A bad job or experience can feel like it can destroy your career
Being a director for film, TV or theatre can be a highly stressful job. You might be responsible for making many major decisions, looking after your cast and crew, and trying to balance the demands of production within short time frames. Working with The Directors Charitable Foundation, we spoke to a range of directors to learn more about mental health in this challenging role.
We’ve also put togetherthat might help if these issues feel familiar to you.
Q) How do you define the main jobs of a director?
A: A director is a storyteller – creating a vision for a show or film and collaborating with others to achieve this. Completing the schedule on time and within the budget agreed is also part of the job – as is creating an inclusive and positive atmosphere on set.
A: The director is the viewer’s representative in the room, which is a unique job. They are the main storyteller, interpreting the writer’s script and overseeing their vision through all stages of production to the screen or stage. They are creative and inspirational leaders, at the helm of the boat, charting the way forward, supported by their crew.
A: Directors take a project from script and oversee every aspect of its realisation on screen. In film and TV, pre-production involves overseeing casting, design, locations, set building, props, costume, make-up, cinematography and the visual look as a whole. The filming is set up logistically, crew are hired, and there is a schedule – a time scale to film everything. Trying to get the ambition of the piece to match the budget and the time available to film can be difficult. Filming is expensive (every minute is crucial), there are over 40 people on the clock, and theis on the director to deliver great content, but also not go over the schedule. Often problems can be beyond the director’s control (equipment failures, bad weather, etc) but there is always pressure to absorb this and shoot everything on time.
After filming, the director usually oversees the edit and sound and picture finishing, but is simultaneously answerable to the broadcasters and executive producers who usually have final say. Again the schedules can be tight, and demands high.
A: We imagine an event,, prepare a script, rehearse and technically rehearse the show. We then pay attention to what happens when the audience arrives and adjust the event as needed. This last bit is the uniqueness of the Stage Director. The job isn’t over once a show has gone up. You will often be noting, re-rehearsing, cutting and editing based on early reactions to the stage.
A: Directing is the art of interpretation and servitude. We serve the voice of the writer by interpreting that voice through our experience, personal taste and worldview. Our ultimate goal is to breathe life into ideas and make a play come to life for the audience.
A: By definition, directors should be the creative force behind the storytelling and look of a production, across the lifespan of a production. But within the world of factual, this is no longer inevitable. On some projects directors can end up as little more than shot gatherers, effectively harvesting content for someone else to cut according to a template that is not of the director’s design.
Q) What do you think are the ways in which directing can impact negatively on mental health?
A: The. The hours long, the days often relentless. Frequently we are required to work away from home and family for long periods. On top of that, despite being seen as top dog, there are often many other managers – funders, financiers, commissioners, producers etc who can make sudden demands, many of them unreasonable, but seemingly inevitable in such a result- and deadline-oriented business with such big budgets. These pressures can be huge and insurmountable.
A: Working long hours, unachievable schedules and budgets plus late scripts that translate into directorsall impact negatively on the mental health of the director. On top of the ‘normal working day’, there may be bullying and harassment from execs and producers, or witnessing bullying and harassment of cast and crew.
A bad job or experience can feel like it can destroy your career
A: It can be an isolated role – directors rarely work with other directors. We also can’t share anxieties on job, due to our leadership and motivating role. We need to appear outwardly todgether. We also have, and may face time out of work. It can be difficult to keep morale up for interviews, and we have to deal with rejections or silence. A bad job or experience can feel like it can destroy your career.
A: We work long hours and have extra stress planning outside of these hours. This can result in a, and generally directors are terrible at self care and work/life boundaries especially during shoots! We may struggle with stress, physical wellbeing, or our diets. A shooting day is already a working day of over 11 hours, plus prep in evening! Executives and other staff might ring you, expecting you to be ‘on’ and answer emails at all hours of day. This can make it very hard to switch off, especially if things are not going well.
A: In factual programmes, it can be hard switching off sometimes when dealing with challenging subject matter. You are sometimes dealing with public and caring for their wellbeing, but the crew and director can then be left holding difficult feelings. There can also be worries about a production needing to look after everyone’s wellbeing – contributors and crew. Directors can often feel responsible emotionally (empathy is their job!), but responsibility shouldn’t rest with us. We are not in control of the general mechanisms, budget, crew, aftercare and so on; we’re dependent on production to behave ethically and look after crew and contributors adequately.
A: In theatre, the director’s role can be a lonely one, with pressure to make decisions every moment. We feel the need to navigate and look after everyone’son and off the stage, in and out of character, which often comes at the cost of ignoring our own.
A: When you are directing a play you are constantly looking after everybody else – responding to questions, insecurities and changes of plan. Working hours are long as you go through the labour pains of tech, dress and previews. It’s hard to look after yourself, and it takes its toll.
A: Directing can be a lonely profession; in the rehearsal room directors are often the main point of contact for work related, personal and other issues; when not working some directors experienceand isolation.
As an artist you never feel what you have done is good enough
A: When the time comes for you to take a break you’re exhausted; the show is up and running and you can feel left out and redundant. That’s when you can lose faith in your abilities. I suppose as an artist you never feel what you have done is good enough – but if theand the show doesn’t sell well, you feel in the firing line. It’s a lot to carry. And then – like so many others in our industry, there’s the next job (or lack of it) to worry about
A: In factual, budgets and schedules that are drawn up without informed consideration of the requirements of a production present the biggest challenges to mental health. With inadequate resources, directors often find themselves having to take on unreasonable volumes of work and responsibility – frequently working unhealthily long hours with inadequate breaks or rest times in order to meet deadlines, and often without a suitable level of support as a result of the lack of adequate funds. Add to that the pressures that can be piled on from senior management who are themselves under pressure from commissioning editors and the result can be an exhausting and toxic experience which can take an enormous toll, both physically and mentally.
Q) How does the feeling of responsibility affect you?
A: I thrive on responsibility. However, the goal posts can move,and what seemed like a good day can turn out to be a nightmare. Sometimes the feeling of responsibility can become too much.
A: I’m happy with the responsibility of actually directing – prepping scripts, working with actors, editing etc – it’s the obstacles put in our way that are problematic. A big part of the job of directing is managing egos and having to cover work done by poorly trained production members. Directors don’t have any immediate protection from this. On top of this, it will be the director who shoulders any blame from execs, producers and broadcasters should they not be happy with the rushes or the final cut.
A: We can experience leadership stress, dealing with difficult people, or having our authority challenged. We always need to appear to be calm and in control. We have responsibility for morale on set and confidence in others, and are often expected to lead and achieve in difficult situations. And, we can have responsibility without power over working conditions. Often, this means the crew are unhappy due to situations beyond the director’s control – directors tend to be creative leaders, but production will set up working conditions, contracts with crew etc.
A: Directing is a job that requires you to meet people with fascinating stories, step into worlds that you’d never otherwise experience, and find creative ways to share all of this with other people. It’s a complete privilege, and it’s only right that such a privilege should come with responsibilities. I’ve always taken these responsibilities – editorial responsibilities, responsibilities to contributors, responsibilities to team members, and to myself – very seriously.
The challenge comes when the responsibilities that we take on as directors are not sufficiently supported by the framework of a production. Without adequate time or resources, it can be difficult (even impossible) to keep all the necessary plates spinning, and thenabout which plates can be allowed to drop. In my experience, most directors will choose to let their own welfare smash before they compromise their duty towards their work and other people.
The series producer back in the UK displayed no interest or empathy
A: My worst experience was on a continuous 16 day overseas shoot, on a formatted series that was engineered for conflict and therefore placed everybody – contributors and crew – in an intense and stressful environment. The series producer back in the UK displayed no interest or empathy for the emotional experiences of the production team and, when contributors were struggling with the psychological load, their first response was that it would make for ‘great telly’.
Returning from the shoot I had one day off before going into the edit, with no preparation time, no knowledge of 50% of the rushes (which had been shot by a different team in a different location), and with a schedule that was incredibly unrealistic. It’s the only job I’ve ever stepped away from – and I did it because I could feel myself starting to fall apart.
Q) Can you share any stories of mental health impacting your or others’ work, or the work of another director?
A: Guaranteed – if the producer and exec do not see eye to eye – they will take it out on the director.
A: Pressure: I know a drama director who was given a script exactly twice as long as the programme it was to be made into. She had to shoot the extra material not knowing what would be cut in the edit but also was forced to shoot the script in a schedule set for half as many scenes.
A: For me, being away from home too long and being unable to communicate with family enough have had a negative impact on my life. This only came to light on my return and fitting back into the family took a while. I sat on my frustration during the job and it seeped out at home. I only realised this years later.
A: A production company was using an episode of their previous series to show directors pitching for the coming season – as an example of what not to do. They were scathing about this previous director’s work. I know the two directors who were pitching (which is how I know the story) and I also know the previous director who was being slated. They wanted to know why they were never asked back. The exec, producer and writer decided to openly tell others but not the director in question.
Bullied, belittled and humiliated on set
A: A very talented director I know was bullied, belittled and humiliated on set by a powerful showrunner. It was discussed with production but no-one was willing to take a stand as the showrunner was too powerful and people were afraid to come forward or reprimand them. The behaviour was excused as something that people had to put up with, in a ‘we all know they’re like that, but what can you do?’ But the effects of this behaviour were traumatising.
A: If someone was physically hurt in an accident during a shoot, there would be all kinds of health and safety inquests, demands, retribution, and future measures put in place, but for something that causes damage mentally, there is currently no real recourse to action at all.
Q) What kind of things help you cope when times are tough?
A: I binge watch comedies. I like cakes. I talk with other directors. I immediately challenge any additional demands put on to me by the production. I do not just put up and shut up – the production needs to acknowledge what they are asking for is an additional demand. I don’t have an agent so have to speak for myself – it’s surprising how many people back down when you stand up for yourself. I’m now able to turn work down – so standing up for myself has not got me blacklisted. But to be honest, I’d rather never work as a director again than contribute to a toxic working environment by my silence.
A: If I’m treated in any other way than as a professional director, then it’s challenged and noted. I also make official complaints through the correct channels to the production company so that the problem is logged. I always feel better when I’ve done that – If I don’t do this then the next director that works for the production company is in for the same treatment.
A: Counselling or. I ended up doing a course on masculinity and manhood with other men before I realised my anger and frustration had been partly caused by the pressures of working on a long job, with big responsibility and being away from home.
A: Talking to others in a similar position, like other directors, or creatives, can be really helpful.
A: Havingand the need for it being recognised.
A: All directors need support at times like these – it can be really lonely and you need to know where to go to get help – even if it’s just talking to someone else who knows what you’re on about.
A: With experience comes reputation and with reputation comes confidence. Eventually I reached a point at which I could have more agency over the way schedules and budgets were structured, and I learned that I was able to push back against situations that were not conducive to the health of the people or the film for which I was responsible.
I wish I’d understood that sooner because, in truth, there are very few companies that won’t respond to genuine concerns around welfare – but there a great many that don’t understand the nature of directing and so don’t necessarily recognise that welfare might be compromised by what an individual is being asked to do.
The problem of course is that thefeels incredibly precarious and there is an in-built reluctance to speak up for fear of rocking the boat. But directors need to speak up. We do it as part of our job. Indeed, it’s a large part of what directing is. And if we don’t do it, nobody is going to do it for us.