Steven Soderbergh makes an interesting observation about great movies on his commentary track for the Criterion edition of “The Third Man.”
The commentary discusses Carol Reed, the film’s director. Reed had directed 16 films and enjoyed critical and commercial success before he made “The Third Man.” Yet, for a filmmaker with so much experience, Reed worked very slowly on set. Why would he need so much time? Soderbergh answers:
“Reed thought about it a lot, wanted to get it right and shot a lot of takes…I think part of the joy of watching a certain kind of filmmaker is there should be things that look hard. There should be things, whether it’s a performance or something that’s happening in the shot…that you look at it and you go, ‘that wasn’t easy to get.’ I don’t want to see a movie made up of stuff that was really easy.”
Of course, when a filmmaker is pushing himself, the side effect is often a slow working pace and a high number of takes. The risk, then, is that the movie will lose immediacy and feel stale.
“That’s the trick, I think. Finding that balance: to be meticulous without being fussy. I think you want to feel the design, but you don’t want to have it strangle you. And I think that’s what was great about Reed. The confidence of the filmmaking is so high and yet you feel like he’s discovering it as he’s shooting it. And that’s what gives [The Third Man] its great energy.”
Soderbergh’s observation nicely summarizes the balancing act faced by every director who sets out to make a great movie.