The kindly angels in Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire move unseen throughout Berlin, keeping its residents under empathic observation.
Cinema itself is like one of these angels, following and observing characters as they encounter life’s challenges. Let’s call this perspective that of the Concerned Observer, because he is involved, invisible, and weightless like a spirit. Feeling for the characters and always searching for greater significance beyond the mere witnessing of activity, the observer can leave the periphery to fly into the center of things, move through the human space, getting closer (even into intimate proximity) to those involved.
Developing empathy with the characters and knowledge of them, the Concerned Observer comes to identify with them in their unfolding difficulties, and tries profoundly to understand them. It is a part we all play in life, so it feels familiar, and it is a role that every director must actively adopt in making films. Through the perspective of the Concerned Observer we register the competing dramatic tensions, perspectives, objectives, appeals, and sensibilities of all the dramatic characters as they negotiate the plot and conflicts of the film. This POV guides us each time we must choose where to place the camera, who or what to emphasize at any particular moment, when to cut away, when to hold on an action or reaction, and for how long. The Concerned Observer role is a profoundly human perspective that helps us discover and visualize the heart of any dramatic interaction, which ultimately helps the audience fully engage the unfolding events. But however well the Concerned Observer can see, hear, and sympathize with the characters, he or she, like one of Wenders’ angels, cannot intercede or express an opinion. This is a handicap.
The Concerned Observer can however turn into the proactive Storyteller by going several steps farther and arranging the events, and modulating the narrative emphasis, for the instruction and entertainment of an audience. Through aesthetic choices, developing the particularities of environment, tone, context, and subtext, the Storyteller instills a thematic resonance to all that occurs throughout the story. The Storyteller makes all of this dramatic activity add up to something so that the journey moves beyond the mere recounting of a basic story, and acquires pleasure and profit through the telling of the story.
What we see on the screen is not free- functioning, autonomous truth such as we’d see on any street corner, but an artful construct filtered through a temperament—the Storyteller’s (director’s) temperament. The human vantage from which a director constructs the details of a cinematic story comes from the specificity of that perspective. The source of the Storyteller’s viewpoint is very often not evident, because it is hidden behind the conceptual and aesthetic choices that express it. But even when it is not overt, it is nonetheless felt by the audience. The stylistic choices regarding performance, location, visual style, tone, sound, and pace serve as proxies for the Storyteller’s POV on the content of the narrative. Every area of film production that calls upon a director to make a creative decision (from selecting a camera angle, to selecting an edit point) must be considered through the filter of the Storyteller’s unique temperament.
We’re all familiar with films or television shows, which are perfectly polished and professional, yet lack individuality. A filmmaker can work hard to make their film look professional and it can still be faceless. David Mamet thinks of such work “as a supposed record of what real people really did,” that is, something like a newsreel report. The Concerned Observer and the Storyteller perspectives are explored in greater depth in Chapter 16, but to direct screen work with a distinctive voice, you must act in at least four different ways:
1. Define: Clearly define the core thematic ideas that inform the story you are telling. Ask yourself: Beyond the plot, what is all of this really about? Make it your priority to tell your story, and reveal those ideas, in a special and particularly cinematic way. You’ll need a clear definition of your approach, one that involves and enthuses people. You can go only where you aim to go.
2. Take control: You must direct the filmmaking process, not become controlled by its fascinating technology. To stay in control, you’ll need a clear and unshakeable idea of the underlying premise and themes of the film, and a strongly visualized design to express them. You’ll also need the ability to clearly communicate those concepts to your collaborators and get them realized during production. If you don’t, the crew and the actors will take over, and the tail will wag the dog.
3. Impose a Storyteller: You must impress a strong storytelling “voice” on your film, the kind that lends enchantment to all effective storytelling. This voice may not exactly be yours— though it emerges from your sensibilities and personal preoccupations—for the Storyteller is in some ways a character that you alone define and play to the hilt. This character’s eyes, ears, mind, and movement are a Storyteller’s sparkling stream of consciousness made manifest in your film. The chapters in PART 5 “A Director’s Screen Grammar,” explore all the tools with which this can be done.
4. Stay the course: Many details change during a film project: the script gets rewritten; actors, cinematographers, set designers, editors, and sound designers can bring surprising interpretations to the material; locations change; and the rigorous process of film production imposes limitations of its own. But the director must hold on tightly to the story’s central premise and thematic underpinnings, which are the foundation for all the aesthetic choices of the Storyteller. It’s the beacon the director can never lose sight of, or they risk veering off course and losing the unifying thread of the story and the attention and goodwill of an audience. In most films, the central premise is rarely stated in direct terms by the characters; it resides in the culmination of all the dramatic activity and the aesthetic approach the director brings to the story.
The most important thing a director needs is a point of view. When you see a movie, if you’re alert, it’s the thinking that went on behind the movie that’s interesting, really. The rest is just… scenery. Even the script. In the first ten or fifteen shots of a film you can usually tell whether the director’s thinking and what he’s thinking about.
—Oliver Stone (from Moviemakers’ Master Class, Laurent Tirard, 2002)
Directing is a comprehensive manual that has inspired tens of thousands of readers worldwide to realize their artistic vision and produce well-crafted films. Directing covers the central and enduring elements of the craft – aesthetic, technical, and psychological -that directors employ throughout the fascinating and challenging process of making a film.
Directing explores every step of the filmmaking journey, including: the essential qualities of drama and story development, cinematic storytelling concepts and aesthetics, script analysis and interpretation, cast and crew collaboration dynamics, the theory and process of working with actors, the director’s duties on the set and in post-production, essential technology, and production safety and etiquette.