BY NEIL LABUTE
(© Aaron Eckhart)
The director of The Wicker Man and In the Company of Men suggests we pay more attention to art of movies and less to the box office grosses.
I had the good fortune to go to the movies with my 15-year-old son the other evening—journalists be damned; if you want to know the truth about a film, attend one with a teenager. We decided to take in an Indian film called Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye). We enjoyed ourselves immensely, laughing along with the picture (on occasion, at it) and having a generally terrific night out. It was thrilling to see him sit through three-plus hours of subtitles and relish the experience in the same way that I did when I was younger. The fine art of attending foreign films has largely been lost on even my generation so it’s hugely refreshing to see someone of Spencer’s age sit down and invest his time and money (OK, my money) in an evening of Bollywood romantic shenanigans.
One thing that happened during the film over its 180 minutes really took me back to another era of movie-going; at roughly the midway point of the picture, a title card flashed on screen announcing “intermission” and I was transported back to a time when I would attend the movies with my family, seeing such films as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Doctor Zhivago, Fiddler on the Roof or revivals of pictures like Gone With the Wind. I remembered how much I enjoyed a mid-movie break that allowed the crowd to flood back out into the lobby, use the restroom or replenish their supplies. It was a fantastic moment—intermission—that turned the evening into an “event” and one that I didn’t realize that I missed so much until I saw that simple card during my recent night out.
When did it become such a bad thing for movies to be long, to offer us more than our money’s worth? I’m not sure when, exactly, but I know that it’s happened—I can’t think of the last time I encountered an intermission in the middle of an American film, studio or otherwise. The bottom line has probably always been the bottom line but perhaps the makers of movies (or at least the peddlers of such) were more artful in hiding their true intentions back in the day. A night at the movies used to feel like a much more special thing when I was a child. Single-screen cinemas that beckoned you in like the great palaces of Europe used to be the standard and there never seemed to be a push to cram as many screenings into a schedule as possible. An intermission was expected, or at least a pause before the second feature began (when was the last time you saw a double feature?). Movies had the power to transport you and I knew it. This wasn’t real life I was watching up there, it was better than life and populated with impossibly beautiful people doing thrilling, funny, serious, frightening, mysterious and wonderful things right before my eyes.
These thoughts lead me to a moment when I sat bolt upright in my seat—the third in a series of inexplicable but delightful dance numbers was playing on-screen—and I reminded myself why I’m really here, what I’ve gotten out of my short decade working in this medium. I have a film opening in September and it’s natural to find oneself gearing up for the big weekend, to hear on Friday afternoon the projections of how the film will do at the box office; what kind of money it’s going to make; who will be number one. I know that I’m now part of that race, whether I like it or not, but I’m a runner who sincerely wishes there was another route that these games could take. I did not make my first film because I wanted to make money—I had something to say and found a medium that was the best and clearest way in which to say it. I made that picture (In the Company of Men) for $25,000 and enjoyed the hell out of the 11-day shoot. The film went on to compete in the Sundance Film Festival, the Cannes Film Festival and was released to very strong reviews in the summer of 1997. Did it make a lot of money? Not really, no. In comparison to what it cost, I suppose it did, but to me it was a chance to begin working in a field that I had always admired but never dreamed I’d be a part of.
I know that I’ll be tempted to read the papers on Monday morning or listen to the news for the box office report, but I really don’t want to live like that. I want movies to mean what they used to mean for me; they should be an escape and a thrill, not just a business. I’ve worked with some amazing people already and hope to work with many more. I’ve sat down to lunch with William Friedkin and e-mailed Sydney Pollack and gotten the chance to hear stories about the world of moviemaking that were better than any years I might’ve spent in a film school. I wrote an article for Premiere magazine about Warren Beatty and was able to go back and watch a dozen or so of his greatest films. That’s what I love about movies—great actors and directors working at the top of their craft, taking me away for a few hours to a place I’ve never been before. The one thing I didn’t check while I was watching those pictures? How much they made at the box office.
My mother watches The Today Show and on Monday mornings will often tell me who won the box office race—from that news she will decide what she should see the next weekend. Number one has taken on a stamp of quality to her; if it made the most money, it must be good. I’d hate to be the one to tell her the truth, but I’m here to say it to you. Be true to yourselves as filmmakers—go with your gut and not the monitor, listen to your editor and not the preview audience, don’t be afraid of dialogue but know when to cut away, and listen to your elders (they’ve been doing this for a lot longer than you have). It’s hard not to think of what we do as a business—it is a business, I’m aware of that and accept it, but we don’t have to operate within it as businesspeople. We are artists, whether anybody likes it or not. And don’t worry so much about what Monday brings—in my book we’re all as good as our best work, not just our last work.
On the Tuesday following Labor Day (I have to suffer through a holiday weekend), I plan to go with my son to see a movie. Maybe even my movie. Why? Because it’s still fun to go to the movies and that will always be more than enough reason for me.
Neil LaBute directed In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty and Possession. His latest film, The Wicker Man, opened in September 2006.