Here, we discuss the many duties of the documentary director. This includes the director as the visionary, the author of the film whose creative vision is ultimately realized; the director as the interviewer—whose role it is to connect with the interview subjects and make sure you get what you need from each interview subject; and the director as manager—making sure that the set is running as it should.
- Now that we've got a good idea of where we're going, the story we're trying to tell and how the production shoot is going to play out, let's talk about directing for a bit and of course, I could dedicate an entire course to the art of directing a documentary. So in this movie, I'll only be able to give you a brief introduction to the basics but we'll definitely touch on many aspects of directing throughout the rest of the course. So let's lay the foundation here and expand on things as we go. First of all, let's talk about the different components of directing.
First, there's the director as the visionary. Quite literally, the author of the film whose creative vision is ultimately realized in the preparation, shooting and editing. There's also the director as the interviewer whose role it is to connect with the interview subjects and make sure that you get what you need from each person. There's the director as manager making sure the set is running as needed and that all crew members are working as they should and the director is also everything else in between because during a documentary shoot, the director's job can extend to a multitude of different essential roles.
It's best for documentary directors to roll with the punches and step in however needed during any part of the process. So let's talk a bit about each of these roles and first, we'll discuss the director as a visionary. As a documentary director, it is your vision and leadership that everyone else follows so make sure you know exactly how you want to tell the story, how you want the film to look, who you want to talk to, what style you're going for and so on. You'll need to have worked hard to visualize the film in the pre-production phase so that when you and the crew work to carry out that vision, you'll be able to offer confident answers and solutions when questions arise.
Holding clear meetings with valuable directives and meaningful discussions is also important in making sure everyone's on the same page. Now, I also think that the best directors accept constructive feedback from many different people on set and therefore must have the flexibility to change the vision based on that input. So bottom line, own the vision but be open to tweaking it if necessary. Doing so will make your film stronger. In addition to great prep and owning a clear vision for the film, you'll also need to remain a driving force during the course of the shoot especially in terms of the interview process.
Every step of the way, you're in charge of making sure the team captures everything correctly in terms of content, emotion and subtext. That means that in each interview, the director needs to be fully present, assessing everything on the fly, making sure each interview will be able to contribute to the film in the desired way. If the interview isn't progressing as planned, the director often needs to either be able to pivot accordingly or find another solution like locating a different source who can provide what's needed and because shooting a documentary can only be specifically planned to a certain degree, there are always going to be surprises, both subtle and dramatic changes from the way you thought the narrative would play out and you've got to determine if that's okay or if the story and the vision need to change.
This is not a passive act. The director isn't just sitting back and waiting to see what he or she gets. The director needs to do everything possible to ensure success from those interview subjects and above all, that means keeping the interview subjects comfortable by creating a strong sense of trust. There are many ways to create trust and it starts in pre-production. During those pre-interviews and especially extending into the actual interview itself, it's so important that the participants know that they're valued and can connect to you.
We'll talk a lot more about this later in the chapter when we discuss different interviewing techniques and while interviews certainly often but not always serve as the backbone of the documentary, the footage itself must also drive home the right content, emotion and subtext. If you're shooting the bulk of the footage yourself, it's important to stay on task. Make sure you capture all pertinent items on the shot list as well as anything else that arises during the shoot. If you're a director who is working with a camera crew as I did for the bulk of the Project RELO shoot then you need to own the plan while maintaining an excellent working relationship with everyone.
You also need to have clear and trustful communication every step of the way during a fast moving production. Work hard to get everything on the shot list but also work with your camera operator to embrace new opportunities along the way and it may go without saying but part of this means that the director should always feel comfortable in checking the camera operator shot, not because you don't trust them but because in order for you to own the vision of the film, you need to know what the shots look like.
This allows you to make tweaks as necessary. Lastly, the director is the manager of the production. This starts with making sure all important information is curated and communicated. This involves working with a producer to distribute detailed daily itineraries and contact information, directions and other production logistics and of course, if you're both the producer and the director as I was in this case, you'll be doing all of this. One note about crew dynamics, if there are ever problems or discrepancies on set, it's essential that none of this shows outwardly because documentary subjects should never have any indication that there may be any divisive vibes among crew members.
Everyone should always remain professional, calm and confident and that will help make the documentary subjects feel calm and confident themselves. That said, getting good feedback is so important. So in order to do this in a proactive way, consider holding semi-frequent meetings for everyone to be able to check in. Documentary shoots can turn into 12 hour, 14 hour days or even longer so making sure everyone's working together well is imperative.
- Reviewing important production documents
- Effective directing strategies
- Setting up the location and aesthetic of an interview
- Conducting interviews
- Shooting b-roll
- Capturing engaging observational scenes
- Camera, sound, and more
- Working in the field
- Management media for successful handoff to post