The Director’s Point of View: From Concerned Observer to Storyteller

The kindly angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987, below) keep Berliners under empathic observation.

Cinema itself is like one of these angels, following and observing characters as it does while they live their lives. Let’s call this perspective that of the Concerned Observer because he is involved, invisible, and weightless like a spirit. Feeling for the characters, the observer leaves the periphery to fly into the center of things, always searching for greater significance and larger patterns of meaning beyond the mere witnessing of activity.

Developing empathy with the characters and knowledge of them, the Concerned Observer comes to identify with them in their unfolding difficulties and tries profoundly to understand them. It is a part we all play in life, so it feels familiar, and it is a role that every director must actively adopt in making films. Through the perspective of the Concerned Observer, we register the competing dramatic tensions, perspectives, objectives, appeals, and sensibilities of all the dramatic characters as they negotiate the plot and conflicts of the film. This POV guides us each time we must choose where to place the camera, who or what to emphasize at any particular moment, when to cut away, when to hold on an action or reaction, and for how long. The Concerned Observer role helps us discover and visualize the heart of any dramatic interaction. But however well the Concerned Observer can see, hear, and sympathize with the characters, he or she, like one of Wenders’ angels, cannot intercede or express an opinion. This is a handicap.


The Concerned Observer can, however, turn into the proactive Storyteller by going several steps farther and arranging the events, and modulating the narrative emphasis, for the instruction and entertainment of an audience. Through aesthetic choices, developing the sense of environment, tone, context, and subtext, the Storyteller instills a thematic resonance to all that occurs throughout the story. The wise Storyteller makes it all add up to something so that the dramatic journey has achieved “pleasure and profit in the telling.” What we see on the screen is not free-functioning, autonomous truth such as we’d see on any street corner, but an artful construct filtered through a temperament—the Storyteller/director’s temperament.

You wouldn’t know this from most commercial cinema or television, which is perfectly professional and absolutely without individuality. You can work hard to make your film look professional and it can still be faceless. David Mamet thinks of such work “as a supposed record of what real people really did,” that is, something like a newsreel report. The Concerned Observer and the Storyteller roles are explored in greater depth later, but to direct screen work with a distinctive voice, you must act in at least four different ways:

1. Define: Make it your priority to tell a good story in a special and particularly cinematic way, and in a defined genre. You’ll need a clear definition of your approach, one that enthuses people. You can go only where you aim to go.

2. Take control: You must direct the filmmaking process, not become controlled by its fascinating technology. To stay in control, you’ll need a clear and unshakeable idea of the underlying premise and themes of the film, and a strongly visualized design to express them. You’ll also need the ability to communicate those concepts to your collaborators and by sheer obstinacy get them realized during production. If you don’t, the crew and the actors will take over, and the tail will wag the dog.

3. Impose a Storyteller: You must impress a strong storytelling “voice” on your film, the kind that lends enchantment to all effective storytelling. This voice may not exactly be yours— though it emerges from your sensibilities and personal preoccupations—for the Storyteller is really a character that you alone define and that you alone play privately and to the hilt. This character’s eyes, ears, mind, and movement are a Storyteller’s sparkling stream of consciousness made manifest in your film.

4. Stay the course: Many details change during a film project: the script gets rewritten; actors, cinematographers, set designers, editors, and sound designers can bring surprising interpretations to the material; locations change; and the rigorous process of film production imposes limitations of its own. But the director must hold on tightly to the story’s central premise and thematic underpinnings, which are the foundation for all the aesthetic choices of the Storyteller. It’s the beacon the directors can never lose sight of, or they risk veering off course and losing the unifying thread of the story and the attention and goodwill of an audience. Theme in most films is rarely stated in direct terms by the characters; it resides in the culmination of all the dramatic activity and the aesthetic approach the director brings to the story.

What you need is to find that original idea, that spark. And once you have that it’s like fishing: you use that idea as bait, and it attracts everything else. But as a director, your main priority is to remain faithful to that original idea. […] Every decision matters, however small. And every element can make you move a little forwards or a little backwards. You have to be open to new ideas, but at the same time, you must always stay focused on your original intention. It is a sort of standard against which you can test the validity of every new suggestion.

—David Lynch, from Moviemakers’ Master Class, Laurent Tirard (Faber and Faber, 2002).

The source of the Storyteller’s viewpoint is never very evident because it is hidden behind the choices that express it. These aesthetic and stylistic choices regarding performance, location, tone, sound, and pace serve as proxies for the Storyteller’s POV on the content of the narrative. And though all films have directors, their authorship is necessarily more collective and collaborative than individual, like music from a conductor.

Excerpt from Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics, 5th Edition by Michael Rabiger and Mick Hurbis-Cherrier, © 2013. Taylor & Francis Goup, LLC. All rights reserved.

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