Without ego there would be no art, no motivation to take on the challenges and to seek the rewards of creating original work. Jackie Gleason, best remembered for creating and starring in The Honeymooners – one of the first and most successful sitcoms in television history – once said: “If I didn’t have an enormous ego and a monumental pride, how in the hell could I be a performer?” Marlon Brando once famously defined an actor as “a guy who, if you ain’t talking about him, ain’t listening.” And Michael Douglas has said that “actors are paid to be selfish and self-involved.” There are of course exceptions – actors whose modesty is unmistakable – such as Tom Hanks and Robert De Niro, the latter of whom once said: “There’s nothing more offensive to me than watching an actor act with his ego.” But as a rule, actors are virtually expected by the general public to have a somewhat inflated ego.
The same applies to film directors, who are rarely paragons of humility. It is of course essential that directors be decisive and fully in charge, but those qualities sometimes morph into a tyrannical arrogance when dealing with actors, as is said to be the case with such directors as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, James Cameron and Lars von Trier. Ingmar Bergman stood out as representing a very different approach: “My professor told me when I started in the 40s that a director should listen and keep his mouth shut. Took me a long time to understand I talked too much. Now I know you should listen with your ears – and your heart.” Scorsese also directs with a light hand and respect for his actors’ sensibilities, never imposing his will, as this description by Rosanna Arquette clearly shows, referring to the film After Hours (1985): “Marty Scorsese’s never negative. He said: ‘Do you think you should laugh in this scene?’ ’Oh, no Marty, I can’t see where she’d laugh.’ ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right. Forget I ever said anything.’ That’s what he does, very subtly: like he planted the seed, watered it and split. As I was doing the scene, I don’t know where it came from, but I just started laughing.”
Professionals who have survived in the industry have generally learned to deal with their own ego issues in ways that are compatible with successful work. But young people making their first short films may well be unprepared to prevent ego from hurting their productions, mainly in these three ways.
- It is all too easy to fall in love with every one of your own ideas – the good ones and the bad ones – during script development, the shoot or the editing process. And it’s much harder to let go of the ones that are wrong for your film, to kill your darlings, if ego is unchecked. Cutting to the bone is needed for short films to tell their stories with breathtaking economy. Ego is likely to result in what will seem to viewers to be empty filler, needlessly complicating and prolonging the film, each extra twist or unnecessary detail weighing the film down incalculably.
- Even the director of a short film should ideally be a team player, and not expect to be treated like a god by the rest of his or her crew. Listening with an open mind to constructive suggestions at every stage can help to rescue a production that is otherwise doomed to failure. And ego is all too often in the way of receptiveness to useful suggestions if whoever is in charge is locked into playing an infallible diva.
- An ability to see things through the eyes of the viewer is one of the marks of a promising young filmmaker, while a lack of interest in anything but one’s own intentions and perspectives is likely to result in productions that viewers will find uncompelling. Guessing how a viewer might understand a particular shot is essential at every point, while confusing the intended purpose of a shot with the viewer’s actual experience is a costly mistake. Ego can make it difficult to see what you are making as viewers will experience it and can easily result in films that may be gratifying for the filmmaker but boring or worse to the viewer. I am aware that many would disagree with this view but I stand by it.
I regret the prescriptive and judgmental tone of what is written above, but it may be helpful nevertheless to people making their first short films and who may need a kick in the pants as a correction to celebrity-based assumptions about how the production process works.
The idea is not be entirely free of ego, which would result in not having enough drive and self-confidence to make a film. The goal is rather for ego to be prevented from doing harm, especially in the ways mentioned above. Here, as in so many other areas, finding the right balance is essential.