So you want to be a filmmaker? Forget the lecture halls, the high tuition fees, the trudging off to classes. To find out what it's like in the trenches, where directors juggle ornery casts and pesky producers while overseeing script rewrites and rebuilding flooded sets, you can't beat the audio commentary tracks of DVDs. A director sits in front of a screen, watches his (or her) handiwork of months or years ago and relives the heaven or hell of shooting this masterpiece or turkey.
If you're lucky, he will warn you against using certain camera angles and give you a tip that will save days of expensive shooting on location. If you're unlucky, he will spend the hour and a half indulging in looky-itis: telling you precisely what's happening on the screen, like a simultaneous translator from English to English. Ernest Lehman, though an excellent screenwriter, was particularly guilty of this in his commentary on Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest.
One of the best instructors at DVD University is Sidney Lumet, director of Network and 12 Angry Men and author of an excellent book of practical filmmaking advice, Making Movies. On the DVD commentary for the cops-and-courts drama Night Falls on Manhattan, he gets right to work with the title sequence, a moody piece of animation in which midnight-blue bars descend into a black rectangle to create the skyline of New York.
"The most important thing about titles is to try to prepare the audience for what they're about to see -- the mood of it, the feel of it. Obviously, in a comedy you want to give them permission to laugh; in a drama, [you want to tell them]the kind of drama. Is it a melodrama? Is it something that's going to take time to develop, which by the way is one of the reasons why musically and visually the tempo of this is very slow, because this story does take its time developing."
The Martin Scorsese commentary for Taxi Driver appeared on the laser disc, but hasn't yet made it to DVD. It should. Remember the scene of Robert De Niro confronting his reflection and repeating the line, "You talking to me?" Scorsese: "I was saying to him, 'I really think we need for you to speak to yourself in the mirror,' and so he came up with this dialogue. I remember I was sitting at his feet, on the ground, and I had earphones on and all I heard was the city sounds, and they were too strong. I asked him to keep repeating himself, and then he sort of got into a roll. . . . It took about three hours to do."
Lesson: Not every memorable moment in filmmaking is planned. George Tillman Jr. encouraged Vivica A. Fox, Vanessa L. Williams and Mia Long to improvise a wedding-party scene in his family drama Soul Food because he "wasn't really happy with what I wrote on paper with this particular scene." At one point, Long, the new bride, sees a woman bumping and grinding with Long's husband on the dance floor and enlists her friends' aid. "The last line Vivica Fox says is, 'Let's go out there and beat the ho down.' Actually, in the script she said, 'Let's go out and beat the bitch down,' and we kind of agreed it was a little too harsh, let's try to loosen this thing up, this is a family movie."
On his track for Basic Instinct, Paul Verhoeven discusses camera placement with director of photography Jan De Bont, who later directed the bomb-on-a-bus thriller Speed. Verhoeven: "Our camera is really low all the time." De Bont: "I like to show the ceiling, I like to show the audience this is a real location, it's not a set, there are real people living in this house." Cautionary note: It's a lot more expensive to do it that way, with ceilings.
Spike Lee, when he isn't offering thought-provoking reflections on the racial politics of his film Bamboozled and of society in general ("in my opinion, this gangsta rap is a 21st-century version of minstrel shows"), offers good value as a directing coach.