For the past six months, I’ve been in the enviable position of observing other directors as they work while I’m the producing director of the CBS drama, BULL. This is an unusual experience for me because mostly I’ve been a freelance director, one who floats in and out of the sets and offices of production companies, directing a single episode and then moving on, with little time to observe others. So it’s only now that I have the opportunity to watch and learn since it is my job and pleasure to support BULL’s guest directors, to accompany on their episode’s journey, to assist without overruling them in their decision-making processes. The fascinating thing is that we’re all different: in our spiritual nature, in our creativity, in our approach to the work and the execution of it. And yet…there is an “x” factor to a good director that is instantly recognizable though generally unremarked-upon.
That “x”factor is self-confidence, a belief in one’s ability that is sure, quiet and rooted in one’s personal belief system. It’s not about ego, it’s about doing a job skillfully and joyfully. It’s about loving the craft and nurturing all who participate as staff, cast and crew. There is an unspoken sense of purpose that this person radiates and is subtly acknowledged by all: this individual is there to fulfill the show’s needs in a superb way because of who they are.
How does this capability reveal itself? By:
- having a clear understanding of the story.
- presenting a specific point of view in telling that story.
- coming up with a method of visual storytelling that fits the show but brings that little extra pizzazz to it.
- communicating that vision clearly and strongly.
- respecting others’ contributions and incorporating them.
- realizing the critical importance of actors’ authentic performance, facilitating that process to bring each scene to fulfillment.
- leading everyone in a positive, uplifting manner, which impacts not only the final product but also the day-to-day process of creating it.
- having a lightness of being, a sense of humor, a subtext that reassures everyone that the director has it all handled, that the set is safe from long hours, bad storytelling and a mean temper.
So that’s the evidence that there are core qualities of all directors. Each director that operates by those methods comes to them by virtue of who they are. Can that be quantified? I believe the short answer is, a director is a LEADER. (No shit, Sherlock…) But how does one become a leader? Is it in-born or learned? Nature or nurture?
Recently I observed a group of neophyte directors in an exercise of directing actors. Regardless of their skills, it was fascinating to watch and assess individuals before they even started rehearsing a scene. Did they have good posture, with their shoulders back and head held high? Did they speak with a clear voice? Did they greet their cast with a smile and shaking of hands? Did they make and hold eye contact? Did they stand in the middle of the space or did they slink against a wall? All of those mannerisms are a “tell” that indicate the individual’s sense of self. Do they believe they have a right to be there and can achieve what needs to be done? Or do they operate out of fear that they are not enough? The skills can be learned, practiced, and improved. The sense of self that informs those skills is something that was given before birth. End of story. At least from my very unscientific observation.
I always say, “I learn something about directing every day.” That is so true, and usually I mean it in the sense that while directing, I make a mistake and consequently, learn. (To my personal dismay.) But lately I’ve also been learning by watching others, whether professionals who are at BULL to direct an episode, or up-and-comers who are taking the first steps. It is such a complex job, to direct an episode (or anything else, from web series to big-budget feature,) that it is a never-ending process to learn all that is possible. But a director has to start, probably in kindergarten, to acknowledge their ability to lead and then start to practice the inherent skills, developing them over time so that he or she can walk onto a set and RULE: kindly, justly, and creatively. And of course, with JOY.