Winter 2006

70 Years of Milestones: 1970s
30 Years of Special Projects

By Libby Slate

One morning, almost 15 years ago, several dozen members gathered at the Directors Guild for a breakfast presented by the Special Projects Committee that featured Michael Mann in a discussion of pre-production issues. With the recent release of his latest film, The Last of the Mohicans, Mann brought his enthusiasm for the picture - along with a musket used by Daniel Day-Lewis in the film. The musket became the focus of a lively demonstration of the director's rehearsal process and how he helped the actor to physically inhabit his character.


DGA Special Projects Committee 
Three Cheers: The Special Projects Committee celebrates Robert
Wise's 86th birthday in 2000.


Not the usual fare over bagels and coffee, perhaps, but as one of the many offerings of the Special Projects Committee, it was definitely part of what puts the "special" in Special Projects. For 30 years, the committee has been providing Guild members with unique opportunities like this to get to know individual directors and their work, and to learn more about the craft.

The first endeavor of its kind among entertainment guilds, the Special Projects Committee was inspired by a three-page letter written to the DGA Western Directors Council in 1975 by Elia Kazan, who believed that a Guild "...has the obligation to inspire its every member to better work... pass on its traditions, see that they do not die, that the lessons of experience are not ignored, that achievement builds on achievement."

Accordingly, Guild President Robert Aldrich, who was president at the time, appointed a committee, chaired by the venerable Robert Wise, to explore the matter further. On June 12, 1976, a recommendation to establish a special projects program was unanimously resolved by the DGA National Board.


DGA Quarterly  Winter 2006 Special Projects 
Celebrations: Ray Bradbury gave an inspiring keynote
address at Digital Day in 2005.


By all accounts, there couldn't have been a better choice for chairman than Wise, who selected the committee's sole staff member, David Shepard, and wielded his considerable influence to get things accomplished. He appointed an operations subcommittee, consisting of Noel Black, Lamont Johnson and Francine Parker. Wise held the post for nearly a quarter-century, retiring in December 2000. Ten years ago, he noted in the DGA Magazine that when it came to his service to the Guild, he was most proud of his Special Projects involvement.

The committee took its mandate from a phrase in Kazan's letter, "to collect, preserve and share" the directorial experience, says Shepard, who worked with the committee for more than 10 years. "Our original work included oral histories and media educators' workshops," Shepard says. The oral histories came about because "you had to do it," declares Parker. "It was imperative - these were people who did very valuable work. They were directors and assistant directors who cared about the Guild, and who were pioneers."

The oral histories have given way to the Visual History Program. The Special Projects Committee also continues to organize tributes, incorporating the screening of a director's film with remarks from creative collaborators. One of the earliest Special Projects events saluted John Cromwell, with George Cukor as panel moderator.

For several years, starting with a session with Howard Hawks in Laguna Beach in 1977, the Committee presented up-close-and-personal weekends spotlighting the work of a single director. The retreats have evolved into one-day intensives held at the DGA headquarters. Last September, Garry Marshall, Jim Burrows, Donald Petrie, Betty Thomas and others talked about directing comedy.

In 2000, Wise was succeeded as chairman by committee member Jeremy Kagan. Kagan had already distinguished himself by initiating events such as Directors Breakfasts and the annual Meet the Nominees Symposia, which present discussions with the nominees for the annual DGA Awards. In developing the symposia, Kagan's goal was "to provide more opportunities for Guild members to be in conversation with each other."

Four DGA staffers, led by Special Projects Executive Gina Blumenfeld, now work on ongoing committee programs. Current offerings include new technology seminars and workshops, as well as the Global Cinema Screening Series, co-chaired by Victoria Hochberg and Chuck Workman.


DGA Quarterly  Winter 2006 Special Projects 
Celebrations: John Huston (right) and Barbara Streisand at a dinner for
Akira Kurosawa who received the Guild's Golden Jubilee Award in 1986.


The annual Digital Day event provides members with presentations and hands-on demonstrations of the latest technological advances. In July 2006, more than 500 members and their guests packed the three DGA theaters and grand lobby in Los Angeles for the fourth Digital Day event and got to review a host of new technology.

"I've always been interested in cutting-edge technology and its applications," notes Digital Day subcommittee chair Randal Kleiser. "What formats should a director consider? What's the cheapest and best equipment for low-budget projects? In general, what should members know about changes in their craft?"

As the needs of members continue to evolve, so has the work of the Special Projects Committee. As Kagan notes, "When you stop learning, you stop living." 


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