Thursday, April 9, 2015

MI:4 and Why I Still Believe the Auteur Theory

There's a brilliant quote from the film Nine about directing:

Directing a movie is a very overrated job, we all know it. You just have to say yes or no. What else do you do? Nothing. “Maestro, should this be red?” Yes. “Green?” No. “More extras?” Yes. “More lipstick?” No. Yes. No. Yes. No. That’s directing.

But that's not really what I want to talk about. 

When I was a young, dumb film student, my professors taught me the meaning of the Auteur theory and told me outright that it was evil. Not that the theory itself was evil, but believing it sure was.

In a nutshell, the auteur theory of film says that the director is the ultimate author of the film, that they have the most creative control over the final look and feel of the film, and that they are more responsible for its success and failure than the screenwriter, cinematographer, editor, or any other contributor on the film. See, in creating a book or painting, it is easy to decide who the "author" of that creative work is - it's the person who did all of the work. J.K. Rowling is the author of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone because there is no part of that story that didn't come from her. 

But movies have hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people who contribute to the final product of the film. It takes an army to make a movie. Peter Jackson is incapable of constructing and animating a CG model of King Kong; James Cameron didn't utter the timeless line "I'll be back."; and Frank Miller had never even made a movie before he directed his first big-budget picture. How, if these people are not the major content contributors, could I possibly call them the author of the film's final form, creative concept, success, or even failure? 

I'm getting ahead of myself - let's do a story first. 

Over the shoulder shot
One of the first short commercials I ever directed featured two people talking to each other. I wanted to do an over-the-shoulder shot for each person - because I love frame within a frame shots. (Sidenote: if you love frame within a frame cinematography too, check out Stranger than Fiction - that movie's gorgeous). I talked with the DP, and he said that with the location we had chosen, he tested several camera setups and didn't think it was possible it get a well-composed over-the-shoulder shot. It just didn't work at the location and with the lighting setup we had already selected. So we did a different type of shot and moved on. 

Then, a few weeks later I was assisting on the set of a student short film, run by one of the most talented directors I've met. Lo and behold, he wanted an over-the-shoulder shot too, and his DP told him the same thing - it just wasn't practical for their setup. But that wasn't good enough for him, the shot had to happen. Setbacks are temporary, film is forever. So, they began to modify their setup. Finally, they got the shot he wanted by putting the chair of the actor whose back was to the camera  on top apple crates. Sure, his feet were 2.5 feet off the ground and he looked completely ridiculous to everyone in the room, but the shot looked great. 

My professors told me the auteur theory was evil because it engendered a false idea that the director is king of the castle, and everyone else mere peons that exact his will - and that's just not true. In reality, the exact work that a director does do varies from film to film, but one thing remains the same: Every single frame of every shot has been approved by the director as what he or she intended it to be. Directors are not in charge of making everything within a film, but instead are the filter through which all content must pass - and they exact their creative will by only accepting items that forward the creative agenda of the piece. They are the single interpreter between script and the final reality of the finished film. Thus, the same script given to different directors would produce vastly different films. It is their job to make sure the final film is what they want it to be - and we trust them to produce films that we as an audience will enjoy. 

Ridley Scott puts it a little differently, but I think he means the same thing. 

And it's important to remember that this approach does not devalue the work of the rest of the filmmakers on any project. Adam Savage, of Mythbusters once cheerfully lamented that his tenure at ILM only allowed him the opportunity to work on movies that were ultimately not great. But he still got work, because his part in those films was amazing and very respected in the film community. For each, the special effects were great, but the entire film was unsuccessful - and we blame that aggregate success or failure on the director because it's his or her job to take responsibility for the film as a whole. 

Sorry, this post has gone way too long without getting to the movie I wanted to talk about and I promise less than half the stuff I wanted to cover made it in. 

The Mission Impossible series is not only a great collection of films (with one less successful entry), but also a perfect illustration of my point - and Ghost Protocol is my favorite of the set. You see, each of the 4 MI movies so far has had a different director, and they are all completely different movies. There have been screenwriters that have carried over, actors (obviously), music, editing, etc., but the directors were different every time.

I would really love, at this point, to go through each of the Mission Impossible films and talk about the directorial styles of the different directors for each and how you can see them evident in the final product - but I just don't have the time or the space. The MI's have had some impressive names take the wheel, and you can see in the look, feel, and overall tone differences between each of the films. The difference between De Palma's tone and Woo's are almost night and day, while Abrams' Mission Impossible feels like the original, but still made some subtle (and some not so subtle) changes. But I'm not here to talk about them, I'm here to talk about Ghost Protocol and Brad Bird. 

So what about MI:4 made it so successful in my mind? It was two major firsts for Brad Bird: directing his first live action movie and directing his first film that wasn't a comedy. If you look at Bird's track record before MI:4 you can tell he is a master at animated comedy - with tenure on The Simpsons, and as one of what I call Pixar's 'core directors'. He seems (to me at least) like the least likely pick for a convoluted action thriller, but that's exactly what's brilliant about it. Ghost Protocol shines as a thriller because Bird uses his comedic instincts to inject humor into specific moments, and change the tone to allow the audience to feel great contrast between the emotional highs and lows of each moment. He uses the same tactics to build tension and release it by pumping up the drama, and then allowing the audience to exhale with a comedic payoff.

Take for example the scene where Ethan is climbing the skyscraper. Sure, it's an amazing stunt; sure, we can see that it's actually Tom Cruise doing it; sure the scene builds tension throughout in both comedic and non-comedic payoffs - BUT THEN at the end when Ethan jumps into the open window he misses, and smashes his head on the top. It's pretty hilarious. But more than that - it is an emotional button, a comedic payoff after a dramatic buildup that lets the audience take a moment of rest before we dive back into the tension of the following scene. And it's a self-aware, comedic moment that I believe very few (if any) directors would make in that scenario. 

As a story decision, it's unprecedented in a Mission Impossible film. It was the first that didn't take itself too seriously; it's even the first to recognize how ridiculous it is that the secret organization is called the Impossible Mission Foundation. And it's odd how few directors recognize that adding comedy actually enhances the thrilling and dramatic moments of the film. Brad Bird makes this and other comedic choices (the scene in the hallway with the projector "wall" is one of my favorites of all time) that none of the previous MI directors would have ever had the guts to try. 

On an emotional level, close calls are more relieving when we can crack a joke afterwards; major plot twists are more surprising when we thought we were entering comic relief; and painful realizations are more painful when we all thought we were just having a good time; and the richness of each moment is enhanced by adding a smoothie of multiple emotions and expectations. 

Ghost Protocol takes a narrative and tonal departure from the Mission Impossible norm. One through three are all dark action thrillers, with high-stakes spy vs. spy plot lines that all feature major twists, but only 4 makes comedy, the absurdity of the circumstances, and the personal failings of the main characters central tenets of the story. So why do I put this major change on Bird? Because all of the movies he had done previously featured the same tenets. It is such a welcome breath of fresh air in the Mission Impossible series, and only serves to make the impressive stunts, cinematography, and narrative tension even more interesting to the audience.

In the end, I understand that it takes a lot of people to make a movie - and so does the entire filmmaking community. And I think it's silly to glorify the director's chair as the throne of the industry and the art form. However, I still believe the auteur theory because that is the job and the trust that belong to the director's title. He or she does not need to be the best artist on set, or even have any experience making films before, but instead is in charge of the final product. Kind of like a caretaker for the entire film, a director makes sure that at the end of the day it is the best representation of all the piece could be.

That's why I still believe the auteur theory. 

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