When I interviewed Mike Birbiglia for his first feature, Sleepwalk With Me, his bag was crammed with filmmaking books like Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies. But his prize possession was a copy of Jerry Lewis’ The Total Film-Maker, compiled in 1971 from lectures Lewis gave while lecturing at the University of Southern California. Then, used copies ran about a hundred dollars; now they’re up above $500. But thanks to Cinephilia and Beyond, the book, which many regard as the best ever published on directing, is available for the first time in decades. Of course, it may not last long.
Those who know Lewis as a comic actor, or a punchline, may not realize what a great and innovative director he was. In addition to his artistic achievements, which have directly inspired Wes Anderson, among others, he developed (and patented) the “video assist” system that has become essential to modern moviemaking. (Whether or not he invented it is a subject of some debate.)
Lewis has acquired a reputation as a curmudgeon, but when I introduced him at a reading for his memoir, Dean & Me, in 2005, he was unfailingly gracious, and stayed with a rapt audience well past the two-hour mark. (In the event that this post is happened upon by someone writing my obituary, I would like it to be noted that I once made Jerry Lewis laugh.) That same spirit resonates through The Total Film-Maker, which is as much about how to instill an atmosphere of creativity on the set as the technical aspects of the craft. It’s not quite The Day the Clown Cried, but for Lewis scholars — and anyone interested in the art of filmmaking — it’s close to the Holy Grail.
Excerpts from Jerry Lewis’ The Total Film-Maker:
Actors will kill for you if you treat them like human beings.
If a grip walks past me and says “Hi,” but doesn’t add “Jerry,” I act offended, and it’s not all acting. “Hey, how come I know your name but you don’t know mine. I’m the movie star.” It works. I want that personal relationship.
I have some hates in film — the schmuck who works with it and, deep down doesn’t like anything about it; also, the guy who doesn’t care how he works. The other-type person I hate is the untotal film-maker who loftily claims he is dealing with the “human magic” of reels, dictating what the emulsion sees and does, and yet has nothing to say. I think he’s taking up space. You can automate that kind of film-maker. They come out of a box on a side of a Sperry-Rand thing that says, “I’ll make whatever you want.”
A director, whether he’s a Wyler or a student filmmaker, cannot run on to the set and yell, “Hey, watch me, I’m going to show off.” That is what actors do. That is the actor’s need. He’s built that way. But there’s a contradiction, too. Once he is on the set telling everyone to watch him, he might also yell, “Close the set.” They are there so that everyone in the world can watch them, yet at the same time no one should be permitted to see them act. Very complex people.
Comedy, humor, call it what you will, is often the difference between sanity and insanity, survival and disaster, even death. It’s man’s emotional safety valve. If it wasn’t for humor, man could not survive emotionally. People who have the ability to laugh at themselves are the peoples who eventually make it. Black and Jews have the greatest senses of humor simply because their safety valves have been open so long.
I’ve always felt that comedy is reality. What isn’t real isn’t identifiable; man only laughs when he identifies. If the comedic form is not reality in its purest sense, it often becomes a parody of reality. Comedy is never fantasy, though fantasy can be comedic. Pure fantasy is seldom genuinely funny because it stands as an entity in itself.