Directing is not Film Making

On the set of The Off Season

The term “director” in the arts comes from the theatre, which should be the first clue to its obsolescence in contemporary film. When cinema was finding its way and settling on narrative as the most profitable (and predictable) form of expression, bringing in actors made sense. Once actors became involved, empowering one person to tell them how to behave and calling him (it was always a man) a “director” was logical even if, from the very first, there were two major differences between theatrical and cinematic production: the actors had no voice and the film “director” had technical options of which a theatre director could only dream.

The director as the primary creative force on a film was eventually superseded by the studio system which put the star at the center of attention. The director nonetheless remained an important figure and a few established signatures distinctive enough to achieve popular recognition. Even critics assumed the director was central, resulting in problematic attitudes such as auteurism’s neglect of production realities in favor of debatable artistry.

Today, when the average Hollywood director is often little more than a special effects supervisor, the myth of the director as a filmmaker persists. “Directors” exist, of course, and a dwindling few can claim to be filmmakers in the sense that they have enough power and technique to produce distinctive work. But if “film” is meant as anything more than expensive corporate product, the average “director” is less a filmmaker than an overpaid, overvalued placeholder.

A filmmaker is simply, profoundly, someone who makes films. Stress the make of that definition, and directors fade in significance. Many, in fact, do not even do much to shape performance. That is partly because the scripts often require little that any modestly talented actor cannot mime in his or her sleep. It is also because those sitting in the director’s chair may have little sense of human behavior that would enable meaningful “direction” of the actors. The most highly trained are largely technicians, but even they are likely to have less knowledge than the crew working for them.

So it is time to abandon any attribution of a new feature’s affect to the director’s contributions, outside the work of a deserving handful. This does not mean accepting the impersonal, collaborative nature of Hollywood production as the norm. Quite the opposite: it means validating and patronizing work made by people who get their hands dirty in pursuit of a genuinely singular, personal vision. For film to have a future, the “director” has to be recognized as the glorified executant he/she is. Put them behind glass in a museum if it feels better. Meanwhile, let the work begin.