Thursday, 21 July 2011

Method Directing

Piece I did for the 100th edition of The Word...

It’s Only A Movie

Marvellously illuminating, those DVD extras. On the spare disc that comes with The Social Network we learn that the Harvard dorm room shared by the Winklevoss twins was authentic in detail right down to the student timetables pinned to the walls. Said schedules were not in shot, and were never intended to be. “But it’s another thing that brings you back into that world, into that moment,” says actor Josh Pence, fully onboard with director David Fincher’s mission to achieve total verisimilitude.

Actually, you won’t glimpse Pence either. Despite ten months of “twin boot camp”, screen sibling Armie Hammer’s head was digitally superimposed over his own. But then Fincher has a bit of previous as a perfectionist, and not just in his Kubrickian demands for up to a hundred takes per scene, a process Robert Downey Jr. once likened to labouring in a gulag. 

Did you notice that the background sound in the bar room was the live conversation of extras rather than something slapped on in post-production — there to foster a lifelike atmosphere for the actors? Thought not. Fincher’s films are packed with the sort of compulsive detail most probably lost on the viewer — Brad Pitt’s teeth genuinely chipped for Fight Club; doling out arcane trivia familiar only to those with a disturbingly intimate knowledge of the original ‘60s serial killings in Zodiac. 

“He tries to creates a sense of movie realism beyond what movies egoistically warrant,” enthuses Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network’s star. That Gap hoodie Eisenberg sports is one of several bespoke facsimiles of the discontinued garment worn by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (including one with the logo in reverse for shots to be “flipped”) — something that “seemingly serves no purpose beyond the director’s own indulgence,” comments Chris Laverty, editor of website, Clothes On Film.

There’s a lot of it about. In preparation for Fair Game, Doug Liman encouraged Naomi Watts to carry a holstered snub-nose, the better to get a handle on CIA agent Valerie Plame (while breastfeeding in Starbucks). On 127 Hours, Danny Boyle stopped short at cutting off James Franco’s arm, but faithfully reconstructed Aron Ralston’s canyon to “millimetre accuracy” in a warehouse in Salt Lake City. The fllm version of the outdoorsman’s ordeal is spot-on, we are assured. Oh, apart from the bit where his two ladyfriends go skinny-dipping. They put that in to demonstrate Ralston’s, ahem, “zest for living”.

Where once we had Method Actors — a tradition alive and pirouetting in the shape of Natalie Portman — so now we have Method Directors, no press junket complete without veracity-vouching from set advisers, historical experts and tired anecdotes about bonding awaydays, where actors kid themselves that they’ve transmogrified into marines/Spartans/chimpanzees. Or twins.

Fine, say, when you’re as hubristic as Francis Coppola, relocating your entire studio to the jungle for Apocalypse Now — a film that wouldn’t whiff of napalm had it been shot in Malibu. (Something majestic about Coppola bellowing about the correct oxygenation of the red wine for the French Plantation scene while the production is collapsing around his ears. He could just as well have used Ribena.) But perhaps not when you’re the maker of Tron Legacy, intoning with deep sincerity about eschewing natural fibres to imbue the video game scenes with greater believability, or Scott Pilgrim Versus The World with its coded messages on the characters’ belts.

On some films, of course, getting it right is imperative. Would John Waters’ Pink Flamingos be of slightest interest without foreknowledge that Divine eats real dog poo? More seriously, United 93 would have been howled down for foregoing 100% observance of the events surrounding 911. “Reality is now part of the tapestry of films,” says Matt Mueller, contributing editor to Total Film. “People get so pissed off when directors tamper with history, even when they put a wrong pop song in.” And when ego meets a budget the size of a national debt, there really is no limit.

On The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam commissioned an Italian craftsman to replicate the ornate armour of the time, neglecting to instruct him to do so in a lightweight material. With shades of Spinal Tap and the snafu over Stonehenge, it was lovingly rendered in a metal far too heavy for the actors to actually move in.

Authenticity can also excuse dramatic licence. “It's like these directors want to have it both ways,” muses Cathy Schultz, columnist for History In The Movies. “They want to insist that they're being faithful to history and point to these details as proof. But when challenged on all the major elements they change, they fall back on: ‘but I'm a storyteller, not an historian’.”

To wit chief culprit Olive Stone, who mitigated his wild assassination theories with his meticulous restaging of the Dallas motorcade in JFK (“a three hour lie from an intellectual sociopath” — The Washington Post). And James Cameron, obliged to apologise to the family of the officer he portrayed shooting passengers on the Titanic (but hey, the set was built from the original blueprints of Harland & Wolff and countless hours of deep sea exploration). Dare we mention The King’s Speech, whose award-winning spluttering occluded some inconvenient truths about Appeasement?

The daddy of all obsessives is, of course, the late Stanley Kubrick, although the masterful end always justified his laborious means, whether in his prescient portrayal of space travel in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the sumptuous costume romp, Barry Lyndon, filmed in candlelight courtesy of a prototype NASA lens. His unrealised Napoleon is regarded as the Greatest Film Never Made — in his manor house in Hertfordshire sits the biggest private archive ever assembled on the diminutive Corsican. In the end, the research was the project.

Kubrick harboured ambitions to make a sexually explicit film involving professional actors. He was ahead of the curve there too. A certain smutty curiosity used to loiter around just exactly how intimate Donald and Julie got on Don’t Look Now. Today we have the yawningly unsimulated copulation of Brown Bunny and Antichrist. “Suspension of disbelief,” hails Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct, a film that seems Disney by comparison. “I like that.”

Terrence Malick’s The New World, partly spoken in the dead native dialect of Powhatan, would have done Kubrick proud. The similarly reclusive director planted his set with the same organic strains of corn and tobacco once found in seventeenth century Virginia, then digitally tweaked the local ornithology to resemble a local, extinct breed of parakeet. Quick, there. Over Colin Farrell’s shoulder.

It’s the French we can blame for much of this, at least according to screenwriting guru William Goldman. After the collapse of the studio system in the 1950s, an influential cadre of critics, writing in Cahiers Du Cinema, re-appraised the lot of your jobbing helmsman. He was no longer a functionary, a hired gun, cranking out umpteen pictures a year at someone else’s behest, but an artist, the master of his universe. Un Auteur.

Tyrannical directors were not exactly news. Victor Mature refused to wrestle a real lion for Cecil B. DeMille on Samson & Delilah. Akira Kurosawa got archers to fire proper arrows at his lead on Throne Of Blood. But the Gallic anointing gave carte blanche to the likes of Alfred Hitchcock (their darling), who promptly tied live seagulls to Tippi Hedren in The Birds, the better to peck a performance out of her. 

It was but a short step to William Friedkin forcing his actors to realistically tremble in a refrigerated set on The Exorcist (the devil is in the details), or Ridley Scott shocking his unsuspecting cast with the chest-bursting scene in Alien. Don’t let’s get started on the countless brutalities inflicted by euro-nutters Werner Herzog and Lars Von Trier.

My favourite? The 1974 British thriller, Juggernaut, about an ocean liner rigged with terrorist bombs. The extras had been kept unaware of the nature of the film, the better for Richard Lester to record their genuine horror as they are informed, at sea, that they are about to be blown to buggery.

The Auteur Theory begat the “moviebrats”, that band of directors who shaped modern cinema and who each made detail an intrinsic part of the show — Spielberg with his WW2 fixation; or Martin Scorsese, who spent a whole year fussing over the cutlery on The Age Of Innocence, which, funnily enough, seems also to be the length of the movie. 

His equally interminable The Aviator, which lavished millions on accurately restaging Howard Hughes’ madness came at the expense of a literate screenwriter. (Hughes, was a filmmaker too, lest we forget, designing that underwire bra for Jane Russell in The Outlaw, sparing the censor from excess nipple-age).

It’ll do for you in the end though, this filmic OCD. Kubrick died of a heart attack on the eve of Eyes Wide Shut’ s release. It had taken thirty years to pull off. The spectacularly profligate Coppola, bankrupt after his incursions into ‘Nam (actually The Philippines), took studio criticism about location-shooting quite literally. For his next flick, One From The Heart, he constructed the whole of Las Vegas on a soundstage, including McCarran airport and a Boeing 747. He’s barely worked since.

And, gloriously, there’s the fanatical Michael Cimino who, on the legendary Western turkey Heaven’s Gate, spent entire days waiting for the right cloud formation to roll by; and then, in fit of pique, tore down his Montana set for it to be rebuilt with the road six feet wider. The $44m film, then the most expensive ever made, took twelve thousand bucks on its opening weekend in 1980 and sank United Artists.

So, the next time you’re watching Valkyrie, appreciating the fact that it was shot in the real Nazi HQ, the Bendler Block, or that Tom Cruise totes a Pelikan M100 fountain pen exactly like the one used by Claus von Stauffenberg, just remember zat ze Germans are all speaking Englisch[7itals]. And that for all Fincher’s recreation of Ivy League milieu, not a single frame of The Social Network was actually shot at Harvard. 

Does it matter? Not a jot. And the Winklevi have double maths on Thursdays.

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