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6 Filmmaking Tips From Warren Beatty

These rules may apply.
By  · Published on November 23rd, 2016

Warren Beatty is not the sort of director to give straight filmmaking tips. He’s actually the first person I’ve seen do a Reddit AMA and not respond to requests for advice for aspiring newcomers. He’s also someone who hasn’t given a lot of interviews or talks, period (thanks, so it’s said, to Rex Reed). So, compiling this list of lessons and guidance was a challenge.

Fortunately, with Rules Don’t Apply being his first directorial effort in 18 years and the need to promote the comeback, the actor-turned-filmmaker is actually doing some publicity for once. Here’s what we were able to get out of his recent chatter plus a few scattered interviews from the past:

Be In Charge

Beatty may not have the most emulative career. He’s had a lot of power in Hollywood for very a long time, and for him the sort of success that many people work years to achieve came pretty much immediately. Within a decade, he was producing movies and demanding control, and he’s never lost it, not even after a number of flops.

Here’s a funny story he told Deadline’s Pete Hammond recently about how a bad experience developing What’s New Pussycat changed things forever:

“I learned a big lesson, which was, you better be in charge. And that’s when I said, ‘OK I’m going to do this Bonnie And Clyde thing, and I can only fire myself or walk out on myself, or whatever,’” he said of the 1967 movie that represented his first producing effort. It ended up with 10 Academy Award nominations and two Oscars, but Warner Bros studio chief Jack Warner had not wanted him to do it. Warner in fact told his head of production that he should not greenlight it, that these types of gangster movies went out a long time ago when Warners originally did them in the ’30s and ’40s.

“I said to Warner, ‘I think you’re wrong’,” Beatty said. “And he said, ‘What do you mean, I’m wrong?’ I said, ‘I think we should do this and it’ll be good.’ He said, ‘Well look, you’re going to do what I say, because it’s my name on the (WB studio lot’s) water tower.’ I took a deep breath, I stood up, I went to the window, and said, ‘It’s my initials.’ He finally said, ‘All right, do whatever the f*ck you want’.”

In the below interview promoting Bulworth in 1998, he explains how he only really likes making movies if he has control and how everything that happens with a movie afterward is beyond his grasp:

But Be Humble

Despite being a major Hollywood player for half a century with box office hits and Academy Awards and other accomplishments, Beatty has had his share of failures, and maybe it’s due to the following outlook acquired early on that he’s never let it defeat him. Asked about what he learned at the start of his career, he told GQ recently:

I don’t know how to say it, but I learned from people’s mistakes. I’d see the mistakes and think, Now I know the way to do it right. And I learned I could survive the mistakes. The most central requisite of movies or theater or public life is humility. If you can keep your humility AND your confidence, you might do something.

Throw Up

One statement found in a lot of interviews with Beatty this year has to do with comparing filmmaking to vomiting. “I have often compared making a movie to vomiting,” he told AARP The Magazine. “I don’t like to vomit. But there are times I think, Maybe I’ll just feel better if I go ahead and throw up. So then I make the movie.”

What he means is explained better in this excerpt from a new Star Tribune interview:

A lot of people do their best work when they’re not working. The unconscious is kind of going full steam. And you are trying to make sense out of your conscious mind, which is not always easy to do. Finally you get to a point where you have to make a movie on a certain subject, which I have often compared to vomiting.

It’s not that I like to vomit. I don’t. But with a certain subject that I’ve been rumbling around with for a long time, and there’s a sense of not wanting to make a mess, at a certain point, I just say, ‘Maybe I’ll feel better if I just throw up.’ And then a movie comes out. And then I try to clean it up.

The analogy has something to do with him taking a long time on projects and eventually needing to just do them. Here’s a quote from a 1990 Rolling Stone interview that sounds similar without the throwing up part:

I’ve never seen the point of just dishing it out there. I don’t know that I take such a long time to make movies. I take a long time to DECIDE to do one. I take much too long. And I think that’s self-indulgent on my part, and I ought to try to get over it. Sometimes I think that I put off making movies just long enough so that I can’t put it off any longer, for various reasons. Then I make the movie.

Watch him tell the vomit idea to Matt Lauer on The Today Show this week:

He has other analogies, as well. In the AARP interview, he also says, “Building a house is a lot like moviemaking. The attention to detail, the sense that you’re doing something that has longevity.” And here’s one from a recent Vanity Fair interview comparing filmmaking to raising children:

There’s something about the empty nest that makes you say, “Well, maybe I should go out and make a movie.” It’s like Cocteau said [quoting the French poet Paul Valery], “A poem is never finished, it’s only abandoned.” And that’s the way it is with movies ‐ like children. You continue to work on them, and work on them, but then you have to let them go.

Let Movies Speak For Themselves

There are a number of reasons Beatty has avoided a lot of press over the decades, but one of them is that he believes doing publicity is bad for the movies themselves, even if it’s supposedly bad for their business. From the Rolling Stone interview, conducted as he was being forced by Disney to promote Dick Tracy:

I don’t think it’s helpful, in general, to get out there in front of a film. By attracting attention to yourself, you distract people from the movie. Ideally, you like a movie to speak for itself. You don’t describe a song before you sing it or tell about a painting before you show it. You don’t reveal the recipe before you serve the dish. You taste it. That’s why I stopped doing [interviews]. I didn’t see any particular gain in personal publicity.

The following year, he said something similar in an interview for The Washington Post with specific address of Reds (which he finally discussed a decade ago to promote the 25th anniversary release):

It’s fundamentally destructive to the ability to look at a movie and have your own feelings about it, because it’s obliterated by all this chatter that comes from us about our work, and ‐ I always say it’s like somebody coming into a kitchen where there is a 7,000-pound souffle, and stamping their foot. It’s just too hot. … Shut up! Don’t talk about the movie, just show the movie and go quietly into the night and hope they like it. … I felt {‘Reds’} needed to be perceived on its own merits, and I didn’t give an interview on that at all. I could have talked like hell about that movie if I wanted to. And of course I wanted to. I wanted to pontificate and expound, and sound smart. But I didn’t do it, to my credit.

Movies Should Oversimplify Ideas

Beatty has long been thought of as a political filmmaker, and attempts were even made to get him into office. But while he’s tackled political ideas in many of his movies, he still sees himself as first and foremost an entertainer and wants audiences to enjoy his movies. For that, he needs to avoid being too heavy handed.

Here’s what he told the New York Times in an interview tied to the release of Bulworth in 1998:

“The picture has. . .a message,’’ says Beatty, still on the phone in the van. “My political conduct has changed. I now think as a person who deals in mass media. I don’t think I’d be very effective in practical politics, the way I used to be with Bobby Kennedy or George McGovern. But you can say things in a movie. You can say black people are treated badly in the United States. It’s an oversimplification but it needs to be said. You can say rich people control politics. It’s an oversimplification but it needs to be said.

“I’m in the entertainment business,’’ he goes on to say. “The message happens to be true, but any time you try to have a message in a movie, you sound like you’re on C-Span. Listen, I have a lunatic in this movie who has a nervous breakdown, runs around in short pants, acts like an adolescent, talking in a voice that’s not even his own. He oversimplifies the message pretty drastically, but he’s funny. I tried to make it funny enough and move it quickly enough so they don’t walk out.’’

Around the same time, he discussed the difference between politicians (particularly his friend Ronald Reagan) and filmmakers on how to get a message across to the people on Charlie Rose. He doesn’t dismiss the power of propaganda, but he says that’s not what he (nor rap music, which he got into while making Bulworth) does.

Comedy Is a Bigger Risk Than Drama

Beatty likes to make people laugh while delivering messages, but he’s acknowledged that it’s not that easy to do. While he’s been successful and garnered Oscar recognition with both drama and comedy, the latter is a much bigger gamble, mainly with the audience.

In 1975, while promoting Shampoo (which he and many others consider as much his movie as Hal Ashby’s), he told Roger Ebert:

There’s one thing about comedy: You sure know if you’ve failed. I mean, a dramatic picture, sometimes you save it with a good scene or a good performance but if it’s a comedy and the people don’t laugh, you’ve had it. I don’t know if you can call ‘Shampoo’ a comedy. There are a lot of laughs in it, but…if it is, it’s an awfully sad comedy.

What We Learned

After all these years and despite all of the privacy and distaste for publicity, there’s a lot to learn from Beatty, though much of it is fairly specific. If you can achieve such creative control, you should balance that power with humility, communicate important messages in a manner suited for entertainment, and take your time on projects to get them right and then, when they need to be expunged, puke the movie out.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.