I am a soon to be film school graduate in the greater Southern California area (it’s a big area). I am an aspiring/working actor, comic, writer/director, editor (print and video), and film critic (if this website didn’t give you a hint on that last one). A little more to the point, I have directed or worked on double digit short films, and have recently directed a short film with an above average budget for my film school thesis, and am contemplating my path in the editing room, in film festivals, and beyond.
All that to say, I’ve walked the walk to some extent. And like most directors before me (and after), I sit in the editing room, contemplating the footage I shot, and more wistfully, the stuff theorized but not achieved. And while it’s probably not healthy to dwell on the past, you can definitely learn from your mistakes. But that sucks, because mistakes hurt that hubris of yours (film school requirement number one!), and your brain wants to forget they ever happened, never mind take lessons from them!
So hopefully, with this list I’ve compiled from my own personal opinions and those sagely ones I’ve picked up along the way, you can feel more confident going into your own next project, and most importantly not be caught off guard when you look at stuff after the fact.
10. KNOW YOUR BUDGET
For all the low budget filmmakers in school and in life, this comes up a lot. So many kids in film school want to make action movies or movies with guns. Copy what you love, or something like that. So not only are you mingling with a genre near bereft of artistic merit, it’s going to lack the visual punch or depth of what’s in theaters? Why do it?
Knowing how much money you have helps you greatly: you can allot resources, find the things you want, etc. But knowing your budget can only help your so far, or in other words: money will always interfere with your art.
With increased budgets, expectation of quality increases exponentially. On a student level, people will think even a $20,000 film should somehow be unimpeachably good. So there’s a burden to spend more on equipment, more on locations, more on crew, etc. So your prices increase and you’re basically just chasing something you’ll likely never reach (at least not on your level): the Hollywood studio film. Even Hollywood studios can’t maintain that standard of production, and they have money!
9. KNOW YOUR “BUDGET” AKA PEOPLE SEEM TO OVERPRICE THEIR CREATIVITY AKA IT’S FREE
Money concerns aside, what really seems like a limitation to me is an artificial restraint people place on themselves. Basically, they seem over “budget” their creativity as in the way.
To sound like one of my film school teachers, why would you be paying this money for a film school degree, and then phone in your assignments and make boring, often flawed films so you can coast through the program but not find artistic success or make something good? For those vaunted film jobs after graduation with job security and a 401K?
Fear of failure seems like a motivating force in a lot of films I watch. It’s not helped by working on a student film with other students who want to rush you along and get out there.
8. WORK WITH YOUR FRIENDS, NOT “FRIENDS” OR THE CAST OF THE TV SHOW “FRIENDS” UNLESS THEY’RE LIKE COOL OR WHATEVER
Speaking of working with people you know, I encourage it. But you can’t confuse that with people you know by name or have talked to before, or even worse, “known commodities” that come recommended.
A film set is a wild hubbub of activity that gives you too little time and then you end up with even less. Contentiousness is almost built into the process; it’s a real drain, not even necessarily a negative. The Assistant Director wants to keep you to a schedule, but can also be unfairly rigid in undoing your artistic process to keep that schedule. The Director of Photography is trying to use his expertise to control your photography, but he can also feel like he knows to direct image better than a director (which is still the director’s job in my “accurate” (?) opinion). Not to mention any other crew member or actor who knows his thing and dislikes any input.
With all these possible negatives on your team, you should seek out like-minded people and work with them. There’s tons of examples of great partnerships, like Steven Spielberg working with producer Kathleen Kennedy. Why work with people you don’t get along with or even worse slow down your schedule and prevent you from getting that close-up you need?
It boggles my mind that people (myself included) bypass the interview and reference check process when hiring crew on their own dime. You’re flying blind, and basic law of averages (and be honest, your anecdotal evidence) says your blind flight will be doomed.
7. NETWORKING, NETWORKING, NETWORKING
Speaking of…interviews suck. And not just because you have to talk to people or maybe even negotiate a meeting place. Interviews for film crew are going to come from barely whittled down talent pools. mandy.com, maybe craigslist. I think craigslist is largely underrated, as you can find lots of people who are there and find some gold even, but literally anyone can apply for your listing. And there’s no personal touch.
How much better would it be to go to a bar, or some other public meeting forum, and there’s other people who are into stuff like you are. And you can see their face, and you can read their vibe, and get to know them and start forming a crew of friends or at least positive acquaintances. Versus crawling through your feedback from rando craigslist responses?
meetup.com and other services offer networking events all the time, and even more so if you happen to have an alumni association from a film school (or just regular old college) in your back pocket.
Honestly, this is maybe the number one actionable thing for anyone who is looking for work, not even artistic. Literally every day until you’re like Martin Scorsese or something, meet people, practice your conversation skills and find your people.
6. WRITE EVERYDAY AKA TODAY AKA YES TODAY
Networking’s not for everybody, even though it should be. But one thing that should be for every artist is art. And that’s why you should be writing. Practice makes perfect.
- Screenwriting requires writing. It’s in the name. In fact, it should be called Writingscreen, because without the writing having a screen helps you naught bro. So write today.
- In the film business, even for directors, writing is the most actionable thing you can sell. People can watch your short and like it, but you can’t pitch a feature unless you have the script. And you can’t get your foot in most doors without a pitch. So start working on one.
- And lastly, for the director who doesn’t consider themselves a writer. First of all, Uwe Boll writes his movies, so what’s stopping you? Standards of excellence? Secondly, a director for hire almost has to be more prepared, have more writing practice in advance of his pitch of himself. You’re going to have to cite film theory, visual examples, shot design, so you can’t not be a writer. The other guy will be.
5. HELP CAN BE A MISNOMER (OR A BEATLES MOVIE)
You did not get into film directing for the assuredness of work. The reason you should be directing is because you get a kick of out of artistic design and building a holistically brilliant piece.
Film is tough but also in many ways endearing because you build your crew. And the crew’s set jobs are to help you. But you have to wary of taking help if it means giving up the control you fought so hard to maintain.
The Assistant Director’s supposed to keep you on schedule, so there’s a great comfort in trusting that schedule, to know you’re moving on and shooting the things you said you would. But getting everyone home on time should not be the motivation of your crew. They signed up to make a movie, knowing that it’s a time consuming occupation.
And if anyone other the AD gives you flack for working too slow A) they’re out of line and B) they need to understand the progress. This is not baking or something, art sometimes take time.
And, especially with film school crews, mostly made of fellow directors, type A personalities who want to be directing or give input (something, unfortunately, I have done) cannot be tolerated. They are not directing.
Plan B’s for firing crew have to be taken into consideration in pre-production. A tall order, maybe, but art is more important than a bad crew member.
4. DON’T LET TIME BE TAKEN AWAY FROM YOU
So yeah, with AD’s, with school schedules, with union schedules, daylight, etc, there are so many reasons to cut the shooting short. To pigeonhole your shooting schedule and say “well if I don’t get this by X, we all have to go home.”
But if you’re in a screening with your film school professor, or even a sagely family member, and they turn to and you say “you should really have a close up of the princess”, “and you say “yeah, the location was only scheduled till 5”. Your family member will nod. You’re not wrong.
But you also don’t have the close-up that everyone agrees you needed (and you wanted), and you can’t go back and get it. Probably ever. And maybe the movie sells without it, and maybe it doesn’t. But you wouldn’t argue that the visual was better as a result.
I’m not saying it is not very difficult to go overtime on a shoot, or find time for extra days/re-shoots. But I also think it is more possible than people often imagine.
And there are no prizes for shooting on “time”. Sure, the crew is happy that they get to sleep, you save some money/time, but what’s that versus a film that is like good and can maybe even be polished enough to win a festival and make you some money versus leaving on time?
I, myself, am a very fast shooter as a director. Not to toot my own horn, but I have a mild knack for pre-production, some money, and have had some stringent crew people to keep me in shape.
But when I wrapped on time on the last day of my thesis, ticker tape did not fall from the sky. Regis Philbin did not present me with a check for $1200.00 dollars. I did not win a date with Steve Martin. I just got home at something resembling on time. That’s it.
And now in the editing room, I don’t have shots I 100 percent like. And it is what it is.
Be an artist, not a clock (no offense to clocks). The whole point is to question pre-established boundaries and not necessarily let them limit you.
3. DON’T BE A JERK! (EASY ON THE EXCLAMATION POINTS)
After those pretentious sentences about time, it seems like a good time to bring up that a filmmaker can not be a jerk. You have to be so nice that people think you’re faking it, and you have to be so nice that you honestly are not.
On set, negativity is like a plague. You can be right but wrong, and all the time. Once you start yelling at people, even on totally solid grounds, you’ve lost the crew. It’s just awkward. Quentin Tarantino becomes Yelly McJerkface.
It’s wise to remember that for all the travails of filmmaking, set life should be a victory. You get to sit behind a fancy camera on a fancy set, watching fancy actors bring your words to life. You get to eat craft services. Assuming you did the basics of pre-production, you at minimum have a vaguely competent crew, you can watch the process unfold and not have to worry as much.
And you have to presume, before you go in, that this is the case. Knit into a pillow and stare at it every morning, whatever you need to do.
This seems a bit duplicitous, but it’s also true that yelling at people self-righteously distracts from the art process that you’re there for to begin with. And while not ideal, you have to presume your AD or maybe a producer will yell at people for you.
A lot of these rage issues can be mitigated, helpfully enough, by having better cohesive relationships in crew hiring (see 8 and 7), or even better, the plan B’s for firing people as opposed to chewing them out on set and teaching them a lesson/alienating them.
2. WATCH MOVIES (OR ELSE THEY’LL BE WATCHING YOU…)
This is such an obvious thing to me, but I was lucky. At my undergrad, I wanted to be a film director and instead I had to watch and write papers on a barrage of movies and classic TV to get my Film Studies BA. So by the time I got into my MFA Filmmaking program, while you can never see everything, I had already seen a lot of classics and had a working knowledge of their processes.
And it matters. Such a cliche, but you wouldn’t trust an architect who didn’t study architecture, a writer who didn’t know what a book was, so a director who doesn’t know movies?
Watching movies gives you a richer film vocabulary. A filmmaker comes up with original ideas, sure, but a lot of those ideas are your brain processing Pink Flamingos and mixing it with everything else and making something unique. Find unique brain material in cinema history bro/sis (NOTE: Most people don’t refer to Pink Flamingos for film vocabulary examples.)
So watch a bunch of movies. Any movies. Get a Netflix, fill that queue up, and knock out like one a week.
If nothing else, anecdotally, film nerds are your role models. Steven Spielberg, raised by cinema. Martin Scorsese, a show off of a film nerd, makes movies about the fact he likes them. Quentin Tarantino, curates his collection of the entire 1970s, shows off constantly.
So copy these examples. They are better than you (sorry?).
1. WORK BACKWARDS (SDRAWKCAB KROW…get it?)
I’ll bookend this on where I started. You’re staring at your movie in the editing suite. The shit is shot, the race is run. You can’t go back and get anything else. And the regret of what was not shot is deep.
The clarity for an editor, on what should’ve been shot, is uncanny. I’m no Thelma Schoonmaker, but it happens every time.
“I should’ve got a cleaner look on this close-up…the other actor needed to make less noise…this shot should’ve run longer…why didn’t I finish on this wide….” you get the point, but yeah, the editor’s shot list would be the greatest shot list ever.
So the bold question is: Why not do it like this from the get go?
It’s a simple visualization, to not think of your movie as a screenplay you liked, or a shot list that you made up to appease your DP, but as the completed visual on the screen.
Storyboards can help, but I don’t think that’s deep enough, that’s denying the reality of shooting on set.
Shooting is letting the actors breathe it on film, to help them make visual and sound a loose guess. A holistic approach to cinema from the front, not the back end.
I’m not exactly sure how I’d work this, or if it can ever be truly workable. But I do know that filmmaking should be about the intellectual pursuit of the movie you want to see, and nothing should get in the way of that.