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As cast or crew, what do you look for in a director?

So much is written about what is expected of actors, or of camera people. But, what about a director? What role do you think a director has on the set? What's her responsibility regarding casting, framing a shot, set design, acting style, script development, post production, and otherwise?

Even if you can't always choose who you work for (because you need the money), if two films pay equally well, and everything else is equal, what personal traits or talents would make you choose one director over another?

I've kind of started some debates here with other directors, and I've read some of the views of Hitchcock, Truffaut, Eisenstein and others, but I'm most interested in what members of the cast and crew think.

I'm occasionally asked to give career advice to young people (don't ask me why), and this is one of the questions they ask me. (They also ask other questions, if anyone wishes to take my place next time.) Also, I'm curious myself, whether other people look for the same traits that I do.

Note, if you'd like to give a confidential answer, PM me or email/e-bost vasco dot desousa at ptara dot com.

  • Every director is different. They vary from, at one end, those that are very hands-on, very clued up about the technical side, have rigourously storyboarded everything, every frame has to be exactly how they want it etc. At the other end you have, what I call, the actor's director. They are only interested in the actors and thir performances, and leave the filming completely to the DOP and Operator. I've worked with both extremes and it doesn't matter to me which ones I work for. Its the director's call as to how much involvement they have outside of just dealing with the actors, but is important that how much involvement they are going to have is made clear from the outset so that there are no misunderstandings and everyone knows what the ground rules are.

    Having said that, its not just one extreme or the other. There is a whole spectrum of directors between the two extremes. I have found that no two directors are the same in the way they work.

    2 years ago
    • Thanks. If I understand correctly, it's important to be clear and consistent (and I assume fair), but beyond that it's up to the individual director which working style to use.

      2 years ago
    • @vasco de sousa Yes. But the buck stops with the director. Any work he delegates to others, he/she has to take responsibility for as the delegation itself is a creative act. If the results of that delegation are a great success, then the director takes the credit. If the results of the delegation are a disaster then the director has to take the blame.

      A good director will create a good creative team around him/her so when a director is hired it is actually the team that is hired. When there is a change in director that very often means there is a change in HODs because of this.

      2 years ago
  • Director needs to do or deputise everything creative. A good director will agree things like makeup and costume and art dept in advance, and then trust people to get on with their jobs and only make corrections if essential. By trusting the crew, the director will also be trusted and respected in return.

    Director also sets the tone of the set - if they are calm and collected and professional, so the crew and cast will respond to that. If they're chaotic, the shoot will be chaotic and fractious. If you're on a chaotic shitshow of a shoot, you can be reasonably confident the director has lost the trust of his cast and crew.

    From a production viewpoint, the best result is to keep the drama on the screen and away from crew. There will always be some of course, but the value of a calm, in-control director cannot be overestimated.

    2 years ago
    • Paddy, do you get to be on a lot of film sets as a line producer? Or, have you had a chance to work in makeup? Just curious whether you're speaking from experience.

      2 years ago
    • @vasco de sousa When I'm on a film, I'll engage the crew that I agree with the director, and am responsible for every aspect of production, including locations, set builds, etc. I'm on a lot of sets and locations when working, my own (eg see IMDb) and other peoples. I'd say my thoughts are from experience, however I'd also caution that my opinions are just that - my opinions! I'm happy to accept that I may be wrong, just I know what works for me and if it resonates with anyone else, then that's great, if not, no problem :)

      From my background, though, I have seen chaotic and very stable shoots. The most stable have been like on a Spielberg set (just as an extra!) and that was a great example of a director quietly in charge. The chaotic were ones where the director lost control. Directors don't generally lose control when I'm line producing as I'll surround them with good people if they're not experienced enough to carry that huge responsibility. The 1AD is the most important person for that - a solid AD will drive the shoot :)

      2 years ago
  • Talking about things that one has little or no experience of is akin to that of 'stolen valour' whereby Walter Mitty types pretend to be military veterans. Scoping out such fraudsters is a service to the community but doing so in a speculatory fashion is fraught with peril. Paddy is of course a hugely experienced professional in these and related fields and one of the few doyens who contribute regular wisdom to these lists. He does not need to be ID'd by anyone here who's qualified to ask for it.

    Ironically there's other forms of 'stolen valour', where a poseur massively over blows thier qualifications by presenting thier credits as representing more than they're worth. IMDB is awash with credits that don't bare much scrutiny and then again there's those whose much more significant works don't get listed anywhere near as much as they ought, if they had reason to care, the late great Dan Selkovitch being a good example.

    The notion that actors or craft department bods might preevaluate a director is indeed highly hypothetical because actors and HOD's hiring directors is a rarity that only super stars get to do.

    The director is hired by the producer. It's the producer who sets the moral and professional tone and environment. If the director can't satisfy the producer he and everyone else can be fired by that producer. So if one wants to gauge what sort of a production is in the offing, take a good look at the producer first.

    2 years ago
    • That's very kind John, and some very valid points. Personally, I don't mind if anyone is unsure of me, it's better that than they believe everything they're told in this industry as you've identified with the "valour" thieves!

      The are a lot of utter bullshitters out there who prey on inexperienced filmmakers with grand tales and raw incompetence. On a film a couple of years ago, we were introduced to a "financier" who was supposedly good for £2.5M, having just sold a streaming platform tech to Viacom (then there's a bit of smoke and handwaving which is a common misdirection from a con man) and anyway the money would be in the account in 3 days, so it was go, go, go on the shoot which we were on the verge of closing down. We pushed again, we had cast on the country in hotels, we had rehearsals and medicals and insurances and trucks about to roll... But where was the money? I maintained that anyone good for £2.5M in 3 days was good for £50k on the spot, but on we pressed. Long story short, lots of weeks of shouting, stress and acrimony later the project had to be put on long hiatus. I recently saw the financier on "Can't Pay, We'll Take It Away" High Court enforcers show on Channel 5. He had nothing of value for the bailiffs to take except some designer sunglasses and belts. Just another crook full of bullshit.

      When appraising IMDB credits, I find it helpful to skip any shorts or "in development" films and look at features that actually got delivered and distributed. Then look at the credits for those. There are a lot of quite vague producing credits, and generally you look for a producer (rather than exec, associate, co-) who isn't starring in the film or has a child or spouse in the film ;-)

      There are a lot of these guys swimming in our industry, so I would rather be challenged and people see they can go to HMV and buy films I've made rather than them getting conned by one of these crooks. I've certainly made mistakes, but my dealings have been open. My advice is just words, which I encourage people to accept or ignore as they see fit. If it works for them, that's great, if it doesn't and they prove me wrong, well well done to them, let me know and I'll learn from them, no problem.

      What you say about directors being sacked, yes that certainly happens, so we do everything we can to prevent that! No film is without challenges, but whilst I learn from my own mistakes, I like to learn from other people's mistakes even more ;-)

      2 years ago
  • Just got back from a 600 mile drive in my 22 year old Land Rover. Chilling out at 5 o'clock in the morning. Thank you Paddy for a lesson in graceful responce and apologies to all for my iritable and abrasive responce to Vasco's post.

    2 years ago
    • And that, in itself, was gracious John :)

      Gosh that's a long drive, hope there was something worthwhile at the other end of it ;-)

      2 years ago
    • Cheers for the kind mitigation Paddy.

      It was a rescue mission for dear friends in a pickle. All went well in the end so it was worthwhile. Mid Wales - Newhaven - Bristol - Mid Wales in one. Old Landy performed admirably.

      2 years ago
  • As an actor, confident, supportive, gentle guidance and the freedom to experiment and fail during the pre-production/rehearsal stages :-)

    2 years ago
  • There are many responsibilities but to create, determine and execute the staging and selection of shots as well as coax the performers to provide the best to reflect what the writer intended, plus so much more, e.g. to lead, to make decisions and to have a vision, without being noticed. That's a start.

    2 years ago
  • We're now drawing up a list of ideals. But directors are human beings and differ enormously in character. Not every one appreciates the same thing. The qualified authority of aquired skill and natural talent combined with grace and moral fibre works well.

    2 years ago
  • I think if no one notices the director, there is a problem. :)

    2 years ago
  • This is a very very interesting topic and John you're doing a great job of keeping it on track! Having been lucky enough to Art direct and standby art direct for many great directors....I thought I'd stick in my humble opinion for what its worth!

    As the question was what do a cast and crew look for from a director then this depends massively on what the project is. If its a high budget film I want to pushed to be creative and think outside the box, as I have the man power and budget to do this. Its great to work for a director who wants to really push the boundaries and shoot things in an imaginative and if necessary time consuming way.

    However on a longer running drama i want the director to shoot in a more economical manner, showing an awareness that a crew can't keep up hours and hours of overtime (even well paid overtime!) over a longer period! But also a director that will slow down and shoot in a more creative way when required. So the end product is decent.

    Also if the project has a lower budget then I'm looking for more concise instruction so that the budget can be focused on what will be seen on screen, also I need an element of understanding and problem solving, to make tricky scenes and set work with a lower budget.

    Mark is entirely right that all directors are completely different, be who ever you really are and get crew that work well for you and the way you want to direct! Communicate what you need to succeed, some directors want to see visuals of all sets and props, others just want to see certain elements and trust you to get on with the rest so they can get on with other tasks.

    2 years ago
    • So, if I understand correctly, a lot depends upon time and budget, and the ability to work appropriately within circumstances, but not all directors need to work in exactly the same way either.

      2 years ago
  • I agree Mark that there is a problem if no one on set notices the Director. What I was referring to was viewing the completed work. When telling a story, the director should not allow any gimmickry, style, apprrach etc. to distract the attention of the viewer from the narrative. In this sense, I believe that the Director's contribution should blend unnoticed with the script.

    2 years ago
    • The question was what do cast and crew look for in a director. Not what the audience looks for in a director.

      2 years ago
  • As far as being noticed, that might be interesting. Some actors, writers, producers, editors, art designers and others have specific styles that they may wish to get across. The creative competition might ask a question like, who is responsible for the look and feel of a sequence, the director or the cinematographer?

    I can see that one might be annoyed if a director takes someone else's hard work and distorts it. I recently read how Chekov was annoyed with Stanislavski for turning his comedies into melodramas, and for adding too many crickets to the background.

    Thank you all for your feedback. If I understand correctly, Pat Garrett's comment on guidance and freedom to experiment speaks for a lot of actors (from what I've read and heard), Mark Wiggins clarified well that the buck stops with the director, Joe Withers brings up that different budgets require different working styles, Nicholas Prosser sees the director's job as to bring out what it says in the text, Paddy seems to say the director should be calm and lead by example, and it seems John emphasises more qualities than specific traits.

    I probably got some of that wrong, and feel free to clarify anything that I may have missed.

    2 years ago
  • All of the above ;-)

    2 years ago
  • When I see a question such as this, it makes me miss Dan Selakovich even more than still I very much do. He would have said something about how a director and an editor work together to bring about the very best vision, and illustrated this with his breadth of experience, NDA permitting. When I get over my grief, I'll answer your question, Vasco. A great question and very Dan-worthy.

    2 years ago
  • I look forward to your response Paulina.

    I remember reading a few of Dan's posts aimed at directors, and I'll include links here.

    First, he said that DPs do not select the shots, directors do. It appeared that at least one DP disagreed, here's that discussion:

    Another, that I had a little disagreement with, but he has a point, is that the director shouldn't edit their own films. I think French directors do edit well, but I'll agree with him that American and British directors tend to be too attached to what they shoot.

    I personally thought Bourne fight sequences were actually better than a lot of fight scenes in Bond films (which had a separate editor.) The final fight in Black Panther, the two characters looked the same (of course, maybe that's intentional, with the costume.)
    Personally, I put fight scenes down to storyboarding, which according to Walter Murch makes a film cut better, and the screenwriting. Walter Murch has more to say on that topic in "A Blink of an Eye." Is storyboarding the director's job? If choosing the shots is, it seems logical (to me anyway) that storyboarding comes under that.

    2 years ago