The characteristics that make a great filmmaker have sparked discussions at every single festival event I have ever attended. To a newbie these characteristics can appear elusive. Some think that the only qualities a filmmaker needs is the ability to choose black wardrobe items and wear sunglasses indoors and out, day or night (as I do).
A filmmaker has characteristics that can be difficult to understand. What does a filmmaker need to be great? I mean by this, what above the technical craft skills like writing a great script, directing actors well or knowing the geeky camera tricks.
Then there is the tough question: Are you born a great filmmaker? Or can you become one?
I’m not pretending for a second to know any answers. Let me try and fill you in on my background.
I grew up in a Amish Mennonite farming community outside Toronto. I was told never to go to the movie theatre because the devil lived there. Here I am doing the devil’s work!
My father was a farmer, but as me his physique was too slight to readily suit the rigours of farm labour. One wintry day he announced to us that he was going to study theology so he would have an alternative career should farming literally break his back.
When I was ten he took our family to Somalia where he set up a small school and clinic about a hundred kilometres inland from Mogadicio. While there he abandoned his evangelical zeal in favour of leading the local people towards more effective agricultural practices – literally showing them how to beat their swords into plow shears. His innovations led quite literally to an early demise – he ended up one of the first western victims of Al Qaeda – but to this day he is revered as a great teacher and still has many disciples.
It would be nearly impossible to tell you all the lessons I learned from watching my father become a great teacher. I think many of the characteristics he developed as he came out of the fog of farming are totally relevant to filmmakers.
After his untimely demise, his students and followers sent me their thoughts and memories of my father from which I have distilled 20 of the top characteristics my father lived by.
These qualities, characteristics and mantras are not taught in film school. I’ve added in my own thoughts of how I fervently believe they apply to you – a filmmaker:
1. Filmmakers don’t choose their fans. Fans choose their filmmaker.
My father had followers. He didn’t choose them – they choose him – not for who he was, but because of his strong vision and what he actually accomplished – what he did.
You can be a filmmaker in title. You can walk the walk and talk the talk. But you won’t be a true filmmaker until you have a strong opinion, a strong visual style and use it.
2. Film lovers choose filmmakers they trust and respect.
If you don’t have the trust and respect of your audience, how are you, a filmmaker, supposed to make the connection necessary to inspire them to achieve great things or tell their friends to check out your movie?
3. Be yourself.
There’s no scientific formula for what makes a good filmmaker. There’s a multitude of individual styles and characteristics of great filmmakers. The filmmakers I remember are the ones that totally believe in their own ability, and say and express themselves without fear of reprisal. it is a bit like walking a tight rope.
It’s funny for me to recollect my dad sitting around in the evening debating religious points as a christian surrounded by muslims. He made no attempt to apologise for his religion while at the same time embraced their beliefs as if his own. It was a magnetic combinations that earning him the title Great Maalim.
4. Filmmakers need a base of power and authority — but the more they use it, the less there is left.
Needless to say, effective filmmakers requires a certain amount of authority. Like most forms of personal capital, that power is finite. Use it sparingly and only when necessary.
We need to remember that filmmaking is a collaborative exercise.
5. The best filmmakers use persuasion.
Anyone can have a vision. Filmmakers have the ability to persuade others to believe in their vision.
6. Filmmakers set the ethical standards.
As a filmmaker, you set the example. What you think is right and wrong in the world can influence people all over the world.Lead with your ethics and morals.
7. Integrity is the bedrock of effective filmmakers.
Unethical behaviour is a slippery slope. Avoid the slope at all costs because everyone slips.
8. “Selfship” is the enemy of filmmaking.
A great filmmaker cares more about the audience than themselves. The minute your film or film career becomes the number one thing in your life, you will be doomed. Be sure you have a trusted friend kick you in the shin the minute your daily routine becomes too “Me-Me-Me”.
9. Be quick to praise, but slow to admonish. Praise in public, but admonish in private.
Of course there are going to be times when you are let down, but be careful how you do it. If you’re going to praise someone, do it big. If you’re going to reprimand, make sure it is warranted and do so in a respectful manner.
My dad was the number one believer in this. and whenever he praised or admonished he did it in a way that you learned something valuable.
Our Postgraduate Film Degree is likely the finest in the world. Tiska Wiedermann runs it out of our Toronto hub and is an expert in praising our students and staff in public, and drawing individuals (including me) for a quiet Skype on what we could be doing better. It just makes her personal stock with staff and students soar.
10. A great filmmaker stamps out self-serving politics.
A filmmaker works with an entire group. No one individual, including you, are more important than anywhere else.
On of my favourite people is Aneta – the woman who cleans our office here in London every day. When she started a couple of years ago she would tip-toe around the place with all the emotional characteristics of the humble cleaner. As I watched her work I realised that she was absolutely terrific at her job. Visit our London studios, and while untidy they are cleaner than clean thanks to Aneta.
Aneta has now learned that her suggestions to me are as important as anyone else and regularly makes suggestions that make our place better.
11. Be sure to know as much as possible about the people you are collaborating with.
How can you inspire someone if you don’t know what motivates them?
12. A filmmaker manages the shoot, but great fimmakers lead their team.
It may be a bit cliché, but at the end of the day, your team members are human beings. Don’t lose sight of that reality.
13. Flexibility is an essential characteristic.
Every problem, obstacle, or issue has a different solution. And does a filmmaker ever have problems? I prefer to think of a problem as a new and challenging creative opportunity to think differently.
14. A filmmaker is a steward.
My father’s religious background taught me loads about stewardship.When you make a film you have a huge amount of human and financial resources at your disposal. Use them wisely.
15. Sleep on it
Whenever confronted with a tough decision he would say: “Let’s all sleep on it”. Curious isn’t it/ Most tough decisions are resolved with time.
16. When making decisions about people, listen to your gut.
OMG – if only I followed this myself. whenever I make a decision about a person against my gut feeling I regret it.
17. Great filmmakers avoid the phony.
A really good way to lose fans, audience and team members is to use coercion and manipulation. Another good way to lose out is by offering cheap meaningless platitudes. Avoid.
18. Learn to say, out loud, “I was wrong” and “I don’t know.”
You may be a filmmaker, but you’re not perfect. Don’t pretend to be.
19. If you know a plan or decision is wrong, don’t implement it. Instead, keep talking.
Don’t try to jam a square peg in a circular hole. Work with your team to figure out a way to round the edges of the peg so it fits properly.
20. Each of us has potential to be a filmmaker
Our potential for screenwriting, shooting, acting, directing, editing or producing is limitless. Everyone has the potential to contribute to something meaningful. The only thing that holds one back is the strength of your vision.
I don’t have the recipe book for how to become a great filmmaker. Look at me – no one could be further from a career in film than me. What my father taught me was you can become anything you want in life if you want it enough, can commit to your dream, and follow these 20 basic mantras.
Which of these mantras have factored in your personal experience? Can you share them with me in the comments box below