So what exactly makes a director?

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The Independent Culture
Next week sees the apotheosis of Sean Mathias. He directs his first full-scale musical, one of the greatest masterpieces of the form, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music, in the most esteemed and beautiful of London's arenas, the Olivier stage at the National Theatre.

In the same week Carrington opens in town, a much-travelled and now garlanded movie which, after several false starts with others at the helm, marks the directorial debut of Christopher Hampton. A long-established writer of plays and scripts, Hampton, whose screenplay this is, will now have to be deemed, pardon my French, an auteur.

Mathias is a writer, too, and before that he was an actor. His directorial career was also the result of happenstance: his then lover Ian McKellen was putting together a one-man show and needed another eye. A decade later, the sounding-board is now the toast of Broadway. Bully for him.

But it's strange, is it not, that so ramshackle a road leads to directing. There are other ways. Granada and the BBC have for donkeys' years run first-rate courses for would-be directors to grasp the essentials. Graduates serve a term or two directing soaps or taping location reports for current affairs magazines. A personal stamp takes time to fashion, but a Michael Apted or a Mike Newell eventually emerges.

Film schools also give a grounding (Sandy Johnson - Soul Survivors currently - is a National Film School alumnus); college courses and drama schools help aspiring Adrian Nobles and Neil Bartletts to learn stagecraft. The natural premise of such courses is that direction is a technique to be taught.

There was always a mystique about directing. Watching a monstrous ego flying a television studio gallery as if testing a jump-jet, you might conclude sadly that this is no career for the sensitive seeker after subtextual nicety. Reflection argues that personal style is the key. Telling a lighting director how a shot should look or blocking and motivating actors is primarily a matter of taste. What a director does is not a technical test. It is a vision thing. So directing varies according to what people are like. For each Robert Zemeckis there is a Mike Leigh, for every Deborah Warner an Ian Judge.

Former Hollywood studio head Dawn Steele once said "you can sleep your way to the middle". In the same way, you can snooze your way into a directing career without the public (at least) finding you out. For a while, anyway.

So it's not to be scoffed at when big hitters like Mel Gibson or Tom Cruise, whose commitment to a movie alone can raise the finance, fancy they'd like to take the reins. It's just a little bit disheartening for career directors. "If I wanted to act," says a director friend whose offers have dried to nothing, "they'd tell me to get an Equity card."

Being a director is a bit like being a critic: everybody fancies he can do that. And directors get the blame; they thwart the organic relationship that the actor and writer could otherwise forge with the audience. So, at any rate, proposed Simon Callow in his first book Being an Actor, railing against "this unchallenged hegemony". Eleven years on, Mr Callow is a leading, indeed a hegemonic, light in the directocracy. (He also had a poke at the critics and now reviews for every publication I open.)

So I wish Messrs Mathias and Hampton rave reviews. And I advise beginners with a directorial bent to watch and learn - and earn their clout by writing or acting first.