THE DNA OF A MODERN DIRECTOR
Film and television drama directors are responsible for making decisions about everything inside the frame: the shot choice, the actors, their costume, make-up and hair, the set, the sound design and music. It’s no small order.
The classic caricature of a director is of a man (it’s always a man) sitting in a director’s chair (they’re special) shouting orders through a megaphone (everyone’s got to listen to them). It suggests that a director needs to be a certain kind of person who leads in a certain kind of way in order to succeed - and whilst it is a caricature, and by no means a representative of the way every director works, these military commander-style traits are certainly recognisable in a good many directors, and it begs the question: what are the qualities of a great film director?
At New Forest Film Co, we think it’s vital for the modern director’s DNA to comprise of two interrelated characteristics.
They must not be jerks, and they must be great leaders. Here’s why …
Modern directors are not jerks
Great directors need to be great communicators and make great decisions. That’s doesn’t mean having all the ideas and commanding them into existence, but rather having a two-way relationship with your team and your audience, motivating and empowering cast and crew with your vision. To do that, we believe the primary element of the modern director’s DNA should be high emotional intelligence.
Those with high emotional intelligence are curious and unafraid of change, self-aware and empathetic, balanced and gracious.
Being curious and unafraid of change means that directors should on the one hand be looking to experiment and innovate, and on the other be willing and able to try things a different way if they don’t work out. They should not fear failure; rather they should expect it and understand it to be a part of achieving success.
Being self-aware and empathetic means that directors should know their own strengths and weaknesses, be unafraid of asking for help, and comfortable with asking for and receiving opinions. A modern director understands that making a film is a team process. They are not only the leader, but a member of a team of individuals with skills and experiences they do not themselves have. It is the director’s job to motivate and empower the team to help their vision become reality.
Being balanced and gracious means that the director is not looking to dominate their cast and crew, or to take all the credit, but rather will create a flatter hierarchy within their team to ensure that they can hear and communicate ideas, and that the remuneration and rewards structure is shared across the team.
An emotionally intelligent director is humble, but not a pushover. They have strong opinions, but as Stanford Professor Paul Saffro would say, those opinions should be weakly held, in the face of evidence that they are wrong or that a better idea exists. They are candid and open and able to describe what is wrong and isn’t working, but they’re caring with how they address individuals and their team. They pay close attention to the hiring process, aiming to find team members who also share high emotional intelligence, and they do not tolerate brilliant jerks.
Modern directors are great leaders
Great directors need to have a strong, passionate vision and accept the responsibility of being the one who makes the decisions. Therefore, the second element of a modern director’s DNA is their ability to be a great leader, able to guide a diverse team to success.
In the context of film-making, great leadership requires emotional intelligence - the two are inextricably interrelated. Directorial leadership in film-making has historically been thought of in somewhat military terms: the courageous single-minded commander marching his troops into the desert to fight with the emotions of actors, the elements and their inner demons to deliver unto the world their vision.
Yet greater leaders don’t operate like this any more - if they ever truly did. Yes, they need to be able to articulate a clear vision, but they know that they can’t achieve that vision alone, and that people are the key to their success. Their job is to help the team by allowing people to be their best. Not to lead by force but by demonstrating and fostering sincere enthusiasm and creative integrity within themselves and the team.
There’s also the question of what elements a modern director should be leading, and what skills a film director needs. They can no longer only focus on what might be loosely termed the artistic side of film-making: the acting, the design, the atmosphere. Film-making has always been a technical endeavour, but in recent years technical advances have increased exponentially, and will continue to do so (there’s a reasonable case to suggest that the vast majority of films in the future will be constructed fully in the digital domain). And this means that film directors need also to focus on the technical (it might be said, scientific) side of film-making.
This is nothing new. This is Leonardo Da Vinci’s 500-year-old way of working - recognising that art can be influenced by science and science can influence art - but following this Renaissance way of thinking has deeper consequences for the way a modern director leads than might at first be obvious.
At one level, it requires, of course, that a director must lead across all departments, artistic and scientific - including working with teams in the ever-changing, ever-innovating world of digital post-production, and increasingly in real-time digital production. Knowing what’s technically possible and making decisions within an expanding array of possibilities is becoming critical.
At a deeper level, it means that scientific methodologies ought to be applied on a par with artistic methodologies, foremost amongst which is the use of data.
The idea of a director using data isn’t part of the caricature, and for some in the industry there’s a real aversion to it. Data, they say, might be a tool for marketers or development executives at Netflix, in finding out how to market to specific audiences or deciding what to commission based on past successes or social listening - but for directors? Why? How?
The fundamental answer to why a director ought to use data to help make good decisions, is recognising that any individual decision might be wrong, and that one way to figure that out quickly is to test on audience members - both as soon as possible, and all the way through the film-making process. If anyone should want and need and be in control of the data, it should be the director; the one who wants their vision to land, to move audiences, to have created a great film.
The answer to the question of how is that, like a scientist, directors ought to conduct experiments, by making prototypes and variants of the story and its execution, for testing with audience members and their team. There are many ways to develop such prototypes, which we have talked about here, and many advantages to doing so, but crucially, from the perspective of being a great leader, incorporating a test-and-learn process in a director’s method opens up opportunities for the team’s contribution, for risks to be taken, and for critical decisions to be made transparently and with credibility.
The modern director is a great leader who is not a jerk
What makes a good film director? It is being able to marry high emotional intelligence with a team-first leadership style, embracing both artistic and scientific methodologies.
Such directors are unafraid to fuse intuition with data, or of taking risks whilst measuring whether they work, or of taking feedback from anyone (audience, team or executives).
They don’t know all the answers, they’re not an auteur, they have a vision and they want to use every possible method of getting it right.