Thursday, March 30, 2006

Why writers direct

Billy Wilder, a superb writer/director was once asked if he thought a director should be able to write. His answer was: “No, he should be able to read.” The question always arises: why do writers want to direct? As a writer who also became a director ten years ago I can tell you the answer. And it’s not the answer you expect.

Most people think it’s to protect your material. That’s a factor certainly but especially in television the show runner is king. The director is his bitch. David Chase doesn’t have to direct every SOPRANOS episode to carry out his vision. David E. Kelley never even goes down to the stage. In features it’s obviously different. There it’s the director’s show and the writer is lucky if he gets a drive-on at the gate. But studios rarely hire writers to be first time directors unless they’re big successes and if they are big successes chances are their material wasn’t ruined. And the independent route is expensive and very risky. Directors have to be turning your period piece love stories into sci fi slasher pictures to make you want to mortgage your house.

No, the real reason writers want to direct is this: directing is easier. Sure there are long hours, a million stupid questions (who gives a fuck what color the floss is? It’s floss!!), difficult actresses, and Faye Dunaway. But your job is to make something that already exists work. That’s a whole lot easier than creating something out of nothing. I wish I knew who said it but supposedly a writer who was sick of always hearing about the “Capra Touch” set 120 blank pages in front of him and said, “Here. Put the Capra Touch on this.”

Directors also have cinematographers to make them look good, special effects guys, second unit directors, Industrial Light & Magic, editors, Judi Densch. But writers just have that blank screen.

Writing is lonely, directing is social. Writing is wishing, directing is making. Writing is losing your credit in arbitration, directing is taking credit for everything.

And yet, in my heart of hearts, I know I’m a writer. It’s my first love, it’s who I am. And if I ever needed further proof, Cedar-Sinai screwed up and billed the DGA health fund as my primary instead of the WGA and I’ve been on the phone trying to straighten this fucking thing out for two months.


Anonymous said...

I remember hearing the story sometime back. I think it was Robert Riskin who sent Capra the blank script.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Alan Plater once said that he wished directors would shoot what he'd written, not what it reminded them of.

There are directors who can elevate your material and show it back to you in a form that lifts your heart and makes you feel twice the artist you thought you were. But most are assertive people of modest ability. That, plus knowing a decent cameraman with a fast-working crew, will take you a long way.

To my mind, the biggest inducement for a writer to turn director is the way that you're always shut out of the party that you've struggled to set up.

Also, the fact that you know the party is full of people making choices that over-rule your own.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to say that I would even prefer editing over writing. Not sure where it falls vs. directing, which I agree beats writing any day.

With editing, you are constantly rebuilding a puzzle, toying with new possibilities. Every millisecond of footage counts - or doesn't.

I've been known to edit for days before realizing I needed to eat. Thank God the producer was there to annoy me with that deadline b.s.

Anonymous said...


On the TV shows you've worked on, who decides who gets a shot at the director's chair? What criteria do they use? Is it just the showrunner's call? Is it a joint decision between the UPM, the showrunner, and the network? Does the DP have any say in the matter?

On the TV shows that I've worked on, the higher ups in the writers room - story editors, supervising producers etc. get to direct before first AD's do. I've never seen a lowly staff writer get a shot though.

Bill Peschel said...

My WAG would be that other advantages are that a) directors get paid more, b) get a better chance at a steady gig, and c) to be a director is to be held in *awe* because you're the auteur.

Stephen Gallagher said...

I love it when directors are complimented on their sense of story pacing and narrative structure.

While the screenplay only gets a nod if there are jokes.

Anonymous said...

I love Billy Wilder. A truely great visionary.

Why are Europeans so witty?

"Upon learning that his Marathon Man costar Dustin Hoffman had stayed awake for two days to look properly exhausted in one scene, Laurence Olivier told the younger actor, 'You should try acting, my boy. It's much easier.'"

Gotta love it.

The Hopper said...

I never thought I'd be interested in directing. I only started doing it because I didn't feel like interviewing a million different wanna be directors for my no budget video podcast.

Once I learned how to use the camera (I don't have the benefit of a crew or anything practical like that) Directing is a million times easier than writing. The hard work is already done even though I find I'm equally exhauseted after writing as directing.

Even though we're operating in super indie land ( I could see how this would be true in more mainstream projects.

Jesse Wendel said...

I'm raising the funds to direct a documentary, scheduled to start this summer. for details.

For me, writing the screenplay I intend to direct afterwards, was enormously harder than the producer's role I'm in now, or the director's role.

The Capra story is on point. A blank computer screen, and 120 pages to go... Compared to that, when you go into preproduction, or start shooting, you know what you're going to shoot, what the movie is about, and so on.

I loved directing and producing commercials and live events in the Bay Area back in the 80's and early 90's, but compatively for myself, writing is not only much harder, it's much more rewarding.

Anonymous said...

from: SCREENWRITING The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing by Richard Walter

The story is told of director Frank Capra, who was asked in an interview to explain precisely how he achieved that special quality known as "the Capra touch."

For page after page he rambled on about this technique and that one. At great length he discussed how he had lent "the touch" to this film and that one. And in all of these pages nowhere was mentioned Robert Riskin, who had merely written the films.

The day after the interview appeared in the press, there arrived at Capra's office a script-sized envelope. Inside was a document very closely resembling a screenplay: a front cover, a back cover, and one hundred and ten pages. But the cover and pages were all blank.

Clipped to the "script" was a note to Capra from Robert Riskin. It read: "Dear Frank, put the 'Capra touch' on this!"

Amanda said...

Can't forget the editor. The editor has the power to hurt an actor's image etc.,

Another thing is the Producer. Without the producer the whole project wouldn't have come together in the first place. The producer can either write the script, hire a writer to write the script, or option a script.

There's just too much that goes into making a movie to only credit one person. Big reason I don't agree with the Auteur theory. The auteur theory was started by French who after years of not being able to see American movies were able to see them. Of course they saw movies like it Happened One Night, Casablanca, Citizen Kane and then came to form the auteur theory through the misconception of how films are made in Hwood. They were seeing movies with Producer/Directors (usually big wigs) and thought this applied to all. They didn't realize that a movie like Casablanca was made through committee like most hwood movies are made to this day.

I really wish film schools would either get rid of this theory or teach it in passing and teach how Hwood really was and is, instead of leading students to fall for this. Then they wonderwhy they are having such a hard time in hwood. Also, that Hollywood is about genres. Many a filmmaker has had a hard time breaking in because they don't realize that hwood bases on the genre you directed as your launch pad. If your short film is a romcom then don't be surprised when you are called to direct only romcoms. This also goes with writing. While I can't stand the auteur theory; I do think it would behoove many aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters to take a film appreciation course.