Elliot Coen tells us why we shouldn’t necessarily idolise the captain of the film set. Kubrick is an exception, though
We are now firmly in the 2014/15 film award season, a controversial time in itself, as film nerds all around the world cry out about how their favourite actor, director, or film of the year has been viciously snubbed by respective judging panels. I want to take this chance, while passions run high, to focus on the director; why the director is important, and, conversely, why the director is not as important as we sometimes make them out to be.
“Who is your favourite director?” is a question I’ll often ask when meeting new people who show an interest in film. Naturally, the answer to that is subjective—there is no right or wrong one. Often, the conversation will follow on to why we like certain directors, and what it directors do that particularly grabs us. I get told how people love the stories that directors come up with, how brilliant the dialogue they write is, or how well a director shoots with a camera. By definition, a director doesn’t do any of these things. Typically, writers devise the screenplay and a director of photography (cinematographer) controls all aspects of the shooting of a film. The director’s job is to visualise the screenplay and coordinate all the moving parts on set, such as actors and the cinematographer, in realising this vision. So, why do directors get all the limelight in popular culture, alongside the actors, when films are such a collaborative process between many artistic inputs?
This increasingly fervent celebration of directors is a lingering remnant from the development of 1960s auteur theory, the belief that films are a self-expression of one individual, the director as an author. In the early stages of cinema, directors often were also the writer, cinematographer, and even took on other demanding roles, such as composition of the musical score and lead production design on set. As the industry developed, these roles started to be delegated to others to increase efficiency and quality of the final product. Arguably the most renowned director ever, Alfred Hitchcock never put pen to paper for any of his films past his very early work. Today in the industry, only a small percentage of working directors are able to wear many hats and pull it off successfully, in my opinion. Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) writes and directs all of his films, yet someone like David Fincher (Fight Club, Gone Girl) chooses only to focus on directing, letting others write the screenplays for him. I think both are excellent directors respectively, but in the case of Fincher, due to the incredibly popular nature of the films he directs, having his name at the helm of a project instantly overshadows anyone else working on the film.
There is certainly a spillover effect from these modern auteur directors who also write their films, such as Anderson or Tarantino. It raises the profile of every other working director in the industry because, aside from actors, the director is the easiest target to pin the success or failure of a film to. Now, directors become celebrities after box office success, appearing on television talk shows around the world. That never happens for the writers, editors, cinematographers, set designers, costume designers and so on, who each have artistic input which the success of a film is largely dependent on. When talking about this issue, I’m asked, “Yeah, but how many film editors or designers can you name?”, as if to say they don’t necessarily deserve great recognition because they aren’t well known already. It’s the reverse of this; I can name very few film editors because the only real recognition they get is in the credits reel, or in the much, much lower down categories at award ceremonies.
I can’t speak for any of these unsung contributors to film. They seem to always be in work if they are good at their job. They may well prefer not to be wrapped up in constant media coverage. I just think that maybe it’s time we paid more respect to film as a collaborative process. At least the credits give credit where credit’s due.