In November of 2009 I had the privilege of playing a minor role in a Matthew Modine film, “The Trial,” which was filmed near Charlotte, North Carolina and is due for release in 2010. For a film lover such as myself, my first appearance in a movie was the proverbial “dream come true,” and it gave me an opportunity to observe how the actors and crew of a film navigate through the process of bringing a film to life. Since the motion picture is as viable an art form as painting or music, it’s natural that the creative process involved is the same as it would be for any form of artistic expression.
Along with Matthew Modine, the film stars veteran actors Rance Howard and Robert Gunton, and is directed by Gary Wheeler. A courtroom drama set in modern-day Georgia, it is based on the book by Charlotte author Robert Whitlow, who also served as one of the film’s writers and executive producers.
Making a film can be a tedious and boring affair, as scenes must often be shot many times before the director is satisfied (and the drudgery of all too frequent wardrobe changes!). But that is the nature of any type of creative work: the struggle and monotony are often the price paid for the reward of bringing a concept to fruition.
Nonetheless, the creative process is always fascinating to watch, and to observe an actor at work is as engaging as watching an artist paint. The painter starts with rough sketches to work from, developing and refining his idea until it is fully realized. I saw that the actor also works in this manner, with the script serving as his rough sketch. Then with his own experience, training and insight he develops his role in one take after another, guided by the director, who also makes changes and improvements to the script as the story unfolds before the cameras. Although the creative process of film making is similar to that followed by a painter or writer, it is dissimilar in that it is a collaborative effort, not a solitary endeavor.
Although I met numerous actors and media personalities on the set, the high point of my week-long experience was meeting Leon Vitali, who was one of legendary director Stanley Kubrick’s closest collaborators. Leon is best known for his role as Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s classic film “Barry Lyndon,” and also played Red Cloak in “Eyes Wide Shut.” He also worked in numerous off-screen capacities for the director in his later films. Courteous and unassuming, Leon Vitali represents a living link to one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema.
And in mentioning Stanley Kubrick and Leon Vitali, I think few motion pictures can better demonstrate the relationship between film and the traditional art forms than Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.” Based on a story by William Makepeace Thackerey and starring Ryan O’Neal, the film chronicles the rise and fall of an Irish upstart in 18th century Europe. With scenes deliberately composed to resemble paintings of the period and a soundtrack drawn from classical and traditional Irish music, “Barry Lyndon” fuses the arts of sight and sound into a lavish and memorable work of art. Its artistic merits were sufficient to earn the film four Academy Awards in 1975, including Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Adapted Musical Score.
In many of the scenes, the actors exhibit little emoting; they seem more like props than living characters. When they do display any emotion, the camera is often so far away that the result is to distance the viewer from the scene. This is characteristic of Kubrick’s fully matured style, evident in other films such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Full Metal Jacket” (which incidentally also stars Matthew Modine). As a result, the actors do not always cue the viewer as to what his feelings about the scene should be; rather, it is left to the viewer to interpret the scene for himself. This is one of the most important characteristics of great art; it should never be too explicit, always inviting the viewer’s imagination to come into play.
As in “2001: A Space Odyssey” the magnificent soundtrack drives the film, the music often determining the mood of each scene more than the understated performances of the actors. And the blatantly repetitive use of the same musical piece, such as “The Hohenfriedberger March” in scenes set during the Seven Years War, creates a mood of obvious satire.
Many of the considerations that an artist takes into account when composing a painting are also utilized by film directors. For instance, actors and props are arranged in each scene in an effective and harmonious pattern just as the painter arranges the elements in his composition. Lighting effects and other techniques are used to direct the viewer’s attention to the focal point of each scene in the same manner as the visual artist. The use of values (light and dark) is an important element of design: in “Barry Lyndon” Kubrick uses special lenses to capture the interplay of light and shadow in interior candlelit scenes. And the director’s use of color in each scene is one of the most striking aspects of the film; the carefully photographed scenes use color as skillfully as any great painter. This is best seen in the stunning landscapes, filmed on location in Great Britain and Europe.
One way that an artist strengthens and unifies a composition is the repetition of visual elements, such as geometric shapes, throughout the composition. In “Barry Lyndon” Stanley Kubrick uses the motif of the duel, whether with pistols or swords, throughout the film to establish continuity. Variations of George Friedrich Handel’s “Sarabande” in the opening and closing credits and throughout the film establish a musical thread that also ties together the many scenes.
Just like a piece of music, a well-made film has a rhythm, an effective sense of timing to the action and dialogue. This is the domain of the editor, who pieces together the raw film footage into a smooth and effective construction, in collaboration with the director. Editing is one of the most important aspects of film making, and is often the difference between a great film and a mediocre one. A poorly edited movie is the equivalent of a song that has no rhythm.
As the winner of numerous film awards and well received by critics, “Barry Lyndon” is the quintessential cinematic view of 18th century Europe, bringing that time period to life with elegance and richness. Highly stylized in presentation, it is simply a beautiful film, an opulent spectacle for the senses. And in adapting Thackerey’s story to film, Stanley Kubrick gives us a singular view of the follies of human nature and the strange meanderings of fate that eternally perplex and intrigue us.
Our greatest works of art provide insights into the nature of life as revealing and relevant as philosophy and science; whether it’s Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” art in its various forms carries on the never-ending human quest to understand ourselves. At its finest, the motion picture is the ultimate art form, blending the visual impact of painting, the emotional force of music, the drama of language, and the power of the writer’s craft. It is also one of the most accessible art forms for the majority of people.
Great actors and directors are true creative artists; their methods would be familiar to any painter or composer. In the hands of a master film maker such as Stanley Kubrick, the motion picture can move and inspire the viewer as profoundly as the greatest works of Rembrandt, Leonardo or Michelangelo.