What’s the one film that changed your life? It’s not an easy question (and one for which you may not even have an answer), but it’s a thought-provoking query—one that is pondered throughout Robert K. Elder’s new book, The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark (Chicago Review Press, 295 pages, $16.95).
The book is comprised of interviews with an eclectic group of moviemakers (everyone from Michel Gondry to Danny Boyle to John Woo to John Waters), each discussing the single film that most inspired them to become a director. Some of the choices are fairly predictable (Peter Bogdanovich on Citizen Kane, for instance), others surprising (horror maestro George Romero on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1951 opera adaptation, The Tales of Hoffmann).
The interviews include in-depth discussions of the films and their themes, with the directors analyzing particularly memorable moments. Just about everyone in the book saw their revelatory film either as a child or in college. Discussing the Ingmar Bergman classic, Persona (1966), Atom Egoyan recalls that he stumbled upon the film when something else was clearly on his mind: “And then, I [saw] Persona late one night on television; we had a French television station on the west coast. To be honest, I used to kind of troll that station for an occasional glimpse of nudity in movies. ”
The films themselves range from acknowledged classics (Kimberly Peirce on The Godfather; Richard Linklater on Raging Bull) to more obscure choices (Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road, which director Austin Chick admits he hasn’t seen in 15 years). For most of the films, the directors recall they had an a-ha experience where they suddenly realized, “Hey! I can do that.” Recalls Kevin Smith of watching Richard Linklater’s Slacker: “I viewed [Slacker] with this mixture of awe and arrogance, where I was amazed at the movie, because I’d never seen anything like it…The arrogance comes in when I’m sitting there going, `Well shit, if this is a movie, I could make a movie.’”
As Elders’ fine book reveals, what makes a movie a defining experience for us has as much to do with where we were in our lives when we first encountered it as the content of the movie itself. John Landis (who, as his film, selects childhood favorite The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) perhaps sums it up best: “People who see 2001 on DVD, on an eighteen-inch TV, letterboxed or not, that movie is not going to have the same impact it did when you saw it in a Cinerama theater in 70mm.” He continues, “It’s extremely important to know…that how you appreciate a movie has everything to do with your life experience at the moment when you see it, how you see it and where you see it.”