Last week, Hiba from Lebanon hit me up with the following question: “To become a director, should I read more or watch more?”
My immediate response to her was that directing is so complex and multifaceted a career that both reading and watching should be a constant for her. A more interesting question, I proposed, is this: what should you be reading and watching? But Hiba’s question hinted at a bigger curiosity. What I think she really wanted to know is this:
What Can I Do To Become a Movie Director?
Although I am not a director, I have directed both comedy and drama in college and as independent projects. This post is an attempt to answer Hiba’s question and steer anyone who wants to be a film director in the right direction. Here are 7 habits all future film directors should be doing:
1) Watch Movies (but do it the right way)
This one is a no-brainer, right? You wanna be a director, you have to watch movies. If this is you, then you can always deflect criticism from angry relatives, “You spend too much on the TV!” “Leave me alone, I’m studying!”
Yes, indeed watching movies is a great way to study this art form. But there are different ways you can watch a movie, and these that follow are all great exercises for future filmmakers:
One of my favorite ways to watch a movie is with the sound off. This is the perfect technique if you want to observe how stories are told visually, and how the camera behaves to provoke this or that. I think a natural born cinematographer or camera operator, may be able to effortlessly concentrate on picture and tune out the audio. But for the rest of us (and the vast majority of people), the audio actually distracts us from the camerawork. For one thing, the character who’s speaking always draws the viewer’s attention. But what about the other characters, or the elaborate mise-en-scène on the background? Shouldn’t we also be observing what’s happening back there? This film-viewing approach will make you aware of every camera setup, including angles, shot sizes, and movements. It’s more fun than it sounds.
Similarly, you can watch a movie with the picture off, or with your eyes closed so that you see how stories are told auditorily (I think that’s a word). You’d be surprised at how much information is on the soundtrack (in addition to dialogue). With your eyes closed, every little sound bite, from footsteps to raindrops, will be magnified and you will infer meaning from the simplest things.
What both of these approaches do to your filmmaking apprenticeship is that you deconstruct the movie by paying attention to the countless little elements that come together to make the movie what it is. Give them a try!
2) Read Screenplays
The director’s most basic task is to translate the words of the script into moving pictures. Sometimes, especially in film school, you may direct your own screenplay, your own creation. However, the reality of the business is that the division of labor tends to assign you to a specific position: the writer writes, the producer produces, and the director directs. You can always break this paradigm later, but as you start out, it’s safe to assume that more often than not you will be tasked with directing somebody else’s script. And that means diving into a story that you are not familiar with. The good news is that usually it will be a project you believe in, in a format or genre that you are fond of.
Reading scripts is a good exercise because you have to visualize in your head how those scenes would unfold. Do you shoot Johnny strutting down the bar in a close-up or in a wide shot? This is basic camera positioning that you will have to think about regardless of the size of your production or the camera you use.
But you know what, even before you get that far, first you have to get accustomed to the language of screenwriting. It is unlike anything most people read. Novels, plays, newspapers, instruction manuals, forget about it! I’m not talking about format (which is also in a class by itself too), I’m talking about writing style. A screenplay is a screenplay, and every writer has a different style. Plus, from assistants to producers, everyone in the biz has to read ’em. You might as well join them.
Here are a couple of websites where you can find screenplays:
I’m not affiliated to either, but I’ve used both before.
3) Learn Acting and the Actor’s Language
One of the most daunting parts of film directing is directing actors. I know of a handful of people among my circle of friends who thought they really wanted be film directors, until they had their chance at directing… and they hated it. There are different reasons for this reaction, but a common one is having to “deal with actors” as they would put it. The problem sometimes is not the actors themselves, but the fact that some directors just love creating the image more than they like “dealing with actors.” And that’s totally fine. There’s a position called Director of Photography that is often where those troubled souls find solace.
But if actors don’t intimidate you… or if you are curious enough to give it a try and tread the directing waters, then you are gonna have to be able to communicate with actors. And trust me, they operate in a different wavelength. If you have ever directed anything and being disappointed at the interaction you had with your actors, you may be inclined to call them “finicky” or “snobbish.” I hate to break it to you, but the problem in that equation was probably you, the director. Sure there are actors who you may not get a long with, but in my experience these are the exceptions, not the rule.
So in order to avoid bad experience with your talent, I would suggest you learn acting and the vernacular used by actors. For one thing, did you know that there are different acting methods? Can you name at least two of them and list their key differences? You see, you may think that these different techniques don’t pertain to you, the director, but it totally does. Though some actors can just “push their own buttons” most of the time, occasionally you may have to do if for them. And a Method Actor may respond differently from some who uses the Practical Aesthetics.
Here’s a list of different acting techniques as listed on Wikipedia:
In Stanislavski’s system, also known as Stanislavski’s method, actors draw upon their own feelings and experiences to connect with the character they are portraying. The actor puts himself or herself in the mindset of the character finding things in common in order to give a more genuine portrayal of the character.
The Chekhov Technique is a psycho-physical approach in which transformation, working with impulse, imagination and inner and outer gesture are central. Michael Chekhov was a student of Stanislavski.
Meisner technique is closely related to the Method. It requires the actor to focus totally on the other actor as though he or she is real and they only exist in that moment. This is a method that makes the actors in the scene seem more authentic to the audience. It is based on the principle that acting finds its expression in people’s response to other people and circumstances.
Practical Aesthetics is a technique devised by playwright David Mamet as a counterpoint to the dominance of the Method in the American theatre, film and TV industry.
If these techniques overwhelm you, you need not worry. You don’t have to know all of them in-depth. You just need to know that each actor has their own method, which is why it may be hard for a first-time director to communicate with them.
One common mistake I’ve seen new directors do is telling what actors should be feeling in a scene: “You are sad.” Actors hate that. Instead, tell them why they are sad and their emotions become more real: “Remember, you just found out your mother passed way.” In both of these instructions the director is asking for the same emotion, but only one will be effective.
And here’s one mistake I once made that I hope you won’t. I started giving notes to an actor saying, “Now pretend that…” He cut me off and rebutted, “It’s never pretend!” He was right, it’s never pretend. Saying that was a mistake I made probably because I never took an acting class, which is why I recommend you do it if you have a chance, even if it’s just for one semester. You will learn one or more of the techniques mentioned above, and your actors will love you if you can speak their language from your own experience.
One book that will definitely help you on this portion of directing is Directing Actors: Creating Memorable Performances for Film & Television by Judith Weston. Weston’s book is about how directors should talk to actors in order to get the desired emotion without hurting them. One highlight of the book, in my opinion, is the Character Chart, which is a worksheet for directors that helps them explore the characters in-depth from a directing perspective so that you will know as much as there’s to know about your characters. Actors do something like this, so should you.
4) Learn How to Interact with People
You may think this one is a no-brainer, but because it feels so obvious many people neglect this notion. I hope you will take this item in the agenda seriously and give it as much thought as it deserves.
I often say that a film director has to be a tyrant and a diplomat. What I mean is this: at times, the director has to be an arrogant boss demanding the world in a silver platter from his crew, but at other times he has to be friendly and courteous and take his time to talk, joke, and mingle. Nonetheless stress levels invariably fluctuate, and directors can’t always play the nice guy, which is why it’s important to show your smiley face and connect to the crew early on any production before stress levels skyrocket.
In this sense, a director has the role of a manager (forget art for a tiny second). You’re the captain of the ship, the leader of the crew. You oversee many departments made up of many professionals. Some have egos, some are outspoken, some are clumsy, some are simply a pain in the butt. It’s part of your job to bring everyone together with the same purpose. If you notice that your cameraman has a problem with your DP, then you may have to pull them both a side and have a heart-to-heart with them, find out what’s wrong and if you can help them or fire them. (I kid you not, it happens.) And if you don’t have the time to talk to them individually, but you’re the one to notice the conflict, you have to let your producer or assistant director know so they can try to resolve it for you.
One book I recommend to develop these interpersonal skills is the famousHow to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This book has been in print for over 70 years! It was first recommended to me by Tom Blomquist, a producer/director/writer triple-threat who was my professor at California State University, Long Beach. I bought the book and devoured it. It’s remarkable.
In my opinion, the book has a Machiavellian title that makes it sound like you’re gonna learn the art of manipulation, but in fact, the lessons are not as dark. The book is a collection of essays brimming with techniques and tips that will help you improve communication, avoid conflict, and become a great leader. If everyone in Hollywood read this book and implemented its suggestions, the industry would be a much much better place.
Note: you can go to Wikipedia for a summary of the techniques the book talks about. The techniques are not a secret. Anyone can tell them to you because they are common sense. But it’s the book’s analysis and examples that make it a masterpiece. Read. The. Book.
5) Become A Master Storyteller and Write Screenplays
Odds are that straight out of film school or your 9-to-5, no one is going to give you a change at directing right away, you have to earn it. One way to prove yourself and build the confidence of investors is to write screenplays. Film directing is storytelling, and you have to prove that you have the principles of storytelling down so that producers can bet on you. So my suggestion is write screenplay as often as you can and make sure they’re good. You will struggle, but you will improve! Although the industry tends to stereotype professionals firmly in a category, it is much easier for a screenwriter to become a director than for a nobody to become a director. My point here is this: if you have the opportunity to direct, direct! But in the nights and weekends that you find yourself without much to do, one way to further your career without leaving your house is by writing screenplays.
6) Keep Up With the Trades
This one is more important than most would think. I hate to admit, but directing is becoming increasingly more business-centric. Nowadays, talent alone is not enough. You have to know how Hollywood functions from a business stance so you can improve your chances of success. Reading trade publications is the best way to accomplish this.
Plus, as someone hoping to have their big break soon, you can find out about enticing opportunities or competitions that will give you a head start if you are good enough to win. For example, The Black List (not to be confused with the TV show by NBC) is a great service that has gained prominence recently. The Black List offers script evaluations for a fee. If you earn a good score, then your logline will be shared with Hollywood honchos in a newsletter. For Directors, ABC offers a directing program every two years, where you will be mentored to direct TV shows for a year. These are just two opportunities that can advance your career that I learned about from reading the trades. Like every thing else in the business, they are a competition. You have to be good for a decent chance.
A portfolio is different from a resume. A portfolio is a collection of your artistic works (short films, photographs, music, short stories), so you can showcase your skills to prospective collaborators, producers, financiers.
Similarly to Become A Master Storyteller and Write Screenplays above, you have to find ways to convince others that you are good at what you do. Having screenplays to show is one way, but directors really have to focus on showing their films. You have to preserve everything you shoot, and you should shoot as often as you can.
Don’t be embarrassed by the movies you did as a kid or a teen. Even if they are laughable, some of them can be useful to showcase a specific skill like editing, camerawork, or special effects. Be judicious and use common sense.
The ladder to directing glory is about you proving to someone else that you are good enough for a better chance. If you use that chance to do something great, you will be worthy of a bigger chance, and so on. As you build your portfolio, your chances and budget will become greater.
Some Final Tips
Don’t overlook TV. Television is becoming a powerhouse of excellent content. TV shows likeGame of Thrones and House of Cards look as good as the motion pictures you see in the theaters. Many professionals get their start on TV. Because of its often fast-paced and extensive nature (a season can be 10 hours long!), TV is the perfect training ground for many careers.
Continuously look for opportunities. This is a part of the Keep Up With the Trades above. Many opportunities spring up when you least expect, and there are so many out there that it’s hard to keep track of them. So peel your eyes for them, they’re out there. Want an example of an opportunity? How about this one:
Consider the DGA Training Program (offered by the Director’s Guild of America). The application process is rigorous, but if accepted, you will be groomed to become an Assistant Director, and you will get paid in the process! It’s a great way to get your foot on the door, learn the business, and make money doing something you (hopefully) love. This is one opportunity, but there are others.
Read comic books. Comic books are great for future directors and cinematographers because they are profoundly visual. And since they don’t require a camera crew, comic book illustrators can draw awe-striking angles that can serve as inspirations to you.
Consider going to film school. A college degree is NOT necessary for success as a film director, but it’s a way to get started and test the waters. Of course, the quality of film schools vary, so do your research before committing to one or the other.