Are Directors Jerks?

The crew walked out on me. One of my first experiences as a director, and all five techs for my show staged a walk out. In the midst of trying to get everything ready for the first (and only) showing of the play I wrote and directed and worked over for months and months my senior year of high school, I acted like a monster to the crew. I didn’t really know what I wanted in terms of lighting, so I yelled at them to figure it out for me.

I eventually apologized and they returned to the rafters but I never quite forgot the experience. Since then, working on sets as a PA, and seeing the stage from the other side of the curtain, I know this behavior isn’t unique to me. It may best be exemplified in this outrageous tirade from David O. Russell on the set of I Heart Huckabees:

Russell couldn’t get a satisfactory line reading from Lily Tomlin so instead of working with her, he resorts to yelling “I’m tryna help you!” To be fair, Lily was giving him attitude. The way he handled it speaks to the frustrating dilemma directors are in—if they don’t get a line reading right on set, they’re never going to get the movie they want in the end. It’s a frustrating, drag out, time crunch, filled with long days, long nights, and little time to get something right. It’s justified he would feel this way.

But good directors don’t give into that pressure. Filmmaking is a collaborative process; good films take many people to get right. While the director is ultimately responsible for the finished product, she or he is at the cast and crew’s mercy.

The best directors understand this, and quickly get them on their side. Clint Eastwood works with the same crew every picture not only because they’re the best, but because they know his style and they follow his method. There’s a quiet persistence in knowing what you want and going out and getting it—not immaturely, but through leading by example.

I get David O. Russell’s motivation to yell at Lily Tomlin. You have to be authoritative. But you also have to know how to work with a group. And you don’t have to be such a baby about it either.

Would love to hear your thoughts. Please share in the comments.

and all five techs for the show staged a walk out.
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4 responses to “Are Directors Jerks?

  1. Wow… Obviously I shouldn’t judge because there’s a larger context that I was not present for, but he certainly comes off as a jerk (or worse) in that. In the first section yes, Lily was giving him sass. But in the second section she was definitely more mature, and I really applauded the fact that she told everyone to leave so that she could deal with it private.

    For the record, I hated that movie.

  2. Haven’t seen Huckabees, but Flirting with Disaster, Russell’s movie before that was not my favorite, either. It starred Ben Stiller in one of his least funny “funny” roles. I almost wanted to throw something at the TV.

  3. Kevin Bacon once said “A good director creates an environment, which gives the actor the encouragement to fly.” But I totally understand what you’re talking about. Directing something, no matter what, if it’s a big movie, a short, a music video… whatever… it puts you under a lot of responsibility and pressure. You need to have a total control on everything and everyone at any time and I think the biggest challenge is to simply “trust other people”. Many filmmakers seems to be tormented souls who lost their trust over the years (probably ever since childhood) — jeez, I’m one of them; not that outrageous, but I know what “pressure” means where actually there is no pressure. It’s that “perfectionist” thinking, which creates some sort of block in your brain — same applies to writing.

  4. I think directors have to be control freaks, to an extent. It’s also important to delegate. No one can do it on their own.

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