Writer-directors

When I attend screenwriting groups, I sometimes ask people what job they’re going for in the film industry. A large proportion say that they want to be directors.

I’m wondering whether the skills that make a professional screenwriter are relevant to those who want to be film directors.

The range of abilities that directors apply to their jobs are many and varied. Some directors are more comfortable with working with actors. Some most enjoy stylising the visuals. A few look forward to making the hundreds of decisions that directors have to make every day.

Let’s say that 40% of the job is developing the performances with the actors, 40% working with the set crew to get the visual interpretation correct and 20% answering the questions of everyone else working to make the film (ranging from the producer to the production designer). What part of learning how write and develop screenplays helps you learn how to be a director?

The screenwriting dream

Amateur screenwriters think that their idea is their ticket to fame and fortune. They husband it for years. They don’t dare tell it to anyone near the film industry in case ‘they’ steal it. The theory is that once the screenplay is written, and a producer reads it, the screenwriter can bargain for the job of their dreams: “You cannot make this film unless you make me the director!” In the fairy-tale version of events, the producer responds, “You may have almost no experience dealing with the complexities of making a film, but this idea is so distinctive, so I’ll find the best artisans to help you make this the best film ever. You will be the director of the film!”

Producers will never take this kind of risk. Even if the script is a sure-fire hit, it is not worth risking anyone’s money on it. However good the script, unless there is plenty of evidence that the director will be able to effectively tell the story well, producers will not bet on the untried director.

So, if you think writing screenplays is your way in, think again. Writer-directors are the exception, not the rule. It’s hard enough trying to make it as a director in Hollywood without reducing your chances by writing the screenplay as well.

Understanding screenwriting is enough. Learning how to choose between scripts is very important. Knowing how to develop a script to make it filmable and promotable is vital. That doesn’t mean you need to make that one script perfect before you go out and make your first film. In fact, using the ‘I need to spend more time on my script’ excuse is only a reason to delay starting your career as a director.

Putative directors: You learn how to be a director by directing, not writing.

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