Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Producers Turned Directors

With all the Irwin Allen mockery, there's a semi-serious question that arises when you look at his filmography: why do producers make such bad directors? Allen started as a producer, moved into directing, found success when he stopped directing and stuck to producing, and finally humiliated himself completely when he returned to directing for The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.

There's a long-established history of producers, including many better producers than Irwin Allen, proving to be bad directors. Irwin Winkler may be the best-known example of a good producer who made a bad director. Stanley Kramer had more success as a director, but even his supporters and friends admitted that he wasn't a particularly talented director.

Gabriel Pascal is another one of the classic examples: after Pygmalion was a success he took over directing for the follow-up Shaw adaptation, Major Barbara, and came up with a movie that was not as good or as successful as its predecessor. And even on Broadway, producers have a bad track record when they try to direct: the producing team of Feuer and Martin (Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed) was the most successful in the business until Cy Feuer started directing their shows himself, at which point they started flopping.

Now obviously there have been some producers who made good directors. Alan Pakula did all right, at least for a while. And Joseph L. Mankiewicz was mostly a producer before he started, as was Albert Lewin. But both Mankiewicz and Lewin were screenwriters long before they started producing, so they might be more correctly pegged as writers-turned-directors.

So why is it that there are many successful writers-turned-directors, but very few successful producers-turned-directors? I guess that the easiest answer is that producing and directing require different skills, but then why is it that there are so many directors who successfully become their own producers? The reason directors start producing is that they want to have more control over their films (in studio-system Hollywood, where producers held the power, any director who was any kind of auteur would want to produce his own movies eventually). But theoretically, the same thing could apply to producers; the reason Stanley Kramer started directing his own movies is that he wanted fuller control over the way his movies came out. And a producer has to have experience with many of the elements of filmmaking, probably more than the average screenwriter does; yet it seems like a screenwriter who mostly knows writing is more likely to be a good director than a producer who understands editing, dealing with actors, dealing with technicians, etc. So what is it that makes most producers unable to transition into directing?

Of course the movie The Bad and the Beautiful deals directly with this issue by showing what happens when Selznick-esque producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) starts directing for himself. The movie portrays him as a genius producer whose movies are far more his own than the director's, yet when he acts as both producer and director, even though he's well-liked as a director ("thoughtful and considerate" to the crew) the result has "no pace, no tension, nothing." But the movie never gives a clear explanation for why a producer can't direct, except for the cryptic line from the director who quits Shields's film: "To direct a picture, a man needs humility. Do you have humility, Mr. Shields?"

8 comments:

Griff said...

Your point is well taken: very few producers become directors of any quality at all. I am still surprised (and impressed) that Alan J. Pakula became a pretty good director for a while. Pakula was wise enough to begin with a very small picture (THE STERILE CUCKOO), and even the NY-lensed KLUTE is a relatively small scale production; he was smart and learned a lot. But he's the exception to the rule. Albert Lewin did make some interesting films. [I see J.L. Mankiewicz as a writer turned producer turned director.] Lawrence Turman is another smart producer that failed as a director; his MARRIAGE OF A YOUNG STOCKBROKER (1971, from a Charles Webb novel) and the barely released SECOND THOUGHTS (1983) show no lightness of touch or particular insight. The directorial career of Irwin Winkler makes Stanley Kramer seem like William Wyler.

To look at this another way, reading the recent good biography of Otto Preminger has convinced me that Preminger should probably have abandoned directing at some point and become a producer. As a film producer, Preminger was frequently intelligent, innovative, fearless -- a man of taste and discernment, a strong independent filmmaker. As a film director, Preminger often lacked sensitivity, style and grace. This is strictly my opinion: though I admire (and enjoy) many of his pictures, I believe most of them would have benefited from a different (and more delicate) directorial hand.

Anyway, there's more than a hint in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL to why Jonathan Shields fails as a director -- and why, by extension, any ambitious producer might fail in the task. We see Jonathan work throughout the picture to "plus" everything, get the very best out of all the resources he has. This drive only increases as his career progresses; after a while, it's no longer clear whether it makes for good picture making or is simply a sign of perfectionistic mania. [Since Kirk Douglas plays Jonathan (a good performance), we're somewhat encouraged to presume the latter.]

Ultimately, when Jonathan believes the director on his big budget historical epic is neglecting important values and nuances in scenes, he fires him and takes over the reins himself. While Jonathan resolves to neglect no details (and spare no expense) on the production, we get the idea that he's so close to the project that he can't distinguish the forest for the trees. His film fails miserably because it's all high points and peaks; it's all "plussed." Hence, no pacing, no tension, etc.

Though the departing helmer taunts Jonathan about "humility," this isn't really his problem (we already know that he has no humility whatsoever and besides, it's likely that a good many movie directors have fairly little of it) -- Jonathan has no objectivity. He's a mover, a shaker, a showman, arguably a great producer... but while he's good at telling others what to do, he lacks the critical detachment to direct a good movie. He can tell someone how to direct a movie, but he can't do it himself.

[The dailies, standing on their own, must have been great, though. Some assert that many of the HEAVEN'S GATE dailies were breathtaking, with individual shots and certain scenes filled with great beauty and drama; the problem came when it was time to put them all together.]

It seems incredible that THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL was produced and released at a time when David Selznick was not only still alive, he was trying to get projects off the ground. It's almost impossible to look at Jonathan, particularly in the later part of the picture, and not see the Selznick who made the grotesquely (and fascinatingly) over-produced DUEL IN THE SUN and THE PORTRAIT OF JENNIE. [MGM was probably legally protected because there's no Jennifer Jones-analog character in the movie; Jonathan has no wife or girlfriend that he builds films around, he's mostly just obsessed with movies.]

Today, it's difficult not to view Jonathan's firing of his director as prescient: a few years later, during production of Selznick's last hurrah, the ill-advised remake of A FAREWELL TO ARMS, the producer's continuous criticisms and countless memos literally drove John Huston off the picture. Selznick was a little smarter than Jonathan -- he didn't take on the directing chores himself (Fox, which was financing, might have taken exception, and Selznick was no longer a young man), hiring Charles Vidor (apparently willing to listen to criticism and read memos). But he wasn't that much smarter than Jonathan. Like Jonathan, Selznick fired a good director and replaced him with a pretty mediocre one -- his downfall came when he could no longer step back and let a talented director do his job.

I don't know whether the FAREWELL remake could ever have been a really good movie (the script isn't great, Hudson isn't ideal, Jones is possibly too old) in Huston's hands; I do know it certainly wasn't good the way it turned out. Selznick never managed to make another picture. [He came close. Selznick later developed TENDER IS THE NIGHT with John Frankenheimer as a Jones vehicle for Fox; when he differed with the studio over budget and control, he sold them the project outright.]

Jaime J. Weinman said...

His film fails miserably because it's all high points and peaks; it's all "plussed." Hence, no pacing, no tension, etc.

I think you're right. The argument that leads to the director walking off the film is about whether the director should be getting the maximum potential out of every scene: Jonathan wants a scene (presumably an early scene) played for all it's worth, while the experienced director counters that you can't make "a picture all climaxes."

Some Guy said...

Isn't it a different skill set? I've always thought Producer was a business type job and directing and writing were both creative jobs.

Marty McKee said...

Some Guy is correct. Most producers are paper-pushers whose expertise is in behind-the-scenes nuts-and-bolts, but know nothing about scripts, actors, pacing, etc.

Anonymous said...

You've got a premise which you're trying to back up with some haphazard data. Producers produce, directors direct, sometimes they deserve the jobs sometimes they don't, and sometimes they strive to switch jobs or do both. Some good screenwriters fit perfectly as directors--Wilder, Sturges, Huston. Some didn't--Nunnally Johnson, Philip Dunne, Dudley Nichols. So what? In the old days especially a producer of any stature didn't look to become a director because it was professionally a step down. Producers in the old studio days--always exceptions of course--picked material, assigned writers, assigned a director, and producers worked with the editors when the director was already gone off to direct his next assignment. Directing was considered an art at times but mostly a skill, not seen with the same rose-colored auteurist cultist glasses we look through now. Pakula, Mankiewicz, Lewin, were among those who fell into producing but along the way they wanted to direct. Producers like Hal Wallis, Sam Spiegel, Arthur Freed, Mark Hellinger, etc. may not ring your bells the way a director does but they were far from pencil pushers.

Anonymous said...

David Selznick really lost it when he opted to write the screenplay for "Duel in the Sun", IMO. Selznick's script is disjointed, way over the top and it defines self-parody. Talk about a picture that's all climaxes.

Larry Levine said...

I'm not a big Stanley Kramer fan but IMHO "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" is one of the greatest comedies ever made. Just avoid the 'extended' 1990's cut that turns up on TCM.

Some Guy said...

anonymous seems to know more about it than I do so I defer to his judgement