The Director Rules

The reality facing every producer is that filmmaking is a director’s game. When it comes down to it, there can be only one captain of the ship, and on the “Good Ship Filmmaking”, the director is the skipper. The overall vision of the film has to emerge from one voice (or two very closely allied ones, as the relatively few successful dual-director collaborations have proven, the Coen Brothers being the exception rather than the rule), and that power through tradition and practicality has been invested with the director.

Since the director is going to win almost every battle, it’s best to make sure conflict is not on the horizon. Making a film is difficult enough – internecine warfare on a movie set between a producer and a director, or a director and his crew, is almost always fatal to a production. There is the rare triumph in the midst of utter chaos, as with Tootsie, but there are many more failures, too numerous to mention, which never survived the lack of an agreed-upon approach to what was being made.

The director should be able to clearly articulate some kind of a vision of the film he or she sees in that initial meeting. If a vague, inarticulate, sometime grudging appreciation of the material is what is offered, then it’s best to quickly and politely move on.
Trying to talk a director of a film into a vision of a film that is not initially expressed is a futile task, and it’s better to look for someone who shares the same basic outlook on what the movie is about, and how the story will be told.

If the shared outlook exists in the initial conversation, then it’s best to move forward as quickly as possible to get a firm commitment. That doesn’t mean a formal deal has to be made, although the agent/manager/attorney will be sure to try to improve the director’s fee using the leverage of a new and hopefully sought-after project.
It’s certainly to the producer’s advantage to understand completely what the director’s contract demands will be, since one of the worst positions to be in is to have a financier interested in a director and a director interested in the project, and a deal that’s impossible to make. Foreknowledge is full knowledge, the best approach to negotiating and deal-making.

The director will undoubtedly want to begin script revisions immediately, and if a financier is paying for further development, the sooner the better. If the producer is fronting that money, it may be better initially for the producer, director and writer to meet and discuss the script, and let the writer work alone with the director’s ideas before a deal with the director is finalized.

If possible, the director and writer should meet with the producer present. This is not for conspiratorial reasons, but because the producer is the most aware of the requirements of the financier, the elements that first made the project appealing to the financier, the realities of what can and should be accomplished in any rewrites. The screenplay is no longer being developed in the abstract, but now in the harsh light of budgetary reality.

The role of the producer in each production is in large part dependent on the relationship he or she has with the director. A director who feels the encouragement and support of his producer will be inclusive and collaborative. The director who is threatened by a producer’s unwillingness to yield ultimate control of the film will be paranoid, defensive and unlikely to collaborate in a way that will most benefit the production.

A positive relationship with the director should be sought from the outset, for all the obvious reasons. Harmony is preferable to disharmony, and a collective effort to make the best film possible is essential. When the producer and director “are on the same page,” literally and figuratively, when it comes to realizing a screenplay in a visual medium, the production has the best chance of succeeding.