Monday, 24 October 2011

Who Does What? #4: The Director

Nothing's really blowing up my kilt with righteous rage in business news going on today, so I'm going to do another edition of WHO DOES WHAT?

Today we're going to look at the role of the DIRECTOR!

You know the Director, he's the guy with a vaguely Germanic accent in jodhpurs,* black riding boots, and a black beret who stomps around the set yelling orders, then sits next to the camera, screams "ACTION!" then yells "CUT!" and proceeds to have a maniacal hissy fit because something happened that deviated from his vision.

Of course that's the cartoon version of directing film and television.

In the real world version the jodhpurs are replaced by fashionable jeans and the beret is replaced by a jaunty sombrero covered in silver spangles.

Okay, just kidding.

Let's get back to the subject at hand.

The French cineastes define the director as the ultimate author, or auteur of cinema, but the definition is a little more complicated, because outside of academia and maybe the Nouvelle Vague the art of making a film is much more collaborative.

The director is, first and foremost, a maker of decisions.

It is usually up to the director to decide how a screenplay is going to be interpreted when it makes it onto the screen.  The director has to decide what the people, places, and things are going to look like in their film, and also decide how those same people and things are going to behave at those places when the cameras are rolling.

By my definition there are three kinds of directors:

VISUAL: This sub-species of Director puts all their creative and imaginative eggs into the realm of visuals.  Everything has to look slick and glamorous, and there has to be lots of stuff going on all the time in all directions.  The problem with this is that it often leads to films that are nice to look at, but not really nice to listen to, or pay any real attention to.  Think Michael Bay.

PERFORMANCE: These Directors put everything, including their heart, soul, and duodenal ulcer into getting the best performances out of their actors.  They become for all intents and purposes particularly manipulative psychotherapists reaching deep into their actors and extracting, sometimes painfully, what they want to see on the screen. Award giving Academies love to honor these kinds of directors because they make the actors look good, and actors make up the majority of nominating voters.  The problem is that while the performances maybe truthful and heartfelt, the films themselves can often be really, really, excruciatingly, boring.  Think Robert Redford.

NARRATIVE:  Narrative directors attempt to combine the best of both visuals and performances to tell the story they want to tell in the best way possible.  They want their films to look good, they want their actors to play their part to the best of their ability, and they want the audience to be engulfed in the story.  Think Alfred Hitchcock.

Now those definitions are of the best case scenario for each type of director.  Not all directors are created equally, and there are a lot of lousy directors out there, and that's not likely to change because of Hollywood's dirty little secret when it comes to directing.  While they'll never admit it publicly, too many of Hollywood's top ranks think....
But it ain't, and do go telling me that ain't ain't a word because it ain't in the dictionary.  I've got important things to pontificate about.

You see, in Hollywood, they think that anyone with two or more functioning synapses can direct a movie.  You can go from directing commercials or music videos chock full of shaking booties, to directing a major studio film with a $100 million budget.

But, as I said before, it's not really easy.  Decisions are hard.  Bad decisions can cost the film artistically, and being unable to make decisions can cost the production financially.  A good director has to be able to collaborate with all their department heads, deal with actors, and present an air of competent leadership.  

It's a lot like being a commanding a regiment on the battlefield.  You have your orders from the producer: Make Film X by Date Y for Amount $Z, but it's mostly to you to work with your battalion and company commanders to figure out the specific tactics you're going to need to accomplish that goal.

Some directors love to plan ahead to the last detail.  Alfred Hitchcock used to have everything so carefully planned he used to call the actual act of filming "Grinding it through the machine." Others like to keep things fast and loose, making their decisions on set and on the fly.  While some directors can thrive using either method, it's actually better to be more of a precise planner, the bigger the budget you have. Because good planning cuts time, and time is money when you're making a movie, and costing less helps you avoid the dreaded "meddle detector."

You see when you're working as a director you not only have to deal with your actors and department heads, you have to deal with the studios and producers.  They are scared that you're going to cost their studio money, and them their jobs, so the temptation to meddle in the making of your film is very great.  The bigger the amount of money involved, the more tempted they are to detect an excuse to meddle.

That is unless you can show to them that you can do a good job for less than all the other directors out there.  Clint Eastwood's secret to making whatever films he wants, whenever he wants, and how he wants is because he does things not only well, but cheaply and quickly when compared to other directors. This requires a great deal of confidence in your own ability as well as the competence to get the job done, but it's served him well.

Now television is a different story.

TV is a writer's medium.  The writers are also the producers, so directors are merely there to do what those writers think needs to be done on time, with little real appreciation....


You just happen to be the director of the show's pilot episode.  Then you are the one who sets the look, the style, and the pace of the show, and that means that you get a royalty for every episode made after that whether you have any involvement with it or not.  Get a couple of pilots that have become hit shows under your belt, and you can do very well.

And that's my glib and superficial explanation of what a director does.


*Jodhpurs are also known as "puffy director pants."

PS:  I'm still collecting questions to answer on Friday's blog.  So click here and ask away!

1 comment:

  1. I work in the video game industry. My official title is "Designer" or, sometimes, "Lead Designer", but when I tell someone that I was a Designer on, say, the Doom game, they assume I did the whole thing. I have to try to explain that Doom had 7-10 people working on it, and that most games have even more. It's a team effort.

    So my question is this, I am sure that a movie is even MORE of a team effort than a game, because it takes more people (at least judging by the ever-lengthening credits). So given this obvious fact - how can anyone give credence to such a bogus theory as the director being the "Auteur"? Sure a Director might have more of an influence than the cinematographer, or the lead actor, or the line producer - but is it really that much more? Even if he is the single most important facet of the film, this still can only be like maybe 10-15% of the total. Sure it's visible, but still ...