Awards season is in full swing in Hollywood, which has led to the assuredly balanced and healthy internet debate of who should win all the awards all of the time. Not to say that this debate isn’t interesting and without merit (it spawned the idea for this post, after all), but as always there are a few things to clear up in the wake of it all. The main thing I’d like to take a little time to discuss is the topic of direction. It’s been sort of shocking to see arguments that Greta Gerwig, director of one of the best reviewed films of 2017 Lady Bird (which, full disclosure, I have yet to see), is somehow less deserving of the “best director” award because the film was smaller in scale and therefore easier to direct than say Blade Runner: 2049. Regardless of the quality of the film, it’s a horrifically simple-minded argument that has very little knowledge of how filmmaking actually works. So, since I’ve got this column, I wanted to pose and hopefully shed light on this question:
What does a director do?
It’s a more difficult question to answer than you might first think. Your first reaction may be, “they direct!” but what do they direct? Now, off of this question, many people form in their minds an image of a single person with a camera, pointing towards the horizon and forming everything in front of them. They create the movie. Everything we see is of their mind. This is an ideology that was popularized in the 1940’s by French film critics André Bazin and Alexandre Astruc with something called the Auteur Theory. This theory, which was later reinforced in the 1950’s and 60’s by French filmmakers François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, states that a movie’s director is so in control of every creative aspect of the film that they, not the writer, are the “author” of the film. This is why, when we see a trailer for a movie now, it might say in the credits, “A Film by Clint Eastwood,” or, “A Steven Spielberg Film.” These guys at the top have so much control that it is a film “by” them.
I really disagree with this sentiment.
One of the major examples Truffaut used during his time as a film critic to support this theory was Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock, he said, had certain themes and images that he would come back to over his movies, they all had a personal visual stamp that showed that every film he directed truly was “A Film by Alfred Hitchcock.” He also had a larger than life personality, a TV show, and appeared in many of his own trailers, all reinforcing that Hitchcock was the sole author of the film. Now, Hitchcock/Truffaut is a wonderful book that details Hitchcock’s unbelievable breadth of knowledge, and if you ever get the chance to pick it up even as a casual reader, it’s absolutely worth the price. However, this reading of Hitchcock is fundamentally flawed. Let’s look at, specifically, the major department heads of two of Hitchcock’s movies that always make the top 100 lists: Rear Window and Vertigo.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cinematographer: Robert Burks
Editor: George Tamasini
Costume Designer: Edith Head
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cinematographer: Robert Burks
Editor: George Tamasini
Costume Designer: Edith Head
Each of those people mentioned are now known as some of the greatest of all time at each of their departments. Robert Burks shot a whole bunch of Hitch’s movies, even during his black and white days. The same can be said about George Tamasini. And of course, Edith Head is incomparable in her field and did the same. He worked with the same department heads on most of his movies. Are these people known as great because of Hitchcock? Or is Hitchcock known as great because of them? The Auteur Theory would imply the former, that all of these people bent to Hitchcock’s will and did what he told them to do, thereby creating “his film”. But then how do you explain Edith Head’s other successes? She certainly had a “style” of design, did she not? Did Robert Burks not have a similar visual style in all of his films? Did his high contrast shot design go away in The Pleasure of His Company? The truth of the matter is that it’s somewhere in between.
Because, after all, film is first and foremost a collaboration. And don’t take my word for it, take Sidney Lumet’s, the director of Network and 12 Angry Men, from his book Making Movies:
“But how much in charge am I? Is the movie un Film de Sidney Lumet? I’m dependent on weather, budget, what the leading lady had for breakfast, who the leading man is in love with. I’m dependent on the talents and idiosyncrasies, the moods and the egos, the politics and the personalities, of more than a hundred different people. And that’s just in the making of the movie. At this point I won’t even begin to discuss the studio, financing, distribution, marketing, and so on.
So how independent am I? Like all bosses – and on set, I’m the boss – I’m the boss only up to a point. And to me, that’s what’s so exciting. I’m in charge of a community I need desperately and that needs me just as badly. That’s where the joy lies, in the shared experience.”
In the shared experience.
That’s what making a movie is. It’s a melting pot of ideas and shared experiences, a family of people who come together to make something that couldn’t exist without each and every one of them. And the director has to keep a handle on all of it.
Is it sounding hard yet? Because it is. Directing isn’t outstretching your finger and creating Adam, it’s knowing how to talk and work with everyone on set. Directors do have a vision, but they don’t wrestle it out of people. They hire and work with people who share that vision, and who have the ability to make it better.
If a director is truly the author of a work, how is it that a TV show like The Wire, with 27 directors of at least one episode, keep such consistency in visuals, performance, and pace episode to episode? Could it be that the writers and performers wield as much creative power as a director does?
No, I’m not trying to say that directors don’t have power. They need to have a creative voice to be successful, and if you listen to any number of commentaries you can see that the best of them have a firm grasp on a lot of different aspects of filmmaking. What I am saying is that what you see on the screen is not the sole voice of the director.
“But David Fincher’s movies are visually so distinct!” You say. Well, it may have something to do with the fact that he’s worked with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth for a good chunk of his movies. In fact, if you go down the line of directors who are known to have distinct styles, you find that they have frequent collaborators. Have you seen Blood Simple? It’s the first film directed by the Coen brothers. It’s clever, interesting, and inventive, like a lot of their other films. But it doesn’t have that distinct touch that some of their standouts do. Now, if they edited, wrote and directed it, like they do with the rest of their movies, what’s missing? The touch of their cinematographer, Roger Deakins, perhaps. That man has been involved with almost every freaking movie the Coen brothers have directed since the early nineties. In fact, they work with almost the exact same people every time. What would Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski be without John Goodman? When you collaborate with the same people, you end up getting the same aesthetic, and therefore creating a style that people only attribute to a director.
One of my favorite directors is Robert Altman. The reason for this is because, if you look at his filmography, you’ll see something so varied and strange that it’s hard to get a grasp on if he actually has a “style”. Popeye is completely different than Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller has different things to say than The Player, and this is because a lot of the time he worked with different people and in different genres. Rarely do people comment on his status as an “auteur” because he made movies –some great, some horrible – that rarely linked with each other in anything other than name only.
What about Scorsese, you say? Well, which Scorsese are you talking about? The guy who made Goodfellas, Casino, and the Wolf of Wall Street, or the guy who made Taxi Driver, Silence, and The Last Temptation of Christ? If you can find similarities in all of those movies, fantastic, but also remember that he’s been working with Academy Award winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker since Who’s That Knocking At My Door, which was a pretty long time ago.
But all of this is beside the point, and we’re getting off track! Yes, directors have collaborators who are just as important, but the question remains: what does a director do?
They manage everyone they work with. Look back at that Sydney Lumet quote: “…and on set, I’m the boss…” Directors have more in common with Michael Scott than they do with Michelangelo, because they are in effect Regional Managers. Being a director means getting people excited to work on your film, to constantly think of ways to keep everyone involved and interested, managing expectations and egos, and having a little fun while you’re at it. Directing is communicating your ideas to your department heads, and not closing yourself off to their ideas as well. It’s about letting actors explore their roles, but not letting them get lost. It’s keeping your cool when the sun’s going down and you need to get five shots, but you know you’re only going to get three. It’s a hectic, crazy, stressful position, which is why the really good ones are cherished. Like I said in my Valerian review, making a movie is hard, and when you’re in the process of making it, you won’t even know if it’s good or not.
Oh, and going back to the Greta Gerwig argument: transitioning to directing larger budget movies is easier than you might think. For one thing, you don’t have to get so many setups (camera shots) per day, and for the most part worrying about running out of money or dealing with technical difficulties on equipment usually isn’t as catastrophic as it is on a smaller scale. What happens is that you replace the oh my god we’re not going to get all 45 shots today and we won’t have any more money we’re screwed thoughts with oh my god nobody’s going to care about this movie and it’ll bomb and my career’ll be over thoughts. They’re the same thoughts, fears, and feelings of inadequacy. They’re both equally difficult, and therefore should be equally recognized when things go well.
So I guess the conclusion here is to take advice from the greats: let people in, share the experience, and always, always, collaborate.
This article was written by Samuel Becker: writer for hire, Tek5 Filmscore Critic, and general hypocrite.