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Actors Behind the Camera

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By Jack Egan
The evolution from being a star in front of the camera on a major motion picture to being the man or woman calling the shots from behind it was once a fairly unusual phenomenon reserved for such overwhelming talents as Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles or Clint Eastwood.
But this year, what had been a trickle has turned into a steady stream. Actors taking a turn behind the camera of late include Denzel Washington on The Great Debaters, Sean Penn on Into the Wild, Ben Affleck on Gone Baby Gone, Anthony Hopkins on Slipstream and Peter Berg on The Kingdom. Meanwhile, Robert Redford returns after a seven-year absence with Lions for Lambs, while George Clooney follows up Good Night, and Good Luck with Leatherheads and Kenneth Branagh is back with Sleuth. Robert De Niro and Emilio Estevez were behind the camera for last year’s The Good Shepherd and Bobby, while Eastwood did double duty on Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.
It’s hard to generalize what’s behind this trend, beyond noting the intelligence and confidence these individuals exhibit as actors — many have received or been nominated for Academy Awards — and a shared ambition to put their imprint on an entire movie, instead of simply appearing on screen.
One of the important tasks assumed in this transition involves leading and interacting with the heads of the production team — from prepping the movie, going through the filming and supervising the final edit. Due to their experience as actors, the ability of these individuals to work closely with the cast of film is usually a given. What tends to be more challenging is learning the other aspects of a shoot. According to key crew, most adapt pretty quickly.
“Whether he’s an actor or not, what characterizes a director is his personality,” says Philippe Rousselot, director of photography on both Lions for Lambs and The Great Debaters. Rousselot has previous experience with both films’ directors. His relationship with Redford goes back 15 years to A River Runs Through It, which resulted in Rousselot winning an Academy Award for best cinematography. He also shot Washington’s directing debut, Antwone Fisher.
Since Redford also acts in many of his own films, does he give the department heads more leeway? “I wouldn’t say so,” says the cinematographer. “Obviously when he’s in front of the camera as well as directing, he has more work to do. But he’s as comfortable working with the crew as any director I’ve worked with.”
On Debaters, about a group of young black debaters in the 1930s who wind up beating Harvard, “he has displayed more confidence,” Rousselot says. “He has found a method of organizing his work, and I would say he’s totally comfortable in directing now. He knows what he wants to achieve and how to do it. He’s become a very, very good director and he’s very comfortable with the crew.”
Washington “works a huge amount, and gets to the set one or two hours before anyone else,” Rousselot says.
Sharen Davis, who did the costumes for both of the films Washington has directed, said that on Antwone Fisher “he approached the film as an actor and he trusted the department heads to carry on with what they knew.” On Debaters, it was more like working with a director than an actor. “He’s really moved up on the learning curve,” she says. “He studies every aspect very hard, from the cameras down to the props, and he really demonstrates a great understanding of everyone’s department on the film.”
Washington also appears in the film. “He directed to the very last minute, and then he’d put his actor’s cap on,” says Davis. Washington’s skills paid off in helping to coach cast members. “There was a very young group of actors who were doing the first movie of this scope and he used his advantages as an actor, especially for the young ones just starting out.”
Prior to the early 1960s, when the old studio system as film factory had crumbled and star power meant the freedom to make career choices beyond acting, it was rare for an actor to get a chance to direct. That decade saw actors became directors somewhat more frequently, though mostly in one-off efforts. For example, Marlon Brando in 1961 directed One-Eyed Jacks, in which he also starred. Probably the most notable breakthrough was Redford, who won his only Oscar for the first film he directed, 1980’s Ordinary People, launching a long dual career for the box office superstar.
One of the newer actors to try their hand at director is Affleck on Gone Baby Gone. While Affleck has earned accolades for the film, its making was not without difficulties. The original editor was replaced and William Goldenberger stepped in and helped reassure the neophyte director.
“He did rely on me at first, because he was changing editors and he was nervous,” says Goldenberger. “I think he was unsure that when he was shooting that he was getting what he wanted and that there was going to be a good film there.”
Affleck had done his own rough cut on about half the film before Goldenberger arrived. “I needed to reassure him that the footage I was seeing was really good, the performances were excellent and that the story was going to work. I told him to be patient with it, and enjoy getting to know the movie,” the editor said.
“Like most good directors, he caught on fast,” added Goldenberger. “After a few weeks went by I felt it like I was working with somebody who had directed many times before. He knew the material inside out. He studied all the dailies and he was very fluent with all the material so it helped immensely going through the editing process.”
Will Affleck continue to direct? “I don’t want to speak for him, but I think he might prefer that over acting,” Goldenberger said. “Ben felt a tremendous sense of satisfaction in the whole process.”
Penn has directed several features, but Into the Wild was the most difficult and, literally, most adventurous movie project he had undertaken.
The film is about a free spirit who travels to Alaska in search of solitude and transcendence but winds up dying accidentally. Although Penn didn’t act in the film, editor Jay Cassidy — who first worked with Penn the director on Indian Runner in 1992 — said that his “process as an actor and director is similar. He’s looking for a certain authenticity in the moment.”
Penn also took his turn behind the camera lens. “Sean likes to operate (the camera) on certain kinds of shots,” Cassidy said. “Our DP, Eric Gautier, operated as well, as did Jacques Joffret, who is a great SteadyCam operator.”
With a daunting total of 135 hours of footage shot, Cassidy did a first assembly and then, over six months, fine-tuned the film from Penn’s home office in Marin County, Calif. Given Penn’s reputation for intensity, what was it like working with him so closely over that stretch? “For my taste, there’s nobody anymore fun to work with than Sean,” Cassidy says.
One characteristic shared by many actor-turned-director films is that they tend to get good reviews and also do well at the box office. That remains to be seen for the current crop of actor-directors. But it’s a pretty good bet that this trend will continue, if not accelerate.

Written by Jack Egan

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