Category Archives: Mikhail Romm

Mikhail Romm on Directors (Translated from Russian)

Some time ago I published here extract from the book by Mikhail Romm, on different types of cinematic shots. A few of you wondered where I got the English version; alas, there is no such (yet). I though it would be interesting to you to read Romm’s views on the director’s job, especially in what concerns the quality of work. Below is my translation from Russian of an extract on this very subject. 

Romm: Indeed, if it is so difficult to make a film, then why is a director’s waste so rare? For, usually, once the film is started being made, then it will, in one way or another, appear on screen, no matter how helpless, professionally weak, or barely gifted director was making it? What is the explanation of this persistent miracle?

You see, when I speak of the difficult work of a film director, I mean the work on a good, expressive film, on a work of art. As for mediocre work, anyone can make it, using the standard filming methods.

It’s not difficult to rehearse and satisfactorily film a short 10-20 sec. long extracts of a script instead of establishing the rhythm, movement, and the sense of a larger scene. Working on a shot, a director who doesn’t pursue lofty goals, only cares for the spectacle to be true to life and natural, that all actors are visible, that the main character is in the foreground, that all lines are pronounced in the established order, etc. It’s not at all difficult to rehearse the simplest, primitive movement in such short space of a film. Should later there be troubles gluing together these single shots, pieces of a bigger film, an editor will come to the rescue, cut something out, maybe there will be some additional filming or ever re-filming, various close-ups will be added, and, provided there was a decent script, the film will come together in general terms. This is the first circumstance that helps an average, weak director.

The fact that the film takes place not only on the set, but also outside the studio, in the exact living conditions, is hard to deal with, if you pursue the lofty goal of achieving a unique style, profound meaning, and originality of perception. A not-so-serious a director is helped by exactly the same means: Nature, trees, sky, landscapes, and vividness.

Indeed, cinema is a very young art, and it still possesses the pristine magic of the moving picture. A spectator still likes seeing the beautiful landscapes, sea, the clouds, the horse races, temperamental runs, etc.

The same magic applies to scenes with actors. If actors are good and interesting, they will attract spectators, regardless of the director’s mistakes. An expressive person appearing on the screen has an incredible power of attraction, and often actors help to gloss over many directorial faults.

Finally, there is one more circumstance that saves the director, and it is the cost of making a film. The material’s low quality becomes clear not instantly but, say, towards the middle of filming process. By this time the picture has already cost the State hundreds of thousand rubles, if not more. And so the help arrives in the guise of the entire studio mechanism, and countless advisers, consultants, and artistic directors start sorting out the mess. All together, they push the film forward – not unlike how in the past the soldiers en mass pushed the cannon out of the marsh.

So, the director’s job is both difficult and easy. It is difficult if we mean true art, and it’s fairly easy if we speak of the average cinema production that debuts on the screen and vanishes without a trace in a few days.

Had it not been the money question, then, between us, all this average cinema production should not have seen the daylight at all. And I am sure that under the Communism when the monetary system becomes obsolete, there will be no bad films. When they see that the film is about to be bad, they will politely but firmly hand the material back to its author to keep for “good memory”.

Question: Can one become a director without graduating from a special institute?

Romm: Yes, he can. Most of the world’s directors, including Russian directors of the older generation, did not graduated from any institute. Eisenstein came to the cinema from theatre, Pudovkin used to be an actor, Dovzhenko was a painter and teacher, Pyriev and Alexandrov were actors, Yutkevich was a painter, Raizman was a director’s assistant with no formal education, Ermler was a political correspondent at the frontline before coming to cinema, and I used to be a sculptor.

Question: Is it true that directors are very conceited?

Romm: There is such sin… There are modest people among film directors, just as in any other profession, but, between us, the malady of conceit does exist.

Say, an ordinary modest student graduates from the Cinematography Institute and finally gets his first film to make. The moment it happens, you see a beret on his head and a pipe in his mouth, although prior to this he was wearing a cap and smoked normal cigarettes. The beret and the pipe seem to him the indispensable attributes of this “free occupation” person, a unique artist, someone special, different from ordinary mortals.

It should be said that after some 10-15 days of filming, having experienced the brutal reality of cinematographic problems, he leaves behind both beret and pipe and behaves himself like the simplest, if somewhat embarrased and scared, worker. Towards the end of filming he usually seems to be the humblest person on Earth.

But then the film is released, and if it gets reviews or, God forbid, is sent to an international festival, – again you see a beret on his head and the stamp of genius on his face.