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Quentin Tarantino’s Favorite Director: William Witney

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

Action director William Witney: “Witney is ahead of them all” – Quentin Tarantino

As R. Emmet Sweeney writes of director William Witney on The Museum of The Moving Image website, Witney changed the way movie punches were thrown. It has become a cliché to say that fight scenes are like dances, but for Witney this was just common sense. He saw Busby Berkeley working on a stage spectacle, and adapted that regimented method to action sequences, essentially inventing the job of stunt choreographer.

A lifetime of movie production had left him rather unknown, except to some cult genre obsessives, one of whom happened to be Quentin Tarantino. He has been promoting Witney’s work for years by screening his personal 16mm and 35mm prints at film festivals and mentioning his name whenever interviewers ask for influences.

After Tarantino finished shooting Django Unchained, he shipped its prop dentist wagon to the Lone Pine Film History Museum in California. Witney spent the majority of his career in the hills outside Lone Pine, shooting Westerns in a week or two with Roy Rogers, creating a cohesive body of work out of bodies tumbling to the ground.

William Witney was born in Lawton, Oklahoma in 1915. His father died when he was four years old, and he was raised by his mother Grace and two older sisters. William’s son Jay Dee Witney told me that William was ‘kind of heavy as a boy,’ so his mother shipped him to live with his Uncle Lou, who was an Army captain at Fort Sam Houston.

Witney was ready to follow his Uncle into the Armed Forces after high school, and started cramming for the entrance exam to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. The exam was administered in Los Angeles, so Witney moved in briefly with his sister Frances and her husband Colbert Clark.

A director for the Poverty Row studio Mascot, Clark asked Witney if he wanted to ‘work for a couple of days making chase scenes with the cowboys.’ Witney agreed, and gradually moved up the ranks, from office boy to gofer to editor, where he worked alongside future B-auteur Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy).

In 1935 Hubert Yates consolidated six Poverty Row studios, including Mascot, into Republic Pictures. Witney would make nearly 80 features and serials for Republic over the next 23 years. After some personnel shakeups the nineteen-year-old Witney was moved from the editing suite to the set as a script clerk. It was B. Reeves Eason (known as ‘Breezy’) that got him thinking about action film aesthetics.

Eason was a flamboyant dresser, always in white silk shirts and pants, with a daredevil streak. In his autobiography Witney recalls a story in which Breezy performed a dangerous horse fall to convince a skittish stuntman of its safety, and ended up breaking an arm. Witney admired his bravado and fearlessness, writing that ‘I found myself using the same techniques that he had to make an action sequence come to reality.’” Witney is, in short, a master filmmaker.

See the video by clicking on the image above, and read the entire article here.

Director Jerzy Skolimowski Wins Golden Lion at Venice Festival

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Jerzy Skolimowski is long overdue for this recognition, as a filmmaker of the first rank.

As Damon Wise writes, in part, in the August 31, 2016 issue of Variety, “it has been said of Jerzy Skolimowski that making films turned him into a nomad. Forced by principle to leave his native Poland after the repressive government shelved his surreal, semi-autobiographical and politically incendiary 1967 film Hands Up!, the director moved first to the U.K. and then to the U.S. before finally returning to Poland in the early 2000s.

The journey home also resulted in Skolimowski’s first film in 17 years. After suffering a personal and financial failure with 1991’s 30 Door Key, the director took time out to explore his talents as a painter. The success of his comeback film, 2008’s Four Nights With Anna, encouraged him to return to cinema, and 2010’s Essential Killing claimed acting and directing prizes at that year’s Venice Film Festival.

Now 78, Skolimowksi comes to the 2016 festival to collect the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, a celebration of a career that has spanned almost six decades and numerous cities, and perhaps marking a spiritual homecoming of sorts for the wandering artist. ‘I feel blessed and honored to be placed among Orson Welles, Fellini, Antonioni, Buñuel, Kubrick, and magnificent others,’ he says of the award. He adds with typical self-deprecating modesty, ‘but I still have to prove to myself that I really deserve it . . .’

Unusually for an auteur director, Skolimowski’s films defy categorization even by the many periods of his life defined by émigré status, and he’s not precious about the work. ‘To tell you the truth,’ he says, ‘I don’t look back at my films at all. I know well what is good in some of them. I know what’s bad in others. And I know I cannot change any part of them — what is done is done . . .’

Thankfully, Skolimowski is a director who has not been thwarted by either his occasional crisis of confidence or his mistreatment at the hands of the authorities . . . Indeed, his filmography is even beginning to gather pace again. Asked about this newfound vigor so late in life, he replies, quite casually, ‘by the standards established by Manuel de Oliveira I’m still a young filmmaker.’”

Read the whole article by clicking here – Skolimowski is a master filmmaker.

Why Women Are Underrepresented in Hollywood

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

Director Lois Weber, a true cinema pioneer, directing in Hollywood in 1916.

Critic Manohla Dargis zeroes in on why women are so poorly represented in Hollywood today, even more so than in the past. Notes Dargis, “The movie industry is failing women. And until the industry starts making serious changes, nothing is going to change . . . American commercial cinema has long been dominated by men, but I don’t think there has ever been another time when women have been as underrepresented on screen as they are now.

The biggest problem isn’t genuinely independent cinema, where lower budgets mean more opportunities for women in front of and behind the camera. The problem is the six major studios that dominate the box office, the entertainment chatter and the popular imagination. Their refusal to hire more female directors is immoral, maybe illegal, and has helped create and sustain a representational ghetto for women.”

What will it take to break the logjam?

Jean Renoir

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Jean Renoir – the most humanist of all filmmakers, something desperately needed now.

The distinguished and prescient film critic Michael Atkinson recently had this to say, in part, about the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir, who is, to my mind, one of the greatest film directors – along with Ozu, Bresson, and a few others – to ever work in the moving picture medium. As Atkinson notes, “in the shadow of the recent decennial Sight & Sound best-movie-ever poll, in which Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) supplanted the long-standing numero uno Citizen Kane (1941), let us just say without quibbling that Jean Renoir’s Le Regle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) is the only genuine competition for the primary slot, and indeed it has claimed #2 or #3 status on the poll for half a century.

No slight to Vertigo is intended, and such is the consequence of rendering cultural opinion by way of crunched numbers and democratic aggregation. But Renoir’s pitch-perfect masterpiece (which has held as the fourth-greatest-ever) is more vital than ever for an art form slowly evolving into computer-generated carnival rides and empty-hearted noise, and that is because it is quintessentially Renoirian, that is, a bottomless harvest of humanity, which is seen in all of its thorny idiocy and yet viewed with the fiercest ardor ever put on celluloid.

If we were a sane species, it’d be Renoir that young filmmakers would take as a model, not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. Saying that Renoir is one of maybe seven unassailable masters in the history of cinema is not unlike saying the ocean is large and blue; demonstrating a shrugging nonchalance about his best films should and will peg you to those that know about these things as a flat-out pretender.

Simply, Renoir consistently took on the most complex territory available: the matrix of human camaraderie, the crystalline beauty of social respect and unexpected mutual empathies, the painful distance between the poles of a friendship under pressure, the folly and deathlessness of crazed romance. For Renoir, the tensile strength of love in all of its realizations was an inexhaustible subject, and no one explored it as wisely and whole-heartedly as he did.”

I once taught an entire semester of Renoir from the silents to his last TV movie, and through his films, he consistently amazed the class with his ability to work in any genre, and to always bring out the best in the performers, and to be, above all, forgiving – forgiving of human frailties and vanities, brave enough to make films that directly criticized French lassitude on the eve of World War II, smart enough to come to the United States for the duration of the conflict, but then to return to his homeland, and au courant enough to effortlessly make the switch from silents, to sound, to color, to three camera television shooting, and make it all look easy – eternally modern, eternally humanist.

Yes, if we were a sane species – Renoir would be constantly revived and screened.

Babadook’s Jennifer Kent To Direct New Film

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

Jennifer Kent, whose film The Babadook was such a surprise hit last year, has a new project in the works.

As Mike Fleming Jr. reports in Deadline, “Sidney Kimmel Entertainment has acquired rights to the Alexis Coe non-fiction book Alice + Freda Forever. Jennifer Kent, who directed the sleeper The Babadook, will helm and will write the script. Berlanti Productions is producing, and SKE President of Production Carla Hacken acquired it and SKE will develop it, finance the film and produce with Berlanti Productions. The book tells the story of a budding romantic relationship between two young girls in 1892 Memphis, Tennessee that incited a sensational murder and shocked the nation. Sidney Kimmel will produce along with Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter. Hacken will be exec producer.

Coe based her book on research that included more than 100 love letters, maps, artifacts, historical documents, newspaper articles and courtroom proceedings to tell the tragic, real-life love story of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward. After their love letters were discovered, the women were forbidden to ever speak again. Ward adjusted to this with apparent ease, and that left Mitchell heartbroken. The result was fatal, jealous rage. Ward’s murder trial was one of the most sensational of its time. The book was published in 2014 by the Zest Books imprint Pulp. ‘From the moment we saw The Babadook, working with Jennifer became not only a priority but a passion,’ Hacken said.

Said Sarah Schechter, who runs Berlanti Productions: ‘Jennifer Kent was my first choice from the moment I read Coe’s exceptional book. Jennifer’s debut film was one of the most accomplished I have ever seen, and I’m thrilled she shares the same passion for telling this powerful, intense and unfortunately still timely story.’ Kent’s breakthrough came on The Babadook, the film that premiered at 2014 Sundance and was released by IFC. It won Kent the Australian Directors Guild Award for Best Feature and the Australian Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.”

This should be one to watch out for.

Creative Tips from Legendary Directors

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

The website Film School Rejects has an excellent series of “tips” on the creative process in cinema.

Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs of the website Film School Rejects have assembled an excellent series of maxims and advice from key filmmakers around the world; everyone from David Lynch to Shirley Clarke to William Greaves to James Gunn to Jim Jarmusch to Alain Resnais to Abbas Kiarostami and all the stops inbetween, and archived it here – at this website. This is a really valuable resource not only for filmmakers, but also for those who want to understand the creative process in filmmaking, as outlined by the top practitioners, past and present, in the field. If there’s one theme running through all these condensed interviews, it’s to be true to yourself. As David Lynch put it, “there were very bad reviews [of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me]. I was under a bad cloud during that time and it just didn’t go well. But I loved the film and when you do something you believe in and it doesn’t go well it’s okay. If you sell out like I did in Dune and it doesn’t go, well, then you really die.”

Lots of food for thought here; click here, or on the image above, to read more.

Great Advice from Great Directors

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Here are some excellent tips from directors past and present; above, director Claire Denis.

As Alison Nastasi, who compiled these quotes, writes in Flavorwire, “artistic expression is an assertion of individuality, and all artists compose their work differently. In the case of filmmaking, there are numerous approaches to translating a story to celluloid. Inspired by director Wim Wenders’ recent advertising short, Wim Wenders’ Rules for Cinema Perfection, we’ve collected the golden rules of filmmaking employed by 100 famous directors. These tips and tricks are a wonderful source of advice and inspiration — even for the most seasoned professionals. The rules also serve as a fascinating snapshot of each directors’ filmography, capturing the spirit of their work.”

Click here, on the image above, to see the entire collection of quotes; interesting reading.

The DGA Visual History Archive – Director Interviews Online Here

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

The DGA Visual History Program offers an excellent collection of free video interviews with directors.

As the Directors Guild of America website notes, “founded in 2000, the DGA’s Visual History Program has conducted more than 160 interviews with directors and director’s team members discussing their careers and creative processes in film, television and other media.” These include such luminaries as Agnes Varda, Constantine Costa-Gavras, Claude Lelouch, Robert Altman and many, many others. You can see the interviews by clicking on the image above, and then searching the data base, or clicking on the images of some of the directors featured this month. My friend Dennis Coleman brought this to my attention; many thanks, Dennis! This is is an incredible resource.

Click here, or on the image above, to access these remarkable video interviews.

Book: Hopper by Tom Folsom

Friday, June 14th, 2013

Tom Folsom’s new book on the life and work of Dennis Hopper is a knockout.

Madman, shaman, mystic, brilliant actor and filmmaker and a complete pain in the neck, Dennis Hopper started out in the early 50s with a chip on his shoulder and enormous talent, falling in with James Dean and appearing in Rebel Without A Cause, though clashes with the director, Nicholas Ray, caused his part in the film to be severely cut down. What followed was an epic journey through the last days of the Hollywood studio system, the making of the counter-culture classic Easy Rider, and his lost masterpiece, The Last Movie, which as Folsom makes clear went through so many different edits that a “definitive” version of the work is almost impossible to identify. After that, a spiral into drugs and madness, and then one of the biggest comebacks in film history in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a whole second career as a director of his own films, an artist, and a world class collector of other people’s work.

Using archival sources and interviews, writing in a free form style reminiscent of both Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, Folsom paints a compelling, multifaceted picture of this deeply conflicted and influential filmmaker, pursued by countless demons of his own making, and yet still able to create work of lasting beauty and quality despite it all. I met Hopper just once, at a screening of The Last Movie at Preview Theater in New York in 1971, just before the film came out; I was editing one of my own films there, and stumbled into him in the hallway, looking for change for the Coke machine. He invited me to the screening, which was specially set up for critic Judith Crist — who clearly didn’t like or understand the film — and was polite and forthcoming about the difficulties of the film even for an unsympathetic viewer, which Crist clearly was. Universal hated the movie, too, and dumped it in one theater, where it closed in a few weeks; never mind that it had won the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

For myself, I was knocked out by the film, and had another connection to it — my friend and colleague Brad Darrach at Life Magazine, where I worked as a writer and critic in 1969-70, had gone down to South America for the shoot, and witnessed all the madness, excess and brilliance of the production first hand, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect. Sadly, and somewhat amazingly, the film isn’t available legally on DVD, though bootlegs and downloads abound, perhaps appropriately for such an outlaw film. But it would seem that it’s time for Universal to put out The Last Movie in an official version, so that everyone can see for themselves what Hopper was capable of when left alone with a decent budget and complete creative freedom, including final cut — one of the most adventurous, challenging, and utterly original movies ever made.

Until then, The Last Movie is yet another “lost” film that needs a DVD release; in the meantime, read Tom Folsom’s book.

100 Best Directors of All Time?

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

Here’s an interesting list, with links to IMDB, of the “one hundred best directors” of all time, compiled by The Cine-club de Caen. Of course, all such lists are highly subjective, but this seems like a good place to start for anyone, and any list that contains Manoel de Oliveira — though ranked at number 73, much too low in my estimation — seems worthy to me. Worth checking out, if only for the links to IMDB, and thus the links to outside reviews, resource materials, and the like.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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