An old piece of advice that established artists try to pass down to young aspirants is that, when all is said and done, if the road to success is going to prove fruitful, talent is not enough.
For film directors, that nugget of wisdom takes on especially daunting dimensions. Most of the bygone greats in the field – Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick – made such extraordinary progress by knowing how everyone else’s job on a film set should be done. This was a natural result of their career paths: Hitchcock started out as a titles designer for silent movies; David Lean was a tea boy on British studio productions; and Kubrick was a photographer who taught himself how to make feature films by handling every key role himself.
When it came to helming their own productions, they achieved as much by knowing precisely who should be doing what and when as they did by having powerful images in their heads of how their films should turn out. It was only by knowing how to motivate – and even manipulate – people into fulfilling certain details that their Big Pictures took shape, and delighted audiences worldwide. In other words, it was management on a huge, multi-level scale, involving personnel in charge of a film’s technical infrastructure; its funding streams; its post-production cycle, and its performances.
Flash forward to this era, and big-league film directors are having to he increasingly technocratic. Filmmaking is a far more complicated business than it ever was in the days of Hitchcock, Lean and Kubrick – and it was pretty complicated back then. It has always been a labour-intensive process, involving huge amounts of unwieldy and heavy equipment that has to be transported to locations in trucks – and then used by expert handlers with the dexterity of a paintbrush to fulfil the director’s objectives. Now, it is more likely that the majority of people involved in the making of a film will be sitting at workstations in California doing things with computer graphics that most of us couldn’t begin to understand. The main reason why the end credits of Avatar were 15 minutes long was because there were so many technical animators to acknowledge.
That has made filmmaking more like software development – and more like management, too. In order to gain funding from huge corporations for their increasingly elaborate ventures, directors are having to portray themselves as in-charge guys who know exactly what they are doing and what they are trying to communicate. To that end, some of today’s most notable directors have taken to the online platform offered by the non-profit Sapling Foundation’s Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Conferences, in which expert speakers have a maximum of 18 minutes to propound their views on How Things Should Be Done, and get across their Grand Visions.
Capabilities of mankind
Bill Gates has done it, as have Gordon Brown and Bill Clinton. Recently, as part of a drive to draw intellectuals’ attention to his new science-fiction epic John Carter, director Andrew Stanton delivered his own TED talk, which focused on the ideal recipe for compelling stories. His lecture is an interesting watch – firstly because, in and of itself, it is a well-made argument, and secondly because it recalls Steve Jobs at his finest: a technocratic mastermind launching a new product and trying to convince you that a) it’s the greatest thing ever, and b) the guy behind it has a steady hand on the tiller. The trend for film directors making TED talks has also swept up JJ Abrams (Star Trek) and James Cameron (The Terminator, Aliens, the aforementioned Avatar) – two other filmmakers who are playing on the leading edge of technological progress in the medium.
While he has not yet announced a TED talk, British director Sir Ridley Scott – 74 years old, but every inch the youthful technocrat – is poised to launch the next marketing phase for his own science-fiction blockbuster Prometheus with a web-streamed Q&A session on Saturday 17 March. The event is rumoured to touch upon the film’s themes of the Origins of Man: hefty stuff, then. As a warm-up, though, Sir Ridley and his filmmaker son Luke have introduced one of the film’s main characters – a wealthy, trailblazing industrialist called Sir Peter Weyland – by giving him (you guessed it) his own TED talk. A vision of what the speeches will look like in the future, the talk gives Sir Peter, played by Guy Pearce, a chance to wax lyrical on the capabilities of mankind and offers an insight into his zeal to change the world.
All of which proves that, in Hollywood, life and art have begun to imitate each other so closely, it’s hard to tell which is which. And that’s exactly what filmmakers have been trying to achieve for decades.
Real-world film director Andrew Stanton talking about the management of fiction
(Beware: includes a rude goat joke)