7Q4 Ron Daniels: On Directing Film, Opera, Theater
Ron Daniels was born in 1942 in Brazil, and if you saw his productions of Shakespeare or Chekhov, you know he was born to direct plays.
I discovered Daniels in 1992, when he was associate artistic director of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) in Cambridge, MA. Okay, other people discovered him before I did, in London, where he was artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, for a time. And others before them, when he was working in São Paulo, Brazil, at Teatro Oficina, which he co-founded.
So when I looked him up recently, I was surprised to learn that he’s not directing theater much these days. He’s pursuing his first love, which turns out is the movies. And he’s been directing a lot of opera, too.
Theater, film, opera: Directing is directing, right? Just how different from each other could they be?
I figured I knew the answers until I asked Ron Daniels the questions.
DN: What draws you to the movies?
RD: I’ve always wanted to make movies. I never saw any theater until I was 17. I was born in a little town across the bay from Rio, and there was no theater in the town. There was a movie theater literally next door to my building. Then I came to the States and went to Camp Rising Sun, and I directed my first play, and acted, and fell in love with the theater. I became a theater student and professional actor, but I always wanted to do movies.
I had done two plays with Naomi Wallace at the A.R.T. and the Public, and
we started working on a film script. It took ten years to raise the money for it. The War Boys is not a commercial piece. We worked with a minimal amount of money, minimal support, and fabulous actors, a fabulous crew.
DN: How did it go?
The actual directing of the movie was about avoiding disaster. We knew we had 23 days and not a second longer to get all the film into the can. The day’s quota of scenes had to be fulfilled no mater what happened-sandstorms, disappearing props. It was nerve wracking and scary, and the bizarre thing is it all looks so calm and controlled and completely different from what it actually was. I had a very good director of photography and a very good editor.
DN: How did you avert disaster?
RD: You look at the last scene of the film, for instance, and perhaps you don’t realize the light changes considerably. That scene was shot on four days in four different locations. On the day we were scheduled to shoot it, we were in the desert. We could see a storm approaching. By then, we were not only on a tight schedule, some of the actors had to leave. We were only scheduled for that location for one day, and by the time we resumed in another location, they had already left and the arm that descends with a gun isn’t necessarily the arm belonging to the same actor. You can play all sorts of tricks like that.
Costumes disappeared and we needed the same costumes for different scenes. The day we shot the boat ride, the release of the boat didn’t work. I’m pretty sure this sort of thing is normal.
The incredible difference between working in theater or opera and the movies is, to a very large extent, you’re working under reasonably controlled conditions. You know when previews start and when you open. You know you’re going to rehearse in a quiet room. The model of the set is presented to you, and when it becomes the set on stage, there are very few surprises; it’s a bigger version of little model.
You don’t know if the play is going to work, or if actors are going to come up with the goods, but in the movies nothing is controlled. You arrive on set you booked, and there are two other film crews there. You have to improvise. We never knew exactly when the film was going to start shooting. There was no predictability but a continual sense of endless obstacles.
DN: Did that drive you crazy or fuel your creativity?
RD: I was scared, partly since I knew if I didn’t get everything I had to get into the camera by the end of the day, my investors would have no film to show for their investment. In the theater, if you lose your set, you can still perform.
DN: Yet, after doing a short and then a full movie, you have only one theater production in the works. You’re working on several film scripts, in different stages of development. You’ve written a horror movie and co-written a Southern gothic thriller and an urban comedy. You’re beginning a project about the British army. And you want to make these movies. After all you’ve been through, why? Why??
RD: I’ve worked all my life in the story-telling business, and yet I have nothing to show for it. I have people’s memories of productions and photographs, some reviews, yet nothing to show for a lifetime of working in theater. That’s okay. That’s what you expect. Theater exists at that moment, and that is its joy and uniqueness.
On the other hand, now I can dub a copy of my movie and send it anywhere. I can’t change performances anymore. It’s no longer a living thing, whereas I’ve done a production of Madam Butterfly with 15 different Butterflies in different cities. It’s still a living thing, the same, but different. I’m not saying that anything is better anything else.
DN: So tell me about opera. You’re doing Mozart’s Cosi van Tutti in Arizona, then a new Tosca in Colorado, then a new opera inspired by the film Il Postino, with Placido Domingo singing the role of Pablo Neruda-I heard that’s scheduled to open in LA next summer and then move on to Vienna and Paris. So, what is it like to direct an opera?
RD: Apart from all the ideas you may have had about the work, in opera, ultimately it’s the music that dictates what you have to do. The music dictates, bar by bar measure by measure. If something needs to be done, you can sense it. In theater, there’s a rhythm and dynamic, and you have to discover that dynamic. In opera, that dynamic is presented to you.
Another interesting thing about opera, in theater, I divide the stage in half, and I sit on the center line. When I’m directing opera, I sit slightly to the right. The person who sits center line is quite rightly the conductor, who is also, by the way, a performer. The relationship with the conductor and singers is a much closer one that the relationship between the stage director and the singers. The conductor knows the opera far better than you do.
One of the things a stage director does not do in opera, unless he does it with great diplomacy or even through different channels, he doesn’t have anything to do with the actual music. The tempi and anything to do with the actual singing are established by the conductor. If you think he is taking this too slowly, it is his domain, so often you have to rely on a word to the artistic director.
DN: Does any of that feel restrictive?
RD: Freedom is awareness of necessity. That’s very much what happens with the music.
The music does something else as well; the music allows the work for to soar. Not to denigrate any actor, but when you’re working with singers, they have been vigorously trained and they are vigorously prepared from the first day of rehearsal. If the singer isn’t off book and can’t sing the role flawlessly, there is likelihood he would get fired. It is conventionally thought that the theater actor must arrive tabula rasa, without any notion of the part. That’s not what all actors do, but many refuse to learn the part until the play is blocked.
Also, in opera you’re dealing with much larger organizations. When you do an opera, you’re dealing with a cast of 60 or 80 or100 people, so to a very large extent you have to have done a lot of homework. You’re not going to sit around the table for days on end discovering what the play is about, working through all the themes, and agonizing about its meaning. You don’t have time for that.
On the first day of rehearsal you’re already moving the singers around. You are giving them the interpretation through the staging and through your notion of character, and they, too, have notions of their character.
DN: I’m happy to hear you’re managing to direct some theater also–
Taming of the Shrew in San Diego this spring, for instance. How is collaboration different in the theater?
RD: In theater, you are much more vulnerable, and the actors are much more vulnerable. The experience is much more intense. In opera, the music tells you, so you’re safe. In theater, you get to know the people you’re working with much more closely because they don’t have that musical technique and that safety net to rely upon.
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