Bastards vs. Mellow-heads

“All strong directors are sons of bitches,” John Ford allegedly said to screenwriter Nunnally Johnson sometime in the late ’40s or early ’50s. His point was that Johnson, in Ford’s view, was too much of a nice, thoughtful, fair-minded guy to cut it as a director. Directors basically can’t be mellow or gentle or accommodating. They need to be tough, pugnacious and manipulative mo’fos in order to get what they want. And if they’re too deferential, they won’t last.


(l.) Wes Anderson; (r.) John Ford.

I was reminded yesterday what a tough mo’fo Wes Anderson is when I asked him via email if he had a comment about Polly Platt‘s death, and he said “I don’t wish to share anything at this time.” What he actually meant, I suspect, is that he was temporarily refusing to disengage from the ultra-intense concentration he’s devoting to the making of Moonrise Kingdom, and that he just can’t and won’t disengage to compose a short paragraph about the woman who all-but-singlehandedly brought him into Hollywood’s top-tier realm.

That’s not conventional selfishness or thoughtlessness, but hard-core battlefield thinking. All movies are wars — enemies all around, one skirmish after another, betrayal lurking, bullets whizzing — and Wes was basically saying, “Polly and I know what our relationship was about and what she did for me, and I just don’t feel the need to jump through your quote hoop at this exact moment. I’ll say something about Polly at a time of my own choosing. But that was then and right now I’m leading the Third Army across France and into Germany so if you’ll excuse me…”

This reminded me of another “don’t mess with Wes” moment when I obtained entry into the Royal Tenenbaums Manhattan after-party in September 2001, and an enraged Wes came over and laid into me something fierce for (a) being at the party when he didn’t want me there because (b) I’d written a half-and-half review of Tenenbaums that leaned negative, and which came out a day or two earlier than other N.Y. Film Festival reviews. We talked the next morning in a calmer way, but I’d learned what a scrappy, in-your-face guy he could be when angry or under pressure. No pushover.

All good directors (Mann, Stone, Tarantino, Cameron, Kurosawa, Nichols, Kubrick) are know to have operated like this in their prime. They don’t sashay their way through the making of a film — they stress and scheme and argue and finagle to get whatever they want any way they can. Making a movie with them is an organized, guns-blazing, duck-and-weave enterprise that requires hard work, and is no day at the beach. All smart directors go out of their way not to be mean or manipulative, of course, being political animals and all. But deep down they have to be that snarly John Ford guy, or the system will eat them up.

There are always welcome exceptions to any rule, but the general rule is that there’s a linkage between directors getting older and becoming nicer, mellower people and their films starting to go down in quality.

The question is not which good directors have SOB undercurrents (answer: all of them) but which directors have a reputation for perhaps being too mellow and easygoing and accommodating, and are therefore probably doomed to be weeded out of the business sooner or later?

53 thoughts on “Bastards vs. Mellow-heads

  1. Lumet, Lucas, and Spielberg are all said to be (or were in the case of Lumet) very easy-going and conflict-avoiders on set.

  2. I thought Robert Altman had a reputation for being a really nice guy and a huge pothead. Seemed to work for him.

  3. Bullshit on that mellow Lumet rep, and don’t even talk about Altman being an easygoing pothead. Don’t even go there. I knew him slightly and dealt with him on a few stories, and he was no lilly in the field. I’m not saying strong directors live to argue and bite people’s heads off. I’m saying that however they express themselves socially on the set or in private, strong directors have the souls of wolverines.

    Then again maybe John Ford was full of shit…right, Deathtongue and Mean Freaks?

  4. I was going to mention Clint Eastwood, but then I got to the part about movies going downhill as the director gets older and, knowing the conventional wisdom ’round these parts, I thought better of it.

  5. He disengaged from “ultra-intense concentration” enough to reply to you, didn’t he?

    Sometimes “I don’t wish to share anything at this time” just means “I don’t wish to share anything at this time”.

    (We really have got to get off this kick of trying to mystically divine what precisely is in the hearts and minds of people.)

  6. Maybe this comment re Wes Anderson would work better if he were actually a good director. But after Rushmore, his films have become so insular and twee, they’re virtually unwatchable.

    Plus, Jeff, the incidents you mention make him sound like a dick.

  7. Wells to JLC; One, I said in the piece that “there always welcome exceptions to any rule.” Two, if you think Clint Eastwood is all about being nice and mellow and accommodating, then you don’t know Clint Eastwood. All his films have a clear imprint of his personality and artistic instincts and concerns. He’s an auteur. Do you think his films turn out this way by Eastwood smiling & high-fiving & back-rubbing his way through pre-production, producton and post-production? Plus he’s an industry elder and has obviously reached the stage where he can speak as quietly and gently as he wants. Like Michael Corleone, he doesn’t need to snap & snarl.

  8. Uh, Tarantino is pretty well known for being extremely laid-back on the set. His attitude is always “We all love making movies, so let’s make ‘em.” Did you pull that one out of the ether too?

    Also, never heard anything about Woody Allen being a son of a bitch. What was the last good movie he made? Oh, right, his most recent one.

  9. BTW, the reason the premise of this article is pretty obviously bullshit is that if Wes was too busy/in the wrong headspace to respond, he wouldn’t respond. He certainly wouldn’t have responded to your request for a comment about a random anecdote about Carson, but completely avoided saying anything (even “I’m sorry she died”) about Platt.

    He’s just another little boy director who wants to disassociate himself from the people who got him where he is so he can continue to believe, in his own head, that it was purely his talent and there was no luck or help involved.

  10. It would be interesting to know to what extent this is a trait of male directors and whether it will change as women get more directing gigs. Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t strike me as a pushover but neither does she seem like an in-your-face screamer. But to get “The Hurt Locker” made at all was definitely wolverine-soul territory.

  11. This idea that making a movie is akin to combat is fucking obnoxious, not to mention untrue. Making a movie is like being involved in a travelling circus, or one of those carnivals that Navin Johnson hooked up with.

  12. MilkMan wrote:

    Making a movie is like being involved in a travelling circus, or one of those carnivals that Navin Johnson hooked up with.

    I can attest it is like a travelling circus–one in which people are occasionally thrown off moving trains a la WATER FOR ELEPHANTS.

  13. “Lumet, Lucas, and Spielberg are all said to be (or were in the case of Lumet) very easy-going and conflict-avoiders on set”.

    With the exception of Lumet, this just confirms the point. Spielberg WAS a great director, but rapidly squandered his gifts on cheap, crowd-pleasing inner child bullshit and a thousand other flaws that people seem pathologically willing to forgive him for. Lucas was never a great director, by any stretch – he just caught lightning in a bottle with Star Wars and has been milking it, and pissing on it, ever since.

  14. I’m surprised Jeff didn’t mention David O. Russell, who took conflict on the set to Monty Python heights. But I guess he mellowed with “The Fighter” shoot.

  15. Another possibility is that Anderson was caught off-guard by Platt’s death, is in the middle of shooting a movie, hasn’t had time to sit down and formulate an appropriate, articulate response and didn’t want to say something half-cocked to a blogger he has had conflict with in the past.

    This psycho-babble stuff is getting tiresome. I know it’s all meant to be a goad but it is just as depressing and pandering as the crap Spielberg and Bay stuff in their movies to lure the Eloi.

    Then again, I fell for it by posting here so I guess hat’s off to you again. You are a true provacateur.

  16. ANOTHER possibility is that Anderson actually hates Wells. But that seems impossible–I’m sure it’s just his wolverine soul.

  17. Will one of the dissers and naysayers who are putting down my general theory please step up to the plate and declare that John Ford was full of shit when he said what he said to Nunnally Johnson? C’mon…man up and call him delusional or a fool or a liar. Who the hell was John Ford anyway? Put him in his place! And if you’re not willing to do that, ask yourselves why.

    You can’t sweet-talk and mellow and kissy-face your way through a movie shoot and expect to make a really strong film. Like I’ve said (and will apparently need to say over and over and over because of the morons who can’t read or absorb this qualification) there are exceptions to any rule, but like Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino is a lazy-ass ’70s exploitation genre whore who will never achieve true cinematic greatness so his laid-back method of making films is immaterial. That happy travelling-carnival metaphor is bullshit. You can’t nicey-nice your way through any creation of any art of any kind. Art isn’t easy. It’s never been a walk in the park, and never will be.

  18. Every actor in the John Ford Stock Company agreed that he was a mean, sadistic, sonuvabitch – and they’d work for him again in a minute! He got the very best performances out of his actors even though it was misery to work with him and his movie set was always a very tense situation.

  19. No one has to necessarily say John Ford was full of shit, but a 1950s era frame of reference doesn’t necessarily apply today. Sure, temperamental artists persist, but the business side and technology of movie making is a hell of a lot different today.

    There’s just as many great modern auteurs who don’t have much of a rep for being total bastards on the set – Coen Bros, Woody, Soderbergh, Lynch, Burton, Spike Jones, etc.

  20. “Quentin Tarantino is a lazy-ass ’70s exploitation genre whore who will never achieve true cinematic greatness so his laid-back method of making films is immaterial”

    Then why did you bring him up in your list?

  21. markj – they’re certainly very good, no doubt. I’m not sure I’d put them in the really great Kubrick/Mann/Scorsese spectrum of things, though.

  22. Wes Anderson certainly looks ferocious enough, I’ll grant you that. But seriously, Anderson is a “tough mo’fo” for not answering a question? I guess this means the standards have been lowered a bit since the 50s. He’s a dweeb.

  23. I have always found the most effective and professional people to be those that aren’t confrontational, profane screamers. They surround themselves with competent and confident people and exude confidence.. Every news story about Ari Emmanuel would recount blistering expletive laced dressing downs he gave to those around him. That’s commendable? Can you imagine the world’s greatest neurosurgeon shouting vulgaraties in the OR because a nurse was slow with suction? Of course not. Andersen is a dick as is Emmanuel and O’Russell. The Fighter set was peaceful because Wahlberg and Bale would have bitch slapped the director. Didn’t Clooney clock O’Russell during Three Kings for being disrespectful to an extra? Ford was uncomfortable with his masculinity and having success in the arts. Hollywood could use more bitch-slappin’. To crib a line from Lost in America, Wes Anderson’s “face reminds me of everything I hate”.

  24. If being an asshole is essential to being a “strong director,” then what’s Roger Kumble’s excuse? Biggest asshole I’ve ever met, and the shittiest director too.

  25. Hard to believe, but grumpy and sensitive old S.O.B.,John Ford once claimed that producer-writer Nunnally Johnson was the inspiration for the Directors Guild. As Johnson told the story, he once found a director on a picture that he was producing so disappointing that he said the director was only useful for seeing that the actors didn’t go home before six o’clock.

    Somehow this remark about one director got picked up as applying to all directors and Johnson had to make calls of appolgy for days after.

    “Ford said that this remark made the directors realize that maybe they had better get together and form something of a union, like the writers”, Johnson says on page 233 of William Froug’s 1972 book “The Screenwriter Looks At The Screenwriter.”

  26. >Spielberg WAS a great director, but rapidly squandered his gifts on cheap, crowd-pleasing inner child bullshit and a thousand other flaws that people seem pathologically willing to forgive him for.

    Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, and War of the Worlds are all excellent films despite their admitted flaws.

    >Have any of the naysayers here directed a film?

    I’ve only directed student films, which is small potatoes compared to anything feature level, both in the number of people involved and the pressure-cooker aspect (money/career at stake, etc.). Still, what I have found is that on the set, leadership is important. Project strength, make decisions, keep the thing moving along. Directing is management as much as it is art. I think one of the best cinematic depictions of a “born director” is the kid in Super 8. He’s not a great artist, he just always acts like he knows what to do.

  27. >If being an asshole is essential to being a “strong director,” then what’s Roger Kumble’s excuse? Biggest asshole I’ve ever met, and the shittiest director too.

    Elementary logic. Being an asshole may be a necessary condition to being a good director, but that doesn’t mean it’s a sufficient condition.

    In other words, “if great director then asshole” is not the same as “if asshole then great director.” What *can* be deduced from the first statement is its contrapositive: “if not asshole, then not great director.”

    The things one learns while trying to master those stupid logic puzzles on the LSAT…

  28. One big difference between being a good director and a bad director is knowing when, and when not, to be an “asshole” (which is kind of vague anyway).

  29. At Hollis Mulwray: ” Can you imagine the world’s greatest neurosurgeon shouting vulgaraties in the OR because a nurse was slow with suction?”

    Bad example. My mom was a surgery RN for over 30 years so we had nightly stories at the dinner table about surgeons. In any profession that has as high a ‘Type A’ percentage like surgeons do, will also have a disproportionate amount of assholes.

  30. Sidney Lumet made his crew work on 9/11.

    I just looked up the synopsis for Moonrise Kingdom. Wow! That looks awesome. I can;t wait for the scene where Bruce Willis is running away from someone with a Herman’s Hermit’s song on the soundtrack.

  31. I love Woody Allen being cited as an example that somehow disproves the rule — remember that we’re talking about directors who are in “the system,” and Allen is adamantly not, and has gone to great lengths to except himself from the machine we’re talking about. Because to thrive in it, he’d have to be more nearly one of those assholes.

    That said, I suspect everybody is made absolutely aware of who the auteur-in-charge is on a Woody Allen production. If not by Woody, then by one of the people he’s taken care to surround himself with.

  32. “remember that we’re talking about directors who are in “the system,” ”

    No, we aren’t. Go back and read Jeff’s post again.

  33. Ford wasn’t wrong. But by the same token, being a son of a bitch doesn’t necessarily mean being an asshole on the set. It could mean what Scorsese said Michael Powell taught him: “You believe in an idea, a concept, a story, a statement you want to make, and that’s the foundation of the film. You do not waver from it. Whether it takes you all the way down, whether it takes you to the edge, then pushes you off, even to the point of not making another film for thirty years, you do not waver. You better make that picture, even if you know it’s suicide.” I’d say that requires the commitment of…a son of a bitch.

  34. My problem is you framed your argument around the specious claim that Wes Anderson is a sonuvabitch just because he wouldn’t give you a quote about Platt’s death. If you’d just presented Ford’s quote without the Anderson angle, this would be more interesting. Unfortunately, you’ve gone Freud again and it distracts from the discussion you really want to have.

  35. ”There’s just as many great modern auteurs who don’t have much of a rep for being total bastards on the set – Coen Bros, Woody, Soderbergh, Lynch, Burton, Spike Jones, etc.”

    Lynch may be a nice guy in interviews, but you can see him snapping at a stage hand on the making of Inland Empire. Not a incident at all, he just gave a very strict request without any pleasantry, but it surprised me and made me wonder if the whole ”TM cured my anger” Lynch talking point was bullshit.

    The Coens are probably the most obvious exception to this ”rule”.

  36. Christopher Nolan definitely does fit ‘rule’. He’s got such a laid-back approach, reflected both in his personality and his on-set demeanor.

  37. “Quentin Tarantino is a lazy-ass ’70s exploitation genre whore who will never achieve true cinematic greatness so his laid-back method of making films is immaterial.”

    Wrong.

  38. “All good directors (Mann, Stone, TARANTINO, Cameron, Kurosawa, Nichols, Kubrick) are know to have operated like this in their prime.”

    and then:

    “Quentin Tarantino is a lazy-ass ’70s exploitation genre whore who will never achieve true cinematic greatness so his laid-back method of making films is immaterial.”

    Seriously, wtf?

  39. “Quentin Tarantino is a lazy-ass ’70s exploitation genre whore who will never achieve true cinematic greatness so his laid-back method of making films is immaterial.”

    Others already beat me to the punch on this, but…Christ on a pony, Jeff.

  40. I think there are directors that are assholes to everyone OUTSIDE of the film who may be trying to destroy their vision, mainly studio execs. These are directors who are wonderfully nice to the actors and crew – because they’re on the same team.

    As a director, you need to keep things moving and you’re under a lot of stress. Only people who are advanced enough to the point where they know how to channel stress into productive ways end up being both good human beings to those around them and good directors – it’s not mutually exclusive, but it takes a human being who is not stuck in ego-ic bullshit – like the David O Russell of the early ‘aughts… who can behave in an appropriate manner.

    If a director is an asshole, word gets around. But actors will suffer through it if that director makes great films. It’s sad, but actors care more about their careers – enough to take the short term punishment for it.

    But actors who form friendships with great directors, god, they’d probably love to do any and every movie with them.

    Leo DiCaprio/Chris Nolan and Mark Whalberg/O’Russell are two examples for these. They’re both great friends in real life, and they don’t need to be assholes to each other get excellent work out of each other.

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  42. Bullshit on that mellow Lumet rep, and don’t even talk about Altman being an easygoing pothead. Don’t even go there.

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