Reviewed: Kazan On Directing by Eliza Kazan

Alfred A. Knopf (2009), 368 p.

Reviewed by Matthew Caron

Kazan On Directing is an edited collection of production notes and letters written by director Elia Kazan during nearly all of his productions for the stage and screen, followed by his unfinished and previously unpublished The Joys Of Directing and a transcript of a lecture delivered at Wesleyan University in 1973 titled On What Makes A Director. Kazan spent much time over the course of his long life and career recording and analyzing his creative decisions, often revisiting the old notebooks and adding notes to those details where time and experience had changed some opinion. If ever there was a director dogged by his decisions, Kazan’s the guy, as his legacy remains defined as much by his groundbreaking artistic output as by his much derided decision to name names before the House Un-american Activities Committee in 1952. Kazan’s notes underscore his unwillingness to separate life and work, and so we see characters fleshed out through written comparison to friends and family, as well as Kazan’s process of channeling feelings from personal experiences into his interpretation of a script. In addition to the ability to impose his will on his many collaborators – done with great cunning, wit and the occasional act of physical violence – Kazan’s conception of the director is that of a person who is constantly struggling to learn new things and improve himself. Besides charting the evolution of Kazan’s techniques and ideas as a director, Kazan On Directing offers a unique and unparalleled view of lifetime spent in pursuit of self-improvement and education.

If you are interested in seeing Kazan’s films, including the early works and rarities which have failed to find their way to DVD, New York City’s Film Forum is currently in the middle of a Kazan Retrospective. I’m especially excited to check out the new print of his largely forgotten 1977 film America America, which tells the story of Kazan’s uncle’s epic struggle to get from Anatoli to Ellis Island.