JEZEBEL (1938, Wyler)


Today’s post has as much to do with David Fincher as it does with one of my all time favorite directors, William “Willy” Wyler, who’s known for, among other things, the beautifully natural performances in his films.  What do these two directors have in common?  A propensity for an unusually high number of takes.

Fincher is notoriously known, like Kubrick, too, for racking up close to 100 takes on any given shot that has any real drama or character moment in it.  The opening scene in The Social Network is already famous for its 99 takes.

So what’s ol’ Willy doing here… Well, I stumbled upon this great excerpt from his biography A Talent for Trouble, about his first working experience with Bette Davis.  Like Davis, I’d been leery about so high a take count (as was 1-take-and-we’re-out John Ford), mostly because my budgets haven’t allowed more than say 8 takes max, but also because I was incredulous about what was really gained.  In my experience, I had found that most actors are kinda generally at their best in one of the following three “take zones.”

Gets it on the –

– First Take (sharp actor has it all worked out, but not much change thereafter)

Second & Third Take (get the jitters out, good a few takes, but thereafter it gets staler)

Eighth Take (they finally get the words down, figure out the vibe and can run with it)

Part of the fun, I find, is figuring out where your actors hit it, and then arranging your coverage to coincide. In Martha Coolidge’s wonderful commentary on Rambling Rose, she talks about working her coverage schedule in support of Robert DuVall, Laura Dern and Diane Lane.  Great case study.

So the 8-10 takes works very well when you’re on a tight budget and schedule.  But Fincher operates (as did Wyler) with a bit more slack in his schedule and he speaks of the magical benefits of the transformation in performance that seems to happen around the 40th take.   I would guess it’s a case of the actor’s exhaustion allowing them to completely let go of the part of their brain that’s trying to control it.  So when I happened upon this excerpt of Wyler’s experience, I had a bit of a “eureka!” understanding of this crazy amount of takes technique, which I’m sure my producer is overjoyed to hear.

Here’s the excerpt from Wyler’s biography (which I highly recommend) and the clip they speak of.  You really can see an undefinable spark in the take he used.  What I wouldn’t give to see the 47 takes that preceded it!

William Wyler according to Bette Davis

“The first day on Jezebel he made me do forty-eight takes,” Davis recalled. “I never in my life had done more than 2 takes, ever.”

The scene required Davis to dismount from a horse and rush into a formal gathering.  Wyler had invented an inspired bit of business to complement Julie Marsden’s cavalier character.  He wanted Julie, who is arriving late for her own engagement party, to hike up the long train of her riding dress with a riding crop and in, a rather unladylike gesture, hook it over her shoulder as she strides into the house.

Wyler had told her to practice with the riding crop before shooting began.  The gesture had become second nature to her, and she felt she’d got it right on the first take.  But Wyler apparently didn’t think so.  He asked for another take, then another.  After a dozen more, Davis was exasperated and confused.

“What do you want me to do differently?” she asked him.

“I’ll know it when I see it,” Wyler said.

Thirty-three takes later, without so much as a thank you, he commented, “Okay, that’s fine,” and called an end to the day’s filming.

Furious, Davis demanded to see the takes.  Wyler obliged by screening them for her that night.  They were a revelation.  What she thought she had done exactly the same proved to be different each time.  The early takes looked practiced.  The later takes not only looked more natural but showed that when she had felt irritable and fatigued she seemed vigorous and excitable.  And that was precisely what the scene required.

In conclusion, my minds a bit more open to what may happen to an actor’s performance upwards of 40 takes.  I mean, Wyler and Fincher are no slouches.

Finally, please forgive the racial stereotypes that blight this film from 1938 (which doesn’t make my list of top Wyler films) and are present in this clip.

The shot in question is at :21 – remember, it’s take 48!


FUNNY GIRL (1968, Wyler)



There are two amazing shots, using the same technique, in this sequence from William Wyler‘s Funny Girl.  But I’m mostly impressed today with the man who actually shot them, Nelson Tyler. Not only did he run the camera but from what I can tell in all my research, he invented the camera mount that allowed for such a smooth and dynamic aerial shot.

Here’s a snippet I found at Resource411:

But it was Nelson Tyler’s invention that finally enabled aerial cinematographers to shoot smooth footage by building a contraption that kept the camera steady. He created a platform on springs that the cameraman sits on inside the helicopter. The body mass and camera weight are floating so when the helicopter shakes, it doesn’t affect the shot.

I think this technology must have been so new and exciting that you just had to cram as many of these shots into your sequence as possible. It’s easy to take this shot for granted, we’ve seen so much aerial photography since this time, including amazingly articulate shots filmed by miniature helicopters. But for sheer scale, iconic imagery and deft movement, these shots from Funny Girl still remain one of the pinnacles of the craft. It’s pretty amazing how they were able to sync the singing, time the shot’s movement, stabilize the camera, and keep the helicopter so precisely next to a speeding vehicle (in both shots).

William Wyler’s giant canvas

The first shot, the one of the train, is full of surprise reveals. You get your David-Lean-grade shot of the speeding train, but then something new (for its time) happens, you find your hero in the window.  And you get closer and closer… and closer.  And she’s singing in sync with the soundtrack.  And then we go even closer, as trees zip by between us, emphasizing just how fast the train is speeding – but we’re able to stay right with our hero in the window.  That must have been shocking to experience for the first time – I mean, it still effects people to this day.

And then in the final shot, it’s pretty breathtaking how close that camera gets to the tugboat; from super wide, to an actual medium-close-up, and then back to high and wide (thanks in part to a hidden zoom that goes in and then back out).  And the timing of the camera move is perfect – right in step with the music – Barbra Streisand hits her last note and the camera pulls out smoothly and majestically – the visual representation of her note.

The shot plays out beautifully intimate and exacting beats on an epic scale. It’s the perfect emotional pitch of both what the character is experiencing and, even more importantly, the high you want to jolt the audience with right before the intermission.

You can see the shots here at at 0:59 and 2:15 – but I give you the whole sequence for your enjoyment.