In the film industry, mobility is ideal. Triple threat actors are presented with more opportunities, directors don’t hesitate to try their hand at screenwriting and well-known actors use their reputation and wealth to go into production. And, in a rather pronounced role inversion, actors become directors. Everyone wants to be a savant, a guru of sorts. Everyone looks at a screenplay and thinks, “Hey, I could do that,” or imagines themselves in the director’s seat.
But, while being equally successful in multiple capacities is perhaps the ideal for a working artist, not everyone has been able to pull it off. For most actors, simply mastering on-screen stardom is enough of a challenge. Besides, actors working at the mercy of a studio or production company traditionally lack the availability or job mobility to try out directing.
However, as the industry moves away from the more restrictive studio system of Hollywood’s golden days, independent films are gaining more popular and critical attention. Attitudes of our time encourage dynamic collaboration. As a result, more actors are trying their hand at working behind the camera. And, while not every decent actor shines in a directorial role (take Ryan Gosling’s disastrous “Lost River” or Nicolas Cage’s underwhelming “Sonny” for examples), some really do.
Individuals who have worked as actors bring something completely unique and exciting to the director’s chair. They’re more empathetic to the plight of those they’re ordering around, are extraordinarily well-equipped to consider their work from different angles and are well versed in the rhythms of a well-oiled set.
Most directors learn their trade from film school’s traditional instruction or from diving in, sort of arrogantly, headfirst and faking it until they make it. But actor-directors learn in the most straightforward, careful, holistic way: direct involvement. Immersion. Observation. They get to observe how successful films are crafted from the inside out before ever attempting to create one.
To understand what makes the work of actor-directors special in today’s world, I’ll focus on two examples of actors who took on the role of director and pulled it off: Jonah Hill with his directorial debut “Mid90s" and Greta Gerwig with “Lady Bird."
The films don’t have a lot in common in terms of plot — “Mid90s” is a funny, engaging and dynamic portrait of a ragtag band of skateboarding teens in, you guessed it, the mid-90s, and “Lady Bird” is the heartfelt story of a mother and daughter’s fraught relationship as they navigate the title character’s senior year.
But on second glance, the components at the heart of both films that make them so successful are the same. Both were produced by A24, an independent entertainment company whose name has gained currency with recent successes such as “Moonlight,” “Hereditary” and “The Disaster Artist.” Both Hill and Gerwig wrote the screenplays themselves. Both films are set in near-past eras that invoke a certain nostalgic aesthetic. Both walk the line between comedy and drama in nuanced, organic ways. Both are coming-of-age stories. Both are brilliantly acted in such a way that the films’ contents seem to almost spill out into real life.
Because actors so intimately understand what elements go into building a positive, comfortable, creative on-set environment, they’re able to emulate this positive environment on their own set when directing. In short, they’re easier to work with, which allows the actors they direct to inhabit characters comfortably and experiment wildly.
In an interview with Film4, “Lady Bird” star Saoirse Ronan spoke to Gerwig’s unique sensitivity to the creative needs of an actor.
“She had a very clear sense of the type of film she wanted to make," Ronan said. "But then, within that, I was actually amazed at how much freedom she gave me to find her, to find Lady Bird.”
Another common strength both Hill and Gerwig have verbalized is the way acting clearly informed their understanding of filmmaking in a very straightforward, hands-on way.
“As an actor, I got to go to the best film school in the world. I got to work with almost all of my favorite filmmakers," Hill said in a 2018 interview with IMDb. "I’ve done so many different kinds of movies, I got so many different versions of education."
Similarly, in a “Tonight Show” interview, Gerwig said: “I wanted to be a writer-director for a long time but because I didn’t go to film school, so I sort of did it on set. When I was acting or co-writing or producing, I was figuring out how you get a movie from page to ... being released.”
Perhaps most importantly, it’s clear that both of these films were made not because their creators wanted to create something, anything. They were built out of specific desires to portray something important to their makers: a moment in time, a subculture, a type of relationship.
They speak to something that needed to be voiced in the fallout of the respective time periods in which they take place. Gerwig and Hill didn’t set out to direct because they wanted a fun little pet project or because their careers weren’t going well; they became directors because they had something important to say.