Thursday, February 05, 2009

Christian Bale's Rant

Woke up this morning and was perusing the Internet and it seems the most important thing that happened in the world this week is that actor Christian Bale dressed down a director of photography on the set of Terminator 4.

My overriding reaction? People who like to eat sausage shouldn't look too closely at how they are made.

Okay, that's a bit tongue in cheek, but really...If one thing is, or should be, patently obvious from the extent and intensity of the responses is that this isn't really about Christian Bale. Much like the Alec Baldwin phone message to his daughter, this is a microcosm that touches on everything from civility to powerlessness to privacy to celebrity.

I think the intensity with which people respond has to do with the fact that the incident, like many that have higher shelf lives on the Internet, has the illusion of being self-contained (i.e. without context) and thus allows people to graft it onto their own experiences and think it analogous. (Who hasn't had a boss, parent, or other authority figure scream at them? Who hasn't had a subordinate, child, or team member f--- things up through lack of concentration, attention, or adequate training?)

What follows are a couple of random thoughts, in no particular order:

--I don't know any of the people involved nor do I know anyone who knows anyone. Christian Bale may very be a jerk whom people like Darren Aronofsky are defending for reasons that serve various self interests that have nothing to do with what they know to be true. He could also be a very nice person to know and work with that others are deliberately trying to embarrass or discredit for motivations that have nothing to do with this particular incident. That's the nature of media. I haven't ever been involved with making a movie, but I've had a small taste of being in the public eye to the extent that things I did (or people close to me did) were reported. When are people going to learn to get over this notion that this dichotomy between scripted and unscripted, caught by microphone and not caught by microphone, etc. isn't identical with the dichotomy between the "real" person and what they are projecting? They are both expressions of the real person. What's so hard to understand about that?

--To the extent people want to make this about "acceptable" vs. "non-acceptable" behavior, I would respond with "according to who?" Context matters. (Which is what microphones or clips don't always give.) Like it or not, there are different standards of behavior that are considered acceptable in different contexts. Some may say that there is no context in which such an outburst is acceptable. To them, I would say, have fun in your bubble, because that's the only place where you get to be the unilateral arbiter of acceptable behavior. There are behaviors that I think would be unacceptable to a stranger that would be acceptable for a parent. There are means of addressing a person that I would find reprehensible in a Little League coach, questionable in a High School coach, perfectly acceptable in a college coach, and pretty much expected in a professional coach.

--I honestly wonder how much of this is generational? I would not be the first person in the world to suggest that the self-esteem movement in child-rearing and education has resulted in a group of young adults who tend to phase out or not listen to correction and who, because they have been systematically shielded from the consequences of their mistakes, never learn from them nor develop the capacity to distinguish between major and minor errors or consequences. These people are incredibly frustrating to have to work with or be teamed with, not just for divas, but for anyone who has something invested in the success of the enterprise one is corporately working on.

--I have seen or been involved with many enterprises (plays, sports teams, military, business) where such people are much more effectively dealt with via peer policing than top-down instruction. This is especially true as we move to an age of a relatively "flat" world and one in which team chemistry (athletic or corporate) is more important to success than effective management. Chuck Daly used to talk about this in sports--guaranteed contracts flattened the authority/power hierarchy, making the difference between coach and player small. There is an emerging (heck probably already present) attitude in our culture to praise team members' policing themselves, motivating each other, and holding each other accountable rather than simply doing their segmented job and expecting management to deal with any other problems. Like it or not, Bale's conduct or initiative is increasing viewed as a legitimate kind of leadership** in a team environment, particularly one such as sports or film where success or failure is very strongly performance based.

--Here's one thing I know from teaching, from being on some athletic teams, from having been on a variety of jobs, and from being involved in theater. Such dressings down are no fun to give and less to receive, but they are extremely effective at altering behavior, particularly behavior that has already been addressed but has not been altered. People don't like being embarrassed, but...and here's a point that I think is largely lost in this discussion....sometimes they should be. And if they should be and they are not, than forcing them to acknowledge that they should be can be a last, drastic intervention before escalating the consequences of their failure to alter their behavior.

A couple of examples, perhaps not as extreme, but I think analogous:
--I was in a stage play once where one of the principals was having trouble learning his lines. The director was at a loss; she was used to simply just giving a deadline (i.e. I will expect all lines to be learned by such and such a date) and having actors with enough pride in their craft and professionalism and courtesy towards others that would motivate them. She tried several times to explain in polite terms to this actor that this was holding back the development of the play. Each time he would nod politely, listen attentively, say he would try to do better, and then go out that night and show up at the next rehearsal still not ready. It wasn't until other members of the cast got in his face and said "You are not going to mess up our play. If you don't learn your lines and we can't rehearse, it is not just your performance that will suffer, our play will suffer. We will all look stupid and dumb. The scenes that you are not in will be worse because we will have had to rob time working on them to redo stuff we should have down flat by now with you. Or we'll have to have you dumped and spend even more time with an understudy. In either case, you are screwing this up for all of us and we are not going to let that happen--and if it does, you can be damn sure that we will do everything in our power to make sure everyone who will listen knows it is your fault." Needless to say the prospect of escalating embarrassment was a much greater motivation than any other. *

--I had an otherwise good student once who in the course of a busy semester fell behind in reading and came to class unprepared several times in a row. Assuming she was one of those who was responsible enough to be humiliated by being found out to be unprepared, I just said something generic like, "you need to get caught up" and moved on. But rather than this motivating the student to work harder, it actually relieved her of the fear of being caught--hey, that wasn't so bad--and the behavior escalated rather than diminished. Worse she started cracking jokes about not being ready for class until I finally read her the riot act before class. Chagrined, she admitted the non-chalance was a defense mechanism to cover her embarrassment at not being ready. Avoiding embarrassment was her motivation, and to the extent that it was, the refusal to ever embarrass her was actually a disservice, because she wasn't capable of motivating herself by herself and needed me to motivate her before things got to the point where the consequences of her failure to motivate herself were beyond repair.

--I wonder, then, if all the people who think Christian Bale is now the scum of the earth would feel if he had ignored the director of photography altogether or said something polite, like "Hey, as a gentle reminder, please don't adjust the lights or walk in my eye-line while the cameras are rolling" and then gone privately to the director and said, "Look, McG, we've talked to this guy several times, but it's just not working. He doesn't get it. He's a nice guy and it's nothing personal, but this is a $100 million dollar plus movie and we have a responsibility to the studio and other members of the cast and crew whose careers are on the line to get rid of him and get someone else in with a bit more experience who knows how to conduct himself around a set."
What would have been the consequences of that? I imagine a) Christian Bale's reputation might not have taken a hit. b) The DP could very well have been fired (and if people in Hollywood don't think of Bale as being particularly hard to work with, might have been branded as incompetent and had a hard time finding another job). c) The director could have said "no, I won't fire him but I'll talk to him" after which the DP stayed on the job but didn't alter his behavior and the film suffered as a consequence; Bale or others could have trashed him later either on the record or privately, and the DP would have a hard time getting additional work. d) The director could have said "no, I won't fire him but I'll talk to him" after which the DP stayed on the job but did alter his behavior.

Perhaps d) might have happened. Given that Bale asked McG in the tirade if he had anything to say and the director said he didn't see it unfolding, I suspect (but don't know) that this issue had been addressed by the director previously and therefor I'm skeptical that d) would have been the case.

Here's my point about such hypotheticals. For all those who are aghast at how Bale handled the situation and think he could have (or even should have) handled it better. How should he have handled it? What would have been an appropriate response? And are you positive that the response you think was appropriate would have been better for anyone, including the object of his wrath? Locker rooms, green rooms, sets, some board rooms, boot camps, are all high conflict areas and cultures, and anyone who wants to succeed in these industries knows that going in and accepts it, or if they can't accept it, probably won't succeed in such cultures. Now we may not like that. We may say I would like to be in such an industry but I wouldn't want people to treat me that way. But that's the way it is. And Christian Bale responding to the way things are doesn't make him the root of all that we find evil in such situations. Heck, it may not even make him wrong. It may. We may find out after the fact that he's just a jerk. But I don't think this one tape clip is evidence of that fact. Sometimes you have to be a little cruel to be kind. Sometimes, to be successful, you have to require that people take their work seriously or make way for someone who does.

*It's also worth noting, as any parent will tell you, that different people have different temperaments. Some kids will be so embarrassed by a withering look that that is all it takes. Others are more expressive and honestly don't think anything rises above the level of a minor irritation until the volume level is raised. Some people respond well to clear, flat instructions, but some really do need a good kick in the pants.

**If I were going to invest a 100 million dollars in making a movie, even laying aside talent, I'd rather have my cast led by someone like Bale than someone who is the nicest guy in the world to everyone from the director of photography down to the smallest intern, but phones it in or cares more about hurting people's feelings than about holding them to a standard of professional behavior. We aren't talking about having the wrong color M&Ms in your trailer here or just being generally d--kish to someone because you can be even though they did nothing wrong.


lauramorefield2000 said...

I hadn't heard about the Bale outburst until I saw your post. I believe you're right about the idea that we can't rightly "judge" the situation because we weren't there...we don't know the context.

I do think Bale relies rather heavily on the use of one particular expletive. Actors. A writer would have varied the abuse a bit more.

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Yeah, I wonder how many people would have been so outraged if he had totally reamed the DP but not used profanity? If he had humiliated the guy but not used the profanity. I suspect there is one class of hand wringers who object not to bluntness but profanity, but coach their objections in terms of the profanity.

peter said...

I certainly don't put myself in with the hand-wringers; as you pointed out, there's a lot of context that is simply unknown. And I can't get too worked up by one profane tirade in a business full of delicate personalities.

You've raised many interesting points, and I agree with many of them, but for me it still boils down to my personal belief that not even protecting your personal reputation or saving a $100 million project justifies publicly humiliating someone to the point where you treat him like a child and demand answers to your outraged rhetorical questions. Yeah it's a different business than any other and perhaps the DP is a repeat, total fuck-up. I still will never accept that Bale's approach was the best way to deal with that, even if it achieved whatever goal he may have had in mind. "Correcting" an adult's behavior through public humiliation may be effective, but I don't think I'm on a high horse or in a naive bubble if I find it distasteful.

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Peter, it's hard for me to hold Bale responsible for the public nature of the humiliation (assuming the DP was humiliated), unless or until I knew he was the one who leaked the tape. Certainly it was public to the extent other people were there, but I don't know there is any evidence that it was public to the extent that Bale wanted or intended that to be a significant part of dealing with the issue.

Certainly I understand where you are coming from, and I don't think your position indefensible. It may be one of the reasons why I very much like having you as a friend even if I might not necessarily want to make a movie with you or have you coach my Super Bowl team.

T.C. Truffin said...

Mmm...sausage...and the making of sausage...yummy. Yeah, I thought I had something more to say, but it basically boils down to things that Ken and others have said better.

If you're going to insist on watching the sausage get made, expect to get a bit o' intestine on you. Just wash up 'fore you go out in public.

peter said...

Umm, guys. Yeah, huddle up please. No, you too please T.O. I want everyone in on this. Yes, I *am* serious. Get over here please.

Well, I don't want to name any names, but as a group, we're just not playing very well out there. Now I know everyone's tired and these guys are pretty good, but I'm asking you fellas to all pull together as a team and do a better job out there.

Again, I don't want to pick on anybody, but Flozell that third holding call really hurt us. Remember what we talked about? No, today. After the first two holding calls. Yeah you kinda promised me that it wouldn't happen again. I know, I know, he *is* very big and fast, but that was a big ten yards there and, if you'll recall, he sacked me anyway. Yes he did, Flozell, he hit me very hard.

Now T.O. I don't really think you should be chuckling at Flozell right now, this hasn't exactly been your greatest game either. What I'm "referring to," T.O. is that last first down pass you dropped over the middle there. Yes I realize that you weren't going to be able to score on that particular play, but we really can't afford to throw the little fish back at this point. I agree that Mr. Polamalu did have a certain unpleasant gleam in his eye as he noticed you crossing the middle of the field, but you would have had a first down *before* he got there. Well then, let's just agree to disagree.

Now I know we're down 38-3, but I feel like, if we all pull together and do our jobs out there, we can still save this thing. OK, I'm not gonna ask who threw that. You know who you are, and I'm sure the shame that you're feeling right now is worse than any punishment I could come up with. C'mon now guys! Cowboy pride! Go out there and win one for...for somebody that you may have cared deeply about once.
Yes, T.O. it can be you if you want.

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Damn, you're good. :)

peter said...

BTW, by public humiliation, I just meant everybody else on the set. I still think it was 'roid rage.

And yes, yes I am.

Anonymous said...

This article is complete nonsense. There simply is no justification for screaming insults and threatening physical violence against a co-worker.

This writer has clearly given more thought and rationalization to Bale's behavior than Bale himself did. He was acting out of rage, not trying to teach everyone a lesson about responsibility or leadership. Note that he screams obscenities at the A.D., as well as the director, and also presumes to tell everyone else on set that they're going to do another take -- regardless of whether or not anyone else needs a minute to collect themselves. That's arrogant, narcissistic behavior.

Bale may be the "star" of the film (though I would agree with CHUD's Devin Faraci that he isn't enough of a "star" to open a film), but he isn't the only important person on that set, and he ain't the boss.

(And why do I keep reading about the D.P.'s inexperience? The guy's got more than a decade and 14 major studio features under his belt.)

Marc said...

@balconyfool - Your response completely justifies exactly what Mr. Morefield state in his article. People are so offended when someone calls them out these days, it's ridiculous. Do I hate it if someone yells at me? Sure, but if it's constructive, then I learn to appreciate it. Yelling for the sake of yelling is one thing, but in the end, you can be damn sure that DP stopped his lazy ways. Regardless of his supposed years of experience, it's very well known that you don't move shit around during a take. He obviously had been getting away with it before, and that just pushed Bale over the top.

Also, stop being so dramatic about what happened. Did Bale throw a hissy fit? Yep, a little bit. Did he actually attempt any form of physical violence? Not in the slightest. He has since released a statement that sounds very genuine, about how he acted inappropriately, and that they worked everything out that very same day. They continued working together, and the DP was never in danger of losing his job. Bale says he got caught up in the moment, as he's a method actor. Being a "pro" movie reviewer, I'm sure you know how different a method actor is from regular actors. It doesn't mean he's better, but it is a different style, and he completely absorbs his character. He mentions in his response that he was in the middle of exploring the legacy of John Connor's mental issues as passed down from his mother when the incident occurred. He flipped out in general, but was even more over the top as a result of the character he had been channeling.

Finally, and this is a completely separate issue, but how the hell can you say that he doesn't have the star power to open a film? If Batman Returns and the Dark Knight weren't good enough for you, how about American Psycho, The Prestige or the Machinist? Can you honestly name a better method actor, other than Philip Seymour Hoffman?