What It Takes To Be a Film Director

The author lining up a shot during the filming of “An L.A. Minute.”

When you are ill, your symptoms don’t reveal much without a physician to interpret them, and film directors, like all serious artists, are the physicians of society. Diagnosing society’s ills is the objective. Art is a necessity if we desire a healthy society, and because film is the most popular form of artistic expression, it is the duty of every filmmaker to create art.

What is art? One popular and benign definition is that art simply portrays beauty through the personal lens of the artist; but I take issue with that. Art must have, and has had, a higher purpose, otherwise it is reduced to sheer diversion. Art’s purpose is to shed light on the human condition through a particular medium. It is the baring of truth. Or conversely, as Pablo Picasso stated, “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” Picasso’s insight is never more applicable than with film. We create lies to expose the truth. We explore the most complex problems of our time and we investigate the causes of those problems through the creation of fantastical and fictitious narratives.

What makes an artist? The formation of representational concepts, more than anything else, distinguishes the artist from the non-artist. He or she must be deeply concerned with — and impressed by — experiences. An artist must have the wisdom to find significance in individual occurrences by understanding them as metaphors of universal truths. The artists’ privilege is the capacity to apprehend the nature and meaning of an experience within the restrictions of a given medium, and thus make it tangible.

The ultimate ineluctable usefulness of art is that it works in the best interest of mankind, and it is by this standard that we must judge the quality of any given artistic creation. Mankind gives more value to truth than to falsehood, to peace than to war, to life than to death, to profundity than to triteness. It is to these standards that all serious artists create.

One of the great directors of the last century, Andrei Tarkovsky, wrote: “Each of the arts has its own poetic meaning, and cinema is no exception. It came into being in order to express a specific area of life, the meaning of which up until then had not found expression in any existing art form. Everything new in art emerged in answer to a spiritual need and its function is to ask those questions which are supremely relevant to our epoch.”

Tarkovsky alludes to the fact that film is the most complex artform. Because of the nature of the form, it takes expansive knowledge and skill to be a great film director, acquired in no other way but by many years of study in multiple fields. A director must be an expert in the psychology of visual perception, clinical psychology, cultural anthropology, dramatic writing, all the various acting techniques, music, dance, painting, sculpture, and theater. And all these skills add up to nothing unless the film director is also a philosopher.

The following are just some very random thoughts on the thought process, the techniques, and the vision that are prerequisites for being a film artist but is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list.

CHOOSING MATERIAL

Tarkovsky also wrote, “Art is born and takes hold wherever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual, for the ideal: that longing which draws people to art. Modern art has taken a wrong turn in abandoning the search for the meaning of existence in order to affirm the value of the individual for its own sake. What purports to be art begins to look like an eccentric occupation for suspect characters who maintain that any personalized action is of intrinsic value simply as a display of self-will. But in artistic creation the personality does not assert itself, it serves another, higher communal idea. The artist is always a servant and is perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has been given to him as if by a miracle. Modern man, however, does not want to make any sacrifice, even though true affirmation of self can only be expressed in sacrifice. We are gradually forgetting about this, and at the same time, inevitably, losing all sense of our human calling.”

A great film starts with a powerful script, one which moves an audience emotionally toward a universal truth.

The burden of commercial success has suppressed even the best filmmakers into creating superficial work. But if a powerful, universal truth is inherent in a script, and if the director stays true to that truth throughout the process, maintaining as much control as possible throughout, the chances of success are increased despite the pressure of profit.

However, the pitfalls lie in the shadows between film art and documentaries. Pete Hamill, in his famous essay on Bob Dylan, wrote, “And through the fog of the plague, most art withered into journalism. Painters lift the easel to scrawl their innocence on walls and manifestos. Symphonies died on crowded roads. Novels served as furnished rooms for ideology… Poor America. Tossed on a pilgrim tide. Land where the poets died.”

Take heed Hamill’s words. Resist the temptation to be obvious. Pick material in which the truth you want to expose is realized through subtle expression and emotional immersion because the thought process you force upon an audience is as important as the truth itself. Deep emotional response spawns introspection, and introspection is vital in a healthy society. A film artist is not a journalist or a documentarian. We don’t hand out truth on a platter. We bury it and give the audience a treasure map.

CREATE IMAGES WITH PURPOSE

Before directing a movie, learn the language of vision. Luckily, there has been a great deal of psychological research into how the mind perceives images, and every director needs to study the effects of whole visual compositions before setting out to make a film.

A great starting point for film directors is the research of Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler and Kurt Koffka into visual perception, done nearly a century ago, known as Gestalt psychology. Gestalt research discovered that the mind tries to create order in chaos, or unity among outwardly unrelated parts. Unlike the atomistic philosophy prevalent before these discoveries, we don’t just see the world as the sum of its parts — we see natural phenomena as an organized whole, then we actively interpret what we see depending on what we are expecting to see. In other words, parts are defined by the structure of the whole, not vice versa; and there is a correlation between past experience and visual interpretation. Also, there is a tendency for the mind to arrange a visual field in the simplest way (the “law of simplicity” in Gestalt parlance), and deviation from that simplicity creates conflict and is the basis of a film director’s technique.

When a director frames a shot, a gestalt is created. Yet so many books on filmmaking take an atomistic approach and break down the individual aspects of a frame but never discuss the dynamics created when those aspects merge. For example, many discuss the psychological effects of color. Strong brightness, high saturation and the hues of long wave vibration produce excitement; darker, desaturated and short waved hues create calm. And red is warm, blue is cold. But in context, this is not necessarily the case. Variations of colors create inner tension. A bluish red creates an impulse toward blue, and a reddish blue creates an impulse toward red. But when the two colors are placed next to each other in pure form, a different conflict is presented. And when variations of brightness and saturation are introduced, that tension can be manipulated.

The same with shape. Most books I’ve seen on filmmaking talk about the emotions that are evoked from circles, squares, and rectangles, and how conflict is higher in the latter than in the former, with squares somewhere in the middle of the scale. But again, it’s not that simple. If you take a circle, and place it dead center in a square, it creates calmness. But move the circle to the upper right-hand corner of the square, and the mind wishes it to be centered again, creating subconscious conflict. Now combine color with this thought experiment. A red circle in a blue square enhances the conflict, but if both shapes are the same hue with only a slight variation in saturation, conflict is reduced.

This is not to say individual elements of a visual field should not be pondered in their own right, especially if given philosophical context. As an example, lines are usually discussed as a way to create depth. Diagonals create it, horizontal and perpendicular lines diminish it. Diagonals create conflict, horizontal lines lessen it. While this may be true, when framing a shot, a director faces an additional factor: a significant paradox between what painters call “central perspective” and infinity. With central perspective, the focus of the space created is an actual point in the frame. In the complete projection of two-dimensional space this center lies in the frontal plane. But with increasing depth the center withdraws into the distance, and in totally straightened-out space it would lie in the infinite. In actual film composition, therefore, the perceptual status of the focal point is ambiguous. The vanishing point, by definition, lies in the infinite (where the diagonals meet). Neither two-dimensional nor isometric perspective explicitly face the problems of the boundaries of space. They imply that space continues forever in its tangible concreteness.

As Leonardo da Vinci pointed out, “perspective employs in distances two opposite pyramids, one of which has its apex in the eye and its base as far away as the horizon. The other has the base toward the eye and the apex on the horizon.” Metaphorically, such a centered world suits a hierarchical conception of human existence. Thus, with the introduction of a central perspective in a frame, the film director is therefore including a statement on the nature of the subject of the frame as it relates to infinity.

In practice, this can manifest in many ways. Orson Welles, especially in his earlier films, made dramatic use of short-focus lenses to produce steep gradients between foreground and background resulting in a baroque tension. Characters shrink and expand rapidly when moving away from or toward the camera. This carefully planned depth perspective is a key to the comprehension of his early films, especially as it relates to the paradox of central perspective and infinity.

Light is yet another factor in which to take a broad view. Its symbolism probably goes as far back as the history of civilization. Darkness does not appear as the mere absence of light, but as an active counter-principle. The dualism of the two antagonistic powers is found in the mythology and philosophy of most cultures. Day and night become the visual image of good and evil, or the known and the unknown. It introduces dramatic conflict into the image of reality. Historically, such a conception could suit neither early Eastern philosophy nor the doctrines of the medieval church. It was created when mankind started to take a stand against their God and nature and is now still relevant as individuals assert their rights against authorities of any kind. This exciting discord is the principal theme of filmmakers and modern art in general.

But these elements are gibberish when taken individually, and therefore must be extrapolated to encompass all factors involved in the composition of a scene. A director must consider the frame as it is actually perceived. No visual organization is comprehensible unless it is based on a limited number of perceptual values which constitute the skeleton of the structure into which the finer gradations are fixed. The subtler mixtures appear as secondary inflections of this fundamental scale, or they form a variety of chords in which the common elements remain discernible. Depth, lighting, movement, line, shape, color, and sound all have to complement each other in order to present a coherent percept in the mind of the viewer which, when strung together, bloom into a concept. Ambiguities resulting from relations between parts must balance one another in the total context, and the complete frame, when adequately viewed, must represent an objectively defined statement that in turn relates to the entire film. Without this complete devotion to detail and its relation to the ultimate truth conveyed in the film, a director betrays the artform.

In my own work, within each scene I try to create what I call a “defining frame” — a composition that gives a clue to the idea I’m trying to present in the scene. It can be placed anywhere within the scene that seems appropriate, and if reused elsewhere in the film, can sometimes serve as a motif.

When editing scenes together, film directors can learn from cubist painters (if one imagines each “cube” as a shot or scene in a film) because cubists attempted to portray the modern world as a precarious interplay of independent units, each coherent in itself, but unrelated to the spatial coordinates governing its neighbors. The resulting visual clashes, contradictions, and mutual interferences were deliberately sought by artists such as Braque and Picasso. What they wanted to show was not a chaotic accumulation of objects since this would be an instance of disorder in a perfectly coherent spatial setting. They were after a more fundamental disorder, namely, the incompatibility inherent in total space itself. Each of the small units that together constitute a cubist figure obeys its own spatial framework. However, their spatial interrelation is deliberately irrational. They are not to be seen as parts of a continuous whole but as small, self-contained individualities, blindly crossing one another. In order to show that these superimpositions do not occur in coherent space, the cubists used the device of making the units render one another transparent or fade out into the neutral ground of the painting. Film directors essentially use the same technique to represent discontinuity of space. If we are in a living room in one scene and then suddenly shift to a forest, the room fades out into spacelessness for a brief moment. In a dissolve, both scenes appear for a moment as overlapping each other, thereby indicating their special independence in both space and time. In film, cuts, fades and dissolves represent leaps with homogeneous and orderly space, and this is where we should part from the cubists (and some experimental films) who use them as part of their attempts to obtain an integration of discordant orders. But in either instance, only a delicate balancing provides a semblance of unity — perhaps the only kind of order available to modern humanity in its social relations and in dealing with the contradictory powers of the mind. It is no coincidence that cubism originated just as scientists were exploring quantum physics and exposing the randomness of our existence.

WORKING WITH ACTORS

To the annoyance of many directors, filmmaking is a collaborative process. A director, in order to be effective and convey exactly what he or she wants, must have as much technical knowledge as every department head and thus understand the capabilities of each respective department. This is equally true with acting. However, whereas, in cinematography for example, there are very specific ways a scene can be lit in order to create a desired effect, there are several techniques that an actor may employ to create a character. And although an individual actor relies on just one method, the director must know them all in great detail.

At the risk of generalizing, there are basically two approaches to modern acting technique, with Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen on one side, and Stella Adler and William Meisner on the other. Both claim their Stanislavsky roots, and the argument as to which side old Konstantin would have approved goes on ad infinitum. One method bases a character on past personal experience, the other on imagination and research. The latter claims to produce actors who possess broader ranges, but I’ve found varying degrees on either side, based on individual ability and intellect. Both sides have their share of brilliant actors, as well as mediocre ones, and a director must be able to discern the difference. More importantly, a director must know how to direct both kinds of actors. The wrong approach, or no approach at all, quickly leads to mistrust, and trust is the most important ingredient in the actor/director dynamic.

In addition, an actor is not a prop or a light, although many directors treat them as such. Of course, in order to achieve a desired gestalt, an actor must move, talk, and appear a particular way, but a director can’t just order an actor to do so the way he or she can tell a production designer to paint a wall a certain color. An actor must be motivated, and that motivation is achieved through a logical discussion.

For example, if two characters are at odds, and in order to express this conflict visually the director wants one character to wear a red costume and the other blue, one cannot just force this choice on the actors. There has to be a reason as to why those characters would choose such clothing, which means the director must articulate a set of parameters to the actor that coincides with the type of character the actor is playing.

Blocking creates its own set of issues. If a director needs a particular camera angle involving an actor, one can’t just say, “stand here when you deliver this line.” My approach has always been to let the actors feel out the blocking until it becomes natural, then place the camera accordingly. Failing this, a thoughtful discussion with the actor, detailing the psychological reasons why a character would move a particular way, is vital.

Great acting is an artform in and of itself. Creating a character requires immense skill and ability, technique, and a deep understanding of behavioral psychology. The most brilliant performances are the ones that transcend mere portrayal into a statement that probes human nature. A director must create an atmosphere wherein the actor has the opportunity to achieve this, guide the actor through the process, and understand the progression of creating a character in order to place a performance into a context such that it reveals the overall universal truth being conveyed in the film.

DISTORTION AND CONTINUITY MAKE GREAT FILMS

Even though most directors are creating work within the realm of social realism, films are far from real. A filmmaker must rely on distortion in order to convey an idea. Deformation of reality is the key factor in visual perception because it decreases simplicity and increases tension in the visual field and thereby creates an urge toward simplification and relaxation. It is the essence of visual storytelling.

Specifically, consider the use of light and dark. When darkness is so deep that is provides a foil of nothingness, the viewer receives the compelling impression of things emerging from a state of non-being and the likelihood of a return to it. Instead of presenting a static world with a constant inventory, the director uses darkness to show life as a process of appearing and disappearing. The whole is only partly present, and so are most objects. In Carol Reed’s film “The Third Man” a mysterious character stands in a doorway with only the tips of his shoes reflected by a streetlight. A cat discovers the invisible stranger and sniffs at what the audience cannot see. The frightening existence of things that are beyond the reach of our senses and yet exercise their power on us is represented by means of darkness.

But individual techniques can’t just stand alone. There is a temptation sometimes to create an interesting visual effect while deep in the process of shooting a scene, but usually, if it is not preplanned, it will detract from the film rather than enhance it, and a director must be ever-vigilant not to succumb to such forces, as exciting as they may seem in the spur of the moment.

Unlike a painting or sculpture, a film is a progression of events, and in order to comprehend the meaning of a film the audience has to grasp it as a whole, thus continuity is most important. A film must be apprehended as a sequence, but this sequence can’t be temporal in the sense that one phase disappears as the next occupies our consciousness. The whole film must be simultaneously present in the mind if we are to understand its development, coherence, and the interrelations among its parts. It requires simultaneity and is not temporal.

Regarding simultaneity, Mozart once wrote that when a musical theme has caught his attention, “it becomes larger and larger, and I spread it out more and more widely and clearly, and the thing really gets to be almost completed in my head, even if it is long, so that thereafter I survey it in my mind at one glance, like a beautiful picture or handsome person. And I hear it in my imagination not in sequence, as it will have to unfold afterward, but, as it were, right away all together.”

Something very similar is required of a film director. A film grows step by step into a whole, and as we accompany its progress, we must constantly hark back to what has disappeared from direct perception but survives in memory. The past as such is never directly available to the mind. The percepts and feelings of a second ago are gone. They survive only to the extent that within us they have left memory traces which persist in special simultaneity, influence one another, and are modified by new arrivals. Everything that came before is modified by what comes later, and every new percept finds its place in the spatial structure of memory. Gestalt research reveals that in the brain, every memory trace has an address, but no date. The meaning of a film derives from the interaction of the traces it leaves within us.

But when a film lacks continuity, the sequence breaks down into a mere succession. It loses its main characteristics, and even the succession lasts only as long as its elements are being squeezed through a sieve of present time. The film becomes a kaleidoscopic. There is constant change but no progression, and there is no reason to remember past images of the film. No bond connects these momentary phases, because time itself can create succession but not order. In a great film, any experience of time presupposes some kind of order.

A director is the one person on a set that must comprehend this “forest view” while each tiny piece of the film is being created. Without that vision, mediocrity reigns. A film must deserve the name of art and maintaining that continuity of vision is a director’s obligation.

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Daniel Adams

Daniel Adams

Adams is an award-winning feature film director and screenwriter who has worked with numerous Oscar-winning actors and nominees.