August 28, 2013

'Your Job Is Explaining Your Vision': Tarantino, John Carpenter, & Kurt Russell on the Director's Role

As a director, what is your job? It's a simple question, but deceptively so, almost like a zen koan (what is the sound of one clapboard clapping?) While most everyone else on a movie set has a clear and defined role, the director's job description is a nebulous thing, and if you ask fifty different filmmakers, you might get fifty different answers. Click below to see what John Carpenter had to say to Kurt Russell about directing and "vision," as well as advice from Terry Gilliam, via the always entertaining Quentin Tarantino.

John Carpenter and Kurt Russell have had a long and fruitful collaboration, from Big Trouble in Little Chinato Escape From New Yorkand beyondIn this conversation from a video on YouTube channel filmschoolcomments, Carpenter discusses reading a book by the great screenwriter William Goldman, scribe of such classics as Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and The Marathon Man, and paraphrases Goldman as saying that no director has any vision, that it's the screenwriter who picks up most of the slack. Russell counters that:

Some directors see something, shoot it because it looks good....a succession of good looking images...not making me feel anything...There were guys who were traffic cops. But there are directors who have vision, I can watch 20 seconds of a movie and tell you...it's a John Carpenter movie.

Carpenter talks about how from his earliest days the one thing that was drummed into his head was to be a storyteller, above all else; in other words, the pictures serve the story, and not the other way around.

In another great segment on the director's job, check out this Quentin Tarantino interview with Charlie Rose, where Quentin discusses advice he received from Terry Gilliam before Tarantino shot Reservoir Dogs. According to Tarantino, he asked Gilliam what the difference was between directors who seemed to have "vision" and those who lacked it. The answer he received:

As a director...your job is to hire talented people who can do that. You hire a cinematographer who can get the lighting you want...you hire a production designer...your job is explaining your vision.

According to Tarantino, as soon as he heard that, the heavens opened and he had a revelation about just what directing was, and it gave him a tremendous burst of confidence going into Reservoir Dogs and the rest of his legendary career.

What do you think? If you're a director, how do you view your job? Some directors are more involved than others (either by choice or necessity) in the aesthetic choices on their films, but what do you think a director's "vision" comes down to? If you work in any other capacity on films, how do you view your role? Let us know!

Link: Kurt Russell and John Carpenter on Importance of Vision -- Cinephilia and Beyond

Your Comment

15 Comments

What terry Gilliam says sounds right.
I sold my camera and lens gear in order to trust someone better than myself to handle that department.
not interested in all the credit, only getting the best out of my actors.
Been on set too many times where director was more concerned with tech than on screen talent.
I also like how kevin smith put it: "let talented people work, they'll take care of you."

August 28, 2013 at 8:35PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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vinceGortho

Someone once gave me the advice, years ago: only ever hire someone if they are better than you. I think this applies really well here. It has worked for me pretty well over the years in all kinds of endeavours, artistic and day-job related.

I think a second useful thing I learned is to say no to projects. If I get involved in something, it's going to take a chunk of my life, whether it's recording an album, doing some other kind of art, or for that matter taking on a project in my day job. If I'm going to spend *that* much time, and put *that* much heart and soul into it, I want it to be worth it.

I've just directed a few shorts at this point, I've not done a feature (yet), but it seems pretty much self-evident that the #1 way to make an awesome movie is to say no to as many possibilities of making crappy movies as possible. I'm really picky about stories, I'm not really going to want to put the effort of writing a script in unless I'm blown away by the story. And I'm not going to want to drop 2 or 3 years of my life into producing/directing a feature unless the script is off the scale awesome, and more importantly, is telling a story I love. I know for a definite fact that I suck at faking it, for art to work, I have to mean it.

But, I can't do it on my own. I know what I'm good at, but I'll happily hand any of that over to someone who is better than me. For example, I know I'm good enough at camera operating to get the shots that are in my (director-mode) head. I'm definitely good enough at sound to get good audio (used to do that as my day job, way back when, so I'd have no excuse if I screwed that up). I know that I'm not a good producer, I'm too introverted, and I really suck at detail paperwork stuff, so no one ever wants me as a line producer/UPM/script supervisor/etc. I'm an OK editor, but I'm not Walter Murch by any means. I'm pretty decent at CG/digital matte painting/compositing. I'd rather do my own grading because that's a huge part of the way I tend to visualise images. I'd rather do my own sound mix for similar reasons. I could do my own music, and would do a good job *if* the material suited my musical style, otherwise, no way would I hire myself for that. I kind of think that I start a project with myself hired into all the roles, and I fire myself whenever I find someone better than me. If I don't find anyone better, or I run out of money, I just do it myself.

What Rob said about concept fits into the choosing the best possible story to tell part, I think. A not very interesting story might be turdpolished into an awesome movie, but then again I have this bridge for sale that you might be interested in instead.

I like cameras and lenses. I own too many of them for it to make any common sense. Most of them are stills cameras actually. But, that's partly day job stuff (I'm currently designing one that's intended to survive going to the Moon -- for real). That said, I suspect camera and lens choice would be way way way down my list in comparison with story, script, acting, lighting and putting the camera in the right place. Again, much as I love camera and lens pr*n, I crave posts like this one!

August 30, 2013 at 7:51AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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I really appreciate this article. I know this webpage tends to focus on articles for all the camera junkies but at the end of the day great filmmaking comes down to the artist not the tools they used. Of course there's different levels of quality in tools. But look the 2013 palm d or winner it was shot on a canon c300 but what did it have? The essentials. Quentin tarantino is an amazing story teller and so is Christopher Nolan. They booth still shoot on film.
Christopher Nolan's first film was financed by himself she shot it on 16mm black and white film every 2 weeks when he would get paid by his crappy job he would buy film stock and shoot on 2 Saturdays every month. He had the actors rehearse for 6 months before shooting started. In total he spent 6,000$$ over 1 year. He submitted his film to all the film festivals then 15 years later he is one of the greatest living directors.

August 28, 2013 at 11:33PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Aaron

Thanks!

September 4, 2013 at 10:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Justin Morrow
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Writer/Director

Great article. I wish these post got more comments. Truly feel like too much tech talk is going on.

August 29, 2013 at 1:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Thanks a lot! Glad to know people are getting anything out of this stuff.

September 4, 2013 at 10:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Justin Morrow
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Writer/Director

Nice post. A word often used by creatives in advertising instead of "vision" is "concept". You can have all the cool designs, camera moves, dialogue and action but if there is no concept/vision behind it, the result may not resonate. If every element is used to further the concept, a more powerful result may be attained. When faced with multiple options, choose the one that serves the concept. It is not always easly to understand the difference between concept and style.

August 29, 2013 at 1:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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rob

Yup. Same basic thing, I think. There has to be a focused idea, a central intelligence, that is behind whatever it is. Otherwise you just have cool shots and sweet edits. Thanks!

September 4, 2013 at 10:08PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Justin Morrow
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Writer/Director

Furthering the comment from Kevin Smith, I remember in one of his QnA's (all of them are just awesome btw ;) ) he talked about his experience working with Bruce Willis in Cop Out. Bruce had asked him what lens that was on the camera. Smith just motioned with his hands that it was about a mid-shot. Bruce took him aside and started chastice him about how he as a director needs to know what lenses are used, in millimeters. Smith said he hired the DP to worry about that. Bruce pushed even further so Smith just asked the DP who proceeded to motion with his hands about a mid-shot just like Smith did. Supposedly Bruce stopped asking at that point.

I've basically had my oppinions changed about Bruce in general after hearing stories from people like Smith that has worked with the guy... but that is kindof off-topic...

August 31, 2013 at 9:30AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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I guess Bruce was either 1. Trying to learn for his own Directing ambitions? Or 2. More likely - trying to Impress with his vast Knowledge.

August 31, 2013 at 12:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dheep'

Or maybe Bruce was horrified to realize he was working with a lazy amateur.

September 5, 2013 at 3:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Muh

Actors with experience learn that stuff. It's a security blanket to make sure they look good. It's not only with lenses, it's with lighting too. Some actors can tell EXACTLY how much light is being used by the DP to the point of where they can predict a light meter's reading.

September 10, 2013 at 3:17AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Tarantino's description of the "Hip-Hop Esthetic" - taking from here & putting it there as creation. "It's taken a while to be respected". Quentin - you should speak for yourself on that one because for a lot of folks ,it will Never be respected as a "Creation".

August 31, 2013 at 12:18PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dheep'

I only watched Following recently, and it made me realise how overrated I think Nolan is. Like Memento, breaking up the chronology of a plot to that extent is just lazy storytelling, IMO. A sort of deus ex machina, he could just throw any ending in there and justify it with a flashback.

That said, yeah, he did work his ass off with no budget, so fair play to him!

July 25, 2014 at 3:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I know that he doesn't seem to get much critical praise but I really like a lot of John Carpenter's movies. Sometimes they seem to be lacking technical polish like "They Live", but for me they usually have an interesting storyline and entertaining action.

I suppose I can grudgingly accept that Tarantino's movies are quite interesting also, I am still waiting for a worthwhile successor to Pulp Fiction though personally.

And I don't really like Christopher Nolan's movies much. They seem too pseudo-ephemeral to me, especially the Dark Knight films, which to me would benefit by having at least 30 mins of introspective dialogue removed.

July 26, 2014 at 5:39PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Rob