Ian Watson: Director's Toolkit Interview

Ian Watson Ian Watson

Australian Director Ian Watson, tutor for Director’s Toolkit has over thirty years’ directing experience. He directed theatre for ten years before focusing on film and television directing.


What motivated you to move from theatre to TV?

I worked on a film called Ghosts of the Civil Dead shot by John Hillcoat; I rehearsed it and then he shot it and it got put up for a bunch of AFI Awards in ‘88 or ’89, and it was working on that process that really opened my eyes to filmmaking. I was running a theatre company in Sydney that lost its funding and I had a spare year, so I thought, “I’ll go to film school” and I did. I always kind of imaged moving towards film rather than theatre.


What do you find different about working in TV as opposed to theatre? 

Theatre is more based on the idea of the wide shot, whereas film allows you to jump around and tell the stories with individual shots. I find the process of filmmaking more accidental and less studied; it’s more a medium for a director than anything else, and I just enjoy that process. I enjoy the more active storytelling I can do as a filmmaker as opposed to a theatre director.


You’ve got a massive list of credits, even just looking at your TV experience rather than your theatre experience; do you have a favourite?

Certain things - Love My Way, Tripping Over, Farscape. What I like about them is the energy of the cast, the energy of the storytelling, and, often, the moral ambiguity. I tend to like shows that have a darker, moral ambiguity about them, shows that don’t offer easy solutions. Where the bad guys aren’t defined by the bad things they do and the good guys aren’t defined by the good things they do.


So let’s talk about Director’s Toolkit. What’s in your “toolkit”?

The text. Breaking down the text, looking at the beats within the text. It’s all about the story for me. I don’t differentiate between storytelling for television and storytelling for film: it’s all about being able to tell a story accurately and visually, and using the characters, and letting the actors understand what part of the storytelling process they are. I’m driven by story. 

The most important thing for me is bringing story to the forefront, and the tools at the director’s disposal when it comes to storytelling are knowing how to work with the actors, and understanding the shots and shot-construction that works towards telling that story.


How do you teach someone how to become a director?

I’m very hands-on. I give people scripts; scripts to break down into story beats, and then I tell them to find the shots that will punctuate those story beats, so that when it’s all cut together again you’ve got a story that emerges again. 

With teaching anything you want it to be experiential, so that students can understand it. I think there’s too much intellectual stuff that goes on with filmmaking. Really, it’s about practical applications of tools. I think that essentially its craft; what we’re doing is a craft. If we’re very, very lucky, the art also comes.


So the art is accidental to the craft process?

If you’ve done the right thing in your preparation and your craft is well applied then art should be the end result. But you don’t go looking for the art; you go looking for the craft.


In one sentence, what advice would you give to an aspiring director?

Trust the people around you, and to listen to the people around you, and to be the one who says the least on set.


If you want to hear more from Ian Watson check out Director's Toolkit and Visualising Story for Directors.


The Australian Film Television and Radio School would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners, the Bidjigal people and Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, on whose land we meet, work, study and teach. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and extend our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from all nations of this land.