“[Directing] is a complex technical and emotional process. It’s art. It’s commerce. It’s heartbreaking and it’s fun.” Summed up by the late great Sidney Lumet, these words encapsulate the core and soul of being a film director.
Directing involves a plethora of skills, disciplines, and humane qualities. Filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor, and much like in a sports team, the whole far exceeds the sum of its parts. The director is the captain of the ship, but without experienced sailors, the vessel will inevitably sink.
There are three versions of every film made — the one you write, the one you shoot and the one you cut. In other words, every major step of the process triggers a reevaluation and new approach to the project at hand. This is the beauty of filmmaking. There is no one way, and no right or wrong way. The film takes a life of its own, no matter the amount of preparation and level of expertise. This rings even more true for documentaries, where oftentimes the story is found in the editing room.
Directing is a juggling act requiring an understanding of all facets of filmmaking. It often starts with an idea, which is then developed into a script, and eventually captured onto the screen.
At the nucleus of every project, whether a film, documentary or informational video, lies a story. The director’s task is to bring that story to life and give it a voice. An array of tools are at his/her disposal. With these come responsibilities and a to-do list the length of a 1000-foot spool of film. So many, in fact, that it can easily be an overwhelming experience, which is why only a few master the craft at the highest level. This is not to say you have to be Spike Lee or Guillermo Del Toro to be a good director. You have to be you, find your voice as a creator and understand the process.
Since the dawn of humanity, we as a species have relied on storytelling to exchange information, memories and to record history. Old folk tales were told around a fire for thousands of years and passed on for generations before the printing press was invented. It took another few hundred years before cinema came around. In other words, filmmaking is a visual result of humanity’s love for stories.
Some directors write their own material, others collaborate with writers instead. Either way, putting words on a page and finding a way to translate them into images is the beginning of the journey.
The film you write
INT OFFICE – NIGHT
A person sits at a desk in front of a computer, evidently tired and frustrated. On the screen, the words “FADE IN” sit at the top of a blank page. The cursor blinks endlessly… Sound familiar?
Anyone who has taken to writing a story knows the feeling all too well. Not all directors write, but for those who do, the countless hours spent between staring at a screen and looking at the ceiling in hopes of finding words are daunting. For this reason, the attachment to the project is second to none. The script becomes like a child that needs nurture and attention to grow.
In film school, they often say “no one will ever care about your film as much as you do.” For that reason, a director needs to get people excited about working on a project. Respect is important, and when collaborators feel empowered to contribute, they are much more likely to care and give their all for the project.
You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with
In comes the director, screenplay in hand. At every stage of the process, arguably the most important step is to surround yourself with the best people for the job. It starts with a producer unless that person is the one hiring you for the job. They’ll deal with the money, hiring crew and logistics.
In pre-production, it is a juggling act between an intimidating number of factors. First up is determining a visual approach. The cinematographer and production designer provide invaluable help in that respect.
Filmmaking is synonym with collaboration. One can’t do it alone (except Robert Rodriguez), and the most successful filmmakers understand the importance of working with people who are the best at what they do. Steven Spielberg, for example, has been collaborating with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, and composer John Williams for decades. Chris Nolan has his people, Scorsese as well, etc.
Like in most relationships, when you find the right person, you want to stick with them. There is no secret to longevity. It usually happens when people get along and respect each other.
Preparation is key
Every phase of production is important. As a director, you are solicited every minute of every day from the time pre-production starts until picture is locked, and beyond. The stakes can be high and with that often comes stress and varying degrees of anxiety. Managing the people around you is one thing, but you must also manage yourself and make sure you remain level headed and focused. In other words, a healthy dose of zen helps a lot.
In pre-production, the director lays down the foundation, and makes some of the most important decisions. Meetings with department heads and producers help define both the creative approach and budgetary boundaries. Casting takes center stage as well, followed by rehearsals and meetings with actors. It is tedious, time consuming and a proper trial run for new people working together.
The director and cinematographer will discuss look of the project in length. This includes lighting, camera movement and the overall visual esthetics. From those conversations, a shot list will be crafted and act as a roadmap during principal photography.
The art department, lead by the production designer, creates the world in which the action unfolds. For a period piece, for example, extra attention needs to be put towards locations and costumes.
The film you shoot
Showtime! This is when you realize it is the real deal. You have committed to all the decisions made up until this point, and now all of it will be put into practice. There is little room for error as every minute that goes by, money is being spent. Of course, mistakes will happen, and guess what? You’ll be okay. It’s part of the experience. Sometimes, everything runs smoothly, but most of the time you have to roll with the punches.
During principal photography, everything laid out in pre-production is put to the test. A good schedule will maximize time and efficiency. The first assistant director is in charge of putting it together and making sure it is followed on set.
Cinema is telling stories with moving images and sound. The director must understand photography as well as the power of sound. Where cinematography shines through the images captured on set, sound design comes to life in post-production.
Hitting your mark
Working with actors can be an equally beautiful and inspiring experience as it can be a traumatic affair. They’re humans after all, which however obvious it may sound, is important to remember. For this reason, successful directors tend to be good at dealing with people. It’s should be a requirement. You must be able to understand others to both tell stories and work with actors effectively. We’ll talk about working with non-humans a little later. I think a big mistake young directors make is assuming actors are like machines whose job is to repeat lines over and over again. Acting is HARD! I would encourage any director to take a theatre class and experience what it feels like stand on stage trying to recite a monologue while people are staring.
“When you hit your mark, deliver the line.” This is something one might hear on set quite often. A mark is an area of the set where an actor will be at a given moment in a scene. This is determined during the blocking rehearsal, which is when the director, actors and cinematographer walk through the scene to figure out the staging of the action (also called blocking).
The Lumière brothers invented cinema (don’t tell Edison), thus some French terms stuck. Mise-en-scène means the putting-together of a scene. Simply put, it is what you see on the screen, when everything comes together and the director’s vision is realized. From the decor to actors’ placement, along with lighting and camera movement, it is the result of all the departments coming together.
Like the Game Of Thrones characters, animals are wild and oftentimes unpredictable. Even the most domesticated and well-trained ones will always keep you on your toes. When it comes to directing animals, extra money and time need to be allocated for hiring and working with animals and their trainers (aka animal wranglers). A reasonable amount of planning, flexibility, and a lot of patience are crucial. Plans A, B and C need to be in your back pocket.
And … CUT!
When to say cut may seem trivial, but there is an art to it. One might find that an interesting expression on a character’s face appears when the scene is over and, anticipating the cut, they drop their shoulders, or frown, or maybe look away. These seemingly irrelevant actions may in fact add something special to the moment. An experienced director will recognize this and by knowing and observing actors, will be able to look for those little happenings. One may also tell the camera operator or first assistant camera not to cut the camera right away to capture the few seconds following the end of a shot. Finally, some directors may choose not to say “cut” when expected in order to let an actor explore a moment in the scene. There is no formula. It is about feeling and each director has their own way to call the action.
The film you edit
The shoot is over and all the sweat and tears now lay on hard drives or inside film cans. Done with the hardest part, right? Sorry, this is actually when the work really begins. In the cutting room, the film is re-written over and over again until the picture is locked. The work of the editor is tedious and lengthy. As another key collaborator and artist, their contribution is invaluable. Together with the director, they spend countless days or weeks tweaking and shaping the film’s flow and tone.
We spend a lot of time talking about how a film looks, but how it sounds is equally as important. Sound design and music give a project a whole other dimension. The film “Sound Of Metal” is an appropriate case study in how sound (and the absence of it) can steer the narrative. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is another example.
A powerful score or soundtrack can bring everything together. A composer, much like an editor or cinematographer, is a storyteller and can have a big influence on the film. Star Wars wouldn’t be the same without John Williams’s score. Tarantino films wouldn’t have the same personality without music.
Film directors often fight for the final cut. Believe it or not, but even after all this lengthy and emotional process, producers might tell you how they want the film should be edited. This is especially prevalent at the higher budget level and in the studio system. Few top directors are afforded the freedom to edit the film exactly the way they want.
Flexibility and patience are some of the countless virtues a documentarian must possess. Unlike scripted material, the director sometimes has to find the story instead of following a structured narrative. An acquired art form, documentaries offer their own set of challenges, starting with lack of control over certain environments, people, weather, animals, vehicles, so on and so forth. In other words, it can be a wild ride. With this said, much like with films, preparation is the best way to preempt potential issues. If one knows the subject well enough and is ready to improvise on the spot, the experience and result will be more fruitful.
For any up-and-coming director, short films are almost like a rite of passage. They are cheaper to make and offer a platform to learn, experiment and show abilities. There is no shortage of stories about directors taking their shorts to film festivals and walking away with an offer to make a feature. The dynamic of the industry is such that nowadays a short film going viral online could help a filmmaker gain the exposure needed to get attention from potential investors. In this respect, it is a bit of a wild west because there is no one way to do anything anymore.
Looking at what a director does is really an insight into how a film is made. The director has a say and influence on every facet of a project. They come up with the vision and are in charge of seeing it through, along with an army of creatives, wizards and technicians. It takes a village to make a film and the director is the chief leading their troops into battle. Although directing is an art form in itself, it can often feel like a circus act. Like many other endeavors, it takes courage, determination and a lot of heart.