My First Movie: Take Two — Ten Celebrated Directors Talk about Their First Film [Buy Now]

Edited by Stephen Lowenstein

Pantheon, $26, 286 pages

In theory, this book should be a wet dream for would-be filmmakers. It aims to get inside the skulls of talented maverick filmmakers, finding out what made them tick as they created their first features.

Interviewees include Richard Linklater, Terry Gilliam, and Sam Mendes, none of whom are known for being coy about their working process. So why is this book such a disappointing bore?
The staid format of the book doesn’t help. There are dry questions and big chunks of text. Editor Stephen Lowenstein’s repetitive interview techniques don’t help much either; he takes his subjects through their early filmic yearnings, then from pre-production to the critical responses to their films — and how they feel when their celluloid “babies” are praised or boiled in the media spotlight.

But the real reason why the book is so unedifying is its overall lack of commentary; Lowenstein comes to no conclusions of his own about the filmmakers’ processes, leaving directors to speak for themselves. Because of this, the book comes across like a series of extended interviews from a nerdy filmmaker magazine, crammed into a hardcover.

For all Lowenstein’s faults, he obviously had fun tracking down directors and interviewing them. Quite right too — the subjects have juicy stories to tell. Richard Kelly is the new kid on the Hollywood block, making the deliriously uneven films Donnie Darko and Southland Tales. He admits that visuals are his forte, and that if you mute the sound on his graduate film (Visceral Matter), then it’s watchable.

Linklater is one of the few directors in the book who seems to have attained his reputation through sheer hard work, rather than a lucky break with a studio. His attempts to make an “anti-movie” where nothing happens became an unexpected cult phenomenon — according to the book, the film’s title even introduced a new word to the popular consciousness: Slacker.

Mendes is one of the lucky ones, leaping from a Broadway revival of Cabaret to a multimillion dollar Dreamworks project. Mendes gushes about receiving advice from Spielberg (“be strong”) and is humble about this good fortune (his first film, American Beauty, won five Oscars and three Golden Globes).

The main linking element between the directors seems to be their lack of technical knowledge. When Lowenstein asks them which lenses they used, they often reply that their grasp of all that stuff is limited — they have their directors of photography to rely on for that. Being a director, it seems, is more about communicating ideas and getting a job done than creating an artwork.

It’s been two years since Aryan Kaganof shot SMS Sugar Man, the first feature to be filmed entirely with cell phones. In this age of digital videography where a professional production doesn’t have to cost millions of dollars to make, Lowenstein’s book should raise interesting questions about what constitutes a “movie.”

In the first book of this series, Oliver Stone refused to talk about his early films (Seizure and The Hand). Lowenstein included the interview anyway, presumably so that he could use Stone’s name to sell more copies of his book.

This time around, Linklater only briefly mentions his original Super 8 mm feature, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books. His interview focuses on his breakout 35mm film Slacker instead. Lowenstein seems to be cheating, which isn’t very fair on his readers. So a more appropriate title for this book might be My First Movie of Consequence or My First Movie that Didn’t Suck.

While this book has the potential to instill you with interest in filmmaking, it’s more likely to put you to sleep because of the way it’s presented. If only Loweinstein had taken his cue from some of his maverick interviewees to do something fresh and interesting with this material.