Directors and creative directors

On Friday I went to see Ralph Fiennes being interviewed for the London Film Festival.

He seemed quite remarkably lovely, but that aside, he had a few words about the differences between working with Steven Spielberg and Anthony Minghella, both of whom directed him to Oscar nominations.

The former was a very vocal director and was often very hands on. The film he directed Fiennes in (Schindler’s List) involved the portrayal of a sadistic concentration camp guard. If you watch the performance it’s full of odd little tics and quirks, which you might have thought were down to Fiennes’s interpretation (the one mentioned particularly was a shot of Fiennes holding a rifle across his shoulders and using that pose to stretch in the morning). They were actually Spielberg’s suggestions. He would keep the camera rolling and bark orders at Fiennes to look a certain way or make a certain movement. Then he cut these quirky asides together to create a really nuanced and disturbing portrait. In effect Spielberg was giving Fiennes line reads and they made the ‘performance’ much better.

Minghella, on the other hand, was a little different: he would allow Fiennes to give his own performance then, if required, take him aside and speak to him out of the earshot of others to gently suggest other ways of conveying the character (of Count Laszlo de Almásy in The English Patient). He too would give Fiennes line reads, but only after seeing the actor’s attempt at the performance.

I mention these differing styles as an illustration of the adage that there is more than one way to successfully skin a cat, but also to apply that adage to the dark art of trying to elicit a performance from someone. It’s a tricky old game: you could be like Arsène Wenger and refuse to change your style no matter to whom you are attempting to apply it to; or you could be like 98% of other managers and adapt yourself somewhat to the different demands of the object of your potential influence. You could try smarmy charm, like David Frost; or withering disdain, like Simon Cowell. You could be passively-aggressively slightly crazy, like Tony Kaye; or a calm monument of steady assurance, like David Abbott.

I’ve had CDs who have been barky and angry; I’ve had CDs who have been calm and measured. Some have let me find my own ways of improving an ad; others have suggested their own solutions (which are then quite hard to avoid using); some have had very high standards; some have not given much of a toss. Some have been pally; others intimidating.

Tomorrow I’m going to post a roundtable discussion between five US ECDs where this very question comes up, but I’d also be interested to know your perspective on this matter, whether as a CD or as someone who works for a CD. Does a single method lead to the best results? Or are there many solutions that depend on the people and situations involved?

Answers in the comments section.