If my blog held any kind of reputable standing among film goers and professional film gurus, I would have expected to receive a lot of dissatisfaction with the content of this post. Fortunately, I think very few people read my blog. So I’m essentially writing this for and to myself, which is how all blogs should work anyway.
It is a commonly shared fact that a film of any kind cannot exist without actors. Even documentaries employ real people to sit in front of a camera and talk about their lives, or an event, or a global trend. Sure, they aren’t actors in the usual sense, but they become a surrogate for both the filmmaker as well as the audience. Actors do this too, in fictional, scientific, horrific, comedic, romantic, fantastical worlds. Without them, we’d have no passage into the realm of the story, whatever the story, and the language of film would become mute. Actors are important.
But how important should they be?
The Blatant Shortchange
Should actors upstage the gaffer? Or the stunt performers? Or the grips or the editors? What about the cinematographers or the composers? Should they even upstage that junior visual effects intern who got to polish the shine of the screw that held Optimus Prime’s elbow in place? Surely they shouldn’t upstage directors! And yet they do, all the time, in movie credits and on movie posters, on talk shows and now at film awards. Ask your friend who directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), then ask who played the hero. Would they even know that the movie was directed by two people?
Of course, there are isolated cases and exceptions, as there are with most areas of debate and discussion. Most directors of cinema’s early years have achieved immortality today, even among the regular crowd. A considerable sum of moviegoers know about Hitchcock. A smaller sum have heard of Kubrick and a selection of his works.
Once directors secure fame through iconic mainstream movies, their names are uncovered and distributed. Contemporary examples include Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino (Every new Tarantino movie poster comes accompanied with the blurb: The new film from Quentin Tarantino). This is correct, because names sell tickets. Yes, I believe the director should be credited for a film, not only when he or she has made it big, but always.
Some unknown directors who’ve made good, well-received movies do get mentioned on the trailers and posters of their next picture, though only as a reference and not by name. This is because the movie was more popular than the person who made it. You know what I’m talking about. The poster for Elysium (2013), for example, doesn’t mention Neill Blomkamp but simply: From the director of ‘District 9’. Maybe the studios thought his name was too unorthodox for mainstream audiences to accept without giggling. I think it’s because of the clear, obvious reason that District 9 (2009) is a more recognisable name than Neill Blomkamp, which means the chances of moviegoers willingly choosing to see his next film, Elysium, are much higher.
Even though there is injustice to this approach, it’s not half as bad as the trailers and posters that don’t mention the director at all. Of these there are countless examples. Browse impawards.com, an online database of movie posters, and count the number of posters you come across that bear the name of the director. For studios and the general public, directors don’t matter.
Another supporter of this argument is the late night talk show, whether it be hosted by Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Graham Norton, Andy Carr, David Letterman, Jonathan Ross, Craig Ferguson, Seth Meyers, or Jimmy Fallon (Throw Ellen and Oprah in too). Ask yourself this: How often has Barry Sonnenfeld been invited to any one of their shows? No, forget Sonnenfeld. How often has James Cameron been invited? I’ve seen Tarantino on The Graham Norton Show, but that only proves the point I made earlier, that the name sells the tickets. Besides, audiences don’t want to hear about creative processes and camera movements and lighting placements on talk shows; they want to see familiar faces and go gaga over sex symbols. The day directors become sex symbols. That’ll be the day.
But all this is popular opinion. For the most part, actors have no control over the acceleration of their fame. They’re just swept along for the ride.
Recently, a bigger sin has been committed, this time by members of the movie family. For many years The Academy Awards has honoured excellence in most fields of filmmaking. We watch the ceremony because we, too, like to see stars, and we like to pick favourites to win. We enjoy the glamour, which can either fill us with glee or envy. But there is an order that has gone unnoticed by a fair share of the crowd, both amateur and professional: The order of the awards.
The four biggest awards of any film night are the awards for best actor, best actress, best director, and best picture (The BAFTAs has a special award for Best Fellowship, their ultimate honour). Best Picture should irrevocably be last, because after all what are we watching if not motion pictures? Best Director should come next. Best Actor and Actress can fight it out with gender-equality activists for third-last.
This isn’t what’s happening, though. With the influx of talk shows, the imposing advent of social media, and the inexorable shift in focus from Actor As Talent to Actor As Sex Symbol, the Best Director award finds itself way down the list, sometimes even lower than the Best Supporting roles (On the Academy’s official website, the nominees for this year’s awards place Best Director down beside Costume Design). And this isn’t an endemic exclusive to the Oscars. The Golden Globes and the BAFTAs are also guilty. Why is this happening? Why has the orchestra of film turned on its own conductors?
Director For The Long Haul, Actor For The Short
This worries me, because film people know film. It can be reasonably accepted that the general moviegoing public is not aware of a director’s presence in a movie. It stands to reason that many of them might not even know what a director does. But surely the good members of The Academy do?
There is the old comparison between the director as an artist and the director as a technician. As an artist, the director, or auteur, influences all aspects of a film, from the casting and the tone to the most minute of volume changes in sound editing. The auteur is responsible for all creative decisions, and commonly leaves a trail of trademarks behind his films. These trademarks can be visual, audible, character or narrative-based, thematic, stylistic.
Scorsese tends to chart incredibly complex male characters. Tarantino comes loaded with an arsenal of visual queues (bare feet, “trunk shots”, long takes). Kubrick’s meticulous compositions were widely cherished. Hitchcock had his unnatural obsession with blonde women. These are rudimentary examples, but you get the idea. It is said that an auteur could take the crappiest screenplay and turn it into a masterpiece.
Directors as technicians, on the other hand, are required to assemble a film out of parts not usually related. At the end, the film might look good, tell a convincing story, boast stupendous visual effects, but lack that personal touch. The filmography of a technical director is usually extensively varied, tackling a myriad of genres and story types without much connection. They are visually anonymous (In comparison, one would look upon a movie by Fritz Lang or the Coens and immediately identify recognisable traits).
Why I say this is to put The Academy’s fault into perspective. Whether a director is an auteur or a technician, the threads of their movies are sewn by them, not actors. David Fincher can’t direct The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and Wes Anderson can’t direct Gone Girl (2014) without the results coming out more deformed and mismatched than Arnold Schwarzenegger auditioning for Swan Lake. But Ralph Fiennes can act in Gone Girl and Rosamund Pike in Grand Budapest without affecting the artistic fibres of either film. You hear actors being changed all the time. Some drop out of projects due to a lack of interest, others because of scheduling conflicts. New ones step up to take their place. It’s then up to the directors to shape them accordingly. That is my point — to put it bluntly, actors are replaceable, but to change the director is to change the movie.
There is also the question of the paycheck. For this I will bring in the assistance of professional tennis, where debate has been raging over the prize money of the four Grand Slam tournaments for years. The issue here is that female players used to earn considerably less per tournament than men. If, for example, the men’s champion won $1,000,000, the women would get $750,000 and a scowl. I admit, that doesn’t seem fair.
Now, both men and women earn the same. The men are quiet and the women are happy. Well, of course they’d be happy; they’re getting paid $1,000,000 for playing three sets in two hours while the men earn the same for playing five sets in five hours. Logic is missing here. It’s still not fair. “Oh, but we can’t play five sets!”, the female players argue. “Our bodies can only handle three”. Well, fair enough. You should get paid for three then, which is, you guessed it, $750,000.
What’s more, because the women play fewer sets and expend less energy in a shorter amount of time, their schedules are flexible enough to accommodate the doubles division. This means they’re now possibly earning 1.5 to 2 times more than the men. It’s still not fair. Want a solution? The men should play three sets as well. But of course no one will speak up for risk of being branded a misogynist.
Have I lost the plot? Not exactly. Actors are like female tennis players. They get paid exorbitant prices. They also, as we’ve learnt, receive fame and admiration. We’ve also learnt that directors are the ones who really make a movie. They’re in it from beginning to end, from screenwriting and pre-production, through principle photography, right to editing, post-production, and sometimes marketing. Directors are attached to a project for a year on average.
Actors inhabit less than 50% of that time. They are mostly needed during the production phase (unless they’re working with Mike Leigh), after which they’re free to go. This means they’re able to work on multiple films a year, sometimes as many as ten. Hugh Jackman, in 2006, was a major cast member in six different films. That’s a lot of screen time, a lot of admiration, a lot of money.
Yes, I am aware that’s how the business runs. Nothing can change the workflow and the responsibility of roles. I guess what I’m trying to hint at is that actors should be paid less, since they work less, contribute less creatively, and are not as integral to the individuality of movies. Could someone like Seth Rogen have played M. Gustave? Probably not. But you see, even when actors are poorly cast, it’s the fault of the casting department, and since the director oversees all, it’s his fault too.
This essay is a reflection of my stance on the matter, nothing more. I don’t dislike actors. In fact I think many great movies would have malfunctioned if they had been cast differently. At the end of the day, filmmaking is a team effort, and while it’s true that actors are a part of that team, it’s also true that, with exception, they are the smallest contributors. Directors deserve more recognition. Reinstate their place as the second most important award of the night. Turn your attention towards them and hear what they have to say. No movie can exist without actors? Well, imagine the kind of movies you’d get without directors.
(I have not talked about the importance of screenwriters and other members of the film crew. That’s another topic for another post)