I recently hosted a corporate event for an international TV production and distribution company. Following previews of three high-profile shows I conducted onstage Q&As with people officially described as “production talent”, a phrase about as sexy in industry terms as “craft Bafta”. You’ll be aware that “talent” is the facetious catch-all showbiz term for performers and presenters. “Production talent” sounds doubly facetious, but in reality it isn’t. I would much rather interview producers, writers, directors and even executives than the famous faces who fill our screens.
I’ve spent a large chunk of my professional journalistic life interviewing actors. Mostly movie actors. In my first job at the NME in the late 80s I was dispatched, starstruck, to interview the likes of James Belushi, Frances Barber and Josh Charles (one of the pupils in Dead Poets Society). As charming as, to varying degrees, they all were – it soon became clear that actors promoting films do not offer much insight into the moviemaking process. I was far more enlightened interviewing, say, Steve Barron, director of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and, as it happens, Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video). You wouldn’t recognise him in the street, nor dine out on having met him, but as a filmmaker he has far more to say.
Actors are paid to act, and they sell a film. But it’s the directors, writers, even those anonymous producers, who do all the heavy lifting, and I’ve found that what happens behind the cameras is nearly always more interesting and informative and surprising than what happens in front of it. I was sent to New York in the 90s for the press junket of Satanic caper Devil’s Advocate; although I swooned in the presence of stars Keanu Reeves, Charlize Theron and Al Pacino, it was director Taylor Hackford who gave best quote. (He was quite rude about the studio, Warner Bros, and said something I can’t repeat here.) At a similar junket, for Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, it was producer Lawrence Bender who was the most interesting.
Actors will tell you how they got into character, and how much they loved working with the other actors, and what they liked about the script, but how much better to talk to … the person who wrote the script in the first place! Talking of Keanu, his recent documentary about celluloid versus digital, Side By Side, saw him interviewing, on camera, an endless parade of “producton talent”, and what fascinating company they were: directors and cinematographers, mostly, with priceless insight into the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. When Apocalypse Now Redux came out, I got to meet cinematographer Vittorio Storraro, sound editor Walter Murch and production designer Dean Tavoularis – it was a dream come true!
Actors are not uninteresting, but unless they also write, or direct, or – as is more common these days – produce, their day job can be rather dull. It’s the results of their work that dazzle and amaze and move us. If a director’s work is good, it should almost pass without being noticed, unless you’re a film student. You can appreciate a performance and stay in the moment, but if you notice an edit or a zoom, your suspension of disbelief is shattered.
And that’s why I devour books in which directors reveal their craft. I highly recommend Conversations With Scorsese, in which American film writer Richard Schickel interviews Martin Scorsese about every film he’s made, recently republished in paperback by Alfred A. Knopf. Its simple conversational transcripts make a thrilling read, not least when Shickel admits he didn’t like Shutter Island and Marty bristles. I also treasure Cameron Crowe’s intimate, rambling book Conversations With Billy Wilder, and would point you at any number of Faber’s illuminating “On” series – Lynch On Lynch, Hawks On Hawks, Altman On Altman, and of course Scorsese On Scorsese. Publish a book called Cruise On Cruise, and I’ll leave it, if it’s all the same to you.
By the way, I have a number of friends who act and are fascinating when off-duty, but restricted to luvvy-ism on diplomatic junket duty, and maybe that’s the problem. Filmmakers have less cause to adhere to studio politics. If I want to trivially impress people at dinner parties, I’ll say that I’ve met Tom Hanks, or Meryl Streep, or Morgan Freeman, or Johnny Depp, but if want to tell them something interesting, I’ll tell them what Taylor Hackford said about Warner Bros!