The Director as Servant

I've not seen The Lost City of Z, James Gray's film about British explorer Percy Fawcett, but I recently read the screenplay. So when I noticed an interview with James Gray about the film on the DGA podcast, I was curious enough to listen.

Near the end of the interview, Gray talks about Carlos Kleiber, a relatively unknown orchestra conductor who had a humble outlook on his talents. Gray summed up Kleiber's belief about the role of the conductor in this way:

"The conductor is not playing the instruments; the conductor's job is to summon the magnificence of others."

James Gray

There are many different styles of creative leadership. Some are auteurs, others intensely collaborative, others demanding. But the Kleiber style of leadership really struck a chord with me. It takes what can be a huge and intimidating job, with enormous pressure bearing down on one person, and spreads it out among a group of excellent artists, technicians, and craftsmen. Surrounding yourself with people who can do their jobs far better than you ever could, and giving them the freedom to do so, liberates the creative leader and elevates the creation.

It's almost a servant leadership approach to creating. Yes, there is someone leading the project; but that person is also facilitating—fielding ideas, seeking input, encouraging people to try new things and surprise them. Bringing out their magnificence.

William Goldman says something similar in Adventures in the Screen Trade:

"The best [directors] are wonderful storytellers. Those best do one thing superbly well: They help. Everybody."

William Goldman

I don't believe that is the only approach to creative leadership. But it's one that appeals to me and that I'd like to embrace.


Further Listening: The Lost City of Z with James Gray and Matt Reeves
Further Reading: Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman

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David Condolora is a storyteller in games, film, and beyond.