Are directors overrated? Filmmakers shed light on their real power.

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Directing a movie is a very overrated job, we all know it. You just have to say yes or no. What else do you do? Nothing. 'Maestro, should this be red?' Yes. 'Green?' No. 'More extras?' Yes. 'More lipstick?' No. Yes. No. Yes. No. That's directing."

Thus speaks an acerbic costume designer played by Judi Dench in "Nine," an upcoming musical about an addled movie director played by Daniel Day-Lewis. The film, based on the Broadway musical, is about many things: men, women, sex, guilt, life, death. But it's also about the complicated meaning of the two words "Directed by."

We know when a movie's been well directed, right? It's been well directed when it works. When it looks great, sounds great, captures actors at their peak performances, leaves the audience feeling satisfied.

But wait: We liked the story and that dialogue was hilarious -- doesn't that mean the movie was well written? And that actress we love -- she's good in everything. The director didn't design the costumes. She didn't operate the camera for that unbelievably cool tracking shot. She didn't write that lush musical score or invent the sound effects that nearly rattled our teeth out of their gums.

Maybe Dame Judi is on to something -- maybe directors are overrated.

Er, not so fast wardrobe lady. Yes and No sound easy enough, until you say No when you should say Yes. Or say Yes to the wrong thing. "A director makes a thousand binary decisions a day," says Jason Reitman, who directed "Thank You for Smoking," "Juno" and, most recently, "Up in the Air," starring George Clooney. "Now, let's say I get one of those questions wrong. It wouldn't be a big deal. Even if I got 5 percent wrong, it'll probably fly by.

"But let's say I got half of it wrong," Reitman continues in a recent interview in Washington. "What if this was a really intimate scene and it didn't feel intimate because the location seemed too modern? Or the background actors brought too much attention upon themselves? All of a sudden enough questions come up that, for whatever reason, you've stopped believing in the reality of this movie. . . . And all of a sudden the movie is poorly directed.

"Directing is tone," he concludes. "And tone is the hardest thing to explain to someone. It's like how you know you're in love with somebody."

* * *

The most important quality of a director might be invisibility. When viewers are transported by a movie, when they've entered an entirely new world, immersed themselves fully in its milieu and mood and characters, they're in a sort of trance. If at any point the director's presence is felt -- in a too-fancy shot, for example, or a showy piece of editing -- the spell is broken. But if the audience emerges from a movie collectively rubbing their eyes and asking where they just went -- they've just been taken on a journey led by a good director.

Even before a director gets to the set, she has been spending months in pre-production, hiring costume designers, production designers, a cinematographer and the heads of countless technical departments. She's scouted locations, maybe taken photographs or created storyboards, and held meetings to explain the way she wants to approach the script. She's hired a casting director to hold auditions, okaying or nixing every hire. Once filming gets underway, she's the go-to person for every single question on the film, from where to lay a troublesome cable to how to get a temperamental actor out of his trailer.

"Directing is the ultimate 'all of the above,' " says Richard Linklater, whose 15th movie, "Me and Orson Welles," opened Friday in Washington. "You're the head coach, and like a head coach, your job is to create an atmosphere where all your collaborators, every department head, every worker, every actor, the writers if you're working with them, can do their best work around the common goal, which is the best movie possible from this material."

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