Becoming a director for TV or film can seem like an impossible dream. But plenty of talented, driven people make it a reality – and so can you. Whether you opt to attend film school like Martin Scorsese or decide to jump in and learn on your feet like Christopher Nolan, here’s what you need to know to get started on the road to BAFTA glory.
Christopher Nolan behind the scenes of “Tenet” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
A director is the creative lead of a project. Their creative vision and storytelling skills bring a script to life. As the overall and day-to-day head of the production, the director works with pretty much everyone on the film crew hierarchy. They’re usually hired by the producer in the preproduction phase and guide the film through to production. This means the director works closely with all heads of department and communicates the overall vision of what the film will be. They need to keep all the different aspects of the film's production in their head and lead from the front. During preproduction, the director makes crucial decisions on the casting process, as well as location, rehearsals, and scheduling.
On set, the director works especially closely with the actors to draw out the performance any given scene calls for. They also issue directives to the director of photography and their team to ensure the film looks the way they want it to – from the lighting to camera angles and movements.
Then, when the film is shot, the director will focus on the editing of the film, working with an editor to cut the footage into a brilliant final product. When the director’s cut is finished, the director’s work still isn’t over. They’ll have to convince financial backers, the studio, and producers that their vision is the right one and argue their case. They might get hands-on with the marketing and publicity of the finished film. The director’s work is never done.
David Yates directing on the set of “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” Credit: Jaap Buitendijk
- A real passion for filmmaking: It’s not an easy job; some people get a lucky break, others slog for years without a director credit. If you’re expecting to walk straight into a big-budget directing role without having ever worked on an industry set, think again.
- Leadership and communication skills: You’re responsible for the vision of the film, and you’re the top dog on set. The cast and crew will look to you for instructions and inspiration. You’ll have to be able to clearly communicate with every department on set, while also making dozens of decisions a day.
- Technical know-how: The cinematographer and their team will do the hands-on work, but the director shouldn’t lean on them completely. You should study and understand the specifics of cameras, lenses, lighting, shot composition, and blocking.
- Script literacy: Directing a film means taking the words in a screenplay and translating them onto the screen through your vision. Read scripts and practice actively thinking about how to turn action lines and exposition into dynamic imagery with cinematic depth.
- An understanding of acting: To get the best performances out of your cast, you should know the basics of acting. “It really bothers me that if you go to most film schools, they’ll have a class on cinematography…but they very rarely teach acting,” actor and director Ethan Hawke told Backstage. “[Directing and acting] are both interpretive arts. They are extensions of translating writing to the screen.”
Stephen Daldry discusses a scene with Anton Lesser and Claire Foy on the set of “The Crown” Credit: Robert Viglasky / Netflix
A formal education isn’t required to direct a film. Plenty of top-flight filmmakers have made it without a film school degree. Christopher Nolan was an English Literature student at UCL when he made his first film on a budget of just £3,000. Stanley Kubrick began his career while working as a freelance photographer. Steven Spielberg dropped out of college to direct TV after impressing Universal with his short film “Amblin’.”
Film school does, however, provide benefits. Going to school teaches you the mechanics of how to film shot-by-shot, while giving you a safe space to make mistakes as you learn. More importantly, film school is an environment where you can network and meet possible future collaborators – or bosses. Many formal degree tracks also require you to make a film before graduation, a process that would require much more legwork, planning, and money on your own. Your student film is also a demo and résumé, something tangible you can show to prove your skills.
If you’re set on film school then make sure you read our guide to UK film schools. Study the directors whose careers you’d like to emulate and find out which school they went to. Can you see yourself there? Look at each school’s student work – are you impressed? Also, can you afford to go? At the top of most UK film school lists are:
- National Film and Television School
- London Film School
- Arts University Bournemouth
- Leeds Beckett University
Whether or not you acquire a formal degree in filmmaking, the major requirements to become a director are:
- A network in the industry who can help and support you
- Experience on a set, whether it’s a self-funded project, a student film, or an entry-level role other than director
- Examples of your work, whether it’s a finished project or a showreel, to present to possible employers
Many professional directors don’t start off as directors. They work their way up, gaining invaluable experience along the way. A crew will respect a director who’s been there and has worked in different departments. Starting off as a runner gives you a deep understanding of what everyone does (join the People in TV: Runners Facebook group to find runner jobs in TV). An entry-level or early-career job on a set gives you hands-on experience and a chance to network with other people in the industry. Some of those roles include:
There is also the option of writing a script yourself and creating your own content. Unlike in Kubrick’s or Spielberg’s day, almost everybody has access to the technology to make a film. Most modern smartphones can shoot in HD or even 4k, and with a couple of implements, can record highly usable sound. Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh regularly shoots on an iPhone using the Filmic Pro App and an Osmo stabiliser. Get some like-minded people together, think professionally, and have a go. If you direct a film – whatever size or budget – then congratulations: You’re a director. If you feel like it’s time to get your work in front of an audience, read our guide to submitting to film festivals as a new director.
The UK is also filled with public bodies to back prospective directors. Along with BAFTA, which has a brilliant website full of information, there’s ScreenSkills, the BFI, and Directors UK, a professional association championing the work of UK screen directors that offers a host of on-the-job training opportunities.
Emerald Fennell directing Carey Mulligan on the set of “Promising Young Woman” Courtesy Focus Features
The average film director salary in the UK is £36,438 a year, according to Payscale. For a TV director in the UK, that number is £33,578 a year, according to Glassdoor. Of course, most people don’t do the job solely for the money – they do it for the love. Passion for the job is essential, but it’s important to remember that it is an all-consuming job. Hours are long and can be brutal – if you want a nine-to-five, then this job is not for you.
Featureflash Photo Agency/Shutterstock
Here are some notable UK and British film directors:
- Muriel Box: The Seventh Veil, Street Corner, Simon and Laura
- Danny Boyle: Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later
- Alfred Hitchcock: Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo
- David Lean: Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai
- Steve McQueen: 12 Years a Slave, Widows, Hunger
- Christopher Nolan: The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Interstellar
- Sally Potter: Orlando, The Party, The Roads Not Taken
- Lynne Ramsay: We Need to Talk About Kevin, You Were Never Really Here, Ratcatcher
- John Schlesinger: Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, Darling
- Ridley Scott: Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator