Talent and Toughness: Are Great Directors Born or Made?

Director Guy Magar just completed the suspense thriller Children of the Corn: Revelation, based on Stephen King’s original story for the Miramax/Dimension label, slated for release October 14th, 2001.

His film directing credits include Showdown, starring Matt LeBlanc of TV’s Friends, Stepfather 3 (HBO World Premiere), and the cult thriller Retribution. His extensive television directing credits include La Femme Nikita, Sliders, Nowhere Man, Dark Avenger, Welcome to Paradox, The Young Riders, Hunter. He has received awards from the American Screenwriters Association, the Chicago International Film/TV Fest, and the San Francisco International Film Fest. 

Guy founded the Action/Cut Directing Film Seminars Company in June, 1999, which provides
intensive 2-day weekend seminars in 12 major American cities per year. The company gets its name from the two words all directors use to begin and end every shot.  His company has just produced a comprehensive 12-hour Deluxe Videotape Collection of the acclaimed seminar that includes script scenes and dailies film clips studied.  His website can be found at www.actioncut.com.

Timothy Rhys, Moviemaker Magazine (MM): Guy, you’re one of the fortunate few moviemakers who has made a living as a motion picture and television director for more than two decades. You’re obviously a talented director, and you’re presumably well-compensated for your directing work. So what is the attraction for you in instructing all these neophytes and directing hopefuls all over North America?

Guy Magar (GM): Many moons ago I started out by going to two film schools, where I
fell in love with the art and craft of filmmaking. Although these schools were top notch in many ways, I never felt like I totally got what I needed from them. Since that time, throughout my career, I’ve come to realize that there is only one great, fast process to learn directing. That process is for a working, professional director to open up his intimate working techniques — to share what he knows from the page to the shoot to the finished film. Two years ago, a group of industry friends encouraged me to design a two-day, 16-hour seminar that would provide just such a unique and comprehensive learning experience for filmmakers… and my Action/Cut Directing Film Seminar was born. It’s been difficult to juggle 12 seminars a year with my production work, but so far it’s working and the positive responses have been amazing. That’s what keeps me going. We’re now branching out internationally and have just been invited to Malaysia to bring the seminar there in January.

MM: Tell me a bit about your personal life. I know you’re married and you live in LA.

GM: I moved to Los Angeles from New York about 25 short years ago when I got accepted at the American Film Institute. It’s been one wild rollercoaster ride ever since. I am very lucky to have developed a directing career both in the feature film and television arenas and I enjoy
going back and forth between them. It’s not the end result of the journey that matters, but enjoying the journey itself, the career, the adventure… and that means balancing a professional life with a personal one. On that count I completely lucked out and found my perfect soulmate wife/partner, and that’s made the career ride that much more wonderfully enjoyable and richer every day.

MM: Can anyone learn to direct? And is there a certain type of person or personality type which is more suited to a directing career?

GM: This is a yes and no answer… Yes, anyone can learn to direct from the right pro instructor and in two days they can have all the basic tools and procedural “know how” they’ll need. However, the job of a director is to visualize material and translate a scripted story to the screen. How well one develops his or her visualization skills separates the average director from the great one. I’m sure only Spielberg was born with this talent, though!  Developing this ability can only come from experience, from doing it over and over as often as you can, starting with shorts and moving to longer pieces. How well and how fast each person develops this skill is subjective and personal to their own abilities and energies in getting films done. Regarding personalities, being an extrovert helps a lot because social skills in networking can usually get you farther than talent, at least in the beginning of a career. But after you get the door open, you better have the goods to deliver.

MM: So you agree with the late, great Orson Welles, who reportedly once said ‘everything you need to know about directing you can learn in two days?’

GM: Orson would have loved Action/Cut!  Yes, you can learn all the basics in a very structured and detailed two-day course which is comprehensively designed… but then you have to put it to practice and develop your own visualization skills by doing it a lot… just like everything else you want to do well in life.

MM: Tell me about the project you’re working on now, as well as a couple of other memorable directing gigs you’ve had over the years.

GM: I just finished a fun and exciting picture for Miramax/Dimension that they’re releasing this month (October). It is a sequel of a well-known franchise… Children of the Corn: Revelation, which had a terrific script and started many years ago with Stephen King’s original story. Bob Weinstein has been a fan of my work and we were looking for a project when this came up. His vision was “a ghost story in a tenement building a la The Shining,” but of course with a much smaller budget and an even smaller schedule. What I love about the thriller genre is that it gives a director a lot of latitude at visualization. It’s all about creating mood and suspenseful storytelling — using every visual tool available. For instance, I used a slow, floor-level steadicam shot that followed a heroine’s footsteps on a creaky floor as she approached a dark, creepy hallway corner. This is much more fun to visually create than a straight drama or comedy, which is primarily dependent on dialogue and its delivery.

A memorable story? On one of my previous pictures, Showdown, I had cast Matt LeBlanc in his first feature role and he was terrific as a dramatic actor. A few months after we wrapped, I remember him telling me about this audition for a silly show about six friends in an apartment
and how he didn’t even feel like going. I encouraged him not to miss any audition, as you never know when you’re gonna hit the lottery. The lottery for every actor is to star in a hit series. It’s still the fastest way to become a star in America. He reluctantly went to the audition… it was for Friends and Matt obviously won the lottery that day. 

Unfortunately, there is a price to pay as actors and directors in that they can get pidgeon-holed at whatever they do well. It’s tough for sitcom stars to be taken seriously as dramatic actors. Which is a shame because everyone who sees Showdown is blown away that Matt has such dramatic range.

MM: What’s the most important thing a director should know?

GM: Well, two things: first, the editing craft — how all the pieces come together to create scenes and tell a two-hour film story.  You have to have that knowledge to figure out how to shoot, how to organize your schedule, and make sure you get all the little pieces that will visually translate the screenplay. Also, editing teaches you how to transition between scenes, how to pace a story, how to structure plot, what to show or hear or not show or hear, and it’s a great learning tool for studying an actors performance and how to maximize it by using the best pieces and making them shine. Second, a director needs to learn and understand the acting craft. It’‚s a very complex process and unfortunately a lot of directors don’t know a lot about acting. They never took the time to learn it. I spent two years in New York studying it before starting to direct dramatic work. You have to love actors and what they bring to your story and have the awareness and knowledge of how to communicate with them. You also have to be able to nurture, inspire and guide them to give you their best performance in every scene.  Young filmmakers are so absorbed with technical and equipment matters that they forget that once a camera is loaded and focused and the set is lit, how are they now going to deal with what’s in front of the lens? So I believe leaning editing and acting is crucial for any aspiring director.

MM: Who is your favorite director, Guy, and why?

GM: Oliver Stone, because he’s the gutsiest American director out there. His work has tremendous emotional wallop and since I am from the school that says films should be experienced and not just watched, Oliver dazzles me every time. He directs from the gut. His visual interpretation of material is amazing and gut-wrenching though sometimes overblown at least he’s always going for it. I learned a lot from his work and I am always inspired to put that cathartic energy into mine. I tried to reach out to him early on and hoped he could be a mentor but it never happened.  Oh well, his loss. I would have been a great student/assistant and would have made him laugh a lot!

MM: What are the five or ten best films to watch if one wants to see great direction, according to Guy Magar?

GM: Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July is one of those amazing films I learn from and appreciate every time I see it. I’m sure part of this is that I come from that generation and the film resonates personally for me. Scorsese is another favorite and it doesn’t get much better
than Raging Bull or the first half of Goodfellas. I also love Wolfgang Petersen’s wondrous Das Boot. As you can see, emotional story wallop and experiencing the reality of a story is what thrills me. For me, great directors are also about range of work and Milos Forman is one of the greats. His body of work is tough to beat. From One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Amadeus to People vs. Larry Flynt
Tarantino’s first two films were special, but his recent work didn’t compare. Coppola’s first two Godfather films and his Apocalypse Now are on my fave list, though not the ‘Redux’ version, which I recently saw and which ruined it for me. Anyone who says the redux is a better version is full of crap and prey to the hype of its re-release. Not a minute of added footage helped the film in any way and I’ll debate anyone on this. Sorry, Francis… you were right the first time.

MM: What directing styles do you admire most? For example, do you enjoy the work of a Martin Scorsese with his constantly moving camera more than the work of John Ford, where the camera was much more stationary?

GM: I enjoy the work of many directors, but not necessarily a particular style. For
me, great directing is adapting a style to a particular story. A moviemaker must serve the story he is telling and “find” the right style for each story. Nothing is worse than seeing a great story directed with the wrong style for it.  That’s one of the thrilling things about filmmaking — no two stories are the same, so every time you’re at bat, it’s a whole new ballgame. That’s the challenge of directing.  Even more stationary than Ford was Kurosawa, whose films I very much admire as poetic filmmaking…but that’s a very theatrical style, very deliberate and slow paced. It’s almost framing for a stage play, and very well-adapted to his own cultural background. But I’d never use that style today to tell a story because it wouldn’t pass any commercial realities. I live and work in the world of industry features and television and whatever style a story demands should also fit within those expectations. 
If you want to make obscure arty films for you and your friends, that’s great. But if you want to be a professional director, then you better deliver great visual storytelling within a commercial framework. For example, in TV, you would never direct a La Femme Nikita with the style of a Law & Order…or a Judging Amy with the style of an ER. It would be all wrong. That’s what I mean.

MM: If one intends to become a film director, how should one prepare and educate oneself? In other words, if I’m a student who wants to direct later on, what courses would be most valuable? Architecture? Philosophy? Literature? Photography? Music?

GM: Well, to be roundly educated is very important to a director’s life experience and
development of his/her artistic taste. Directors like Barry Levinson, Larry Kasdan and Ridley Scott are incredibly intelligent guys. Making movies at a high-quality level is very much an intellectual challenge… and you better have the goods to meet it. I am a big believer in film schools, but not just for the traditional reasons. Not just for the experience and knowledge in filmmaking basics you pick up, but for you to find out if you truly love the craft. This is crucial! I went to film schools because I knew what a tough, competitive industry this is and frankly, I didn’t want to throw my hat in the ring unless 1) I had some promise of talent, and 2) I loved it enough to endure whatever came my way and muster the energy to break through. If you don’t love it or have potential talent, please find something else to do with your life, because this is just too tough a way to make a living. You’ll starve and won’t be a happy camper. Film schools are a great place to fall in love with the craft or not, and to make some short films to see if you do have promise. While at the London International Film School, I made a 12-minute black and white documentary that cost $500 and it won a Special Jury Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I knew then I could make this work.

MM: Why are there so few female directors, and do you see that situation changing?

GM: Directing is a tough profession… meaning it is physically exhausting and intellectually
challenging, and women can certainly match that any day. However, it also demands great leadership qualities, where you are truly the center of a film project with many, sometimes hundreds, of people, from cast to crews to teamsters, who take their cues from you, the director. Traditionally in our culture, right or wrong, men have been in leadership positions in almost every industry, and in film, where tons of money is at stake, the guys have historically been at the forefront of that responsibility. Also, from the early days of the industry, the movie moguls were all men – men who chose other men to direct movies and trust with their financing.
I remember reading recently that less than five percent of DGA members are women. That’s a tough number. The only way that changes is for more and more women to prove they can do it and at a commercial level. I recently had a wonderful female director as a guest speaker at my seminar. I’ve seen her work and know she’s got the talent and toughness to direct; she’s very smart, and I would trust her to handle any project. Her name is Dennie Gordon and she‚s directed everything from The Practice to Ally McBeal to her first feature, Joe Dirt. She’s also a DGA TV Award winner. This is a woman who will not be denied and when I asked her how she handled the “chick thing” she simply said she never paid attention to it and just got on with pursuing her directing dreams. Amen!

MM: I don’t have to tell you that directing a film is an all-consuming task. How do you choose your projects?

GM: It is difficult to choose projects, as you better be in love with them, since you know going in it’s going to be a long haul to set-it up and get it financed, never mind actually making it. And it’s very seldom you read  material you fall in love with. Why? Because there are few great writers around and fewer original stories, well-told. And even if you do find a great script, maybe the story is of no great interest to you or to your sensibilities. This is why I write my own projects. Because if a story is burning in me enough to find the time to develop it and write it, then I know I love it from the start. Except for this last Dimension picture, I have written or co-written every feature I made. And by the way, to all writers reading this, there is no greater joy in life for a director than to direct his/her own material. It is so difficult to get projects going, that directors have to constantly push a number of projects forward and hope one finally gets a green light. No two projects are ever the same or come together the same, so there is no formula. For example, I was recently starting prep a few weeks ago on a terrific project that was offered to me, one of the very few I immediately liked, and I even started scouting for it.

It’s a relentless chase story from start to end; very exciting action and a cool X-Men type concept. At the last minute some financing fell through and now we’re looking to replace that. This is typical, by the way. Also, Bob Weinstein really liked the picture I just finished for him and we’re looking for more projects for me to do for Dimension. I am also getting closer on completing financing on two of my own screenplays. And this is how it goes, for everyone… pushing projects forward, waiting for that green light. Even the biggest directors can go a year or two or three without a picture coming together for them. A star drops out, a supportive executive gets fired… shit happens. In television, it works almost exclusively by who knows you. I would love to direct The West Wing or Sopranos or Six Feet Under, but those particular
showrunners don’t know me personally. So you gotta find a way to meet them and introduce them to your work… which is not easy, as those guys are busier than hell running their series and meeting air dates.

MM: Do you believe that directing is an art form, in the way that painting and playing music are art forms, or do you think directing is more of an “interpretation” of an art form.

GM: Directing is not an art form for me — it’s a craft. It’s an amazingly complex and challenging craft. For me, true “art” is something you achieve by yourself… a great writer, a great sculptor, a great musician… those people are artists. But when you need hundreds of people to collaborate with, from cast to crews to post services, then it becomes a craft. Filmmaking is great craftsmanship… however, if you can manage to write and direct your material, you’re getting closer to the “artist” part. Again, I encourage every writer to learn to direct and film his own stories. This is the greatest joy I ever had as a filmmaker. The key here is to become a great writer first and then make them want your next piece so badly that you force them to let you direct as a condition to get your material. Randall Wallace, who is a great writer first, finally got his chance to direct when his Braveheart won so much deserved acclaim that they wanted his next script very badly. There’s no secret here, it’s that old Stallone thing: ‘you want my script, then I do it.’ But they better want it bad enough. That’s why I say the fastest way to directing is to become a good writer first.

MM: What are some of the career goals you’ve set for yourself that you have yet to achieve?

GM: As I said earlier, for me it has never been about goals…if it is, then 99 percent of filmmakers will be disappointed, and who wants that? For me, the thrill is the journey, wherever it may go…the thrill is the wild ride. Every director has his/her own directing career journey. If you love filmmaking and you are committed to being one on a professional level and making it your career, then you better enjoy the journey. When things are going my way and I am directing, you won’t find a happier moviemaker alive…when they are not, my personal life, my friends, my family, my other interests, my sense of humor, and my positive love of the craft keep me going and pushing till those damn red and yellow lights turn green…and I work hard every day running those lights and tryin’ to stay on the green ones.

MM: A director’s life can seem unstable at times, with all the traveling and all the requirements on one’s personal life. What are the benefits and drawbacks of a directing career?

GM: It’s a double-edged sword, as all good things are. The good parts are the traveling to great places and the many people you meet and work with, and the thrill of getting to do your thing, whether on a feature or TV show. And needless to say it’s tough to beat the money. The lousy parts are being away from your home, your loved ones, your friends, your dog, and living in hotels. And when you’re working you focus so intently on the work and pulling off whatever project challenge that other parts of your life and personal matters are just put on hold. When you’re away for three to six months, it’s really tough to regroup and catch up on everything else on your plate. But I have yet to learn of a more exciting or challenging job in life than being a director.

MM: You obviously love it, as I do. Tell me about your philosophy regarding the Action/Cut Directing course. In other words, how did you build the curriculum, and why did you construct it the way you have?

GM: If you “see it” and “hear it” as it actually happened for the director who created it and if that director can then share his thoughts with you, you’ll simply learn so much more than in any book or academic lecture or in some course taught by people who haven’t done it on a professional level. I’ve been to and enjoyed artsy-fartsy forums and discussions about Fellini or Godard or Visconte but none of that ever helped me learn how to actually make a movie. Now, if a pro director is right there in front of me and gives me his scene pages and then makes me understand how he reads that scene, what he sees in it, how he visualized it, and how his directorial mind works in breaking it all down to a practical plan of shooting that scene, and then shows me the actual shots and how it was all done and why, and then shows me the finished scene as it came together with music, effects, etc… I think I’d learn a hell of a lot real fast! That’s the concept behind the Action/Cut course and it’s how I designed the curriculum. Then I rounded it all out with sessions on how to raise money for your indie film, how
to find distribution, what festivals are really about, how to build a director’s reel — I wanted to offer a complete moviemaking experience and provide filmmakers everywhere with this info that I never had from a pro director.

MM: How often do you teach, and where?

GM: I can only manage to juggle six seminars in the fall and six in the spring. Coming up next month we’ll be in San Francisco, Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, and Miami.

MM: Is there anything you’d like to add about Action/Cut, your career, or the directing process that we haven’t covered?

GM: Action/Cut has been really special for me in that it‚s allowed me to meet so many filmmakers across the country and in Canada, and we are planning on taking it to other countries soon. Whoever can’t attend can still learn filmmaking through Action/Cut with the new video collection. That alone has been very gratifying, as people have really raved about it. Finally, as important as it is for every director to work and build credits and make a living, don’t get so caught up in its monumental career challenge that you forget to have a personal life and do all the things you want to do outside the film world…like travel, nurturing a family, enjoying friends. Take the time to be good to you…go play that round of golf with your buddies, and after you shoot a lousy score, come back with a vengeance and re-focus and do whatever it takes to get behind a camera and call Action.  Take no prisoners. That’s my motto. MM

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