What I Know About Directing (Not Much), And What You Can Learn From Others

by antigob

I’ve not been a director long enough to really offer anyone any truly credible on set advice other than:

  1. Choose talented people and trust them to do their jobs
  2. Work hard on your shot list and animatic
  3. Don’t just hire a cast of good actors, find interesting and charismatic people because this inevitably shines through in their performance
  4. Film rehearsals
  5. Make sure lunch is ace
  6. No yelling, no egos
  7. Everyone deserves respect
  8. If you have to lay down the law keep to the point and never be personal
  9. If you can sit, sit
  10. Wear air trainers, drink lots of water
  11. When you wrap take everyone to the pub

But I am learning a lot from others. Here are my favourite, pertinent bits of advice culled from moviemaker.com

Wim Wenders (he has 50 rules!)

16. Final cut is overrated. Only fools keep insisting on always having the final word. The wise swallow their pride in order to get to the best possible cut.

Interesting one this, I read the same advice in Very Naughty Boys: The Amazing True Story Of Handmade Films (although I can’t remember the precise director who says it). But it’s very sage advice. The example in the book is that a studio gives you millions of dollars, if they fundamentally disagree with your version, you might get ‘final cut’, but they’re not going to spend money putting it out there. Just how great is your film, if no one sees it? In my situation it’s very much the client who gets final cut – and quite rightly it’s their project. But you have to guide your film to a place where everyone is happy, because they are paying you for your judgement. That’s a difficult thing to do, but not impossible. However, tenacity is not the same as being obstinate.

26. Alright, so you’re shooting with a storyboard. Make sure you’re willing to override it at any given moment.

This is very true especially when you consider you often have to sell in the idea before you see the location, but ideally your location should present opportunities rather than restrict you.

37. Be ready to get rid of your favourite shot during editing.

Eli Roth

2. Keep your eye on the donut, not the hole. This is a golden rule David Lynch taught me; it was his one piece of advice for me before I made Cabin Fever. I tell it to all my actors and crew members and we use it as a mantra during the shoot.

In other words, you’re there to make a film not worry about egos, or the parking or the fact that lunch is always, always late.

8. “Thank You.” Learn those words in whatever language you are shooting and use them at the end of the day. They go a long, long way. You’re paying people (or not) to do a job, so it should be expected of them to do it well. But it’s very important to let them know you appreciate it, too.

Jim Jarmusch

His 5 rules are pretty well known, the last three are my favourite:

Rule #3: The production is there to serve the film. The film is not there to serve the production. Unfortunately, in the world of filmmaking this is almost universally backwards. The film is not being made to serve the budget, the schedule, or the resumes of those involved. Filmmakers who don’t understand this should be hung from their ankles and asked why the sky appears to be upside down.

Rule #4: Filmmaking is a collaborative process. You get the chance to work with others whose minds and ideas may be stronger than your own. Make sure they remain focused on their own function and not someone else’s job, or you’ll have a big mess. But treat all collaborators as equals and with respect. A production assistant who is holding back traffic so the crew can get a shot is no less important than the actors in the scene, the director of photography, the production designer or the director. Hierarchy is for those whose egos are inflated or out of control, or for people in the military. Those with whom you choose to collaborate, if you make good choices, can elevate the quality and content of your film to a much higher plane than any one mind could imagine on its own. If you don’t want to work with other people, go paint a painting or write a book. (And if you want to be a fucking dictator, I guess these days you just have to go into politics…).

Rule #5: Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”

Gus Van Sant

2. STAND UP FOR YOUR IDEAS. Be direct, as in being a director. One of the reasons directors can lose a debate over an issue is because they’re not clear about their ideas, or they may, out of frustration, invite aggressiveness by digging in when they don’t need to. Take it easy, but don’t let them tell you how to make your movie.

I know this is about directing, but also I think the other thing I take from this is, until your idea is made, you are selling your idea. You are bringing it life every step of the way, from the initial treatment, the script, storyboard, animatic, the choice of music, to the casting, location and mood boards for costumes. You have to have this idea crystal clear at all times, you can’t let any doubt set in.

3. MONEY PARANOIA You can control the budget, too. Everybody’s doing it, so why not you? Go through the budget line by line, and decide if the items in there are things that you really need—or need more of. The heads of all the departments will try and steal as much as they can from the line items in the budget, even when it’s not their line item. That is their job, to fight for their department. It’s initiative, but they should be stopped by someone like you, because the producer doesn’t necessarily care, or may be in cahoots with them. Don’t let the art department steal the special effects line item to build a set that you don’t need.

There is never enough money, so you have to make sure every item in your budget is there for a reason. Do you really need a dolly (truck on tracks), or can you do the same shot with a slider if you’re only moving the camera a short distance? Can that person in the background be an extra instead? Especially if we don’t see their face.

John Waters

3. Never make a film about your grandmother unless she’s a serial killer.

Ah, so true, but if I could take just one piece of advice with me onto the set, it’s this:

Neil Jordan

4. You’ll be held responsible for everything that ends up in the finished film. So if people tell you it doesn’t matter, don’t believe them.

I’ve also found it useful listening to the Podcasts Of The Museum Of The Moving Image, and reading Mike Figgis’ book.