On the Joys and Sorrows of Directing

It’s 6:24 at night as I sit down to write this and I don’t know what to do.

I am a man (read: boy, person, what-have-you) who schedules his life precisely so that there is no free time left in it.

What do I mean by that?

I mean not that I’m always “busy”, but that I arrange my free time so that it’s controlled, so that it’s not a sprawling mess that could consume my day, but just increments–rest zones–that I can take off for a while with the promise that something next be it party, class, drink or sleep–something.

Why do I do this?

Well, I figure it’s some vestigial (or not) remnant of my time in middle school and high school where I had too much “free time” where I was alone and no one wanted to hang out with me.

In early middle school, this wasn’t a problem. I didn’t even bother with people–I had books.

Those books–fantasy, graphic novels, comedy-fantasy and sci-fi, Star Wars and Star Trek books, informative and novelizations. Young adult and adult novels, like Ursula LeGuin and Tolkein and Douglas Adams and my favorite, the trashy but fun fantasy-humor writer Robert Asprin, whose books including movie references to Humphrey Bogart and loose 1980’s women along with demons named Skeeve. When it became clear that it was not going to be easy for a call-out-in-class, already-chubby hand-raiser to make a lot of friends, I decided to abandon the world of people for those ones, those books, those places of easy humor and worlds apart.

It was later middle school and high-school that were the problems, when I realized I could have friends, just as they left the school or I left summer camp or they moved away to Westchester though it might have been Mars. In learning to relax and be with people, I’d lost the obsessive quality that had allowed me to absorb myself in books. I was anchorless, in “friend”mode without friends to really drive it. As a result, I spent most weekends in, calling others or waiting for them to call me. But if I called them I felt desperate, because I really did have nothing else to do and didn’t want to sit at home by myself. Waiting, though, was even worse, because I’d know they’d never call me.

Thus in college when I finally gained enough close friends that I could see people when I wanted more-or-less, I made sure to fill my time with them and schedule it out so that if, if possible, I could or would never feel that sense of empty time, the area of being unwanted, sitting at home alone, unbounded, waiting for sleep or death. Just like when I had quit books, I had quit aloneness, with no intention of going back.

Yet here I am and here I find myself, later, with a different sense of alone.

As I wait for the last day of my film shoot, I look back on one of the best experiences of my life.

Being a director has changed me.

Even though I have technically directed films before (even a few I’m pretty proud of), I’ve always collaborated with others, always put some of the weight of the film on someone else. Because I used to have a co-director, I didn’t really get to experience the full-weight of what being a director was.

Being a director means being the center of attention, the barometer of a set. Everyone is looking to you for a decision, guidance or what you want. It means being responsible for everyone on your set, that even if you delegate a decision it should by come you in some way or another. Being a director means being there for your actors, working with them, giving them notes, adjusting them but TRUSTING them REALLY to give you what you want. Horror stories aside, they’re not evil people, they’re their to try to make your movie; you just have to find the middle ground between you.

But being a director doesn’t just mean being there for your actors; it means being there for everyone on set. Everyone from your grips to your script sup to your sound mixer to your AD needs to know you’re there for them. That you’re happy that there and that you appreciate them. In giving that sort of encouragement, you’re not just letting your actors give their best performance, but your crew as well.

It’s a great feeling. It’s stressful, intense, demanding–but for someone like me, with the story I just gave you–it’s perfect, because I’m around people who like me, who care about me and who I can care about in turn.

And in the end, I even get to make a movie, too. 🙂

***

It’s possible that I’m totally full of shit.

I’ve heard of crazy directors, negligent directors, directors getting in fist-fights. For all as well as my shoots been going, with a wonderful crew of people who I really do appreciate, there’s no guarantee the movie will be good. My teacher and mentor Nick Tanis used to tell me “you can hope for good and prepare for good, but good is for the audience to decide”.

I saw a clip in class the other day from a director who I know to be an antisocial incompetent, someone incapable of truly working with others. And my teacher called his footage powerful.

And something spiteful in me roared, how can a good movie come out of this?

But it’s like my teacher said.

***

And I as a move to that last day of shooting, I’d me amiss if I didn’t talk about the sadness of directing too.

By sadness I don’t mean thinking that you missed a shot, or wishing you had gotten a better performance. Being a director means you always try to get what you need, but you’re like a shark from Annie Hall, you always move on, or else you’re dead.

No, the sadness of being a director comes when everyone leaves set. Because, as someone who has worked on many sets in non-directorial capacities from boom operator to grip to actor to script sup can tell you, when you go home from set doing anything but directing, you go home to your life. But when you’re a director, you don’t stop being a director when they call wrap; in your mind, you’re still there trying to take care of people, crack a joke, give a hug, look in someone’s eyes, thank them for helping you and thank them again.

It’s not something that turns off so easily.

Even when there’s no one there to take care of, you want to take care of them. When there’s free time, you’re holding for setup for the next shot. When you dream you’re still on set doing takes, directing dream movies in your head. You’re waiting for it to begin all over, when really, it’s just life on now, not the movie and now it’s 7:17 pm and you don’t know what to do.

But just like when I was came from books to people, when you move from aloneness to company, you’re never going to want to go back.

Whenever I write a post like this about “sad things”, it’s hard to objectivise “sad”. There’s a lot of sadness in the world and I’m sure mine of all doesn’t count for much. Also, like I said, I can’t say my experience counts for anyone elses either. Maybe I’m just crazy and it’s just me.

But I’ll say this.

When I was learning at NYU from one of my best directing teachers, there was something about him I never understood. He was too dedicated–he was always bringing food for his class, meeting with students at all hours, staying late to build sets or just comfort a drug-addled kid. He always seemed to care too much, he always risked himself in ways that were crazyor weird, the sort of thing that would make you look at him funny. He’d be all energy all the time unlike all my other teachers, he’d just keep going, wearing  a smile on his face.

To be honest, before this weekend, I always just thought there was something wrong with him, something off. Some sort of something that pushed button-by-button and made him the way he was, my eye cynical through the lens of my wisecracking neuroses.

But now looking back, I realize what was wrong with him, why he could get up every day like a madman with a smile and just go:

He’s a director.

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2 Responses to On the Joys and Sorrows of Directing

  1. Frank says:

    Nick! I left you in Junior High!
    I want to see the final movie!!!
    I won’t be back until Thursday…don’t call my cell… I don’t think my plan likes long distance/international calls =X

    FACEBOOK!

    Cya bro.

  2. Lisa says:

    now that you know that I occasionally read this, I also want you to know that I appreciate it. You are a wonderful writer, Nick, and a compassionate person who clearly learned a lot from your directing experience. And as someone who benefited from your attention, concern and clearly-expressed appreciation, I want you to know it was an honor to work with you.

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