Brest . . . the future is bright Relearning learning
Martin Brest is a film director and a film writer, but he isn't a film buff. "I like making movies more than seeing them," he says. "As a task, it's fascinating -- a terrific combination of elemnts and excitements."Skip to next paragraph
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Brest's latest picture is the bittersweet comedy "Going in Style" with George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg. On the surface, it's the story of three elderly gents who escape the boredom of their lives by robbing a bank. Below the surface, it's a study of men on the margin of American life, thrown together by a society that no longer has much use for them.
"I feel a lot for old people," the director said during a recent interview. "My parents are rather old, and my neighborhood in the Bronx had an unusually old population. I'm attracted to any story where the main characters have some kind of handicap, and have to struggle just to stay even."
Yet according to Brest, who is still in his late 20s, the picture "isn't really about old age. In fact, old age isn't even mentioned. It so happens that the characters are old, but they could have been bored college kid just as easily. Or anybody else. It's a human adventure, not tied to any particular age."
Still, Brest confesses chagrin toward the way many young people think of their elders. "Most young people don't realize what old people are like," he says. "They think old people were always like that -- just old. They don't realize what the person really is: a younger person who's been around longer. This seems an obvious thing to say, but most young people seem to miss it. They look at old people as if they were a different race."
In "Going in Style," Brest treated his elderly characters in a timeless way. It's a quiet story, told with less flashy camera work quiet story, told with less flashy camera work and less obtrusive editing than are founf in most contemporary hits. "The drama doesn't lie in the events," says Brest. "It lies in the behavior of the characters. You see it behind their eyes."
At times, Brest worried that his movie would be too quiet for audience to take. As he pointed out, a great deal of story takes place around a kitschen table, or on a park bench, or strolling down a city street. But he chose against "jazzing it up" in any way. "That would have made the characters and situations less authentic," he maintains. "I knew I had to be truthful to the men and their behavior. I knew the film would have to work on thatm level. After all, the movie is about the way those guys think and talk."
When it comes to style, many of today's filmmakers are a lot less restrained than Brest -- think of the visual pyrotechnics in such pictures as "Star Wars" and its like. The way Brest sees it, "People often judge a director by his shots. But that's only one part of the director's craft. Script decisions come first. After that, casting choices are the most important thing. I was lucky because I got three megatalents to work with: Burns, Carney, and Strasberg. Without them I could have directed my head off, and it still wouldn't have been so stunning."
"Going in Style" had an unusual genesis. It originated as a short story by a New York carpenter named Edward Cannon, who read the tale into a tape recorder. According to Brest, Cannon "was not a writer or an deucated man. He just had a gift for gab, an understanding of people, compassion, and humor." Brest never met Cannon, who died before the movie was produced. But when he heard the story on it scratchy, nearly inaudible tape cassette, he knew it would make a great picture. He convinced Warner Bros., wrote the screenplay, and came up with a first-rate film.
"Going in Style" is Brest's first "commercial" project. Before launching it, he followed a familiar route for would-be filmmakers. He studied film at New York University and then decided to further his training at the American Film Institute.
At first, he was disappointed by what he found at the AFI. "I thought I was going to the Bauhaus of film," he recalls with a smile. "I expected it to be like Paris in 1920, full of great minds arguing new concepts in cinema. But it was more like a school for insurance salesmen."
Brest lost interest, and wound up on academic probation. As he recalls it, "I didn't care about the classes. I just wanted to use their equipment to make a movie. But their philosophy was: We don't make films, we make filmmakers. They thought they could turn out a generation of directors without getting their hands dirty."