Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker: Richard Dreyfuss

American Graffiti, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Stand By Me, Mr. Holland’s Opus… even while reading like a what’s what of cinema, those titles are just a handful of the extensive epochal movies Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss has starred in since the 1970s.

The veritable virtuoso scooped the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1977 for his role in The Goodbye Girl, at the time beating Marlon Brando’s record for becoming the youngest man to do so. That essence of youthful joie de vivre is a quality that animates Dreyfuss’ creative process to this day, as is his self-deprecating sense of humor.

Richard Dreyfuss (L) as Angus and Richie Lawrence (R) as Barney in Astronaut. Image courtesy of Quiver Distribution.

After some five decades of working with such fellow film greats as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Rob Reiner, Dreyfuss’ latest film punctuates his stratospheric career. In Astronaut, actor-turned-writer-director Shelagh McLeod’s feature debut, he plays a widower who, despite his world-weariness, pursues his lifelong dream of going into orbit.

Here, Dreyfuss tells MovieMaker about the keys to an inspired and efficient on-set environment, warns of the perils of formulaic storytelling, and dares moviemakers to supersize their ambitions.

1. The fact that we want to make the same movie over and over again is bad. Making movies today is the story of how you can create sequel after sequel after sequel. That’s why, in the last couple of years, I’ve realized that I don’t endorse acting or moviemaking as I used to anymore. I guess I just won the “Old Codger Award.”

2. Most moviemakers’ ambitions are too small. They don’t really attempt to create something unique, and they should! They’re corporate-minded and terrified of any attempt to break new ground. That’s why you’re more apt to see “sequel number four” get made before anything else. To work with Steven Spielberg when I did was to catch him at his most courageous. But for the most part, even the young directors who make their own movies today want to make their next film to resemble the film they just made.

3. If you’re thinking of taking a project, always ask for the same thing: a creative and relaxed atmosphere. That’s something that’s in the hands of the director, even when you know there’s always going to be an 800-pound gorilla somewhere on set. You want to keep the set light and fun.

4. It doesn’t matter whether you’re making a drama or a comedy—what matters only is that you bring to it as creative a mind as possible. “Keep the set light and fun” doesn’t mean you can’t play a tragedy or do something on the Holocaust. It means that you are free enough in your head to come at a subject with a maximum amount of creativity and a maximum amount of willingness.

5. Some of the advice that sticks with you most throughout your career might be delivered by a critic. When I was doing a production of Julius Caesar at the Brooklyn Academy, Walter Kerr wrote, “If Mr. Dreyfuss has any ambition to continue a career as a Shakespearean actor, then I would recommend he explore the nature of the word ‘stillness.’” Throughout my performance, I was constantly twitching and moving, moving and twitching, and Kerr said, “That doesn’t fly when you’re doing Shakespeare.” As I read it, I knew he was taking me for something, but more importantly, he was telling a truth. He was giving me, as gently as he could, a very good piece of advice about my work.

6. I usually say that I never get nervous before I shoot a film. But my wife has pointed out to me that that’s bullshit, and she’s probably right. MM

Astronaut opened on Digital and On Demand July 26, 2019, courtesy of Quiver Distribution. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2019 issueFeatured Image: With lightyears of experience, Brooklyn-born Astronaut star Richard Dreyfuss has a lot to share, even if he’s a little cranky sharing it. 

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