February 1, 2004
When Jeremy Kagan first heard of the Directors Guild, he was standing on the Western back lot at Warner Bros. in the early '70s. A kid with hair down his shoulders, wearing sandals and the shaggy uniform of the counterculture, Kagan was busily directing a television episode of the James Garner vehicle, Nichols, on the set after being hired by the series producer, Frank Pierson.
Then a Warner Bros. official walked over with a question. "Ah ...are you a member of the Directors Guild?"
"What's that?" Kagan replied.
Frantic scurrying ensued as Warner officials sought to avoid violating their contract with the Guild. And the young director, with the help of Stanley Kramer and Pierson, was soon enrolled in the Guild as a member in good standing. As Kagan recalls, the membership fee exceeded his pay for the episode by approximately $100.
But it was the beginning of a 30-year relationship for the director selected this year as the recipient of the DGA's Robert B. Aldrich Award, which is given for extraordinary service to the Directors Guild and to its membership. Over those years Kagan would become a notable director of theatrical films such as Heroes, The Big Fix and The Journey of Natty Gann (the first American film to win a Gold Prize at the Moscow Film Festival) and the multiple award-winning movie The Chosen, as well as many television and cable productions including the cable ACE awarded film Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 and Roswell: The U.F.O. Cover-Up. In 1996, he won the Emmy for Outstanding Direction of a Drama Series for directing an episode of Chicago Hope and his latest film, Crown Heights, will be broadcast on Showtime starting February 16.
As for his relationship with the organization he was dragooned into joining, Kagan grew into one of the Guild's most enthusiastic supporters. For more than 15 years he has served on the National Board and Western Directors Council and, in December 2000, succeeded Robert Wise as head of the Special Projects Committee, a committee he'd served on since 1987.
"Jeremy is well deserving of the Robert B. Aldrich Award," former DGA President Robert Wise said. "He has contributed so much over the years to the Directors Guild."
DGA Secretary-Treasurer Gil Cates concurred, adding, "Jeremy has been one of that small group of people who are at the heart and soul of the DGA. He has been active in many areas, but I most remember he was right at my side when we negotiated a very difficult contract in 1987 during my presidency, when we actually went on strike for a few hours. I found then that he was a thoughtful, tough collaborator.
"He's a very out-of-the-box thinker," Cates said. "He approaches problems in unique ways and has an interesting way of developing solutions. He's really an extraordinary guy. I'm proud to have him as my friend and the Guild is fortunate to have him so active because he's a good and positive presence."
Over the last decade he has also moderated the annual Meet the Feature Film Nominees seminar that has included some of the most recognized names in filmmaking. His book, Directors Close Up, a compilation of those conversations, provides stunning insight into how the greatest directors in the business approach their work. His filmmaking knowledge has led him to also teach at Sundance and USC where he is a tenured professor.
For Kagan, the idea of the Guild as a community of skilled craft persons has exerted a powerful hold over him. "Historically, the Guild was an organization that protected its members' interests and also fostered education that would provide them with the skills they needed to thrive," Kagan says. "That's also the image I have of the Directors Guild, and I believe it fulfills that image now more than ever."
It is within the second category of Guild activities — the continuing education of its members — that Kagan has had his greatest impact. In fact, as head of the Special Projects Committee, few have worked so tirelessly in recent years to keep the Guild abreast of new technological and legal developments and provide numerous forums for members to exchange ideas.
Recent Special Projects events have included seminars on the changes being wrought by the advent of digital technology and the threats to creative rights. But Kagan believes that the simple act of directors sitting down and talking to each other about their work can also contribute powerfully to the members' understanding of their craft.
"When you direct a movie, you do it alone, and most directors know very little about the way other directors go about their craft," says Kagan. "I remember one year Oliver Stone suggested to the other nominees that he felt it was absolutely fascinating to discover how they worked."
Some of his enthusiasm for these ongoing conversations about the directing craft comes from Kagan's early experiences at the American Film Institute (AFI) Center for Advanced Film Studies. As a member of AFI's first class, housed at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, Kagan and his fellow classmates David Lynch, Paul Schrader and Terrence Malick all benefited from regular visits by the icons of American film.
"Almost every weekend directors would come and talk to us. Hitchcock, Hawks, Mamoulian, Cukor came and sat there for three or four hours describing how they made films. It was an incredible experience, and I've never forgotten it."
In the future, Kagan says, he would like to expand the Special Projects activities so the Guild becomes the resource for the craft of filmmaking to the outside world as well as to the members. He has been meeting with directors abroad as well hoping to unite the international interests they all share. Already, the Guild offers videoconferencing with directors to film schools and universities and is amassing video oral histories for distribution.
"We've got about 100 oral histories recorded, and we're still working," Kagan says. "I would love to see the Guild become the center for anyone in the world who wants to know how films are made. The big question now is finding the right technology for the distribution of these materials."
Technology is not the only change that Kagan has witnessed in his years at the Guild. Since he first became a member, Kagan says the Guild has evolved from a gentleman's club to a far more diverse organization where many cultural voices are heard.
"When I first joined I was astounded by the culture, the elegance and sophistication of the members," Kagan says. "I remember going to my first meeting and standing in the back thinking, 'what am I doing here with people of this stature?'
"When I was first elected to the Western Directors Council, the National Board Members were all men, and they were all white. Now the Board is incredibly diverse. In fact, our Board is far more diverse than the business itself, so you can say that we are leading the way."
Not all the trends have been beneficial to the Guild, Kagan says. For example, the Guild once aggressively pursued the expansion of creative rights for directors but now finds itself trying to preserve rights won decades ago. "We are sometimes in a defensive position and seeing some of our hard-won rights eroding away," Kagan says. "We are being challenged to keep the executives and studios aware of what we really do."
Such conflicts are eternal, Kagan says, and sometimes can be discouraging. He recalls meeting an aging Raoul Walsh when he first came to Hollywood. Kagan was thrilled and asked Walsh to sign a copy of a recently published biography. Walsh, a patch covering one eye and nearly blind in the other, took the book and wrote:
"From one director to another, get out of the business."
Kagan now laughs at the memory. "In spite of it all," he says. "I haven't taken his advice yet."