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Elia Kazan: On What Makes a Film Director

The director does it because he has to. Who else will? Who else loves the film that much? — Elia Kazan

Yesterday I was asked to write about why I wanted to be a Film Director – which, despite my unwavering passion for filmmaking, proved to be a lot harder than I’d anticipated.

The easy answer was “because I love movies”… but that wasn’t good enough or accurate enough.

It’s very hard to explain why anyone would want to be a film director. Why would you want to do that? What drives you? You must be a creative and a technician, while being both an artist and businessman. You must be cynical yet sentimental. You must conjure inspiration, commit with perspiration and maintain unwavering dedication. You must have all the answers to all the questions, all the time. It’s damn hard work and can hurt so damn much – there are certainly a thousand easier ways to earn a living.

But while searching for inspiration I remembered a piece of writing I read many years back in my faithful copy of Directors Close Up (if you haven’t got a copy of this book, get one pronto!)

The book is a brilliant read and features interviews with Directors Guild of America nominees for outstanding feature film directing. James Cameron, Frank Darabont, Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard, Ang Lee, Baz Luhrmann, Sam Mendes, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone and Robert Zemeckis… they’re all in there and the personal insights into their filmmaking processes are priceless for professional and aspiring directors alike.

But it was to Appendix C on page 315 that I turned… because tucked away in the back of this book hides a transcript of the single most inspiring speech for anyone who’s ever wanted to be a Film Director.

This timeless speech was given by legendary director Elia Kazan (1909-2003) to students at Wesleyan University in 1973, and beautifully encapsulates what Kazan believed a director needs to know and characteristics they must have. He shares gems of advice from a distinguished career in both film and theatre, having directed films such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954) and East of Eden (1955) and been honoured with countless Academy, Tony and DGA Awards.

Frankly, it would be a crime if you didn’t read Kazan’s timeless speech for yourself, and thankfully it’s available in full on the DGA website. But to whet your appetite here are some of my favourite quotes which inspire me beyond measure:


A screenplay, we directors soon learn, is not a piece of writing as much as it is a construction. We learn to feel for the skeleton under the skin of words.
Elia Kazan 7
The subject a film director must know most about, know best of all, see in the greatest detail and in the most pitiless light with the greatest appreciation of the ambivalences at play is — what? Right. Himself. There is something of himself, after all, in every character he properly creates. He understands people truly through understanding himself truly.

The fact is that a director from the moment a phone call gets him out of bed in the morning (“Rain today. What scene do you want to shoot?”) until he escapes into the dark at the end of shooting to face, alone, the next day’s problems, is called upon to answer an unrelenting string of questions, to make decision after decision in one after another of the fields I’ve listed. That’s what a director is… the man with the answers.
Elia Kazan
The director must accept blame for everything. If the script stinks, he should have worked harder with the writers or himself before shooting. If the actor fails, the director failed him! Or made a mistake in choosing him. If the camera work is uninspired, whose idea was it to engage that cameraman? Or choose those setups? Even a costume after all — the director passed on it. The settings. The music, even the goddamn ads, why didn’t he yell louder if he didn’t like them? The director was there, wasn’t he? Yes, he was there! He’s always there! That’s why he gets all that money, to stand there, on that mound, unprotected, letting everybody shoot at him and deflecting the mortal fire from all the others who work with him. The other people who work on a film can hide. They have the director to hide behind.

Zand & Ell

Zand & Ell

I hope you’re inspired to make films and become the best director you can be… Be a contender!

Thanks for dropping by, Elliot.

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