Nothing, you answer.
Well, that’s not really fair.
In many cases, you’ll find ruthless ambition. In others, unbridled arrogance. In still others, an ego of monumental proportions.
It varies from individual to individual.
But the one thing you’ll almost always find is a desire to direct.
Interview a star, a big-time producer, a hot screenwriter, or even the craft services person who serves coffee on the set, and at some point you’ll hear that familiar refrain: “But what I really want to do is direct.”
I myself have been guilty of a single-minded pursuit of that ever elusive goal—foiled in one instance, by food poisoning; in another, by an earthquake; in yet another, by the sudden rise of reality tv.
What, you ask, is the appeal?
Why does everyone is Hollywood want to direct?
The best answer is to be found in an overlooked masterpiece of filmmaking known as The Stuntman.
It’s the story of a Vietnam vet on the run from the law, who takes refuge with a film company shooting a World War I melodrama. Forced to replace a stuntman whose death he inadvertently caused, he risks his life again and again in a series of impossible stunts for director Eli Cross.
It’s an existential comedy which portrays man as utterly alienated, life as a chase with death nipping at your heels, and the world as a trap where nothing is what it seems, no one is what he appears to be, and free will is an illusion—a world presided over by a jokester god who takes great pleasure in manipulating his creations.
That god, of course, is the director—Eli Cross played by Peter O’Toole in a performance that equals his Lawrence of Arabia, a performance he claimed he modeled upon David Lean.
Eli is omnipresent.
He lurks in darkened hallways, descends and ascends in his helicopter, swoops down out of nowhere in the bucket of his camera crane.
He is also omniscient.
Nothing escapes him. Whatever his actors think or say or plan or do, he knows.
And he is omnipotent.
When, at the end, the stuntman decides to defy Eli and take charge of his own life, Eli manipulates him into doing precisely what Eli wants.
No one, not even a studio executive, can challenge him. If the suits try to cut his picture, “I’ll kill them. I’ll kill them and eat them. I hate to waste anything.”
Eli is God.
No, he’s bigger than God.
As he himself so eloquently puts it, “If God could do the tricks we can do, he’d be a happy man.”
So there you have it.
The director as God.
Is it any wonder that most Hollywood types want to direct?
But, you insist, Eli Cross isn’t real.
He’s a fictional character.
All right, you want real, I’ll give you real.
A friend of mine is a writer for a major Hollywood journal. He recently did a profile of one the biggest, most successful, most acclaimed directors in town.
The day after the profile was published, he received a six-page, single-spaced typewritten letter from the director listing the changes he wanted the writer to make…in this article that had already been published!
Directors are control freaks, and they try to exercise the same control in their daily lives that they do on the set.
It often doesn’t work out.
Do you suppose that this urge to control had anything to do with the fact that David Lean, who was—you’ll remember—the model for Eli Cross, was married six times?
I just picked up Lean’s monumental biography.
Well, actually, I couldn’t pick it up.
It’s too heavy.
Requires a forklift to move it around and a steel easel to hold it.
When (if?) I finish it, I’ll let you know the answer to the question I raised.
In the meantime, trust me, directors are people who want to be in control, and if you’re not one of those people…