Director Spotlight

Robin Bissell: An Unexpected Path to the Director’s Chair

Robin Bissell and Taraji P. Henson on set of The Best of Enemies (2018).

Movies are the creation derived from the dreams, inspiration, ideas, and hard work of countless minds and hands. If you stay at the end of each movie as the credits begin to roll, you’ll get a glimpse of just how many people it really does take to bring a movie to life. The name Robin Bissell might not sound entirely familiar to the casual movie fan, and it might even elude some of the more self-declared cinephiles, but without a doubt it is a name you’ll want to follow in the Hollywood industry.

Have you ever heard of Pleasantville (1998), or Seabiscuit (2003)? How about The Hunger Games (2012)?—only the third highest grossing movie at the domestic box office in 2012, grossing over $408 million. Bissell served as an associate producer and executive producer (respectively) on all three of these films (among others). But Bissell’s path to Hollywood was an unexpected one to say the least.

Bissell’s upbringing exposed him to theater and plays, but it was at the end of his freshman year at the University of Maryland that Bissell discovered his ability to write music. This discovery inspired him to drop out of college during his sophomore year and head west to Los Angeles in pursuit of a career in either music or acting, both equal passions of his. Friends and family admonished him to choose one and focus on that—and he chose singing/song writing. Bissell was able to form a band and land a record deal with A&M Records, only to see that deal nullified once PolyGram bought out A&M Records. This didn’t stop Bissell and his band, Everything, from pursuing their love of music and playing shows all over town.

Robin Bissell, co-lead singer of the band Everything, playing a show in 1995.

After a few years of playing music, Bissell felt ready for a change; a new adventure of sorts. Bissell’s love of film had never diminished, and ultimately, it was Bissell’s connections that he had made through music that landed him an opportunity in the film industry. Bissell’s friend, agent Melanie Ramsayer, lined him up an interview as an assistant to a movie writer who was about to direct his very first film. This new director had fired his last three assistants, and Bissell went in to interview for the opening. Even after being warned at how awful this assistant position was going to be, Bissell persisted and never wavered during the interview. When the interview concluded and Bissell was making his way to back to his car, he realized he had forgotten to ask for a script of this new movie. So Bissell went back into the building only to run into the new director himself, Gary Ross, who then hired him on the spot. This new movie being made was Pleasantville, starring Jeff Daniels, Reese Witherspoon, and Tobey Maguire.

(Left to right) Robin Bissell, Reese Witherspoon and Paul Walker on set of Pleasantville (1996).

Bissell’s hiring came two months before principal photography began for Pleasantville, and with no experience and no idea how to actually do his job, Bissell became a sponge, soaking up as much knowledge as he possibly could. He worked long hours and took on more responsibilities, and during the extensive fifteen-month post-production of Pleasantville (while other producers left to take care of other projects), Bissell picked up the slack and made his worth known to Gary Ross as well as others; Ross ended up making Bissell an associate producer for Pleasantville.

And thus began his new journey in Hollywood.

Bissell would go on to be hired as a full-time producing partner for Gary Ross and Larger Than Life Productions, and would be part of the making of such films as Seabiscuit, The Tale of Despereaux (2008), and The Hunger Games. When Comcast bought Universal Studios back in 2010, they ended up buying out the contract that Universal had with Larger Than Life Productions. Gary Ross, Bissell, and co. were still able to make The Hunger Games, whose financial success allowed Bissell the flexibility to set off on his own in pursuit of a project he had been thinking of making for a number of years.

Sam Rockwell and Robin Bissell on set of The Best of Enemies (2018).

It was back in 2005 that Bissell came across an article in Time Magazine about two individuals back in the 1970’s that were on opposing sides of civil rights activism occurring in Durham, NC; Ann Atwater, a Black woman and civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis, a White man and president of the KKK chapter in Durham, NC. This story grabbed Bissell’s attention, and years later would end up being the passion project that put him in the director’s chair of his very own movie titled, The Best of Enemies (2019). This story is explored in detail on episode 110 of the Backseat Directors Podcast. Bissell’s journey from college drop-out, to musician, to an assistant, to associate producer, to executive producer, to a writer and director of his own movie was likely the most unexpected journey he could have imagined. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Bissell’s career is to follow your heart. Even if the path before you is uncertain and obscure, the only way to know is to take that leap and move forward. I encourage all readers to listen to the rest of his story and learn more about the man, and the movie fan, Robin Bissell.

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Spike Lee

Film director, Spike Lee.

My first memory of Spike Lee was following the 91st Academy Awards. Upon the announcement that Green Book (2017) had won Best Picture, the acclaimed director reportedly rose from his chair and angrily attempted to leave the Dolby Theater. It wasn’t uncommon for nominees to thinly veil their disappointment, but the idea that he would storm out because his movie didn’t win set me against the acclaimed director. As such, my first ever Spike Lee Joint was only two months ago when I finally got around to seeing the film he had so badly wanted to take home with the Best Picture honor: BlacKkKlansman (2017). Making my way through his filmography has convinced me that there is more to Lee than being a seemingly sore loser. So here is what I’ve learned about the man named Shelton Jackson Lee or (as his mother took to calling him) Spike.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee’s mother was a teacher of arts and Black literature. “She was the one who introduced me to film,” he says of Jacquelyn Shelton Lee. “My mother had the vision to introduce all her children to the arts…. but she never got to see my success” (1). She died during his sophomore year at Morehouse College. He would later continue his education with a Master’s in Film and Television from NYU, where he is currently a tenured professor. He has used his powerful storytelling to change the perspective on historical figures, as in Malcolm X (1992), or to tell criminally untold stories, as in BlacKkKlansman and most recently Da Five Bloods (2020). He cares for these stories as if they were his own, like many of his joints are. His filmography feels at times like a biography, as the experiences and places that formed him permeate his narratives: the innocence of childhood and maternal loss in Crooklyn (1994), the portrayal of social issues within the Black community in School Daze (1988), and the racial tensions and gentrification of Brooklyn in Do the Right Thing (1989). Lee makes his movies even more personal by starring in many of them himself. In fact, every member of his immediate family has participated in at least one of his projects; his father, a jazz musician, recorded the music for Lee’s first four films, including Mo’ Better Blues (1990). Spike Lee co-wrote Crooklyn with his siblings Cinqué and Joie, and his brother David has done the still-photography for almost all of Lee’s films.

Director Spike Lee on location for the filming of Do the Right Thing (1989).

For me, Spike Lee Joints stand out as unsatisfying—not in quality or content, but in terms of the feeling that sits in my gut when the credits roll. He doesn’t shy away from displaying brutality, violence, and overt racism (as a result all but two of Spike Lee’s films have an R-rating). But what sets him apart is his determination to deny any resolution to the discomfort. Lee creates this feeling of unease not only with subject matter and dialogue but also with camera angles and movements. His signatures are a double-dolly shot where characters appear to be floating, and the simple direction of having characters break the fourth wall; but they aren’t looking at the camera—they are looking at you. The implied sense of obligation or responsibility for what is going on, especially when the subject matter is so jarring, isn’t pleasant. It’s impossible to watch Lee’s films and feel that everything is hunky-dory in the world and that there is no need for outcry. It’s why his films have become the standard for education on the social issues at hand.

Common criticisms of Lee include that his work can be heavy-handed and transparently political, and I don’t think he would disagree. In an interview with Piers Morgan, he said, “I know I have a reputation, but I’m always being put in this position [where] I have to speak on race… on behalf of 45 million African Americans” (2). He takes that responsibility seriously. For one, the name of his production company is “40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks”, referring to what was promised by the federal government (but never given) to newly freed slaves following the end of the Civil War; a reminder of what Black Americans have suffered at the hand of systemic injustice. In almost every one of his films a character says, “Wake up!”, sometimes repeatedly and directly to the audience. He’s been openly critical of directors that he believes are misrepresenting Black people, including Clint Eastwood, Tyler Perry, and Quentin Tarantino. He felt that Do the Right Thing was passed over in favor of a more polite and comfortable narrative in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), which was showered with praise, even the Academy’s top prize. When asked about his apparent agitation over Green Book’s similar victory, Lee responded, “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose” (3).

Director Spike Lee, actors Topher Grace and Adam Driver on the set of BlacKkKlansman, a Focus Features release. Credit: David Lee / Focus Features

Despite losing Best Picture and Best Director, Spike Lee did not go home empty-handed. He won his first non-honorary Oscar for BlacKkKlansman’s adapted screenplay. The announcement was made by Samuel L. Jackson, who got his start in Lee’s films and has starred in six of them to date. At the news, Lee bounded onto the stage in a bright purple suit and leapt into Jackson’s arms, wrapping all four limbs around his old friend’s frame for a good few seconds before finally making his way to the microphone. The speech was characteristic of Lee: reminding those present that their country was built on the enslavement of an entire race and the genocide of the Native American people. As a fully committed people-pleaser, it’s hard for me to relate to someone so trenchant and passionate in their viewpoint. Like his films, Lee’s voice abandons subtlety and favors outrightness and unflinching sophistication. It may not be easy to hear, but without such a bold and unrelenting voice, would we see things the way we do now?

Citations:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18ZPB_SvsKk
  2. The Atlantic: Spike Lee Interview
  3. Washington Post: Spike Lee’s Reaction to ‘Green Book’ Win

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: David Fincher

David Fincher (Merrick Morton, 2011)

If you look up any list of “The Top 10 Modern-Day Thrillers”, you’ll likely run into one of David Fincher’s films. Being that he only has 10 entries to his directorial filmography, I’d say that makes him noteworthy, and one of the most bankable directors in Hollywood today. That being said, some of his work has been underrated, so if this entry convinces you to visit or revisit any of his films, the Fincher fan in me will have done his job!

About a decade ago, a forgettable, high school weekend spent binge watching cable (pre-Netflix) led me to my first Fincher film, Zodiac (2007)–one of the finest biopic thrillers of all time, and massively underrated (starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo). Jump forward… When I first decided to pursue movie-watching beyond just your regular pastime, I started by seeking out the directors of my favorite films, and then exploring their work. I knew that Fincher would be one of my reliable directors to look into further based off of Zodiac alone—and I was right! He did not disappoint as I was introduced to inevitable favorites like Se7en (1995), The Social Network (2010) and Gone Girl (2014). In every case I started to realize that you can expect a few things from almost any Fincher film: visceral realism, high octane, stacked casts, and rewatchability.

David Fincher got his start working on classic films like Return of the Jedi (1983) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Though having a solid foundation with his father also being a screenwriter, he had to go through some years of directing commercials and an almost “Josh Trank-esque” experience with his directorial debut. Though the Alien franchise had garnered considerable success up to this point and his start with Alien 3 (1992) was met with mixed reviews (along with an Oscar nod for visual effects), there was a ton of studio interference along with nine different writers. Fincher would go on to disown the film saying, “No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.” Though I think it is far from the weakest in the franchise, it’s definitely not one of the strongest sequels.

Luckily, his films have only gotten better as he has since been given more management over them. Se7en and Fight Club (1999) found their way to many of those aforementioned best-thriller lists with their engaging stories, novel twists, and great performances from Brad Pitt (in both), Edward Norton (Fight Club), and Morgan Freeman (Se7en). Honestly, these flicks are quality, and if you want to see how Fincher’s talents developed over the years, watch his movies in chronological order.

More recently, his installments have gained significant commercial and critical success, grabbed the attention of award circuits, and have been heavily considered some of the best movies of the year in which they came out. In fact, it’s been preferred by many that The Social Network had beat out The King’s Speech (2010) for Best Picture at the Oscars. Other Fincher films that have received more recent notoriety includes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and Gone Girl. I would strongly suggest that you watch the latter if you haven’t already. Rosamund Pike, Ben Affleck and even Tyler Perry give intriguing performances, and the story (written and based on the bestseller by Gillian Flynn) makes for one of the most jaw-dropping, entertaining, mind “messer-uppers” that could only be flawlessly brought to life through Fincher’s expert directing. 

David Fincher on the set of Mank (2020) | Netflix

Fincher’s next movie should be released this year (fingers crossed with COVID). It’s titled Mank (2020), which will chronicle a screenwriter’s battle with Orson Welles over writing credit for the movie Citizen Kane (1941), which many consider to be the greatest movie of all time. Being a big fan of The Social Network, and already seeing some striking similarities, I’m very much anticipating this release. Mank was actually written by David Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, and is set to star Gary Oldman in the lead role. Keep an eye out!

Fincher has said that he was heavily influenced by Hitchcock, which shouldn’t be a surprise as most of his movies have a considerable touch of Hitchcock-like suspense, albeit modernized. Common throughout his films, the cinematography has a signature dark-and-musky shade. You’ll notice it (if you haven’t already) while watching his films—it’s like a desaturated, monochromatic coloring that really ends up reinforcing the usually dreary world that his characters live inwhat mostly comes to mind while explaining his style in Blade Runner (1982). Really, it’s a lot of that neo-noir, but without the sci-fi—and trust me, it works!

The funny thing is that there are many commonalities like this throughout his filmography, but he doesn’t seem to collaborate very much with the same people. The similarities in tone and style probably have something to do with the fact that he’s known for being a bit of a meticulous micromanager. Some of his lead actors (e.g. Jake Gyllenhaal, Rooney Mara) have spoken about their exhaustion from having to do retake after retake to get “the perfect scene”. But in turn, his perfectionism hasn’t been wasted as one of his editors said, “[It’s like] putting together a swiss watch… all the pieces are so beautifully machined. He’s incredibly specific. He never settles. And there’s a purity that shows in his work.” Honestly, in consideration of how much I love his films, I couldn’t be more grateful for the time and detail he puts into his work, even at the slight expense of his cast and crew. 

David Fincher

Below is my ranking of Fincher’s movies. Check them out, and leave me a comment on whether you agree or disagree with the ranks, or if you love, hate or don’t care about David Fincher!

  1. Gone Girl (2014)
  2. Se7en (1995)
  3. Zodiac (2007)
  4. The Social Network (2010)
  5. Fight Club (1999)
  6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
  7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
  8. Panic Room (2002)
  9. The Game (1997)
  10. Alien 3 (1992)

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Akira Kurosawa

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa

As the son of a Japanese immigrant, Akira Kurosawa was embedded into my life at a very young age. Kurosawa has inspired some of the world’s most successful directors; he was highly regarded by Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, where the latter even referred to him as “the pictorial Shakespeare of our time.”

Background

Kurosawa was born in Tokyo, Japan on March 23, 1910 and was the youngest of four sisters and four brothers. His family could trace their lineage back to 11th century Samurai. As he grew older, he became close with his elder brother, Heigo. Kurosawa later said that he and his brother “would go to the movies, particularly silent movies, and then discuss them all day” (McDonald, William. The New York Times Book of the Dead: Obituaries of Extraordinary People. Black Dog & Leventhal, 2016).  Eventually, he started working as an assistant director right before World War II.

Directing and International Fame

Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo in a scene of Rashomon (1950) | Daiei Film

He started directing films in 1941, but it was not until 1950 that he shocked the world with his film, Rashomon, about the psychological struggle over the nature of truth itself. Rashomon went on to win an Honorary Academy Award for ‘Most Outstanding Foreign Language Film’ and Akira Kurosawa’s name became forever embedded into history. Rashomon marked the entrance of Japanese film onto the world stage. This also came at a time where the United States had defeated Japan in World War II just six years prior.

After Rashomon, Kurosawa went on to direct The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Hidden Fortress and many more films. Over his 57-year career, Kurosawa directed 30 films and won over 50 awards worldwide for his cinematic work. Some of his accolades include a ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ Academy Award in 1976 for Dersu Uzala, a ‘Lifetime Achievement’ Academy Award in 1990, and a Directors Guild of America’s ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ in 1992. 

His Style

Some may say that Kurosawa’s films can feel a bit slow because there are long periods between the main plot points. However, if one is only watching a Kurosawa film for the action scenes, they are already missing the point of the film—Kurosawa uses repetition in his films’ stories to show how life is cyclical. He also uses pauses internationally so the audience will analyze what has come before the pause and then understand the following results. Kurosawa’s most important theme is drawn from his personal belief that humans are fundamentally good. A film’s ability to affect the audience through its themes and messages are qualities of a good film. Kurosawa took that one step further and embedded that idea into his film-making process.

His Impact

George Lucas showing Akira Kurosawa details of a Snowspeeder during the making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Kurosawa is the man who opened Asian cinema to Western audiences. While some film junkies may not have ever seen his films, they for sure have seen the films he inspired, or other adaptionations that are based on his films. Rashomon has inspired numerous films such as The Usual Suspects, Gone Girl, Vantage Point, Hoodwinked, and several Quentin Tarentino films. George Lucas’s Star Wars was based on Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood is a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. 2016’s The Magnificent Seven starring Chris Pratt is a very loose remake of the original 1969 The Magnificent Seven, which was a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; this film was also the inspiration behind Three Amigos and A Bug’s Life. Kurosawa has also influenced the film world in other ways, from editing to how a scene is blocked. Both current and future movie fans across the globe can learn a lot from Japanese cinema and other Asian films.

Akira Kurosawa stands between George Lucas (left) and Steven Spielberg (right) after receiving his Honorary Academy Award at the 62nd Academy Awards

Early on in his career, Kurosawa had to overcome post-WWII sentiments and prejudice, specifically in the United States—anti-Japanese and anti-Asian propaganda was abundant. Much has changed since then; there have been two Academy Awards for Best Picture given to Asian directors (Ang Lee in 2013 for Life of Pi and Bong Joon Ho in 2019 for Parasite). Four Asian directors (including Kurosawa) have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director (Ang Lee, Bong Joon Ho and Hiroshi Teshigahara). Both Ang Lee and Bong Joon Ho won the Oscar for Best Director for their aforementioned films. It’s safe to say that these modern directors would not have accomplished what they have without the foundations laid by Kurosawa. Progress has been made in recognizing quality filmmaking at the international level, but we still have a long way to go.

Kurosawa’s embedded themes still resonate with viewers today. If you have not seen any of his films, Throne of Blood, Ran, Kagemusha, plus the others mentioned in this article are a good place to start. If you’d like to check out Kurosawa’s entire directing work, click HERE to see the rest of his filmography.

How many Akira Kurosawa’s films have you seen? Let me know in the comments section or hit me up on social media.

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