Rings Of A Tree

At the tail end of the summer of ’95 I went to a BBQ of a friend of a friend’s place in Burbank. There I met a crew member who’d worked in a key position on “The Usual Suspects, ” which had just come out in theaters six weeks earlier to much acclaim. Enthusiastically I asked what that experience had been like and they began to dump a bucket of vitriol all over the movie, and in particular, the director, Bryan Singer. They told me he was a clown, a fool, both clueless and nitpicking. He didn’t know how to run a set, direct actors, or how even pronounce ‘Keyser Sozes'’ name correctly. They said it was a miracle the film got made. There was more but it’s irrelevant. Because here’s the thing:

It’s obvious to anyone who saw “The Usual Suspects” that summer that Bryan Singer
knew what he was doing.

In fact, anyone who has
ever seen “The Usual Suspects” knows immediately that Bryan Singer is a world class director.

So… WTF, right?

As I’ve clawed my way up the ladder of Hollywood, and fallen down a few rungs or two, I’ve thought about that conversation again and again. How could a crew member work on a legitimately classic film—one that would literally redefine the genre—and yet be utterly clueless that they were part of something great? And over the years I began to liken The Movie Business to dendrochronology, the rings of a tree. But instead of measuring time it measures castes. Within each ring you Know Something you’re not aware of in the previous outer ring. As you get closer to the center of the tree each ring is another, higher level of knowledge and responsibility and pain and accountability. I assume when you get to heartwood, the center of the tree, you’ll find God, sitting on a mushroom, thinking, ”You dumb motherfuckers have no idea.”

And we don’t.

The work demands that confused me as a runner made perfect sense when I bumped up to apprentice editor. Likewise the leaps from assistant to editor to eventually producing and directing. The level of responsibility and situational awareness get bigger every step inward you go. When the day came in ’88 that I sat at a
Moviola as a picture editor I thought The Job entailed crafting the mise en scène of the film with the director. But it became obvious that The Work was as much management as creative aptitude. I quickly understood why all the editors I’d been around seemed so harried most of the time. And why most of the work was done at night. With every new movie I’d edit it seemed more and more I was in all these meetings and confidential discussions and politics. OMG the politics. It’s unending. You have producers pulling you to one side ordering you to, “Cut the movie this way, ” while the director pulls you to the other and tells you to, “No, cut it that way. ” And both of them are all, ”Don’t tell them I told you to do this.” Oh, and there’s a four page fax from a dentist in Wichita who invested in the film and has some notes about the next cut, specifically, "Can you make the rape scene sexier?" (That's a real note I got once. And no, I can't.)

One of The Things We Learned making “Clocking The T” was this: Just because people are in the movie making business doesn’t mean they’re
filmmakers. Sure, they know that the pieces being shot--close ups, medium and wide shots--will be edited into The Movie. Maybe they even understand Kuleshov’s Effect. But they’re on a twelve hour turnaround and you’re on four. So they can't really wrap their head around how to cut the fabric so the pattern matches across the seam-line while the sweatshop manager SCREAMS at you to, “SEW FASTER! ” So the cast and crew will whisper conspiratorially and look at you like an idiot. They think you’re an idiot because they don’t know what’s happening off the set. They second guess you because they don’t know the context of what’s happening in that moment. And that context? It’s three weeks of shit that they weren’t around for. And if you told them you could get sued.

That’s context, bitches.

So you swallow your pride and keep a' pushing. Isolated by the mantra
Need To Know. It’s like a march. You move forward, day by day, step by step. And like a march there is that point where the physical pain and emotional anguish fall away, and you are separate from the present task. You exist outside yourself. Almost as if it was a dream. But the reality is that You Are At War. With the expectations of others. With the location that just went poof. With the actor who doesn't know their lines. With the 127 year mythology of filmmaking. With the forces of nature itself fucking with your weather forecast. And with your own mental, physical, and creative limitations. In the beginning I thought that producing or directing a movie was like being on a rollercoaster. But actually it's more like that machine at IKEA that robotically pokes a chair a million fucking times in a row to find its breaking point. Given a long enough timeline it will snap. And you hope to lock picture before that happens to you because if you collapse, there probably won't be a hand to help you get back up. You will lie broken under a song of snickers and smiles that you failed and they didn't.

That they didn't try is not part of this mathematical equation.

So the sum will always equal Your Failure.

Because you made an critical error in the variables.

You thought that art (
x) would bring people together (y).

It won't.

By and large the world is afraid of diva's. They’re high octane and high maintenance. And in our world of The Clock Is Ticking and Every Minute Is Money, there’s little room for them anymore in an Excel spreadsheet budget. But ironically,
dilettantes are more dangerous. They're the know it all's, the backseat drivers, the wisenheimer windbags. They can barely do their job and out of the inferiority coded in their DNA is born the defense mechanism of convincing themselves they know how to do yours. Worse, they have the talent to convince others of that too. Dilettantes think being the high school quarterback makes them good enough for the Superbowl. It doesn't. Remember the rings of the tree? They're on the ring further out from you so their circumference is bigger. That means there's more of them then there are of you. From their ring you look smaller and confused and ill-equipped, both professionally and creatively. But from your ring you can see hellfire over the horizon that they can’t. Sure, you theoretically Leave Them Behind as you inch inward/upward, but then again, two rings closer and you’re getting hassled by Pinhead about a payroll deposit for next week’s shooting. And the ring you were just at? It’s full of people like you then but sadly shaking their head. The stakes go up, the fall is higher. This is unknown to dilettantes from their vantage on the cliff above admiring the surf while you are On The Beach being pounded by the waves.

Crews like to second guess the director. Hell, every show I was ever on
loved that game. Sitting on an apple box shit-talking the director is as close to whittling wood as Hollywood gets. Someday you’ll be in a Burbank backyard and you’ll run into a member of my cast or crew and they’ll say about me, “He’s a clown, a fool, both clueless and nitpicking. He didn’t know how to run a set, direct actors, and do I even need to mention the constant tripping on cables or eating all that licorice? No. I do not. ” They’ll say I’m one of those directors.

And I deserve it.

Because I’ve whittled the same wood. And I think back to a lot of the the bizarre and nonsensical requests forced on me over the years and think,
’Did they have a point I just wasn’t privy to? Some crazy shit going on behind the curtains I didn’t know about? ’ It’s hard to say, because statistically speaking, I worked with a lot of legitimate dumb asses too. So who the hell knows? But now I’m the dumb ass. Because you don’t know why I’m reshooting this scene again, or why I’m going double digits on this take, or that we almost shut down the show last night for reasons we can’t tell you. So yeah, of course what I’m asking doesn’t make sense.

I’m one of those directors.

© Michael Thibault 2016, All Rights Reserved. May Not Be Printed, Published, Posted, Transferred, Or Duplicated Without Permission.