Everybody knows what an actor is and it’s pretty easy to tell whether or not they’re doing a “good” or “bad” job. Heck, you could probably name a dozen actors before your next blink. But what exactly do people mean when they say “That person’s a good director” and how much credit should he or she really get for the final film? The best way to answer these questions is by examining the role of the director as well as his or her working relationship with the other positions on set.
*So much goes into making a movie that the answers to these questions are never clear cut. This article will attempt to boil the departments down to their basic premise.
So there’s this thing called Auteur Theory and it’s infiltrated the way we think about movies nowadays. Basically, it credits the director as the main creative vision behind the film; the “author” if you will. If you’re excited to see the new Christopher Nolan film because it’s a Christopher Nolan film, that’d be a good example of the sort of influence that Auteur Theory has on contemporary moviegoers.
But filmmaking is a collaborative art. It takes a lot of people to make one (especially a Christopher Nolan film). If you’ve ever stayed to watch the end credits and saw all those thousands of names, you’ll know what I mean. So where does the director fit into this cascade of names and what exactly does he or she do?
Well, from person to person or film to film, the director’s responsibilities can differ; however, the endgame is always the same: bring their creative vision for the script to life on screen. The director accomplishes this through clear and effective communication with the heads of the other departments.
A director’s communication is perhaps never more important than when working with the talent. The director is responsible for drawing out the best performances from his actors as possible. If you’ve ever seen a good actor give an awful performance, it may be because the director had not made it clear what they wanted out of the scene.
The cinematographer, also known as the director of photography (or D.P. for short), is also one of the director’s close collaborators. He or she gives the film its “look” or visual style. Typically, the director has a mood he or she wants to convey and the cinematographer helps convey that mood through various shot types. This means having an extensive knowledge of the camera they’re using, different lenses, as well as various lighting setups.
This isn’t to say however that the D.P. doesn’t get his input and that every iconic shot is the brainchild of some brilliant director. Sure, it is the director’s vision that everyone is ultimately striving to fulfill, but the director of photography is the expert of his or her field. Sometimes the cinematographer has an idea for a shot that he or she believes helps convey the director’s vision and they pitch it to the direct. And sometimes the director goes with it!
Such was the case with the infamous tracking shot from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (pictured above). D.P. Daniel Pearl had an idea for a low-angle, tracking shot that would demonize the Sawyer house by making it look as if it were devouring Teri McMinn as she got closer and closer (don’t go in there!). Director Tobe Hooper loved the idea, so they shot it and the rest, as they say, is history.
The screenwriter is an interesting piece to the puzzle because there’s little to no collaboration with the director. Mostly a screenwriter will sell a script to a studio and that’s where his or her influence on the film ends. Often times, the final product has changed so drastically that it no longer resembles the original screenplay.
Still, the screenplay is the foundation on which every film is built. It’s a crucial element to the success of the final product. As George Clooney once said: “It’s possible for me to make a bad movie out of a good script, but I can’t make a good movie from a bad script.”
Chances are you’ve heard or read a film critic address the script of whatever film they’re critiquing. But what does that mean? Have they read it themselves? Chances are no, they haven’t. But you can pick up on certain elements of a screenplay during your viewing of a movie that can help you discern its quality.
The most obvious element is character. For example, the dialogue is indicative of each character’s personality and that’s a part of the story that’s been conjured up by the screenwriter. If characters are lacking a solid personality or you’re not moved by the characters, whether it be out of empathy or pure interest, then chances are the scriptwriter hasn’t done a good enough job at fleshing them out. Quentin Tarantino is well known for his strong, eccentric character work and quippy dialogue.
The director, however, has the power to change parts of the script to align more closely to his vision of the story. Unfortunately, this happens without the screenwriter receiving any notice. So while the script is the most important aspect of a film (for without it there is no movie), screenwriters themselves are still an underappreciated bunch.
The producer is a tough role to sum up because there are different types of producers and their responsibilities as well as their collaboration and interaction with the director can vary. The best way I can put it to you is that the producer’s job is to put out fires, day in, day out. What I mean is it is their job to make sure the director can do their job. This often takes the form of less creative responsibilities and more fiscal, technical ones.
For instance, a producer handles budgeting concerns. After talking with the director, the two figure out what they need to get and the producer fits it into the budget. This ranges from anything like costumes and props to technical equipment. They also need to provide crafts services to make sure everybody on staff is fed during production, which also goes into the budget. The producer also makes sure that the production crew is on schedule. They also figure out daily call times for the cast and crew.
These are just a few tasks of the producer on any given day. And when something goes wrong outside of the creative aspects of the shoot (and they will), the producer is there to save the day. They’re pretty much the superheroes of filmmaking.
If production is where the movie is shot, then the editing room is where it’s put together. The editor is the person who takes each individual shot from production and assembles them into a coherent narrative. It’s the start of a process known as post-production where different departments, who were not a part of the principal photography, build and tweak the final film into the thing we pay $12 to see in theaters.
The editor is also a close collaborator with the director. The director shares his vision of the film and the editor is the one who assembles that vision piece by piece while staring at the computer monitor all day. It’s a long, tedious task and definitely takes a certain patience.
So how much credit DOES the director get?
A fair bulk. After all, it is his or her creative vision that everybody is striving to achieve. However, it is on the director’s shoulders to communicate that vision clearly to each department in order to ensure they’re all on the same page. So when someone says “That person’s a good director” they’re essentially saying “That person’s a good communicator.”
It’s also important to remember the different departments of filmmaking when discussing its quality. One department could do something very well while another department drops the ball. It differs and that’s essentially what film criticism is about: sharing the good and the bad about movies with those less in the know.
Hopefully I’ve done that here with you, at least a little. Next time you see a film and somebody talks about a good director, don’t feel shy about throwing a bone to some other department. It’s the director’s vision of the story, sure, but it’s everybody’s work.
Share your thoughts below! Has this helped give you a little insight into the world of filmmaking or did you already know this? Comment below and let me know!