Greta Gerwig is buzzing around Hollywood this week, smiling patiently while interviewers heap praise on her. Her oddly titled new movie, Lady Bird, is not only superbly crafted, but also a rarity – a successful directing debut. As such, she replicates the achievement of Jordan Peele, who earlier this year directed his first movie, a major hit titled Get Out. Then there’s Aaron Sorkin, whose first directing effort, Molly’s Game, also is stoking the award fires.
The decision to make a directing debut is usually a near-fatal experience — ask movie stars like Marlon Brando (the surreal One Eyed Jacks) or Tom Hanks (the frothy and forgettable That
Thing You Do) or writers like Matt Weiner (Are You Here — he wasn’t). The gifted Alan J. Pakula went from producing To Kill A Mockingbird to directing the lifeless Sterile Cuckoo. Robert Redford’s first directing effort, Ordinary People, was sleep-inducing, but his star power earned it better reviews than the film deserved. Clint Eastwood weirdly cast himself as a confused radio talk show host in Play Misty For Me, his 1971 directing bow, but later proved more adept at casting and directing.
Almost every star flirts with the idea of “stretching” by directing a film. In most cases their agents talk them out of it, citing the considerable time (and lost income) involved in prepping, shooting and editing. Howard W. Koch, a battle-hardened producer, once described his shock when a first-time director showed up on the set without having studied locations or even prepared a shot list. The first-timer was Elaine May and, to no one’s surprise, her debut film, A New Leaf, doubled its original budget. But so did Steven Spielberg’s second feature — his first on location — the modest thriller called Jaws (he now admits he was ill-prepared).
First-time directors lately have met unpredictable fates. Tim Miller set perhaps an all-time record for neophytes two years ago with the near-billion-dollar hit Deadpool (he failed to survive the sequel). Often a first-timer’s background can work against him: Andy Serkis, best known recently for the Planet of the Apes franchise, feels that gig may have baffled critics when they then next saw Breathe, his very touching film about a polio victim whose inventions liberate him from his disability. In the same vein, the background of Peele was shrewdly played down by producer Jason Blum during the initial campaign for Get Out.
To be sure, the most widely heralded debut of a new director was Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, but few realized it wasn’t her first after all. Jenkins had earlier made a low-budget film titled Monster, which won an Oscar for Charlize Theron but in no way suggested the glitzy showmanship displayed in the subsequent Warner Bros/DC tentpole.
Gerwig’s successful directing bow was predicted by associates like Joe Swanberg, who led her off-beat fraternity of mumblecore filmmakers, but questioned by outsiders critical of their aggressively unstructured approach. One writer for the New Yorker, after interviewing her, noted that while her comments were “precise and literate,” she also seemed like “she had taken a small dose of LSD.” On the set of Lady Bird, however, she was both prepared and disciplined. When approaching her score, however, she repeated a mistake of another first-time director, Mike Nichols. She had locked herself into a Dave Matthews Band song, “Crash Into Me,” but lacked the rights to use it (she wrote a personal letter pleading her case). Nichols, on The Graduate, built in several Simon & Garfunkel songs without permission, forcing his backers to write some major checks.
To no one’s surprise, Sorkin, as a first-time director, turns out to be faithfully protective of his prolific dialogue. Molly’s Game is steeped in information about poker and the gambling compulsion in all its manifestations. Every character not only delivers his lines but then explains why he said them, as they tended to do in The Social Network. If first-time filmmakers of old like Hal Ashby focused on the visual, Sorkin’s fixation is on intellectual gamesmanship, and he delivers it nimbly.
James Franco was so fascinated by the failure of neophyte directors he made a very funny movie, The Disaster Artist, depicting their dilemma. This year’s crop of neophytes, however, adeptly prove that failure is far from inevitable.