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Thursday 13 September 2012

How To Have Authority On Set When Directing a Film

I remember it clearly, and it still kind of haunts me. The actress wanted some more direction, but she didn't look to me, the director, she looked at the actor who was standing next to me. The actor pitched in with his comments, "Yeah, you should look to the left, think about it, then shout the line as if you're really angry". 

The actress shouldn't have asked the actor what to do. 

The actor shouldn't have given her a direction.

And I shouldn't have allowed any of this to happen in the first place. 

But I was young and this happened ten years ago. Every director goes through this stage. The stage of losing control, of losing the trust of your actors, of losing your authority. Basically, it's when the actors think you don't have a clue what you're doing. 

And it hurts. 

So I'm here to tell you that you need to be confident, you need to know what you're doing, and you need to have authority. 

It's not about being dictatorial. It's about management, but more than that -- it's about creative vision. Anyone can have an idea in the room that feels great. Especially with comedy. Everybody thinks they know what is funny, there'll never be a shortage of voices chipping in, but it's of no help to you when you're in the editing room if it doesn't fit in with your vision. 

When you're making a film, it's your job, as a director, to know your characters and the story inside out.  When the actors are not quite nailing it, or they're insecure about what they're doing, they'll look to you for feedback. If you are not available to give it to them, they'll look for it elsewhere. And the worst case scenario is that the make-up artist is telling her what her character should be, or her boyfriend is giving her acting tips on the way home. When this happens, you lose your authority, you're an empty vessel.

Two years ago, I travelled across the country with the producer of my film, to read through the script with an actor who we were considering casting, and the actress who we'd already given a role to. It was going great -- and then the actor asked me a few questions about the meaning of the scene. I did what I like to do; I dreamed into the scene a little bit, allowed it to resonate with me and bring up some feelings. The producer, sitting next to me, saw what I was doing and made the assumption that I didn't have the answer. So he said, "What I think he means is, the character is really upset here, and struggling to get out his emotions." It was, of course, absolutely not what I meant to say nor did it have anything to do with the meaning of the scene. 

The problem wasn't that I didn't know what I was doing. The problem was that the producer was new to working with me and didn't know my process. I turned to the actors and said, "that's a really interesting viewpoint, but it's not what I mean at all." I then went on to explain very specifically what I wanted from the scene, and then the actors nailed it. The long journey home with the producer was rather heated as we discussed what had happened. But after that he knew not to meddle in what the actors were doing, as that wasn't his job. 

Which brings me on to an important point. We all direct in different ways. I recently wrote a screenplay for a director who loves to have ideas from all sides on the set. He loves hearing people yell out, "how about she wears a funny hat!?" or "Maybe we should film this scene with no sound!" He loves it. I am the opposite, especially with regards to the actors -- I don't want the sound guy talking to the actress about what he thinks her motivation is. There needs to be one director, that's how I work. And as I said at the beginning, it's not about being a dictator, it's about having a singular voice shaping the material. 

Take a Cameron Crowe movie. I guarantee there are moments in his films that the sound guys and the make-up artists just don't get, but then, they don't need to, because Crowe knows what he's doing. Those little subtle moments that are about a look, or a wave, or a smile. He knows what they need to be, even though everyone on the set might be thinking, "is that it?" and "do we really have it?". You'll have a lot of those moments yourself where you, as director, can see something that nobody else can see. That is what directing is, honing in on what you think is important. And when you really find something in a scene that MATTERS, it will almost certainly be the bit that half of the people on the set don't understand. At that moment, you need to be working with your actors. As long as they can grasp it, and as long as the Director of Photography knows what he's doing --- you're set. 

The title of this article is 'How To Have Authority On Set When Directing A Film'. The way to do that, is to make sure that everyone knows what you're about, how you work. If you need silence between takes so you can think, then you need to communicate that. If you need chaos, then let people know you need chaos. The set needs to be run in a way that suits your temperament. 

One of the secrets about film sets, especially when you're starting out with low-budget films, or (and especially) student films, is that everyone wants to be a director. Not only do they want to be a director, but they think they are already the greatest director in the world. The runner will want to chip in with a line change, the camera assistant will want to replace the joke about bananas with a wisecrack about apricots. You need to make sure that the people on your set are on the set to do the jobs they've been brought in to do. 

The more you direct, the easier it gets. Now, if I have a problem, I immediately deal with it by halting what we're doing and addressing the crew. Another thing that comes with experience is a reputation. When people know you can deliver, and that you have your own style, they'll be less inclined to chip in with needless ideas. And that's why I wrote this article; because you can't nail your own particular style if you get drowned out by others. There is nothing worse than losing the trust of your actors or crew on the set. It's a sinking feeling that is very hard to recover from. 

Be confident. Be strong. Make sure everyone on the set knows that you know what you're doing. 

But a few notes of caution. 

What I am talking about is artistic vision and direction, not dictatorship. If you think you know absolutely everything, you're clueless! There'll be stressful filming days when you're utterly confused. And there'll be times when it's 4am and you've been shooting for far longer than is legal, and you'll NEED the production assistant's help to remember what the character's motivation is. 

The point is to be open and transparent about what you need, as a director. It's about knowing your strengths, but it's also about knowing your weaknesses. My weakness is that I can't think on set if everyone is making small talk between takes -- my brain just can't process it. Rather than be a crazy loon who yells at everyone, I just make sure that everyone knows how I work. I have certain things that need to happen around me for me to be able to get in the zone. The more you make films, the more you'll find your own limitations and needs, and that's how you grow as a director.  


  1. I actually have a question for you. If a person creates the idea for a film, writes it, and then directs it, but if their family members give suggestions for the script and financially support the film and help on set, who's film is it? Thanks - this has been plaguing my mind for awhile.

    1. Hey Anon.

      Great question. You could ask the same question when the investor is a studio or a private investor. What are the terms? What are they expecting? How much control with you have?

      You need to be specific before you accept any money, about what the film is, and what it will mean for the investors. With family members, you need to let them know that this is your baby, your piece of art. Most of the time, family will be happy with a visit to the set as their only involvement, or maybe being an extra in one scene. You need to do your best to keep it to a minimum.

      But then don't forget, when people invest money, you're expected to deliver -- even if they're family. They're parting with their hard earned cash and they'll want to know what you're doing with it.

      The key is knowledge and confidence. If they know the film is in safe hands, they'll trust you.

      I hope that helps!

    2. Thank you so much!

  2. This is great. Loved it, Kid!

  3. In my humble opinion, those who make suggestions could be listed as story consultants, and those who financially support the film could be listed as executive producers. While those who help on the set would be P.A.'s or given a title specific to the duties they performed.

  4. Hi, What would you suggest I do to stop crew members being rude to me on set? I know I can always take them aside to talk but I'm not sure why they felt they could be rude to me in the first place. On my last film my editor was on set and got frustrated that we were taking so long over a shot and on another day my 1st AD criticised my judgement. Unpaid project. Thanks.