Saturday, June 28, 2008

Why writers direct

Billy Wilder (pictured above), 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 didn'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.


TCinLA said...

A friend once said that actors are people who hate themselves so much they want to be somone else, that directors want to be king of the world, and that writers are so pissed off they want to create a whole other universe.

Works for me.

Morgan McKinnon said...

Ken: Writing is lonely.

As I sit alone. Working into the wee hours of the morning. I have to agree.

I posted on a blog recently that deals with producers and why they feel the need to *try* to intimidate writers.

My answer is they are afraid of writers. Afraid that writers will realize just how useless the position of producer really is.

I have yet to find anyone who can tell me what it takes to be a producer.

Is it just about money? The ability to find the money to produce a film? Is that what makes you a producer?

I really would like to know.

Because I tell you...I'm writing a screenplay, and this is some hard fucking shit to do, and I be damn that if after going through the rigors of ACT 2, I'm going to shuffle into some fuckers office and beg him to listen to me.

Bitter Animator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bitter Animator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
By Ken Levine said...

I know you're the "bitter" animator, but sometimes I wish you'd be bitter on someone else's blog.

The Jim Burrows crack was uncalled for.

Please spread your venom elsewhere.

Bitter Animator said...
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Vince said...

The "Capra Touch" comment as I heard it was credited to Robert Riskin, the screenwriter who worked with Capra on over 10 films including It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Meet John Doe. With a track record like that, you figure Riskin deserves a little credit.

Bitter Animator said...

I realised I could remove a comment myself. You have my apologies, Mr.Levine.

Shakespere said...

Hi. I enjoyed your blog. It is very interesting. thanks

Anonymous said...

All depends. Were you treated at the hospital for megalomania (the number one crippler of young directors) or mogigraphia (writer’s cramp while script doctoring a Three Stooges movie)? And furthermore, :) Next up, navigating your health care provider: agent vs. business manager – compare and contrast. I always take something away from this blog. Today we learned that floss comes in colors.

I wrote this post and directed it. My name is Orson Short. --“The Magnificent Nonpersons”
(will have to steal the wonderful tcinla quote later).

Anonymous said...

Hear, here!

(didn't know which here/hear was correct)


basically producers (ones that actually do work) are general contractors. They are paid put the pieces together to make a project. They put together/hire the subs.

Max Clarke said...

About the line, "writing is lonely, directing is social."

There's an early moment in Cheers, the "Personal Business" episode. Diane is delivering a monologue to a couple at a table. "Dylan Thomas, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, they drank themselves to death, gone before their time. So, can I get you another round?"

A moment later, just before Carla grabs Diane by the nose and drags her to another table, Diane says, "Here's my theory about alcohol and genius, writing is a very lonely profession."

Jess Kiley said...

So that said, what kind of story would you write for Mike Meyers, now that you've courted him over know he reads every word you say!!

Anonymous said...

Ken: Did you know that in the Spring of 1970, with the invasion of Cambodia and the Moratorium raging around us at UCLA, the film school offered a course on the films of Frank Capra featuring Capra himself on several occasions. I took . Great. Taught by Robert Epstein.

I know you rarely emerged from KLA studios in those days, but the folllowing actually happened:

It's a Wonderful Life was being screened while demonstrations were going on outside Melnitz Hall. And despite all the anger and cynicism in the air, when the film ended the room was full of students sitting there crying their eyes out, not from tear gas, but from the fact that George Bailey had come home for Christmas.

Before all the sniffling could stop, the day's surprize guest, Frank Capra, walked out to a standing ovation.

Lucky none of us knew the full story of his reactionary politics. But we did know the work of a master and, for a brief moment, all the tumult raging outside didn't mean a thing.



Steven M. Gorelick, Ph.D.
Professor of Media Studies

Interim Director (2007-2008)
M.F.A. Program in Integrated Media Arts
Department of Film and Media Studies

Hunter College
City University of New York
Office: 212.650.3089

rob! said...

"difficult actresses, and Faye Dunaway."

isn't this redundant, or do you put Faye in her own category?

VP81955 said...

Vince is right -- Robert Riskin it was, Ken. Moreover, he was in romantic relationships with the likes of Carole Lombard (he assisted on "Virtue," one of her best pre-Code films) and Ginger Rogers, then later married Fay Wray (who must have loved writers -- her first husband was aviation screenwriter John Monk Saunders, and in between marriages she had an affair with Clifford Odets).

For more on Riskin, check out

(The above ends with 8177.html, for those of you who can't see it all.)

BTW, how'd you like that Freeway Series pseudo "no-hitter"? For me, it brought back memories of July 1, 1990, the Yankees' last game ever at old Comiskey Park (also the park's 80th birthday!), and Andy Hawkins no-hit the Sox, but lost 4-0. (IIRC, a few of the runs came in on an error by Jim Leyritz, playing left field a la Todd Hundley some years later.)

Still happily recovering from the Nationals' 12-inning win over those hated Orioles. Thank you, Ronnie Belliard!

jimhenshaw said...

Darn! I thought "The Capra Touch" was my idea. I used to carry around 120 blank pages entitled "The Auteur Theory".

Every time I met I met a director who wanted a possessory credit, I handed it over. "There you go -- work your magic on that, Sparky!"

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Levine,

I am a bit surprised that no one has mentioned it, but Preston Sturges certainly falls under this category.

Mitchell Leisen, a director who was once a set decorator, was accused of caring more about the sets than the dialogue or the people in front of them by Sturges.

He then went to Buddy de Sylva and said that he would sell them his next script for a dollar, if he was allowed to direct it, as opposed to Leisen.

The result was, "The Great McGinty", which ended up winning the first Oscar for best screenplay. Sixty-eight years on and it still contains timely comments about the political process. It is also hilarious.

For those who wish to read further, I suggest, "Romantic Comedy" by James Harvey, but read them after you have seen movies such as, "Hail the Conquering Hero", "Sullivan's Travels", "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek", "The Lady Eve" or "Christmas in July"

Be warned, almost all of them have some stereotypical content that can make one shudder.

Anonymous said...

Eep! I meant to say, "Buddy de Sylva" at Paramount.

Remember the days that you could watch all those wild, obscure films of Paramount's on KTLA, because Paramount owned KTLA and they gave the station it's film library up to the 1940's?

Anonymous said...

Just a little correction, brian: The Academy began giving out Oscars for screenwriting at their very first ceremony in 1929, and have continued to do so every year since. So The Great McGinty wasn't the first film to win Best Screenplay. But I certainly agree that it and most of Sturges' other work is great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Did VP mean the first original screenplay Oscar, perhaps? I'm thinking in the early days, they only gave away one writing award, not differentiating original and adapted scripts until the year of THE GREAT MCGINTY.

Anonymous said...

paul: that's probably what he meant. Up until then, the writing categories weren't as clearly delineated. Usually something like "original story" and "screenplay" The latter apparently encompassed both original and adapted work. Occasionally, something would get nominated in both categories, such as "Ninotchka." I guess original screenplays were kind of a rare bird within the studio system back then (cue snarky remarks about the eternal lack of originality in Hollywood, both past and present).

Anonymous said...

You hear about writers becoming writer-directors, or even just directors (I'm looking at you, Robert Zemeckis), but how often do you hear about a director becoming a writer-director?

No, one-ffos like Spielberg on A.I. don't count. I mean actually changing their career path.

Dave Ale said...

Shane Black agrees:

"What was directing like for you?
I’d love to say that it was incredibly difficult and murderous, but it was a snap. If you’ve done your preparation, including storyboarding the more complex sequences, ultimately your only job on the set is to execute your preparation and be flexible enough and social enough to go beyond it in places and hopefully get something better, and change things according to the order of the day, like if the actors come up with something better. I would watch movies all night to prepare. I can almost give you shot-for-shot on Panic Room (2002) just because I watched it so many times. I would go to the set for as long as I could to just sit there, and look around, then you have all the possibilities in your head. Then you take your cinematographer with you, and you ask him about all the possibilities. So when you walk in, you’ve already covered all your bases, even if you want to throw it all out and do something different."

And I think that's the big difference between writing and directing.

When you're directing you can get other people's input. You're working with a team -- even if you're not perfect, if you're able to put your ego aside, there's people who will help you.

When you're writing -- there's no one. If you can't get the job done, the job won't get done.

Dave Ale said...

Oh sorry, the link for the Shane Black interview: