Cinematic Ambition 0
Early in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sprawling four-hour epic Cleopatra, Rex Harrison’s Julius Caesar arrives in Alexandria to meet with Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII. As he disembarks in the royal quarter, bustling with traders, he learns that it’s market day – the one-day of the week the citizens of Alexandria can enter the palace grounds.
In 2011, that marketplace would have been augmented by an army of computer-generated riff-raff. Or, more likely, the project’s producers would have wondered if Caesar could arrive in the city when it wasn’t market day. In 1963 every one of those citizens were extras, and every costume, stall and prop was created for that scene to offer Caesar a grand entrance.
It’s a moment trumped many times later on in the movie – not least by Cleopatra’s even grander arrival in Rome – and stories of the film’s extravagant production are plentiful. Adjusted for inflation, it remains the most expensive film ever made. The scale of its ambition nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox, but moments like these allow Cleopatra to compete with the biggest blockbusters of today.
But in an era in which the Hollywood studios are stronger than ever as part of even larger media empires, even the biggest budgets feel like pocket change. Nowadays, getting a film made at all takes real ambition, and making one within the confines of a non-existent budget takes an almost pathological disregard for common sense.
This pathology lies at the heart of some of the greatest independent movies of our time. Kevin Smith ran up thousands of dollars of credit card debt so he could make Clerks in 1994. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez didn’t seem quite so financially taxed by The Blair Witch Project, but that film played at Raindance on its way to earning a quarter of a billion dollars at the box office.
Monsters, my favourite film of last year, is emblematic of the power of ambition. Backed by successful Brit producers Vertigo, the film’s budget barely made a dent in their balance sheets. But in the hands of director, writer, cinematographer and production designer Gareth Edwards, it’s a grand, expansive adventure that makes the studios’ summer hopefuls feel like also-rans.
What’s most impressive about Monsters, though, isn’t the incredible effects work Edwards did himself in his bedroom. It’s the touching human story of two totally disparate personalities finding one another as they seek their survival. There’s no dialogue in its stunningly emotional climax at the gas station, but by the time we’ve got there, Edwards has crafted his characters so well that actors Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able don’t need dialogue to tell us everything we need to know.
This same, natural understanding of what makes a film engaging permeates throughout Guillermo del Toro’s passionate fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth. Turning his back on the Hollywood studios who’d given him such a rough ride with the likes of Mimic and Hellboy, del Toro’s most personal work exists solely because of his drive and commitment to tell his story the right way.
Filmmakers with grand ambition come in many flavours. Consider Danny Boyle, Michael Winterbottom and Ang Lee whose ambition is evident in their utter disinterest in repeating themselves. Boyle’s follow up to the grand Bollywood number that closes awards magnet Slumdog Millionaire was 127 Hours, in which we’re on our own with trapped mountaineer Aron Ralston for most of the film’s runtime. Winterbottom’s CV, meanwhile, is full to the brim with comedies, sci-fi films, period dramas and political documentaries.
For me, ambition is about taking risk, and should ultimately mean making one’s peace with the potential of failure. As garlanded as they are, Winterbottom, Lee and Boyle have all recently made films that haven’t resonated with critics or audiences.
I revel in the lure of ambitious filmmaking, and, strangely, find it almost tantalising in its most divisive forms. My favourite films of any given year tend to be those ones that people either absolutely love or aggressively hate. Tarsem Singh’s The Fall is one such film. Its detractors think it impenetrably pretentious; an exercise in style over substance. But its sumptuous visuals serve its lofty themes, and while much effort has gone into the precise shot making, more has gone into trying to understand the ideas Singh is playing with.
It’s still hard for me to believe, but I’ve had multiple conversations with people who wonder why Terry Gilliam is considered to be so great, despite a string of commercial and artistic flops. But he’s emblematic of someone who seems to be happiest behind a camera, and despite encountering tremendous hurdles, he still persists as a filmmaker. Lost in La Mancha remains the most fascinating documentary about filmmaking I’ve ever seen, and it’s evidence of just what I’m talking about; Gilliam’s Don Quixote project may have been derailed, but he didn’t let it go down without a fight. And he’s still trying to resurrect it.
As much as it’s the most important thing to have, ambition is also the easiest thing to lose. Francis Ford Coppola will always be one of the greatest directors ever thanks to the likes of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather. But his recent output suggests that success has dampened the fire that once drove him to that greatness. Likewise, his protégé, George Lucas, achieved greatness in 1977 with Star Wars. But, flushed with its success, he utterly failed to channel the passion it took to create that film into its three prequels.
Paging through the Raindance catalogue in any given year, I’m heartened that there are still plenty of independent filmmakers out there trying to achieve something that, for all they know, may be beyond their reach. It doesn’t matter if you have £150m or £1.50. In film, nothing is impossible, and greatness can only be achieved with an ambitious thirst in mind. Having the courage to challenge practicalities, ideas and, oftentimes, good common sense, is what being a great director is all about.