Before starting to direct a new play or movie, Elia Kazan would purchase a little school notebook and, as rehearsals and early performances proceeded, fill it with his thoughts. Taken together, these notebooks constitute a unique (and as far as I know unparalleled) record of an uncommonly passionate and acute directorial mind at work and, in edited form, they are the fascinating and unsparing core of “Kazan on Directing.”
These notes are very writerly. They may sometimes have been scribbled in haste, after a hard day on set or stage, but they are not fragmentary. They are often written in the second person, with Kazan addressing himself as “you.”
His main idea, restated in several ways, is that “Directing finally consists of turning Psychology into Behavior” and, in a sense, that’s what happens in this book. Kazan consults his psyche and turns what he finds into insight by writing down his thoughts. His effort was always to find what he liked to call the “spine” of a play or a character that he could relate to in a direct and personal way.
Kazan did this even in his earliest directorial days, when he was working in the heavily commercialized theater and was becoming known as a “hit-maker.” But the notes become longer, more complex and passionate in the immediate postwar years, when he staged his epochal productions of “All My Sons,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Death of a Salesman.”
His notes on these plays and others are by no means “stage-bound.” He finds analogies to what he is trying to achieve in his relationships, or in a seemingly casual observation. For instance: “What a man does when he dies (usually) is not to try to die but to try to go on living.” Actors, he thought, should not succumb to “lassitude” when playing a death scene. It’s more dramatic to struggle for life. And more Kazan-like.
His call to action
What’s perhaps best in the book are Kazan’s struggles with himself. He wanted to be a movie director well before he became a theatrical one -- he particularly loved the panoramic sweep of the great Russian silent epics -- and he was frustrated because so many of his films consisted largely of people sitting around talking.
This was a condition he began to cure with “Boomerang” and “Panic in the Streets” -- genre pieces that got his actors walking as well as talking. Of course, “On the Waterfront,” gritty as it is, has the scope and kinetic energy he was so eager to attain.
Even so, I think he undervalued the claustrophobic tensions that animate “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and his great screen adaptation of “Streetcar.” He was, I think, a better director than he knew in these films.
Kazan’s technique was insinuating, never confrontational. As Arthur Miller observed, he liked to create an us-against-them atmosphere. His natural resistance was to the merely comfortable, and that he could stir in living rooms as easily as on the lone prairie -- if his players (he always preferred nonstars) would yield to him.
His alertness, even in his later years, was preternatural. He had the immigrant’s ear for nuance, for the hidden, possibly menacing, undertones in what people were saying in a language not originally his own. “We’re all desperate people,” he once rather cheerfully said about directors, suggesting that they would do anything to get the shot or the line reading or the bit of body language they needed.
A bevy of sources
“Kazan on Directing” usefully includes two more formal attempts at summarizing his views: “On What Makes a Director,” a speech he gave at Wesleyan University (where his papers reside) and a fragment from an unfinished book, “The Pleasures of Directing.” These are no less passionate and confiding than his notes on specific plays.
The book also includes letters to and from the likes of Marlon Brando and Tennessee Williams (the latter shrewdly characterizes the former as “a compulsive eccentric”).
What concerns me, however, is what editor Robert Cornfield rather prissily omits -- quick, bristling sidelong glances at actors such as Melvyn Douglas or the noxious acting coach Paula Strasberg, a compassionate portrait of Burl Ives -- that would have agreeably roughened the texture of the book.
Cornfield also essays some critical commentary in his extensive notes that strike me as pretty wet. Worse, he does not even allude to Kazan’s bitter conflict with Tallulah Bankhead, as they struggled for control of his first significant play, “The Skin of Our Teeth.” It was a fight Kazan believed was the making of him as a director. The experience, he said, taught him “not to be afraid of actors,” which is a lesson many directors never learn -- especially in movies, especially with stars.
Still, we must be grateful for what “Kazan on Directing” has to offer: a wonderfully conflicted yet curiously confident self-portrait of a great director in full, self-lacerating cry. I don’t know how useful this book will be to aspiring directors, but it should remind them that making a memorable movie or play requires something more than politesse and self-regard.
Rather, it requires a relentless and passionate line-by-line, shot-by-shot engagement, not merely with the materials at hand but with the larger social, political and cultural world. How Kazan would have despised the inert fecklessness of our contemporary films and plays.
Schickel is the author, most recently, of “You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story.”