The Truth About Directing

Speilberg keeps his head above water

Now that I have a fancy, schmancy blog, I thought that from time to time it would be fun  to write about the creative process (filmmaking, pre-production, writing, motion graphics, editing)…the little things I’ve learned in the short time span I’ve been doing this.  I’m by no means an expert (nor do I claim to be one), but I think a lot of amateur filmmakers out there are probably in the same boat as me (i.e. unknown with no money) and probably go through similar experiences.

One thing I wanted to talk about in particular is the subject of directing, mostly because it amazes me how many young people who are interested in making films want to be “directors.” I use those quotation marks intentionally because, let’s face it, the term director has been elevated to an iconoclastic status by our culture. We as a society revere directors. With the exception of big name actors and actresses, there isn’t a position in the entertainment industry that gets more fanboy love and press attention than a popular director. Spielberg. Scorsese. Tarantino. These are names that are actively used to market and promote movies. They’re box office draws! They put butts in the seats!

I guess it’s no surprise that so many people, conversely, want to be directors. It’s glamorous. It’s sexy. And, if you’re a student of the auteur theory, it’s downright artistic.

But, what pray tell does a director actually do? If you ask your Average Joe on the street, he’d probably say, he’s the guy that makes the movie. After all, how often have we seen the phrase: “An Insert-Name-Here” film?

Well, if you’ve ever sat through the interminable credit roll at the end of a movie, you know that the director doesn’t actually “make the movie.” Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people physically make the movie. If you were to attempt to peel down that initial generalization, I suppose you could say that the director is the person who decides how to shoot the movie. But, that doesn’t really fit either. The director does do some of that, but more often than not he’s backed up by a fleet of other talented individuals—the assistant director(s), the cinematographer, producers, heck, even the writer (whom without you wouldn’t even have a script that needs shooting).

This all brings me to my central point. I’m gonna reveal a big secret here, so stay with me. A director’s job is to…wait for it…try  not to look like an idiot.

That’s it. The secret to a great director. Somebody who can manage not to look like an idiot.

And, believe me, speaking as a guy who’s only made a handful of short, no-budget movies that’s a lot harder than you might think. I still have yet to make a movie that fits my original “vision” or lives up to any of my initial lofty expectations. This is most likely due to the fact that during the pre-production phase all my movies (in my head) feel like they’re going to be the next Citizen Kane, but I digress…

People spend years in film school attempting to study the art of “directing.” And, while, of course, there is tons to learn—working with actors, shot composition, interacting with a crew—all of it has very little to do with whether or not the final product will come out good. Tons of factors determine whether a movie eventually succeeds: story, acting talent, production design, tone, timing, downright luck . This is why directors  are often overpraised or, more often, unfairly maligned when it comes to the outcome of a finished film—especially in the rigid Hollywood studio system.

The infamous screenwriter William Goldman has famously said that “Nobody knows anything.” And, you know what? He’s right…especially when it comes to the topic of directing. Maybe it’s my inexperience talking here, but every time I step up to”direct” something I pray to myself that I can just get through the shoot without anybody realizing that I am a complete an utter fraud. I mean, why should these people listen to me? What do I know about movies? Yeah, a close-up here…a wide shot here. A cutaway there…Really, I’m just trying to make sure the whole ship keeps on sailing.

Ah, hah! There you have it…a good director keeps the ship sailing! I like that (hey, sometimes I even surprise myself). So, for those who think a director is defined by avante-garde shot choices, complicated “oners,” and stimulating compositions, you’re seeing only part of the picture. Those things are just the spices in a very complicated recipe.

Now, let me back up for a second and say this. I’m not discounting style. I just wish that we as a society would stop confusing style with good directing. Yes, they’re all all-stars out there or make incredibly stylistic and visual stunning movies. But, I would hazard to guess that these movies succeed in concert with their bold choices, not because of them (which is why some Tarantino films—all of which are very stylistic—aren’t as successful as others). I mean, after all Francis Ford Coppola did make Jack.

And, for the record, let me stress one more time, all of these big shot directors are most-likely backed up by a very talented cast, crew, post-production team, producers, editors, special-effects gurus, colorists…the list goes on and on. Making a good movie is a lot like getting dealt a great hand in poker. A good director was just smart enough to stack the deck beforehand.

So, to bring this little evaluation to a close—what in fact makes a good director (besides pointing stoically and wearing cool-headphones)? The answer,  I say, is managing to bring the project to conclusion. For better or for worse, it’s a finished movie.

I read a quote once from world renowned French director Francois Traffaut. He said:

Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive.

I think that sums it up perfectly. In the end, all we want to do is keep our head above water.