Over my career in The Biz, I have been blessed to be part of the production team for a number of really good film directors. I’ve watched, Ron Howard, Lord Richard Attenborough, Sidney Lumet, Gus Van Sant, Allen Coulter, Robert Longo, Norm Jewison, and many less recognizable names work their craft. I’ve also directed TV commercials when I was in that business. What follows are some takeaways I’ve learned from observing the pros and my personal experience in the commercial world.
Once upon a time, directors stood as close to the lens as the camera operator would allow. That gave them the ability to ‘feel’ the performance as it unfolded and adjust for subsequent takes. Some, especially in low budget films, still use this approach today, although not many. Along with writers, producers, the DOP, and continuity, the director, sitting in the catbird’s seat, is the leading member of Video Village. On a film set, Video Village is a place where monitors are set up for key film crew to observe the scene as it’s being shot. Directors even wear headsets to hear the performance and judge the delivery. The use of technology has made directing a much more intimate experience. That’s the big-budget reality. As a first time director, yours might be much different. Having said that, there is a commonality of approach that directors use and you should consider as well.
Every hour spent in pre-production saves an equal amount or more, of shooting time.
Meetings, meetings, and more meetings. From script to storyboarding, location searches, wardrobe, feeding the crew, transportation and on and on, Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail. As a first time director, ‘on-set’ is not the place to solve problems. Your primary function is to cinematically create the vision you have for your film/video and bring the story to life.
It’s a team sport and you are the captain.
There is an abundance of support professionals out there to collaborate with beyond casting sessions for your ‘on camera’ talent. Depending on the production, here’s a few ‘Keys’ that can help bring your vision to the big or little silver screen. It starts with the script or premise of your show. A good writer is critical to success. No matter how good you are as a director, a lousy script is still a lousy script. Shop wisely for your scriptwriter for that’s the beginning of your directorial journey. If the producer(s) have a script you need to get inside each-others heads or as they say, be on the same page.
Producers, DOP’s, Production Designers, Set Decorators, Property Masters, Wardrobe Designers, Location Managers, The Lovely Department (Hair, Makeup and Wardrobe) are all important people to add your creative crew. They all want to know your vision, ask you many questions as they apply to their professional discipline, and expect you have the answers or at least give them direction. (there’s that word again) They bring experience and because of that experience, can push you and challenge you creatively to do your best work. Learn what departments (later on in this series we will describe them) do and why it’s important to understand how they can help make your first directing project a success. Remember, as the director, it’s your vision and your movie.
Develop your characters before they show up on set
During the audition, process actors want to know who they are supposed to be. Their history, if any, background, ethnicity, relationship to the protagonist or antagonist, and other character traits that help them prepare for their ‘on-screen’ roles. In Feature Films, ‘A’ list actors are cast long in advance of production. Agents send them the script to review as an enticement to sign on. Not so with smaller budget films where casting sessions are used to find principal actors and those in lesser roles. One of the things I used to do when casting for talent was to include a character description along with the passages I wanted the talent to read. This gave them some opportunity to understand what I was looking for. Then there are rehearsals.
With anywhere from 3 or 4 behind the lens people that are commonly found on documentaries to about 60-70 on the average Feature Film set, and as time is money, actors must come prepared to perform their roles. That’s what rehearsals are for and that will make you a better director. That’s not to say that depending upon the situation, minor changes can’t be made to the script or the interpretation of the same. As the director, you also have to let the talent improvise and sometimes shoot alternate takes. Unhappy talent feeling directorial squeeze makes for a bad day on set for not only the cast but the crew as well.
Importing different ideas to your vision
From my experience, nothing on the day is sacred except the start time. Be it read-throughs, considering a different point of view or suggestion, staying open to ideas, changing a setup, lens choice, or the schedule, these things happen. Inspiration comes from many different places but most important, it is your vision that caused all these talented people to become part of your movie.
As the director, you are the King.
Your vision, interpersonal skills, respect for others, inspiration, and energy creates an atmosphere so critical to the success of your first directorial assignment. It is infectious. On the set of “Closing The Ring” as we opened the set every morning for our director, ‘Lord Richard Attenborough’ all the ‘Keys’ would line up for his greeting. One by one he would shake the hand off each of us to start the day and because of that, all of us would have walked through fire for this famous man. That was respect big time.
Most ‘Keys’ embrace your project, not for the money but because they want to be part of something good. They believe in the script and the project and want to contribute. On a Feature, all these people become your family for 3 or more months. Fourteen hour days help make it so.
Pain is temporary, film is forever! – John Milius
That’s a wrap.