Someone once asked me what the hardest thing about being a director is. After thinking about it, I realized it has a lot to do with inertia. There are thousands of decisions that get made on every project, and the director has to be a part of every one. If the director stalls on a decision, a department stalls, and the whole process grinds to a halt. The hardest thing is to make decisions when they need to be made while keeping your eye on the big picture at the same time.
Here’s an example: A location scout sends an email with say, ten barn locations. Each one of these locations has to be evaluated based upon other decisions we’ve already made: Which way does the front of the barn face and can we get good light at the time we need to shoot there? How far away is it from the other location that we’re scheduled to shoot that same day? Does the one with the good light fit the budget? Does the one that is close to the other location we chose come with animals, or do we have to get an animal trainer and some chickens? Can we afford to throw in some cows? The barn with the really nice aged patina is going to require a water truck and a fire marshal. And how do we do the shot from the high angle? This one has a nice high window, but it looks too new—can we age it down? What originally seems like a fairly easy decision – pick the barn you like best – becomes a complex puzzle, and almost always a painful compromise. So the impulse is to close out of that email and turn to a problem that’s more easily solved. And like air escaping a tire…inertia sets in. Because now the location scout, producer, art director, prop stylist and director of photography are waiting for your decision to make their decisions and solve their own puzzles.
I think it’s the ability to make those decisions, to pick the best compromise, and to constantly protect the original vision of the film, that separates the great directors from the merely serviceable ones. These decisions are like dominoes; one wrong move can knock down the whole row. A poor location selection can lead to a delay in setting up a shot, which can in turn lead to faking the lighting because it’s getting dark, which can lead to an actor having a small window of time to nail the scene. As these dominoes fall (and they often do, even on the best sets), it takes a director with a special disposition to keep the focus on the story and stay with the actor despite all the stressors.
As I get older, I realize that the ability to make decisions on the fly and live with them is paramount to any endeavor. Yes, sometimes you have to really mull something over, deliberate, and gather expert opinions (I wouldn’t want to make a will in an afternoon!), but for the most part, mulling is stalling. The truth is, we already have the information we need in most cases, and it’s just a matter of committing and moving on.
Good writing is usually the result of a simple equation: Ass + seat = good work. I think this speaks to my point. As a creative person, you have to be willing to do the lone, solitary work that leads to an idea, and ultimately to a project. When I am trying to come up with an idea, I’m often reminded there is nothing magic about the creative process – I just need to sit down at my desk and sketch, write and edit my way to a tangible story that I can communicate to my collaborators. You have to commit pen to paper, so to speak. And in this digital day and age, our version of pen to paper comes with a nasty ability to ping us and distract us in ways that require us to be vigilant against interruption. So how do we do it? How do we sustain momentum in the age of a thousand distractions? I don’t quite have the answer, but I will tell you that as I write this our Internet is down in the office, and I am typing away gleefully, undistracted by emails, reminders, notifications, and the urge to Google.
I want to become better at making decisions. I want to become more active in my creative output, and more mindful of the passage of time. These are attributes the directors I admire seem to possess: Alfonso Cuarón, who once told me (shockingly) that he only used two lenses on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and only one lens on Gravity (a 21, for those who care). I mean, talk about making decisions! Clint Eastwood has become so good at making decisions that he brings all his films in under budget and finishes days early. And the Coens, who manage to make their films look like worlds unto themselves: the art direction, locations, wardrobe, and color palettes are a glimpse into a strange and mysterious visual space that has no historical precedent.
I also have great admiration for Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, the latter with whom I was lucky enough to speak for this issue. In Fruitvale Station, these two gentlemen created a film that transported me to a world that was totally foreign and yet strangely resonant to me. And Jordan’s acting allowed me inside the mind of a young black man with a completely different frame of reference on society than mine. The decisions made by both Coogler and Jordan made the artifice of story completely disappear, and I found myself in an experience that broke my heart and gave me hope at the same time. It is a testament to these two young filmmakers that this story – which became a hot-button media event – could be told with such humanity and universality. As an artist, that is some inspiring shit, so to speak. They set the bar pretty high, and I can’t wait to see what comes next for both of them.
And perhaps most heartwarming about our conversation was Jordan’s complete optimism about his future. This man has ambition, drive, and a youthful exuberance that is infectious. He is 26 year old who has been, for the past 12 years, focusing on his craft with intense respect and dedication. If even half the actors his age have this sort of reverence for filmmaking, then our cinematic future looks very bright indeed.
Sam Jones, February 2014