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Do Method Directors Make Better Movies?

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You’ve heard of method acting. Everyone talks about the crazy things actors do to get into character. But what about method directing? Some directors really go to extremes to understand the stories they’re planning to tell. Of course, they call it research. But when you prepare for a film by diving in dangerously deep waters, getting kidnapped in Beirut or being asked to leave South America at gunpoint, you’re something else. You’re a method director.

James Cameron used the method when he prepared to film Titantic: He really filmed the RMS Titantic, even though he had to go to the bottom of the Ocean to do it. Five years before the film’s release, he was filming underwater  400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. To do it, he commandeered a Russian research vessel, the Akademik keldysh, capable of diving below 12,000 feet. At that depth, the water pressure is 6,000 pounds per square inch. The director made twelve dives, despite the fact that one small flaw in the vessel’s superstructure would mean instant death for all on board. Crazy? Or Marlon Brando kind of genius? The film did win eleven Oscars.

When director Stephen Gaghan was working on Syriana , a film about the Middle East and petroleum politics, he was kidnapped in Beirut, a perfect entrée into the world he would later represent on the big screen. While standing in line at customs at the Beirut airport, he received an anonymous call on his cell phone. “The guys says to me, ‘I’ve got something very special you can do but I can’t tell you what it is and you have to do it right now. My drivers out in front of the airport. He’ll take you,” he said on Charlie Rose. He got in the back of the car even though he had no idea who the man on the phone was or where he was going, and was taken to a remote village where armed men, speaking only Arabic, blindfolded him and took all his possessions. In the end, he found himself face to face with Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, one of the spiritual leaders of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. “If you’re writing a thriller that’s set in the Middle East and you don’t leave New York or L.A., you’re just going to regurgitate images you’ve seen in other movies,” he says.”These are the interesting things that happen when you actually go out into the world.” He’s got a point.

Then there’s method director Philip Noyce. He put himself in clear and present danger to make Clear and Present Danger by going to Bogata in Columbia to research the drug cartels. “When you’re doing a movie and you’re going to represent any group of people that you’re not familiar with, you always try and get an insight because you’re going to be presenting their reality to an audience all around the world,” he explains in an interview with Andrew Denton. “I’d said to a local journalist that I wanted to go and meet some people from the cartel and so he arranged for me to go to a gem store in Bogota where one of the money launderers worked.” While there, as he was talking to the woman running the supposed gem store, he noticed three guys in another room watching television. Just when he realized they were watching him, he says, “One of the guys watching that TV show featuring me pressed an Uzi up against my neck and I was told to leave, which I did. I left the shop, I left Bogota, I left Colombia.”

Did his research help make the drug cartels in the film more believable? You can decide by watching Clear and Present Danger on AMC. For a complete schedule click here.

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