28 March 2018

You are going entirely too slow

With his first American film Swamp Water (1941), renowned French director Jean Renoir quickly discovered that Hollywood production methods were very different from his own. During the making of the film, Renoir constantly clashed with 20th Century Fox producer/studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck, whose main priority was keeping the film on schedule and within budget. Renoir's time-consuming camera techniques, for instance, didn't mesh with Zanuck's ideas of efficient film making, nor did Renoir's long discussions on the set with his cast and crew. Also, Renoir was used to shooting films on location while Zanuck preferred to shoot them quickly on the studio lot. (Renoir did eventually convince Zanuck to shoot part of the film in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp.) 

Annoyed with Renoir's directing methods and slow work pace, Zanuck at one point replaced cinematographer Lucien Ballard with Peverell Marley, feeling that Ballard was contributing to Renoir's slowness. Despite the measure, Renoir kept working at a slow pace and as a result was fired from the film one morning in August 1941, only to be rehired by Zanuck that same evening. Renoir finished the film, but after that he never worked for Zanuck again.

Above: Jean Renoir directs Dana Andrews and Anne Baxter in Swamp Water (1941)below: Darryl F. Zanuck.

Seen below are two very interesting memos from Zanuck to Renoir, written during production of Swamp WaterBoth memos show how Zanuck interfered with Renoir's direction, mainly because he was worried about Renoir's inability to stay on schedule and budget. In the first memo, Zanuck told Renoir to speed things up while criticising a number of his directorial traits, including Renoir's use of deep focus photography. The second memo shows Zanuck's interference with the director's handling of the actors. While Zanuck was quite satisfied with how Renoir had directed leading actors Anne Baxter and Dana Andrews, he criticised the way the minor characters had been handled. And again, Zanuck stressed the importance of not falling further behind schedule and said that, while he supported Renoir, he expected the director to play things his way.

Despite (or thanks to) Zanuck's criticism on Renoir, the film managed to stay on a reasonable budget ($602,000) and was one of the studio's biggest box-office hits of 1941.


DATE: July 30, 1941 
TO: Mr. Jean Renoir 
CC: Mr. Irving Pichel [dialogue director]
Dear Renoir: 
You are going entirely too slow. From day to day you are turning in less completed film than any other company on the lot.  We have changed cameramen and now you have a photographer  who can keep up to a fast pace, yet we are getting no more film than we did with the other cameraman. I have discussed the matter on a number of occasions and I feel that several things are causing you to fall way behind schedule, which will add almost $100,000 to the cost of the picture. We cannot afford this. You will have to speed up and make up this lost time. 
1. You are wasting entirely too much time on non-essential details in your background. 
2. You are moving your camera around too much on the dolly or on tracks.
3. You should not play scenes two different ways as you did the sequences on the porch in yesterday's rushes. You should decide upon which way you are going to play it and then follow through without compromise.
4. You are worrying too much about background, atmosphere, and elements which will not be important in the finished film. 
5. The dolly shot of the sheriff in front of the store took over two hours to get in the camera. It isn't worth it. 
6. In order to make up time and keep on schedule and budget, it is essential for you to concentrate your attention on the important scenes featuring the principal actors, and on the other scenes find ways and means of covering them as quickly and efficiently as you can. 
7. You used four different angles to get over the action with the sheriff on the porch. This could have been covered with one or two angles at the most. 
8. The rushes that I have seen in the last two days should have been shot in one day.

I regret that it is necessary for me to be stern in this matter, but after reviewing the budget it is easy to read the handwriting on the wall and see that we are headed toward a price on this picture that we will never be able to get back unless a radical change is made at once.

Above: Walter Brennan and Dana Andrews in a scene from Swamp Water, and below Andrews with character actor Russell Simpson whose name is mentioned in Zanuck' s second memo.


DATE: August 8, 1941

TO: Mr. Jean Renoir


Dear Renoir:

I have reviewed all of the scenes that you have photographed on the picture to date and here is my summary of same: 
You have done an excellent job in handling Anne Baxter. She is the most impressive of all the people. 
You have done a good job with Dana Andrews. His performance is sincere, especially in his light moments when he is allowed to smile and be relaxed... Try to keep the hat off him as much as you can from here on. 
There is too much production in this picture. By this I mean every time we come to the country store it is so crowded with horses and wagons and people that you would think it is the middle of the city. In other words, there is too much atmosphere, which gives it an impression of being artificial. 
My greatest criticism is with the manner in which you have handled the minor characters. They all seem to be trying to act. Every bit or small part is trying to be "a character". They are trying to be so typically American-- chewing tobacco, smoking corncob pipes, etc. that it becomes unreal and fakey. I don't feel they are the plain, simple backwoods types who react naturally and honestly as, for instance, the characters reacted in The Grapes of Wrath. Everybody, including Russell Simpson and the others, seem to be reaching continually. The best things you have done on the picture have been the intimate scenes-- particularly those between the boy and the girl.
There is nothing that you have done that we cannot correct with a few retakes after the picture is over. Right now the important thing is to be sure that everything is good from here on and that we do not fall any further behind schedule. If you plan your work in advance the night before you shoot and do not try to develop everything on the set, there is no reason why you cannot keep on schedule. I don't expect you to make up anything, but I don't expect you to go further behind.
You have got to realize that all of us are behind you in an effort to help you-- not hinder you or confuse you. No director on this lot has ever been given the support that you have received. Everybody wants to see you come through with a great first [American] picture. Perhaps you have had too much help-- perhaps too many cooks spoil the broth. Pichel is the only one you should listen to for directorial suggestions. The cameraman, the unit man, your secretary, the cutter and [associate producer] Len Hammond can give you what help you want, but in the final analysis-- you are directing the picture, and Pichel is your associate. The daily working report shows that a tremendous amount of time is spent each day on discussions. These are things that should be settled the night before so that when you get on the set you know what you are going to do, and go after it.
In closing, I want you to know that I am behind you and I am going to see you through on the picture-- but, by the same token, I expect you to play ball my way.

Source: Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century Fox (1993); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer. 

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