Susan Walter spent her youth working her way up the Hollywood ladder, taking the longest road possible to become a filmmaker, which she (finally!) did this spring. Her directorial debut, All I Wish, which she also wrote, made the Hollywood Blacklist of most-liked scripts, and stars Sharon Stone, Tony Goldwyn, Famke Janssen and Ellen Burstyn. The film will be in theaters from March 30 through Paladin Pictures. A Harvard graduate, before becoming a director she worked as an assistant director for eight years, wrote and directed a short film entitled Rubbernecks, produced and directed original content for the Internet long before anyone cared, worked as a development executive, and then as a screenwriter. She lives in Los Angeles.
The Directors Guild of America gives you a book when you get in: On What Makes a Director by Elia Kazan. It’s 22 pages long. According to the book, to succeed as a director you must be fluent in many disciplines, including (but not limited to) botany, gastronomy, meteorology, cartography, opera, economics, construction, the erotic arts, hypnosis, animal training (tigers preferred) and (of course) literature. Additionally, you’d better be able to draw, sing, cook, write poetry, eat standing up and land a joke.
I was 24 when I got in to the D.G.A. as a Second A.D. Eager to move up from assistant director to full-fledged director, I read the book immediately. I am sure I found it, if not total hogwash, bordering on ridiculous. I wanted to be a director, but I had no plans to tame any tigers or explore why plants turn brown in my presence. Turns out, thanks largely to my own incompetence, I was already on the Elia Kazan training program, I just didn’t know it yet.
I started my training early. I was just four years old when my mother put a violin under my chin. A great deal of time and money was spent to turn me into a concert violinist. After ten glorious years of violin lessons, I joined a touring orchestra, which afforded me opportunities to see the world. Finally freed from the soundproof cell that defined my childhood, I unwittingly learned that the scorching dry heat of Masada is very different than the suffocating humidity of downtown Bangkok, that a market which sells nothing but whole, dead chickens doesn’t smell very good, and that beer works better than water when your mouth is on fire (and that authentic Thai food is spicy). I also learned that I wasn’t a violinist.
The problem wasn’t so much that I was bad – alone in my room, I sounded quite impressive. I was just terrified to play for people, which is a pretty significant impediment when playing for people is the whole point of your job. I got a crash course in pharmacology when I discovered my dad’s beta blockers would calm my nerves. I also learned about coping mechanisms and came to understand why junkies are such good liars.
When I was 18 and becoming a concert violinist seemed a fait accompli, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma came to solo with my orchestra. I remember watching him from behind my music stand in the violin section. His body was relaxed. His eyes were closed. And he was smiling – smiling! I never smiled when I performed, as it’s simply not possible when you are throwing up. I quit the violin.
I switched from studying music at the New England Conservatory to pursuing a liberal arts degree at Harvard. I majored in government, and dreamed of being a newscaster, the next Barbara Walters. WBZ-TV was walking distance from Harvard, so I took an internship there, with the goal of getting on air by the time I graduated. I learned a lot of things during my internship – how to chase a story, run a crew, cut a promo. I also learned about my community – the history of Faneuil Hall, where the mafia neighborhoods are (and not to go there), what Larry Bird ate for lunch (chicken, if you can believe that). God bless the good folks at WBZ, they gave me every chance in the world, putting me on tape in studio and in the field. But I was a terrible reporter. I remember “twitchy” as one of the words they used to describe my on-air presence. “Twitchy” is not a desirable quality for a newscaster. Lucky for me, a fellow intern told me about the D.G.A.’s Assistant Director Training Program, where they train you to be an A.D. All you had to do was pass a few tests. Not so lucky for him, I was pretty good at tests. I applied, passed the tests, and packed my bags for California.
By the time I came to Hollywood, I had a Harvard degree, two failed careers, a well-traveled, beer-stained passport and enough self-doubt to fuel nearly two decades more of wrong turns. I worked in production, as an assistant director, budgeting and scheduling my way to locations near and far. One hundred pairs of sneakers later, I took a job in development, where I read upwards of 20 scripts a week while honing my filing and dog-walking skills. I got married, got fired, then started writing scripts. The early ones were unreadable. So I took some writing classes and my writing improved.
Between grinding out scripts for studios, I wrote a spec script called All I Wish, about a woman who, after years of fumbling around, finally lands the career of her dreams. I had declared I wanted to direct when I was 24; if I wanted the same happy ending as my protagonist, I would have to direct this movie myself. Was I ready? Turns out not quite yet.
Luckily, putting a movie together takes a really long time, especially for a female first-timer at a time when female directors were on par with lepers. It was 13 years between the time I finished the script and stepped on set to direct it. I don’t know if it was perseverance or stupidity that kept me going, but in that 13 years I continued to “train” for the job. I birthed two children, survived cancer, buried my father. I also took acting classes, learned my way around a camera, and directed a short film.
After 40-odd rewrites and twice that many meetings, I finally got some traction. Sharon Stone, the fiercely talented tigress of the silver screen, was interested. I had a flash of terror when she signed on. Sharon Stone had acted in dozens of films, I had directed exactly zero – how was I remotely qualified to tell her anything? We met for the first time at her home. I was dazzled by her décor, it was regal and eclectic and intricately textured, much like the woman herself. She invited me into her master suite and we talked. Not about the movie, or the script or my experience as a director, but about pretty much everything else. We shared our experiences about traveling and parenting and really bad first dates. We talked about politics, flowers, food, yoga. I learned on that day that the first step of directing is fostering trust, because in trust there is freedom and for an actor freedom is everything. I earned her trust, because after 25 years of missteps I finally trusted myself. And she felt it – that day and every day we worked together.
Looking back, those more than 20 years I spent not directing are probably precisely what, in the end, made me a director. All the esoteric knowledge I picked up during my “training program” was critical to my preparation. Painful break-ups, performance anxiety, suffering through traveler’s diarrhea – these are the things that give a director the empathy and credibility not only to connect with actors, but to tell powerful stories. And, somewhat poetically, what set me up to add an elusive skill – taming a tigress – to my meandering resumé.
Elia Kazan writes in his book, a director “understands people through understanding himself truly.” How did I come to understand myself? I made a lot of wrong turns. Which, of course, means they were not wrong at all. And that Kazan was right.