The First-Timer’s Cut is the Cheapest

First-time movie directors are relatively cheap and eager to collaborate with their studio bosses.  Hey, they are just happy to sit in the chair!  They aren’t as likely to fight over studio notes or ask for a percentage of the grosses.  Plus, they are available whenever you need them.  No wonder the big Hollywood studios were eager to sign untested talent.  In the March 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Stephen Farber examined the recent uptick in novice directors.

Several years ago when writer-producer Gerald Ayres noted apologetically that he was thinking of making the inevitable move into directing, he recalled a cartoon he had seen of two seals balancing balloons on their noses and clapping their flippers; the caption read, “What I’d really like to do is direct.” In the last year or two, the seals have been multiplying at an alarming pace. An extraordinary number of films opening recently in this country have been made by first-time directors–as many as one-quarter of all new releases, according to Weekly Variety. Whether this fact has something to do with the dismal quality of the movies we’ve been seeing is a moot question–after all, Citizen Kane and Henry V (both the Olivier and the Branagh versions) were made by first-time directors–but it is a startling new phenomenon that points up some significant changes in the film business.

In a sense, the hunt for bright young directors has been ongoing for more than 20 years. In 1969 the unexpected success of Easy Rider set executives at every studio on a frantic search for other callow geniuses who had a pipeline to the coveted college-age audience. Most of the youngsters who got a chance to direct their first movie in the trail of Easy Rider quickly faded into obscurity again. Who remembers Stuart Hagmann (The Strawberry Statement), Paul Williams (The Revolutionary) or Jeffrey Young (Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me)? But the insatiable appetite for young directors paved the way for far more successful tyros like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and, more recently, Tim Burton and Chris Columbus.

Not since the late ’60s, however, has there been such an explosion of first-time directors. Many, though not all of them, are young; some come fresh from film school, while others are moving from established careers in acting, writing, producing or cinematography. Independent companies have traditionally been receptive to newcomers (like 19-year-old Matty Rich, director of Straight Out of Brooklyn, or 21-year-old Jordan Alan, director of Terminal Bliss), but the surprising development of recent months is how many major studio films are also helmed by first-timers. Probably the most astonishing, symbolic example is Fox entrusting the costly Alien 3 to 28-year-old David Fincher, who had directed nothing but music videos and commercials before taking command of this sci-fi epic. Although Hollywood has worshipped at the fountain of youth for the last 20 years, the studios’ motivation for seeking new directors today is radically different from the impulse that guided the talent hunt in the ’60s and ’70s. In that era, producers and executives were looking for directors with a personal vision, and that often meant untried talents who hadn’t yet been corrupted by the studio assembly line.

In a few instances, studios are still hiring young directors who can bring their unique personal experience to mainstream films. John Singleton, 23, was given the chance to write and direct Boyz N the Hood right after graduating from USC’s School of Cinema/Television because of his first-hand knowledge of South Central Los Angeles, a terrain few studio executives are likely to visit. But that is a special case not likely to be widely imitated. On the whole, the receptivity to first-time directors today represents a repudiation of that kind of personal filmmaking. The era of the auteurs is definitely over.Too many self-indulgent, over-budget movies made by directors who called all the shots have left the studios determined to retrieve control of their products. Today we’re returning to the policy of studio-as-auteur that prevailed in the ’40s, before actors and directors broke away and asserted their autonomy.

“From a selfish point of view,” says Roger Birnbaum, president of production at 20th Century Fox, “if we hire a top-line director, our involvement is lessened. If Fox makes a deal with Marty Scorsese, I’m not going to tell him how to direct. But a young first-timer craves collaboration. It’s more fun for us.” Similarly, New Line Cinema’s chief Robert Shaye says that he likes first-time directors because these newcomers are more receptive to collaboration. “We stay away from prima donna directors period,” Shaye declares. “We try to weed out directors with an attitude problem.”

Arrogance usually goes hand-in-hand with extravagant salary demands. “Why are there so many first-time directors? It has to do with economics and control,” says Heywood Gould, who made his directorial debut on One Good Cop for Disney’s Hollywood Pictures last year. “It’s not because the studios want to sponsor new talent.” And it’s no accident that Disney, which is particularly known for its frugality and for its desire to maintain tight control over its talent, has been one of the leaders in hiring first-time directors. (The novices at the mouse factory include, besides Gould, Jerry Rees on The Marrying Man, Frank Marshall on Arachnophobia, Mary Agnes Donoghue on Paradise, James Orr on Mr. Destiny, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise on Beauty and the Beast, Joe Johnston on Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Mark Herman on the upcoming Blame It on the Bellboy.) Gould was paid the Directors Guild minimum for directing One Good Cop. “That was fine with me,” says Gould, a novelist and screenwriter who had been trying to direct for years. “I was happy to do it.”

“Economics dictate the hiring of first-time directors,” confirms David Friendly, the president of production at Imagine Films. “When the average movie costs $27 million, you have to find a way to bring costs down. Hiring a first-time director is one way to do that.” Friendly says that big-time directors now can command as much as $5 million per movie plus a hefty percentage of the gross. How many of them are really worth it? Almost every major director has had a couple of flops or disappointments. Sometimes, instead of hiring a very expensive director with a very mixed track record, it can be appealing to start with a clean slate.

Paramount’s Brandon Tartikoff recently explained why he signed Robert Lieberman (not a first-timer, but a relative newcomer) to direct All I Want for Christmas: Lieberman, he said, “cost one tenth of what Mike Nichols cost on Regarding Henry, and I’ll bet Mike Nichols couldn’t have done a better job.” What he didn’t mention is that Mike Nichols would have no interest in directing a processed piece of Christmas schlock, so Tartikoff had to look elsewhere. (Why Nichols would want to direct the equally canned Regarding Henry is another question, of course.) Acknowledging that top directors are not always eager to make the movies that a studio sees as surefire blockbusters, Fox’s Roger Birnbaum says, “It would be hard to attract a class-A director to do a second sequel to Alien. So we decided to take a chance on a newcomer, David Fincher. It was nerve-wracking, but I think he has pulled it off.” Similarly, it isn’t likely that Sydney Pollack or Peter Weir were champing at the bit to direct Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, so Orion hired Peter Hewitt, age 29, described in the press kit as “an inveterate comic book fan” with nothing but short films to his credit.

Not only are established directors expensive, but they are often booked up for years or terribly indecisive about picking the next jewel in their crown. Ricardo Mestres, the president of Disney’s Hollywood Pictures, points out that he does not usually begin with the idea of hiring a first-time director. “Many times our first 15 or 20 choices are either not available or not interested,” Mestres says. “At that point often we’d rather take a risk and make a leap into the unknown than compromise with a director who will give us something predictable.” Sometimes a studio has to accept a first-time director in order to snare a script or an actor that it desperately wants. Hot screenwriters find that they can often secure a directing gig in exchange for writing the script. Roger Birnbaum explains that when he and Joe Roth were launching their new regime at Fox, they wanted to go into business with a number of gifted screenwriters. They allowed George Gallo, Dale Launer and Nora Ephron to direct their scripts (29th Street, Love Potion #9, and This Is My Life, respectively) in order to sign these writers to exclusive screenwriting deals with the studio. “In order to attract some of these writers,” Birnbaum says, “we made a decision to let them direct relatively inexpensive movies. From a business standpoint we couldn’t get killed.”

Similarly, to court powerful stars, studios have often been willing to dangle a chance to direct. The Oscars for first-time directors Robert Redford and Kevin Costner certainly don’t hurt the cause of other actors who want to play DeMille.

The success of some of these first-timers has shattered the mystique that used to surround film directing. Dale Pollock, the president of A & M Films, remarks candidly, “I know I shouldn’t say this, but if you surround a first-time director with a great director of photography, editor, production designer and first a.d., almost anybody can direct a movie.” Or as Lili Zanuck put it sensibly when discussing her debut on Rush, directing “wasn’t brain surgery.” Even John Landis, a director not known for his humility, acknowledged this point during the Twilight Zone trial. One day he was chatting with the court stenographer and mentioned how impressed he was with her technical facility. She downplayed her skill and said, “I could never direct a movie.” “Don’t be silly,” Landis shot back. “If you can drive a car, you can direct a movie.

This isn’t to say anyone can direct a great movie. But if a first-time director has a rock-solid script and an expert cast and crew, he’ll manage, whereas a gifted director with an incoherent script will flounder. George Gallo admits that he depended on his cinematographer, Steven Fierberg, when he was directing 29th Street. “I didn’t know anything about lighting,” Gallo says. “But I would tell Steven I wanted a scene to look like a scene in Mean Streets or the war room scene in Dr. Strangelove or an Edward Hopper painting, and he knew what I meant. I would describe the effect I wanted, and he would execute it.” Michael Bortman, who directed his first film, Crooked Hearts, after writing the script for The Good Mother and several successful television movies, notes that he learned a great deal from his excellent cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto (who has shot most of Jonathan Demme’s movies, among others). “I had great respect for Tak,” Bortman says, “and at the beginning, he really carried the whole production. I almost apprenticed myself to him. It was a great education.”

Yet Bortman concedes that his inexperience may have hurt the film. In telling this disturbing tale of a dysfunctional family, he was aiming for subtlety. He didn’t want the family to appear freakish; he was hoping the first impressions of a nurturing brood would only gradually be undermined by more troubling revelations. “The tonal questions were very sophisticated,” Bortman says, “and I was only dimly aware of just how difficult they were. If I had made another film before that, I might have been more aware of how to achieve that balance I wanted.”

Still, whatever its flaws, Crooked Hearts was an honorable, intelligent work that failed to find an audience primarily because it was downbeat (and because it wasn’t sufficiently promoted by the financially strapped MGM), not because it was incompetent. Some other recent efforts by first-time directors more clearly illustrate the hazards of entrusting difficult films to novices. Michael Karbelnikoff, whose experience had been in commercials, certainly wasn’t up to the demands of an ambitious gangster film like Mobsters. Terry Hughes, who had done most of his work on sitcoms like “The Golden Girls,” had no idea how to achieve the delicate whimsy attempted in the script of The Butcher’s Wife. Jerry Rees, a Disney animator, may have had an understanding of visual style, but he was completely at a loss when he had to handle two temperamental stars like Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin on The Marrying Man.

It isn’t only these big-budget studio movies that suffer from the inexperience of their directors. Leonard Schrader had written a couple of decent scripts, but in trying for a baroque visual style in his directorial debut, Naked Tango, he toppled into utter fatuity. Michael Tolkin, the writer-director of The Rapture, had written a slender Hollywood novel called The Player, and chiefly on the basis of that, Fine Line allowed him to direct an ambitious tale of contemporary religious fanaticism. Not only did Tolkin fail to bring any imagination to the heroine’s apocalyptic religious visions, he seemed incapable of staging the simplest two-character confrontation scenes with any energy or fluidity.

A good director needs rigorous training. It should be remembered that Orson Welles, who was only 25 when he made Citizen Kane, already had years of experience directing highly imaginative productions for radio and theater. And he had tested himself by mounting Shakespeare and H.G. Wells, not 30-second spots for Levi’s or Budweiser. If impressive first-timers are more likely to emerge from England, that is because British directors cut their teeth on ambitious plays or documentaries for the BBC, whereas American directors orchestrate the canned laughter on “The Golden Girls” or “Murphy Brown.” Music videos may have been a good training ground for the director of Madonna’s Truth or Dare, 26-year-old Alek Keshishian, but they are not likely to be of much help to anyone charged with telling an intricate story. Even an unassuming film like Cool As Ice, designed as a vehicle for singer Vanilla Ice, proved to be beyond the capabilities of David Kellogg, age 39, a graduate of USC’s School of Cinema/Television whose professional experience was limited to directing videos and commercials.

Where is one likely to find the best new directors? Traditionally a lot of great directors began as screenwriters. There’s a certain logic to allowing writers to direct, since they have a storytelling instinct that is at the heart of all good moviemaking. But in the past, writers-turned-directors like Preston Sturges, John Huston, Billy Wilder, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Nunnally Johnson and Robert Rossen had worked as screenwriters for several years on as many as nine pictures before they actually donned a director’s cap. They were extremely knowledgeable about the entire moviemaking process by the time they directed. Now a writer may be given a chance to direct after writing one hit movie, and it’s not surprising that the results are fairly primitive. After writing the sappy but successful Beaches, Mary Agnes Donoghue was hired to direct Paradise, which had the visual style of a Hallmark card.

Film editors–David Lean and Hal Ashby, for example– have often made good directors, because editing, like writing, is a form of storytelling, and editors understand the rhythm of film. Cinematographers have not generally fared as well, though Nicolas Roeg is a spectacular exception, and Barry Sonnenfeld’s success on The Addams Family will certainly encourage others to try. But many other fine cameramen, including Jack Cardiff, Freddie Francis, William Fraker and John Alonzo, haven’t been able to sustain a directing career, perhaps because their pictorial skills are really only incidental to effective cinematic storytelling.

There’s another group that has lately turned to directing– the producers. This is a bizarre development. David O. Selznick, Sam Goldwyn and Hal Wallis never dreamt of directing, no doubt because they had all the power they wanted as iron-fisted producers. The diminishing role of the producer has led people like Irwin Winkler, Aaron Russo and Lili Zanuck to try their hand at directing, so far without much success. If they were given more respect as producers, they probably wouldn’t feel the urge to branch out. Ideally, producers can play a valuable role in checking the wilder fantasies of the director. But the growing power of directors during the last 20 years has reduced many producers to the role of lackey. They might do better to spend their energies strengthening their own position in the filmmaking process rather than trying to move into a profession for which they have no special aptitude.

Most of the first-time directors to have emerged in the last couple of years probably won’t survive any longer than the young directors who stormed Hollywood after the success of Easy Rider. Some of those who do luck into a hit may quickly turn just as temperamental as the prima donna directors whom the studios have been trying to escape. That prospect is frightening, but not as depressing as the specter of a new wave of films authored by Katzenberg or Tartikoff. The wholesale hiring of first-time directors grows in part from a healthy desire to make filmmaking more collaborative and responsible. But the outcome is more likely to be moviemaking by executive fiat and a proliferation of potboilers eviscerated by front office interference.


Stephen Farber, our regular film critic, is the author of Hollywood Dynasties, and wrote “Female Trouble” for our July ’91 issue.


Posted on March 31, 2017, in Movieline Articles, Movies. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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