Effective DirectorA good director is more than just yelling “Action!” It’s managing a team. It’s knowing what you need to do. And finally, it’s being courteous even when there is tension on set. These things can be summarized into three basic ideas:

  1. Know what the rights and responsibilities of a director are;
  2. Know who you have to deal with, what you have to know, and what you don’t have to know;
  3. Say “Thank you.”

Rule #1: Know what the rights and responsibilities of a director are

Much of your rights and responsibilities as a director are outlined in the “standard contract,” telling you the hours you can work without receiving additional compensation, what rights you have in terms of casting, how and when you can supervise that first edit of the film, etc. And, although you may have the ability to do these things, many times someone else takes over this responsibility. This happens due to the product being filmed. In a television series, the format, cast, script, and money have all been arranged and gathered before most directors get on the scene.

It is typically the executive producer or producer who does these things after bringing an idea to the studio or production company. If and when the money is raised, then a director is hired, or if it’s a series, two directors may be hired so they can work back-to-back (this typically happens for an hour-long program, though). As the director, you have the right to usurp their decision and do it yourself, if you like doing those things. Be forewarned, though, that by doing this you may be entering conflict. Some producers don’t like change, and by changing how they do things you may be initiating conflict, which of course may lead to bad relationships down the road.

In some instances the director is given a higher autonomy, and be able to cast his ballot for an idea into any area crucial to quality production. These are typically for high-quality movies-of-the-week or feature films. Here, some directors command over 90 percent of the creative production aspects.

Each scenario is different, so to be an effective director you will need to adapt to what is being filmed, whether it’s a short run feature, an hour-long series, or a high-quality feature film.

Rule #2: Know who you have to deal with, what you have to know, and what you don’t have to know

Every production has a cast of characters you have to deal with. With some, it will pay to have a meaningful relationship with them, but others can be merely cursory. These people include: the executive producer, the producer, the director of photography, the cinematographer, the art director, the mixer, the assistant director, the prop person, the continuity person, the writer, the film editor, and the costume designer.

The first two people (the executive producer and producer) are people whom you must have a meaningful relationship with. Long before they hired you, you probably met them—perhaps as college room-mates, high school buddies, or classmates in college. The executive producer and producer control the purse strings and make sure the production gets done under budget and on time. Because of this, you may feel that they limit your creativity. However, this may be far from the truth. Sometimes they are extremely creative people. And although they may not agree with you on some of your views, it’s important to keep a cautious relationship with them because, as the old saying goes, you do not want to “burn your bridges.” There will come a time in the production schedule when you may need something from the producer (like an extra day for shooting), and that would be really hard to do if you have a tenuous relationship with the producer.

An example in point is when the series The American Short Story was being filmed. The newbie director (only filming his second or third film) had been a film editor beforehand, and a very good one at that. He thought that he may need an extra day of filming. However, the production manager thought the director could get by without it. The director happened to have a good relationship with the producer, so the producer permitted him an extra day, if needed, to squeeze in some of the more difficult scenes. As it turned out, the director finished early and didn’t even need the extra day. The point is, though, if he had needed something, he could have requested it from the producer without rancor and ruckus. As the saying goes, “It’s better to have something and not need it than to need something and not have it.”

Remember, these two people will be your confidants that you can trust in helping you make decisions in casting or the script. But, they will try to manage you, trying to keep the film under budget, and ensuring that every dollar spent is a needed dollar spent. Together, the three of you will produce a great firm together—provided you don’t clash heads too often.

The next person you will want to have an established relationship with is the director of photography. Think of him in the same way Dr. Evil sees Minime—an extension of yourself. It is their experience that will help you carry out your unique vision for the movie. You will want to discuss early any important or special scenes you will want in your film, and going on location will help both of you decide on a plan of attack for making the best possible movie. If going on location isn’t suggested by the producer, make sure you suggest this in a firm but friendly manner because it will only be a boon to your film.

When on location, the director of photography will have all sorts of suggestions. For example, the location you picked with your art director (and ever-present production manager) may be too dark, too light, the wrong color, too big, or too small. Or maybe you are on the second floor and lights can’t be brought up there without a lot of trouble. There are the things that the director of photography is trained to see, so use their experience; it will only benefit you in the future. And although you have the ability to ignore any of their creative suggestions, don’t be surprised if they give you a hell of a fight for doing things a certain way. It definitely pays to heed their advice and rethink the situation but, in the end, the decision comes down to you.

And although you want to make sure you have an aesthetically pleasing film, don’t forget about the sound. You will want to establish a relationship with the mixer. When it comes to filming, it’ll be you right by the actors, the director of photography and cameraman by your side, the boom man holding the “fishpole” with its microphone and keeping very quiet, but sometimes you may forget about the mixer. This important person will be behind all of you, but that doesn’t make him any less important. Most times, unless you have an aggressive mixer, they will not speak up, so you will want to encourage him to voice his concerns about particular scenes and filming, in terms of sound. Think sound here. Take a step back as a director of the film and put yourself in the mixers shoes. Before you scream out, cursing that there is trouble on the set and that the mixer is never ready, take a breath and remember the advice I gave about establishing that relationship. It will save you from needing to do retakes of scenes, which will in turn make everyone happy because the producer won’t need to spend more money on extra days of filming.

An example of how this can be detrimental occurred one time when a director was doing a remote shoot at the Orchestra Hall in Chicago. There were over two thousand singers and an orchestra, and Handel’s Messiah was being filmed. On set were five cameras, ten microphones, and a crew of twenty. The director here paid more attention to the camera and not enough to the sound. Why? Because as directors, we are trained to pay attention to the camera. Also, in this case,  the mixer in question had a sterling reputation as a live sound mixer. In truth, this man was mixing popular music better than classical music (This is where hiring the right people come into play). Naturally, this mixer mixed the audio for the concert with the orchestra being almost as loud as the voices. It was the wrong mix for the Messiah, but because there was no relationship established beforehand, and although it wasn’t an issue that was brought up, it was an issue nonetheless: one that could have been avoided.

Next, you will want to have a friend in the grips and props people. They are your personal assistants; learn from them. With any problems you may have, the grips and props person are there to help you.

The last person you will want to have a special relationship with is the continuity person. They will make sure that camera direction is focused and that the lines are said properly. Although they will most likely be reserved, you will want to encourage them to talk with you about any discrepancies in the script, compared to what is being said. They are intelligent, and your ability can only grow from fostering a relationship with them.

That leaves a few people with whom you may have brief contact or no contact with at all. Those types of people may be, but are not limited to: the art director, the assistant director, the writer, the film-editor, and the costume designer.

The assistant director and art director are people who work for the producer. Therefore, your relationship with them may be very cursory. The assistant director may ask you to change certain scenes around at the end of the day (of course, after discussing it with the producer first), but it mostly comes down to your judgment. The art director is the same way—it all depends on how involved you want to get with the person in particular, or how important you feel their advice is to your craft. The same stays true for the costume designer—how important you feel the position is will determine your activity level with that person.

The writer is a peculiar person. Depending on how you get hired onto the scene, your relationship with the writer may foster differently. What I mean is, if you started the film yourself, your relationship with the writer will be evident. He or she will be a friend, a hired gun, a coworker. However, if you’ve been hired on to an existing script and cast of characters, you may not even see the writer. Sometimes they will get mad when you start changing the lines in the script and will complain to the producer who will, in turn, talk with you about it. Regardless, you will want to listen to his or her suggestions and take them into consideration. But, as with many of the other positions, it comes down to what you think is best.

Depending on the type of work you have been hired on to, your activity level with the film editor may vary. If you’ve been hired onto a television series, you may not get to work with the editor at all. If it’s for a feature film, then you may. Take each situation on an ad hoc basis.

Again, these people may be important to you, but you will need to define the type of movie and production crew you want to have and go from there to establish the important relationships and have basic relationships with the others.

Rule #3: Say “Thank you”

One of the golden rules your mom taught you when you were a child—“Treat others the way you want to be treated.” If you don’t say “Thank you” or don’t compliment your team when they are doing a good job, they will most likely scream mutiny. This isn’t a hard rule to follow; just make sure you follow it. You want your team to feel appreciated and respected. Without this feeling, they will quickly lose their enthusiasm for working with you, and when that happens, you are a one-man team, and that is a bad situation to be in.

Following these simple rules and using them as guidelines in establishing your directorial career will ease you into the position. In no time, you will find that the shoes fit quite well as you fulfill the role you were meant to play.