The Real Poop
Lights! Camera! Action!
If you are shouting those three words, chances are good that you are either an overenthusiastic dad on vacation with his kids at Disneyland, or you're a Film Director. If your cry prompts hundreds of people to suddenly fall into line and begin performing their jobs, it's a safe bet you're the second one.
Movies have been around for a while now—well over a hundred years. From black and white to color, silent to "talkies," film to digital, the industry has changed quite a bit in that time. But the process is basically the same: a bunch of still pictures being shown Usain Bolt-fast to look like movement and tell a story. And the person in charge of all of this, the guy who makes sure that everything comes together, is the Director.
Well, okay. Maybe he’s not completely in charge. There are Producers. And studio execs. And investors. And high-powered, grossly overpaid actors. But, at the end of the day, the responsibility for making sure that the movie not only made sense but was high quality (or at least marketable) falls on the Director's shoulders. And movies are the creme de la creme of Directing gigs. While there are opportunities to direct commercials or television shows on the way up (or, more commonly, on the way down for a Director who's lost his mojo), all of the money and the respect are found in making movies.
While many directors are famous, it is by and large a behind-the-scenes kind of job. Everyone knows who Brad Pitt is. But most people have not heard of Dominic Sena (he directed Pitt in Kalifornia and isn't anywhere near as good looking). Some Directors are definitely more well-known than others. Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino—not only do those three guys have weird last names, they're also very famous Directors. Most Directors, though, are about as well-known as the guy who played the vampire third cousin in Twilight. Don't say anything if you know that actor's name. You might want to fly under the radar on this one.
For a job like this, you might expect that there would be tons of schoolin'. Well...sometimes. Like most arts, it's learned mainly by studying (in this case, watching movies) and doing (using your iPhone to capture your cousin Bart jumping off of the roof and breaking his leg on the lawn furniture). There are many, many film schools, some great and some allowing anyone who collects 30 pop tops from Coke cans to get in. Some well-known Directors (like Star Wars Director George Lucas) are a product of film schools.
He's looking more and more like an Ewok as the years go by.
But many Directors get their start just by going out and shooting. They make tons of short films, getting good at what they do, before finally pulling together all of the elements (and the money—oh my goodness, the money) to make a feature film. Tarantino went this route and it seems to have worked pretty well for him (Deathproof not withstanding).
Some Directors started when they were kids, shooting short films with their friends and trying not to set their parents' basement on fire in the process. Steven Spielberg shot war movies when he was a teenager. They were a little like that opening scene in Saving Private Ryan, minus all the gore and people screaming about missing limbs. Spielberg and his buddies were forced to make do with 8mm film (just like in the movie Super 8), but the advances in technology today give any knucklehead with a cell phone and an iPad the resources to make a movie. For the would-be-director (usually someone who wants to break into showbiz but isn't good-looking enough and can't play guitar), this development allows access to quick and easy ways to practice moviemaking. Or at least to blackmail your little brother when you catch him sneaking out one night to toilet paper Mrs. McGregor's house.
Film school offers the same opportunity to get a lot of shooting practice, but under a watchful eye. It also allows for a lot of networking, sometimes with alumni who have already established themselves in the film industry. Many see this schmoozing as the primary reason to attend film school.
For the mavericks who would rather spend their tuition money shooting a film, the nut outside of the film school is a little tougher to crack. Assuming they've been lucky enough to shoot something decent and not have the money run out before it''s finished, they also have to somehow get their film in front of the right people. This rarity could happen by scoring wins at film festivals or just by getting your Aunt Eunice to pass along a DVD to that cute actor who buys bacon for his schnauzer at her husband's butcher shop. Play the angles. As a Film Director, you have to schmooze and schmooze and schmooze some more. In other words, you should be a real schmoozehound.
If someone likes your work, you may get a job. But it probably won’t be a job directing a film. Not yet. First you'll probably get hired to do a music video for a band no one has ever heard of. Payment? Whatever nickels the band has managed to scrounge up from between their couch cushions. Make sure to wash the Cheetoh dust off before spending them.
Another entry-level type gig is directing commercials. These are much bigger paydays, often enough to buy a new car. A nice one, not that crappy, rusted out pickup truck from the '90s that your gym teacher drives. Commercials are also a good way to show that you can do marketable, mainstream material, which is important if you actually want to make a living from Directing. If you don't care about this part of it and are more caught up in the "art," you may be screwed. Writers, painters, and musicians can thumb their noses at "the man" and still practice their art. But movies are expensive. Real expensive. And trust us when we say that you would much rather be making them on someone else's dime. And by dime we mean "zillions of dollars."
You also may get the opportunity to work in television. Television offers its own unique challenges, but the pay is excellent and, if you're good (meaning everyone liked to work with you and you came in under budget), the work is consistent. But creative decisions in television are usually kept to a minimum. When a pilot is shot (pilot being a fancy way to say "first episode"), all of the major creative decisions have already been made. You pretty much just have to follow along and not screw up. In addition to being a place for a select few "up-and-comers," television directing is also a place where film Directors who can no longer cut it in the big leagues find themselves. It creates an interesting work environment, to say the least, and contributes to the general lack of respect television Directors get. If you didn't realize television Directors get a lack of respect, name your top five favorites right now…go! See?
And now, finally, you've made it to movies. Although you're a little jaded and bitter, because some of the other directors you know skipped some or all of the above steps and went straight to movies. Them's the brakes. Suck it up and forget it, because now you are in charge of a $10M romantic comedy starring Zac Efron and that girl from Grey's Anatomy. You get to juggle a million balls, each ball with a massive ego and a list of demands a mile long. You get to make all of the important decisions and have the responsibility of working 16-hour days to make sure that your movie comes in on time (Ha! Good luck) and under budget (Double ha! There is no amount of luck that can help you here).
If you succeed, you may get another film…provided the marketing department did their job and got butts in the seats. If they didn't, they'll blame you and you'll never work again. If Zac Efron didn't like the way his hair looked in the movie, he'll blame you and you'll never work again. If a fire breaks out on set and burns the footage, the studio will blame you. If the movie gets panned by critics, people will blame you and never watch any of your movies again.
And if the movie makes millions in profit and wins an Oscar? The Producer and Zac Efron will take all the credit. But at least you'll get to make another movie.