January 30, 2005

Directing is a Bitch: The Frustrations of Filmmaking

Hollywood in Wide Angle: How Directors View Filmmaking
By Jack Rothman
Scarecrow Press
199 pps. (paperbound)  $24.95
ISBN 0-8108-5015-X

In creating this unique overview of the filmmaking culture of Hollywood, sociologist Jack Rothman acknowledges his debt to an earlier work published in 1950—Hollywood, the Dream Factory-—in which anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker studied the social system of Hollywood. After publishing studies of the Melanesian society in New Ireland and the deep South in the United States, Powdermaker was a part-time visiting professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Through 1946 and 1947 Powdermaker conducted approximately 900 interviews with 300 individuals who worked in Hollywood. Her goal was to assemble "as complete a picture of working relationships as possible."

Not surprisingly, Powdermaker found that the Hollywood interviewees, which included producers, directors, actors and writers, were excellent subjects because "the level of frustration was high, and frustrated people love to talk." For his field trip, Rothman adopted many of Powdermaker's techniques but confined himself to solely interviewing directors who work in present-day Hollywood. Though the more than 30 directors that Rothman interviewed work in narrative filmmaking, documentary filmmakers can learn a lot from this book.

Rothman guaranteed that the uncensored comments from the directors would remain anonymous, although many of the quotes are attributed to directors such as Gilbert Cates, Martha Coolidge, Joe Dante, Julie Dash, Walter Hill, John Landis and others. There is a rigorous documentary methodology behind Rothman's work. Like Powdermaker, Rothman is a professor at UCLA, and he brings his academic discipline to this objective, intimate and candid picture of work within the film industry in an attempt to take "a look beyond all that Hollywood-style obfuscation to grasp what is real" and "doing some substantive and meaningful reporting on the film culture..."

To gather sufficient sample size and diversity for his ethnographic research, Rothman interviewed 32 directors, including five women, four African-Americans, two Latinos, two Asian-Americans and seven individuals with strong independent film backgrounds. Rothman used a semi-structured, open-ended questionnaire that attempted to determine what the interview subjects consider the most pressing problems of the director, the attributes of a truly gifted director and how they believe the quality of the American film can be raised.

"What I heard in the interviews sounded more like an epidemic of discontent than the complaints of a few disgruntled and atypical souls," reports Rothman. "Their comments of dissatisfaction, however, didn't include spoken concern about their personal incomes." In a chapter entitled "Directors in Close-Up," Rothman's unnamed interview subjects provide many stories of triumph over impossible odds, a form of survival that the author characterizes as "doing the backstroke in shark-infested waters." The single most important quality a director must have, as cited by the interview subjects, was a passion to tell the story. Without this attribute, the challenges of filmmaking, either within a studio or independently, could become insurmountable.

Subsequent chapters address dealing with actors, and the changes that digital filmmaking are inaugurating for the director. For the most part, nearly all of the subjects find the creative control that comes with digital filmmaking a heartening development. Individual chapters also address the issues of the "director's cut," women and minorities in the director's chair, the importance of writers and where it all seems to be headed. Rothman's objective work is a highly informed and very well researched survey that will prove informative for aspiring filmmakers, documentarians and cinema historians alike.

 

Ray Zone can be contacted at r3dzone@earthlink.net.  

Tags: