Congratulations! You’ve booked your first gig as a director.
Do you have any idea what you’ve gotten yourself into? If not, let's start this post with the traits of a successful director. Then we'll dive into the seven essentials for the beginning director.
Like many film directors, I learned the trade in the theatre. And everything I’ve learned over the course of 30 years and 50 directing credits in the theatre translates to film.
The most important thing I learned is that directors need a varied set of skills in order to do a very people-oriented job that also requires a good deal of solitary decision making.
Because directing requires many different skills, there are a myriad of ways the director’s function is described by the great directors of stage and screen, as well as the actors and crew who worked for them: shaman, seer, therapist, alchemist, mediator, and even monster.
After twenty years of training and mentoring young directors (including teaching acting workshops specifically designed for them), I have bled this down into five main traits. A director is:
1. An organizer. Auditions, pre-production, financing, rehearsals, shoots, post-production, publicity… it is all about schedules. The more organized you are, the better the chances you’ll come in on time and on budget—and be a producer’s dream.
2. A diplomat. Creative people have delicate egos. And, although actors are usually the ones in the spotlight when it comes to being over-emotional, I’ve been on plenty of shoots where the crew, who work ridiculously long hours for very little credit, are just as stressed out and touchy as the cast.
3. A leader. Although this seems obvious, being a leader is a complex position to be in and is often misunderstood. I was expressing my frustration to a colleague one day at the start of a project: “I can’t get them all to row in the same direction.” To which she replied, “It’s not about getting everyone rowing in the same direction. First, you have to get them to WANT TO GET IN THE BOAT.”
4. A visionary. Think about your favorite directors. Having just read Burton on Burton, Tim of course comes to mind. With one of the most unique visions in the history of Hollywood, his ability to get people into the boat was crucial. This is the place for your passion. This is the place you’ll make your mark.
5. A communicator. What good is a vision if you can’t express it? And more than that, express it to a wide array of people, all of whom speak a different language? Financiers speak one, producers speak another, cinematographers speak a third, and of course actors speak a very unique language that many directors don’t.
Five very different skills, yet all interlocking. All complementary. All crucial.
But there’s more, because, as director, you are primarily responsible for the story that gets told. More than writers, actors, crew, and marketing teams, you’re the one controlling how—and how well—the story is told.
So how in the world does one person fulfill so many roles?
Here’s what I’ve learned:
A story has to have a context. Circumstances—what happens to the character in a certain place at a certain time—create the necessary plot points, arcs, and obstacles.
Socioeconomic class, geography, time period, race, ethnicity, and sex/gender all play into circumstances.
Think about popular period dramas, like Peaky Blinders. All of these factors come into play. You also need this information to work well with the design team.
We’ve all heard some form of the mantra—spoken by everyone from Robert McKee to Syd Field to William Goldman—that “action is character.”
So you need to know the characters intimately long before you cast them.
I start by taking the theme of the story and using it as a center-point for a Character Continuum, where I position all of the primary and secondary characters.
Star Wars is a good example, since the prevalent theme is the classic battle of Good and Evil.
If Luke, as the Hero, is in the middle, and Evil is on the far left and Good is on the far right, then the Character Continuum looks like this:
Typically, the outliers (the Emperor and Yoda) are extremes. Pure archetypes. The audience doesn’t identify with them. The closer you get to the center, the more identifiable the characters become.
A lot of directors (and writers) see the theme as a fixed idea, but most stories are not as clear cut as Star Wars. A compelling theme is like a multifaceted diamond, with many angles, aspects, and nuances.
A good director shines the light from each character on the thematic diamond in order to fully illuminate it. Characters also illuminate one another through the prism of the theme—another way to honor the mantra “action is character.”
So how can you plot this?
Harold Clurman, in On Directing, shares one of his key pre-production practices: linking each character’s arc to the theme.
Visually, I put the main theme of the script in a circle in the center of a blank piece of paper and put the characters’ names (primary and secondary) in circles all around the edges, drawing lines from each character to the main theme. On each of these lines, I write some action verbs and keywords linking the character and the theme.
What you wind up with looks a lot like a wagon wheel, which is what I call this exercise.
I’m by no means an accomplished artist, but storyboarding has taught me about mise en scène and shot composition; helped me convey ideas of movement and use of space to the cinematographer and actors; and how to use perspective to define relationships.
On my most recent film, a veteran actor who had worked on many shoots—including big-budget features—was amazed by my organization and efficiency. Having storyboarded the film from start to finish was a big reason why.
Tim Burton, in Burton on Burton, says he might not look at his storyboards much at all once he gets on location, but they were helpful to the actors and as an initial aspect of his visualization of the story.
So, even if you never take a look at them on set, the storyboarding process will help you see your film from start to finish before it gets made; although things will change…
In On Directing, Clurman tells a story of staying up all night plotting every move the actors would make. Halfway through the first rehearsal, he scrapped most of it and made the commitment to only map the broad strokes of his blocking and to rely on the actors’ intuition as well as his own.
Too much detail hampers the cast and crew. Storytelling requires specificity, but know where there’s room for spontaneity and change. If you want the cast and crew to feel like they’re part of your vision, give them ways to contribute. Besides, Synergy—the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts—is what makes good art great. Be a visionary, a communicator, a diplomat… leave the role of dictator to someone else.
Another directing bible is Elia Kazan’s Kazan on Directing. Like Clurman and me, Kazan came from the theatre, though he went on to direct many Hollywood classics, including On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and East of Eden.
The first two starred Marlon Brando; the third James Dean. Talk about actors who needed to be treated with diplomacy and the right kind of communication!
Casting is essential. As you move up the food chain, you get some help from casting directors, but the ultimate decision is yours (in most cases—some directors have horror stories of being bullied by producers and studios to cast actors they didn’t want…). A mistake in casting can spell disaster for a film, which is why Stuart Townsend was replaced by Viggo Mortensen a few days into shooting Fellowship of the Ring and Eric Stoltz was replaced by Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future.
So cast carefully. And here’s a tip from Kazan worth its weight in gold: cast from the end of the character arc, not from the beginning. Having created your Character Continuum and Wagon Wheel, you’ll be ready to do this.
A long-form narrative cable series whose success hinged on the major change of its main character ultimately failed in its final season because the actor was not up to the challenges of where the character went. He was perfect for early seasons, but was never believable when the character emerged from personality-changing events.
On the other hand, Andrew Lincoln, previously known for his “aw-shucks” likeability in films like Love Actually, has made quite the transformation in The Walking Dead. The actors who play Sansa and Jamie in Game of Thrones were clearly cast based on where the characters were going and it has made all the difference.
Another mantra screenwriters and directors grow up on is “if the dialogue is about what the dialogue is about, you’re in trouble.”
People rarely say what they mean. There is always subtext. Sometimes it takes the form of sarcasm. Other times the words are in direct opposition to body language.
Good writers implant a lot of different meanings, lots of character secrets and complexities, within the words of the script. It’s the director’s job—as well as the actor’s—to find all the subtext and nuance the writer has carefully embedded.
Remember, as director, you are the primary mediator between the writer and the actor. You cannot make the most of this role if you aren’t a master of mining subtext.
Improvisation is standard for veteran stage directors, but I have rarely been on a film set where anyone was improvising. It’s often thought of in terms of comedians like Jim Carey playing fast and loose with the script.
It’s much more useful than that.
The foundations of good improv with actors is an article all its own, but here’s the when and why:
So, again—congratulations on booking your first directing gig.
Give these essentials a try.
I’d love to hear what happens.
Joey Madia spent 25 years in the theatre as a playwright, actor, director, and teacher.
Today is is focused on screenwriting, developing an audio drama series,
writing story lines for immersive theatre-based Escape Rooms, and creating Historical
Education programming with a focus on the Golden Age of Piracy and the life of Che Guevara.
Joey is the Artistic Director of Seven Stories Theatre Company and Creative director of
New Mystics Enterprises, a multimedia production company. He is also the author of two
novels and 17 produced plays.
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