BY TERRENCE RAFFERTY
Photographed by Jill Greenberg
On a wall in Taylor Hackford’s New York home— improbably, a penthouse apartment in the ever- funky East Village—hangs an old photograph of two men, in natty suits, on the deck of an ocean liner. The short, smiley, bald one is the songwriter Lorenz Hart; the tall, imperious-looking gent shaking his hand is the great choreographer George Balanchine. Hackford is a man who loves music and dance about as much as he loves film, which is to say, a lot, and he can talk about all these subjects until the cows come home.
Today, though, we’re here to speak about the art and craft he has practiced for most of his adult life, which is that of the movie director—a job that, the evidence suggests, he’s very skilled at. His first short film, Teenage Father, won an Academy Award in 1979; his second feature, An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), was one of the biggest box-office hits of the ’80s and was nominated for a DGA Award; his 2004 biopic of Ray Charles, Ray, was also nominated for a DGA Award, as well as six Oscars, including best picture and best director, with Jamie Foxx winning for best actor. Hackford’s work has ranged from documentaries (Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, 1987) to true stories (Blood In, Blood Out, 1993) to thrillers (The
Devil’s Advocate, 1997).
As a director, Hackford is both passionate and scrupulous,
qualities that came in handy, too, in the two terms he served as president of the Directors Guild of America, from 2009 to 2013. He received the Robert B. Aldrich Award in 2007 for his many years of service to the Guild. But right now he is preparing to shoot a new movie, The Comedian, with Robert De Niro. He looks as fit and focused as Balanchine, and as happy as Hart. Taylor Hackford is in his element. He’s about to embark on a voyage.
TERRENCE RAFFERTY: You’re spending August in New York? That’s brave.
TAYLOR HACKFORD: Well, I love New York, and, any- way, you go where you work; that’s the No. 1 priority. I’d tried for a year to get a film going about the widow Clicquot—of the famous Champagne family, in the 1800s—that I was going to shoot in France with a French crew, but the money wasn’t coming together so I looked around for something else. And it happened that Bob De Niro and [producer-writer] Art Linson were looking for a director for a project they’d been working on for years that was very near and dear to them, and I was able to jump right in. It’s about a stand-up comedian who refuses to give up, and it’s a dark character, as comedians tend to be. This guy is really difficult, really smart, maybe a misanthrope, and Bob really wants to do this role; he’s been working on it for like 15 years.
Q: Sort of like you with Ray?
A: When you’re passionate about something and you feel driven to make it, there’s a seriousness that can’t be denied.
Q: What stage of preproduction are you in now?
A: I’m supervising a page-one rewrite, and I hope to cast by Oct. 1. We’ll start shooting in New York in January. You know, when you’re making a movie you’re always in a race against both the clock and the cash register, and I’ve learned over time that you don’t need 18 takes if you’re working with good people—you get into a groove and you know what you need and you move on. Directing is about making decisions, in every aspect it’s about making decisions. But with casting you really want to make sure you’ve got the right people, and you know you can’t wait forever.
Q: What crew do you hire first?
A: For me, the production designer is usually the first person on the film, not the cinematographer, because you’re conceiving the whole look. It’s all about finding a team that will understand and share your vision. As a director, you’re not a painter at an easel alone with your paint and brushes and canvas; you’re not a novelist alone at your typewriter. Making movies is collaboration, and you’re as good as the people you choose to take this journey with you. Inspiring them and cajoling them, doing whatever you can to have them deliver your vision, that’s the process.
Q: Tell me a little bit about how you started out in film. You didn’t go to film school, did you?
A: No, I didn’t. I majored in international relations at USC, and then I went into the Peace Corps. I was sent to Bolivia, where I got involved in starting a newspaper. When I got back, I went to law school for two weeks— it wasn’t for me—and after that I got a job in the mail- room of the public television station in Los Angeles, KCET. Every night I’d go around to the repertory cinemas and see whatever I could, every Fellini film, every Godard, every Truffaut, Bergman, all the stuff you have to see. And whenever I had a moment, I’d experiment a little with my Super 8 camera. One day someone at the station asked me if I could shoot film, and I said sure—though I’d never shot 16 mm film in my life. I didn’t screw up too badly, so they put me on camera doing political reporting, cultural affairs, and music shows. As long as I didn’t sleep or eat, I could do everything.
Q: So that was your film school?
A: Yes, and unlike in film school you don’t get an entire semester or an entire year to do a project. I had actual airdates, and the most important thing was learning to deliver on a deadline. I’d shoot the film one day, edit the next, and it would be on the air that night. When I had six or seven hours to write a nine-minute piece, that was fine, but sometimes the edit wouldn’t be finished, and I’d have 25 minutes. Your mind focuses. When you’re making movies, the pressure is always to get your day on the set or on the location, and there are always all these factors that can prevent you from doing things the way you’ve planned. You’ve got to react to the circumstances, and that’s directing. My experience at KCET helped me understand that.
Q: So you know what to do when the unexpected happens, like the weather not cooperating.
A: When we were shooting An Officer and a Gentleman, it was the wettest year on record on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. I think it rained every day except two. But I discovered that you get a more interesting saturation without sunlight, the deep saturation in the colors comes out. And I learned that if you lift the lens off the ground so you don’t see the puddles, the audience can’t tell it’s raining; rain has to be backlit for you to see it. There was one important scene late in the picture in which Richard Gere confronts Lou Gossett Jr., and we wound up having to shoot in a completely different location than I’d planned. So at the last minute I staged it, blocked it, and shot it, and it works. Every single time you go out, there are things that will hit you, that call on you to adjust to the moment. And that’s the joy of directing. When you’re a young director and you’ve worked your way out of a hole, it really adds to your confidence, too.
Q: You won an Academy Award for the short film Teenage Father, and that landed you your first feature, The Idolmaker (1980). What was it like making your first film?
A:Anyone directing their first feature, they’re terrified; you feel like everybody on the set knows more than you do. On The Idolmaker, I’d storyboarded the entire picture, every frame, and that’s both a good thing and a bad thing, because there’s a temptation to think of it as holy scripture. I had good people, a veteran AD named Cliff Coleman who’d started with John Ford and had worked on Sam Peckinpah’s movies, and I had a lot of respect for him. He’d look at my story- board and say, ’Jesus Christ, you don’t want to do it like that, you should do this and this.’ And my cinematographer, Adam Holender, who was also very experienced and very good, would look at the storyboards and just sigh and say, ’You could do it this way, but it’s very pedestrian.’ So I did it their way at first, and when I looked at the dailies after the second day of shooting, I thought, ’That’s not very good.’ And I realized that I wasn’t going to get those scenes back—they’re going to be in the picture. So I called everyone together on the third day and said, ’From this point on I’ll listen to what you have to say and value what you have to say, but I’m going to make the decisions about what we do. And they all said, ’Oh, OK.’
Q: Do you wish you hadn’t done those storyboards?
A: On a first film, they do help build confidence. Today I only storyboard action scenes and special effects scenes. I know the way I want to shoot a picture. I walk on the set and I feel like I’m never going to be at a loss, that I’m going to come up with a way to do it. I’ve thought it through, but the spontaneity
is part of the process, too, it’s like you’re dancing. Some directors like preproduction, some like post, but my favorite time is when I’m shooting, because you have all these talented people and you’ve got to orchestrate them. You’re dancing, the director’s dancing. It’s terrifying, it’s difficult, it’s agonizing, but it’s fun.
Q: Was it tough shooting The Idolmaker in New York?
A: I didn’t, except for a week at the end of the shoot.
Q: Wait a minute. I definitely saw Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. ...
A: It was. We shot there, and at the Fulton Fish Market, and at the Brooklyn Bridge. But I was told at the beginning, you can’t shoot this in New York, it’s got to be shot in L.A. And I remembered that Scorsese had shot the majority of Mean Streets in L.A., and that’s a New York picture if there ever was one. [I thought] if Marty can do it, I guess I can, too.
Q: It must have felt a little strange to you, though, considering your background in documentary and public television.
A: In some way I feel like the biggest thing I got from working in documentary is paying attention to how people really react. That has a lot to do with the acting style I try to get in my films. I think I go for a very realistic style, aside from something like Devil’s Advocate, where it’s important for Al Pacino to come out big in the end. Having worked in documentary, my thinking is if you can get real people to reveal their inner feelings on camera, you can sure as hell get actors to do it. The essence of movie acting is this: You’re not on stage, you can’t be a completely different character. You have to take from whoever you are, because the camera is a magnifying glass—I’m not the first one to say this—and you can’t really separate who you are from the character you’re playing. You can imbue your natural character with other elements that fit the role you’re playing, but ultimately you’re going to have to take the elements you naturally have and use them. That’s what I try to encourage when I direct actors.
Q: How do you prepare your actors?
A: I think it’s important to take the actors to a set so they see it and start to think about it in advance. What I’m not going to do is bring them to a location they’ve never seen and say, ’Stand there, do this, do this’—they’re going to rebel. I don’t do heavy rehearsals, but I want to give the actors a chance to get their feet wet and feel comfortable. If you’re going to rehearse and rehearse, talk with all the actors about everybody’s psychological motivation, [so] when they come into a scene there’s no discovery going on. It’s not the way life is. For me, that process is the magic of film. But every director works differently.
Q: You’ve done some pretty steamy sex scenes, in An Officer and a Gentleman, Against All Odds (1984), Everybody’s All-American (1988), and Love Ranch (2010). Do you do anything different when you shoot those scenes?
A: My attitude about shooting sex is very much like my attitude about shooting violence—it should be real. Bodies have to be part of it, but for me it’s all in the eyes; you’re never going to see a love scene from me in which you can’t see the eyes. When I look at a sex scene, it’s a dramatic scene like any other. Of course, it’s terribly difficult for the actors, and you have to let them feel that you respect their discomfort. But aside from that, they’ve just got to do it, like any other scene: You’ve got to make it as real as you can, and it’s got to lead us somewhere in the story.
Q: Speaking of violence, your most recent movie, Parker (2013), is as close to a straight action picture as you’ve ever made.
A: I love action movies, though I never really thought about making one before this. The thing about Parker is he’s a great literary character by a great writer, Donald Westlake. I’ve done plenty of action and fight scenes in my other pictures: the karate fight in An Officer and a Gentleman, the fight with Jeff Bridges and the assassins in Against All Odds, the sequence in which John Good- man is beaten to death in Everybody’s All-American. I always want my fight sequences to be real, to be brutal. Violence isn’t fun—it hurts, and I want you to feel it.
Q: We’ve been talking about your desire for realism, but you’ve also made films in less realistic modes, like The Devil’s Advocate and Dolores Claiborne (1995). How do you approach those?
A: Although the acting is realistic, Dolores Claiborne is certainly more stylized. In fact, my production designer, Bruno Rubeo, and I looked at a lot of Magritte’s surrealist paintings, and even incorporated some of his imagery in the film, like when Jennifer Jason Leigh looks in the bathroom mirror and what she sees is the back of her head. I was trying to create a unique look in that film, where the narrative alternates between the present and the past. I had different looks for each, and they had to reflect the psychological nature of Dolores. In the present tense, we shot on Kodak, which naturally has a strong, contrasty, bluish feel to it—it’s a little cold compared to Fuji. There was a film I loved that Sven Nykvist had shot for Ingmar Bergman, The Passion of Anna, in which almost all the color had been stripped out, and I told my cinematographer, Gabriel Beristain, that I wanted that look in Dolores Claiborne. So we used Kodak for all the contemporary sequences, then desaturated it like crazy, and flashed it. But for the flashback scenes, when Dolores is 25 and hopeful, we used Fuji, which has a pastel look—it creates a kind of natural feeling of bliss. I did that all throughout the film.
Q: What about that fantastic sequence at the end of Devil’s Advocate in which the frieze seems to come to life? How was that done?
A: Bruno had had this idea about an animated bas- relief, and I hired a very smart guy named Richard Greenberg as a visual consultant to help me figure out how to do it. He took me to the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, where every year they re-create old master paintings with real people on stage, and he also showed me a book by a photographer who took pictures of ballet dancers underwater—he had some film footage, too. So Richard and I would get dancers and shoot them underwater, then freeze their three-dimensional form in this bas-relief, and then we’d animate them digitally when they’re supposed to be coming to life. It’s a great effect, I think.
Q: It is. And you did a good job shooting dancers on dry land, too, in White Nights (1985).
A: I love dance. In White Nights, I knew I wanted to do something with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines, but initially I didn’t know what the story was going to be. I’m a narrative film- maker, so I wanted a musical in which every dance carried either the character or the narrative through. Once I got that, I knew it would be interesting to contrast these styles, which are completely different. In tap dancing, you develop your body to move only from the knees down; ballet dancers move every single muscle, every bone in their bodies. I had Twyla Tharp for the choreography. I’ve got to say, choreographers are the toughest of the tough. Directors can be difficult, but they’re nothing compared to choreographers. Twyla was able to work with these two disparate styles and put them together. In that one number where Greg and Misha dance together, it’s terrific, neither one of them is dancing to his capabilities, but they’re conforming their styles in order to dance together. It’s a true pas de deux. And by the way, they’re also advancing the plot.
Q: You spend a lot of screen time in that movie on warming up and rehearsals, which I always think are interesting processes.
A: Absolutely. In Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, the documentary I made about Chuck Berry, the best sequences are the rehearsals, with Keith Richards leading the band that’s going to back Chuck at a concert in St. Louis. In the rehearsals, though, there’s a moment when Chuck tries to humiliate Keith, and no one could have foreseen anything like that. That’s the great thing about documentary, when you can capture something real and you were there to see it. That’s gold.
Q: One thing I really appreciate about the way you shoot music is that you’re always clear about who’s playing at any given time. In the Chuck Berry con- cert, you’ve sometimes got four guitarists playing on stage—Chuck, Keith, Robert Cray, Eric Clapton— and you cut it so that we can tell who’s playing what.
A: In documentaries as in any film project, I want to tell a story, and part of the story here is understanding what the performer is saying, whether it’s a vocal or a guitar solo. When two or three or four guitarists are playing together, something’s happening there, dialogue is being exchanged. Why would you cut any differently, when you’re trying to understand what’s being said?
Q: And you seem to apply that principle to shooting dance, too, where you mostly show the whole body so we can see what the dancers are doing in relation to one another. How did you get those amazingly fast scenes in which Hines and Baryshnikov seem to be just flying around the rehearsal studio? Was that Steadicam?
A:No Steadicam, all dolly moves. On that picture, I had one of the great dolly operators of all time, a guy named Freddie Cooper. My cinematographer, David Watkin, was one of the greats, but he really didn’t care about anything except the lighting. Once he’d lit, he’d go off and read a book. But he had this fantastic operator. When we shot the ballet that opens the picture, Le jeune homme et la mort, I storyboarded it with this one very complicated shot that I thought I’d probably break in threes, but Freddie wanted to try doing it in one. He did it almost perfectly, and then said to me, ’If you give me another shot, I’ll be able to get it.’ I thought, ’My God, I have as brilliant a camera operator as Baryshnikov is a dancer.’ And of course, when you realize that you’ve got that tool, you start to push, you design your shots differently. My visual vocabulary has just expanded; I’m going to try things I would have thought were impossible to do. We didn’t even have to do that many takes, because Freddie and the dolly operator could rush around and just stop on a dime. We were doing 360s, and how do you do that in a dance studio, where there are mirrors all around? The designer, Philip Harrison, made every mirror cantilevered so every one could be turned a little bit, and then Freddie would angle each one. Baryshnikov and Hines would go all around the studio three times, and although you’d see them reflected in the mirrors, you’d never see the camera.
Q: Have you always had a special interest in music and dance?
A: Always. I grew up in Santa Barbara, a beautiful bedroom community, though we were on the wrong side of the tracks, and what you don’t have there is a large ethnic population. So I was one of those kids staying up late at night trying to tune in to L.A. radio stations to listen to black music. The first time I heard Ray Charles, I knew he was a cut above. He was my guy. That’s why I spent 13 years trying to raise the money to make a biography of him.
Q: Did your thinking about the film change a lot over all that time?
A: In the original treatment, it was a story- based narrative, in chronological order. Once I finally had the money and I had to figure out how to visualize the story, it immediately became clear to me that it was impractical to tell the story that way, in part because when you’re doing the biography of a brilliant artist, by far the best and most interesting part of the story is the attaining. Once they’re there, it’s less interesting; it’s that process of creating something out of nothing that’s indelible. I’d used a parallel structure in Dolores Claiborne, using flashbacks all the way through, so that was in my lexicon. In Ray, I had to use some tricks. We show him in Seattle in, I think, 1949, but all we had from that time was 8 mm footage, which even after we digitized it and blew it up wasn’t great quality. So what I had to do was step on the scenes right before and after the flashback, deteriorate my own material, so when the audience goes into the flashback it isn’t shocking and when you come out of it the transition isn’t that jarring. I used a bleach bypass process for the present-day story—you take color out, it’s got a much more contrasty look, with darker darks. The look of the flashbacks, though, is really vivid, be- cause Ray could see them, and that’s how he remembered it. It’s the vision of a child, and it’s a blind man remembering when he could see, so it’s got to be idealized.
Q: There is some good dancing in Ray, too.
A: Those dance sequences are some of the moments I’m proudest of in my movies. A lot of the credit has to go to my [dance] consultant on that, Vernel Bagneris. He said to me, ’You know, this was pre-American Bandstand, there was no homogeneous dance style in America then. Every city had its own style, Cleveland or New York or Boston or Atlanta, even though they were all listening to the same music.’ So that’s the way we did it, with every dance scene in a different style. That’s something I thought was really important. And Vernel did some terrific stuff in the scene where Ray comes up with ’What’d I Say,’ with the audience responding out on the dance floor, just burning it up. To see the moment of creation, a moment like that, is unbelievably exciting.
Q: Let’s talk about the Guild, which I know has been very important to you.
A: I love this organization, I really believe in the Directors Guild. I joined before The Idolmaker, and it was great to know that I had rights. You’ve got 10 weeks to do your first cut; that’s a miracle. And the Guild is really the only place where filmmakers can get together, share ideas, and truly have a dialogue about the process, all we do in common. None of us are the same, but we all have the same kinds of problems to solve. We’ve got directors of movies, TV, commercials, music videos, reality shows—plus unit production managers, stage managers, and assistant directors. ADs are a big part of the process; you’re totally dependent on them. Your 1st AD is your lieutenant on the set, and when you’ve got a good one, you’re in great shape. The directors are the largest group in the Guild, and they could throw their weight around in negotiations. But we always make room for the ADs, SMs, and UPMs, because we know we need them to get our vision on the screen. I’ve been in this Guild for 40 years, and I can tell you that directors are still deferential to their team.
Q: What do you see as the value of Guild service and why would you encourage other active members to serve?
A: At the beginning of your career, you are happy to get a job. And in reality, when you do get those jobs, you profit from the protections that the DGA, over the course of time, has given directors. So you’re happy to be a member, and you think this is great. But after you’ve been able to make two or three movies, you start to realize, ’Wait a minute. There are people that came before that actually made that possible for me.’ And, you know, everybody wants to say, ’I’m too busy. I’ve got this, I’ve got that.’ But when you actually go and spend time with your peers at the Guild, the people who really, in the present tense, are making sure that directors and their teams are protected, it can be a really enjoyable experience. You’re working for other people in your profession, and a stewardship for people who come after you, and nobody else is going to do that. So instead of it being a chore, it is actually a joy.
Q: You’ve said that the most important accomplishment of your presidency was securing the health plan in the 2010 negotiations. Why is that so significant to the Guild?
A: When I was president, we got to a point where we realized that the cost of health care was quickly accelerating to the point where we were going to be in trouble. So in 2010, the focus of the negotiations was health care. We were able to take that moment and increase the value of our package and have the option of making that happen in the health plan and get an extra bump from employer contributions. By doing that, we ensured another five years of our plan surviving and being in great health. And this has to do with [National Executive Director] Jay Roth and his brilliance. I think these are some of the big responsibilities that a lot of people don’t understand but as leadership you do. When you go through a negotiation and you realize what we’ve actually done is ensure our health plan for the future, these are moments that are really gratifying.
Q: What were some of the other issues you had to deal with in your time as president?
A: The biggest thing is piracy, which destroys our ability to monetize what we do. If you can’t monetize what you do, the people who put up the money in the first place aren’t going to do it anymore. During my presidency, we went to Washington and spoke for a couple of bills, nothing sweeping, just trying to shut down some pirate sites offshore. Google and its allies came out and killed us there; they flexed their muscles and destroyed that legislation. The power today is in the hands of those Internet giants, who in reality are making money stealing intellectual property. For an artist, if you can’t feed your family, you can’t create; you have to become a plumber or something. I realize I’m talking about a failure here, but you can’t be defeated if you’re a director. I think in the future we’ll find ways to protect the work we do. We’ve got to recapture the audience as a paying audience—not gouging them, but having them pay so we can make a living for ourselves and our families. Everything we do costs money. Ray was an independent film, but it still cost $30 million. One guy financed it. That’s a huge risk, and if he knew there wasn’t a chance he’d make his money back would he have done it? That’s where we’re at today.
Q: You’re in the midst of preproduction now. How do you prepare yourself, physically and mentally, for making a movie?
A: One of the things I love about Truffaut’s Day for Night is that it shows that when you’re filming you’re sort of in a dream. It’s painful sometimes, but it’s incredible. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got the physical stamina and the mental stamina for it. I don’t sleep much when I’m filming: I get up early and walk the set, I like to look at the dailies—though that’s a great ritual, that’s now lost because of digital. While you’re shooting you’ve got to keep your mind focused, because you’re inevitably going to walk out and something’s going to happen that you hadn’t planned for and you have to adjust. If your mind is focused you’ll always be able to shoot your way out. It’s exhausting and exhilarating. You’re more alive on a shoot than you are in your normal life. It’s the most fun ever.