Not all writers can direct, and not all directors can write, but the two crafts—despite all the myths and nonsense that have been attached to each—are essentially both extensions of the same job, which is to tell a story.
When writing, I am constantly asking myself, “What is the story I’m telling?” Asking that question, and answering it, informs every single writing choice I make. Directing is no different.
When considering what a movie ought to look and sound like, who ought to be the production designer or cinematographer or, most crucially, whom to cast, I am always asking that same question: “What is the story I’m telling?” Writers and directors both have to look at every detail in that context.
Of course, the jobs require different skills, and you might be better at one than the other. So it’s critical to know how talented you aren’t. You shouldn’t write scenes that the director in you isn’t talented enough to shoot, and you shouldn’t direct a scene that the writer in you wasn’t talented enough to mine completely. There were many times on Shattered Glass (my first directorial effort) in which the writer in me wished that the director in me had more visual style—or at least some visual style. There were moments as well when the director in me wanted to do what all directors occasionally want to do: Fire the writer! Instead, both sides of me just kept grinding and kept asking, “What story am I telling?”
Many writers become directors solely for the purpose of “protecting” their work. They’re tired of taking notes from directors and just want to see their script expressed as written, word-for-word. These writers, in my opinion, are doomed to failure. Here’s why: Scripts are not movies. They have to be realized before an audience can experience them. The goal, in an expression I stole from a director I love, is to “beat the page.” That is, to find what’s living between the words—and that might mean changing them on occasion. If you become too precious with your script, too rigid about honoring its every nuance, then you will choke off the creativity of all the artists around you (most notably, your actors), and the whole endeavor will become a staged reading instead of a dynamic exploration of where your story can go.
Besides, tweaking things during production (at least for me) is the most fun part of shooting. It keeps the script vibrant, and it lets your actors know that they can take the brakes off.
My fondest memories from the shoot of Breach were the moments in which I handed new lines of dialogue to Chris Cooper or Ryan Phillippe or Laura Linney right before the cameras started turning. (In fact, Ryan’s last line in the movie was thought up on the set, and that unscripted line became the endpoint for his character’s arc, which determined how the entire movie was edited.) Of course, you can’t do that with lousy actors—but when you do it with great ones, like I had on that movie, they just soar. And they make your script look better than it actually was.
Besides, scripts change—and reveal their flaws with brutal clarity—as soon as actors start inhabiting them. You realize this in your first casting session. That speech in Act Two that you thought was such poetry? When 20 auditioning actors in a row come before you and none can make it feel credible, you begin to learn that the speech probably wasn’t the work of art you thought. At that point, the director in you has to recognize the problem and make the writer in you fix it… and the writer in you has to do so without pouting.
But the writer in you must push the director in you to dig deeper as well—to stage things better, to shoot them better, to be more insightful on the set. Remember, those two sides of you—the writer and the director—are not there to stroke each other’s egos. They’re there to push each other, to keep assessing one another’s limitations with unflinching candor and courage. It’s nauseating, but necessary.
The seduction of being a writer-director is that it offers power and a certain degree of creative control. It makes you, in the words of a president who always looks to me like he’s shooting first drafts, “the decider.” But that is a trap. Too often writer-directors begin to view their power as a right when in fact it is a privilege… and an obligation to work harder. Don’t assume that being allowed to direct your own screenplay makes you a genius. It doesn’t. It also doesn’t make you a grown-up. Only rigor can do that.
I want to write as well as William Shakespeare or Alvin Sargent or Paddy Chayefsky. I want to direct as well as Steven Spielberg or Milos Forman or Bob Fosse. Sadly, they’re all infinitely more talented than I am. My only salvation is that I know it. That makes me work harder, and it makes me push both sides of myself in the hope of someday making a great movie.
So I guess I ought to amend that first maxim I invoked a few paragraphs ago (See? I’m rewriting again). The job of a writer-director is not just to ask “What story am I telling?” but rather, “Can I tell it better?”
Billy Ray made his name as a screenwriter on films such as Color of Night, Volcano and Hart’s War. In 2003 he made his debut as a writer-director on Shattered Glass, which he followed up with Breach in early 2007.