Hands up if you want to be a film director?
Ok, that’s quite a lot of you. Now, my next question is: why?
The truth is directing is a really tough career, there are actually more professional footballers working in the UK than there are directors, though strangely people laugh more if I say I want to be a footballer. Where is the logic?
In the so called real world (or at least according to the HMRC) your career is apparently supposed to go like this: born, school, maybe college/university, find a job and start working and hopefully earn a little more each year, until eventually you retire and live off the pension until they roll the credits.
In the film world as a director your income will fluctuate wildly throughout your career, there will be periods of time where it feels that nothing is moving forward at all and periods of time where a deadline is hurtling towards you like a freight train with no breaks. I once worked every single day for four months, often to 2am to hit a deadline. This is a bummer if you have booked a holiday.
You’ll be asked to work for no money. Sometimes people will promise to pay you and then just not. It’s too expensive and stressful to sue them, so you let it go. Some people will steal your ideas and some people will write hurtful and terrible reviews of your films and work. Sometimes you’ll find yourself standing in the pouring rain in a muddy field at 5:30 am, and it’s three hours from your first coffee. You’ll be rejected for jobs for no good reason, and be offered jobs to direct that you know are not right for you, but you need the money. There is no ‘proven route to success’ (unless your Mum or Dad are famous, but even that’ll only get you so far). There is no sick pay, no holiday pay and little loyalty. I didn’t go on holiday for seven years and didn’t even know what the word ‘benefits’ meant until a couple of years ago, apparently in some careers they pay you a yearly bonus! Who knew?
BFI stats tell you that 84% of directors who make a first feature film will never go on to make a second film. Then, if they do make a second film, the chances of making a third are again tiny. However if you make three or more you’re in the game and more than likely here to stay.
The reasons directors seldom make a second movie is simply that it is just so darned hard, and the final film is often not like what you originally imagined in your head many month before. All that work and all those favours you pulled into make the film and it didn’t turn out how you planned and as it was your first film, maybe you just didn’t have the skills to do it well?
First time film makers often say to me “we’ll get a good DOP (Director of Photography) in to help” and I always think this is a terrible idea, as the film will become the DOP’s film, and they will be shooting their showreel rather than your movie. The film industry is built on long-term professional relationships and it’s much better to find a DOP at a similar place in their career as you and learn and move forward together as a team.
Being a director can be physically hard, long days on set, working weekends and holidays, I am always the first on set, I like to sit there and think and walk through the action without the actors and work out where I am putting the camera (if I haven’t already with storyboards, shot lists and camera plans) what lenses and what grip kit is required, whilst everyone is getting ready and so as soon as the actors arrive on set I know what I want to do with them and how I am going to block the scene (and where the tea is).
Most (not all) of directors say that the best bit of directing, the bit they love the most, is ‘being on set’ but only spend a fraction of their working lives there. An average feature film in the UK shoots for five-six weeks (25-30 actual shooting days on set), and if they are lucky they get to do a feature film every other year. There are approximately 250 working days in a year so that’s a very small percentage of your working life doing the actual thing you have spent your life working to achieve. Andrea Arnold, for example is considered a ‘prolific director’ by the media and has directed 4 films in 10 years.
Either way the casualty rate is high. It’s an endlessly frustrating career with so many ‘Nos’ and negative responses it’s a wonder we ever make anything. You really do have to get used to rejection, even world famous feature film directors like Terry Gilliam can have difficulty getting movies off the ground and can be stuck in ‘development hell’ for years.
Another negative of directing is facing the inevitable post shoot blues, when you know you’ll crash and burn the day after a long shoot finishes and all these wonderful people who have become like family and friends will disappear like ghosts into your past and on to their next movie whilst you are left to face a post production mountain almost alone.
Making Black Flowers
On May the 16th I will have the UK premiere of my fourth feature film: the female led post apocalyptic sci-fi Black Flowers which I filmed in California and Montana last year.
After three low budget indy films in the UK, Death, The Search for Simon and The Gatehouse, I wanted to do something different so I went to the USA all on my own to find a crew and a cast and make a movie. It was a fascinating adventure, and I wanted to ‘wipe the slate clean’ and do a brand new movie in fantastic locations with a positive crew – as with a positive and enthusiastic crew you can achieve almost anything. I travelled to Mount Shasta where I had worked 25 years previously for the US Forest Service and visited some incredible locations. I teamed up with Actor/Producer Krista DeMille from New York, who I met at Sundance film festival but had never actually worked with before. And we made a plan…
Cut to: a few months later we were on set shooting in North California and Montana, with help form the Montana Film Board. It was amazing how helpful the Montana Film Board were, as I had never had any support form a professional body in my entire career! The shoot was a dream, with wonderful actors, amazing locations, fantastic weather and it felt like the film gods were on our side. The film was mostly set outside and everyday we were under the sun all day long.
Filming was going well, until our Production Manager called me to say the company credit card was not working, flights for actors flying in from LA had been cancelled, and everything was going wrong. It was 7am on a shooting day, so I called the bank in the UK from Bozeman, Montana and asked what was going on. They said they had detected fraudulent activity on my account, and had cancelled all my cards. “Where did this fraudulent activity occur,” I asked becoming suspicious, “Montana,” they said. “That’s me, I’m in Montana filming a film.” I felt the fear crawl into my stomach and die like a stone slug. “Don’t worry Mr Gooch,” they said, “we are sending you a new card.” “Where to?” “Your office.” “Ah,” I said, “that’s in London and I’m in Montana. Do you see how this is a problem?” I said. They didn’t.
It was a disaster and we lost most of the days filming (which cost huge amount, as we had to pick up the day later in the schedule, and was damaging to the on-set morale), Luckily I have two business accounts and we eventually managed to transfer the money and access it that way. It’s a strange feeling watching your shoot collapse around you.
As an indie director you will have your fingers in many pies, you might be involved with the finance of the film, actively seeking finance and have to deal with investors directly, who can be nice but also very nasty if the film doesn’t make a profit in good time. You might be involved with many other departments to help cut costs and save money for the screen. You might even end up pushing a huge petrol driven generator across a muddy icy field at night like something out of the Somme.
But once you get to a level of directing where you can just direct, and someone else raises the money, and there are people who do all the muddy pushing for you, and you can concentrate on pure directing there is often a trade off: That the script is set in stone and cannot be changed (for better or for worse) and you will have a cast iron schedule that if you don’t hit, people will ask why. I’ve worked on many productions where getting the scenes shot was more important than shooting good quality stuff. But then if you take the King’s shilling…
So why do we do it? Because when it’s good it’s absolutely brilliant: the sense of satisfaction that days or months or even years of planning have come together to make something unique that has never been captured on film (or pixel) before, to work with people who take huge pride in their work and the opportunity to work with experts in their field to create something new, and exciting and (hopefully) have fun doing it.
To have been able to direct an actor to a great performance or achieve something visually arresting and engaging and tell a tale well, is a wonderful feeling and my drug of choice. To bring a team of people together and create the best environment for them to do their best work is a wonderful feeling.
Happy faces on set from people who feel they have done a good days work is awesome.
After 26 years in the industry and over 1000 days on set I still love it but I thought I’d ask some of my fellow directors on why they stick at directing through thick and thin. What is special about it? What makes a director tick?
I asked some fellow directors “Why do we go on?”
“It’s painful, viscerally discomforting, it makes you sick physically and mentally. And yet we return to the set, like it’s the last place on earth we’d want to be. The first thing that came to mind, when I’ve asked myself “why another film” was the last scene from Nickelodeon of Peter Bogdanovici. An exhausted cast and crew are driving away from their last premiere, which took all they had to make it happen. From the car window they see a film set in the distance, and the car stops as they can’t take their eyes away. Finally, they intentionally miss their turn and go in the opposite direction, where the new film set develops.
I believe the desire for filmmaking is primal. One cannot choose to do it, but she’s rather possessed by it, and there’s no other choice for doing anything else. It is the choice of a language, which uses the image as alphabet and which without we cannot fully express ourselves. It’s dependency, obsession and violent passion which most of the time makes up for no personal life. And to which we always come back, grateful to be there again. Like I said, we never had a choice.”
“I keep doing it because I love it. Every project is different, and each project teaches me new things. And also, something which I’m appreciating more and more – I really like the people in the industry. I genuinely respect almost all of the cast, crew, producers and execs I’ve ever worked with, which makes me really happy. We’re all consistently trying our hardest to work together to create the very best stuff we can – what could be better than that?!”
Recently I was told at a screening that there is a consistent “line of enquiry” through my work. Interesting to hear but very difficult to say what this in a nutshell, especially when it is your own films. Whatever that impulse is, I think it is the push to experiment and evolve with different ways of telling stories which has kept me moving forward. Currently I am in post on my third feature. I work in painterly hand drawn animation, 3d computer animation, pure live action drama and mixed permutations of all three. An advantage is that evolving technique and storytelling in CGI will add a new light on my approach to live action. Changing your tools will keep your work fresh: switching gears in different ways to tell stories. Moving from short form to features is a lot to do with getting used to the bigger canvas. And it’s very much about planning the production so you balance the necessity of delegating some creative choices with maintaining overall control. Being a director is about being continually present from pre-production through to post. How that works is a matter of personal style. One way can be about setting up “happy accidents” and allowing things to happen. Another can be working to a very controlled blueprint that is tightly storyboarded with low shooting ratios. I find it helps to continue experimenting and developing with short form and artwork. This creates fresh inspiration for features, outside of the immediate pressures of dealing with a much bigger project. Basically it’s good to not get locked into one production method and “keep gigging”.
Before I went off to Montana to shoot Black Flowers, my amazing clever girlfriend Alex said, “you don’t have to do this, you know.” But in a way I don’t feel I have a choice.
Mountaineers when asked why they climb a mountain will say: “because it’s there.” With film making it is because the mountain isn’t there. And there will be at last half a dozen invisible mountains in a row all of which have to be scaled before the film is complete.
But when you’ve finished the movie you’ll look back and see a row of scaled mountains behind you and feel good.
Next time when someone asks me why I make movies, I’ll say because they aren’t there, and reach for my climbing gear.
Tickets on sale for the UK premiere of Black Flowers on 16th May from The Prince Charles Website are on sale now.