So in case you didn’t know, Solo, the movie that everybody seems to want but nobody really knows why, is coming out soon. Last year, there was controversy surrounding this movie when its directors were fired towards the end of shooting the film in favor of bringing in Ron Howard. The reshoots were seemingly extensive, and now the movie is coming out soon. Of course, when there’s controversy surrounding a movie like this, there has to be some “anonymous source” that explains why everything makes sense for the movie in grand scheme of things and how all of the actions taken were justified. Last week, an explanation came out. According to this source, Phil Lord and Chris Miller have never directed a film before, didn’t know what the hell they were doing, and were “forcing” actors to do 30 takes of any given scene because they didn’t know what to look for. When Ron Howard came in, he was calm, cool, and professional. He knew exactly what he wanted. And now everything is positively perfect.
If it sounds like I’m making fun of this explanation, it’s because I am. This is a rumor that’s obviously a political play, trying to justify a close to unprecedented move in modern studio releases. It makes sense in the context of the leaks that came out a few days after Lord and Miller were fired, when it was said that they were in over their heads and that they didn’t understand Star Wars. More on that later, but I’m not here to just make fun of a rumor created by an anonymous source. No, I’m here to talk about yet another myth about directing. You can read my other article on directing here, where I discuss the issues I have with the “auteur” theory. I honestly don’t know why, but these directing myths really get on my nerves, so excuse me if I seem a little bit chippy here. Today, I want to talk about the myth of the director that “knows exactly what they want”.
When people think of a director, they think of a genius who builds everything in front of the camera by themselves, and that the film is authored by the director. They have every shot in their head before they get to set, they know all the blocking up front, and know exactly how the actors should read a certain line. That, in the minds of people who’ve never made a movie before, is the essence of what makes a director great. They know exactly what they want. So when you read a story that says that somebody helming a big budget movie was doing 30 takes of any given scene and never seemed like they knew what they wanted, well then you absolutely sympathize with the people who fired them, right? I mean, jeez, have they never directed before? Except that all of those ideas of what make a good director are complete nonsense.
A director that knows exactly what they want treats their actors like meat puppets and not collaborators. They tell the actors to perform the scene a certain way and never make room for any kind of creativity in the performance.
A director that knows exactly what they want chews out all of the crew when they mess up a specific shot. They’re unafraid of reaming out a boom operator because they accidentally couldn’t hold on for five minutes during a long take and dipped the mic into the shot.
A director that knows exactly what they want treats any kind of recommendation or creative input like an act of mutiny and will punish the person accordingly.
A director that knows exactly what they want is a black hole of creativity, and generally makes life miserable for the rest of the cast and crew. I’ve worked with these kinds of directors before, and 100% of the time they are not geniuses.
Case in point: I once worked on a movie in film school where we were shooting a short film in collaboration with a visual effects crew. Now, for those of you who haven’t worked with visual effects before, especially green screen, it’s important to have flat, even lighting on the screen in order for it to be properly keyed out in the postproduction process. In fact, when dealing with inexperienced students, you might want to keep the lighting pretty even so that they have a fairly good canvas to work on for their effects. Our director didn’t care about that. Our director had dreams of being David Fincher, and wanted the whole movie color tinted in that same style. We said that was fine, we can do color correction in postproduction to make it the way that they wanted it. Our director didn’t like that. They wanted it all done “in-camera” (one of the many things you deal with in film school is an obsession with doing things “in-camera” as if it’s much more artistic or something) so that they could see what it looked like on set. That didn’t make any freaking sense. We said so. They disagreed, because they knew exactly what they wanted. So, we strapped blue filters on all the lights so that the stuff on the director’s monitor looked blue because they knew exactly what they wanted. The director effectively screwed over the entire vis effects crew, whose grade also depended on this project, since they couldn’t properly key out the green screen because it was tinted 3 separate shades of blue. These are the consequences of a “I know exactly what I want” mentality.
“But Sam,” you may say, “Don’t you like Steven Soderbergh? He’s a guy that only gets a couple takes of something and moves on because he knows exactly what he wants!” It’s true that Soderbergh doesn’t waste time, but untrue that he knows exactly what he wants at all times. Creative ventures are about exploration, and if you read anything about how he shoots his movies, he’s constantly walking around with his camera, probing and scoping out new angles or perspectives that he hadn’t thought of before. He also serves as his own editor, so even though he’s getting minimal footage, he could still completely shift a story in post if that’s how he thinks it should go. I think Soderbergh himself would deny the claim that he knows exactly what he wants even more than I would.
One of the biggest lies in all of film is that directors know what they’re looking for at all times, and it’s a lie that isn’t really perpetuated by directors themselves. Stanley Kubrick, one of the most meticulous and maddening directors ever, once said, “I may not know what I want, but I know what I don’t want.” You can find many different interviews with some of the most legendary filmmakers alive and dead and see that they didn’t really know what they were looking for until they stumbled upon it. And in order to stumble upon something, exploration is necessary. Some directors explore more than others. Kubrick would do 30, 40, 50 takes of something not just because he had an exact way in his head, but because he wanted to explore every option available to him and not have to pick a certain direction for a scene until the editing room. Doing 30 takes of a scene is not a sign of weakness or indecision; it’s just a different method of exploring the creativity of everyone involved. It’s a frustrating myth that a director has to have all the answers, all the time, and be confident in every decision that they make, because a lot of the time it’s just a crap shoot with these things.
So that brings us back to Solo. Phil Lord and Chris Miller are explorers. They’re known for doing a lot of takes, having actors improvise, and figuring stuff out in the editing room. They were constantly fiddling with the story of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs during production before they figured out the exact direction of the movie. So these anonymous sources are saying that they were fired because…they did a lot of takes, had actors improvise, and were figuring stuff out as they went along? It might be true! But I think that there are other things going on here. Which comes back to the assertions that they didn’t “get”Star Wars or Han Solo as a character.
We’re going to need to have a conversation at some point in the near future about what, as an audience, we want out of a movie. Like I talked about in my Trek reviews, there’s a certain amount of audiences that are enamored with nothing but texture and essence. They want literally everything to have a consistent tone and feel, art direction and cinematography, with nothing too creative or challenging along the way. When we think of a franchise movie tied to intellectual property, we want all of the hits, all of those top five answers on the board, and anything else is rejected almost on principle. It seems that when people sit down to watch a movie, they want to know exactly what they’re going to get, scene for scene, before the movie starts. If that’s what people want from a movie, then that’s fine I guess, but there’s very little creativity in that. So when those other anonymous sources say that Lord and Miller didn’t “get” Star Wars or Han Solo, I’m not entirely certain what they mean. Isn’t the point of having these spinoff movies to do something completely different? To kind of go off in these directions that you haven’t totally explored yet?
Except that the answer is no to all of those questions. Look, I really like a lot of the Marvel movies, but they are a master class in this new kind of feint. I’m talking about this “we’re totally going in a new cool direction, believe us” bob of the head, but then it just jumps back into the same direction every time. Each movie packages itself in a slightly different texture, but ultimately goes down the path of least resistance, because it’s the most bankable path. That’s why Homecoming says, “Spider-Man needs to learn about responsibility,” in the middle of the movie but then in the climax says, “Actually, Spider-Man was right the whole time because he’s a super hero and people should just listen to him more.” And these Star Wars movies are trying to do the same thing. Rogue Oneis just more of the same texture with poor pacing, structure and an abomination of an ending, and The Force Awakensis literally just the movie saying, “We’re giving you everything you want, please don’t hit us,” for 2 hours. Things that are fundamentally different in tone and structure have no place in a cinematic universe that seeks to only give existing fans everything they ask for all the time.
Now, maybe Lord and Miller are terrible people who were tyrants on set and needed to be canned. After all the crap coming out of Hollywood for a while now, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that they could be. We will never know the full details of what went on, and if we do, it will always be painted by the biases of the people who are recounting the project. Perhaps Lawrence Kasdan saw the script that he wrote being butchered and put a stop to it. In that case, congratulations to the one writer in what is probably the history of Hollywood movies to get a director fired for ruining their vision. Perhaps Lucasfilm thought that the hours and hours of footage would give Lord and Miller an inordinate amount of power over the creation of the final cut, and put a stop to that. Who knows?
In the end, I can’t help but think of Robert Altman’s first film, M*A*S*H*, where he pretty much threw the script out on day one and told the actors to improvise and talk over each other in every scene. Shooting the film was so wildly different than anything else occurring during studio movies during the early 70’s that the stars, Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, tried to get Altman fired multiple times. When it was released, it turned out to be a major box office success, setting up one of the greatest decades for studio movies and going on to influence filmmaking practices that Lord and Miller utilize. But Altman wasn’t yanked from the process before it could all come together, and I can’t imagine the type of movie M*A*S*H*would’ve been had that happened.
This article was written by Samuel Becker: writer for hire, Tek5 Filmscore Critic, and general hypocrite.