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Meet the Director

A conversation with Brian Dannelly ('Saved,' 'Pushing Daisies,' 'Queer as Folk')
June 27, 2023

Few roles are more important in the creation of film and television than the director. There’s a reason the role is often compared to a general, given the logistical oversight required to lead an entire production propelled by their creative vision. But what does it actually feel like to take on such a demanding and significant role?

To find out more about the profession, we spoke with director-producer Brian Dannelly, whose first feature, ‘Saved’ (2004), launched a career that has included directing episodes of the acclaimed television series ‘Pushing Daisies,’ ‘United States of Tara,’ and ‘Scream: The TV Series,’ as well as producing ‘Weeds’ and the ‘Queer as Folk’ reboot.

What does a director do?

Once a director has signed on to a project, everything starts with the script. Dannelly begins by going through the script scene by scene, jotting down his ideas to help the crew bring his vision to life. Thoughts on how to shoot it, what costumes will support a given moment, how many special effects are needed and what color scheme the production design should have, are all part of the process. By the end, Dannelly knows most of what he’ll eventually need to communicate – through many meetings and conversations – with his collaborators. “My job is really helping other people do their jobs. The more I know what I want, the easier their jobs are going to be,” he states.

Once pre-production begins, directors help hire actors, assistant directors, cinematographers, production designers and other heads of departments. They also approve locations, shooting schedules and budgets.

'Saved' / MGM

When production starts, a shoot is made up of hundreds of decisions – small and large – as a project becomes both a well-executed plan and a moving target. A director’s creative decisions at this stage create a chain of events that reverberate across departments.

Dannelly offers an example: “Let's say you have a character that's going through a lot of confusion. How you tell that story affects all the people on the crew.” Conveying confusion could mean a director talking the actor through how to represent the emotion and blocking out the performance. Next, asking wardrobe to dress the character in heavy contrasting patterns. Hair and makeup could be instructed to create a disheveled look. A production designer could be roped into finding a patterned chair that, with the pattern wardrobe, offers added symbolic effect.

A chat with lighting could yield a decision to break up the light from a window, so that it's not just a stream of light, but fragmented. A cinematographer could shoot with a longer lens so everything's out of focus, or shoot through an object that makes things distorted, showing character’s lack of clarity. It’s in this way that a director – and their choices – become like a pebble thrown into water, creating outward ripples across the entire production.

Once production is wrapped, with many creative decisions along the way, post-production begins. During post, the director works closely with editors to create a final cut, overseeing the score and special effects, approving sound design, and managing studio and test screenings until the picture is locked.

'Pushing Daisies' / ABC

How do you become a director?

Dannelly was drawn to creative work early in life, seeking out school plays and putting on puppet shows at home. It wasn’t until college when, as an international studies major, he took a film class and he fell in love with the medium. He started making short films at the University of Maryland, eventually sending one to American Film Institute to apply for their directing program. He was accepted, and there learned to be a director. And usually, by failing. “You come into film school thinking you know what you're doing, and then it's all undone,” Dannelly says.

That, he says, is one of the benefits of a film school. Instead of making mistakes on a hundred-million-dollar movie, you get to make them in a low-stakes environment and learn how to avoid them. The accountability and community at AFI were also a benefit to him, so much so that he wrote ‘Saved,’ the indie teen drama starring Mandy Moore and Macaulay Culkin, with fellow student Michael Urban.

Dannelly makes clear, however, that film school isn’t necessary for everyone, especially when filmmaking has become accessible in the palm of our hands. His advice for the self-taught? “Start by making as many little films as you can on your iPhone. Watch 10 minutes of your favorite film without the sound. Recreate scenes using an iPhone with dolls or puppets. Really push yourself to start understanding the language of directing early.”

Focus a lot of attention on everything that's not directing. You don't want to come into the business as someone who just knows how to direct. Come into the business as someone who's read books, or studied astronomy, or built a car.”

Even when they start to get work, many directors cut their teeth on short films, commercials or music videos. It may take time to build a little self-confidence. “The instant I picked up a camera and made a film I knew I was a director. But the hardest part was telling people I was a director. It felt like a lie for a long time,” Dannelly says. “It was like saying, ‘I’m the king. I’m the emperor. I’m the general.’ It's such a weighty term.”

In time, particularly directing TV shows, he got more comfortable. He also realized comfort is a fleeting sensation. “If you love something, you aspire to be really good at it, and you don’t feel like you’re good at it when you begin. You think, ‘I have so much to learn.’ That [feeling] goes on and on.”

'Queer As Folk' / Peacock

What makes a successful director?

Becoming a successful director requires attributes you’d expect: good storytelling instincts, strong collaboration and communication abilities, logistical mastery. For Dannelly though, being a successful director also means not just being a director. Experience as a person can greatly inform the craft. “Focus a lot of attention on everything that's not directing,” he advises. “You don't want to come into the business as someone who just knows how to direct. Come into the business as someone who's read books, or studied astronomy, or built a car.”

Dannelly also recommends something that can go overlooked by many an aspiring director: “Take acting classes. Not because you're going to be an actor, but because your whole job is talking to actors. If you can't talk to actors, you're limiting what you can achieve as a director,” he says.

Another successful quality is possessing the ability to assess and adjust quickly. “As a director, you have to figure out, ‘Is this good enough? What can I do to change it in the moment? How can I adapt quickly to this?’” he says. “You have to learn how to play. You have to be able to navigate studios and actors. You have to problem solve constantly. You have to keep encouraging people,” he says.

Lastly, embrace that directing is personal. “You're the way a story comes out of you. How you interpret it, what vision you bring to it and what inspires you to tell the story,” Dannelly says.

“What I bring to a project is what I intuitively think the film should be, and my taste and my sense of style. It's not like you're going in there trying to be something that you're not. You can only be who you are.”

Topic: Spotlight

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