5 Practical Things Directors Can Learn From Crew Confessions
Directors: this is what everyone thinks you're doing wrong.
When I first started directing and getting paid for it, I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t always know if I was doing it right. I tried to be collaborative with crews that were often older and more experienced than I was. I directed actors and stars who had been on a hundred sets with a hundred different amazing directors.
I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, but they did.
And, a couple of times I found myself in a meeting with a producer trying to course correct something I had messed up.
Here’s a short, but entirely shameful, list of some mistakes I’ve made on set:
Shooting down ideas - On the first day of shooting, I shot down a comic’s idea for a joke, saying that we wouldn’t have time for it in the edit. (We probably didn’t, but I should have let him do it in the spirit of collaboration.) The result was two weeks of shooting that were awkward and uncomfortable, even after I apologized.
Bad priorities - It was a hot and miserable day on set. I wanted to get a shot, and my 1st AD suggested we wait on it. I pushed back forcefully in front of the crew. As a result, we rolled on, what turned out to be, an entirely inconsequential shot that never made the edit while the showrunner and stars sat there awkwardly. I knew I messed up as soon as I lost my cool.
Shooting myself into a corner - I made the decision to shoot a commercial with as few edits as possible. It would mostly be wide tracking shots so that visual gags could play in the background and flow into one another. I was so convinced this was the best way to execute it, that I convinced the client I was right, ignored my producer’s suggestions, and decided not to get coverage and cutaways. As soon as I got into the edit, I knew I had blown it. The jokes weren’t landing well, it was playing too slowly, and we needed to lose time. We needed the coverage and cutaways that I decided not to get. It took a lot more work to get the edit to a place that felt okay, and the spot was never as good as it could have been if I just listened to my collaborators.
One little thing - The morning of a commercial shoot, I realized that I hadn’t talked with art department about a small but vital gag that needed to play. But it had been in the story boards, and we had talked about everything surrounding that small but vital gag. Surely they’d notice my omission and be prepared for it? Nope, they were prepared for what we had talked about, like they should be. As soon as I got to set and talked to them about it, we realized it wasn’t so small, and we lost a lot of time in a very packed day. This lead to more stress on me and the crew, and we didn’t look prepared in front of the client. I knew what my idea was; I just didn’t communicate it clearly during prep. A one minute chat the day before could have saved us sixty minutes on set.
It’s not hard to learn the basics of directing. You figure out how you want to tell the story, you create a vibe and a tone, you work with the actors, you set up shots with the DP, you cut it together with the editor. We’ve all watched enough behind the scenes videos and read enough books, so we just go do those things, right? Sort of.
Good directing is doing all of those things proficiently. Great directing is doing all of those things harmoniously. (And, if you couldn’t tell by my list of shame, I don’t consider myself a great director yet.) Directing harmoniously is a process that takes time. You need to do it a lot before you start to get a feel for it. If you’re anything like me, you won’t always realize what you’re doing wrong.
But thankfully, you have 12 amazing people below to tell you what you’re doing wrong, (or what they commonly see directors doing wrong). So take a look, see what everyone from the production assistant to the showrunner thinks you are doing wrong as a director.
Jennifer Glynn - Producer
It’s frustrating when directors don’t see their producers as full teammates. My job is to MAKE their vision happen, and sometimes that means saying no or trying to come up with creative solutions that aren’t the most obvious. A lot of directors come in with a “combative” attitude, and that isn’t productive for anyone - least of all the final product.
My most satisfying experiences have been with directors who understand that my job is to take the stress of logistics off of their hands so they can really get into what goes on screen. Mutual trust is essential. I trust the director is telling me what he/she needs and I am going to get it for them, even if it wasn’t how they first envisioned it happening.
Travis Knight - 1st AD
I like directors who make decisive and clear choices, who recognize limitations of the scenario, and have general respect and kindness. Good directors are open to others’ ideas and they hire department heads who can not only execute their overall vision, but enhance it. When a director can direct the personnel well, her vision is always better.
My director complaint list includes rudeness, inflexibility, lack of understanding, and indecisiveness. Some of my favorite worst lines from bad directors:
“I just have to see it.” (When answering any question about an upcoming scene, color palette, camera position, action, etc.. A great director can visualize and verbalize something to answer the question).
“Perfect! One more” (After the 10th keeper take. Why overshoot? Get a safety or two, but for the sake of everyone involved, and to make your day, move on when you’ve got the shot.).
My favorite directors are kind and mild-mannered. They can make decisions, direct a crew and cast, and ask for advice when needed. Uniqueness and voice are crucial for directors to stand out on screen, and accomplishing that is tenfold easier when there is respect on set.
Evi Ellias - Production Designer
It is the job of a good production designer to adapt to the creative needs personal style and approach of their director. You can always grow as an artist by learning to be flexible and change your methods of visual communication to meet the demands of the specific project which are all different. There are some common challenges for PDs when working with directors.
Inconsistency: directors often change their minds or forget what they have said that they wanted...this is because they are keeping the questions of many departments in their heads and there is a lot to keep up with.
Micromanagement: Many newer directors are looking to prove themselves, make their mark with their first projects and thus deliberate and fuss over minutia instead of big picture stuff. Trust the people you hire to be experts at their jobs, to be better than you at what they are trained and focused in.
Pick Your Battles: Art department is typically the most overworked, underbudgeted and understaffed department on set, and because so many artisans are involved in the art department who are passionate about creativity, they get sucked into the fury of meeting unrealistic demands of overly ambitious projects/directors. Just because art seems like the less technical stuff (furniture, walls, graphics) does not make it easier to pull off, quite the contrary, a prop truck is a veritable wizard's shop, you never know exactly what thing is going to break or be needed at the last minute. Art solutions, on the other hand, are rarely straight forward and require a lot of radical last-minute problem-solving.
Film is a lovely land of wildly creative magicians who can make something out of nothing...but don't over-tax the sorcery.
Paul Cornett - Sound Mixer
I'm always surprised how little consideration some directors give to sound when choosing locations. It’s such a huge part of any production, and it’s never given as much thought as it needs.
I’ll get a call sheet and see that we're filming right next to an airport, or I show up on set and see that there's a construction site right next door. I understand that there are a lot of factors (budget/availability/aesthetics) to think about when location scouting, but there's not much we can do on set when there's a jackhammer right outside the window.
It’s also important to note that two camera shoots can be challenging when shooting different angles. Sometimes radically different angles or frame sizes make it difficult to properly get a boom mic in there for both shots. For example, if one camera is shooting a medium/close and the other is shooting ultra wide. The boom will not sound the way you would expect it to when matched with the closer shot. Of course the actors are usually lav’d, but a properly boomed scene will always sound more natural.
KJ Sadural - Production Assistant
Working as a PA, who is on many sets with different directors, I have noticed how often some directors lack adequate knowledge about the different departments. I’ve heard directors trying to force a DP to change a shot without thinking about the effects of time or really why they want the change in the first place. I’ve witnessed directors come onto a set that is wonderfully dressed by the art team, yet the director will have just been seeing it for the first time moments before shooting and request significant changes. They don’t always understand how a shot is lit, or how time-consuming it is to make changes to a dressed set, so they don’t always know how much work they’re adding when they ask for changes.
Also, I am a PA who aspires to be a director one day, and it’s nice to be able to talk to actual directors; it’s always appreciated when one is approachable. I know that there is a hierarchy on set and things get busy (or behind), but a crew is a crew and some directors are more aware of how important each and everyone is, including PA’s, and that is a great feeling.
Barry Smoler - Producer (Bad Grandpa, Punk’d)
Sometimes the Director has an amazing idea in their head that gets you excited about, and you’re driven to achieve their goal. Sometimes they don't and everyone has to do double the work, money gets wasted, and an entire crew wants to slam their heads against the wall.
If they don’t have something in their head that a crew can act on, it makes everyone’s jobs so much harder. The main thing I look for in a director is to be creative, be collaborative and be decisive. I mean it's in the title... give direction! Forming a good relationship with a Director and being able to speak their language, however they communicate, lets you help keep all the other departments moving forward to craft the Director's vision on his behalf.
Award Winning Anonymous Editor (Who has cut shows you have 100% watched)
The thing I've run into with a lot of amateur or new directors is they don’t always understand the concept of "diminishing returns" in the edit bay. You inevitably reach a point where the quality of whatever you're editing is not necessarily proportional to the time spent cutting it. And once we’ve spent a lot of time watching a scene, it can be easy to mistake being different for being better.
It's a difficult thing to admit that you've maxed out on what you can do with the footage you have, but experienced directors know that it's not worth killing yourself to make that last 1% incrementally better.
Brandon Alperin - Commercial DP
Directors could make my job easier by bringing the DP into the creative earlier - specifically concerning the location options before they are locked down. Obviously, production and client have a huge input in this decision, but a DP is looking at logistical things at a location that may slow down the day, or cause a major expense to work around.
I find sometimes locations are chosen solely for their look, without any consideration of lighting, sun position, gear load in or staging. I can get to a location when it's already been locked in and realize I am backed into a corner since these things weren’t taken into account.
In the end, it hurts the final product because typically major concessions need to be made in order to make the day and work around these problems.
Bryan Shelton - Editor (Key & Peele, America’s Got Talent)
The simplest advice is just more. I always want more coverage, more cutaways, more b-roll, close-ups more wide shots, just more options to make it work. More sound! That way, if things go wrong, if the boarded sequence didn't work out, if an actor's performance isn't what we hoped, we have enough material to make it work. If you’re debating between getting that cut away or not, get it!
Good directors have a serious plan for post from the start. They make sure the editor is involved during pre-production, that producers know to keep post in the loop, and that there is a post workflow that has been tested and is ready to go from the first day of shooting. We need time and manpower to make your film the best it can be. You don't have to fix it in post if ain't broken to begin with.
Another important (and often ignored) question that every director should answer before post is: What does your film sound like? Quality sound design can make or break a rough cut so when time and money is tight, entering with an idea of what your world sounds like makes everyone's life easier and makes for a better film.
Gus Sacks - Commercial DP
I like it when directors use visual references for the look and include the DP in storyboarding as early as they can. Being involved in those discussions from the outset typically leads, at least me, to better work.
Beyond that, believe it or not, most directors are kind of similar once it gets to be on set and doing the work. Despite different personalities, temperaments, and styles, it’s the prep phase where directors are vastly different. And it’s usually the prep phase where a project will find success or failure.
Lowell Shapiro - Talent Manager (Black Box MGMT)
The best directors know what they don't know; that is to say, they understand when and whom to delegate work to. It also helps to be diplomatic with your cast, crew, producers, executives, etc. Everyone is going to want to put their own stamp on a project when they can. A skilled director knows how to make everyone feel valued, but never loses sight of the fact that s/he is the captain of the ship and must act accordingly.
Personally, I love when a director has a clear and concise vision for the material s/he is working with. Sometimes it's easier for a director to not be too affirmative with his vision for a project out of fear that other people involved won't share the same vision. But producers are working with you for a reason. Strut your stuff!
Greg Heller - Showrunner (Universal Television)
One thing certain directors – more often greener ones – do is operate under this assumption that sharing a shot-list or a least some kind of gameplan in advance means ceding control of a shoot to the showrunner. There’s that sense of “When they see it, they’ll change it” or sometimes this notion that “I’m gonna wow people by surprise!”
While any good showrunner should implicitly trust their director, there is still anxiety in the process of watching your pages shoot out and feeling confident in what you’re taking into post.
It is so rare that I see a shot list or hear a director’s game plan and say, “Don’t do that.” Maaaaaaaybe, if I know in advance a certain exec hates something I might do that, but 99.9% of the time, if I give notes at all, I’m more likely to say, “Cool. Just please make sure I also get X or Y.” And even then, I am open to your telling me why my suggestion is a bad idea – it doesn’t service story, or requires a lengthy relight, etc.
(SIDENOTE: If you’re gonna lie about the length of a re-light because you don’t want to do something, make sure your DP is on-board with your lie in advance. I once had a director write off an idea by saying, “That’s gonna add two hours to our day” and his DP immediately said, “What? We can bang that out in 5 mins.”)
Part of maturing as a director is learning how to manipulate us – the showrunners – just as part of maturing as a showrunner is learning how to manipulate them – the execs. If you make people feel comfortable, if they can sit in their little chair with their little headphones on and stare at Twitter, confident you are giving them what they need, you can do whatever the fuck you want to.
My favorite moments as a showrunner are when I see something in a monitor and go, “Oh, that’s not what I saw there, but this is way way better.” And those moments almost always come because I had what I thought I needed and was relaxed enough to appreciate how much better your idea was.
5 key takeaways from the list
A list like this could be never ending, there are as many ways to direct as there are directors. (Did anyone else keep track to see how many of those awful director mistakes they’ve made?) After reading these responses and really taking in what these talented filmmakers are saying, my five big takeaways are:
Be collaborative. Everyone is there to support the overall vision. It’s up to you as the director to empower and encourage them. Listen to your crew and take their suggestions seriously. You’re thinking about 100 things, they’re thinking about 1.
Know what you want. Good directing is as much about knowing what doesn’t work as much as it is knowing what does. You’re there because you have good taste and good ideas, and can be the filter. The more clearly you can communicate your ideas and vision, the better everyone will work.
Ask for help. A combination of #1 and #2, but it’s important. If you don’t know the best way to do something or if you’re stuck choosing between two things, ask your team for input. But be careful, asking your production designer for an opinion, usually leads to input from the DP, the 1st AD, the Sound Mixer, the craft service guy and that over ambitious intern. They mean well, but it can quickly be overwhelming and you’ll need to be strong. Go with your gut once you get some input.
Be decisive. You may have 12 hours in a day, but a lot of that gets eaten up by ESU’s, turn arounds, small errors, and company moves. Because you know what you want, you know the edit in your head and you can be flexible.
If something isn’t working, you will have an idea about what will work because you are so familiar with the material. This applies to pre-production, shooting, as well as post. Make great decisions quickly, otherwise, time or someone else will make just-okay decisions for you.
Know when to let go. Sometimes you imagined an amazing shot that just doesn’t work once rehearse. Sometimes an actor will struggle with your favorite line, and you’ll need to think quickly on how to correct it. A location falls through, a scene doesn’t work in the edit, or you only have ten minutes left in the day to shoot thirty minutes worth of stuff.
Every project will demand that you kill an idea, lose some shots, or combine three different angles into a simple oner. Good directors are able to eat a little shit and move forward with a good attitude to solve it. Bad directors will stand there and make unreasonable demands.
In the end, just remember, it’s okay to learn and make some mistakes on set. Hopefully, you’ve had a chance to hone your craft with short films and spec work and generally lower stakes personal projects by the time you get to the better paying stuff. Being the type of person that others want to work with is so important for a director.
We romanticize the idea of the iron-fisted auteur, but in the working director world, that just doesn’t happen. The best directors I know are generous, kind, supportive, and positive. Everyone is allowed to get pissed about something or voice frustrations, we just need to be aware of how we are doing so.
So, go out there and be the type of director that everyone looks forward to working with.