The #1 Job Of A Movie Director by Mark W. Travis
Film Courage: Mark, on a movie a director has to know a thousand different jobs whether it be writing, story, lighting, make-up, working with actors, editing, and so on and so forth. When it comes down to it, what do you think is the most important job of a director?
Mark W. Travis: Okay…the most important job of a director is really simple if you think about it. First of all, the director of the film is a storyteller, in fact everyone he’s working with is there to help tell one story. So the director’s primary job is to be the Shepherd of that story, to take care of the story, to tell the story as clearly and honestly and authentically as possible. I say story, not the script (which we can talk about later) is a step toward getting the story told. In terms of your question (which you’re asking about of the story being told) at the center of the story, the most important part of the story, are the characters. It’s the characters who tell the story, not the cinematography, not the production design, not all those other elements. All those other elements are the support system to the story. So the director needs to be focusing on the story and then on the characters and the strength of the performances, the authenticity of the performances, the clarity of characters, the clarity of relationships, the clarity of the journey of each character, is really crucial in order to tell the story well. That’s the primary focus of a director. If a director can’t do that or loses sight of that, the story is going to start to wobble and we’ve seen that a lot. Stories wobble simply because of performance even though a lot of the other elements may be brilliant like CGI and special FX and all that stuff is beautiful. It’s wonderful. But it’s not the story.
“The big thing that Mark Rydell told me about this is you can be on a set and watching and [think] “That was great! That was wonderful!” You can even see it in dailies and watch it later and go “Great! Wonderful!” You can see it at home later and go “Huh? What happened to great and wonderful?” The Machine has taken it away. A lot of directors get their energy from The Big Machine, from the fact that there is a crew and there are lights and energy. Everybody goes quiet. Everybody is listening. They get excited by the fact that they are shooting a film and that excitement will go away and then you look at the shot and go “Huh? I thought it was great when we did it? What happened?” What happened was there’s an energy which was around you that is now gone.”
Film Courage: Is the story wobbling because the actors are wrong for the part? When you say Shepherding the Story, where would that get lost? Where would the director in the course of let’s say a 14-hour day on set working with actors lose that? Can you give some examples of what things could happen or how things could happen?
Mark W. Travis: Okay. You brought up two things: What can happen in a 14-hour day and then you brought up a casting question. There are two questions. I’m going to go back to the casting first. First of all casting, which is really crucial and very often we’ve all seen films where we feel the casting although understandable, is not right. It doesn’t feel like that actor is bringing me closer to the character and many times that actor is a star or whatever so you can understand why. So the casting is really important so that we the audience…the goal is that we the audience lose sight of the actor and are only watching the character and many times the actor, even the power of the actor, the career of the actor or a lot of other things can get in the way of us connecting with the character. One more thing, in casting you can cast someone who seems to get to the character. It has nothing to do with star power. So casting is really important to find someone who can actually access that character.
Now on a 14-hour day, let’s say we’re shooting a couple of scenes or one scene or whatever we’re doing in that day. You ask how a director can lose sight of the Shepherding of the Story. Very easily. Very easily. And I can tell you as a director, having directed a lot of films and having worked on a lot of films, you can see it happen. It’s what a friend of mine (Mark Rydell) who I’ve worked with a lot called The Big Machine. The Big Machine is the filmmaking process. Cameras, lights, crew, all of that, it’s huge. You’ve been on a set. You know what it’s like, it’s enormous. And the director is sort of the leader, the guy that everybody is looking to and what can happen is the director gets distracted by all the challenges, everything he has to do. I’m not saying he doesn’t have to do all of that, and can lose sight of what is most important. You’re shooting the close-up of that actress at that moment, what’s most important? The lighting? No. The background? No. The special FX? No. What’s most important is that performance.
I heard once on a set a director, after he had shot a moment, turned to the script supervisor and say “Did she say all the words?” and the script supervisor says “Yes.” And she says “Good. Okay, moving on.” His criteria was did she say all the words? Not, was that the performance we needed? In other words, can the director keep the focus on the performance because when it comes to down to the film and we see it on the screen, what do we see? The performance. The big thing that Mark Rydell told me about this is you can be on a set and watching and [think] “That was great! That was wonderful!” You can even see it in dailies and watch it later and go “Great! Wonderful!” You can see it at home later and go “Huh? What happened to great and wonderful?” The Machine has taken it away. A lot of directors get their energy from The Big Machine, from the fact that there is a crew and there are lights and energy. Everybody goes quiet. Everybody is listening. They get excited by the fact that they are shooting a film and that excitement will go away and then you look at the shot and go “Huh? I thought is was great when we did it? What happened?” What happened was there’s an energy which was around you that is now gone. So a director’s job is now can you shut down The Big Machine? Can you focus your attention onto just what that actress is doing? What she’s given to you? Can you see only that? That’s really hard.
And one other aspect of this assuming that you’ve been working with this actress a lot and you’ve rehearsed and you’ve discussed this and so you know what you’re going for. And you know what she’s going for. And you watch her in that moment not only shut down The Big Machine, but you watch her in that moment as if you’ve never seen her before and you’re seeing what she’s doing for the first time. That’s hard. That’s the hardest thing a director has to do.
Question: What do you view as the most important job of a director?
CONNECT WITH MARK W. TRAVIS
MARK W. TRAVIS is regarded by Hollywood and independent film professionals internationally as the world’s leading teacher and consultant on the art and craft of film directing. He is known as “the director’s director.”
Fueled by the desire to generate organic and authentic performances in an instant, Mark developed his revolutionary Travis Technique™ over a span of 40 years. Not limited to filmmakers, The Travis Technique™ has proven to be an essential set of tools for all storytellers, writers, directors and actors.
Mark Travis has taught at many internationally acclaimed film schools and institutions, including Pixar University, American Film Institute, UCLA Film School, FAS Screen Training Ireland, NISS – Nordisk Institutt for Scene og Studio (Norway), Odessa International Film Festival (Ukraine), CILECT – The International Association of Film and Television Schools, and the Asia Pacific Screen Lab (hosted by Griffith University Film School, Brisbane, Australia).
Productions directed by Mark W. Travis have garnered over 30 major awards, including: an Emmy, Drama-Logue, L.A. Weekly, Drama Critics’ Circle, A.D.A, and Ovation awards.
His film and television directing credits include: The Facts of Life, Family Ties, Capitol, Hillers, and the Emmy Award-winning PBS dramatic special, Blind Tom: The Thomas Bethune Story. Also the feature films Going Under (for Warner Bros. starring Bill Pullman and Ned Beatty), Earlet (documentary), The Baritones, and The 636.
On-stage, over the past 20 years, Mark has directed over 60 theatre productions in Los Angeles and New York, including: A Bronx Tale, Verdigris, The Lion in Winter, Mornings At Seven, Equus, Café 50s, And A Nightingale Sang, Wings, Linke vs. Redfield, The Coming of Stork and others.
Mark is the author of the Number-One Best Seller (L.A. Times), THE DIRECTOR’S JOURNEY: the Creative Collaboration between Directors, Writers and Actors. His second book on directing,
DIRECTING FEATURE FILMS (published in April of 2002) is currently used as required text in film schools worldwide. His third book, THE FILM DIRECTOR’S BAG OF TRICKS: Get What You Want from Writers and Actors was published in 2011. Mark’s popular DVD, HOLLYWOOD FILM DIRECTING, is available now.
MARK TRAVIS and ELSHA BOHNERT offer workshops and consultations on all aspects of storytelling for writers, directors and actors.
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