Sunday, September 05, 2004

Brian Helgeland: Gentle Perfectionist

I believe there are two kinds of perfectionist: the Picasso type who ends up driving himself (and everyone around him) mad through his barmy obsession with an unreachable dream, and the other type. The type like Brian Helgeland.

Let's backtrack: I love DVDs. We just got a DVD player on Friday, and immediately rented our first one, A Knight's Tale. Watched the movie itself on Friday night, and we've been spending the rest of the weekend watching all the other special features (pausing, of course, to watch Star Wars: Episode I on TV last night) (oh, and spend time with my mum, of course!).

I must say Brian Helgeland, writer, director and producer of A Knight's Tale, impresses the heck out of me. I can tell from the finished product that he's a perfectionist - not only in telling the story, but also in getting historical details right (except for the rock music, but I have a sneaking suspicion that was deliberate!).

But Brian's perfectionism doesn't just extend to the final product. He has the insight to see that it's the people and the moments those people create that make the best final product. So he nurtures them. Paul Bettany, who brilliantly portrays Geoffrey Chaucer in the film, says Brian gets to know you to know what will motivate you ... what words will give rise to the best performance from you.

And this not just from the main actors - homeless Czech extras also got gently guided and nurtured and prodded to get the best, most authentic response. (Don't worry, it wasn't exploitation, it was a work scheme put on by the Prague authorities. But it did help lend a genuinely mediaeval look to the film!)

As well as Brian's approach to people, I love his approach to surprises. "Happy accidents" became part of the final work. Like a stuntman getting knocked off his horse, unconscious, while the cameras rolled. ("Save it, that's a great shot! Is he alright?") And like the end of Chaucer's impassioned speech, when the Czech-speaking extras missed their cue to cheer, and were prompted by actor Mark Addy (still in character). While the crew got ready to re-shoot the scene 'properly', Brian and his colleagues thought hey, what we already have is better than what we would've got!

Of all the types of leadership in the world, I believe movie directing must be the ultimate setting where art and management combine. And it takes a true leader to make people feel comfortable to give their greatest performances, as well as spot the happy accidents that make a piece so authentic.


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