What makes a good movie director?

I get rather annoyed by the people who claim George Lucas is a good movie director. He will be known for the Star Wars saga, regardless of what else he does. I have been a Star Wars fan since the age of around 4 in 1977, this does not make me blind to the movies…..they are not great. So what does make a good director? Here is my assessment.

A director is responsible for creating what we see and hear on screen. If he or she writes the story or not is irrelevant. If that story works or not in another format like a novel is irrelevant……every media is different, and requires a different approach. The director is (like any other role) a human being; their decisions cannot be put through a calculator and an action chosen. It’s what makes it an art. The director must have an overall vision of how the project will look and feel after it’s all edited together, the after effects added in, the soundtrack finished etc…….they work with the raw components.

They cast for the roles they need filled. They have an idea of the actors they see in the role. They have their own reasons for these decisions …..sometimes it’s commercial (the hot box office draw of the moment), sometimes it’s personal (I worked with this person before and get on well with them), ambition (I’ve always wanted to work with this actor but never had the chance before) or any number of other reasons. The bottom line is that the director chooses WHO they want in each role….for whatever reason or combination of reasons. If they get the actor wrong, the character is not sold to the audience…..this is the directors duty.

The director works with various people behind the scenes to get the sets built to their specifications and budget……and gives their OK to the results before filming. A dodgy looking set or mistakes which take the audience away from the story are the directors fault. The same goes for the make up, prosthetics etc that the actors wear on set.

After the actors are chosen, the director works with them on set, making sure the lines are delivered exactly as envisioned. The director’s focus should be entirely on the monitor at this point…..to see what the audience will see. They have to be able to imagine it all tidied up with the effects added, cuts to and from the scene etc…..but that is the directors job. When the lines don’t sound right the director should spot that and sort it…..if that means rewriting the lines, so be it. If that means rewriting the scene, so be it. If that means scrapping the scene, so be it.

Every scene has to be shot from at least one angle, but most often multiple angles with multiple ranges, and then cut together afterwards, with shots done in different sessions to help tell the story and get the best takes. A director has to have a feeling for what angles to use, how long to hold a shot for, how long to set up a shot before the important action starts….or how long before a fade out. This is all instinct. This is also the directors job.

 


Extras

The director must scrutinize every part of every frame in every scene to make sure the lighting, background etc is the way they want …..which includes the extras. An extra who has been given little or no instructions in the background can break the mood of an otherwise decent scene.

The climax of Episode II – Attack Of The Clones sees the Clone Wars begin on Geonosis. A breathtaking sequence set in a battle arena between 1,000’s of droids and around 200 Jedi. This spreads out to the rest of the planet….and from there ignites the galaxy. This is the first large scale Jedi action we see. Of course it focuses mainly on the main characters Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Padme Amidala and Mace Windu. The rest are there mainly as background action, and sadly it often shows.

Hayden Christiansen (Anakin Skywalker), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Samuel L Jackson (Mace Windu) were clearly given saber instruction to be able to move at speed and under graceful control….and look natural. Their scenes were choreographed to make them look good and move the story forward.

Watch this sequence again and concentrate on the extras this time. The other Jedi look like they were given the prop sabers and told to “improvise” and that the CGI team will add in the blaster fire afterwards to match their actions. Look at the number of shots where the extras look lost. There are a number of key members of the Jedi Council in action here too. Most are unknown extras there to make up the numbers.

You’re supposed to be wowed by the action center stage. A good director would first instruct the extras, and secondly spot those out of place during the filming. This could be partially down to the fact that there’s so much CGI that it can easily be covered up. These extras, like the main cast were acting in front of a blue screen to imaginary enemies after all.

Even Jango Fett; who is supposed to be a crack bounty hunter seems rather amateur on the battlefield….given how easily he is killed. Of course, a prolonged duel with him takes away from the main action, which is why he’s written off so quick……this part also fits neatly into the following section.


Short cuts they think we won’t notice

At a turning point of Episode III – Revenge Of The Sith, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine is confronted by FOUR SENIOR JEDI MASTERS to be either arrested, or killed. It is no coincidence that these four were on Coruscant at this point. They knew the search for the Darth Sidious was nearing completion. They fully intended to be on planet to deal with it when it happened.

ALL FOUR have their blades ignited and ready, they ALL know that Darth Sidious is not going to go without a fight. Yet somehow TWO of them stand like stunned rabbits as Darth Sidious flies across the room, ignites his own blade and kills them. Darth Sidious even HOLDS THE POSE before stabbing one, and they do nothing. WTF???? Straight after that…..Kit Fisto (a master swordsbeing apparently) has enough reactions to get a few parries in then look stunned and be killed himself.

This leaves a one to one showdown between two leading characters. This fight should have been MUCH longer, and gradually thinned down to a one to one. This was only done because no one thought to train Ian McDermid (Supreme Chancellor Palpatine / Darth Sidious) in saber fighting. They had to keep it simple for him. This is sloppy.

I understand that Episode III had a lot more to it, and therefor shortcuts had to be made in certain scenes to keep the overall length down. It’s all in where you thin it down. This duel kinda undermines the abilities of the four JEDI MASTERS. Only Mace Windu manages to put up a fight…..which makes you wonder why the Jedi were so hard to overthrow.

The way I mentally cross this bridge is that because the Sith have evolved beyond the need for lightsabers, Darth Sidious used some vocal trick unknown to the Jedi (the beast call) to temporarily stun them for an easy kill. It’s merely an excuse I use…..it was still a shortcut by George Lucas.

The Darth Sidious and Mace Windu dialog during the Sith lightning in the end half of this sequence leads neatly into the next section.


Bad dialog

Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) at the start of this clip makes me cringe every time I watch it. There’s quote attributed to Harrison Ford (Han Solo) during the filming of the original trilogy, that you “just can’t speak this shit” (I’m paraphrasing here). I have no idea if it’s genuine or not….I do know it’s true. It’s just one example of lines which work on paper, but do not work when spoken.

I don’t blame the actors totally, they rely on being directed by the director. It’s the directors job to have a vision of where and how this scene fits into the overall project and how it affects the mood of the whole. Most of the time the actors in any project have no idea what the final project will be like…….they have to hope it all pulls together and is at least not a doozy. Sometimes the actors sense they’re onto a winner while filming….but that’s VERY rare.

It’s the directors job to watch as his or her actors play out a scene, and make sure the dialog is delivered as they want it to be. If a line does not work….a director should spot it in a heartbeat……..it’s part of being a director. They should figure what needs changed, and get the actors to do it again with the changes. Do it until the director is happy with it.

I know Natalie Portman wasn’t keen on doing Episode III, so her performances need to be judged through that veil. This is not me having a go at her solely. It was an obvious clip I could find to demonstrate the fact that the ENTIRE SIX MOVIES IN THE SAGA are littered with this type of dialog.


This is not a judgment of the inclusion of Jar Jar Binks. I understand his purpose. The Star Wars saga was ALWAYS aimed at kids, he is the comic relief. I was the correct age when it first burst onto the world in 1977. Like everyone, I grew up….I have matured as a human being, which includes my tastes. I am now accustomed to more complex storylines with multiple threads and morals. I am NOT the age the prequels are aimed at.

Those who judge it often forget they are seeing it through eyes of the wrong age. To please the original generation of fans George Lucas could have written the prequels in a more adult vein and released them with an 18 rating. This would have been great, but it would NOT have been Star Wars.

This is not a competition over which trilogy is better, nor a criticism of individuals involved in making the movies. It is a critique of the skills as a director of George Lucas. Making a box office smash returning mega-bucks does not necessarily make a good movie; but a successful one. I do not deny that the Star Wars saga is unbelievably profitable, nor its influence on other directors, actors etc. I do not deny it’s success. I do state that they are not good movies….made by a director who should not be directing.

All directors have to make judgments based on budget, time etc. They sometimes have to accept 4 takes when none was exactly right because the deadline is drawing close and they are already overdue. This means that the odd line of badly delivered dialog slips through. This is natural…..it happens to most directors. George Lucas seems to build his movies on bad dialog…….and is unable to see it himself.

Am I a Star Wars fan? Yes….I just think the movies pretty much suck. The prequels were more of a completion than a joy. Episode III was by far the best of those, but for me the Star Wars saga is all about the Expanded Universe; the novels and graphic novels. The novelizations of the movies are much better than the movie versions. Mathew Stover’s Episode III – Revenge Of The Sith is a masterpiece and makes the movie feel stunted in comparison.

People label George Lucas as a “great storyteller”. For that he has to be the master of his medium and make sure to keep the audience away from the fact that it’s actors on a set delivering prepared lines with effects added in afterwards. There is nothing wrong with the story of the Star Wars saga (remember this is not a Jar Jar Binks or Ewok flaming blog), just it’s interpretation in movie format by someone who is lacking in the skills to do it justice.

What makes it worse in George Luca’s case in relation to the prequels, is that he funded them entirely himself. He had no masters hounding him for a final cut. He had no studio overlords putting constraints on him. They were entirely his own work. What George wants, George gets…….to me this translates as an artists dream. He has NO EXCUSES for the prequels not being masterpieces. He knew the market was there screaming for the new movies….no matter how long they took to be released. They’d make their money back even without any fanfare of the usual Hollywood release. During the original trilogy his status was very different, so allowances can be made (to a point). George has not done much else of note…….other than the Star Wars saga which he keeps rolling out with a new edition, therefore his abilities as a director must be judged on it.

I won’t mention the fact of the cynical marketing ploy of lots of different editions of the movies being released. Personally I am waiting for only one…the 6 DVD box set with all the movies in one set. Until then, I’ll happily live without them. I can close my eyes and watch them anyway, I’ve seen them enough over the years. I could easily go through all six movies scene by scene in much more detail, but that’d no doubt infringe on copyright concerns as I’d have to post all six movies here as demonstrations, so I’ll end it here…….for now.

Just for fun, and as a reward for staying with me, I’ve included an original trilogy bloopers video I found. Enjoy!!

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