Find the Right Director

Let’s continue our positive assumptions by acknowledging that the budget is large enough to encompass the requirements of the physical production. The essential next step is attracting a director, a filmmaker who has a vision that can be realized by the collaborative efforts of numerous individuals.

The importance of a singular vision in guiding a motion picture through production cannot be underestimated – without it, a crew is just a group of disparate individuals practicing their craft without a unifying purpose.

Finding the right director is so critical that the highest level of attention and care should go into making the choice. Continuing with our assumptions, we are assuming that the screenwriter is not also the director, nor is the producer the director. There are good reasons for this not being the case, and it should be the preferred decision.

The commonality of the writer-director has been greatly exaggerated, in part because of the film school experience, which yearly turns out hundreds of would-be auteurs (the French term for the “author” of the film, whom the French inevitably consider to be the director). But few of those graduates will end up directing anything that they write, and the number of truly successful writer-directors active in the industry today can be counted on two hands, and two of them are named Coen.

It is true that many of the great writer-directors, such as Billy Wilder, were driven to direct because of the mess they felt directors made of their screenplays. Directors often run roughshod over a screenplay, active in their dislikes of scenes and characters which they feel don’t work, yet frustratingly unclear about what exactly they are seeking.

Many directors also assume that they have an innate ability to write that is commensurate with their ability to direct. Often a talented director will retard the proper development of a screenplay by constantly rewriting the writer, and not doing it as well or as cohesively. No Writers Guild policies can prevent this practice, and it will continue as long as there are egotistical individuals who assume that they are always right, and there is no short supply of these in the movie business.

The first step in attaching a director and cast is to make the comprehensive master lists. These should include every possible director and actor (for the lead roles only at this point) who is well matched to the material and at least imaginable at the budget level that has been agreed to. Tom Cruise is not going to star in an independent movie. Judd Apatow is not going to direct a first-time screenwriter’s teen comedy.

Realism is an important ingredient in getting films made, rather than endlessly optioned and developed. Unrequited expectations have prevented numerous filmmakers from taking the necessary and laborious steps necessary to come up with the right combination of talent, experience and passion that will convince a financier to move forward and start the cash flowing.

As mentioned earlier, it is difficult to penetrate a director’s world without going through an agent, manager or attorney. A relationship with any of the three is an immediate advantage, although it is completely professional and acceptable to contact the agent or manager who represent the director and make the production’s interest known. It is also acceptable to ask for a private meeting (i.e., without the agent or manager or attorney present) prior to making an offer.

Sometimes the offer is necessary to get the director to read the script. The agent has already had it covered, of course, and if the coverage was positive, now may personally read it. If the coverage was negative, the agent may not even tell the client about the offer, but may simply decline. If the agent does tell the client, the coverage will still influence his/her presentation, since the agent will rarely contradict the agency’s story department.

If the director has any enthusiasm for the screenplay, or even the concept, the agent will probably arrange the meeting. After all, the agent makes no commission if the client does no work, and a solid offer is an opportunity for employment. The meeting is best held in the producer’s office (this reinforces the producer’s role as the individual most in control of the project), or at a neutral location. Avoid meeting at the agency – it taints the entire experience.