Moving in the Right Direction: 5 Essentials of Being A Great Director

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Greetings and salutations my friends, and welcome back! For those of you who checked in on the Trove blog last week, we did a piece on “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and spoke a little bit about it’s director, Stanley Kubrick. But, after writing said blog, I didn’t really think to explain … what a director is.

Whether you’re a bonafide media buff or couldn’t care less about television and film, there are names you just know. Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Michael Bay (it caused me physical pain to include him with the previous three, but unfortunately he’s a pretty well-known director. God I hate myself). We know who these guys are, but some of us don’t really know what it is they actually do.

A director, essentially, is the big daddy (or momma) of a film set. Whether they’re working from their own script or someone else’s, the film is ultimately their vision, and every single person working on that set (barring too much interference from a studio producer) is there to help that director reach that vision. They almost act as a general of sorts; while they never may be getting right down in the nitty gritty of the fight themselves, they, well direct everyone with what they’re supposed to be doing. They’re helping actors fully realize their roles, and coaxing the performances that they are looking for from them. They’re telling the DP (cinematographer) what they’re looking for their film to communicate visually. They’re checking with the costume designers to make sure their actors are properly attired, consulting the production design crew to create a setting that can be a perfect host to the story they’re trying to tell. They are the puppet master and the head-est of honchos.

But how does one become a successful director? What are some essential traits that separate the big directing dawgs from the lil’ directing pups? Well, after doing some research and spending some time on sets, it seems, in my humble opinion, there are five major characteristics any great director must have; a unique visual style, a mastery of tone, a knowledge of human behavior, an adept sense of communication, and an understanding of their audience’s psychology.

Let’s start with the most basic and obvious concept; looking at something that looks nice!

Look on My Works, Ye Mighty!: Having A Unique Visual Style

I was having a conversation with my much adored and wonderful friend Addisohn the other day, referencing a MasterClass he had watched that was guided by director Ron Howard (ya’ know, Opie from “Happy Days”). However, while praising Howard’s advice and, ahem, direction, Addisohn admitted “His style, uh, well. He doesn’t really have a style. He’s kind of just there.” Savage stuff, but true stuff all the same. Howard is by no means a bad director, “Apollo 13,” “Rush,” and “A Beautiful Mind” all being pretty solid movies, but is he in the same class as current greats like Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, or the Coen Brothers? Probably not, and a large part of that is due to the fact that he lacks a key sense of visual style.

 Wes Anderson at his most Wes Anderson-y.

Wes Anderson at his most Wes Anderson-y.

Take David Fincher, one of the most detail-oriented directors working right now if not the most. His movies are usually shot with great restraint, with almost no camera movement (which really manages to ratchet up suspense in his movies, good god), in muted colors. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Wes Anderson. He works with some sense of restraint, but to a different end. Anderson is noted for how closely he follows symmetry with his films, to excruciating precision, but it fits perfectly with his quirky, off-kilter style. The colors in his films are vibrant and flashy, his editing quick and sharp, his camera panning constantly. If we’re looking at the masters of old, David Lean used epic, powerful wide shots for his … epics (this is the man behind “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Bridge on the River Kwai”), while Hitchcock constantly used the notion of voyeurism, so often had audiences watching what was unfolding in the movie through the point of view of the characters. You know you’re dealing with a pro director when you can flip on one of their movies and realize just from a glance it’s one from their repertoire.

Don’t You Take That Tone With Me!: A Mastery of Tone

We spoke briefly about Wes Anderson and his visual style, and how it ties into the quirky tone of his movies, which takes us to another huge facet of good direction -- tone. Tone is one of those factors of a movie that you don’t realize you’re experiencing when you watch a film, but it’s obviously MASSIVE when trying to convey the mood for your film, and a great director has their own tone as well as visual style.

For example, let’s bash a pair of men who have brought shame to the house of the action film the last few years -- Zack Snyder and Michael Bay. Both have somewhat of their own, average “visual style”, (Snyder being all sleek and wannabe Christopher Nolan, while Bay just blows things up), but neither one understands tone. Snyder is just all over the place, trying to be dark and gritty with his DC movies but failing, while Bay is just at a 12 on the scale of machismo nonsense for the entire duration of unnecessarily long movies.

Then you’ve got Quentin Tarantino. His movies typically look amazing, but his tone is what has made him so successful. Sure, a lot of that can be contributed to his gift for dialogue, but in his worst films, he’s gone too heavy on the dialogue and gotten lazy in the director’s chair. His best films are zippy, thrilling, and irreverently enjoyable. Over the top violence, awesome music, and wild tension all add up to give you THE Tarantino experience. While not quite on the same level of influence (yet), young director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash” and “La La Land”) has proven to be adept at tone as well. “Whiplash” is a roller coaster, going from blistering intensity to more quiet, more emotional moments; “La La Land” goes from a fantastical, fairy tale musical sequence to tragic realism. It’s prettaaay impressive stuff.

 Damien faces the music (get it?!)

Damien faces the music (get it?!)

Oh The Humanity!: Understanding Human Behavior

Obviously, it’s nice to look to at some aesthetically pleasing images when you’re watching film or television, but the other big hook and focal point are the actors you’re watching and their performances. You can make the most gorgeous movie imaginable, but no is going to give the most remote iota of s%#@ about it if they don’t care about your characters. And while the writing has to be strong to deliver good characters, it’s up to your actors to give a convincing performance as those characters to bring them to life. Which is when an understanding of human behavior comes into play. These actors need to become their characters, they need to be real, and if as a director you understand human beings, it’ll be reflected in your actors.

Let’s take a look at my BOY, Paul Thomas Anderson, the absolute genius behind “There Will Be Blood,” “Boogie Nights,” and “The Master” (movies you may have never heard of, but that you MUST see). Anderson is renowned for getting astonishing performances from his actors, giving us some of the best performances in the careers of greats like Daniel Day-Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, and many more. The characters he creates (he writes his own scripts) often are far from normal, but he still grounds them and makes them realistic both in his writing, but also by getting real performances from his actors. In “Punch-Drunk Love,” Anderson got to know Adam Sandler, and turned his whole man-child persona into a tragic, sad figure as the film’s protagonist. Because Anderson knows that ridiculous characters like Billy Madison (a movie which I will freely admit I adore) and other similar characters Sandler has played aren’t human, but used his skill to play those types of characters mixed to portray another similar character, but one that has authentic humanity.

You can see this with other phenomenal directors too. Legendary director Akira Kurosawa would shoot his films with multiple cameras to help his actors relax and get more natural performances from them. Jason Reitman (“Juno”) always takes a few weeks to sit down and really get to know his actors before proceeding to direct them to really know what makes them tick as people. Little known and criminally underrated director Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher,” “Moneyball”) got Jonah Hill and Steve Carell, two actors previously known as goofy comedy stars, Oscar nominations because he was able to understand both the human nature of their characters, and them as people.

 Kurosawa droppin' some knowledge on newbies Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas.

Kurosawa droppin' some knowledge on newbies Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas.

Say Anything (But Don't): Having an Acute Sense of Communication

Ask yourselves, my friends, which method of communication you respond to better; screaming, or speaking? Demeaning, or patient? Mocking, or cooperative? These may seem like simple decisions, but some directors don’t tend to think so, instead choosing to going veritably mad with power.

Sure, in some cases, it may be permissible to go a little bonkers as a director, but the film may call for it. Stanley Kubrick, who I raved about in last week’s blog as potentially the best director ever, made life hell for Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall on the set of “The Shining.” He made them both do so many takes, at some points hundreds, shouting and berating them to get them as stressed as possible (Duvall’s hair actually started falling out) -- which is exactly what he was hoping to achieve in their performances. There’s a method to that madness.

But is there a method in James Cameron telling his actors, who were swimming in a scene for his film “The Abyss,” to shut up and just pee in the water if they had to go to the restroom? Or Michael Bay making a scantily clad Megan Fox wash his car to audition for “Transformers”? Or Brett Ratner just … being Brett Ratner? As Martin Sheen would say it, I see no method at all.

To summarize, a key to good direction; just be a decent human being and treat people like … people. You know, that whole “being a good person” thing.

Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?: Knowing Your Audience’s Psychology

All traits of a good director that we’ve mentioned so far, whether it be their visual style or understanding of human behavior or being tonally aware, are all done for one purpose -- to communicate something to the audience. Every minutiae, every tweak, every major and minor detail is accomplished to tell the audience something. For this reason, perhaps (is it possible to use the word “perhaps” and not sound like a pompous monster) the most important director trait of all is knowing the psychology of your audience, and how what you are creating will engage with them on a cognitive level.

 A shot from Ingmar Bergman's disturbing masterpiece, "Cries and Whispers."

A shot from Ingmar Bergman's disturbing masterpiece, "Cries and Whispers."

Take, for example, color. Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, who also has quite a large following of people who believe him to be the greatest director ever, has every scene of his film “Cries and Whispers” awash in reds and whites, as you can see in the scene above. This is no accident; the film, about death and the fragility of human life, is meant to visually evoke blood and flesh, subconsciously furthering the audience’s understanding of the themes of the film.

Or let’s think of sound, and talk about David Lynch, the master of surrealism, and his film "Eraserhead." The single most uncomfortable viewing experiences of my life, the disturbing imagery is only enhanced by the garish, foreboding score. With cinematography, Kathryn Bigelow, in “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” uses a gritty, handheld method to give those films a more realistic, almost documentary feel.

Or if we look at composition with John Ford’s Western classic, “The Searchers.” The film’s iconic final shot is the very essence of loneliness, and Ford is sure to communicate that to the audience by having John Wayne’s character standing alone, framed by a doorway, isolated. It’s a devastating shot, and Ford knows his audience enough to effectively communicate the crushing uselessness Wayne’s character feels. It helps that Ford also gets some phenomenal, wordless acting from Wayne, whose sadness is demonstrated just by posture. In this final image, we can see what made John Ford such a legend as a director, as he demonstrates almost every great trait in one shot; how to communicate a theme visually and tonally, through a supreme understanding of human psychology and behavior.

 Poor John.

Poor John.

So that’s the blog for this week folks! If I forgot to mention your favorite director in here, I … am sorry. Unless of course you have bad taste, in which case I’m not.

Anyway, if you liked what you read feel free to read our other blogs on our website and check in next week for a new one! See you guys next week!