The parameters of artistic mediums have always been blurred, quietly seeping into one another and exacting similar personal costs. Jesse Eisenberg’s When You Finish Saving the World, out today is based on an Audible podcast he wrote and starred in, a blending of his filmic pursuits. Directing has always been positioned as the culmination of creatives’ trajectories, a shade that suits the intertextuality of an artistic career. Directing is valuable for the respite it offers creatives who otherwise are not meaningfully given space to create.
In 1991, Barbra Streisand explained that her life as an actress was predicated on others’ perceptions: “I started singing because I couldn’t get a job as an actress, and I started directing because I couldn’t be heard as an actress.” Acting and singing are bound together by a deference to other peoples’ opinions, animated by another’s control. In pursuing directing she was free to practice something on her terms, making art that is rendered meaningful through the purity of her perspective.
But directing is not a purely cinematic exploit: It is practical, requiring mathematical engagement, and musical, concerned with the rhythms of human behavior. Streisand, unsurprisingly, embodies that. Yentl was her directing debut and it skilfully utilizes her talents as a singer literally and figuratively. In the climactic revelation scene, a series of alternating close-ups crescendo into a chorus-like overhead shot of Yentl and Avigdor embracing. In that same interview, Streisand described her directing style in auditory terms: “I like the truth. I like small moments. I like real feelings, and I can hear the difference.”
Streisand reached the peak of both acting and singing (more often than not combining the two) and was labeled a diva and a perfectionist. It makes sense that she would then transpose her melodic vision of the world into moviemaking, which requires a degree of specificity she was already accused of wielding.
Directing is traditionally a caustic facet of the moviemaking industry, built to repel female directors, yet it is also ironically where they are freed from being labeled as difficult and encouraged to create under its guise. In an interview with the Television Academy, Stanford Tischler described the contentious relationship between Ida Lupino (already established as an actress and a director by 1954) and Don Siegel during the filming of Private Hell 36. “Who would win those battles?” the interviewer asks. Tischler pauses. “Ida,” he answers. “Ida didn’t lose battles.” There was a transformative power in the role of director, reframing this kind of unyieldingness as purposeful and intentional.
In Lupino’s most significant directorial accomplishment, The Hitch-Hiker, she crafts one of the most incisive visualizations of masculinity ever put to screen, ensuring the threatening glint of the gun is always sat between its three men, binding them in their attempts to control it. What was considered an unusual shift after an acting and directing career dedicated to critically praised dramas like The Bigamist (which were unfairly reduced to “women’s pictures”), her willingness to tackle the bodily cost of patriarchy is an extension of her determination to fight for the right stories. Her perseverance is intrinsic to her artistry—as Martin Scorsese argued, “her work is resilient.” Her camera is steady and inquisitive, bearing in on the eyes of the killer rather than the dead body left in his wake.
Sarah Polley followed a similar trajectory to Lupino, rocketing to fame before admitting that the process of acting was the aspect of filmmaking that least compelled her. Then, she started to direct her own projects. Polley imbues her humanist stories with an honesty molded by a childhood bruised by the movie industry. The resilience Scorsese referred to has been redefined in the interim. Polley’s camera offers her subjects flexibility—an ability to create space and, in doing so, resurrect hope. Stories We Tell is the story of Polley’s family, told from her, her father(s) and her siblings, all refracting the same warm light through different panes of distorted glass.
Last year, she released her book Run Towards the Danger, which reframed the memories of her childhood. It is a striking re-remembering for an artist more grown up and now able to imbue the images she once rendered in film with less obtrusive meaning. She writes of what she lacked growing up, what was sacrificed for a childhood that replaced structure with the amorphous idea of “real artistry.” Through writing, she regained a degree of control over her life, letting her deeply personal story of sexual assault inform the voices of the women in her most recent film, Women Talking. This kind of autobiographical arc is rare in itself, its spanning of multiple modes of communication is liberating, proof that there is additive value to stories being told and retold in various configurations.
When Jordan Peele transitioned into directing—and directing horror, at that—in 2017, it was a shocking departure from his work as a sketch comedy writer and actor. In reality, it was a natural distillation of his tendencies, as someone concerned with observing the world and pushing it through a distorted lens. Rather than satirizing America to elicit laughter, he now satirizes to expose the darkened underbelly of assumption poisoning our least considered interactions. The progression from comedy to drama only seems surprising when comparing the different reactions they seek; the process of constructing a joke or a scare are remarkably similar.
Both require a shared sensitivity to the tension of conversation, an ability to chart the small ripples of revelation that arrive in relationships. Key & Peele captured the increasingly ridiculous spectacle of life. Peele’s films do the same, foregrounding spectacle to horrifying ends. His innate sense of comic timing informs his tendencies as a director: He holds a steady shot of someone running away from the barely-there monster before cutting to a close-up. Like a stand-up comic building to the punchline with a string of throwaway comments, Peele may cut away from a particularly gory death to lull the audience into complacency before inviting them to watch something purposefully unsparing and guttural.
“Director” remains a misnomer for a role that functions as the ultimate collaboration, often needing to nurture talent that is elastic, functional wherever it may find itself. When done right, directing is a surrender to circumstances, a totality of experience and influence boiled down to something that will be remembered outside of them. Infinite possibility under finite limitations. Jesse Eisenberg won’t be the last actor, musician or writer to pursue directing. because it has afforded him the freedom to reassemble his creative experience into a single project. He has ushered his film into the public with a degree of control only awarded to directors.
London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.