"A film by..."
Updated: Feb 3, 2020
Putting the director’s name on the marquee following the words, “A film by…” is, I think, a reward for the person most responsible for realizing a film…and for the one who takes the most crap while doing it. From start to finish, directors have to deal with more hassles and outright problems than any other member of the team, from creative heights down to mundane drudgery, from demanding higher-ups looking over your shoulder to sensitive and sometimes difficult egos on-set, which may have their own competing agendas. While other collaborators can do their part for a film and move quickly on to other projects, directors put their outside lives on hold for the entire duration of the filmmaking process, because they have to be involved in every single decision–from the color fabric of the lead actresses’ dress to what kind of music will play under the film’s end credits (and in exactly what fashion those credits should roll.) Everything the audience sees up on the screen is the product of a director's choosing, so it’s no wonder that most directors only put out one film every couple of years, or that a master like Stanley Kubrick–notoriously attentive to detail and controlling–made only a dozen features across a forty-year career.
Yet the fact is that the phrase “a film by” is a fanciful fiction, as it implies that that the work somehow springs fully formed from the sole consciousness of the director. But that is not at all how the filmmaking process works, even when the director is also the writer. The old saying goes that a film gets written three times–once on the page, once when it’s shot, and once when it’s edited–but I think the process is, at its best, much more organic than that. There are any number of suggestions and contributions from the other collaborators on a film on any given day–and any one of them could enhance, detract from, or alter entirely the meaning that the director intends to achieve.
The easiest way to illustrate this principle on the page is with a simple phrase: “Look over there.” How would you say this line, if you were an actor? Where would you put the emphasis? Would you say, “Look over there.” Would you turn it into an exclamation? “Look over there!” Would you add a dramatic pause? “Look–over there.” Or would you do something completely unconventional? “Look over…there.” There are many different choices an actor can make when giving a line, and those choices are further compounded by the choices the actor can make with body language, eye movement, and facial expressions while delivering the line.
Oftentimes, I know what I would like the actor to do with the scene, but I just as often like to keep my mouth shut at first to see what might happen, and if it might be better than what I had initially conceived. Sometimes, it’s not; many times, though, it is, which is something I first saw for myself in screenwriting class back in Sydney, Australia. Our assignment to write a “key scene” from a larger screen story saw professional actors brought in to give voice and character to the lines we had written, as part of a moved reading of our script. I was always amazed when the actors would find beats in the scene that I had not intended, or deliver a line differently than how I had first heard it in my head.
These kinds of elaborations occur in all the other elements of film–picture, sound, editing, costumes, art direction, etc. And a good director to my mind tries to empower those other collaborators by creating space for their respective creativity and suggestions. Sometimes, this kind of freedom can be taken too far, in which case the director might really have to put a foot down as guardian of the film’s collective vision. (“Diva” behavior can be found in the other departments, too, not just with actors.) But more often, I’ve found that the other collaborators value having their opinions taken into account, and will make outstanding suggestions to benefit the film.
At the end of the day, though, a film can only speak with one voice, and so the director has to have the last word. I agree with something that Walter Murch, the legendary sound designer and editor, once said about the director functioning as “the immune system of a film”, either accepting or rejecting what the other collaborators may wish to put into its body. To use the acting example again, it’s up to the director to recognize when the actor is doing what the film requires at that given moment, and how the actor’s actions on screen will combine with the lighting, camera, colors, music, and sound that will make up the scene. The actor, of course, will not be able to “see” those other elements; the music and sound effects, for example, will be added in later in post-production, and during principal photography they exist only in the director’s head. On set, the actor can only concentrate then on his own performance, and getting the “feeling” right–and for method actors, the more intense the feeling, the better.
But film is not the theater, and there are other ways of generating feeling in the audience than just the actor’s performance. Intense color creates a feeling in film. Dramatic music creates a feeling in film. Soft lighting creates a feeling in film. Sparse sound creates a feeling in film. Camera position creates a feeling in film–whether an extreme close-up, a sweeping camera move, or a long, static, establishing shot. Nothing stands alone in a film; all of the elements have to interconnect to make it work. And nearly all of the elements are present in every single scene; the artistry in direction lies in balancing those elements into some kind of harmony. Each of the other collaborators will have strong ideas about what the film should “be,” but only the director can see the whole elephant.
The director on a film has been called “the captain of the ship”, but having served in the military, I don’t think that’s especially apt as a metaphor. A film’s creative crew is much more democratic than a military unit, which is concerned with following orders from the top, and a good director welcomes the kind of creative tension that comes from working with collaborators who may sometimes disagree with you. Making a film has more in common I think with preparing a gourmet meal, where the chef tries to get every ingredient just right–a little dash of this, a sprinkle of that–so as to enhance the flavor of the dish without overwhelming it in any one direction. But of course top chefs are dealing with food, while film directors are working with people.
And so the closest analogy I can think of for a director’s job is that of the coach of a team, who draws up the plays and motivates the people he thinks can best execute his vision of the game on the field. Again, the analogy is not quite exact; a coach works through the season with more or less the same group, while a director is involved with at least three distinct seasons–pre-production, principal photography, and post-production–and with different personnel in each of those. But the principles of leading, teaching, and learning from others seem the same to me. The coach’s influence is pervasive and paramount, but he doesn’t win the championship alone; it takes a group of people buying into the concept and pulling towards the finish line together–and that’s what makes it worthwhile. No matter how the studios may try to market “A film by,...”, filmmaking is truly a team sport.