By David Frankel
“You’re going to ruin your movie!”
You don’t hear that a lot when you’re directing a picture. Or ever.
But I heard it once. In the fall of 2005, while we were shooting The Devil Wears Prada. Someone actually blew the whistle on me. Someone actually had the nerve, or the self-destructive impulse, to call me out for making a bad decision, for steering our movie into dangerous waters.
Of course I almost ruined the movie many, many times. It’s so easy for a director to do. All those choices, day in day out, combined with the exhaustion and the stress and the terror. Sooner or later, usually sooner, you’re bound to make a decision (or 12) that could ruin the movie and everybody knows it. But nobody tells you.
A studio executive told Frankel that Meryl Streep’s white wig
The Devil Wears Prada would ruin the film. Luckily he didn’t listen.
They tell you other things: that you’ve fallen behind schedule, that you’ve gone over budget, that your coverage is thin, that the performances are weak. But nobody ever tells you, point-blank, that if you make this one, crazily stupid, wrongheaded choice, you’re going to ruin your movie. Except this one time, when somebody told me. And it wasn’t who you’d think.
It wasn’t, for example, either of the Fox studio chairmen, Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos, or the marketing guru Bob Harper, who all appeared anxious when I first met them on the eve of prep. They sensed how easily a relative novice like me could ruin their movie. But Harper just put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said, “Please, God, bring us a movie that plays in Cleveland.” And in the end, we did.
And it wasn’t Elizabeth Gabler, the president of Fox 2000, who thought (at first) that it would ruin the movie if Meryl Streep wore a white wig. And urged me to tell Meryl it was a mistake. To which I boldly, defiantly, courageously responded, “You tell her.” Nobody did, and the wig helped define Meryl’s iconic performance as Miranda Priestly.
It wasn’t Meryl Streep herself, who screened her lighting and wardrobe tests and stonily observed that she looked like “death warmed over.” In the cold silence of that screening room, you could just feel the train careening off the tracks. But we adjusted the lighting and the makeup, and ultimately, Meryl was stunning and brilliant.
Nor was it the frighteningly experienced physical production exec, Kim Cooper, who suspected I could ruin a budget, if not a whole movie. “I know your script has 20 pages set in Paris,” said Kim, “but you can’t afford to go to Paris so don’t ask about Paris, don’t write memos about Paris, don’t let the word Paris escape your lips as long as you’re on this lot.” “But how do I shoot the scenes?” I asked. “That’s up to you,” said Kim. “Rewrite it for Cleveland.” (Yes, Cleveland again.) Eventually we persuaded Kim to let us shoot in Paris, for two days, without Meryl.
It wasn’t the screenwriter, Aline Brosh McKenna, though she had every right to accuse me of ruining our movie, especially when, under pressure to cut 10 pages from the script to reduce our shooting schedule, I proposed cutting the sequence where Annie Hathaway’s character, Andy, struggles to produce a copy of the latest Harry Potter book for Miranda. Instead, Aline made 10 pages’ worth of small scene trims and we wound up shooting the entire Harry Potter sequence, and nearly all the other bits Aline had cut.
Nor was it 23-year-old Annie Hathaway, who prepared for dramatic scenes by listening to tragic opera on her iPod and coming to the set in tears, despite my best efforts to remind her we were making a comedy. I was wrong there too: Annie’s intensity, paired with Meryl’s hushed anti-heroine, gave our fizzy film a soupçon of depth.
It wasn’t the costume designer, Patricia Field, who simply ignored my veto of her ultramodern fashion choices for Emily Blunt’s character. She knew my conservative instincts were terribly wrong for Emily. Thankfully the cast members simply wore what Pat told them to wear and it all looked gorgeous.
Nor was it Emily Blunt herself, who begged and pleaded and cajoled when I tried to discourage her from dyeing her hair red. Once again, I was wrong, and Emily’s hair turned out a beautiful, striking red.
And those are just a few examples of the way I nearly made the perilously wrong choice in the course of the film. I probably made nearly as many wrong decisions as right ones and time after time my fellow filmmakers saved my butt. But no matter how often they may have thought it, none of those people actually warned me I was about to ruin my movie.
So who did?
On Oct. 24, 2005, six weeks into the shoot, I was contemplating an unscripted change to Annie’s wardrobe. It was the scene that follows Andy’s triumphant delivery of the Harry Potter book. After telling her boyfriend Nate (played by Adrian Grenier) that she intended to quit, Andy arrives home and confesses to Nate that she’s still working for Miranda. Nate says he misses the old Andy and her old clothes but she rejects the criticism, teasing him:
Andy: Really? Well, what about these necklaces? Do you like them? No? And this dress, it’s new.
Andy: Well, there is one other thing that’s new … that I thought you might like. What about this?
She unbuttons her dress to reveal a sexy lace bra. Unable to resist any longer, he sweeps her into a kiss as the music swells and the movie begins a new chapter.
Simple and clean, right? Except that Annie wanted to try the scene wearing a man’s shirt and boxer shorts. To make it sexier. Which sounded like a good idea to me.
So we rehearsed it that way. The scene looked good. The dialogue obviously had to change a bit—nothing she was wearing was new—but that hardly mattered. It was sexier.
One thing: I didn’t like the boxer shorts Annie wore for the rehearsal. So I went to the wardrobe trailer to see what other choices they might have for this last-minute change. Only the wardrobe supervisor, Barrett Hong, was in the trailer. I asked him for more boxer shorts.
“OK,” Barrett grumbled, “I’ll see what I can find. But I gotta tell you, and you’ll probably fire me for this but I don’t care. I feel so strongly about this that I have to say it anyway: If you make this change, you’re going to ruin your movie.”
Another director might have gotten angry or defensive. Yelled or screamed. Threatened Barrett, or even sent him packing. But I was startled by his passion and his candor.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because,” he said fiercely, “this is the most important scene in the movie. This is the scene where fashion reveals character. If Andy’s not wearing designer clothes, then she hasn’t changed one bit and your movie doesn’t make any sense!”
I sighed. He was right. How could I have been so stupid? In my eagerness to accomplish one small objective, I’d lost sight of the big picture. Which is really the director’s only job. I’d nearly blown it. Once again, one of my colleagues had saved the picture.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for not letting me ruin the movie.”
Barrett put down the boxer shorts and nodded, shocked and grateful that he still had a job. Then I walked out of the trailer and back to the stage where we shot the scene as originally scripted. And in her green designer dress, Annie was beautiful and charming—and very sexy.
I’ve told this story at the production meeting of the three movies I’ve made since then. Not so the new crew will think I’m a dolt (most of them probably already have their suspicions) but to encourage them to be as passionate about the movie as I am; to listen to me and each other as much as I try to listen to them; and to be as candid with their thoughts as they dare. Avoiding disaster is just as important as finding the magic. “Stop me when you know I’m wrong,” I beg them. “Don’t let me ruin my movie.”