4 Responsibilities
of Film Directors

By Elliot Grove

1 Directing the screenplay

A director’s first task is to read and reread the screenplay and look for the visual details that will help to tell the story. Then a director must decide what visual details need to be added in order to enhance the story. The director often rewrites the script to incorporate these ideas into a new draft, which the producer canuse for funding. Producer Jeremy Thomas will say to potential investors that David Cronenberg has looked at the original script and has now added his comments. This is another way that producers add pedigree to the script. If you are a director but are not at that level yet, be prepared to fight hard for any changes you want to make to the script.

2 Directing the actors

Directing for the screen is different from directing for the stage. In stage directing, you work with actors to get them to peak on the first day of the run. In screen acting, you want a performer to stay the same as they were during the audition process.

One of the screen director’s many tasks is to find out what the cast can and cannot do; and what they will or will not do. This is done during the audition process.

Direct Your first Feature Running an audition

Actors will be nervous at an audition, and the director must make them feel comfortable. Perhaps an assistant will welcome the actors in an ante room and take their head shots and costume measurements.

Most auditions consist of a cold reading of two or three pages. The director might read one part, the actor the other. Sometimes you will hire an actor to read a part with the one you are auditioning – especially if you have already chosen an actor for a role and want to see how they compare to another face.

To see what an actor can or cannot do is fairly straightforward: either she can drag the two hundred pound gorilla through the burning embers or she can’t. Similarly accents, if required for the part, are either believable or not. If the actor cannot do what is required for the part, then they are not right. If they are right for the part, then a good director will find out what they will or won’t do, and find out before any contracts are offered. This is all done during the audition process.

However well or poorly an actor reads the part, compliment them on their reading, remembering that they are nervous, and ask them to do it again, but give them a direction. Have them read standing up, shouting, whispering, walking around – whatever, as long as it is different.

Actors go to acting classes and acting school. They read deep books on the art and craft of acting, and through their training form opinions on how a certain emotion should be acted. If you are not in agreement with this, then you cannot work with that particular individual. And if they argue or challenge your direction in the audition process, you will not be able to direct them during the rigours of the shoot.

It is useful to videotape the auditions as a point of reference. Most actors are happy for you to do this, but it is polite to ask them first.

The evening of the audition is the polite time to call and tell actors whether they have been successful or not. Actors are all too accustomed to rejection, and understand, rationally at least, that they do not fit the part. They will usually tell you that they enjoyed the audition and look forward to working with you on a future project. A personal call from the director demonstrates your compassion for them. If you are unwilling to call, then get an assistant to call.

Not calling an actor about a failed audition is rude; however, most film companies don’t extend this simple courtesy to the actors who have given up their time for them.

On the shoot

Actors get over-used and worn out. There is a knack to knowing which actor is good on the first take, which on the third. Use the slower actor for camera tests and preliminary technical rehearsals.

3 Directing the camera

Deciding where the camera is placed before each shot is the prerogative of the director. Sometimes a director will consult with the director of photography, sometimes not. Once the position has been chosen and agreed, the director places the actors and blocks the scene while the camera and lights are being rigged.

The DoP watches this process and decides which lens to use. By showing the director a lens, the DoP can then demonstrate the viability of the shot. Often the DoP will suggest an alternative camera position, which gives the director extra time to rehearse the actors while the camera is being moved. Actors will attend the shoot knowing their lines.

Basic Shots

The film industry has terms for the different ways that a person is framed. This makes it easy for film professionals to communicate the type of shot that is expected.

i Master shot
This shot takes in all of the dialogue and any new visual conceived by the director. If the camera is moving at the same time, this is called a fluid master shot.

ii Medium shot (MS)
A shot that is framed from the waist up.

iii Close-up (CU)
A shot of just the face or head.

iv Extreme close-up (ECU)
A shot of just the mouth, or the eyes.

v Cat in the window
The cat in the window shot was named after the shots of the family pet turning its head during 1950s American sitcoms. This shot gave the editor something to cut to when there was insufficient coverage to cut a scene. Hence, cut to the cat in the window.

vi Reaction shots
Shots of other actors reacting to the dialogue or action off camera.

Hint Allow Max Headroom. Don’t cut through the top of the head or through major joints like elbows or knees. Leave space at the top of the head except where you are in an ECU.

4 Directing the budget

Lo To No Budget FilmmakingTo demonstrate the challenge of directing a low budget feature film, let us assume that you have a ninety-page script and a 6:1 shooting ratio, and a one week or nine day shoot. That means that we need to shoot ten pages per day. It also means that we can ship no more than 1/9th of the film stock to the lab each day, or 5400 feet of film stock per day.

At the end of the each day, you want to hear the script supervisor say that you shot ten pages and the camera assistant say you have shipped 5400 feet to the lab. That means you are on time and on budget.

If the script supervisor says you have shot nine pages and the camera assistant says you have shipped 5400 feet, you are still on budget, but behind schedule.

If the script supervisor says you have shot ten pages and you find out you have shipped 6000 feet to the lab, then you are on schedule and over budget.

It you shoot just nine pages, and ship 6000 feet, it would seem that you are close to schedule and budget, as you are only over by ten per cent. However, this is a fiasco, and if at the end of each day this happens, it will most likely mean that you will run out of film stock near the end of day seven.

When I worked as a scenic artist, we dreaded day three of the shoot, as it was usually the day that the director was fired. Actually, directors are never fired, they leave due to creative differences. And that usually means that they did not understand how to direct the budget.

On the third day of the shoot, a suit would come to the set. People in the industry dress according to their jobs. Everyone on set dresses creative-sporting-casual as if to suggest when they woke up in the morning they dressed not knowing if they were going to play polo or go to the set. Anyone in the film industry who deals with money dresses in a suit.

And when the suits came to the set, we feared negative suit burn; referring to the damage the suits would do to the negative.

As soon as the suit would find out how many pages they were behind, they would rip out the next two, three or four pages from the shooting schedule, and presto! We would be back on schedule.

If you find out you are behind budget on a short, low budget shoot, you must make some decisions immediately. It doesn’t really matter which decision you make, just make one of them.

The options open to you are:

1. Abandon the shoot, return all the equipment and film stock, suffer the loss of a few thousand, and regroup and come back in a few months time when you are better prepared.

2. Offer the director and cameraperson a 2:1 shooting ratio until they have caught up.

3. Find some more money and buy some more film stock.

4. Fire the director and direct the picture yourself. At least you will understand the importance of shooting ratio.

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About Elliot Grove

Elliot GroveCanadian born Elliot Grove founded Raindance Film Festival in 1993, the British Independent Film Awards in 1998, and Raindance.TV in 2007, the Raindance Postgraduate Film Degree in 2011 and Raindance Raw Talent in 2013.

He has produced over 150 short films, and 5 feature films incuding his latest feature film, Deadly Virtues: Love.Honour.Obey. He has written eight scripts, one of which is currently in pre-production. He teaches writers and producers in the UK, Europe. Japan and America.

He has written three books which have become industry standards: RAINDANCE WRITERS LAB 2nd Edition (Focal Press 2008),  RAINDANCE PRODUCERS LAB (Focal Press 2013) and 130 PROJECTS TO GET YOU INTO FILMMAKING (Barrons 2009). His first novel THE BANDIT QUEEN is scheduled for publication next year.

Open University awarded Elliot and Honourary Doctorate for services to film education in 2009.
He is regularly interviewed. Here is an interview for Canadian television

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The 4 Responsibilites of Directors