How the Great Directors Work – by Harry Carr (Motion Picture Magazine – May, 1925)

Motion Picture Magazine – May, 1925

How the Great Directors Work

Frenzy and calm, sarcasm and flattery, brow – beating and coaxing, laughs and tears – all go into the difficult business of directing motion picture stars, says Harry Carr

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer on location in Cuddebackville – NY, directing “The Squaw’s Love.”

D.W. Griffith is another great “actor’s director.” To play one big part with D. W., is forever afterward to be a good actor. His method is very different from that of Lubitsch, however. He does it all at rehearsals. These rehearsals are almost interminable. For some actors they are very trying and embarrassing. He will tell them that, two chairs are a trench in France over which they have to charge and die. They do this over and over again, day after day, week after week. If the actors do not satisfy him with their performance, he never storms and shouts. He changes actors. In The Love Flower he changed actors in one part eight times.

Griffith directing Way Down East
D. W. Griffith directing Lillian Gish in “Way Down East” (1920)

These rehearsals are not, however, pointless repetitions. At each one something is added or modified. Griffith always acts each part from beginning to end for the actors.

While this play-building is going on, he is a great one to ask advice. He will consult the actors themselves, or the cutters, or even the stage-hands. In fact, there is an old stage carpenter called “Blondy” upon whose critical judgment Griffith places great reliance. When he actually gets on the sets, with the cameras and the electric lights, Griffith hypnotizes them. I honestly think this is literally true. He always gives me the feeling that it is his mind in the actor’s body that is doing the work.

Way Down East - "I baptize thee Trust Lennox ..."
Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

I recall when Lillian Gish was doing the scene with the dying baby in Way Dozen East. I was the only one there behind the little fenced-in place, except the cameraman. I could feel the tenseness of a strange force. Something I had never felt before. It was impossible to endure it for long. I had to leave. I could feel myself literally slipping away.

J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith
J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith

D. W. is a profound psychologist. I remember one day, while a very emotional scene was going on, Mr. Griffith asked me to sit down on the other side of the camera. And while they were acting, he began talking about Lloyd George. I thought it was very strange. Afterward I asked him why. “Well,” he said, “I wanted them to be simple and natural and they were beginning to ‘act.’ I wanted to confuse them, to jar them out of the idea that they were doing anything of great importance.” D. W. knows just the instant an actor is spiritually reaching out for a life-line — as it were. At that instant he will speak the lines for them. “Go to hell !” he will yell, as for the hero defying the villain. It is wonderful to see the effect of this on the actors. It is just like an experienced jockey letting a horse feel the touch of his hand on the rein. Of all the directors who ever held a megaphone, D. W. is the most successful with children. Yet he never pulls any of this “Now-baby-dear-see-the-little-birdie” stuff on them. He treats them exactly as he does the grown-up actors, even to consulting them for their opinions. And they give him back the finished work of experienced actors. Griffith never makes a rough job of directing pictures. Even out on location, he looks like a fashion-plate with beautifully tailored clothes. Inside, in the studio, he usually discards his hat for an eye-shade to protect his eyes from the lights, and sometimes on location he wears a huge, straw Mexican sombrero. Otherwise, he looks as tho he were dressed for a wedding.

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