During the mid-fall of 1987 I had a couple of chats with director Herbert Ross. I was the press kit writer for Cannon Films, and Ross’s Dancers, a mezzo-mezzo Mikhail Baryshnikov film, was being prepared for release. During our second chat I was asking Ross about something I wanted to put into the Dancers press kit, and somehow I miscommunicated my intention and Ross got the idea I was trying to debate him. “This isn’t that kind of conversation!,” he said sternly, almost shouting. I immediately backpedaled and started mewing like a kitten — “No, no, Mr. Ross…I apologize, that’s not what I meant, I’m sorry.”
I cooled him down but after hanging up I said to myself, “Jesus God, that is one fierce hombre! He was ready to take my head off!”
Seven and a half years ago I tapped out a piece called “Bastards vs, Mellowheads.” It basically said that directors have to be muscular, tough-ass mofos or they won’t last. That doesn’t mean they don’t or shouldn’t play the sweet-talk, back-rub game that the film industry more or less runs on, but they have to guard against people trying to roll over them 24/7. If they over-react to this pressure they become known as crazy hotheads; if they under-react they’ll get seriously bitten or eaten by this or that carnivore.
“All strong directors are sons of bitches,” John Ford allegedly said to screenwriter Nunnally Johnson sometime in the late ’40s or early ’50s. His point was that Johnson, in Ford’s view, was too nice, thoughtful and fair-minded to make it as a director. Directors basically can’t be mellow or gentle or accommodating. They need to be tough, pugnacious and manipulative mofos in order to get what they want. And if they’re too deferential, they won’t last.
After the piece ran Wes Anderson got angry with me for mentioning him in this context. But I had done so with respect. Wes is no pushover, no wallflower. All I said in the original piece was that occasionally he seemed to exemplify hard-core battlefield thinking. All movies are wars — enemies all around, one skirmish after another, betrayal lurking, bullets whizzing by your ears
All good directors (Mann, Stone, Tarantino, Cameron, Kurosawa, Nichols, Kubrick) are known to have operated like this in their prime. They don’t kissy-face or twinkle-toe their way through the making of a film — they stress and scheme and argue and finagle to get whatever they want any way they can. Making a movie with them is an organized, guns-blazing, duck-and-weave enterprise that requires hard work. It’s no day at the beach.
That aside all smart, socially attuned directors go out of their way to not be mean or manipulative, of course, being political animals and all. But deep down they have to be that snarly John Ford guy, or the system will eat them up.
There are always welcome exceptions to any rule, but the general rule is that there’s a linkage between directors getting older and becoming nicer, mellower people and their films starting to go down in quality.
Seven years ago Glenn Kenny posted the following: “Ford wasn’t wrong. But by the same token, being a son of a bitch doesn’t necessarily mean being an asshole on the set. It could mean what Scorsese said Michael Powell taught him: ‘You believe in an idea, a concept, a story, a statement you want to make, and that’s the foundation of the film. You do not waver from it. Whether it takes you all the way down, whether it takes you to the edge and then pushes you off, even to the point of not making another film for thirty years, you do not waver. You better make that picture, even if you know it’s suicide.’ I’d say that requires the commitment of…a son of a bitch.”
HE comment in original thread: “If you think Clint Eastwood is all about being nice and mellow and accommodating, then you don’t know Clint Eastwood. All his films have a clear imprint of his personality and artistic instincts and concerns. He’s an auteur. Do you think his films turn out this way by Eastwood smiling and high-fiving and back-rubbing his way through pre-production, production and post-production? Plus he’s an industry elder and has obviously reached the stage where he can speak as quietly and gently as he wants. Like Michael Corleone, he doesn’t need to snap and snarl.”