Monday 19 July 2010

Directing My Writing.

I have always been a writer/director. I could possibly be just a writer, but I could definitely not be just a director. How I am limits me in many ways. If you gave me a thirty second Dove commercial to direct I wouldn't really know what I'm doing, and I wouldn't really care. This means that the more lucrative side of directing is not really available to me. If Hollywood offers me the chance to direct Twilight 7, I wouldn't have a clue what I am doing and would have to say no. Although I might try and get a meeting with Kristen Stewart first..

I have a very strong understanding of my own writing, and I know how to direct it. I have known this, weirdly, since I first thought about film directing. I knew I would always write and direct. What I am good at is knowing who my characters are and being able to go into them and feel who they are. So, for example, if I have a character I've written called Vera; as a director I am able to instantly know what she is feeling, what she wants, and what her problems are, just by looking at the page for a few seconds. I can morph into my characters. However, when looking at someone else's script, I can only interpret them, and guess. They haven't funneled through me in the same way. And that's why the idea of directing someone else's writing or, indeed, just giving script feedback, is always very difficult for me. Because I don't really know what I'm doing, or what my instincts are. But with my own work, it's different.

Tellingly, my favorite films tend to be by writer/director's. This was not intentional, and in fact; for my formative years as a lover of films, I was totally unaware. The films that resonated with me were helmed by the person who'd written the material. Even when watching studio fare like 'You've Got Mail' - I would prefer those films to those which had hired in a director. And this was completely unconscious on my part. But in understanding myself and my interest in films and directing, it's quite important.

I love the idea of being a reader of books. But unfortunately, I find it very difficult - as only a handful of writers can hold my interest. If I consider buying a book, I have to read the first few pages and figure out whether the writer resonates with me. I think a lot of people do this, but for me, it is almost a chronic thing-- I generally don't read, as I am always disinterested. I'm interested in reading, but disinterested in the writers. But when I do come across a voice I can identify with, it's golden. Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, Roald Dahl, John O'Farrell, Joseph Heller, Nora Ephron, those are a few names and to be honest, there aren't many more. What their reputations or talents are isn't as important as; do I enjoy reading them? John O'Farrell, for example, is a writer of a few little novels that come and go without much ado, but for some reason - his work always tickles my funny bone. I find his voice hilarious. The same goes for Woody Allen. I've recently been intrigued by David Foster Wallace, and I am hopeful hopeful hopeful that he is going to be one of those rare writers who fascinates and inspires me. I have loved some of his articles and am about to order some books. I am hopeful.

I usually keep my written work hostage. As in, I don't want other directors use it. Is it because I think I have written untouchable masterpieces? Definitely not. The problem for me is that it's very hard to find directors who truly grasp what a writer is doing, and what they are saying. I write a lot of comedy; and comedy is one of the most delicate things in the world because when it's handled incorrectly, nobody laughs. Even worse, people think you're an idiot. It really is delicate. But it's the one thing I am certain I understand. I have had the experience very often on set where an actor feels they are not doing enough, or not being funny enough, or that they're doing too much, or that they're being too slow, or too fast, or too emotive ---- and the problem is that when doing anything other than comedy, their instincts would probably be right. But when you are servicing a joke, or a comedic set-up, or a delicately humorous moment, it's very rare that you find people who are completely in sync with the director. This is why comedies are rarely funny-- because not only do the actors struggle to grasp it, but so do the directors. That is essentially why I am drawn to direct. That's why Charlie Chaplin, Billy Wilder and Woody Allen all moved into directing-- because their work was being wrecked film after film. A typical director might think the punchline is what's funny; but a good director knows something more--- he knows what's funny is the hat sitting on the mantelpiece, or the line in the next scene about a giraffe, or the way Jack Lemmon holds his tennis racket.

My point is that, if I am not there to protect the material, it gets lost. There are director's who are more talented than me, in fact; I think I am, at best, an average director of film. My scope is small. When it comes to making a scene look appealing or exciting, I am not particularly skilled. But when it comes to what I've written, I think I can handle the material and the actor's performances better than anyone else could. Richard Curtis and Kevin Smith would probably say the same (about themselves, not about me.)

This is essentially why directors collaborate with the same actors for years and years (Allen/Keaton, Wilder/Lemmon), or why comedy actors produce their own work (Stiller, Sandler.) They need to protect the material, to know that they can control it because there is always a big risk of it being handled by people that don't understand it. Taken to extremes, it's why directors act in their own films, because nobody else can quite get that subtlety. Nobody else could do Chaplin like Chaplin. Nobody else can do Woody Allen like Woody Allen (we've seen many try.)

What all this means is that, as a writer/director, I have very few opportunities. Essentially, I need to raise financing to do my own work, because I am unwilling and unable to pass on my writing or to direct other people's - and when it comes time to sit down and rest, I can't even find a book I like. Not only that but, as a director, I am still looking for my Jack Lemmon, for my Diane Keaton; because it is those collaborations which essentially define a good writer/director; when they find actors who not only give voice to what is on the page but somehow become it.

Just so you know, I'm not moaning. All these reasons are exactly why I am a writer and why I am a director.

Care to share?


  1. I think this is like singer/songwriters - the product is just different when it's masterminded all by one person. A songwriter who isn't a singer would never write six-minute-long song - they write a three-minute song with a clear verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus structure. Movies are the same way.

  2. While I don't direct, I do write, though am always horribly afraid of committing to something. What I write that I actually finish, comes out of some weird manic place where I lose myself, ignoring my surroundings, and focus on just what I'm typing, or writing out by hand, which seems to flow out of me. I'm an incredibly visual person and the idea of directing appeals to me, in an aesthetic sense, but in terms of eliciting performances or working with crew, not so much! This is one reason I'm going back to school at age 32 to spend a year in New Zealand learning how to "do" production. I want to be able to merge my writing with directing, and to work with people to understand how the process plays out when you're both the writer-director, just the writer, or just the director.

    Like you, I realized (after a time) that a lot of the movies I liked best were by writer-directors: Drugstore Cowboy, Rushmore, Trust (by Hal Hartley), Household Saints, Dead Alive, Shaun of the Dead to name but a few. But then there are those absolute gems where it seems as if the writer and director were magically synergistic: Harold & Maude, The Graduate and The Odd Couple (to name my faves). All comedies, interestingly! The Odd Couple is, I think, a perfect film. I'm not sure if there's any other I'd say that about, at least to date there's not.