A BAD DECISION IS BETTER THAN NO DECISION
Remember George W. Bush? Yeah, those were the days, huh? I never liked him much, but there’s one thing about him that, as a director, I respect.
He was the decider.
When you’re a director, there’s no room for flip-flopping. Making any kind of film is an expensive proposition. Which means no, you don’t get to do things two different ways and see which way you like it better when you get to the edit and no, you don’t get to sit down and think about what you want to do next while 60 people stand around, picking their noses and running up the payroll and no, you absolutely, definitely don’t get to change your mind about whatever you just spent the entire morning shooting.
The clock is running and you need to move on.
That means you need to be prepared. There are thousands of details, not even counting the myriad surprises that come up once the set is lit and the actors are in place, waiting for you to help them make it great.
Of course, “great” is completely subjective and it’s up to history (in the case of presidents) or the Academy (in the case of film) to determine the quality of what you’ve accomplished. But consistent isn’t subjective. Call W what you like — and I’ve called him plenty of things myself — but he never wavered in his conviction.
As a director, I get it. When you’re in charge, everyone wants you to tell them what to do. Even seasoned professionals who have spent decades mastering their craft will defer to some 24-year-old fresh out of film school when it comes to how they should do their jobs.
If you’ve never been on a film set, here’s what typically happens in the ten or 20 seconds it takes for the crew to reset after a take:
The wardrobe stylist holds up two shirts for you to decide between for one of the actors to wear in the next scene.
The DP asks you whether you might like to be on a tighter lens.
The AD wants you to confirm that you like the way she’s blocking the extras.
The producer wonders whether she can release the extras you just shot once you move to the reverse.
The script supervisor needs you to decide whether you prefer the take in which the actor put the wine glass on the table when he said the word “undoubtedly.”
The makeup artist asks whether she has time to powder the actor before you go again.
The actors need to know what adjustments you want to make to their performance.
It goes on like this all day. Your job is to make each and every decision, right then, right there, whether you know the right answer or not.
Here’s a secret they don’t tell you in film school: There is no right answer. To any of the questions you get asked all day.
But there are wrong answers.
Wrong answers are the ones that do anything to render what you’ve done so far useless. Change the lighting, the blocking, the dialogue, the wardrobe, the makeup — anything that’s already been seen or heard — and you’re either going to have to reshoot everything you’ve done up to this point or live without it when you get to the edit.
That’s not to say that you don’t make mistakes. You do. But when you do, you suck it up and make what you have work.
Every once in a while, a mistake is big — so big that you can’t dig yourself out of it. So big that continuing on your present course would be a bigger disaster than starting over. When you make a mistake of this magnitude — Iraq has weapons of mass destruction big — that’s when you stop and apologize to everyone. Everyone. To the senior people because they were probably warning you all along all the way down to the newest PAs because they want to learn from you.
If you’re a real leader, your crew, your actors, and your producers will not only forgive you, they’ll bust their asses to help you make it right.
Brian Belefant is a director who either knows what he wants or does a damn commendable job faking it. Feel like getting in touch with him? You should. (503) 715 2852. Or belefant (at) me (dot) com. Pick one. Now.