By Nick Rheinwald-Jones, Screenwriter
Interestingly, a lot of big-budget feature directors end up being fairly incidental to the overall filmmaking process. This is part of the reason why you find so many novices assigned to huge-scale films. (Another part of the reason is that studios don't want to throw even more money away on an expensive director.)
On a small independent movie, the director is (or at least can be) heavily involved in every aspect of development and production: writing the script, choosing locations, placing the camera, working with each actor to shape their performance. Compared to big-budget films, indie films typically have smaller casts, fewer locations, and little to no complex post-production work (CGI, greenscreen, etc.). Also, they rely mainly on practical locations (i.e., an actual apartment instead of one constructed on a soundstage).
Now compare this process to a big-budget movie, especially a franchise comic book or action movie. For one thing, virtually every major studio film is greenlit with a specific release date in mind, and the director's primary duty is to deliver the film by that date. There may be dozens of key locations to select (spanning multiple continents), hundreds of speaking roles to fill, complex sets that need to be designed and built, and thousands of shots that will require computer-generated special effects or animation.
No way can one person directly supervise all that, especially with an impending release date clock ticking away. Therefore, big-budget studio films often work in a very different way from their indie brethren:
- Producers and studio execs will work with writers on the script long before a director is brought on, and by the time the director arrives, he or she has very little time to make any changes to the script before shooting must begin.*
- CGI special effects companies are hired well in advance, and often begin working on key scenes before the director is involved. The director will thus be forced to design shots and performances to match the existing CGI elements, instead of the other way around.
- Major action/stunt scenes usually are not filmed by the director at all, but by a second unit director (usually an experienced stunt choreographer), either before the rest of the movie begins filming, or while the regular director is busy filming other scenes.
- Even non-action scenes may be filmed by a second unit director, if they involve a remote location and the main director doesn't have time to travel there. (For example, in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the scenes of Benjamin backpacking in India were filmed by director Tarsem Singh.)
- On a big studio movie, the director may have little to no influence on major casting choices. The studio may insist on certain actors because of their bankability, or because they have existing deals with them.
- Producers and studio execs can be very hands-on throughout the filmmaking process, even down to influencing choices about actors' performances, camerawork, set design, etc. (In movies with big stars, the star may want to have some say over these elements as well.)
Film critic Elvis Mitchell once put it this way (I'm paraphrasing): "On large-scale movies, there just needs to be someone's name on the 'Director' line, and it really doesn't matter who that person is." Directors of this kind of movie can be made to feel like a small cog in a big machine: less like a filmmaker and more like a traffic cop.
* Of course, sometimes the director will still try to change the entire script from top to bottom, even with only a few days to go before shooting.
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