Became Directors

One of the more interesting career developments in film has been the transition from editors to directors. Two of the most successful, Robert Wise and David Lean, are the subject of this chapter.

Is it necessary and natural for editors to become directors? The answer is no. Is editing the best route to directing? Not necessarily, but editing can be invaluable, as demonstrated by the subjects of this chapter. What strengths do editors bring to directing? Narrative clarity, for one: Editors are responsible for clarifying the story from all of the footage that the director has shot. This point takes on greater meaning in the following sampling of directors who have entered the field from other areas.

From screenwriting, the most famous contemporary writer who has tried his hand at directing is Robert Towne (Personal Best, 1982; Tequila Sunrise, 1988). Before Towne, notable writer-directors included Nunnally Johnson (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, 1956) and Ben Hecht (Specter of the Rose, 1946). All of these writers are great with dialogue, and their screenplays spark with energy. As directors, however, their work seems to lack pace. Their dialogue may be energetic, but the performances of their actors are too mannered. In short, these exceptional writers are unexceptional directors. This, of course, does not mean that all writers become poor directors; consider Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Joseph Mankiewicz, for example. What it does imply, though, is that the narrative skill of writing doesn't lead directly to a successful directing career.

A similar conclusion can be drawn from cinematography. The visual beauty of the camerawork of Haskell Wexler has not translated into directorial success (Medium Cool, 1969); nor have William Fraker (Monte Walsh, 1970) or Jack Cardiff (Sons and Lovers, 1958) found success. Even Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now, 1973; Walkabout, 1971; Track 29, 1989) has a problem with narrative clarity and pace in his directed films, although he has won a following. There are, however, a few exceptions worth noting. Jan de Bout had great success with Speed (1994), and Barry Sonnenfield has been developing a distinctive style (The Addams Family, 1991, and Get Shorty, 1995).

Producers from David Selznick (A Farewell to Arms, 1957) to Irwin Winkler (Guilty by Suspicion, 1991) have tried to direct with less success than expected. Again, the problems of narrative clarity and pace have defeated their efforts.

Only actors have been as successful as editors in their transition to directors. From Chaplin and Keaton to Charles Laughton (The Night of the Hunter, 1955) and recently Robert Redford (Ordinary People, 1980) and Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves, 1990), actors have been able to energize their direction, and for them, the problems of pace and clarity have been less glaring. Nor are actors singular in their talents. Warren Beatty has been very successful directing comedy (Heaven Can Wait, 1977). Diane Keaton has excelled in psychological drama (Unstrung Heroes, 1995), Mel Gibson has excelled in directing action (Braveheart, 1995). And Clint Eastwood has crossed genres, directing exceptional Westerns (Unforgiven, 1992) and melodrama (The Bridges of Madison County, 1995). Most notable in this area has been the work of Elia Kazan, director of On the Waterfront and East of Eden, who was originally an actor, and John Cassavetes (Gloria, 1980; Husbands, 1970; Faces, 1968).

The key is pace and narrative clarity. These concerns, which are central to the success of an editor, are but one element in the success of a director. Equally important and visible are the director's success with performers and crew, ability to remain on budget (shooting along a time line rather than on the basis of artistic considerations alone), and ability to inspire confidence in the producer. Any of these qualities (and, of course, success with the audience) can make a successful director, but only success with the building blocks of film—the shots and how they are put together—will ensure an editor's success. Again, we come back to narrative clarity and pace, and again these can be important elements for the success of a director.

Thus, editing is an excellent preparation for becoming a director. To test this idea, we now turn to the careers of two directors who began their careers as editors: Robert Wise and David Lean.

Film Making

Film Making

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