movies), including two elaborate action set pieces lasting 4:07 and 7:34. Altogether, the average shot length (ASL) for the film is approximately 15 seconds. (In comparison, Inception has an ASL of 3.1 seconds.) These unbroken shots have become Cuarón’s bread and butter and, perhaps unfairly, the defining feature of his filmmaking career. Paradoxically, they’re noticeable due to their impressive choreography, yet invisible due to their ability to absorb the viewer. Rather than flaunt his skill as a director, Cuarón employs continuous takes for a simple, practical reason—long takes simulate real life. Because the human eye doesn’t “cut,” Cuarón hesitates to do so unless necessary. This decision allows him to create a new version of the age-old, Spielbergesque “movie magic.”
Here’s a video essay that demonstrates that Cuarón’s use of the long take is strategic rather than “showoffy”:
For further reading, here’s an in-depth analysis of the philosophy that undergirds Cuarón’s inclination to shoot long takes:
Many of the best filmmakers compose their movies in such a way that every frame could conceivably be a painting. Anderson takes this principle to a literal extreme. In fact, his films resemble tangible art to such a degree that many artists have taken to recreating his shots in actual painting form. Because of the visually striking images in his films, he’s often pigeonholed as a largely visual director, but his films have an unmistakable tone to them, too, which aids him in telling engaging, thought-provoking stories. I’ve become particularly fond of a recent internet trend in which content creators attempt to alter existing films by transferring onto them Anderson’s visual and tonal style. For example, here are “his” versions of X-Men, A Clockwork Orange, and The VVitch. Although there is undoubtedly more to Anderson’s films than surface-level visual offerings, his distinct color palettes and shot composition are what drew me to him in the first place, so I’d like to primarily discuss this aspect of his work.
My mother introduced me to Anderson’s films about ten years ago. Even as a young(er) lad, I could walk through the living room and ascertain in a matter of seconds whenever she was watching a Wes Anderson movie due to his unique visual style. After many successive living-room walkthroughs, I quickly took a liking to it. I tend to value vibrant, intricate images in my film watching, and the experience of watching a Wes Anderson movie is the very definition of a visual treat. The rich color palettes that he employs in his movies are so noticeable, inspiring, and popular that there are entire webpages dedicated to those who wish to duplicate his color schemes in their own artwork. Sometimes he uses just a few splashes of color, such as here, and other times an avalanche of it, such as here and here. I also enjoy Anderson’s fluid, often horizontal tracking shots, represented well by this TV spot and the opening of Moonrise Kingdom. In addition, he’s a master of maintaining visual symmetry within the frame, as seen in this shot from Fantastic Mr. Fox and this shot from The Grand Budapest Hotel. I think such preservation of symmetry imparts a balanced, comforting feel of equilibrium in his movies, even if the characters are in flux at the moment the frame passes. Anderson also has a penchant for framing shots within visible, interior frames, particularly in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Movies aren’t solely intended to make you cry or make your heart drop out of your chest. Although some films do this more often than Anderson’s, his always provide viewers with a photographic feast. Because of this defining feature, they function as a visual retreat from a dark and gritty world.
If you liked some of the stills that I linked above, here’s a gallery of some of Anderson’s most stunning shots: 51 Wes Anderson Shots.
Few would argue that anyone but Joel and Ethan Coen are the best directing duo in the history of cinema. (Sorry, Wachowskis, Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending disqualified you from the running indefinitely.) They’re often cited for their versatility; they genre hop with ease, both on a film-to-film basis and within a single film. One writer posits that since No Country for Old Men, they’ve alternated from drama to comedy and addressed the same themes twice in three separate drama-comedy pairs.
They’re also well known for subverting expectations for the particular genres within which they’re working, often through a complex plot structure. One of the most original examples of their subversion of film norms is in their 1996 movie, Fargo. Until two years ago, I, like most people, subconsciously accepted the film’s “This is a true story” label as fact. In actuality, Fargo is, at best, loosely based on a few disparate events that took place at different times and in different locations. Nevertheless, the Coens maintained their “true story” stance for the duration of the film’s promotional period. In a way, this is a testament to the fetishization of the “true” story in Hollywood. The Coens sneakily entered into this genre without a “true” story to begin with, and the myth continues. Controversially, perhaps, one Coen brother stated, “We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true story movie. You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.” Many people might not see his point, but I think that this statement exposes a vital aspect of art. In storytelling, there’s a distinction between “fact” and “truth.” A story can be factual without being true, or it can be true without being factual. Ultimately, a movie is just a movie; at best, it’s a re-creation of true events, not an exact replica of the emotions and decisions that constitute an original experience. Sometimes, in order to access and relate the truth of an event, you have to alter the facts.
Another common thread running through Coen-helmed films is everyday folks getting caught up, either wittingly or unintentionally, in the (often organized) crime world. Whether their characters are hiring a hitman to kill your wife and her new lover (Blood Simple.), hatching a kidnapping plot (Raising Arizona; Fargo; The Big Lebowski; Hail, Caesar!), engaging in a stock scam (The Hudsucker Proxy) or a blackmail scheme (The Man Who Wasn’t There), perpetrating a poorly-thought-out robbery (The Ladykillers, No Country for Old Men), or participating in ultimately bungled acts of espionage (Burn After Reading), the Coens are no strangers to depicting (often amateurish) crime gone horribly wrong.
Along with their proclivity to disrupt filmmaking norms and tell stories about failed criminal undertakings, their idiosyncratic yet realistic characters keep me coming back to their films. I like to think there’s a Marge Gunderson or a “Dude” within all of us.
After writing about the early career arc of Alfonso Cuarón, I recognized a similar trajectory in Peter Jackson’s work. When Jackson was tasked with directing all three Lord of the Rings films at once, he had previously directed only a few low-budget horror comedies (with the exception of Heavenly Creatures)—a situation similar to that of Cuarón and his tepid box office performances before helming the third Harry Potter film. Dissimilar, though, was the unprecedented scope the creation of the Lord of the Rings required. And although Cuarón hadn’t yet proven himself a box office draw for a major franchise, the Potter world, unlike Middle Earth, was already an established movie commodity. Jackson pulled it off, though—both critically and commercially. Thanks to the success and acclaim these films garnered, he became my first film role model.
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations were the first films I consciously categorized and evaluated based on who directed them. Prior to these movies, I paid attention only to surface-level details, such as actors, plot, or genre, without considering the artist at the wheel, controlling and managing the project. I watched where the car was headed without understanding, or particularly caring, why the filmmakers had chosen to steer the car in a specific direction. Jackson, primarily through his commentaries and behind-the-scenes special features spread throughout the four-disc extended-edition DVD box set of each Lord of the Rings film, introduced me to the artful side of cinema—the strategy and craftsmanship, from both the director and additional crew and cast, that drive excellent filmmaking. (Thanks, Peter! Without your influence, I’d be blogging about an entirely different subject.)
Like David Fincher, another one of my favorite directors, Jackson is a perfectionist. He’s a known editing buff, preferring to shoot many takes with lots of coverage to give him more options in the editing room. Although not credited as an editor on any of the Lord of the Rings films, he did sit directly across from the official editor, offering input and suggestions for the entire editing process. Famously, he didn’t finish the extended cut of The Return of the King until a month after he received the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for the film. Because he was busy adding the finishing touches to the movie right up to the end of the post-production schedule, he hadn’t seen the theatrical version in its entirety until the world premiere—after which he said, “Yep, it’s pretty good.”
I can’t end this post without mentioning the elephant in the room: the Hobbit trilogy. Yes, he did rely too heavily on CGI instead of practical effects, such as miniatures, makeup, and costumes. And, yes, the films were notably bloated, so he couldn’t rely on Tolkien’s writing as he did in the Lord of the Rings films. But I submit, and firmly believe, that the Hobbit debacle was only partially his fault. Here’s a video in which Jackson makes his case: The Problem with The Hobbit Trilogy.