I will start this article with an anecdote told by Bob Fischer, screenwriter of such comedies as Wedding Crashers and We Are The Millers. I will paraphrase in my own words the story narrated by Mr. Fischer:
“Mother Teresa, after years of charity work with the sick and poor in India, was invited to visit the Pope in the Vatican. When they finally met, the Holy Father asked her: ‘Mother, what would you like to have? Name it, and it shall be yours.’ Mother Teresa replied: ‘Thank you, Father, but I don’t want anything.’ The Father persisted, ‘Please, Mother, ask something, anything.’ Mother Teresa finally said: ‘Well, Father, if you insist, I would like to direct a Hollywood movie.'”
Bob Fischer told us this story to answer a student’s question: “Do you think you would like to direct?” The point of the joke (and it is a joke) is that everybody wants to direct movies, even Mother Teresa. Although some people are born for it, the reason why established actors and writers might choose to direct is creative control.
What Do Film Directors Do?
The film director’s primary task is to interpret the screenplay and translate it visually. He is the creative mind behind the aesthetic and technical choices that drive the film. To succeed in this mission, the director is involved from the early stages of pre-production all the way to the final phase of post.
Even though directors must oversee the several stages of production, during principal photography everything could get exponentially hectic. Their personal lives are put aside so he can focus on the production. Weekends and holidays too. Everything revolves around the production schedule. At daytime, they shoot. At night, they rewrite the script. During breaks, they rehearse. Lights, costumes, décor, props, camera, actors are all supervised by the director, who’s often multitasking and micromanaging everything. Directing movies requires extensive command of the craft, and a complete understanding over every facet of filmmaking.
Traits of a Director
The director must be a tyrant and a democrat, a dreamer and a realist, a rebel and a loyalist. He has to give orders and follow them. He has to demand and obey. He has to be the most snobbish and most sociable person on set. He is the manager, the judge, the president. A friend. He is all of those and much more.
During a film production, the director assumes very many roles. Besides mastering the production process and storytelling techniques, he has to be aware of cultural and political issues that surround his movie. He has to be sensible of possible implications that any elements in his picture may cause.
Well-rounded, the director must know, for instance, that the color red means danger and emergency in America, whereas in China it connotes courage, loyalty, honor, success, fortune, fertility, and happiness.
In the exceptional example of Psycho (1960), Alfred Hitchcock foresaw the encroaching revolution of the 1960s and took advantage of it. Being entrepreneurial, he purchased the rights to the novel of same title and even bought copies to obscure the ending. Hitchcock was so sure that the picture would be a hit that he even deferred his director’s salary in order to get some support by the studios. By noticing the approaching revolution, he knew he could have Janet Leigh in her underwear in the bedroom and naked in the shower. The picture became the highest grossing film of Hitchcock’s career, a box office triumph, earning $11,200,000.
The essential training to be a film director usually begins at a very early age, watching movies. Aside from the very first ones, all great filmmakers were once kids enamored with moving pictures. Not just a hobby but a full-time love affair. As the kids grew up, they refined their critical skills to be able to scrutinize the components inherent to the movies they watched like camerawork, editing, performance, score… everything.
The next step would be actual hands on a film camera and shooting. Decades ago, making short movies with friends and learning the necessary skills by trial and error were considered a valuable method to become a filmmaker. But times have changed. The competition is much bigger now, and digital has ruined many youngsters.
With a generation that grows up watching YouTube, the discernment between good and awful is shattered by a criterion that values number of hits over technical excellence. Shaky cameras, trite stories, squeaky voices, and porch lighting are among the many problems caused by the preponderance of digital cameras and the lack of technical skills.
Nowadays, attending a film school is a wise option to become a filmmaker. There, students will have keen insight on all the levels of production and the many professionals involved to make a movie, plus the chance to make friends that share the same passion. Networking.