Discovering Yourself as a Director

I think I may have directed about 20 short films by now. And as I am beginning to get my mind around my feature film – still working on the script – I am beginning to think about directing again and how best to do it. 

The thing about directing is that you have to be so many things to so many people.

To the cinematographer, you must be the look of the film, the essence of it, the tone, the color and the style.  To the art department and set design you must be the client essentially, collaborating with them on every location, every chair, every picture on every wall.  To the costume designers you must help them tell the audience who the characters are with each outfit.  And the composer must be sure that what they write is exactly the sound of your vision.

It’s a lot.  And that’s just these few departments and there are many many more people along the way who will ask you a million questions….and they will need answers.  In order for the film to sail true you must give all these lovely people answers to each and every choice they offer you…and quickly.

So being a director of a film is really about being the one, the only one, who decides just about everything. You are the “decider” and making those choices correctly is what separates success from failure…so no pressure then.

It’s important to know right away that directing is not just about calling “action” and watching everything work perfectly until you say “cut.”  You have to have a reason for everything and that can be the most exciting thing in the world or the worst.

I love directing and not just because I am always right about everything, although that is a big part of it I am sure.  No, I love directing because what you are in fact doing when you direct is creating a new world.  A world that you are the god of and a world that is, when everything goes according to plan, the best possible place for all the people that you have given instructions to and chosen things with to bring their perfect brilliance of everything they have done and for it all to come together and exist…to live.

So that is the film n total, but what about those who actually inhabit the world you create…the actors?

The actors are basically the most important part of the film, although it’s best not to tell them that too often I have found…makes them nervous.

Learning to work with actors is essential and, surprisingly, there are many ways a director can actually avoid this.  Which might seem very odd to the layperson, but a director could absolutely pass an entire day on set without saying much more than “action” to their actors and this happens remarkably frequently.

After all, once an actor is cast they are given their scripts and dressed and made up and possibly given a few instructions and told to show up and cameras roll that’s it…well it can be.

Some directors don’t even like actors very much, they find them to be an unfortunate necessity, a piece of the furniture with occasional lines.  This can work I suppose, especially in films with big budgets and lots of effects, but in independent films with modest budgets and short shoots there has to be something very different going on.  There has to be a real connection between the director and their cast.  They have to have some magic there and the director must inspire their actors do their work in sometimes rather stressful and extreme circumstances.

I was fortunate enough today to attend a screening of Nicole Kidman’s new film, “Destroyer.”  It’s a great film and directed by a woman, Karyn Kusama.  Kind of a homage to 70s revenge movies, but with a female protagonist and a gritty one at that.  Anyway, during the Q&A Kidman talked a lot about her process as an actor and it struck me that what she was really talking about was the space a director can give an actor to do their thing – giving them support and safety but without being clingy or intrusive.  After all, when an actor is hired to act in a film it’s a kind of unspoken contract between the director and the actor.  The actor must absorb the script and work with the director to discover the character. It’s not all on the page, it’s in the way an actor interprets and finds the role they are playing and if the director is smart and they have cast well the actor inhabits the role and the director simply captures the performance.  But there can be an awful lot between the script and the actual filming.  The director needs to find a way to coax the performance they require from the actor. It’s a game, but a very serious one for unless that performance is where the director needs it to be, nuance and approach aside…the film is lost.

How to do it then? Well, there’s no way I can describe that.  Each actor is different, each director, every piece of material, every situation, even the amount of time you have to deliver. I have had less than a day often.

Sometimes it has been the entire focus of my time as a director, sometimes I have spent very little time on it.   But then I have only directed shorts, hence my sudden interest in technique.  Since next year I am determined to direct my feature, I will have to really study how I am going to achieve my goals.

Nothing exquisite ever comes easy and it’s been a long time coming for me.  I’m 51 next week and in this my 51st year I will direct my first feature film, which I will also have written…also a first.

Scary?  No. Well, maybe a little.

Exciting?  Yes, very.

About time?  Absolutely…taking this long feels good.

So I’m in my head a lot these days, especially about working with my actors but in my head is where I work best. And as I work I plot and scheme and before I know it I will be on set putting all this work in action… I can hardly wait!!

Samantha Simmonds-Ronceros
Author: Samantha Simmonds-Ronceros

Samantha Simmonds-Ronceros is a British writer and filmmaker living In Los Angeles.