Four Essential Elements of Directing

 The Director’s job is insane.  Let’s face it, you have to be a little bit insane to even attempt it, and when you look at the list of things for which a Director is responsible you could easily talk yourself out of trying.  The following is a list of four things to focus on as you enter production.  If you can’t do it all, you can at least do these:

1.  Make the cast your top priority.

Treat your actors like royalty.   I’m not kidding.  Their needs come before everyone else’s if you want to run your production efficiently.  An insecure actor equals delays, frustration and confusion.   Having recently spent time in front of the camera I can testify that insecurity comes from a variety of places:  uncomfortable wardrobe, tricky stunts, complicated blocking, long monologues and plain old inexperience.  Any one of these factors can affect an actor’s ability to perform if you, the director, don’t give their concerns your top priority.  You must answer their questions and concerns first, with confidence, before you talk to your AD or your DP or check the playback of the take.  If you lose your actor’s confidence, it’s over.  I’ve seen it happen – an otherwise perfectly nice, agreeable, famous actress retreats to her trailer and summons the director, delaying the work.  While one never uses the t-word to an actor’s face, “keep the talent happy” is a common refrain whispered among crew members on every professional shoot.  Because the mood on-set trickles downhill, everyone knows that if the actors are happy, the odds of wrapping on time are excellent.

2.  Be the good cop. 

Let someone else be the bad cop.  That’s what AD’s and Producers are for.  As the director, you cannot afford to lose your temper, show signs of frustration, or complain that you’re tired.  EVER.  Especially on no-budget shoots, but even on union shows where everyone on the crew is taking home a hefty paycheck, it’s important that your crew remains loyal and solidly behind your mission of accomplishing the work of the day with a positive attitude.  If your attitude sours or weakens, so does everyone else’s.   If you get angry, you lose the confidence of the crew and you may not be able to get them back.  It is no fun working with a crew that hates you.

3.  Get back from lunch on time.

Stick to the schedule.   Be the first one on set in the morning and the first one back from lunch. Most professional crew members are well-practiced at being on time because lateness is not tolerated on a major feature film set.  Don’t make them feel like their time is being wasted while you loll about in the catering tent or, worse, in your trailer.

4.  Know what you want.

Shot lists, wardrobe choices, props and all other creative decisions should have been decided upon during pre-production.  Schedule as much time as you need to prepare so that when you are finally on set with your cast and crew, you can focus on getting the shots done.  I was actually on a set once, on location east of Palm Springs on a very hot morning in September, where 200 crew sat around on the tailgates of 10 18-wheelers drinking coffee while the director made changes to the shot list and scouted new locations.  We all bonded in that moment of resentment, but we all hated the director forever after.

I’ve witnessed directors handling these issues, for better and for worse, on no-budget Scary Cow shoots and on big-budget Hollywood studio features, and I’ve made these mistakes myself.  Crews work long hours, and sometimes days at a time, away from their families and friends, so make them happy they chose to work with you by adopting these four policies as part of your standard operating procedure.

Share the article
2 Responses to "Four Essential Elements of Directing"
  1. Dan Lewis says:

    I love succinct articles. Well done.

  2. These are great thoughts. I’d like to add my two books to the discussion: “Directing Feature Films” and “The Film Director’s Bag of Tricks”.

    In these two books you can find a wide range of techniques to:
    1. Working with Actors and keeping them your top priority .. the most important tool you must learn.
    2. How to be a good cop on the set, in pre-production and post. Mark Rydell once told me “You have to be a benevolent dictator”!
    3. Scheduling, Getting back from lunch on time. Be the first on the set and often the last to leave.
    4. Know what you want. This is the biggest challenge of all and what both of my books are all about.

    Would be happy to discuss this more with anyone interested.

    Mark Travis

Leave a Reply to Dan Lewis Cancel reply