There is no art form more collaborative than moviemaking. For the most part, the writer writes alone; the painter paints alone. And being alone in the process of creation isn’t just a given; it’s often celebrated—on film, no less. Think about the photographer in Blow-Up developing prints alone in his red-lit lab, his eye taking in the photos as they materialize in the chemical bath. Or all the films about writers pecking at a typewriter or bathed in the glow of a computer, lost to stimuli external to the words on the page. Is it ironic that the most collaborative art form fetishizes the most singular? Or is it simply a manifestation of the separate egos that bring the film to life—the screenwriter who crafted the story, the director who envisioned it, the actor who interpreted the lines and imbued them with emotion? Maybe they all consider themselves that lone artist. After all, even if they work together, they each approach the work from some secret place that harbors their individual artistic drive. Introspection, the loneliest mode of thought, is required to understand what art reveals to us.
This is why making-of documentaries are like catnip to cinephiles. While it’s hard to make any film, it’s an impressive achievement to make a good film, what with all the negotiation that must happen between the players. Because we assume everyone involved considers him- or herself, to some degree, an artist in their own right, a behind-the-scenes record makes a fascinating ancillary to the original work. For example, many people who love Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining also enjoy the on-set documentary filmed by his daughter, Vivian. We see the dynamics between the actors and the director and the many others who brought the film to life; Shelley Duvall chafes against the exacting direction of Kubrick, while Jack Nicholson, confidently in the limelight, manages to achieve equal footing. Other indispensable documentaries like Hearts of Darkness, about the making of Apocalypse Now, and Burden of Dreams, about the making of Fitzcarraldo, chronicle trial and error and clashing temperaments in exotic locales, and they manage to amuse and confound us at the same time.
But while each of these documentaries illuminates the hard-fought nature of collaboration, the introspective process of artist creation is truly made manifest elsewhere. Escaping the filter of someone else’s documentary lens and instead putting pen to page, Jean Cocteau kept a journal that catalogues the making of Beauty and the Beast. It’s indispensable for its singular—in both senses of the word—insight into the movie-making process. Titled Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film, the slim volume deepens one’s appreciation for the movie; it also makes the phrase “suffer for one’s art” seem but a shallow cliché.
Cocteau records, in painstaking detail, the jigsaw-puzzle quality of making a film: finding the thousand pieces of location, ensemble, script, lighting, makeup, costume, and camera and fitting them together into a work of art. This exhausting effort is made even more complicated by the fact that they were filming in France in 1945—hardly an environment conducive to imagining fairy tales. What’s more, while they must contend with the usual vagaries of bad weather, equipment problems, union problems, and set problems, Cocteau suffers from fatigue, “carbuncles,” eczema, and various other physical maladies that require regular doctor visits in between shootings and meetings.
But, despite writing a personal account, he never loses sight of the fact that he’s not working alone. From the get-go, Cocteau seems to have enjoyed a considerable amount of buy-in from his collaborators; they, too, [mostly] give themselves over to the magic of the tale. His cast and crew work tirelessly to film each scene. “Jean Marais [the Beast] kept me from ruin,” Cocteau writes after a particularly trying shoot. “He held out a life line to me, and got my ideas straightened out with patience and intuition.” Likewise, the dressmaker manages to create costumes according to the specific influences Cocteau had in mind—Vermeer, Gustave Doré—and the property master struggles but succeeds in procuring sheets for the early scenes in the garden. [“One can’t imagine what it is like in 1945 to hire twelve additional sheets.”] He writes that the cameraman and still photographer happily trade notes (rarer than you might think), that the cast has such confidence in him that it nearly takes a toll on his own. In short, this is filmmaking at its essence: the combination of artistic talents in service of a greater vision. Nonetheless, Cocteau also mentions wrangling chickens on set, pinning up those bedsheets, attending to a wobbly camera, and performing a hundred other tiny tasks by himself in order to successfully execute his story.
And what a story. Often cited as the most “magical” of films, Beauty and the Beast mirrors its own path to fruition, as it’s about finding loveliness amid ordinariness and ugliness. “Bring me a rose,” Beauty says to her father, before she returns to her domestic labor. Portrayed by Josette Day, she embodies physical perfection without sacrificing a keen appreciation of the beauty around her. Jean Marais’s Beast, meanwhile, must contend with the habits and visage of a savage that only beauty can someday redeem. As these two head toward their climax, the threads of fairy tale weave together Cocteau’s dream. Despite, or because of, the hardship that plagued the filming, every element of the final film achieves an ethereal quality, from the lighting to the movement to the speech to the overall look and feel. That’s to say nothing of the special effects, which translate the supernatural to celluloid by relying entirely on the magic of the human form.
Ultimately, Beauty and the Beast and Cocteau’s record of its making show that pure enchantment can result from the oft-jamming cogs of the filmmaking process, a process that uniquely depends on collaboration and auteurism in equal measure. With this in mind, is it any surprise that Cocteau was also a poet—a solitary pursuit if there ever was one? Only a poet, suited to working alone as his own editor, could have layered such fantastic imagery, dialogue, sets, and costumes into a single work that never tips into preciousness, one that instead achieves a seemingly effortless balance of the fantastic and the mundane. Early in his diary Cocteau notes the discipline of his vision, and it makes an inspiring epigram for any artist, whether they’re about to embark on a collaboration or intend to cloister themselves in a studio. “My method is simple: not to aim at poetry. That must come of its own accord. The mere whispered mention of its name frightens it away. I shall try to build a table. It will be up to you then to eat it, to examine it or to chop it up for firewood.” Firewood Beauty and the Beast certainly is not—Cocteau, with some help, cooked us up a sumptuous feast.