Tom Jolliffe on the power of a top director…
We’ve all seen great directors deliver complex films, perhaps sprawling with ideas and scope. Perhaps an engrossing retelling of an event in history. A director like Christopher Nolan has spent almost his entire career on weaving complex and intricately stranded high concept films. It takes a good director to do the films he does. No question.
By the same token, there’s a big difference between a great director and a functional director. I think that can often be best illustrated in a film with a simple concept. Take a film for example, which in the context of a directors CV is fairly lithe. A lot of great directors have at least one in their filmography. In the case of Steven Spielberg’s Duel, it was the film that first brought him to attention. The film runs on the ruthlessly efficient premise that a man is being stalked, for no clearly defined reason, by an unseen foe in a truck. We get little characterisation for the leading man beyond what we see in the action of the film’s timeline. There’s a little background but the extent of his arc rests on his reactions. It’s this seemingly mild-mannered every man who is being pushed to unleash his most base survival instincts. Is it the best film in Spielberg’s career? Certainly not, but in its simplicity and visceral delivery, it showcases a film that works where only a marginal few directors at that time, could have done the same.
I recently re-watched Panic Room. Director David Fincher has always been known for creating complex cinema. Having cemented himself as a top director with the cult classic, Fight Club, his next choice was something of a surprise in as far as the distinctly ordinary premise. Total simplicity. Panic Room sets into motion the basic nature of the premise, and puts its inhabitants into it. In many films with such simple outlines, intimacy can be important. So it can often be that locations are either kept confined, or the action is rigidly locked to the protagonist even if the area the plot unfurls is more expansive (though the endlessly desolate highways of Duel still emote isolation and intimacy). Fincher opts to house the film within the walls of a three-story townhouse, with a panic room installed. The protagonist and her daughter having just moved in, unaware that the house still has a safe full of bearer bonds inside. When three criminals invade the house, mother (Jodie Foster) locks herself and daughter into the panic room. That in principle could end the film there, but the premise is kept going by the fact the safe is buried within the Panic Room. An impregnable room that three criminals need to get in, and no way out for the two inhabitants inside.
So this may not be a film that springs first to mind when considering Fincher’s works. It is however his simplest film and it’s one that under lesser hands could have been a TV movie special. Though the A-list cast (all on great form) certainly helps, it’s the directorial vision that sets it apart. The size of this cavernous house is contradictorily vast and claustrophobic all at the same time. The use of Fincher’s roving camera that can (with some CGI help) pass through floors and matter, brilliantly blue print out the location to the audience’s eye. By the time the film ends we know every room, the layout of the house, the hiding spots and the escapes. The camera creeps in like a sly documentarian on actions, conversations and intimate moments. There’s a complexity that Fincher brings to the camera and an intricacy that adds dimension to the functional outline. It goes further with his approach to the characterisations and the pacing. “Don’t wig out,” Kristen Stewart as daughter, says to Foster when they first lock themselves inside the panic room. We’ve already established the emotional fragility and temperate, introverted manner of Foster. Thus we are set, as audience, on a journey similar to Dennis Weaver in Duel. The survival instinct is triggered, bringing out an aggression and forceful decisive shift in Foster’s personality. There’s a clear arc from minute one to the end.
It’s difficult to pull these films off without exceptional direction. Perhaps one of the best examples of ratcheting up the tension to near unbearable levels in the confines of a deceptively simple plot and minimalist location was Hitchcock’s Rear Window. James Stewart, confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg allows boredom and a pair of binoculars to get the better of him as he surveys the building opposite. From here we get the innocuous in some apartments, to the possibility that one neighbour opposite has killed and disposed of his wife. Stewart, almost completely immobile can only watch, whether it’s spying on the suspected killer, or watching his friend break into the suspect’s apartment to search for evidence. Deviously simple but breathtakingly effective.
Ultimately you need a fine cast and concise writing but the direction is key. Everything plays out simply. Hitchcock, as Fincher does in Panic Room, allows the camera to set out the confines of our story. Before the action kicks in fully we establish the area of play. He offers up a depiction of time and the limited visual scope allowed to Stewart. The mundane nature of the neighbours (from newlyweds to a social recluse and more) and Stewart’s daily routines allow us to feel the isolation and boredom inflicting Stewart. The idea is to instil the notion within the viewer that Stewart’s fractured leg is contributing to a fractured mind, bereft of stimulus and a possibility that he’s subconsciously (or indeed consciously) creating elaborate ideas to amuse himself. The scarier aspect comes when those suspicions turn out to be more than fantasy, leading to the thrilling climax when the trapped Stewart is suddenly found out by the suspect and as we have well established, he cannot run.
These linear plot-lines and clearly defined walls of action allow a director to show off their ability in controlling the audience within the confines of simplicity. You could strip things even further back. To some extent, though simple, the aforementioned films still focus on actions. However what if you set out a premise that is simple, in a confined location and then focus purely on the psychological? There have certainly been masters of this. Ingmar Bergman firmly established himself as intrinsically able to craft with the deftest of touch, some of the most psychologically engaging and gripping films in cinema history. Persona is arguably his finest, and darkest example of this. If The Seventh Seal was more philosophically minded, then Persona looked insightfully at both the fragility and the convolution of the human psyche. A system of information, emotion and physicality so intricately entangled that the slightest misplaced thread can affect the whole machine.
Whilst many viewers will struggle (certainly on first viewing) with interpreting some of the visual imagery that opens and closes the film (though the idea of the spider, and the concept of a “web” could suggest the idea of the mind as something similarly woven), the core of the film takes place with a Nurse and her mute patient (a theatrical actress) at a retreat as the former tries to rehabilitate the latter. The more they engage, the more there is a separation between reality and fantasy, as well as self and other. Engrossing and fascinating (as well as beautifully portrayed by Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson) it is intimate cinema at its finest. Again, this is where the job description of the director comes to the fore, particularly when a master like Bergman is conducting. The film’s bare locations and the stark cinematography give an intense focus to the actresses, often shot in close up and with a sparsity in cutting back and forth between the two. The idea that the psyche of one is infiltrating the other comes to the fore. There’s a reason we may focus on the speaker (Andersson) in one scene, or the reactor (Ullman) in the other. Like all great directors, there’s a reason for everything. There’s a reason behind every shot, every cut (as inevitably, the great directors oversee their edits, or shoot knowing exactly how it is to cut together). It’s also why a director less able to command such minimalist storytelling would falter. Plenty of directors have been (occasionally unfairly) tagged as being style over substance, perhaps relying on concepts or visuals. Sometimes the less grasp you have on the true nature of “direction” the more you throw at the screen to compensate. Something you could attribute to a director like Michael Bay for example.
In the truest sense of being a director, the innate ability to make the simple, complex and engaging is arguably the greatest trait.