Directors can sometimes be negatively stereotyped as control-freaks and imperious lunatics. While a great deal of people who make this generalization in those terms tend not to know what they are talking about, they are only wrong in their claim that being demanding and wanting things to go a precise way is inherently bad in this line of work.
Some of history’s greatest masterpieces took years of delicate technique and painstaking effort to accomplish. However, a painter is more likely to be revered for obsessive or insane behavior in the name of a quality product (take Van Gogh’s severed ear), whereas the director of a film will be criticized for possessing comparable quirks.
Likewise, when assessing the tendencies of a director on set, one must consider the comprehensive ocean of tasks that must be waded through in order to finally get behind a camera. The point where a true cinematic maestro is separated from the other losers in cargo shorts is after all the paperwork is done and all of the other boring drudgeries have been passed through, any director with the heart to still put in the passion necessary to create celluloid gold is an honest artist regardless the means.
To be clear, this list does not rank the quality of these directors overall, but merely organizes them based on how detail-oriented they are in their respective element. It is, however, no coincidence that a great deal of the following names are mentioned amongst the best in their field.
Webster’s dictionary defines the word “meticulous” as, “very careful about doing something in an extremely accurate and exact way.” Many of the greats in cinema have rightfully embraced this adjective in the context of their work ethic as a well earned badge of honor. Under this premise, here are the top ten directors who wear this badge most deservingly.
10. Michael Mann
Mann is quite similar to his constituents found later in the list in that he manages to have an artistic style that is unique while still being very objective in his manner of filmmaking. His almost crafty diagnostic of lens on his cameras is something that certainly makes his work unique from anyone before or since.
It is almost as if over the many years that he has directed in high-temperature/high-crime cities like Miami and Los Angeles, Mann has developed a visual aesthetic fingerprint for these locations.
What is even more profound is the fact that the sets for these locations are not fabricated. In the film Heat, Mann shot every scene on sight as opposed to a sound stage. Considering the nature of the film it is reasonable to assert that the director was putting himself at great personal risk in the name of honesty and quality.
Where criticisms of this method would come into play is at the realization that he was also putting his cast and crew at the same risk. However, if one were to ask anyone on the credit reel of that film, they would all probably claim that the end justified the means.
9. Darren Aronofsky
An artist’s integrity is often exemplified in their approach to accuracy in any particular topic that is discussed through their product. It is the responsibility of the collective filmmaking community to be well versed on as many issues as possible and to always have something new to say on any issue so long as the statements themselves are educated.
As Terry Gilliam once advised to young, aspiring filmmakers on the subject of university education, “Don’t take media studies. Take something useful, philosophy; history; english. There is no point in imitating people if you have your own thoughts that you’re trying to get out of your system. I also think that you should be completely obsessed.” (BAFTA Interview).
While plenty of exploration on this matter will occur later in the list (to a degree of near insanity in some cases), Aronofsky is a perfect example of how to approach the context of a story as far as careful attention to accuracy is concerned.
His sophomore film, Requiem for a Dream (2000) is widely revered for its accurate portrayal of the suffering mental stability of drug addicts. Directorial intricacy is seen in both the specific way that certain substances activate certain reactions from the psyche and the film’s faithfulness toward the Hubert Selby Jr. novel on which it is based.
One of the many ways that the film portrays certain drugs in by way of exaggerated camera angles, jump cuts, and lighting choices (not even to mention the refined use of makeup and talented performances of cast members including Jared Leto).
This film along with other notable contributions of his are intent on doing justice to the way that delusions themselves function. Black Swan (2010) does this in the way that it chokeholds the audience into understanding the worldview of a neurotic perfectionist. It is not surprising that a brilliant perfectionist like Aronofsky could so accurately encapsulate that vision on the screen.
8. Fritz Lang
The directors of the silent era were confronted with a challenge that many filmmakers today often forget. In lieu of audio dialogue, the development of story and character had to be represented visually. This is when the art itself was contrived and why it is unique from any other medium.
Many film scholars point to Fritz Lang as one of the greats of the time due to his precise rhythm that guides every scene he shot. A prime example of this can be found in Metropolis (1927) which is widely considered his masterpiece. To exemplify the robotic aura of his fictitious futuristic city, Lang insisted that everything be rigorously timed from mechanics operating a machine in sync to workers evenly marching into an elevator. These images, of course, later became icons in and of themselves.
Lang is remembered for creating worlds on the screen that had dynamic social commentary to them. Worlds that made the audience fear that their own civilizations might become comparable to the images they saw.
To coerce an entire audience into that level of paranoia required Lang to be aware of the social environment that surrounded him and how specific aspects of daily life were evolving through machinery and the place of economic success over the basic values of humanity.
With that level of observation and the ability to rationally visualise all those details to a heightened degree with the musicality of his style is a pillar of filmmaking itself.
7. Alfred Hitchcock
Often revered as the first truly obsessive director that the screen has ever known, Alfred Hitchcock raised the bar on a number of filmmaking standards. Chief among these is certainly his unbridled loyalty to his own process. This sometimes constituted abandoning certain levels of appreciation for the craft of his source material or, famously, his actors.
Hitchcock was much like his colleagues in the Hollywood community of his day in how he was consistent in the type of film that he made. What turned him into a household name was that his particular brand was totally unique. He, along with the likes of Orson Welles, Frank Capra, and Billy Wilder were speaking out on the artistry of the director as opposed to the sometimes tyrannical executive producer.
In one of his many interviews he coined the phrase “self-plagiarism is style”, this was immediately paired with the insistence that the proper director avoids Hitchcock’s biggest nightmare, the cliche (an unsafe path for any studio).
This philosophy on cinema was often manifested in his constant method of never actually directing on the set of a film. The process of directing weeks or months before even casting was another string Hitchcock held in the filming process. In a masterclass hosted by Time, Hitchcock stated,
“I’ve made it my practice, over the years, to put a film down on paper. You see, people often ask ‘don’t you ever improvise on a scene when you’re on the set?’ and I say ‘certainly not’. I will prefer to improvise in the office. After all, musicians are allowed to put their compositions on paper and an architect can put a building on paper, so why not a film? It’s a visual thing, so the mere description of a film on paper should suffice.”
Naturally, this technique conflicted with the expression of method actors that Hitch worked with in the latter part of his career. If an actor believed that their character would behave in a different way than what the director defined on paper, the notion was instantly shut down without any pause for the particular performer’s caliber or resume (even if it was Jimmy Stewart).
As the Master of Suspense wisely noted, “I once said that all actors are cattle, but that’s a joke. However, actors are children, and they’re temperamental, and they need to be handled gently and sometimes slapped.”
With all of these factors, one can understand why Hitchcock was so successful. His loyalty to his work was simply more significant that of much else. Each film he made was an extension of his persona and he was insistent upon making a truthful impression.
6. Paul Thomas Anderson
The director of There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, and The Master is meticulous in an entirely different way than Hitchcock. His methods require the assistance of every single component of production to prop up the final product.
Unlike Kubrick or Hitchcock, Anderson has an obsession with moderated loyalty to the source material. When creating There Will Be Blood, a film based on the book Oil!, Anderson understood that it was arrogant of him to assume superior knowledge of how to approach the story of an oil baron than the source material’s author. He did, however, recognize that he knew how to make that story into a film far better than the author ever could. As he states in an interview after the film’s 2007 release,
“[That said,] the book is so long that it’s only the first couple hundred pages that we ended up using, because there is a certain point where he strays very far from what the original story is. We were really unfaithful to the book.”
Another area where PTA differs from a lot of traditional cinephiles is his belief that the proper time to be conscientious about actors is not on set with a disagreement about a character’s conduct but rather in casting itself. He has articulated multiple times how nothing scares him more than bad actors. We see this in how he usually leans toward Oscar-magnets like Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix in the absence of his late muse Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Paul Thomas Anderson is a voice that ought to be listened to as much as possible for those who wish to jump into the industry. His success after having dropped out of NYU and only spending two semesters in Emerson College can be only attributed to two factors; his natural genius, and his devotion to the fundamentals of the craft.