Thursday, October 23, 2014

Creativity: The David O. Selznick Theory

GWTW Publicity:  Leigh, Gable, Mitchell, Selznick, De Havilland

David O. Selznick.  Producer in “old” Hollywood.  Said to have added the middle initial for flourish and musicality.  In many ways, the master mind behind 1939’s groundbreaking Gone with the Wind (GWTW).

He was also a man who got invested in the seemingly unimportant details like lace trim on petticoats and pantolettes.  Items that didn’t particularly matter to a movie audience.  One of the actresses playing Scarlett’s sisters recounted a story in the documentary about making GWTW.  She basically pulled Mr. Selznick aside and told him he was wasting a ton of money and time including this level of workmanship on their costumes.  In almost any shot, no one would even know it was there.

You’ll know it’s there,” he reportedly said.  “Now finish getting fitted.”

Mammy helping Scarlett dress

The creative mind knows more than it shows.  There is always a backstage we don’t get to see from the audience.  The producer believes in nuance that is layered.  Ready to be peeled away if the right moment comes (i.e. a telling scene between Scarlett and Mammy).

I was chatting with a coworker the other day, and she also happens to believe writing is important to sanity.  Editing, we agreed, is both the bane and blessing of every writer.  Sometimes we edit even before the words make it onto the page.  Hours of research may yield only a paragraph.  We may know the full case history of every character before we ever introduce them to someone else.  I’d call it all a calculated risk.

It’s like sewing lace on an antebellum petticoat, the whole time asking yourself if anyone will ever even know.  The labor?  The love?

It’s an intimate process, but it must be done.

Somewhere out there, someone is asking “why?”  Because if you’re going to commit to this act of creativity, you have to COMMIT.  You have to pull a Selznick and have your characters wear fine lace undergarments while you schedule a huge fire.

Yes, a fire.

First of all, you have to schedule a fire is because you have to clear the way for new production.  In GWTW, there’s a huge sequence around the burning of Atlanta.  In the 1930s, however, CG was not as sophisticated as we’ve grown accustomed to.  Based on the lace anecdote, you shouldn’t be surprised when I tell you that Selznick wasn’t going to be fine and dandy with some miniatures being burned or an artistic rendering of faux flames at work.  Instead, the solution was burning down sets of previous films, creating nearly 2 hours of footage for the famous scenes.

That was different twist on “out with the old and in with the new.”  Or as (arguably) Faulkner said, “Kill your darlings.”  No previous labor should stand so powerful in your mental landscape that you can’t set fire to it for the sake of building something new.  As one of my mentors would say, “cling loosely” to those darlings.

A word of warning however:  don’t expect to get off scot-free.  You may lose something in setting fire to the old stuff.  That little fire stunt cost the GWTW project roughly $25k.  And residents in surrounding areas were calling the fire department in genuine worry; they didn’t know it was a planned burn.  In essence, stripping away the old doesn’t come without a price or misunderstanding bystanders.

The second reason for that enormous fire is as a backdrop for new action.  A beneficial corollary of burning down old movie sets was that Selznick’s crew could then build new sets for the rest of the film.

Consider it Gestalt in action.  The fire and lace interludes become a part of the producer.  If nothing else, it is added to his repertoire as something completed in the past and therefore possible in the future.  Even better, it leads his imagination toward a blank slate.  A freshly installed playground for …

Matte paintings.  Interior sets on GWTW didn’t have ceilings; they were all matte paintings.  This allowed Selznick to propagate the embarrassingly elegant (to Margaret Mitchell) vibe.  He was going for visual extremes.  Realism wasn’t a priority unless he wanted it to be.  What producer would claim any different?

Tenuous, step-by-step on the wire is the life of a producer.  Let's get real:  creator.  By most accounts, Selznick never flourished again quite like he did in the furnace of GWTW.  If we’re honest, we can only guess why.  It doesn’t matter though.  Most of those subsequent films are inconsequential to the average person.  And so I will leave you with one thought:  if you were only remembered for one thing you did, would that be enough?

Think about it.

Selznick with Leigh at the Academy Awards

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