Film is a collaborative medium for which the director gets most of the credit. Crew members whose names are buried in the end titles (or, as in the case of Dana Little, a very good camera operator on a film I directed in 2007, get inadvertently left off the list altogether) often know far more about the film-making process than the director. There's a trade-off, of course. If the film tanks, directing quickly becomes a singular activity. Nonetheless, for people outside the film industry, if they recognise any name associated with a film - apart from the actors who starred in it - it will most likely be the director's.

Why it that? I honestly don't know. Given the status that film directors enjoy (not television directors, curiously) how often is that you come out of a film and say that it was really well directed? As opposed to saying it was a good story, or beautifully shot? Or dull, lifeless, otherwise solid, if you're a critic of particular acuity.

Not that I'm complaining. If you want to be a grip or a gaffer or an art director or a boom operator or a continuity person on a film you have to be able to point to your experience, to show that you can do it.

If you want to be a director, on the other hand, you just have to say that you are one, and if enough people believe you then you're off. I think that's how most directors become directors. They watch a director working and say to themselves: "Hell! I could do that!" Of course, you can be found out. The key is to surround yourself with people who are really good at what they do. They'll cover for you, wittingly or unwittingly, until you get up to speed.

At least that's been my experience.

Unquestionably there are films where the director in particular has done a great job. The Bourne Supremacy is an example of a film that was well-directed, whereas its sequel, The Bourne Ultimatum, is an example of a film that wasn't. The latter was as big and noisy and fast and logistically impressive and utterly pointless and no doubt as profitable as any James Bond film ever made, but a lot of directors could have done it just as well or not much differently. It was impersonal.

But when I watch The Bourne Supremacy I think to myself the guy who directed this really knew what he was doing. He knew the reason behind every glance and gesture and karate chop and car crash, and he made sure the actors and the crew knew as well.

So The Bourne Supremacy, a film which could have been a big piece of schlock (like Ultimatum) was instead intense and personal and affecting. That scene where Jason Bourne tells the Russian girl that her parents' deaths were not a murder-suicide? Sublime.

Every character in Supremacy feels drawn from real life, which is in itself an achievement given that they were all CIA agents and trained assassins and cold-blooded Russian bloatocrats and the like, not the sort of people you might run into at the Busy Bee Dairy or Video Ezy. I can imagine the Jason Bourne from Supremacy standing in the queue at the Bee, barely registering on the security camera, quite happy to let someone else go first, thanking the person behind the counter. Whereas I can't see the Jason Bourne from Ultimatum in the same situation. The dairy would come to him, or be unlikely to stock anything such an unbelievably competent killing machine might possibly want. He would get all his supplies by hacking into the Blackwater site, or carving them with a Ka-Bar knife.

Since Paul Greengrass directed both films, maybe it's the script that made the difference.* Could well be. I have a theory. I've never been able to convince anyone of its validity (Richard Warren maybe, though that could just have been politeness on his part), but I stick to it.

My theory is: It's impossible to make a bad film from a good script. The film might not be as good as it could be in the hands of a Paul Greengrass or a Walter Hill (incidentally, why doesn't that guy work all the time? The first twenty minutes or so of 48 Hours, at about the point where Eddie Murphy shows up - brilliant. Not that it was bad after that, just not exceptional. "Excuse me, sir! Can I get some water for my pick-up?" "Firewater, Tonto - is that what you want?" And, by the way, whatever happened to that guy, the actor James Remar who played mean Albert Ganz? I know I could look it up but I don't want to - I suspect a sad career trajectory), but if the script is good the film will be at least good enough. Or in the case of Walter Hill's films, very good. For example, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (no slugs either of them) wrote a script called Trespass, an updating of the John Huston film Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In the hands of a lot of directors Trespass would have been superior television or a minor film. Not Walter. If you want to see what a director does, first read the script (there's a transcript on Drews-script-o-rama.com http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/t/trespass-script-transcript-ice-cube.html) and then watch the film (might have to go to Amazon.com for that) to see how Hill brought the script to sizzling life.

Good scripts are rare and actors and crew won't allow a director to ruin them. I never believe a writer's complaint that his or her vision has been destroyed by a director's ego. If it isn't on the screen it wasn't on the page.

Or maybe I just like The Bourne Supremacy so much because of the local angle. There are two New Zealanders in it. Karl Urban is terrific as the Russian Secret Service agent, and Martin Csoskas' one scene, the fight with Matt Damon in Csoskas' Munich apartment ("It falt a lee-tle lii-ght.") is ten times its Ultimatum equivalent, the endless smack grunt smack fight in the Casbah or whatever that place was. The Munich fight wasn't endless. It was quick and dirty and largely silent and ended at just the right point. Editors might argue that that was great editing, but I doubt it. Editors?

*(Interestingly enough, Tony Gilroy, who wrote the Bourne scripts, was critical of what Paul Greengass did with Supremacy. "In 2005, the studio used another large check to persuade Gilroy to write the third “Bourne” movie. One of the conditions of his taking the money was that he would not have to speak with Greengrass." See The New Yorker, March 16, 2009.http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/03/16/090316fa_fact_max?currentPage=all)


I have a theory about editing. I think it is the easiest job in the film business apart from directing. Certainly the most fun. When was the last time an editor got cold or wet in the course of his or her employment? I'm just sayin'. My argument is this: Writers start with a blank page, production designers and directors of photography start with an empty space, makeup artists start with an unmade-up face, producers start with an agenda (kidding!), directors start at the beginning with everyone looking at them and thinking: "Okay, Orson - show us what you've got."

Editors, on the other hand, start with something tangible. Dailies. The raw footage. Editors can cut that footage into sequences that are as good as they could be. They can cut them into sequences that are better than they deserve to be. They can create ways of telling that story that might not have occured to anyone else by clever juxtaposition or by dropping or adding stuff (Ralph Rosenbloom's book When the Shooting Stops (the Cutting Begins) is a very enjoyable read if this sort of thing interests you). But if editors are any good (and let's assume they are, otherwise they wouldn't be working, which is one of the many things that is so great and so heart-breaking about the film industry - the people who make a living doing it are really good at what they do. And they're also really good people), they're unlikely to take that raw footage and make it less than it could be. It may happen from time to time, but seriously, how would you know? Omnis cautio, nullus officium ("All care, no responsibility") is the Editors' Guild's motto for a very good reason. Because, ultimately, an editor can lean back from the bench, throw up his or her hands and say to the director: "Speak to me, oh Visionary One." A favourite David Coulson line, incidentally. David cut Whale Rider and a number of other New Zealand films. I outlined this theory to him once. Shortly before the last time I spoke to him, come to think of it. He's always so busy.

The mention of Whale Rider reminds me of another theory. A title has to have a noun in it. When I say noun I mean real noun. Not a pronoun or a proper name or some other toothless variant. Something that people can visualise and remember. The Wild Bunch. Jaws. Spartacus. Is Spartacus a noun? I think it is. It's sort of a noun. It's a word with verve and dash anyway. It's memorable.

There was a terrific little American film a few years ago called You Can Count On Me, directed by Kenneth Lonergan, who also wrote the script. What's the arresting image that the words you can count on me brings to mind, the visual association that makes you remember the film? I don't think there is one. Well nothing specific, anyway, like, say, Jaws, which immediately suggests teeth, an open mouth, things being chewed, something you can see, something visceral .

I love You Can Count On Me but I can never remember the title, and I always get to it the same way - by searching Steve Earle on IMDb.com and scrolling down to - oh, that's it - You Can Count On Me. I think of it as that Steve Earle movie because he did a lot of songs on the soundtrack, including Pilgrim (Jerry Douglas on dobro), and a duet with Iris DeMent called I'm Still In Love With You, both taken from the lovely bluegrass album The Mountain which Earle made with the Del McCoury band.

Do you get my point? If I wasn't a Steve Earle fan I might have forgotten that film by now because of its dopey title. 'You can count on me' would be a nice thing to hear if you were in trouble and someone was reaching out, but as a movie title it isn't in any way specific. Which makes it hard to remember. And I bet the film suffered as a result.*

*(If it didn't then it's either the exception that proves the rule, or a perfect example of the Goldberg Principle, which states that 'you can prove any thesis to be true so long as you make up your own definition of words.' See balloon-juice.com "Consistently wrong since 2002.")

Word of mouth is the lifeblood of films. If viewers can't remember the words that make up the title, well, I rest my case.

Not that I'm suggesting that a noun in a title is the capo di tutti capi of cinematic success. Sometimes a film is good enough to overcome an insipid or nounless title. The New Zealand film Out Of The Blue is such an exception (blue is a noun, you say? Not according to the Goldberg Principle). But, whatever, the title doesn't resonate. It sounds like a surfing movie, or a comedy about two African-American stand-up comedians who bust out of jail.

But once you know that Out Of The Blue is a true story about a spontaneous shooting that happened for no apparent reason, a mass killing that occured out of the blue, then it makes sense, I guess, although I still think it's pretty ho-hum. I read somewhere that the original title was An Unlikey War. Much better.

Full disclosure: I'm writing as someone who has directed one feature film, shot and released in 2007, a true story based on a true story, the facts of which we did not purport to be accurate, whereas in fact we did*, about Dave Henderson, a New Zealand businessman who had a titanic run-in with the Inland Revenue Department in the nineties. Dave took a week to write a book, called Be Very Afraid, about his experiences. I took five years to turn Be Very Afraid into a film called We're Here To Help. I now think of it, between slugs of absinthe, as that Dave Dobbyn film.

We're Here To Help was seen by several dozen paying customers from one end of New Zealand (not a big country) to the other, all of whom I have thanked in person, or plan to do as funds allow. Its DVD release created a similar frenzy.

But the experience, by and large, was a blast. Specifically, from about halfway through the shoot until the day, several months later, when I picked up the latest copy of a glossy called Metro and read what the elderly woman who reviews films for that publication had to say about the result.

In the process of making the film I learned a number of things about directing, most of which can be summed up in the line at the beginning of my previous post: Film is a collaborative medium for which the director gets most of the credit. It's a great system and probably explains why so many people want to do it.

This is how I did it.

("If it wasn't for lawyers we wouldn't need them" - Old Jungle Saying)


One day in 2001 my daughters brought home a DVD of the Steven Soderbergh movie Erin Brockovich. The film, if you're unfamiliar with it, is based on a true story about a woman, Erin Brockovitch, who almost single-handedly exposed a case of toxic poisoning involving one of the largest utilities in the state of California. It is a terrific film. Kate and Frances were using it for a school project. My wife (who wishes to remain anonymous) made a passing (and fateful) comment about how satisfying such David & Goliath stories are. Was there an equivalent in New Zealand?

A few years earlier I had read a series of columns in the National Business Review, a business weekly, by an English gadfly named Simon Carr. I used to direct the occasional television commercial and read the NBR's advertising gossip column of a way of keeping up with the play.

Carr was writing about Dave Henderson, the Christchurch businessman who had fallen afoul of the Inland Revenue Department. The IRD's treatment of Henderson was so bad it was funny (objectively-speaking) and Carr made the most of it. Week after week he mocked the Department. He accused it of having committed 'the seven deadly sins, plus the sin of generally being obnoxious.' He named names. He made the IRD look petty and vindictive and ridiculous. It was exhilerating to read. It was as though someone was openly lampooning the secret police. Soon it was Carr's stuff I was turning to first, rather then the advertising column, especially since insights gleaned from the latter were proving of no help to me professionally.


By the way, I was to learn that Carr has a theory too. His theory is: Films don't get made. It's an interesting view, and not without merit. Paul Davis, one of the producers of We're Here To Help, once described the film industry in New Zealand as 'the opposite of a duck - frantic on the surface, not much happening below.'

I worked at TVNZ and asked Marvin Allen, the News & Current Affairs librarian, if she remembered Carr's columns. She did. She also remembered that Dave Henderson had written a book about his experiences, called Be Very Afraid. The library had a copy. Would I like to borrow it? Hell yes.

The story began with Dave's P. A. (and girlfriend at the time) Kath Cook, taking some material into the IRD's office in Cashel Street, Christchurch, in 1994, in pursuit of a tax refund. There she struck an obnoxious IRD officer who made some decidedly odd remarks about the length of her skirt and whether or not she was sleeping with Dave.

Kath went back to the office quite upset. Dave rang the IRD, got the officer concerned on the phone, and threatened to 'kick his fat arse up and down Cashel Street' if he ever spoke to one of his employees like that again.

A few days later Henderson received an audit notice. Three years and twenty-nine audits later he was bankrupt, had lost his relationship, his business and his house, was facing fraud charges, and owed the IRD nearly one million dollars.

Then a most unlikely champion turned up, a newly-elected Member of Parliament named Rodney Hide. Hide had had dealings with Henderson some years earlier when Dave was negotiating to buy the BBC World Service frequency in New Zealand, and Hide was acting for its then-owner, an Auckland squillionaire named Alan Gibbs. Hide heard about the trouble Dave was in and made contact. Dave talked him through his case and Hide offered to help.

Together Henderson and Hide fought the IRD and eventually prevailed. The Department paid the 1994 tax refund and cancelled the near-million dollar debt, the make-up of which they were never able to explain. The fraud charges had already been dropped but notification was sent to the wrong address.

The story had a three-act structure. An American writer called Sid Field has written a number of books on the screenwriting process. He thinks most successful films follow a similar structural pattern. They have what he calls inciting incidents, turning points, mid-points and a conclusion. I'm with Sid. His template fitted neatly over this story. Inciting incident? Dave threatens to kick the IRD officers fat arse up and down Cashel Street. First act turning point? Dave is interviewed by the police. Mid-point? Kath leaves. Second act turning point? Hide turns up. Conclusion? Dave gets his refund.

(As it turned out, there was a much better ending. In 2004, Dave, now back on his feet, bought the Cashel Street building on which the IRD had a seven year lease - and renamed it Henderson House. But that was in the future.)

At one point in the book Dave mentioned that he had begun openly taping his meetings and phone calls with the Department. That sounded interesting. There was a photo of Dave on the back cover. He looked a good sort. There was a love angle, black humour, pathos, and in the Inland Revenue Department, an ideal villain. Most people are vaguely resentful of the IRD, even its nominal boss. Rodney Hide, the MP, told me that when he first went to see The Honourable Bill Birch, who, as Minister of Finance and Revenue Minister, was Minister-In-Charge of the Department, about Dave's situation, Birch had taken him aside and said: "Don't take on the IRD - they will destroy you."

I thought there could be a film in it. Or a telefeature. Or a documentary perhaps. But I wasn't interested in making a doco and I wasn't particularly interested in making a telefeature. If a television drama is really really good... it might be shown twice. Whereas a film? Wealth and success beyond your wildest dreams. Possibly.