Monday, November 13, 2006

Writer/Director

"People are telling me it's a huge step to become a director. I think that the greatest step was to become a writer." - Guillermo Arriaga


There’s no denying the fact that cinema is a director’s medium. No matter what happens behind the camera, from photography, to wardrobe to editing, the director ultimately gets and takes all the credit. After all, it’s ‘A Film By’ the director. This rankles with some because we are continually told that film is a collaborative medium yet the director takes all the plaudits come press time and award season. However, this isn’t a post about whether or not a director should claim the film’s grand by-line (check out Craig Mazin’s site for a healthy debate on the subject). This post is about whether writers should step up to the plate and direct themselves.

Yes. Absolutely. Whenever they can, if at all possible. PotDoll over at Bleeding Forehead has been offered to direct her Film Council short film and she was wondering what to do. She was a little bit surprised at my encouragement that all writers should direct. I may not be expressing original sentiments here but writers make natural directors. You’ve already expressed your vision of the movie in script form. You know what it should look like, who the characters are and how the dialogue should be spoken. Why not direct the film? Intimidated by the technical demands of the role? A bit shy of ordering a crew around? Don’t feel up to the challenge?

These are all small demons that can easily be confronted and overturned. I’m not for one second belittling the role of a good director but I think too many writers think there’s a magical talent involved in leading the crew and preparing the shoots when in reality, a lot of direction can be made easier with the support and knowledge of the crew; from producer, DOP (a lot of disgruntled DOPs out there as they groan about doing a director's work for them), cast and essential technical roles. To be fair, I don’t speak with a great wealth of practical knowledge on the process. After all, I’ve only made one no-budget short, and that didn’t have a crew at all.

However, I have paid particular attention to the director during my various spells on other film sets, and have spoken to a lot of directors, producers and executives on the demands of the director’s job. It is a difficult position to uphold. You need a keen eye for the script’s cinematic needs, empathy and insight into all of the characters in the story, and a clear line of communication to cast and crew in order to effectively get your vision across. It’s not a job for a shy introvert. A lot of writers are shy introverts. Fine, not a problem, don’t direct.

For everyone else however, we have little excuse. We need to get out there and direct our own stories. I am of firm belief that if more writers directed their own material, then it would only strengthen the importance of the writer’s role in the filmmaking process, thus earning us the respect and kudos that we continually complain about not receiving. We can’t just sit back and moan that the director’s changed our script, or the script editor’s being rubbish, or writers get treated like dirt. Yes, it sucks, but the only way to change that is if we do the work that will earn us the respect from our filmmaking peers. Challenging, provocative and entertaining films from our pen, translated to the screen with our vision.

It’s not like you have to surrender the title of writer when you eventually do direct. You don’t even have to say ‘writer/director’. You can always say you’re a writer, first and foremost, and bring attention to that side of the craft more so than the direction. Even on a basic level, attempting to direct a short film will give you a new appreciation on screenwriting - how your cherished words on the page can suddenly have no meaning or practicality come the time of production. We need to learn as much as we can about the filmmaking process so that it informs our work, and improves our scripts. Then, writers will be treated with more care and respect because of our developed sense of craft and production.

Directing is not for everyone. I dig that. Some writers are just not interested. ‘Leave it to the director’. Okay. But if someone reads one of your scripts and asks: “do you want direct it?” Then your answer is “Yes”, every time. The nerves, panic and insecurity will transform into passion, excitement and confidence as you discover that your work has true value, and that you do have what it takes to direct it on to the screen. You don't have to know everything about the process but that's why the producer and crew is there: to help you realise your vision.

15 comments:

Lucy said...

Here's a question for you: if someone asks you to direct your own acript and you REALLY DO NOT WANT TO and/or feel you CAN'T, are you less of a writer?

Danny Stack said...

No!

The chances of someone asking you to direct your own script are slim anyway, but it does happen (especially for shorts), and if a writer really doesn't want to direct, cool, no-one's going to judge him/her on that decision.

Lucy said...

That told me! :)

potdoll said...

Hey Danny,

Thanks so much for this, you've really fired me up! You know I think I've been thinking 'oh I don't deserve this, who am I to direct a short?, people will laugh/hate me because I don't know what 'pan' means, or ECU etc. But do you know what, you're right, it's MY SCRIPT AND MY CHARACTERS and my story so why shouldn't I direct it? That gives me just as much right as someone who's been training to be a director etc. I've got a lot of learning to do, and yes the technical stuff terrifies me and the jargon scares me. But I'll get there and if I don't get there I'll have tried my hardest(and I'll show you my bruises).

Paul Campbell said...

I love writing.

Directing has simply never appealed.

I like sitting and thinking until I get to a solution.

I don't like having to find a solution in the next five minutes because the light's going.

I like deadlines, but I don't like long hours.

I have a family, and I'd like to see them from time to time.

So, while I agree with every word you say, directing is definitely not for me.

Danny Stack said...

Cool, PD, you go for it.

Paul: nicely put.

wcdixon said...

I've done both for years...first out of necessity, then for employment (though my preference has always been directing)

But turns out I'm doing more and more producing of late. One 'problem' (if you can call it that) of working with a lot of talented writers and directeors is you realize that there are people who can do one or the other better than yourself.

The greatest pleasure I've received recently is overseeing or managing or producing a series/project and watching it come together well because I teamed a good writer and good director with a good crew and oversaw letting them all do what they do best to arrive at a better product.

For what its worth...

Danny Stack said...

Producing is another area for a writer to consider...

Lucy said...

Couldn't agree more with Paul - for exactly the same reasons.

Lawrence Gray said...

Yep, directing is the thing to do except... will they let you direct? In the end, can you get the money to direct or will you need to attach an established director to get the money?

If you go around the film markets you'll meet distributors and fund guys saying they want "auteurs", i.e. directors rather than writers.

And better still, they want "young auteurs", i.e. cheap.

But somehow "hot".

What they don't want are writers who think they might direct their scripts. And they don't want "experienced" writers as that's synonomous with over thirties hacks.

Age and image seem incredibly important to a lot of people in the industry.

One would like to think that the script makes things happen but all too often it is just managing to get labeled a young talented "auteur" that harnasses the production company to a project and gets them pushing the thing forward.

If you miss that boat then I think producing is probably the way to go and maybe that will lead you to the director's chair. But then maybe Writer Producer will be enough stress in your life.

Phillip Barron said...

I've never had any interest in directing. I also think it's quite valuable to have as many different opinions on my scripts as possible.

Director, Producer, Script Editor - whoever; every fresh pair of eyes on the script can point out ways to make it better. You could argue too many cooks spoil the broth, but not if all the cooks are of the same standard and personable enough to agree on a solution.

I'd prefer to see more delineation between film roles, not less. I like the fact I'm specialised in one area; and I've got work precisely because of that. In a list of people on the net who call themselves writer/director/producer/cinematographer the sad truth is it usually means they've got a camcorder and a few mates who haven't the heart to tell them they've got no talent.

I've had people contact me about paid work because I'm one of the few people they could find who's purely a writer.

Maybe in the future I'll change my mind, but right now I'm happy in my niche as an over thirties hack.

gradytripp said...

I'm in what might laughingly be called 'preproduction' for my first, no budget, very short short. It's great - getting stuff done how I want it, cajoling people into doing things, not being stuck in front of a computer screen all day.

It's not so far removed from my day job which is media-ish and fairly gregarious, and I've done a little producing too, so I'm not completely new to the whole thing. Scary, though.

English Dave said...

There are no black arts to directing. No secret initiation process.

If you get the chance then roll up the sleeves and give it a whirl.

You'll like it or you won't. But that's gotta be worth finding out.

Danny-K said...

Is there a downside?

As everyone knows, in the 1990's Joe Esterhaus was THE Hollywood screenwriter, brash, confrontational, assertive, determined to always get his own way, 3 million dollars for Basic Instinct etc., Then, he was offered the chance to direct. He relates how he'd always castigated directors who didn't have his insight and listed their failings. Confident he had what it takes, after all, he was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood - he was THE man, how could it fail?

The movie bombed. By his own admission it was terrible.

There had never been a screenwriter as successful who wielded as much power as him, he knew how to write a screenplay that would be successful almost as of a divine right. In short he was at the top of his game, but given the chance to direct, he couldn't cut it.

Don't hear/read too much about him these days.

Tim Clague said...

2 points:

I call myself director / writer rather than writer / director. But that's just because I like to stir things up.

Secondly - I recommend that writers direct so they understand how difficult it can be as well. A knowledge of other people's issues can only help you to be more empathetic. In the same way - I suggest that directors act and actors write etc. etc.