It seems to me, from my limited experience on this earth (with pinches of salt for you at the ready) that there are a few qualities that really define a great director. These four qualities, taken together in balance, seem to be the essentials.
There are other qualites that are definitely nice-to-have, but over the years (and, as I say, in the eye blink of time I’ve had so far of this life, salt here, salt there, salt everywhere) it seems like there are some that at first glance may have appeared essential but are in fact just added bonuses.
Salt at the ready…
So what makes for a great director? Here we go:
Is that it? I think it might be. Everything else I’ve written here is a bonus.
Care of the project, specifically, can make or break a production. To care about what is being made by the people that you’re directing, rather than say, ‘Oh, it’ll do’, lends a unified quality to the end product. It also encourages those people to bring more specificity to what they’re making for the director – when the director cares about quality, relevance or how it ‘fits in’ with the overall vision (see next), that care filters down through heads of department to all the staff on production.
There’s also a need for the care of the people who are working with and for them. Not in a sentimental way, but more of an understanding that you are working with other humans, with all that this weird, existentially trying experience entails! It calls for understanding, a little bit of empathy, an openness (see later) to hear them out, and respect and regard for what they bring to the project. It’s also about encouraging a working environment of honesty and fairness in, at the very least, a civil and professional manner.
This is one of my opinions, and you can absolutely disagree (here’s some salt). There’s a wealth of information about how the ‘great’ directors of the past exploited and abused their actors and crew. I’m arguing today that this takes away from their greatness. It downgrades them to a lesser rating. And going forward, no director can be labelled great without this essential attitude towards the people working to bring their vision to life.
(I’m searching here for a better word that’s more inclusive of the experience – let me know if you have a better one)
Great directors know what they’re trying to say, and what the project is supposed to look and sound like. At the very least, they know what it wants to feel like. It appears to be a consistent, inner knowing without having first experienced it. It’s a kind of faith.
The great director is up for new ideas! They love to hear other ways of experiencing life. They’re also confident enough in their integrity to countenance dissent in a fair and measured way (see ‘Care’, above). They’re also open to the possibility that plans might (and inevitably will) change. Though they have their ‘vision’, the greatest directors aren’t always certain about how they’re going to get there and embrace that uncertainty as part of the joy of collaborative creation.
I have so much respect for a director who says, “I don’t know” when they don’t… and then, when they see a decision absolutely needs to be made to move the work on to the next stage, they’ll make that decision without hesitation. Great directors know the buck stops with them to keep the train moving when the way forward is at a crossroads.
And then, they know that it’s not necessary to keep to that decision stubbornly. It can change to react to new information and future situations… but at that moment in which the decision needs to be made it will be. It’ll align with the vision, and it’ll be made with care and an openness to the fact that it may not be the best in the long term but it’s the right one at that moment.
There are other nice-to-have qualities that seem, since I wrote this previous post (many many years ago), not to be as essential. These four qualities – care, vision, openness and decisiveness – really do make for great directors.
(Hope you managed to keep your head above the mountain of salt there!)
Image: The photo wall from the set of The Department of Distractions by Third Angel, Copyright H. Fenoughty 2018