Zack is a filmmaker, YouTuber, and creator/host of the webseries “We Have A Show.” He has a MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University. Here he discusses directing techniques for indie filmmakers…some he learned in school, and some he learned the hard way.
Hi all! This is my first column on Stareable! So thanks a ton for checking this out. I was curious about what to write, and figured it’s always best to start at the beginning. Not like the beginning of time or the uber-basic “what is filmmaking” stuff, but rather, things that I learned on the first day of film school. Now many of you might be thinking, “Hold the phone, this is a DIY indie filmmaker’s site, what’s up with this ‘school’ thing?” I’ve done countless panels and discussions about the “film school vs. no school” thing ad infinitum, and I’m sure one day here we’ll get to that. (I actually discuss it in this vlog I made, HERE). So rather than diving into the philosophical differences among those seeking to best improve their filmmaking skills, I think it would be a good way to start this column off just by sharing pieces of candid advice we received on our very first day; a bullet list straight out of the first page in my notebook.
Columbia’s film school is a masters program, and on day one we hit the ground running. Over the summer, the students in the year ahead of us were shooting their end-of-first-year films, and coincidently (on purpose), they presented their work to the faculty for critique just as we finished orientation. So all of us sat in a room and watched these, honestly, incredible projects. It was so intimidating. I went in straight out of undergrad, so I was the baby of my year, and nothing I made prior ever looked anywhere near remotely as good as these films were. And then one by one, they all got roasted. Like hard, brutally honest critique. But it was all good things to be hearing. Maybe that’s the Stockholm syndrome in me talking, but regardless, the following list was the first set of notes I ever took in film school. And I find myself still looking back on this list every now and then. None of them are things that will blow your mind or revolutionize your perspective on the craft. But all of them are things that I like to keep in mind when I’m on set.
A still from the set of my thesis film, “Everything’s Fine: A Panic Attack in D Major”
• Do not let your character off the hook. Force them to make a choice.
• Give the lead character control of the decision-making.
• Consider the power of a non-verbal exchange of power within a moment.
• Know the world you are shooting in.
• Prep early.
• Shoot local.
• A character’s action needs to be justified by what we know about the character.
• “Who they are” happens before “what they do.”
• Don’t argue with critique. That’s why you’re here.
• Raise the stakes. Read my lips…“Bigger.”
• Proportional stakes: If yes, X happens = If no, Y happens. X should always be equal to Y in scope.
• Know your meat and potatoes.
• The greatest asset for a director is a low threshold for boredom.
• “Raise the curtain late and lower it early.” ~Francis Ford Coppola.
• Know your character’s thru-line.
• Raise the stakes of relationship dynamics. Character A likes X. Character B hates X.
• You can have black and white, but you cannot have grey.
• Fuck grey!
• If you’re sitting down to fight, pour your enemy a glass of wine before ripping their head off.
• This moment will not happen again, so capture it!
• Create tension by leading to a reveal, or reveal the problem immediately to create tension; commit to one.
• If you’re unhappy w/ the results of a story, vent on paper and then let it go. Then roll up your sleeves and see what the Film Gods offer you.
• The dialogue is never the primary channel for tension.
• A film should be able to be watched silent without losing the conflict.
• Do not cut corners on set. You will hate yourself later.
• FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, SLATE YOUR FOOTAGE PROPERLY.
• The “yes/no” story is not enough. There always needs to be a third force.
• Your story is not the one you have in your head; it’s the one the audience sees.
• There are beats that build up to panic.
• Be consistent and deliberate with camera choices.
• You never want to confuse the audience. Misdirection is completely different.
• If you are going to do a high concept/fantasy project, have characters deeply founded in reality.
• Don’t be ambiguous.
• If you must be ambiguous, have a concrete answer w/ deliberate clues to justify that answer. At least in your own head.
• The most important moments are silent.
Yea, like I said, nothing mind-blowing. BUT, isn’t it those tiny details that help us make better stories? What I find often in Indie Film Land—and by the transitive property, Web Series Land—is not a lack of technical prowess. It’s 2018 and the democratization of filmmaking via the 5D Mark II and the entire subsequent “prosumer” cinema camera industry is the greatest thing to ever happen to filmmaking since Thomas Edison invented the whole thing (in New Jersey I might add!). There are so many high-quality projects nowadays, and it’s amazing to see all that talent being put to use. No, the problem areas I find most often, in my own work especially, as well as my peers; is story.
Drama = (Characters + Choices + Conflict) x Time.
I think part of it is that sometimes, often too often, we are too under-staffed, too over-budget, and too out-of-time to really dig into any one single project, or even one single scene. I make a sketch comedy show, and too often, half the material is throw-away because we didn’t have time to develop strong characters, and strong character WANTS to raise the stakes of the comedy. I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to get grilled over notes like this for the last few years, and I think at the end of the day, having strong characters with clear wants can, in my opinion, solve almost-every problem you will ever encounter on set.