Story or Style: Which Should Directors Concentrate On?
At the time of this writing, a number of notable directors are at various stages in production on their next pictures. Christopher Nolan’s ninth film Interstellar is set to be released November 7th of this year, while on the other end of the filmmaking spectrum, Quentin Tarantino has begun pre-production on his next picture, The Hateful Eight (coincidentally his eighth feature). What these two filmmakers have in common – as well as other filmmakers like Wes Anderson, David Fincher, and Darren Aronofsky – is that their oeuvres are miniscule in comparison to many of the great filmmakers from both the New Hollywood and Golden Age generations.
Steven Spielberg is working on his twenty-eighth film, a thriller titled St. James Place, while Martin Scorsese is finally getting set to direct his long awaited adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence, which also happens to be his twenty-fourth feature. If you think that’s a lot of movies, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Akira Kurosawa directed thirty-one films, Alfred Hitchchock directed fifty-four, and John Ford directed well over a hundred. The point here is both simple and hard to understand; from a historical aspect, one can easily note that most modern directors are making less movies. From an artistic standpoint, however, it is difficult to understand why director’s are making less movies. It certainly isn’t from lack of passion or talent, so could it be that contemporary filmmakers are placing limits on the amount of movies they make?
It is best to pause and realize that there could be other reasons that directors are making less movies other than caring about their personal filmographies. One of the biggest is the problem of studio interference that has lead so many filmmakers to migrate to the world of TV programming. Steven Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant, and Michael Mann have all dabbled in TV and in Soderbergh’s case, he has found a measure of success with Cinemax’s The Knick. What is important to note is that these directors didn’t start working on TV just because they wanted to try something new. The underlying reason was that they were being pressured to make films that didn’t align with what they were envisioning. In Soderbergh’s own words, director’s are treated “badly” by those who finance most films and that in turn leads to directors wanting to find an outlet that will allow them to tell the stories they want in the way they want. This is a spot of bother that even titans of cinema like Spielberg, who one would think could make his own movies whenever he wants and however he wants, can’t escape from. At USC last year he proclaimed that his 2012 biopic Lincoln almost aired on HBO, and the only reason it didn’t was he co-owned the studio that released it. Needless to say, this is a pressing problem that will only be worse for directors who have yet to really cut their teeth in the world of cinema.
But as bad as some directors are treated, it still cannot account for the amount of popular filmmakers who, at times, go for years without releasing a new picture. It’s an odd occurrence and one that cannot be simply chalked up to business problems. Instead, it could be that directors nowadays focus more on their craft and particular style of filmmaking rather than on the stories they are telling, and to that effect are worried that they will lose their touch over time should they make more movies.
This could be referred to as “Tarantino’s Curse”, which is the theory that as a director’s career goes on, they tend to lose their finesse, sometimes to the point where they end their careers with a set of four or five really bad movies that eclipse the director’s earlier work. Tarantino is being unjust when he says that a couple bad movies can overshadow a director’s entire career, but one can’t help but see that there are some directors who have lost the skill that they were once lauded for. Tarantino cited Hitchcock as a victim of this curse, but there are many other notable directors who seem to be suffering from it as well. Francis Ford Coppola, who helmed four magnificent pictures in the 70s, has since slipped into obscurity with movies like Twixt and Tetro. George Lucas has long since stopped making films, and isn’t even in control of the next set of Star Wars pictures. And even Ridley Scott, who managed to bring back the sword and sandal epic (briefly) in the 00s, has had four back-to-back movies that failed to make a profit (Body of Lies, Robin Hood, Prometheus, and The Counselor). Meanwhile, directors like Tarantino and Nolan sit comfortably on a set of eight or nine great films that haven’t received a fraction of the criticism that has been directed at the aforementioned filmmakers.
But then how do we account for directors like Spielberg and Scorsese who are still going strong? The reason may be that they and directors like them tend to concentrate more on telling a story than on creating a recognizable technique. Spielberg articulates this very well when he calls himself a storyteller and a craftsman rather than a stylist. He is “style-less” and is able to adapt himself to the story that the screenwriter is telling, and because of this, he can seamlessly jump between genres. He can make a tragic drama about the Holocaust as easily as he can make an action fueled romp.
Scorsese is even more unique as he is one of the handful of directors -along with Stanley Kubrick and the Coen Brothers- who has managed to produce an eclectic filmography and create a recognizable cinematic style. While he is most often associated with the crime genre, Scorsese has also made spiritual dramas (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun), romantic dramas (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Age of Innocence), historical epics (Gangs of New York, The Aviator), and even an absurdest comedy (After Hours). None of these films, or for that matter any of the films in his oeuvre, feel repetitious. It truly is a testament to Scorsese’s storytelling acumen that he has managed to tell such a broad range of stories while always providing the cinematic flair that he’s come to be known for.
This is something that cannot be said about directors with smaller oeuvres who focus more on refining their personal style than on telling a story. Can Tarantino make a sci-fi drama? Can Nolan make a romantic comedy? Can Wes Anderson make a high-octane action movie? The answer is “no” across the board. That doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to try, it just means that their particular styles don’t allow them to branch off easily from the stories they’re used to telling. Tarantino is synonymous with action oriented revenge pictures, Nolan with intense psychological dramas, and Anderson with quirky screwball comedies. While they play their respective notes beautifully, they don’t pay much attention to the other keys, and since they’ve found success in the way they tell their stories, there’s no need to alter the stories they tell. It should also come as no surprise that most directors who have created their own style also write the scripts for their movies so as to remove any possible source of creative conflict. In essence, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
This is a muddy subject to talk about because there are many good arguments on both sides. It’s not only harsh to accuse Tarantino and Nolan of being mundane, it is also completely untrue. And though they almost have thirty movies under their belts, Spielberg and Scorsese have revisited similar themes throughout their respective careers. But take a step back, and you’ll realize there is a bit of an exchange that occurs depending on what a director chooses to do with their career. Should they choose to focus on their skills and hone them to the point where they make films that are unmistakably their own, chances are they will only make a handful of movies. If, however, they are more interested in acclimating their skills in accordance to what a particular story demands, then there will be many more opportunities to make movies, though they may get lost in the hundreds of thousands of other movies that have come before them. So, is it better to have a brand or to have a lot of product? I hate to be anticlimactic, but I think it’s best to have a mix of both. The passion behind the filmmakers mentioned in this article is palpable in every movie they make, and ultimately it is that passion that becomes their cinematic signature. It doesn’t matter if they make five or fifty movies, or if they are remembered for reinventing a particular camera angle. As long as there is love at their core, the longevity of the movies they make will be ensured.
What do you think? Leave a comment.