When I asked my colleagues (all former film school students) what they wish they’d done differently when they directed their first short film, none of them were at a loss for words or empathetic chuckles.
First-time directing is a painful experience, whether it’s the process of writing, planning, shooting, editing or watching the finished project. If you want your experience to be as painful as ours, just adopt the same thought processes we had and you’re guaranteed the same stress we had.
1. “As long as I have cool shots, I’m okay…”
As cool as any shot might be, they won’t save a bad story. Having an artistic vision is crucial, but you’ll make things extremely difficult for yourself if you neither love your story nor believe in it. It’ll be a drag finishing it, and if it is not important to you, why bother?
2. “We’ll see what happens when we get to set.”
Don’t underestimate the power of planning. One minute in pre-production saves 15 minutes in production. The more you plan in pre-production the easier it will be for everyone involved and you’ll get to spend time on the things requiring your attention on set.
3. “Who needs rehearsal anyway? I want my actor’s performance to be fresh.”
Rehearsal or even just a table read is crucial for the director. You get to hear how your lines sound out loud (and will probably want to make adjustments afterwards), the actors have a chance to ask questions about the story, you will know what kind of direction you need to prepare in order to get the performance you want.
As a director, you’re like a parent to your actors, developing individual approaches to the respective actor, because each of them work differently. Rehearsing gives you a chance to figure out your approach.
Rehearsal does not only apply to the actors. Your Director of Photography can sit in too and get a sense of your vision beforehand. It might even spark some creative ideas for effective shots and you’ll be on the same page.
Rehearsing also allows you to figure out how you can shoot difficult scenes including props falling, things crashing into each other or minor stunts.
4. “As long as I know every detail of what I’m doing, it’ll be okay.”
Don’t go down the road of micromanaging. If you’re the only one aware of what needs to happen and which shots need to be made, you’ll drive yourself and the crew crazy. Discuss everything with your AD and your DP, make sure you’re on the same page and communicate openly. The more anxious you are about your idea and your film, the less willing you’ll be to incorporate other ideas with the potential of improving your film substantially.
5. “I can do it alone.”
It lessens the pressure on your shoulders significantly if you trust your team and when they know you trust them in turn. During my film school, the teamwork aspect was drilled into us until it was coming out of our ears. But still, all of us had to suffer the consequences of our inability to put it into practice.
Collaborate with the creatives around you, share your vision with your team and use the resources around you.
6. “I know what I’m doing.”
While it’s crucial you put in as much preparation as you can, don’t worry about the fact you’re inexperienced. One of my colleagues mentioned his first-time directing went a lot better than his second time around because he was aware of the fact he didn’t know what he was doing. This forced him to be open and ask for help.
7. “Forget about the shot, just move on.”
Even though production is stressful and time is limited, don’t allow it to make you compromise your artistic vision. There is a tendency to try and get it done instead of sticking to your original plan. Many of my colleagues remember beating themselves up over a shot they knew they wanted, but didn’t end up getting because they didn’t trust themselves.
8. “Let the actors do their thing, and I’ll do mine.”
What I often notice in student short films are characters standing and talking in an empty space that’s meant to be a lived-in home. A simple tip is giving your actors something to do while they’re delivering their lines.
Whether it’s letting them fiddle with a teaspoon, or tidying up the house, or giving them a cup to drink from, any action will help make their performance more believable and help them shift their focus from their lines to their character.
You have a say in their acting because you’re the one carrying the artistic vision. Get feedback, ask them for ideas, give them ideas and don’t hold back because you think you might hurt their feelings.
9. “The audience will get the hint.”
A little set deck goes a long way. Fill the space to establish who your characters are. You have the power over what’s in the frame and what isn’t in the frame. If your characters are roaming around in the kitchen, fill the counter with dishes, takeaway menus, keys etc. Don’t let your audience wonder why the counter is so empty instead of paying attention to the story.
10. “My film is so bad, I’m an awful filmmaker.”
Most filmmakers have this experience after watching their first short film – and this is okay. Don’t beat yourself up and put too much pressure on yourself. It’s not going to be perfect, as long as the drive and the vision is there, you’re on the right track. It takes a while for your skill to reach the level of your taste.
This video clip never fails to encourage me when I’m disappointed in my own work.
As a filmmaker, and … by the way … as a human being in general, you’re prone to make mistakes. So don’t shy away from being a tenacious creative because of the possibility of mistakes.