Directing And The Real World

Directing And The Real World

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream” 
- Edgar Allen Poe

What’s reality anyway?  And who’s directing it? 

One of the things I love about real life story telling is that real life gets in the way and sometimes that means the best intentions go topsy turvy.  Being comfortable with that degree of uncertainty is one of the conditions of non-fiction story telling and while that can be confronting for some, I believe it also partially responsible for the freshness and vitality seen in the best documentaries.

But it would be a mistake to confuse this lack of total control over story with a lack of creative control or an authorial voice - especially for those who work in a naturalistic style.  There is a common perception that documentary directors don’t direct at all; they just record, rather than interpret, reality.    Those who believe this are also likely to think that the more observational a real-life story is, the more likely it is to be is true.   Sorry, reality in observational documentaries has always been highly manipulated, it’s just that the style can lend itself to a more complex rendering of reality. 

Discussions about the director’s role in documentaries have been there right from the beginning, before the term documentary was even invented.   In 1922 the feature filmNanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic caused a sensation when it was released. The film’s seemingly authentic portrait of an Inuit family was subjected to years of scrutiny as scholars sought to separate what was real from what was created.  And they took great delight in showing that not all what it seemed.  But what no body could deny was that Nanook gripped audiences with an authenticity that other productions lacked. 

CUT TO:   90 years later, the makers of the wonderful Oscar winning documentary Searching For Sugarman have been accused of manipulating truth to serve the interests of story.  

Really?   Oooooh! 

As a producer/director of real life stories those accusations don’t shock me at all.  But because we are dealing with actuality, as makers, we have to be prepared to defend the veracity of our approach – the big truth.  These days anyone with an email address is a potential sleuth and our stories have never been more open to scrutiny.   And that is a good thing.  We should be able to defend the creative choices we make.   

But audience expectations about the truth are changing as the traditional boundaries between fiction and non-fiction dissolve and new forms emerge.   We have scripted reality, factual entertainment, dramality, and documentary all competing under the factual umbrella.  And that’s just telly.    In the cinema, fiction and non-fiction continue to inform each other in films such as Exit Through The Gift shop, Catfish, Boxing Day & Hail.

All of these production models reflect varying degrees of “pre-scripted” and “post scripted” control over the story where the distinction between what is real and what is created becomes more and more blurred.   Accompanying this are shifting perceptions of what the director’s role is in this new creative process.     

Part of this lack of clarity results from the merging of the traditional film/cinema vocabulary with that of television, where the equivalent of producer in television is closer to that of a director in film.    But that’s only part of it.  The move away from one-off productions to series, has led to production models where there are now field directors on location and post-production directors (who are sometimes called story producers) in the editing room, with a ripple on effect up the food chain.  

What this has left us with is a mess of jumbled terms, which mean different things to different people.  For some in this new real world, the director is simply the producer’s Tool on location.  In these instances s/he is handed a script over which s/he has had no input.  On these jobs the director’s presence whether stylistically or content wise is carefully obliterated.   At the other end of the spectrum the director is the key creative whose singular vision drives the entire project.   

So where are we today in real life story telling?   Errol Morris or the “whad’ya say your name was?” school of directing.  

Like anything, it all depends on the project and the person.   If you’re just joining the dots then the choice of director is probably not hugely significant.   And if you want to do average, let’s face it these days, anyone with a basic filmmaking knowledge and half a subject, can do average.

But if you are aiming for something magnificent, real life stories that find new worlds, that engage and surprise, investigate, that are memorable, reflective,  … that is singular and difficult and rare.    So let’s aim high and talk about these sort of directors, in real-life productions;   because this is where their contribution will be most apparent.  

Do I sense the hackles rising.   “But it’s a collaborative mediumthey say bristling away.  “Yes” I say “It’s a collaborative medium and any director worth her salt understands that.”  But collaboration still doesn’t diminish the importance of a good director – even in a documentary.   And collaboration doesn’t mean it’s a collective.

Let me get one of my gripes out of the way.  Why won’t SBS name the producer, director and writer in its publicity materials?  Why can’t a documentary be promoted as “theirs” while acknowledging the key people who made it.  It’s one line on their marketing flyers/emails.  It costs them nothing and allows audiences (or the those who are interested in such things) to build up recognition for names within the industry.  And yes it is a tiny thing but if it is so unimportant why won’t they do it?

Why do documentary directors have to defend the fact that they direct when a key public broadcaster is allowed to get away without acknowledging anyone?    

The fact is that everyone including directors, producers, commissioning editors, distributors, sales agents, funders & funding bodies, have their own responsibilities/interests/opinions and inputs.   These days no one has total autonomy.   At its best, this can extend and elevate a production, at its worst, it can lead to micro-managing and derogatory treatment of the director resulting in a cookie cutter sameness to things.   And unfortunately there’s a lot of the latter around these days.

Between the script and the screen is a whole team of passionate makers.  So let’s respect that process.  They are not merely the dooers, or outworkers for the broadcaster,  but the creators of a whole new work helmed by the director who is hired by the producer.  So yes, we all need each other but let’s aim high.   Hopefully some of our work is going to outlive the current ratings season, and go on to inspire, re-define, elevate, educate, initiate, expose, or entertain, and become part of our cultural vocabulary.   And it is only by doing any of those things that we will justify our own existence and the tax payer dollars that sustain our industry.  

And speaking of dollars let’s spread em around. The old cottage industry model is out of fashion but don’t forget that world-class films came out of that model.  We live in very different times today but we still need tax payer dollars to survive as an industry no matter how that support is phrased or structured.  We’ve all got our business hats on now and I believe the enterprise system is considered to be a great success.  It certainly makes it easier for the funding bodies and the broadcasters to do business.

I have always embraced change, but in this new world order, directors have been left behind.  Today, creative technicians such as DOP’s and editors are usually paid more than directors, and directors are rarely compensated for performing additional roles on a production.  Directors are frequently denied equity or backend in projects that they have initiated or developed; fees haven’t risen in years, schedules are getting tighter and pathways for new directors and mid career directors are shrinking. There are many good producers working today who are facing the same issues as directors; they too are forced to sign away rights to get things funded while being forced to carry all the risk.   

But producers have had the offset which has been good for them.  Directors have missed out and it’s now time to spread the love.  Maybe the real struggle is between the big end of town, who are doing just fine thanks, and the indies who ever they might be.    Maybe there’s room for everyone.

Things go in and out of fashion and sometimes half the battle is being able to last the distance.  No one has ever been able to predict where the next masterpiece or hit will come from.    But it’s likely that there will be a director involved and it will probably be from where we least expect it, which is why the key to our survival is diversity – diversity of voice and a diversity of production models.    

In the current funding models, the producers have the offset, producers, writers and composers all receive secondary incomes from Screenrights.  What about directors?  What about basic across the board residuals?  Surely directors are entitled to the same income streams that others are able to take for granted.  

Directors have fallen way behind, both financially and creatively, and it’s time for the balance to be corrected. This is why the ADG received an almost unanimous vote from its membership when it decided to proceed towards union registration. 


Ruth is a board member of the ADG and the former Head of Documentary at AFTRS.   Her credits include: Director, Series Director, Producer, Executive Producer and Commissioning Editor.  She is currently the Series Director and Writer on a (soon to be titled) six part series which will screen on the ABC sometime after its delivery in October 2013