Moviemakers' Master Class Private Lessons from the World's Foremost Directors

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2002-10-10
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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From Scorsese and Lynch to Wenders and Godard, interviews with twenty of the world's greatest directors on how they make films--and why Each great filmmaker has a secret method to his moviemaking--but each of them is different. InMoviemaker Master Class, Laurent Tirard talks to twenty of today's most important filmmakers to get to the core of each director's approach to film, exploring the filmmaker's vision as well as his technique, while allowing each man to speak in his own voice. Martin Scorsese likes setting up each shot very precisely ahead of time--so that he has the opportunity to change it all if he sees the need. Lars Von Trier, on the other hand, refuses to think about a shot until the actual moment of filming. And Bernardo Bertolucci tries to dream his shots the night before; if that doesn't work, he roams the set alone with a viewfinder, imagining the scene before the actors and crew join him. In these interviews--which originally appeared in the French film magazineStudioand are being published here in English for the first time--enhanced by exceptional photographs of the directors at work, Laurent Tirard has succeeded in finding out what makes each filmmaker--and his films--so extraordinary, shedding light on both the process and the people behind great moviemaking. Among the other filmmakers included are Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Joel and Ethan Coen, and John Woo.

Author Biography

Laurent Tirard was born in 1967. He studied filmmaking at New York University, from which he graduated with honors in 1989. After a year as a script reader for the Warner Bros. studio in Los Angeles, he became a journalist for the French film magazine Studio. There, over the course of seven years, he screened and reviewed more than a hundred films per year. He also had the opportunity to interview all the great directors of the day, including Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard, John Woo, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, and many others, engaging them in lengthy discussions on the most practical aspects of filmmaking for a series called Leçons de Cinéma. For the last four years, he has put all his lessons into practice, first as a screenwriter on French features and TV movies, then as the director of two short films, Reliable Sources and Tomorrow is Another Day. The first received the 1999 Panavision Award at the Avignon/New York Film Festival; the second was selected for the 2000 Telluride Film Festival. Laurent Tirard is currently working on his first feature film as a director. He lives in Paris with his wife and son.

Table of Contents


John Boorman
Sydney Pollack
Claude Sautet

Woody Allen
Bernardo Bertolucci
Martin Scorsese
Wim Wenders

Dream Weavers
Pedro Almodóvar
Tim Burton
David Cronenberg
Jean-Pierre Jeunet
David Lynch

Big Guns
Oliver Stone
John Woo

New Blood
Joel and Ethan Coen
Takeshi Kitano
Emir Kusturica
Lars Von Trier
Wong Kar-wai

In a Class by Himself
Jean-Luc Godard



John Boorman Sydney Pollack Claude Sautet

The title of this section might make the reader think that these three directors have a conventional approach to filmmaking. Nothing could be more untrue. However, with the exception of Jean-Luc Godard (whose interview appears in the last section), these are the only directors in the book who started their careers before the cultural upheavals of the late sixties, and thus probably are the ones who started out in the most conservative environment. For them, breaking out of the mold of tradition and finding a personal voice were certainly harder tasks than they were for directors of the generations that followed. These directors became auteurs at a time when that notion didn't yet exist.


b. 1933, London, England

Though I had never met John Boorman before interviewing him, actors from his films whom I had interviewed all agreed that he was the nicest man they'd ever worked with. He is, indeed, someone who immediately makes you feel comfortable. Boorman seems particularly tranquil and looks as though he could deal with any situation, however catastrophic, with a shrug and a smile. We met at the time that The General was being released, in 1998. I tried to compliment him on the film but did it so clumsily that I think he got the wrong idea. I said if I hadn't seen his name on the credits, I would have thought the film had been directed by a twenty-year-old. He seemed perplexed by that remark, but what I had meant was that I found it amazing that after all these years of directing films, he could still exhibit the freshness to make one so modern.

Starting as a director in 1965, John Boorman has always tried-sometimes without success, it is true-to explore all forms of cinema, from the experimental genre filmPoint Blank to the revisionist operatic epic Excalibur. Thanks to our conversation, I now know what it was that made his version of the Arthurian legend somehow more ambiguous and more exciting than other cinematic interpretations.

We talked for an hour. Boorman visibly enjoyed getting down to explaining the nitty-gritty of his job, but at the end of the interview, he suddenly frowned and said, "Wait a minute. You just stole all my little secrets here!" Then he shrugged and smiled, wishing me luck.

* Master Class with John Boorman

I learned filmmaking in a very organic way. I started as a film critic when I was eighteen, writing reviews for a newspaper. Then I got a job as a trainee film editor, then as an editor, then I began to direct documentaries for the BBC. After a while, I became dissatisfied with documentaries, and I began to dramatize them more and more, until I started doing dramas for TV and, eventually, for the cinema. So it was really organic and natural, and what helped in all the documentaries that I did was really the fact of shooting so much film, and the familiarity that this created with the process of filming. For me, technique became something that I never worried about. It was there even before I shot my first film. I never had to struggle with it. I know most directors now go to film schools, but I'm not a big believer in that system. I think filmmaking is essentially a practical undertaking, and I think that the apprenticeship system has always been the most effective. I mean, theory is interesting, but it is only interesting when it's related to practical work. And my experience with film students is that they're quite impractical when it comes to the pragmatic aspect of filmmaking. I have, however, helped young directors make their first movies. I produced Neil Jordan's first film, for instance, which in effect was a tutoring operation.

When you're preparing a film with a young director, I find the most important thing to teach him, which often even experienced directors fail to do, is to honestly time the script. Now, most people start out making a picture which is too long. And in consequence, if you end up with a first cut that is three hours long, and you've got to get down to two hours, it means that one-third of the time that you spent shooting the film was wasted, because you spent that time on scenes that won't eventually get in the picture. Of course, it's always important to have a little extra, a few scenes that you can cut into or eliminate if they don't work. But in most cases, you lie to yourself. You're not honest about how long it's going to be because you can't bear to go back to the script and make sacrifices. To do this, however, the best method is to work it out when you're scheduling the shoot. That scene needs fourteen shots? OK, that's two days. Is that scene really worth two days of shooting? If the answer is no, then what you have to do is rewrite the scene or cut it out. This way, you look at the resources, you look at the money you have to spend on the film, and you look at the time and effort that are going to be devoted to each scene, and you can judge whether it has that value or not.


Directing is really about writing, and all serious directors write. They might not get credit for it, often for contractual reasons, but I think you can't separate the shaping of the script from the writing of it. And I think all serious directors shape their scripts, meaning that they sit down with the writers and put the ideas into shape and give them structure. It's an essential part of directing. To which you have to add the whole process of interpretation and exploration. I make films to explore. If I don't know what a film is about, I go on to make it. Whereas if I know exactly what it's about, then I will lose interest in it. So it is the excitement of exploration which appeals to me, and the danger that's involved in that, and you always hope that it's going to lead you into something really new, fresh, and original. The only moment when I know what a film is about is when I've seen it with an audience. And there are always surprises. When I made Hope and Glory , which is about my childhood memories, it wasn't until I saw it finished that I realized that my obsession with the Arthurian legend could be explained by the fact that my father's best friend was in love with my mother. They formed the same triangle that you have with Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere. But it hadn't occurred to me until I had this objectivity, until I became an audience member myself rather than being inside the film.


I work in a particular way, which I suppose you could say is quite classical, in the sense, for instance, that I don't move the camera unless there is a purpose for moving it. Also I don't cut unless it's a necessary cut. Which doesn't mean I'm against experimentation-far from it. But for me, it works on a different level. For instance, the most experimental film that I made was probably Leo the Last , where I was using a kind of postmodern technique of making the audience aware of the fact that it was a film, that it was a fabrication, that it was artifice. The subject was commenting on the film. That is why it begins with Marcello Mastroianni coming down the street in a car, with a song that says "You look like a movie star." The film was a failure, in the sense that it didn't reach people, which may be the definition of something experimental.

In any case, the grammar I normally use is the one that I learned early on from silent films. If you look at D. W. Griffith's use of close-up and vignetting, for instance, and the way he uses close-ups to illustrate thought, you can see that the modern cinema is often quite crude compared to what was being done then. In terms of visual grammar, for me, the spatial relationship between the characters is the vital thing. If characters are emotionally close, I bring them physically close. If they're emotionally distant, I separate them. That's why I like to use Cinemascope, because it allows you to play with that, to bring space between the actors.

So, for instance, in The General , you'll notice that the robbery sequence, which conventionally today would be done with lots of fast cuts, is done with long takes, and all the action is within the frame. As opposed to what I call "new brutalism" in cinema, which is a form of naïveté, because it's made by people who I think don't really have a grasp of cinema's history. It's the MTV kind of editing, where the main idea is that the more disorienting it is, the more exciting. And you see it creeping into mainstream cinema more and more. You look at something like Armageddon and you see all the things that would have been forbidden in classical cinema, like crossing the line, camera jumping from side to side. It is a way to artificially generate excitement, but it doesn't really have any basis to it. And I find it kind of sad, because it's like an old man trying to dress like a teenager.


My main goal, when I tackle a scene, is obviously to give it as much life as possible. In order to accomplish that, the first thing I do is rehearse. Not on the shooting day itself, but before. And I don't do anything spatial with the actors. It's just a question of exploring the scene. I find that what's really helpful with the actors is to improvise what happens before and after that scene. Then, when I get on the set for the actual shoot, I start in the morning, work on the first shot, set the camera down, get the composition, and put the marks down for the actors while they're still in make-up.

Something I always use to make the compositions is the old Mitchell sidefinder, an instrument that used to be on the side of cameras before they had [through-the-lens] reflex. It's a big thing which you have to hold up in front of you, and instead of putting your eye into something, you step away from it and you can see the composition like a picture, like a frame. Deciding where to set the camera is both a very logical process-where the question of point of view is very important-and an intuitive one.

When film started, of course, the process was much simpler. Cameras were placed like an audience in a theater, and you just had a static shot of the action on stage. So you can imagine what happened when Griffith started moving the camera and the camera became a sort of God's-eye view, an omniscient view that could move anywhere. This gave cinema another dimension altogether. It brought cinema, I think, close to the condition of dreaming. When I spent some time living in the Amazon with a primitive tribe, trying to explain what film was like, and how you could travel from place to place, look at things from different angles, and cut both in space and time, I remember the shaman of the tribe said, "Oh yes, I do that too. When I go into a trance, I travel like that." So I think the power of cinema has to do with the way that it connects to people's dream experiences. Particularly if it's in black and white, because we tend to dream in black and white. So when we set the camera down, I think what we're accomplishing is nothing short of trying to make a dream concrete.


I don't cover my scenes very much, and I don't like to do a lot of takes, either. The reason is that, first of all, what I try to do is show the actors that whenever the camera rolls, that's going to be in the movie. If you're shooting from all different angles, then the attitude that prevails is "This probably won't end up in the film, so let's not bother too much." So I try to get a constant tension going. Everything has to be really prepared, and then when the camera's going, that's it. Everybody has to get to a peak of performance at that point. And I never print more than two takes. It's so boring to sit through hours and hours of dailies, and you lose your judgment, eventually. You see six takes, you don't remember what the first one was like. So I shoot very little film. I don't shoot master shots, for instance, and consequently, it's very easy to cut together. I shoot five days instead of six, like most people, and this way I spend at least a day in the cutting room, which is enough to cover one week's worth of shooting. And then I have another day to prepare all the shots for the coming week.

Of course, making the decision to not cover too much means I might get stuck in the editing room and regret it. It's the big dilemma. Kurosawa solved this problem in an interesting way. As he progressed, his films were more and more precisely planned. But when he got to the cutting room, he often regretted not having more material. So he hired a camera operator whose job was to discreetly take shots in every scene, usually with a long lens. He would shoot close-ups when Kurosawa was doing a master shot, he would shoot inserts or cutaways in a dialogue scene, and so on. And then Kurosawa would process that film only if he needed it for cutting. He never asked what had been filmed, because he didn't want the random element to interfere with his planning. I think he was right, because if you shoot with two cameras, which I never do, then you have to make compromises between the two. And filming is all about focusing everything onto a certain point. But if you have two cameras, you're constantly compromising that.


Surprisingly, documentaries were probably the best training I got to direct actors. Because what I learned from them, more than anything, was about human behavior. So because I had been observing real people closely, I was able to bring something to actors to help them achieve a feeling of reality. In any case, the key to directing actors is to provide them with a safe environment, a trusting environment, in which they can work. That means giving them structure, making sure they're not distracted by other things that happen on the set. Giving them the focus of your attention, watching them closely, showing them that you're not going to let them make mistakes, that you're not going to put them into difficulty. Then they will be more willing to take chances, which is what you want.


Excerpted from MOVIEMAKERS' MASTER CLASS by LAURENT TIRARD Copyright © 2002 by Laurent Tirard
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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