Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of John Ford.
John Ford is The Western. Instrumental in elevating the genre and crafting more iconic films than can fit in a saddlebag, the director had a filmmaking career spanning 63 years and managed to make eye patches cool on top of building a legendary resume.
Sporting four Oscars (for How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, The Informer, and The Quiet Man), Ford saw the work of a filmmaker as a way to make a living, a job not to be seen through romance or puffery. Still, it’s impossible to overstate his influence. If you could ask David Lean, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, and other masters who inspired them, they’d all bring up Ford’s name.
The directors we all look up to, look up to him. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who made Jimmy Stewart play Wyatt Earp so audiences wouldn’t go to the bathroom.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from John Ford
1. Pay your dues with a pick and shovel
One reason Ford was drawn to the Western genre was his prior experience working as a cowboy for 8 months in Arizona as he made his way out to Hollywood. He got into the business on the heels of his brother Francis, but he worked his way up from the bottom ‐ working as a laborer with a pick and shovel, filling in bit parts (including, oddly enough, a notable turn in The Birth of a Nation), and then becoming an assistant prop man. “Then I became a prop man, assistant director, and eventually a director. I started directing when I was 19.”
Getting an early start helps too, although the Hollywood system now might frown on hiring directors not old enough to drink. Ford used his brother as a foot in the door, but he was happy to hustle in the lower ranks looking for his opportunity.
2. Sweat it for a night, and let your actors sweat it for a night
“If there was ever a difficult scene, [Ford] would always shoot it at the end of the day. He’d break for tea about 4 pm and say, ‘Alright, now we’re gonna do this scene.’ Walk through it. Put the marks down, and go for the first take. Now we’re all set and all juiced and ready to go, right? He’d look at his watch and say, ‘Alright, that’s the wrap. First shot in the morning.’
Now you leave the set like this, and you’re wired. All night long, you think, ‘I was ready to go! Why do I have to live with this like this?’ but then you start to criticize yourself, saying ‘Oh my god. I would have done that. It’s wrong. Hmm.’ You come to work the next morning knowing how you’re going to change what you’re doing, and you see that the set is all changed. All the marks are up, the camera’s gone, everything. He’d say, ‘Alright, now let’s run that scene again.’ Totally different and right.
In other words, he’d let you sweat it for a night, and he’d sweat it for a night, and you’d do it in the morning. That’s how bright he was about things like that,” Lee Marvin on his experience as an actor under Ford’s direction.
3. Keep an eye on your second assistant prop man
You might just find your John Wayne.
4. Be cranky but have a sense of humor
This anecdote, amongst many, serves more to tell us about Ford’s personality, but it seems relevant to how he conducted his sets and got what he wanted out of the people around him.
“[Peter] Bogdanovich was hanging out at John Ford’s place. This was in the ’70s. Ford was a bit deaf ‐ but he sometimes pretended he was deafer than he was, just to make people more uncomfortable, and to have the fun of watching them scream their innocent comments louder and louder. Ford was kind of a sonofabitch in that way. Intimidating. So Bogdanovich said to Ford, ‘It’s Duke’s birthday next week. I’m thinking of getting him a present ‐ maybe a book or something.’ Ford barked, ‘HUH?’ In a way that made Bogdanovich know that … uh oh … trouble’s ahead.
“So Bogdanovich repeated his sentence to Ford, only louder. ‘It’s Duke’s birthday next week. I’m thinking of getting him a present ‐ maybe a book or something!’ Again, Ford barked, ‘HUH?’ Uh-oh.
“Apparently, he made Bogdanovich repeat that sentence 3 or 4 times ‐- until Bogdanovich was literally screaming, feeling like a total idiot. So the last time ‐- Ford barks, even more annoyed, ‘HUH?’ And Bogdanovich shouts at the top of his lungs: ‘IT’S DUKE’S BIRTHDAY NEXT WEEK. I’M THINKING OF GETTING HIM A PRESENT. MAYBE A BOOK OR SOMETHING.’
“Ford took this in, and then said, grumpily, ‘He’s already got a book.’”
Bogdanovich, an icon in his own right, reportedly fell down laughing. Unsurprising considering their relationship and what happened the first time he met Ford.
5. Don’t romanticize filmmaking
“Anybody can direct a picture once they know the fundamentals. Directing is not a mystery, it’s not an art. The main thing about directing is: photograph the people’s eyes.”
Focus on the eyes. Check.
6. Take an unserious genre seriously and you might change it
[Editors note: the video that used to appear here has been deleted, but we think this final tip speaks for itself]
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
In all honesty, it was tough putting together tips from John Ford because the salty old sailor was notorious for being difficult in interviews. He wasn’t an easy man to talk to, let alone get advice from. In fact, after Bogdanovich was famously asked him how he captured a particularly difficult shot, Ford said, “With a camera.”
But that’s who he was. Those closest to him have confirmed that the rough exterior was a disguise for how soft he was, but all of that bluster does tell us something great about the man ‐ that he took what he did seriously, but never overplayed its importance. Fortunately, millions of film fans can do that for him.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to crack into the mind of a man who may very well be the most thoroughly American filmmaker ‐ or at least the filmmaker who best captured America in the 20th century. What we know best, we get from the people who worked him with and from the end results. Still, it seems apt that a nose-to-the-grindstone attitude coupled with a willingness to start at the bottom and the ability to keep an eye on talent no matter where it comes from is a hell of a concoction for success.