Directors: Life Behind the Camera (2010)

First Run Features

The one film book I have gotten the most use out of over the years has been a beat up paperback copy of the Andrew Sarris edited anthology, Interviews With Film Directors. Culled from a variety of journals (mostly Cahiers du Cinema, Film Culture, and Film Quarterly) and arranged alphabetically, the reference work became my first stop when I began to think intentionally about a director whose work was new to me.

I always get a bittersweet feeling when I thumb through the book. It’s not just that nearly all of the directors whose words are preserved in the anthology–Antonioni, Bresson, Chaplin, Hitchcock, Welles–have moved on to the undiscovered country, though that certainly contributes to the feeling. It is also the fact that the interview itself seems to have fallen on hard times. Oh, there are still interviews, just as there are still film journals. It’s just that the interview so rarely seems to be about the work of analyzing the film; it’s all about marketing now, with the reviewer granted access in order to transcribe the recitation of some “talking points” that comprise the media message for that studio venture. A “good” interview no longer means one that revealed new information or helps illuminate the subject; it is one that gets the same information in particularly effective sound bite form.

My own longing for the days of a good, old fashioned interview–one where directors talked about her vision for her project or the exercise of his craft in realizing it may explain my excitement for First Run FeaturesDirectors: Life Behind the Camera. Excerpts from interviews with thirty-three directors are carefully indexed and edited for minimal framing and maximum accessibility. Want to know how Robert Altman got started in making films? What does Cameron Crowe consider his most compelling film? Does Martin Scorsese think the film industry will survive?  Is Spike Lee’s approach to dealing with actors the same as George Lucas’s? Which directors work most intimately with their cinematographers? How do directors that do not do their own writing pick scripts?

If there is one knock against the two DVD colleciton, it is that the excerpts are broken up around topic, making it harder to do an auteur study. (It is easier to play what all thirty-three directors have to say about any of the seven topics than to play all seven of, say, Steven Spielberg’s, excerpts in a row.) That said, the format does allow more ready comparisons, which are in turn more revealing.

The DVD set runs approximately four hours over two discs. That sounds like a lot. Divide up that two hundred and forty minutes by the thirty-three directors and you get an average of about seven to ten minutes of total time per director. Given the explosion of blogs, discussion boards, academic monographs, film series titles–given our insatiable hunger for all things film-related–I don’t think these discs will ultimately serve the same function as the interviews collected in the Sarris anthology. I’m also not sure they need to. They are, I think, meant to be an introduction rather than a last word, sparing the newly curious the trouble of sifting through the results of Google searches to find the nuggets amongst a sea of advertising copy and quotes culled from press kits.

Most of us will never get ten minutes with Clint Eastwood, James Cameron, or Tim Burton to ask them about their films or careers. For less than the cost of one dinner at a nice restaurant. Directors: Life Behind the Camera allows us to sit in on conversations with each of them. A great addition to any library, the title would also make a great present for the film lover on your holiday gift list.

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