So You Want To Direct?

When I was working at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners on “Got milk?”, I invited my parents to visit one of the shoots. At the end of the day, I asked my dad what he thought of the production process. He said it reminded him of the way bomber pilots described their missions over Western Europe during World War II. I asked him what he meant. He said, “It was hours of tedious boredom punctuated by brief moments of terror.” I have not heard a better description.

In spite of the healthy frenzy of the typical shoot day, or perhaps because of it, I have always been attracted to film as a medium in our business. Last year I gave in to the temptation.

This January I signed with the production company Tool of North America, and I have been busy building a career as a director ever since. Tool has been extremely supportive. I’d like to think they were willing to invest in me because of my award-winning work and experience on hundreds of shoots. But I suspect it was because Tool director/founder Erich Joiner and I, along with a small group of former Goodby rapscallions, take a trip every year, usually to Mexico, and I have the pictures.

In years to come, if you were to ask me about the differences between the agency and production sides of our business, my answer should be different than it is today. By then, with luck, my memory will be dulled by fine brandies and imported truffles. I will likely not take your call. But at this moment, my recollection of agency life—of adventures with clients, bosses, partners, payroll, new-business wins and losses and all the late nights and good times in between—is clear. My appreciation of them is fresh. Here are a few things I have learned since leaving all that behind.

I haven’t left any of that behind. I just moved down the line a bit. Here, I am further from where strategies are born but closer to where they come to life. There are more clients than ever on this end. Budgets are tight as ever. Time is at a premium. And the work is still, for the most part, fun.

That is, if you are working, of course. Which is saying something, because competition for jobs is fierce. You have to offer something someone wants. An interesting eye, an edge, a sense of humor, a sense of humanity, a one-word moniker, something. It needs to be apparent when someone sees your reel, or you won’t see their script.

I have learned something else. Directors work hard. I knew they worked, of course, but I assumed it was fairly easy thrift in comfortable clothes on balconies overlooking the ocean. Certainly not the kind of sweat I put into each day when I was on the agency side. But I was wrong. Of course, a director doesn’t spend nearly as long with each project as agency people do. The focus is brief but intense. But for every hour a director is on location or set, there are countless hours of preparation. And days or weeks in between jobs working to get the next one.

You may be saying, “That’s why you get the big bucks.” Which brings me to a question. Where are the big bucks I’ve heard so much about? The fact is, being a director doesn’t pay well to start. Certainly not anything like you make as a senior creative on the agency side. Sure, if you’re talented and smart, you can make a good living. But starting out in a new career pays about as much as you’d expect if you were starting out in a new career.

You could freelance at agencies, of course. They’re still willing to pay good writers and art directors a healthy day rate. But remember, you’ll be asking a creative director to freelance this week, then next week you’ll be hoping they think of you as a director. That’s going to work about as well as it sounds.

You have to set your ego aside. Well-established directors who can buy a convertible with their day rate may be granted the freedom of eccentricity. You and I will not. Just like on the agency side, talent and ideas win here. When I was a young creative at Goodby, a friend who wanted a job asked me how he could “kick the door down there.” Without meaning to be glib, I told him, “You could do some good ads.” It’s the same for directors. Good spots beget good opportunities, which beget more good opportunities. It isn’t comforting, it’s just the way it is.

Being a director is a wonderful job. I’ve been busy, and every day on production has been interesting. You spend much less time talking about how to make an idea work and almost all your time actually making it work. When an idea works and tells a story well, beyond expectations, it’s as satisfying for the director as anyone. And more rewarding than a paycheck. That’s a job worth fighting for. That’s the fine brandies and imported truffles I’ve heard so much about.