In the world of film, the title of “director” is just as non-specific as the title of “doctor” in the realm of medicine. There are all kinds of filmmakers with their own unique styles and skillsets, strengths and weaknesses, and just as not every project has the same needs, not every film necessitates the same kind of director. There are directors who are incredibly skilled at crafting unique visuals, but perhaps less so when it comes to clear storytelling. There are improvisational directors who prefer to allow the actors to create the scene in front of them, and conversely there are meticulous filmmakers who craft every line, every hand gesture, and every look with pinpoint precision. But there’s one specific kind of director whose moniker may be a bit confusing because it’s so non-specific, but it’s one that shouldn’t be overlooked: the journeyman director.
The term “journeyman” literally refers to a skilled worker who has honed his or her craft and is able to perform a task in an adequate manner. In the world of film, it’s usually a term used to refer to filmmakers who lack a distinct style and are thus able to navigate among a variety of genres and types of films with ease, performing admirably.
One of the most notable journeyman directors is Ron Howard, who has directed over 30 films in his career, each one as varied as the last. He swings from the fantastical Willow to the family comedy/drama Parenthood to the adventure mystery The Da Vinci Code. You don’t necessarily look at Frost/Nixon or Far and Away and say, “Oh this is unmistakably a Ron Howard film,” but his movies aren’t glaringly bad either. He’s able to move into the realm of a disaster survival thriller with Apollo 13 and craft a major Oscar-nominated piece of work, or step into How the Grinch Stole Christmas and bring the world of Dr. Seuss to life in a visually striking manner. He gets the job done, and sometimes—with films like Rush—he does so in a really exciting or distinct way, while other times—with movies like The Dilemma—you can barely recognize a director’s flair at all.
Jon Favreau is another great example of a journeyman director. He is equally adept at crafting a holiday classic (Elf), a visual effects-filled family film (The Jungle Book), and a faithful and exciting comic book movie (Iron Man). Again, you wouldn’t necessarily connect the dots between Cowboys & Aliens and Chef, but Favreau unmistakably knows what he’s doing—he’s reliable, and he’s able to craft exciting pieces of entertainment that traverse various genres without completely dropping the ball (Cowboys & Aliens’ problems are mostly script-based).
On the flip side, it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker like David Fincher ever making a movie like Elf. He probably could if he wanted to, but Fincher clearly has very specific sensibilities that are attuned to his tastes. Moreover, Fincher has a precise visual aesthetic that is unmistakable throughout his filmography—put a single scene from The Social Network, Zodiac, and Gone Girl side-by-side and you can probably recognize plenty of similarities.
Now, there are “auteur filmmakers” who also traverse genres like Steven Spielberg, but even then, Spielberg doesn’t fit the bill of a “journeyman director” because his fingerprints are unmistakable. Ready Player One and The Post are incredibly different movies with different audiences in mind, but Spielberg has a way of composing shots that is unmistakably Spielberg-esque. Moreover, tropes like “Spielberg Face” show up time and again throughout his filmography, no matter the gulf of difference in genre.
That’s not to say journeyman directors don’t have style. Ron Howard knows how and where to put a camera, and there are sequences in Rush (for which Howard collaborated with acclaimed cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle) that are downright stunning. But there’s an understandable lack of consistency across the filmography (you don’t really need Mantle’s style applied to, say, EdTV) that keeps him in the “journeyman” wheelhouse.
And you know what? Hollywood needs journeyman directors. As the industry becomes far more focused on existing IP and franchise building, it’s getting increasingly important for filmmakers to be able to fit into pre-established boxes. Some stumble when they get too far out of their wheelhouse, but others like Howard, Favreau, Joe Johnston and a few others can adeptly settle in, craft a reliably solid piece of entertainment like Solo: A Star Wars Story, Iron Man, or Captain America: The First Avenger, and deliver something fans and critics alike can enjoy. There’s little glory in blending in, but sometimes blending in is exactly what the doctor ordered.