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Film directing, the director's job

Director's job during preproduction

The film director is much like the conductor of an orchestra. First, like a conductor has to create a mental ideal of how the music should sound, the director must create an ideal vision for how the film will look. Secondly, like a conductor, the film director must communicate that vision to the various players so everyone is working together toward the single vision.

The director's job is sometimes compared to a military general barking orders to the troops. Although some directors do work like that they are generally not well liked or long-term very successful. The most effective directors work by sharing their vision and encouraging the crew and actors to participate in the process by each contributing their best effort and creativity.

In actuality the two processes of creating and sharing the vision are actually a single ongoing process, begun by the director but continuously evolving as all the individuals of the filmmaking team contribute their input and the director realizes ways to improve and enhance the overall vision.

The director's job is really about communication. Although some directors may also be filmmakers wearing many hats during the filmmaking processes, the only activity involved in the director's job is talking, listening and pursuading.

The director needs to understand writing and storytelling, and all the tricks and craft available to do the best job of telling the story. Good directors create a notebook or journal of their thoughts, ideas and plans for the film to keep them on track and to be sure that nothing gets forgotten in the chaos of production.

Reading the script

The director's first job in preproduction is to read the script. For many independent filmmakers the director is also the writer so you might assume that s/he would already be totally familiar with the script and could skip this step. That would be a mistake for this step is where the vision for the movie is formed.

This is where the director can go beyond the script as a blueprint for a movie and dig deep to clarify the premise, find all the hidden meanings, the psychological drives, the common themes, the passion, the sights, sounds and smells and formulate a powerful and memorable vision.

The writer/director is often at a disadvantage in this step because s/he will have a harder time reading the script from a fresh perspective.

  1. Read the script as though you were watching the finished movie and had no idea what the story was about. Just let the story play out in your mind's eye.
  2. After you have read the script write down in your notebook what your thoughts were. Especially recognize what emotions you felt during the reading. Your job as a director is to create a movie that will bring these emotions to your audience with maximum effect. If the action goes dead at certain points note this also. Resist the temptation to try to come up with fixes at this point. For now you are trying to note how the story works.
  3. Finally determine what is the emotional core of the film. What is it really about. What is the goal and obstacles of the individual characters, what emotions are involved and how will your audience relate to, and learn from the character's plight.

A good thing to do at this step is to try pitching the story to a friend and see if s/he has a similar reaction to yours and if the story works well for them.

In-depth analysis and breaking down of the screenplay

This step of the director's preproduction job involves breaking down the script to learn exactly what makes the story work.

Determine exactly what are each major character's spine, or life goals and objectives, over the course of the story. Every character has a desire to empower, destroy, ridicule, teach, blame, heal, learn, find, change or seduce. Most characters will have external and internal goals. For example a character's external goal is to build a house but his his internal goal is to find fulfillment and prove his worth to his friends.

These objectives may have already been in place before the story starts or may get formed by happening in the first act. Determine what these objectives are for each character.

What are each major character's obstacles to reaching their objectives? In an interesting story the real obstacles are internal, psychological blocks, but are represented by more obvious external obstacles such as other characters in the story or natural elements such as a raging blizzard.

What are the actions the characters will use to try to overcome the obstacles and reach their objectives? These are the actual steps the characters perform to get their way.

What are the ways and means the characters will use? These are refinements on the actions and can be expressed as adverbs such as calmly, boastfully, forcefully, quickly or seductively.

What adjustments do the characters make when their actions and means don't succeed?

Repeat the analysis of each major character's objectives, obstacles, means, actions and adjustments for every scene that they participate in. Take good notes in your notebook. This will be very important to be able to retrieve during the production process to help the actors give the strongest and most accurate performance.

Also determine in each scene what realistic doings the actors can be engaged in so that they aren't just standing around and reciting lines. Real people are always engaged in some kind of doing, preparing a meal, reading a book, surfing the web, while they are engaged in the various dialogs and actions that happen as they try to achieve their objectives.

Working with the writer

If the director is not also the writer then it is very wise that the director and writer try to achieve a good working relationship during preproduction and carry it through production.

Writers see a story in their mind's eye whereas the director must translate the story into moving images of real locations and actors speaking and performing and do it all within a certain budget. This often leads to disagreements over vision. Additionally writers are often too close to their story to see or appreciate possible improvements that may come from the director with his/her fresh view of the story.

The director should always maintain a positive and enthusiastic attitude toward the script. Recognize that the writer has been working in relative isolation on this screenplay for many months or years. They understandably may have a fragile ego and be reluctant to consider changes.

On large studio productions it is often standard procedure, after buying all rights to the screenplay from the original writer, to immediately hire another writer to handle any rewrites. This prevents possible time wasted in confrontations between the two highly creative egos of the writer and director. It also allows the director and new writer to try a totally fresh approach to the story.

If a new writer is not going to be hired then the director should determine as much as s/he can about the writer's original vision including the following.

  • What was the writer's original inspiration for the story?
  • What was the writer's original reason for the writing the story?
  • What life lessons are taught by the story?
  • What does the writer feel the story is really all about?
  • How does the writer feel about the key relationships in the story?
  • What is the writer's backstory and biographies for the main characters?
  • Are any of the characters based on real people and what is the significance of that?

The writer and director will no doubt find areas of disagreement and need to work from the most general areas of agreement down to all the most specific areas of disagreement trying to resolve them. The goal is to eventually get to a shared vision between the writer and director.

In nearly every case some weak areas in the screenplay will be discovered. The director should make it his/her job to ask tough questions about the logic and honestly of the emotions of the story. Also the director should pose "what if" questions where any number of changes are proposed to the story such as making the villain the hero, or changing the character's actions at key points.

These exercises will almost certainly result in the necessity for rewrites as they will lead to a stronger story. Some writers are better than others at rewrites and some will need to excuse themselves from the process altogether if they find themselves mentally unable or unwilling to make changes the director finds necessary.

For the independent filmmaker this is when it will be obvious why it is always important to buy complete rights in a screenplay, other wise the entire production can be shutdown by an angry writer.

A very important consideration involving rewrites is the ripple effect that occurs when one scene is rewritten which changes the logic of another scene causing a ripple of rewrites. This can stretch the preproduction process out for a very long time. The goal is to find the balance of getting to a screenplay that is strong and effective without requiring absolute perfection.

Screenplay readings

A valuable technique at this point in preproduction is to have actors do readings of the rewritten screenplay. These can be done cold where the actors have never seen the script or after the actors have been rehearsed depending on the opinion of the director. The writer should be present at the readings so s/he can understand the impact of the story when performed in something other than the writer's head.

The script breakdown

Now that the screenplay has been refined the director should do another screenplay breakdown to update and expand his/her notes to completely explain the character's objectives, obstacles, actions, means and adjustments on an act by act, scene by scene, beat by beat basis. These note will be invaluable during production.

The assistant director usually gets involved at this point performing a logistical breakdown of the script to determine the following.

  • The number and types of actors required
  • How many scenes each actor will be in and the total length of their performances
  • The requirements, number and types of locations
  • The number and types of stunts and special effects
  • What special costumes and makeup will be required
  • What props are required

Screenplay breakdowns are often done by professional services on larger films. A good script breakdown is an invaluable production tool on films of all sizes.

A valuable part of breaking down a screenplay is to measure the actual length of each scene in the screenplay with a ruler. This is referred to as marking 1/8ths. Since a page of a screenplay has about eight vertical inches of text you can measure the total number of inches for a scene and that number is the number of 1/8ths of a page the scene is long.

The number of 1/8ths is usually marked in the top left corner of the scene, and circled. If a scene lasts longer than eight 1/8ths, it is converted to "1". So, a scene lasting twelve 1/8ths is marked "1 4/8".

Because a production crew can typically film from 2 to 5 pages of screenplay a day, depending on many factors, knowing the total length of the scenes to be filmed in a day helps in establishing the practicality of the schedule.

Gathering the creative team

The director's next preproduction job is to gather the creative team. Usually this has been underway during the entire preproduction phase.

The creative team are the members of the crew who will be contributing to the creative effort of fulfilling the director's vision for the film. The other crew members will be more like soldiers doing specific tasks as they are asked and giving little if any creative feedback.

The creative team typically consists of at least the following individuals.

  • The Cinematographer or DP (Director of Photography) who is responsible for creative operation of the camera and the lighting.
  • The Production Designer who is responsible for creating the look of the film in terms of the sets, costumes and makeup.
  • The Casting Director who will work with the director to find the best possible actors for the film.
  • The Actors.
  • The film Editor who will work with the director to assemble the scene "takes" into a finished movie.
  • The Music Director or Composer who is responsible for getting the right music to match the emotions of the story.

The director will interview and select these storytelling collaborators, share with them his vision, then communicate with and encourage them to help bring the vision to reality.

This process will often result in some amount of creative conflict. The director must use his/her communication skills to recognize and validate conflicting opinions but, unless they are an improvement, to insist on the one best solution for making the best possible film.

Casting actors

On large studio productions the casting process is heavily influenced by the producers since issues of using big stars and fulfilling contracts often take precedent over artistic considerations. For the independent filmmaker the process of finding actors can be exhilarating and frustrating.

See this page for a complete discussion of casting actors for independent filmmakers.

Leading rehearsals

The director is responsible for preparing the actors to do their job by sharing his vision of the movie in the rehearsals. A discussion of the rehearsal process can be found on this page.

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Sites with information about film directing and directors

The Director's Guild of America is the official union of American film directors. The site contains some interesting articles about issues that are of interest to professional directors.

The site contains many interesting interviews with prominent European directors (in English) as well as other interesting filmmaing resources.

The Wikipedia contains a few articles about directors.

DirectorsNet is a showcase for directors offering credits, streaming demo reels and a job center.

Lists of some of the greatest directors along with their films.

Harris E. Tulchin, an entertainment lawyer with information about film production.

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