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July 14, 2022

What Is a Movie Director?

The director is the most senior person on set, but what do they actually do day-to-day?

What is a movie director on a film? How do you become one? And how does the role of a writer intersect with the director?

Let's dive in.

What is the role of the director today?

The director is in charge of the overall vision of the film. They imagine what the screenplay will look like on-screen based on their interpretation and then convey that image to everyone else on set.

The director has a key role in choosing the cast, deciding what the budget is spent on, and discussing what the overall picture will look like with the cinematographer.

A director is not just a creative visionary; they are in charge of hundreds, or even thousands of employees.

Person holds clapperboard on set.
The director is the main person in charge of the film.

Every employee has different ideas about what the film should be. As a result, they need to be able to handle conflicts and understand where and when to give some members of the crew autonomy and when to overrule them.

Different directors work in different ways. Some are more hands-on, while others are happy to direct with a light touch, seeing the film as a collaborative effort.

Directors with a unique style and image are known as auteur directors, particularly those who write their own pictures. Examples include Ron Howard, Martin Scorcese, and Quentin Tarantino.  

On big budget pictures

On big-budget Hollywood films, the director answers to the executive producers and studio executives who set the budget. They are interested in the picture's success since they are financing it.

The most high-profile directors get the final say over the film before it gets distributed to cinemas or uploaded to a streaming service. This is often called the "Director's Cut."

Quentin Tarantino refused to edit Once Upon a Time In Hollywood for a Chinese audience who were offended by his portrayal of Bruce Lee.

Bruce Lee in "Once Upon a Time In Hollywood."
Tarantino refused to edit out this famous scene in "Once Upon a Time In Hollywood" to appease Chinese critics.

However, the studio can overrule the director in extreme circumstances and make their own edits. This can happen if the studio feels the director's decisions are compromising the film's integrity at the box office.

On indie films

Independent films operate differently from mainstream films. While the director is still responsible for the film's overall vision, they might also have extra responsibilities.

The director will likely be in charge of the cinematography on a smaller film. This was common in the early days of Hollywood films.

An indie film might also be partly funded by the director, giving them control over the finances and the production itself. This can have many advantages as the director can make unrestrained artistic decisions and does not have to account for anyone above them.

But it may well lead to clashes between the director and other crew members, such as the writer, as the director may well feel it is their film and has less desire to act in a collegiate way as they might on a bigger film.

Clashes of personality might boil over with little resolution, mainly if the writer and the director are only working part-time on the film and are trying to balance it with other aspects of their life.

How to become a director

The best foundation for becoming a director is a degree program such as a Bachelor or ​​Master of Fine Arts (BFA/MFA) in filmmaking or a Master of Arts (MA) in Film and Media Production from one of the top film schools.

These will stand you in good stead and teach you the basics of film production. These courses often have theoretical basics, which anyone working in the film and TV industry must understand.

Here you will always encounter other aspiring filmmakers hoping to make it in different roles. You will make a lot of connections that will help you get your first job on a film set, primarily if the course is based in one of the major film capitals of the world: Hollywood, London, Paris, or New York.

You will also get a holistic understanding of the different roles in a film with the best courses offering you the chance to put together your own student production with professional equipment.

But a theoretical approach will only get you so far. To make it as a director, you need to get years and perhaps decades of experience on set, learning how to make a movie.

You will no doubt start as a showrunner, then as an assistant. Quentin Tarantino started his career as a production assistant on an exercise video.

Quentin Tarantino at "The Hateful Eight" premiere.
Tarantino, now a respected director, began his film career as a production assistant.

You will slowly make your way up the ladder until you reach a senior position such as producer. When there is an opening, and you've built up enough of a reputation, you may be considered for a director position.

This is the traditional route. Luckily, with the advent of YouTube and other video-sharing platforms, anyone can become an independent director and start working on their films or short films as soon as they have the funds.

Can you become a director and writer?

It's very common for directors to turn their hands to writing and vice-versa. However, getting a script green-lit is, in some ways, more accessible than getting a gig as a director because producers and executives are often just looking for a great commercial idea and a well-written script.

Writing is often a side-gig of many aspiring directors, and this gives them a chance to spend time on set and build a reputation for themselves. The opposite is also true.

Often, auteur directors will want to have some creative control over the films they make and eventually turn to pen their own scripts.

A strong writing career can lead to a career as a director, and a production company is likely to trust a visionary director to write a film if they have a strong record.

What is a movie director? What's the best route into the film industry?

The role of a movie director is changing as the film industry evolves and more platforms become available for the budding filmmaker to make their debut. But the rules and conventions of entering traditional Hollywood remain essentially the same.

Getting a filmmaking degree from a reputable college, making some great connections, and climbing the ranks in major motion pictures will serve you in good stead. So too, will trying your hand at writing and acting to show that you're an all-rounder.

Happy writing from the Arc Studio team!

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What Is a Movie Director?
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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