Demystifying Careers: Film Direction
When asked what a director does,
"I help" - Krzysztof Kieslowski
"A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard" - Billy Wilder
Two quotes by two of the most amazing directors on what they do, and the more of them you talk to, all of them end up saying entirely different things. Who do you believe?
I however sense a commonality in these quotes (and the many others you can find online on the subject) that tell you the one message – film direction is a personal experience and there are as many approaches to it as there are film directors.
So, it’s a hard job to define film direction and yet here’s a brief primer on what you can expect.
What is film direction?
Movies are easy to watch but they hide the enormous amounts of preparation and hard work that go into making them. Inarritu says it best when he says that to make a film is easy, to make a good film is war, to make a very good film is a miracle.
Film making involves imagining an alternative reality and then bringing it to reality in front of the camera.
Everything that you see on the screen was once just an image or a vague idea inside the mind of the writer or the director. The director is the leader of a group of people who work in tandem to bring these visions to life and then mould them into an audiovisual experience. What story needs to be told, from whose point of view, how is it to be done, what actors should play the different roles, what costumes should the characters wear, where should the camera be, where do you begin a scene and where do you end it, what sound do you want to highlight a particular emotion, these and many more such decisions are made by the director of a film.
A day in the life of a film director
It depends on the day, really. The life of a filmmaker is inextricably linked with the stage the film is in. If it’s in pre-production where much of the film is planned, then the director would probably be busy with meeting actors to cast them, meeting with producers to sort out budgetary issues, scouting locations for the shoot, discussing the art and costume requirements with respective department heads, scheduling the shoot, designing look of the film alongside the cinematographer, discussing the music with the music director and so on. In between these things, the director is busy answering questions from his harried team of assistants on virtually everything under the sun.
What does a film director do on a set?
Once the film goes on the floors, it gets crazier. Shoots normally last 12 hours and anyone who’s been on a set knows that the days are a blur of activity. Everything that’s been planned is supposed to work like clockwork, which could almost never happen. On the sets the director has to block out everything and concentrate on getting the shots on camera as she’d envisioned and planned for. Sticking to the schedule is of paramount importance as is getting the best out of the actors without getting distracted by the frenzy around them. Actors are fragile beings and getting them to bare their souls in front of an entire crew is a challenge that a director has to master.
Sanity is returned to proceedings once the film gets into post production. Here the director works with the editor to craft a film out of the footage she’s managed to shoot. Day after day, the two of them go through the film endlessly and try to cut into the closest approximation of what the director had in mind. It’s painstaking work for once the film is locked there’s no turning back, that’s the version people are going to watch. Once the final edit is locked the filmmaker works with the sound designer and music director and gives it the final touches. In Indian cinema or any other film makers that have music as a part of their storyline, music is done ahead of the edit process.
Increasingly the director is now been asked to take responsibility for the release of the film as well. The last leg of a filmmaker’s responsibility is to promote the film as best as she can.
What skills does a film director need?
The quote at the beginning by Billy Wilder sums up succinctly the answer to this question. The director is a leader who has to motivate and rally her troops to help them help her get the vision in her mind out on the screen. The director has to therefore cajole, coerce, plead, excite, humour, energise, encourage and bully her cast and crew and more importantly, know when to do what.
The director has to be visually creative and inventive, know what she wants and sometimes, what she doesn’t, be decisive, be a great communicator and lead by example.
Knowledge of different aspects related to filmmaking like cinematography, editing and music is important if she has to gain the confidence of those around her.
If there’s one thing that filmmaking entails, it’s decision making. Every minute there are questions thrown at the director, which she has to answer. An ability to keep calm under stress and stretch oneself when the going gets tough are critical. It’s a career full of uncertainties and a film director is dependent upon a lot of people to make her dreams come true. Projects often take years – I mean decades – to get made and therefore patience is a handy trait to have. But this patience is usually coupled with doggedness in the best of filmmakers who continue to toil to make their dreams a reality despite all the obstacles in their way.
There are as many ways to become a film director as there are filmmakers. There are people who work for years in films assisting other directors before turning directors themselves and then there are others who make their films without ever having been on a film set before.
Pros and Cons of going to Film School
Hitchcock started film production and writing before making his first film while Truffaut started life as a film critic. Satyajit Ray worked in advertising before making Pather Panchali and Kubrick worked as a photographer before turning to films. Some like Gulzar start out as writers while others like Hrishikesh Mukherjee start with editing before turning to film direction. This list also includes producers, actors, musicians, cinematographers and a whole host of other professionals who’ve made their mark as directors. One of the most well known Hollywood directors, Quentin Tarantino worked in a video rental store before making a big splash with his debut film.
Over the years many filmmakers have graduated from film schools and worked in the industry before making their debuts. This list is long and includes luminaries like Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese, George Lucas amongst others in Hollywood. However not many mainstream Bollywood filmmakers have a film school background. Award winning filmmakers with film school education like Ritesh Batra, Gurvinder Singh, Avinash Arun and Raam Reddy are creating waves internationally with their films.
The usual route in India has however been to start with assisting a filmmaker, building your own network and pitching your film before progressing onto becoming a full-fledged director. Almost all leading directors in Bollywood today, including Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Raju Hirani, Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, Ayan Sen, Anurag Kashyap all started their careers assisting or writing for someone else.
Just get a camera and shoot
Since there are no technical qualifications needed to become a film director, it’s open to anyone who has the hunger to tell a story and can muster up enough money and a team to make one. With cameras and filmmaking software getting cheaper many youngsters around the world are using the internet to learn the craft and playing with the medium by making their own films.
Short films are in vogue and many leading filmmakers started their life making shorts to get noticed.
Karthik Subbaraj, one of the most exciting Tamil filmmakers of today, is a great example of someone who started with short films and continued making them till he’d become proficient at the craft and found people to support him. It’s a continuous process of learning, building your network, pitching your films and raising money to make them. Basically, you are hustling all the time.
Where can you find work?
In India, since the film industry is centered around a few centers like Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Kochi, most talent gravitates to these places. Getting a break however is an entirely different thing. It helps to have someone you know on the inside. A body of work, maybe a short film or two could be of use too. Although it’s easy to find email ID’s and reach out to people on Twitter, there’s no guarantee that you can find work once you are in town.
Having said that, it’s not impossible either. Films need crew all the time and if you really want to learn the craft then don’t hesitate to do whatever work is thrown your way. Interning on a film is a great way of learning the ropes.
You might not get paid on your first film and that sadly seems to be the norm. However, if you consider this as the cost of education, then it shouldn't deter you.
Television, is another medium you can start with before eventually migrating to films. With the boom in the digital space, a lot of film enthusiasts are making web series too and this could be another entry point into the industry.
The bottom line is to get your hands dirty learning on sets as much as possible. There’s no substitute to this. Work will lead to more work and people and as you learn and become better at your job, the chances of your getting a break become higher.
With technology on your side today, you don’t need anyone to give you that break either. Just pick your smartphone or rent a cheap DSLR and make your own film. It might out to be better than you expected and you could develop a fan following. And, if it is not the greatest film ever made, it will still be a film nonetheless, and you, will be a filmmaker.