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.
Howdy boys and girls! It’s Tuesday, and that means I’m back with another blog post. Today I want to talk about a topic that seems pretty straightforward: How to be a better director. I know–I realize that’s kinda why we’re all here on Stareable. We are all trying to make better work. But I find that a lot of times, rookie filmmakers tend to equate directing chops to using the best, most expensive cameras; and when talking shop devolves into the “what camera do you use” conversation, it drives me crazy.
Obviously, the gear we use is an important part of the equation. Naturally, we can’t make the thing without it. But remember, no one cares. Think about any movie you have ever watched, ever, not including found footage stuff where the camera is a character or anything like that. Have you ever once asked yourself “what camera did they use?” Most likely not. Technology is so great now that you can get a pretty good image with just about anything. And to actually talk about found footage stuff for a moment: your 5D probably makes a prettier picture than whatever camcorder they used, and Blair Witch is still terrifying regardless. A camera is just a tool. Like a paintbrush for an artist. Don’t ever forget that.
So let’s put all of that aside for a moment. Because as the director, your job is so much more than that. You’re the captain of the ship, and they are many more things that you have to do well than simply make sure the engine is running. Here are a couple tips on ways to be a better director that have absolutely nothing to do whatsoever with touching a camera.
- The 9 P’s.
- Say “Yes, and!”
- Schedule play time.
- Feed your crew well.
- Be happy.
I always work with a DP. While learning to communicate exactly what you want to someone is certainly difficult, I find that in the long run it liberates your brain from having to deal with too many things. Plus, a good collaboration with a DP will unlock greater potential for your project. 1 + 1 = 3.
The 9 P’s
I didn’t make this one up. I wish I did, because honestly it’s brilliant. I forget who I heard it from or where I was when I heard it. But the “9 P’s” stand for PROPERLY PLANNED PRE-PRODUCTION PREVENTS PISS-POOR POST PRODUCTION. Which, like a lot of other things, sounds pretty obvious. Like duh. Of course it does. But you can never be too prepared. Murphy’s Law is ALWAYS going to strike, and things are ALWAYS going to go wrong on set. The better prepared you are ahead of time (i.e. make sure you work with a good producer and a good AD), the better your overall project is going to be. Because let’s face it: there is no such thing as “fixing it in post.” Did you make a shotlist? Did you make a floorplan? Did you do a tech scout to figure out where all the outlets are in the room? Where holding and crafty is going to go? Every little thing that takes a couple seconds on set to figure out is a moment of lost time. And you only have 12 hours in a day.
Say "Yes, and!"
Where are my improv people? You know what I’m talking about. Two years ago I sat in on a lecture from Ali Reza Farahnakian (he founded the People’s Improv Theater in New York), and he blew my mind by talking about how one can utilize the rules of improv in your daily life and your work. And he’s so right, especially in filmmaking. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the term “yes, and” is used to describe how an improv scene is constructed. One person presents an idea, and the other interprets that idea and adds upon it. What the scene partner shouldn’t do is reject that person’s idea. That’s kinda how you as the director needs to act. I’m not saying you need to accept input from every person on set. No. That would be chaos. But instead, consider the Film Gods to be your improv partner. When Murphy’s Law strikes, how are you going to respond? If your actors pull you aside and tell you that a scene’s not working for them, what are you going to do? As important as it is to have a plan, it’s also incredibly important to know when it is appropriate to throw the plan out and think on your feet. If you wrote your own script, you need to fire yourself as the writer when you put your director hat on. Because what you have on paper is never exactly the same thing you get in the can.
It’s organized chaos when you’re on set. You need to make sure you’re able to stay ahead of the curve. At the same time, you should be allowing yourself to enjoy the process.
Schedule Play Time
Filmmaking is a collaborative medium. Say it with me, “Filmmaking is a collaborative medium.” Yes, you’re the director. You’re the captain of the ship. But that ship isn’t going to stay afloat if your crew doesn’t enjoy the work they’re doing. That’s why I always try to schedule small moments of “play time” in as much of my projects as I can. This goes back to pre-production, because you can’t invent new hours to squeeze in before you hit meal penalty. Is there a “money shot” that your DP wants to spend extra time on? Is there a variation on a scene that your actors want to try? Giving your creative partners room to be creative is crucial. Sometimes, as the director, you just need to get out of the way, and let Bartlet be Bartlet. By doing so, you invite your collaborators to bring their ideas to the table, and let them know that you value their presence. It’s critical that you get what you absolutely need to get in order to make your day. BUT, after you have what you need in the can, open the room up. Let the actors make different choices. Encourage improvisation. Ask the DP if there’s a new set up we can discover in the moment. Be responsible with your time, but taking the reins off for a moment gives everyone room to breath and feel important. And you never know, sometimes someone else will have better ideas than you do.
Feed Your Crew Well
This should be the ultimate “it goes without saying” moment, but I can’t tell you the amount of times this is overlooked. Make sure you have a good, healthy variety of food on set. NO PIZZA. If you’re gonna do coffee and bagels, also have fruit and nuts. Warm food for lunch is super mega awesome. If budget only allows for cold sandwiches (cause sometimes the struggle is real), try having a hearty salad to go with it, or warm soup. Seltzer water is great. Have diet coke for the diet coke people. Save the chocolate for after lunch. Take the extra time and extra money to feed your crew well. Come hour 10 of a 12 hour day, everyone will be happy, and your will have a better project.
I played volleyball in high school and college. It’s the only sport where you have to be happy all the time. You have to be laughing, having a good time, or you’re going to do poorly. It’s not like football or like UBER RAGE SPORTS where you can channel your frustration into productivity. Filmmaking is the same way. Your mood as the director sets the tone for everyone involved. Because everyone wants to please you. They’re all here for your vision. If you can’t put on your happy face when you’re on set, then don’t show up. It’s ok to be frustrated. It’s ok to not like what you’re getting. But don’t let anyone else see that. Confide your anxieties and frustrations in your AD. Set is not a place to yell at others. The second you lose your cool, you lose your crew. Remember, as filmmakers, we are the luckiest people on the planet. We’ve been gifted with this amazing power to create worlds for an audience to explore. Remember what it was like as a kid seeing ET make Elliott’s bike fly? Or watching Indiana Jones save the day? YOU GET TO DO THAT! This is the coolest job in the world. At the end of the day, your film might not go the way you wanted it to. But sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. Enjoy the journey.