Modern Times

TAKE (Director’s Guild Magazine)   August 2008  Waka’s World


Do directors today stand an artistic chance in our budget-driven, populist times, asks WAKA ATTEWELL …

There’s a moment after the slate is struck and before the word ‘action’ is called that hangs in the air. The crew leans forward over the precipice. It’s dangerous, they focus and like a coiled spring the machine waits. Producers hate this moment because it means that the film is running through the camera and nothing is happening – dead frames to discard later – the moment is frozen but the film is moving through the gate. Oh the expense! Some directors take forever in this void of great anticipation. And so they should: it’s a very personal, private moment as they choose either to roll the word, snap at it or maybe bark it out loud. Realistically, it’s probably the only thing they really have total control over. It’s their moment and theirs alone. Some whisper with their sexy morning voices. Others, really classy directors, use two words, putting ‘and’ before the ‘action’ (“aaaand action”). Some forget to say the “Go” command, creating a deathly silence as all heads turn waiting.

Discussing this business of directing with a film student recently, I mused over the different types of ‘director’. You know the sorts – the ones with visual skills but who are afraid of actors; relaxed directors who are great with a story but wouldn’t have a clue were to put the camera (or even what town they should be in); the ones that want to do everyone else’s job except their own and are not relaxed. (And I won’t mention the ones that don’t have a clue but are married to a producer so get the job.)

I always include myself in this line up by quickly adding all the different types of shows that I have directed, proving to the listener that we do in fact have an ongoing industry (although it might not currently look like it). I also point out that TV advertising is the cash cow and short films are the ghetto (and that’s even when you have a budget) and how I still lament the fact that I’ve never done an episode of Country Calendar.

This discussion got me thinking about the role of a modern film and TV director and how we are required to be even more varied and multifarious than back in the 1970s when this was all new and we sat at the feet of John O’Shea. Way back then a director, attired with scarf, beret and a pipe, was considered the author of the piece. If you didn’t know what to do next you blew smoke rings and the crew waited. We stayed away until we had the movie finished. Now it’s all about schedules and sinking-lid budgets and it seems it’s more like making sure the traffic is heading the right way and not scaring the horses too much. You’re not so much the author but the foreman. Just stick to the format and its pay-day Thursday. You can blow smoke rings in your own time (but, then, smoking isn’t the done thing anymore).

However, despite all this new pressure I still reckon the key to good directing is independent thought and flair, an appreciation of creative shenanigans and an impeccable knowledge of just about everything. And if you don’t know everything, then just pretend that you do. I encourage film students not to shoot the script or the schedule but the white bits on the page because they don’t exist yet and this is where you can build your career from (everyone else is doing the black bits – that’s their job). Break the rules and prove to me how clever and entertaining you can be! But I wonder if individual, unique and cutting-edge qualities are really required these days. Is it that production companies are merely looking for a bunch of ‘human doings’ pretending to be interesting ‘human beings’?

For instance, what is the role of directors of reality TV when the last thing you can be is real? After all, you can’t tell the truth can you? A celebrity falls ill while filming on a tropical island and nothing is shown in the final show. So, what’s not real about that? … Oh that’s right, it’s not in the script.

Yes we are all celebrities, yes we are all on a tropical island and yes we do live in our bikinis. You see, it’s all true but … Has the horror of truth evaded the thinking people of this country? Perhaps it has something to do with what I call the ‘Holmes factor’ (interchangeable with Campbell, Sainsbury or any other factual entertainment presenter). The deal is get your important issues relegated to The Paul Holmes Show and they will disappear within the week – processed and spat out. In short, sent to the ‘doesn’t matter what’s next department’; in old-fashion terms, you’re fish ‘n’ chip wrapper the next day.

I won’t mention that dancing programme and a fix so obvious that it defies logic (if there was any logic in the first place). I love the truthyisums (a lovely word coined by a US comedian to describe the wisdoms of George Dubya) of outrage that fall from the mouths of celebrities: “Ballroom dancing has saved my life”, “I want to win so I can pay off a previous fuck-up”, and so on. (You see, you made me mention it!)

Let’s face it, we inhabit a McMedia world, where Paris Hilton and George Dubya are given equal attention. The news is as likely to run with a Paris lead as it will run with the state of the crumbling world. So how does a new director looking for a gig and a career make great art? And how do you pay the rent whilst staying true to yourself? I’ve heard directors described as being like ‘traffic cops at the intersection of storytelling’. But I would like to think necessary qualities for a director include leadership, good moral fibre, and caring about the craft. A sort of ‘follow me men over the top, fix-bayonets and charge’ type role. And, “Trust me there really is money in the budget”. But most important, a director must have an opinion and does actually have something to say. But in world full of TV channels, I’m left wondering if leadership and comment are really required any more.

When the whole thing gets too much and I’m lost for an answer I can only reflect upon my own career. On my last directing gig I got to shoot it because I can do that also (it saves the budget). But then I noted the absence of a production manager, 1st AD, grip and gaffer (as in rigging camera inside an aircraft – four cameras in total). Oh well, I thought, with all my years of experience a few other tasks won’t hurt … and then on top of that make lunch, shoot the aerials and supply the transport (it saves the budget). But I did wonder whether things had become maybe a bit ‘low end’. And when I had to arm-wrestle the producer to get a sound operator (it saves the budget), I thought this is obviously the ‘modern way’ and maybe I was the problem. In short was I expecting too much!

After that gig, I arrived home and slept for a day. I then stood in front of the mirror and practiced the moment where I could pause before I said “aaaand action”. You know what, I discovered that you don’t need a crew to feel important and a contributor to the greater scheme of things. It works just fine when you are on your own and in the privacy of your own movie. I now have comfort that will keep me in my lonely old age … just me, myself and a crew of one. God, I miss being protected by the hubris of youth. Later that night I discover that it works when you sing it too – “aaand cut!”.