In psychology terms, directing is used in many forms on a set. A director is father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, to the cast and crew. A person has to be all that, the captain of the ship, but what happens when the journey is rough? It’s in our nature as human beings to be controlling over what we are doing. You’re trying to navigate your ship through rough waters. There are big films, (studio), and small films, (indie production companies), large crews, and small crews, big cast, small cast. The director has the toughest job of all on a film set, in my opinion.
You want to be a director? Do you know what you’re in for? I’ve directed one short film, WHAT? You’ve directed one short film. Then, why am I even reading this? It’s a good question and a fair one. As the Assistant Director of two short films and one feature, I’ve written and helped produce two short films, with the third in production, also, spent some time on set just hanging out. I’ve observed many directors and all are very different; style, substance, work ethic, etc. In my opinion, some directors are more prepared then others.
Perhaps you’ve worked on film sets before and you decided you want to be a director, or maybe you’ve been dreaming about becoming the next Spielberg since you were a kid. All directors share one goal: to make the best film possible for an audience, right? Honestly, I would love to believe that. There are great films, good films, bad films, and really bad films. They’re all very difficult to make, and they all got made because the filmmakers saw the potential in them. As a director you are going to go through some challenges and struggles. I’m going to talk a little about my favorite director, David Fincher, and the challenges he endured while making his first feature, Alien 3 (Twentieth Century Fox, 1992). The film languished in pre-production for a few years before it got made and went through many different directors.
As a matter of fact, if you do some research you can find a very early teaser trailer of Alien 3, and one of the ideas that were being thrown around was the Alien coming to our home planet. Obviously, in the final film they went a different way, but you see that films go through many different hands, depending upon who has the rights. It’s a major franchise so Fox has the rights, but if you are an independent filmmaker trying to make the film yourself and raise the budget; most likely the writer will have the copy writes. So, the film went through many directors, RENNY HARLIN, (Die Hard 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, etc,) was attached to it for about a year, but left because he felt like he was going in circles with pre-production. Then, Vincent Ward (River Queen, What Dreams May Come) had an interesting take on it, but ultimately left the project. It was finally brought to David Fincher. Now, keep in mind that Fincher has established himself as an A-list filmmaker, with many great films, (Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network) and two Oscar nominations. However, this was a young Fincher who didn’t have any of that yet. He had come from the world of advertisements, commercials, and music video directing. Years later, Fincher has disowned the film. In a recent interview with BAFTA: A Life in Pictures (British Academy of Film and Television Arts), Fincher said this about Alien 3:
“I made a crucial error; I listen to the money people, the people financing the film. They told me that this is not a film where it’s calling up you friends, that the way to go about this is, hire the best people around you that can do the job, like visual effects, make-up, assistant director, etc, and let them tell you what you can and can’t do. You will be ridiculed because of your age and the fact that you’ve never done a feature before. I was hammered for about a year.”
At the time, he also had this to say about feature directing, “After the failure of the movie, I never thought I would be employable again in Hollywood, so I re-tracked to going back to commercials.” However, he was employable in Hollywood and would go on to make some terrific films.
I’m going to give another short example of a cult favorite and that’s none other than, John Carpenter, one of the masters of horror. I was watching an episode of a web series called Post Mortem, with Mick Garris. For those who don’t know Mick Garris is a very prolific television director and frequently collaborates with Stephen King. In an interview he did with Carpenter, he went on and talked about how directing is kind of done in private, Carpenter agreed and responded:
“Absolutely, it’s you with the schedule and the script and thinking to yourself, I need this many days and set-ups to make this work, but there are going to give me this many days and set-ups. How am I going to make this work? How are we going to make this work?” That’s the key question to all this. “How am I going to make this work?”
Garris would later ask him about why there was such a large gap from his last movie to his next one? Carpenter explains that it just was not fun for him any longer, and he was burnt out. He also explains that in the industry people were just getting way too attached and too serious about everything, so he needed to take a break.
Now, that I’ve given examples of how certain a-list directors feel about the process, I’m going to talk about what you actually may endure on set. There are many people who think let’s just get the equipment, cast, crew, and locations there and we’ll be good. Truth is you’re going to run into a whole new set of obstacles and that’s just getting you to the starting gate. Let’s take a look at a scene:
EXT. HOUSE – FRONT YARD – DRIVEWAY – DAY
A screenplay term, SLUG LINES: A car pulls into the driveway from the street… Stops and turns the motor off. A young man, JEREMY, (40s), slim, brown hair and brown eyes. He sees his wife open the driver’s side door. MELANIE (30s), attractive, slim, long brunette hair, exits the car, closes the door and walks up to her husband. They kiss.
Hey, how was the appointment?
Good. I’ll tell you about it inside.
They walk together towards the front door… They enter.
Okay, so let’s think about this for a moment. Really the options are endless, if you just study your surroundings. From the moment the car pulls up, to them walking into the house… You could, do a dolly shot tracking the car as it pulls in, a wide shot from across the street, a wide shot from in the yard. Camera movement from around the car to her as she is getting out, close ups and extreme close ups of them as they kiss, close ups and medium shots as they say their dialogue, Steadicam movement shot from the front and the back of the characters as they walk to the door, rack focus shots of her getting out of the car, etc. The possibilities are all there. However, there are only so many hours out of the day. In big studio films sometimes a shot will take an hour and even two hours to set up, depending upon how big the shot is. Though, I’ll only talk about independent filmmaking right now.
So, we have a budget, but we can’t afford a dolly track or a crane. No worries, we can still make this happen. Also, we don’t have the budget to afford a Panavision or Red camera, lighting kit, sound equipment, etc. However, that would mean a lot of your crew are your friends. This is a good thing. I mean, why not work with your friends, the trust worthy aspect is there and you won’t have to put up with a person who doesn’t think you know what you’re doing half the time. Make friends with a lot of people within the industry who know how to do this type of work like sound, lighting, camera, etc. You won’t have the major camera crews they use in studio motion pictures, but you will have a few cameras that will have really good quality and some times that’s all you need. You are the producer(s), can negotiate the deals to and your friends will let you rent out their stuff for cheap.
Let’s talk about the day of shooting. Now, this can get a bit tricky. You’ve secure the locations. You might have to pay the owner of the house a flat rate or a by the hour rate. My suggestion would be find a friend who has a house and use that house for free. Negotiate what they need to do with that location as far as shots go and just be up front and honest about it, do the math in your head will it be cheaper to go by the hour or do a flat rate, you have to take in consideration of what the actors and crew pay rates are. The producer(s) should help you with this. However, if you raised the necessary budget it should not be a big problem. Money might be an issue in the actual shooting.
Here is what I mean:
I’ve always found it odd, that depending on if the film is a feature or short, and it happens in both forms. That you spent a lot of time in pre-production, maybe a year, on casting the movie, crewing, location scouting, secure the locations, catering, marketing, getting the necessary equipment together, and securing potential investors, that the moment you step on that set in the first day, that all of a sudden it becomes, “Let’s get through this quickly.” If I spend a year of my life trying to get everything together I’m going to have the feeling of let’s get the best possible product out there. Although, it does come down to money and how many hours you have that location.
I was recently on a film set and asked an actress a question. “How many takes do you usually like?” She said to me, “As many as the director needs.” Good answer, but I wish I could believe that. Truth is, depending upon what kind of scene (emotional), that the actor and actress are doing they may only want two or three takes. So, you have an over-the-shoulder shot of the two characters talking. Now, we have to do a wide shot of them speaking. You do a couple of takes of that, and you've got it. Do you move on or do you do a few more set-ups? The shot list calls for more set-ups. So, you explain to everyone that we're moving in for a reaction shot on the actor. But wait, you’re going to have a few people come up to you and say, “I think we got it, let’s move on.” You make a case why we need to do a few more set-ups and they roll their eyes back and say, “no,” we move on.
We cut to a month later and you’re right in the middle of editing. Suddenly, your editor says, “I’ve got these two shots of them talking, do we have anymore? Where, do you want me to cut to?” You kind of need to explain yourself right there. A director needs to make sure he or she gets good coverage, which means all the shots that are needed to edit effectively.
A director needs to be well verse in all aspects of production. You don’t need to know every little thing, but you at least need to know enough to understand what everyone is talking about. Be well knowledgeable on lenses. Know the shots you want. To me a director needs to have a solid game plan going in. Right away, if you worked out the script and the schedule, planned your shots, and then the principal photography should be a fun ride. The hardest thing about being a director is not the actual doing of it, but trying to get everyone on the same page as you. Stick with it and you will develop into a very good director.
Practice makes perfect!