Why Assisting Isn’t The Right Path To Film Direction

Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese film poet, directing actors during a film production

If you have serious aspirations to direct a feature film someday, consider this one thing: do not become an Assistant Director or AD. An AD is nothing like an Assistant Cinematographer or an Assistant Editor or even an Assistant Art Director etc. Those roles provide a certain structured learning on the job, a learning and convention that is imperative for their future careers as cinematographers, editors and other film professionals. But a director is fundamentally different from all of these technical professionals. A director is never a technician. He is primarily an artist who has to think independently and in abstract terms. Schooling removes independent thinking and reduces people into conventions and practices.

As an AD in feature film productions, you assist and assist, until you have no time for research or contemplation to develop your own project. No time for writing, no time for reading, no time for participation in outside affairs, no time to watch films — basically no time for any personal intellectual progress. You work like a machine, almost never make a decision, never question a decision, you just follow instructions and carry out assignments, do the same things over and over again until your mind grows dull and your creativity goes kaput. You become an automaton doing the same dull, menial things over and over to the endless whims of the director or the producers. You start to talk dumb, you act rude with your subordinates and you try to pretend that you are somebody important by spewing expletives when deep inside, you know you don’t mean a shit. You don’t matter, that you are just a hired hand to build somebody else’s dream. You are as invisible and dispensable as a labour or a clerk.

People from the film industry who believed in you from the beginning, those who believed that you had the potential, will notice this moral and intellectual decline in you, won’t be able to understand why you have become so vile, so uninspired, lose respect and spread this disrespect out in the film fraternity. And suddenly you will be dismissed from every corners, you will be taken for granted that you are only as good as an AD, that you are not really a director material. That’s when you realise that being an Assistant Director is not the right path to become a director. But by then it’s already too late.

There are people who honestly want to become Assistant Directors. They do not have any aspirations to become a director or make a film. This piece is not addressed to them. Assistant Direction is a viable, lucrative, fulfilling profession for those who want to become an AD by choice. There are many successful ADs through out the world, I have met a few, some are fantastic people and they have happy, successful careers and lives. Their expectations are clear and they are happy to work within that framework. The problem is that too many youngsters are told to become an AD because they want to be a future director. Those naive young minds are most likely to fall into this trap and become bitter when the reality hits them.

If you want to be a director, you are on your own. No film school, no workshop, no film director/professional however great they are, nothing can really teach you how to be one. There is no prescribed path, no easy way to it. Many say that you are either a director or you are not. You cannot become one. I personally do not agree with it completely; I think everyone can direct a film, and most of them will make a terrible mess of it. And most of them do it consistently, often with humongous amounts of money. What I believe is that not everyone can become a ‘valuable’ director. Valuable, important directors are rare because they are most often that not, exceptional minds, and an exceptional mind by definition is rare. You see what matters is what’s inside you, what you learn from your personal experiences, not what you mechanically acquire from schools and teachings and other people’s experiences. The only productive way, I feel, is to become more aware, more attentive; try to develop individual ideologies, opinions and discourses by constantly upgrading yourself intellectually, by exposing yourself to various fields of learning, by having an eventful life, by interacting with individuals and by interacting with nature, by introspection and by actually making something tangible. Write. Make terrible short films. Be brash. Be fearless. Make something abstract, be brave enough to be called pretentious. It does not matter. In the end if you find out a truly personal expression you will bring in something new to the medium and that is what will put you on the map of world cinema.

I have a magic number. Two. Two films as an AD. No more no less. That’s what I have done and that’s what I have advised most people till this day. If you are really keen, go work in two feature-film productions, as an AD or even as a production assistant or an observer. That will give you sufficient insider’s knowledge about things that happen behind the scenes. You will discover that there is a method to this madness called film production and to some extent it will teach you discipline and prepare you for backbreaking hard work that is filmmaking. Beyond two films as an AD, you wont learn anything significantly new, instead you’d run the risk of becoming a rat in a cage.


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