Demands on the Director

What are the demands made on directors? What kind of people should they be, and what skills should they have?

First, the director must obviously have excellent technical skills. This kind of knowledge is absolutely essential. Most books that purport to give instructions on directing are really talking about the technical problems of shooting and maintaining continuity. I assume that the first thing film students do is read these books, so I don't want to waste much time going over familiar territory. I prefer to use this book for discussing how one thinks about film. However, it seems worthwhile to set out a checklist of technical points and elementary directing.

• Camera movement: We are talking here of pans, tilts, crabs, tracks, and dollies. You should know what they are and what motivates their use.

• Continuity: The main problems here are maintaining correct screen direction between shots and proper continuity between sequences. Any good book on editing will tell you all you need to know.

• Motivating the viewer: Motivating the viewer is the first rule in directing. You guide your viewer into almost demanding certain shots. A man raises a knife and looks down. Obviously the audience wants to know who he's looking at, so your next shot is the victim.

• Cutaways: Cutaways are shots that help you condense time and shift point of view in a sequence where you might have a problem with screen direction. Most beginning documentary filmmakers tend to take too few. They realize this error when they come to edit.

• Shot impact: Are you paying attention to the emotional impact of the shot, such as moving in close for intensity and emotion? And do you remember those old guidelines about shooting from below when you want a character to dominate the screen and from above when you want to diminish him or her?

• Lenses: Do you know the impact on the film of using different lenses, such as the long lens to slow down action and pack things together?

Although these points are elementary, they are worth review.

My own attitude about technical matters and guidelines for directing is simple. First, I want to know as much about the subject as possible. Once I have the knowledge, I can decide whether to stay with the rules or break them. Second, I want to know as much about technical matters as possible; only then am I really in command and not subject to the whims and wishes of my crew, however much I love them. The more you know about filming, whether technical or human, the better position you will be in as a director.

In addition to technical knowledge, the documentary director must also have the vision and attitude appropriate to the genre. The point is that although we use the word directing for both features and documentary, half of the time we are talking about two different things. Many documentaries can be written, set up, and shot as if they were features. But a sizable number of documentaries require an entirely different mindset and mode of work. And there begins the problem for the director. In these documentaries — and they are not confined to news, current affairs, and cinema verite—there may be no script at all, and hardly anything that you can plan in advance. With luck, you begin the film with a series of notes and a rough idea of where you want to go and how you want to proceed; you plunge in and hope for the best. Things will happen unexpectedly. Characters will reveal themselves in different ways. Sudden conflicts will emerge. New story lines will become apparent. You discover the film as you proceed. As events unfold, you try to understand their significance and grab their essence. You try to see the important details and how they will build to a significant whole.

This is what half the world of documentary filmmaking is like, and it resembles feature filmmaking as much as a lion resembles a mouse. More important, it makes tremendously different demands on the director. Given all that, what do we require of the director?

Clarity of purpose. As a director, you must be absolutely sure about where you want to go and how you want to get there. You must know clearly what you want the film to say. In short, you must be sure of your focus. If the focus isn't there, the film is heading for trouble.

A friend of mine made a film about her family, which had five thousand members. The family had come to California four generations previously and had helped develop the state. The family name had become a household word, but this fame was not always welcomed by the family members. A few of them felt burdened by the name and history and wanted independence. My friend Jane came to me when the family was planning to hold a massive reunion in San Francisco, which she wanted to use as the backbone of the film. That made sense, but as Jane continued talking I grew more and more uneasy because she resisted committing herself to a definite focus.

The film was potentially interesting in many ways: It could have been a story about maintaining family links in the late twentieth century; it could have been a story about the development of California; it could have been a story of two or three European immigrants who made good. But it had to be one story. Jane refused to see that this was a problem that had to be resolved before filming; instead, she just plunged in, shooting a bit of this and a bit of that. Once editing started it was clear that there was no point of view and no rationale behind much of the shooting. In the end, the film was passable and fairly entertaining, but if Jane had made some stronger decisions in the beginning, it might have been superb.

Style. As with purpose, it is important for the style of the film to be established at the beginning and then maintained consistently throughout the work. The style may involve action, flashbacks, humor, satire. It may be moody, poetic, evocative, or bright, harsh, ultrarealistic. The main thing is that the style should be consistent and that the director should be aware of what he or she is doing. Obviously, you can take risks and change style midway, but this often confuses the viewer. Novelists like John Fowles do this all the time; The Magus, for example, changes style and direction half a dozen times. Such changes are a much riskier proposition in film, although they can be done as in Tongues Untied, which treads a risky path between comedy and tragedy, and between theater and documentary.

One of the best examples of a sudden change in style appears in a film I mentioned earlier, The Road to Wigan Pier, by Frank Cvitanovich. Three quarters of the film evokes the 1930s using George Orwell's text and archive footage. The last quarter of the film shows the film's symbolic worker-singer watching television footage of British politicians. It's a drastic shift in style, but it works because the underlying theme is strong enough to sustain the change of place and mood and because the film itself suggests from the start that its style is experimental and humorous.

The lessons are simple. Consider at length what style you want before you begin filming, then stick with it. If you want to break or change your style, think through the pros and cons very carefully. You should avoid, at all costs, shifting styles without reason.

Ability to listen. As we know from so many books, many feature directors tend to talk rather than listen. The image of Otto Preminger, for example, was that of a martinet who commanded rather than directed and who would listen to no one. Perhaps that will do for features, but it just does not work in documentary. The documentary director must maintain authority and command, but above all else, he or she must be able to listen—to observe, absorb, and pay attention. This stricture applies to both people and scenes. You are trying to understand complex human beings, their behavior and motivation, their pain and their happiness. On a wider scale, you are trying to understand a scene, a group, or a society. You are trying to understand so that ultimately you can pass on your observations to a general audience. In order to do this, you have to listen. There is no other way.

Decision-making ability. Decision making is the essence of directing. The difficulty in documentary is that many of the decisions have to be made with little preparation and no forewarning. Decision making for documentaries that can be prewritten and preplanned is relatively easy. The exploration of a university, for instance, calls for decisions of a fairly simple type. You know in advance whom, where, and when you want to film, and then direction becomes basically a managerial and technical job. You make sure that you have enough shots to edit and that you have pulled the essence out of the scene.

The difficult decisions come in unplanned films, where no event can be foreseen and the situation is constantly changing. There, you need your wits to establish immediately what is important and where or on whom the camera should be focused. Everything is unexpected, and you have to be able to move and roll in any direction. Such situations don't demand much intelligence to shoot, but they do require the intelligence to shoot the right thing. And that only you can know. The cameraperson may consider the burning house and the wreckage the important elements; only you can tell him or her that the real story lies in the indifference of the onlookers.

All the points we have been discussing now begin to come together. If you know what you want the film to do, and if you have thought through its central point, then you have a clear guide to your decision making. If you have not done that homework, then you have no basis for your decisions.

It goes without saying that most of the time your decision making has to be done at speed. If you are uncertain what is happening, then consult the crew and listen to their opinions. It is fatal to abandon the decision-making process and just hope that your crew gets something. They will sense the indecision, and you will be lucky if it does not negatively affect their attitude toward you for the rest of the film.

I have stressed the necessity of knowing where you want to go with the film, but sometimes something happens during filming, something completely out of your hands, that negates your original idea. When this happens, you have to make some fast decisions in order to save the film. Here, the decisions are very hard because you may be bending the film ninety degrees in order to salvage something. That happened on Mike Rubbo's film Waiting for Fidel, made for the National Film Board of Canada. Rubbo's mission was to accompany two Canadians to Cuba and film their interview with Fidel Castro. In the end, though, Castro was never available, even though the duo waited around for several weeks. With the central idea for the film aborted, Rubbo turned his cameras toward the two Canadians, one a right-wing media millionaire, the other a left-wing politician. The film became a study of the two men's views and conflicting personalities, set against the background of Cuba. This was not the original film, but it was a salvage job par excellence. And it worked because Rubbo had the courage to decide on a new direction in the middle of filming and reconcentrate his energies on a more feasible subject.

Film Making

Film Making

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