Films And The Super Ego

Created on 16/4/19

This started out as a series of reviews on current films, Ad Astra, Downtown Abbey and Rambo Last Blood and a new TV series of Catherine the Great and then it turned into something else.

I bet you don’t know what these films and the TV series have in common? Of course, they are all contain extremely professional and proficient film making. They are well acted to a varying degree and obviously they are made by serious minded, very talented people.

Their commonality comes from the super egos of some of the leading participants in the making of these films.

I can trace this back to when it was no longer for a director to be called a film’s director, when he or she demanded the immortal words, “A film by...” in addition to the director credit. I have to own up to some familial background on this one because it was my father who gave this credit to Roman Polanski for his first two English language films, made for dad, Repulsion and Cul-de-Sac. Once he got the credit every Tom, Dick or Harry saw themselves as an auteur. Put another way even if the director hadn’t written the script, he was claiming it was his vision that made the film so, in effect, even if he hadn’t written the film he had, through his work somehow created it. Personally, as someone who has directed some films myself, I thought the writer was the author and the director brought his or her vision to the screen, not the other way around.

This brings me to another credit I don’t really understand. “Created by.” which is now commonly added on TV films to the credit, “Written by…” Surely if you wrote the piece you must have created it. Why do you need two credits for the one function? Perhaps this created by credit was a defence mechanism aimed at film directors trying to usurp their position on the totem pole.

My father, a very wise and successful film producer always used to say that if there were more than one film producer credit on screen then there was no film producer. I have witnessed this many times and its almost always due to the fact that most people don’t understand or care that there is an actual job called film producer. He is, in fact, probably the most important cog in the wheel of film making, which is, after all, a creative team job made up of various crafts. A producer finds the material, develops it, casts the director, helps with the casting of actors, does the deals, finds the money, organises the production team, the location deals, oversees the edits and all post-production, the sales, and does the distribution deals. He or she is responsible for putting everything in front of the director so that he or she can do their job.

A director is responsible for anything in front of his or her cameras. For the artistic interpretation of the script from the writer.

Another credit much misunderstood is that of Executive Producer. This was, at one time, the person from the film studio to oversee the production to their specific contractual commitments. Then it became the person who put the finance together through some deals which he or she then passed on to the producer who could actually produce a film. When finance became more complex with the advent of different media providing varying pots of money, tax shelter deals, sales agent input etc. each of those people were suddenly credited as Executive Producer. This became even more clouded with incredulity when stars started to receive this credit merely for appearing in the film. In other words it started out as a means of giving the actor an extra fee for them doing a non-existent function. But this degenerated even further when some of these starts began to demand control over various elements of the production because, after all, they were executive producers.

The best example of a person who was probably the greatest producer of all time was a man who never took a single credit. Step forward Irving Thalberg who ran production during the golden era of MGM. He was the real power on over 400 feature films during his short tenure before he died at the age of 37.

Thalberg who died in 1936 was an American and a real film producer during the early years of motion pictures. He was called "The Boy Wonder" because of his youth and an uncanny ability to select the right scripts, choose the actors, and bring together the top production staff talent while producing profitable films, which included classics like, The Good Earth, Camille, Mutiny on the Bounty and Grand Hotel His films carved out an international market, portraying the American dream through the medium of cinema.

After school he worked in a store clerk and then became a secretary at the New York office of Universal Studios, and his talent was soon spotted, and he was promoted to studio manager for their Los Angeles facility. There, he oversaw production of a hundred films during his three years with Universal. Among these films was The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

In Los Angeles, he went to work for Louis B. Mayer’s new studio and, after it merged with two other studios, they created (MGM). He became head of production of MGM in 1925, at the age of twenty-six, helping MGM become the most successful studio in Hollywood. During his twelve years with MGM, until his early death at age 37, he produced four hundred films, most of which bore his imprint and innovations, including story conferences with writers, sneak previews to gain early feedback, and extensive re-shooting of scenes to improve the film. In addition, he merged the world of stage drama and literary classics with Hollywood films. That’s what you call a real producer!

Thalberg created new film stars and groomed their screen images. Among them were Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer who went on to become Mrs Thalberg.

He had the ultimate producer’s dream ability combining quality with commercial success and was credited with bringing his artistic aspirations in line with the demands of audiences. After his death, Hollywood's producers said he had been the world's "foremost figure in motion-picture history." President Roosevelt wrote, "The world of art is poorer with the passing of Irving Thalberg. His high ideals, insight and imagination went into the production of his masterpieces."

Since 1937, The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award is given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (The Oscars) periodically to producers whose body of work reflects consistently high-quality films. Thalberg was a giant of producing who never thought it necessary to take a credit. Compare his amazing accomplishments as a producer with people who demand a credit and don’t really deserve one.

Most people think that producing begins and ends with the finding of production finance and that’s why there are so many films that lose their way during production. That leaves it open for others with the power on the set to take over and fill that vacuum. In the films I viewed there is clear evidence of this visible in many ways. Most often to the detriment of those films. The single biggest problem on any film is when the star is also the film’s executive producer. This is the biggest conflict of interest in the film business.

In Ad Astra you can see the problem because Brad Pitt, its star and its executive producer, has to be in almost every shot and in most of them he is in extreme close up. Now, I have to admit that he is a very handsome chap, and I bow to no one in my admiration for him in his acting ability. But come on, how many lingering close ups of that handsome face can there be in the one film. If he didn’t have too much power, there would have been a more balanced film in which he would have benefited from some increased objectivity. The film is self- indulgent, flabby, confusing and contains huge plot holes.

The same is true for Rambo Last Blood, which has Sylvester Stallone starring and serving as that film’s executive producer. This savage film was not to my taste at all because it was so bloody, I couldn’t look at the screen several times. Is it necessary to be that violent, gory or plain nasty? It seems to me that this judgement call was the province of Mr Stallone and he would have been well served to be less bloody and not end up with a deserved 18 certificate. I guess no one could over-rule him. We all recognise Sylvester’s stature as an action hero, even now, especially in either this franchise or the Rocky saga. But didn’t anyone look at the script (and look away now if you don’t want to know the ending!) and say it’s unnecessary for our hero to cut out the heart of his enemy and hold it up to his face as he died? It’s sadism and epitomises and sucks the viewer into the pornography of violence.

Another person blessed with the Executive Producer credit is Julian Fellowes the writer of Downton Abbey. The difference here is that the man has shepherded his creation through years of ultra-successful television series. He deserves some production control because he knows his material better than anyone else can and it is his work that made this film possible. His involvement with the film is beneficial and loving. If you want undemanding and nostalgic film making with a fair sprinkling of sentimental syrup, then this is the undemanding film for you. I thought it could have been much more but was still OK with being bathed in a warm bath of comforting faux love for a past that most people in this country never experienced except as servants to the great and good. But Mr Fellowes knows his material and his audience, and he deserves our respect and appreciation.

My viewing highlight came in the unexpected form of “Catherine the Great” starring Helen Mirren as the Russian Empress. Quite simply Ms. Mirren is brilliant in the role which you can find right now on Sky Atlantic. Catch it if you can or binge watch it if you can make the time. The production values are also excellent and if Helen Mirren as its executive producer had anything to do with those elements, which I doubt, then she deserves extra kudos for the magnificence and scope of the canvas on which this story unfolds.

Catherine the Great was a leader who literally built the Russian Empire with her lover and companion Prince Potemkin. It’s a fascinating story brilliantly told.

I shall return to my own films currently in production satisfied with my credits that are limited to the actual jobs I did. But if any of you want to invest some money with us, I guess we could call you an Executive Producer…

Here are our cores out of 10 for your films and shows this week –
Ad Astra 4
Rambo Last Blood 2
Downton Abbey 7
Catherine the Great 9