How can one possibly feel competent to direct a movie? When I thinks about what a director should be able to control to do an effective job – image, actor performance, editing rhythm, sound effects, music, and most of all audience reaction – the task seems impossible. One can only approach it with great humility and a certain amount of dread. When I started directing I usually felt like an imposter, a fraud, a victim of a thousand forces beyond my control. It took some time to get over that feeling.
That’s always been something that I find amusing. Everybody on set is pretty sure they can do a better job than the director is doing. Direction is the easiest skill set to belittle, or fail to recognize, or assign to somebody else on the crew.
I remember a production manager talking about a friend of mine, Phil Borsos, and sounding off about how Phil didn’t really direct “One Magic Christmas”. She claimed it was directed by the cinematographer, Frank Tidy, while Phil was hiding somewhere snorting coke. I took it upon myself to enlighten her. “I don’t care what Phil seemed to be doing on set, but if you look at his first film “Spar Tree”, a theatrical short, and his second film, “The Grey Fox”, there’s little room for doubt that he directed “One Magic Christmas”. His finger prints are all over that movie,” I told her. “Furthermore, I know that movie was dead. Unsupported by the standard funding sources. Phil did the work to bring it to life, finding funding, polishing the script. It was years of effort that nobody saw and few recognize. So please don’t tell me that Phil didn’t really direct that movie. That movie wouldn’t exist if Phil hadn’t directed it.
Very few people really understand what a director is doing, and only the best directors are actually doing it well. Because the hand of the director should be almost invisible. The director is a presence, a control figure. Peter O’Toole’s character in “The Stunt Man”, nailed it – searching for something he’s not quite able to identify, but ready to accept it when the writer brings it to him.
A professional film crew is like a performance sports car. You don’t want to go twitching the wheel this way and that, micromanaging to realize some incredibly precise vision of the product you are after. Subtle and gentle movements are what is required.
The same goes for actors. In Michael Green’s The Art of Coarse Acting he describes the only four directions a director should be allowed – faster, slower, louder or softer. I think directing can be more granular than that, but the idea that the director is a puppet master, pulling the strings of the actors and controlling every aspect of the performance, is just absurd.
There’s a film, the name of which I have forgotten, in which Peter Coyote plays a movie director. I don’t know whether it was intended as a parody, but it really illustrates this point. His version of a director is a micro-manager in the extreme, telling the actors when to pick up a prop and how to hold it, dictating looks and gestures. I’ve never met an actor who could hold such instructions in their head while delivering a performance. Such a director is only going to give themself a headache and an overwhelming feeling of frustration. And yet I’ve seen beginner directors trying to behave like this, delivering long lectures to the actors about how to play the scene. Wrong. Tell the actor what the scene is about, what is happening in the scene, and then trust that the actor is an artist who will play it. Only give a direction if something is drastically wrong. And then only give the simplest direction you can find to solve the problem.
The truth is, a good director controls very little and is at the mercy of innumerable forces totally beyond their control. A good director is the calm in the eye of the storm, reassuring, supporting, and offering advice only when asked or when obviously needed. Truffault, in Day for Night described directing as “dancing with the devil”. (To paraphrase: At the start I wanted to make a great movie. Now I just want to get the damn thing finished.) And it’s true. The director puts fears and worries aside and assumes they can come out of the process with something of quality. And then they hit the floor with a flexibility and willingness to go with the flow that allows all the other technicians and artists the space to deliver their best as well.
One of my mistakes as a beginning director was to think that I could reveal my doubts and misgivings to the crew, that they were friends of mine and would understand my position. Wrong. The crew wants to feel that somebody knows what they are doing and is in control. They don’t want to think that the director may be totally lost, thrashing around looking for artistic solutions to their problems. The director is supposed to have a vision of the movie they are making. And if that vision is cloudy or obscure at times, they better damn well keep that information as a personal secret. Standing in the middle of a set and muttering “I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do with this,” is not what the crew wants to hear. And yet, that’s often the position the director is in. Which led to the production still of Paul Lynch standing in the middle of an empty ice rink with a thought bubble over his head provided by the crew. It read “I know. I’ll wing it.”
Over the years, I got over my imposter syndrome. And as I acquired skills, my Dunning Kruger syndrome slowly turned into its corollary – that a competent person assumes what is easy for them is easy for everybody.* It took me years, and many hours on set, to get a handle on what I bring to directing. Essentially it is this: I have a talent for finding order in chaos. Give me a dance hall with two main characters and a couple of hundred extras, as I had in Watrous, Saskatchewan at the Rainbow Dance Land while directing the Saskatchewan film for Expo ’86, and in a few minutes I can organize a scene that flows and looks wonderful.
Do you remember the first time you drove a car in heavy city traffic? If you are like me, you were very tense, trying to be aware of every car in every direction. It’s only after driving in city traffic for a while that one calms down and only pays attention to the important stuff, like where you are going and is anything in the way. My first days on a film set were like that. I was trying to be aware of everything that everybody was doing, from the camera crew to the boom man to the craft services. It was only after a few hours or days on set that I could focus on the things that needed my attention, and let the completely competent technicians do their jobs without my monitoring. Then directing became…no, not easy. It will never be easy. But at least less stressful. Just as driving in a Chinese city during rush hour no longer gets my heart rate up.
*Totally aside from directing, I noticed the extreme corollary to the Dunning Kruger effect in myself when I tried to show a friend, a very accomplished musician, how to play the harmonica. I’ve been playing the harmonica since I was about six years old. Nothing could be easier for me. I always assumed it would be just as easy for anybody with some skill at music. So I was very surprised to see my friend struggling with something as simple as getting a single, clean and pure note. For me, that’s no problem at all.