The following is from a series of essays re-imagining the entertainment industry for a digital age. If it ever becomes a book, the title will be Hollywood 2.0.
An actor expects two takes, minimum. There are some exceptions. I believe Sidney Lumet advised directors to do only one take of some unimportant shot, early on in a shoot, to show the crew they should always remain vigilant. Steven Spielberg has said he doesn’t like to rehearse actors in front the camera, since the first time is always the most spontaneous. But of course that’s just a preference, and he still does as many takes as he needs to get the right performance.
You would expect indie films to have fewer takes. I have heard of footage ratios as low as 4:1 — for every one minute you see on screen, four minutes were shot. You only get that by being very very careful what you shoot. The inexpensiveness of digital recording compared to film has flipped the equation. Now there are probably more indie films which depend only on 1/100 minutes being worth watching (and plenty of bad minutes get in).
The Difference Between Tom Cruise and Michael Jordan
I think what professional actors do is amazing. They are like athletes: they have to perform on demand, and under incredible scrutiny. But film is not like sports. In film, you can take that shot at the goal over and over (and over) until you make it. The magic of multiple takes makes every film a real-life Groundhog’s Day, reliving the moment until you reach perfection.
It’s hard to know for sure, but my suspicion is this would be Stanley Kubrick’s theory. As you may recall, the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey was notorious for his profligacy with camera takes. He wanted to reach a point where the action felt second-nature, something that requires repetition. And he would have appreciated the recent research that shows repetition to be a critical part of success. But this idea is not unique to Kubrick, even if the single-minded application of it is. Common sense has always maintained the notion, as with the classic joke… “Q. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? A. Practice!”
Even the most non-demanding directors will call “That was perfect, do it again” or “Once more for safety.” It’s not a hollow demand. Any number of things could have been missed on the first take (focus, sound, etc.), and getting all sets, props, lights, and actors aligned again later is costly. And so, even though the performance was “perfect,” the actors are ready go again, once more, “for safety.”
The great actors even relish this second chance. Trusting the editor, they will try a new variation on the performance in each take, or improvise new business or lines. It is the Japanese philosophy of kaizen, continuous improvement. Strive to beat your own record. Be a little better each time.
The One Time the Crew Should Behave More Like Actors
What occurred to me recently is that the best directors don’t just demand multiple takes from actors, they demand it from everyone involved in the film. Composers, editors, costume designers, cinematographers — everyone. I don’t think this is an accident, and it probably wasn’t far from the joke Martin Scorsese made in that credit card commercial… after looking at the lackluster pictures from his nephew’s birthday party he calls up and asks, “Hey Timmy, how would you like to turn five again?”
Just as most producers budget for re-shoots (one big ‘second take’ at the end of the process), they should plan on paying for pre-production ‘second takes’ on costumes, sets — etc. Now I don’t mean doubling the entire budget. But a director should have the encouragement to do trial and error in every department. And there will always be things that don’t add up ‘on the day’.
Composer Marc Shaiman wrote and recorded an entire score for The Emperor’s New Groove. As told in the never-released documentary The Sweatbox, it wasn’t a bad score; it just didn’t work. Somebody made the tough call to scrap it, even though the movie, at that point, was already legendary for its production delays.
Barring a parallel universe where everything is the same except that one decision, we’ll never know for sure if that was the right thing to do. I might argue that Shaiman should have been given another shot provided he was willing to start from scratch. Yes, starting over would be a tough thing to do. I think it’s one of the deepest and most primal fears of any creative person: they will be asked to throw everything out and start from scratch. But, in fact, this is a baseless fear.
A “page-one rewrite” is a chance to take everything you learned doing it the first time but have the complete freedom to deviate from previous choices. And at the end, you’ll have something that is truly comparable to the original, something that you should be able to say “this is worse” or “this is better” about with confidence.
You can say “writing is re-writing” over and over, but you don’t get it until you read an early draft of something like American Beauty and find it’s a courtroom drama that ends with a statutory rape (SPOILER ALERT: The Best Picture-winning movie is not like this) and you realize how much the process of a ‘second take’ can open up creative possibilities. You start to think it is naïve, if not foolish, to presume that the first take is the best that can be done.
Yes, sometimes it is. Sometimes that first draft of the screenplay is the purest, and best. And it takes acumen and humility for a director to acknowledge that their notes have not improved the script, or music cue, or costume. Why does every great director seems to resist the impulse to say yes on the first try? Is it because they wish to take credit for the best ideas, not necessarily “their” ideas? The great ones challenge, they cajole and yes, sometimes they yell. But when they they throw down the gauntlet to the crew, asking, “Is that the best you can do?” they inspire the team to do something better.
And so my “two takes minimum” theory of directing is this:
Comparisons are impossible without at least two alternatives. You will never know for sure if you’ve made the best choice. But with two (or more) choices, you can always be confident you had a solid basis to make a decision.
Corollary: If it is hard to decide between two choices, they probably aren’t that different, so just flip a coin.