Originally published on Backstage
If you want to be a director, then you need to know how to make movies. And I mean you need to know everything you can about what goes into making one.
Directors carry the vision of the entire project from beginning to end. They need to know what every crew position entails, know how to communicate clearly with their actors, rely on their AD and DP, and set the tone on set by having a positive attitude — even when they’re exhausted.
Knowing the technical side
Even if you’ve never been a Sound Mixer, Boom Op, Camera Op, Gaffer etc, if you want to be a great director, it’s good to at least have an awareness of what these jobs entail. It will give you a better understanding of the dynamics on set and help you plan with your AD how much time you can spend on each setup and scene.
But more than that, I think it helps to make your crew feel valued individually.
So many times we see this in the Behind The Scenes footage when the cast and crew are talking about why the director is awesome, it’s because the director has seen what they’re doing and taken time to acknowledge it. Whether it’s a quick inside joke about a specific piece of equipment, or a thumbs up that you see how hard they’re working. Acknowledge it and you’ll find they want to work harder for you.
Understanding the story
Every part of a film is adding to the story, from the cast to the costumes and shots. You as the director need to know not just the surface of the story, but the subtext of what’s going on.
Subtext in a scene gives more weight to what we’d perceive as a boring scene. One of the most famous scenes for subtext comes from the end of When Harry Met Sally. (Spoiler Alert!) Harry has just confessed his love to Sally and instead of saying, “I love you too” she says, “[…] I hate you Harry, I really hate you.” It’s up to you and the actors to communicate those lines with the subtext of “I love you too.”
But it doesn’t stop there, you need to know the exact angle of a shot that’s going to add to the story. For example, if you’ve got a high angle looking down on a character, this is often used to make this character look small or weak. Is that going to help tell the story, or do you need to work with the DP to communicate something different?
This same principle must be applied with every department on set and while there are teams of people making sure to bring this to life, it must be something you communicate first so that they can carry it through. You’re the visionary.
If you act enthusiastic, you’ll become enthusiastic
To really have an X-factor as a director people want to work with again and again, you need to maintain your passion for the project even when you don’t feel it.
Several years ago, I directed a short film during the international 48 hour film festival once where I really had to keep this in mind. I’d stayed up into the wee hours helping to write the film, only to turn around within hours to shoot the short film, I was walking on a high because I loved our story and the pressure of creating under a time crunch.
After we wrapped, I went home to get some much needed rest while our editor took over and edited into the night. When I joined them around 1 AM to see how things were looking, it was difficult to see the polished film under layers of horrible audio, the awkward rough cut, and lack of musical tension.
Between the lack of sleep, dehydration and stress, I wanted to just curl in a bawl and cry. I didn’t think we were gonna get a great film together and I thought I was a failure. But I knew that my team was still looking to me to get it finished.
If I’d bowed to my emotions the project and more importantly my team would have suffered. And who knows how many of them would have wanted to work with me again.
Instead, I took a minute in the bathroom to corral my emotions and went back out to support my team. The whole time I clung to the above phrase from Dale Carnegie and that old film adage about there being no excuses in filmmaking – you make it work no matter what.
A splinter unit did reshoots while our editor kept working. I encouraged everyone in the work they’d done so far, told jokes, and pointed out the “awesomeness” of what we were getting to do. The more animated I became, the more my team rose to the occasion.
In the end, I learned a valuable lesson as a director and leader, my team rallied when I kept our moral up. And that came about when I maintained a healthy and positive attitude. It was infectious.
The most important thing to keep in mind for those wanting to be a director is to inspire the community of filmmakers and actors you work with, the more you do this, the more people will want to work with you again in the future.