Directing is hard. F*cking hard, as Tarantino would put it. It’s a hundred decisions you have to make every minute of the day – and that’s not only during your shoot. You also have to make decisions about which films you want to make, which stories to tell, and the broader decisions of what to make of your directing career. In the hardest days, you’ll even have to make the choice of whether you’re going to be directing at all. Here are a few tips from the masters so that the big guys with the money will let you direct.
1. Have a distinguishable voice
You have stories you want to tell. What do they have in common? Are they all likely to end up in a bloodbath like Tarantino? Or do you have your own personal brand of social realism like Ken Loach? Do you have awesome stories that tend to go into sentimentalism at the end like Spielberg?
If your name becomes an adjective, you’ve achieved this better than most. Imagine a conversation wherein your friend says “It plays out like a Woody Allen film”. What does that mean? It’s probably a film about morality, with silly humour in it, narrating the ethical conundrums of a Jewish New Yorker (more or less).
Being distinguishable is not all about stories. It’s about style. The flourishes and the visuals. The awesome series “Every Frame A Painting” brilliantly analyses the style of directors and what sets them apart.
2. Be marketable
I could feel you cringe just reading this point. It’s not that bad. Being marketable doesn’t (necessarily) mean that you have to make big compromises or, god forbid, sell out. What it means is that your work will have to be identifiable. It’s easier if you have a distinguishable voice, as mentioned in the point above.
It mostly means that your work can be related to a market segment. Will it appeal to the LGBT community? Can your film play the festival circuit? How niche should we go? That’s the kind of questions you need to ask yourself in your career. Art is only a small part of the artist’s life.
3. Have a strong team
At a former job in retail, the changing room mirror had a poster with the dos and don’ts of selling the products, and finished with “Remember: teamwork is key to success”. It became a joke between all the colleagues, because you sell the products by yourself, in retail.
That statement, however, holds uncannily true for filmmaking. It’s a collaborative medium. You have wunderkinds who can do it all (Orson Welles, Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, Xavier Dolan…) but it’s extremely rare, and they have to rely on key players on their team.
We know the stories of how Orson Welles relied a lot on his cinematographer while shooting Citizen Kane. Ken Loach has been working with the same writer, Paul Laverty, for decades. Woody Allen has had his films produced by the same man since the 70’s, and has been working with his sister for many years as well.
Truth is, anyone who says they’ve done it alone are liars. You always get help, in the form of an intervention or a nudge, a piece of advice or a self-help book. You’re only as strong as your team.
4. Be confident in your material
You’ve given it all you’ve got, and your film is “in the can” – even though there’s no such thing as film cans anymore – and you’re ready to show it. Now come the critics, and the people who pull the strings, and who have the power to make or break your film’s release. You’ll want to please them. Does that mean compromising, bending over backward to the point that you’re selling your film’s soul?
When Billy Wilder finished Sunset Boulevard, he showed it, to the film industry in a preview screening. The biting satire didn’t please Louis B. Mayer too much. “How dare that young man, Wilder, bite the hand that feeds him?” the mogul exclaimed. Upon hearing this, the director replied “I’m Mr. Wilder, and go fuck yourself.” The film became a sensation and is now a classic. If you’re ever so lucky to find yourself with such a piece on your hands, don’t disown it. Have confidence.
5. Don’t take no for an answer
You have that dream story, this amazing narrative that you know deserves being told. One problem: you don’t have the $250 million budget.
Well, what are the means at your disposal? Do you have a camera? If you don’t, you’ve got a phone. What’s the core of the story, what’s the arc? And how do you adapt that and scale it to what you have at your disposal? That’s the trick.
No one’s waiting for anyone. The world is moving fast and by the time you realise it you have to catch up. And once you’re there, all those pointers should help you be recognisable, and steer your directing career in the right direction.
Want more insight? How about attending Hands-On Directing: Part One.