PRODUCTION TIPS: Lessons from 4 Veteran Filmmakers (Fuller, Altman, Eastwood and Stone)

One of the things that struck me from my time in the USMC was that if my platoon had somehow been tasked with making a movie, we would deliver an Academy Award-worthy production way under-budget and way ahead-of-schedule. That's just the the kind of motivation and morale that almost seems intrinsic to being in the armed forces.  I think about my time in the Marines whenever I am behind the camera and draw on those experiences on everything from how to motivate the cast and crew to staying focused on the aesthetic and logistical mission at hand even when the stresses build.  

I wonder too how much four of my favorite American film directors, Samuel Fuller (served in the US Army, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division during World War 2), Robert Altman (served in the US Army Air Forces, 307th Bomb Group during World War 2), Clint Eastwood (served in the US Army) and Oliver Stone (served in the US Army, 25th Infantry Division then with the 1st Cavalry Division during the Vietnam War) drew on their military experiences to inform their filmmaking.  Thematically, they have each done movies that address war and violence.  

Let's see what they have to say about filmmaking, art, inspiration and the movie business for Veteran's Day:

[Fuller, a WW II combat veteran, writing to director Lewis Milestone--himself a World War I combat veteran--expressing his displeasure at what he considered the phony heroics of Milestone's "A Walk in the Sun"] "Why a man of your calibre should resort to a colonel's technical advice [the film's technical advisor was a US Army colonel] on what happens in a platoon is something I'll never figure out . . . When colonels are back in their garrison hutments where they belong I'll come out with a yarn that won't make any doggie that was ever on the line retch with disgust."

"Film is a battleground. Love, hate, violence, action, death...In a word, emotion."

"Am I a cult director? Yeah, I love all that. I want to join the cult of the $100- to $200-million grossers and still make an artistic picture."

"Ninety-five per cent of films are born of frustration, of self-despair, of ambition for survival, for money, for fattening bank accounts. Five per cent, maybe less, are made because a man has an idea, an idea which he must express."

"Van Gogh was a great inspiration for me, a guy for whom life was work and work was life. I wanted to be like him, except I didn't want to go nuts and cut off my ear."

"I hate violence. That has never prevented me from using it in my films."

"I grew up believing that people make things move, like the word "movie". The world, like a moving picture, was moving forward. I wanted to advance, too, as rapidly as my quick mind and fast legs would carry me. I also grew up believing in truth - not just the word itself, but the deeper conviction that getting to the truth was a noble cause. My nature has always been to tell people the truth, even if they feel insulted. I care too much about people to bullshit them. If they're offended by the truth, why waste my time on them? When a young director comes to me for advice on a script, I don't pull any punches, especially if the thing's overwritten."

"I write with the camera. It is my typewriter."

"I didn't mind military school; I kind of liked it. I thought it was a nice little adventure."

"Filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes."

"Jazz has endured because it doesn't have a beginning or an ending. It's a moment."

"Mr. and Mrs. Smith get married, they have problems, they get back together and they live happily ever after. End of the movie. Two weeks later, he kills her, grinds her body up, feeds it to his girlfriend who dies of ptomaine poisoning, and her husband is prosecuted and sent to the electric chair for it--but here's our own little story with the happy ending. What is an ending? There's no such thing. Death is the only ending."

"What I'm looking for is occurrence, truthful human behavior. We've got a kind of road map, and we're making it up as we travel along."

"The business is run by accountants who, as long as a film makes $40 billion, don't care if it kills the industry. Everything can also be shown so quickly in the home - which means that the people who go to movie theaters are teenagers who just want to get away from home. The audience has changed and the content has changed to suit that audience. But, even if I'll be an outdated item very shortly, I intend to carry on as long as I can."

"I don't storyboard anything. I go on a set in the morning and, unless a scene requires a lot of props, I won't even tell the crew what I'm going to shoot first. I know what the setup is and which actors are required. But I have to see what occurs and like to shoot in sequence if possible. It makes for a lot of editing but I like to go on a journey with the actors. I also love working on ensemble movies like Nashville (1975), Short Cuts (1993) and Gosford Park (2001). Having multiple narratives makes my job a lot easier: if something doesn't work, it means I can cut away to something else. I also like the audience to use their necks to take in everything happening in the frame. I'd hate to do something like Two for the Seesaw (1962) where there were just two close-up faces to look at."

"People talk about my signature. But I ask them if they ever saw Howard Hawks' films. They're filled with overlapping dialog. Everything I've learned has come from watching other directors: Bergman [Ingmar Bergman, Fellini [Federico Fellini], Kurosawa [Akira Kurosawa], Huston [John Huston] and Renoir [Jean Renoir]."

"I look at film as closer to a painting or a piece of music; it's an impression . . . an impression of character and total atmosphere . . . The attempt is to enlist an audience emotionally, not intellectually."

"The worst trap you can fall in is to start imitating yourself."

"The actors have to know the play because they have to memorize the words. The technicians have to know the play because they have to organize the sound and light cues. But I want to keep myself as virginal as I can. I say, "Tell me what this play is about." I'll find out as I do it and I'm really looking forward to seeing it. I don't advise young directors that this is what they should do. This is simply my method."

"Anybody who gives you advice is giving you what they think is correct for them if they were in your position. But they're not you! And you're not them. You can listen to these things, but I advise that you don't take advice from anybody."

[on World War II] "I feel terrible for both sides in that war and in all wars. A lot of innocent people get sacrificed. It's not about winning or losing, but mostly about the interrupted lives of young people."

[what he says after a take, instead of "Cut!"] "That's enough of that shit."

"I love every aspect of the creation of motion pictures and I guess I am committed to it for life."

"[on directing] Most people like the magic of having it take a long time and be difficult . . . but I like to move along, I like to keep the actors feeling like they're going somewhere, I like the feeling of coming home after every day and feeling like you've done something and you've progressed somewhere. And to go in and do one shot after lunch and another one maybe at six o'clock and then go home is not my idea of something to do."

" America, instead of making the audience come to the film, the idea seems to be for you to go to the audience. They come up with the demographics for the film and then the film is made and sold strictly to that audience. Not to say that it's all bad, but it leaves a lot of the rest of us out of it. To me cinema can be a much more friendly world if there's a lot of things to choose from."

"I think I'm on a track of doing pictures nobody wants to do, that they're all afraid of. I guess it's the era we live in, where they're doing remakes of "The Dukes of Hazzard" and other old television shows. I must say, I'm not a negative person, but sometimes I wonder what kind of movies people are going to be making 10 years from now if they follow this trajectory. When I grew up there was such a variety of movies being made. You could go see "Sergeant York" or "Sitting Pretty" or "Sullivan's Travels", dozens of pictures, not to mention all the great B movies. Now, they're looking for whatever the last hit was. If it's "The Incredibles", they want 'The Double Incredibles.' My theory is they ought to corral writers into writers' buildings like they used to and start out with fresh material."

"You have to trust your instincts. There's a moment when an actor has it, and he knows it. Behind the camera you can feel the moment even more clearly. And once you've got it, once you feel it, you can't second-guess yourself. You can find a million reasons why something didn't work. But if it feels right, and it looks right, it works. Without sounding like a pseudointellectual dipshit, it's my responsibility to be true to myself. If it works for me, it's right."

"None of the pictures I take a risk in cost a lot, so it doesn't take much for them to turn a profit. We don't deal in big budgets. We know what we want and we shoot it and we don't waste anything. I never understand these films that cost twenty, thirty million dollars when they could be made for half that. Maybe it's because no one cares. We care."

"Every movie I make teaches me something, and that's why I keep making them. I'm at that stage of life when I could probably stop and just hit golf balls. But in filming these two movies about Iwo Jima, I learnt about war and about character. I also learnt a lot about myself."

[About his Vietnam experience] "You get to a point where you can smell them [the enemy] . . . I got to a place where I was using all my senses."

"I consider my films first and foremost to be dramas about individuals in personal struggles and I consider myself to be a dramatist before I am a political filmmaker. I'm interested in alternative points of view. I think ultimately the problems of the planet are universal and that nationalism is a very destructive force. I also like anarchy in films. My heroes were Buñuel and Godard. Breathless was one of the first pictures I really remember being marked by, because of the speed and energy. They say I'm unsubtle. But we need above all, a theatre that wakes us up: nerves and heart."

"I love intelligent films that come at you fast. I don't have attention deficit disorder, my mind moves fast. There's a lot to deal with in my films. We had so many facts to go through, so the governing style was flash, cut, flash, repeat."

"When I go to the movies, and I have to sit through ten previews of films that look [alike] and tell the whole story, you know that we've reached an age of consensus. And consensus is the worst thing for us. We all agree to agree. That's where we lose it as a culture. We have to move away from that."

"The film business has always been full of strange characters. Who the hell gets into this business but gamblers and buccaneers and pirates? You don't get Henry Paulson as a producer in this business, that's for sure."

"I'll welcome any sorts of investors in my films, as long as I can keep my freedom and my content free of interference. If you're asking if I would do a movie with a known drug dealer, no, I wouldn't. You don't want to corrupt a movie, though the nature of the film business lends itself to criminal enterprises."

"The most interesting aspect of a scene is "controlled uncertainty". That's what Kubrick got. Everybody else would shoot pretty conventionally, but when I saw [Jean-Luc Godard] or Kubrick, in that period when I was studying film with more intensity, there was an unpredictability about Stanley Kubrick. Even as a kid, I didn't know what he would do next. It's the way Kubrick looks at reality. His reality is supercharged."

"I don't feel particularly old, but I feel it in the morning when I wake up. Film is exhausting to make, it's a very tiring process physically."

"The Hollywood blockbuster is based on the idea of the conquering hero and that we are the exceptional nation, the indispensable nation, the rescuer of nations. But it's a fantasy, and people like Obama haven't really studied their history. They haven't studied cause and effect. Besides, the heroic narrative does not work because everyone thinks they're the hero, and then you end up with crazy heroes around the world trying to be a crusader."


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