Newbie directors ask what are the most important elements needed to be a great director. Most hope that the answer has something to do with technology or watching a lot of movies. They rarely expect the answer to be a character trait.
Thanks to my festival judging opportunities, I’ve talked with hundreds of directors. They’ve had a vast range of skills.
The director’s passionate stories always include a turning point in their film project. It included a moment when they breathed life into a scene that was about to turn bland or die on the vine.
The director saved the project’s near-death experience by choosing to be adaptable.
All directors can protect their stories by embracing three basic forms of adaptability.
Go with the Flow
In an ever-changing landscape, directors who go with the flow are more likely to thrive. No matter how well planned, there are opportunities for a director to take a creative risk.
I directed one of two promotional pieces at an old firehouse. I had time to scout the area in advance and determine the perfect set-up for speed and artistry. I asked the production manager to have 1-2 12X12 butterfly scrims available for the shoot.
On the day of production, the producer wanted my team to shoot first. I asked the production manager for the scrims to diffuse the sun. He had decided not to rent any scrims. That put the lead actors looking into the sun.
I had to adapt by moving the talent from the sidewalk onto the shaded porch and re-block the entire scene. This forced my director of photography to adapt. He had to adjust his settings to cover the 2 – 3 stop lighting difference between the shaded area and the bright sun.
Directors plan out their rehearsals and production. But sometimes an outside influence causes a major setback. The director has to bounce back and show resilience to get the team back on course.
I directed a musical for the stage. The venue forced us to hold auditions the night before rehearsals started. Since the show required a large cast of kids, the auditions went long—which everyone expected.
The unexpected moment showed up in the form of the venue’s manager who decided it was time for everyone to go home. He gave us a 20-minute warning. The producer managed interference, hoping I’d finish before he lost the argument.
The manager shouted for me to stop until they could square things away. While the two argued, I went up to each nervous kid and help them understand that they were not in trouble. After 45-minutes of heated debate, he gave us 30-minutes to finish.
At that moment, I had to come across to the kids as the leader of fun. I needed to bounce back and show that it was time to play. My sole goal was to turn their concerned faces into smiles. I had to help the kids let go of the intensity and embrace playfulness.
The key ingredient to adaptability is innovation. Directors have a team of experts with various life experiences. Directors that are innovation-oriented are on the lookout for the next best thing.
I was shooting a spring day in a YA film in October. The scene required a goose to attack a new foster child, but the goose and its wrangler didn’t show up on set. Thankfully the attack-goose puppet and the puppeteer did show up.
I worked with the stunt coordinator, puppeteer, and the director of photography. We determined the best angles and moves to reduce the number of live goose shots needed. I figured that a second unit would shoot the live goose to match our principal photography.
Three weeks later, the second unit started to film. But the deep green grass was now a light shade of November brown.
The second unit director researched solutions. He bought a type of green paint that could match the footage. The paint was unique in allowing sunlight to pass through—keeping the grass alive.
Adaptability empowers a director to succeed when plans get blocked. Directors can practice the above characteristics until it becomes a part of who they are. Then they’ll be ready to protect their next project from surprises.
© 2022 by CJ Powers