Film Fund-amentals: The Director’s Chair

The Hollywood filmmaker Joe Dante once said that the hardest part about directing was having to get up before 10:00 every morning. Obviously, Dante has a gift for cooking his schedule.

But the wake-up time is the least of a director’s worries. Directing is one of the most important (and most poorly defined) positions in the whole filmmaking process. At its best, it is shrouded in the mythic concept of “artistic vision.” At its worse, the director is some hack who couldn’t get a regular job at the video store.

In reality, the actual space between Fellini and Ed Wood is narrower than one might care to think. With either director, most of the key duties and responsibilities are much the same (even if the execution produces somewhat different results). There is very little real training available for learning to do the job, and most of what people do learn (e.g. in film school) is pretty meaningless. Much like combat, most of the true learning experience is only available on the frontline.

However, there are some basic skills necessary for any one who wants to direct. There are also some general ideas that the person needs to forget about. For instance, “artistic vision.” It isn’t part of the job. Oh sure, nice if you have it. But a lot of working directors have next to no vision (except for occasional bits they’ve borrowed elsewhere) and still manage to have perfectly fine careers. In the old days, these guys were loosely referred to as studio hacks. The term is not meant to be pejorative. It is merely descriptive. Some of the hacks actually did some pretty OK movies.

One of the most important skills a director needs is a gift for logistical management. Oddly enough, one of the best comments about this was made by the actor Roger Moore when he hailed his James Bond director Guy Hamilton as a fine filmmaker. His high regard for Hamilton had nothing to do with the quality of his filmmaking (even Moore will remind you that they were just cranking out a 007 flick). What impressed him was Hamilton’s ability to quickly and systematically move a large assortment of cast and crew in tight coordination on a global schedule and still keep everything running smoothly.

Though the typical independent filmmaker will not be dealing with the complex logistical nightmares of a large-budget movie, he or she also will not have the assistance of the support personnel who work on a major production. Moving even a small cast and crew from a location in the Bronx to another location on Long Island becomes its own nightmare, especially when the director hasn’t a clue about how to manage it. By mid-afternoon, half the crew will be lost on the subway and the shooting schedule is out the window. I once misplaced Wim Wenders during a film festival and the result was scary enough (we actually had an APB out on the guy before we found him).

The next essential skill is, perhaps, the most elusive. It’s called diplomacy. Unless you are David O. Russell, it doesn’t pay to have a snit fit with everybody on the set every five minutes. In truth, it doesn’t even pay for David O. Russell. He just can’t help himself. But filmmaking is a collaborative task and the director is stuck with being the chief coordinator for this collaboration. Notice that I used the word “coordinator.” Not tyrant, top dog, or even mighty Pooh-Bah. For better or worse, the director ends up setting the tone for the work relationships during the production. At its best, the director even wants to bring out the best qualities of everyone working on the film. Though the temperamental fits make for juicy gossip and occasional wild videos on YouTube (just type in the name David O. Russell), they rarely result in good movies.

A general all-around understanding of the film making process would also be nice. Just don’t pretend to understand everything. You won’t. But a basic familiarity with lighting concepts, photographic techniques, editing procedures, and even acting principles would be nice and useful. Since a small budget production often requires inventive overlaps in production duties, a combination of general knowledge as well as diplomatic skills becomes extremely helpful.

Studying the films of other directors is extremely useful. Unfortunately, many aspiring filmmakers make the mistake of watching and studying someone like Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was a master. He was also a prissy perfectionist whose whole career flew in the face of rational explanation as he routinely got away with working in a manner that no young indie filmmaker will ever be allowed to do (Heck, most established directors wouldn’t be allowed to work the way Stanley did – the man was a mutant).

Instead, study people like Roger Corman, Edgar G. Ulmer and Don Siegel. At the height of their careers, all three of these guys had a firm grasp on how to take minimum available resources and achieve maximum effect. Siegel was a master of “editing in the camera.” He also had an amazing ability to achieve psychological insights and characterizations through his B movie action scenes based solely upon physical gestures. Both Corman and Ulmer could take really cheap, stripped-down sets and turn them into extremely expressionistic visual statements. All three of them were masters of cheap filmmaking. Heck, Corman once squeezed two movies out of one film schedule.