I was asked today what the difference in skill or techniques were between a good director and a great one. There is a lot of commonality in how both directors get started in filmmaking, but once they’ve gained experience the great director works specifically on developing his adjectives and verbs.
The adjectives are the tools the director uses to convey key information to his cinematographer and production designer. He also uses it to communicate with publicity, studios and producers. The words make the difference between a good pitch and a great one—a higher budget versus a smaller one.
Adjectives give color to a conversation and ignite emotions. Since film is an emotional medium, adjectives play a major roll in determining what films get made. Films explained without adjectives fall flat and fail to give the audience an emotional ride that films are known to do.
Verbs are the tools needed to adjust the efforts of the actors. Saying, “give me a little bit more,” tells the actor nothing and frustrates her. But, changing up the verb within the direction gives the actor something to play.
For instance, let’s say the director told the actor to “urge” the other character to take a sip from the glass and it didn’t play well. The director would explore a more intense version of the same action. He might tell the actor to “exhort,” “push” or “force” the character to take a sip. Each word brings another level of intensity to the scene.
The opposite is also true. When the director wants the actor to back off of the intensity of the scene, he merely gives direction with gentler verb choices. By choosing various levels of verbs, the actor is able to picture the exact action their character might undertake.
The best news is that verbs are actions that can be played without the actor having to translate what “more” or “less” might equate to. By giving an actor a specific verb to play she can immediately determine what actions her character might take in accomplishing the verb. This frees the actor up from the acting process and allows her to stay in character while playing through a few creative choices.
More and more directors have become writers in recent years because they’ve learned a lot about words in promoting their films and directing their actors. They understand the emotional tone of the film and had to learn the words required to describe it to others. They also know what it takes for an actor to play a roll; so learning numerous levels of verbs became second nature to them.
Once you’ve learned how to use adjectives and verbs, the distance from being a director to becoming a writer/director is very short. The same is true for a good director becoming a great director.