Things I Learned About Being a Director…After Directing My First Film

It’s been nearly a year since I put the final touches on my first film. A year since I decided to quit my job to write and be an artist fulltime. A year since I decided to face the financial unknown in the pursuit of doing what brings me the most joy, for all of the minutes of each day. It feels like just yesterday that the CMO (that’s chief marketing officer for folks outside of the corporate realm) was helping me into my Uber, with my dog and desk chachkies tucked under each arm. And now here we are, with directors around the world wondering when they’ll be behind the camera again.

I’ll say this for our current health crisis – I’ve had a lot of time to think. Despite starting a new job a few months ago that has reclaimed those 50+ hours per week I gained when stepping away from my career last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to move forward while hunkered down for several more months (in California, anyway). A few of the projects I wrote while on hiatus I’d really like to direct. And acceptance that a return to normalcy (whatever that means) isn’t at all on the table until a vaccine has been developed, has evoked an overwhelming desire for preparedness. Not from a place of stockpiling toilet paper or filling our pantry, but from a place of wanting to be ready when we’re able to collaborate in person again.

I learned so much about directing while on set, and even more while cutting and finishing my film. Looking back, I leveraged every resource I had to try and prepare to support our cast, and some of it was helpful. I enrolled in classes, conferences and seminars here in LA. I attended lectures delivered by accomplished directors. I did Ron Howard’s masterclass online (which, in retrospect, I would highly recommend Judd Apatow’s instead). I met with friends who have produced films and asked lots of questions. I asked around to try and get myself on set to shadow a director, to no avail, so instead stalked Jimmy Kimmel’s team around Hollywood as they shot silly segments for his show (luckily, they happened to film near my office). I held a table read with actors in LA and flew to Vancouver (where we shot the film) to have a table read with our cast. I created detailed shot lists and met with my DP to talk about what I was envisioning. Yet, none of this prepared me for what it takes to bring a story to visual form. And certainly, none of this helped me to prepare for how to work with actors.

So, if you’re preparing to direct your first film while we wait until it’s safe to do so, here’s some things I intend to do next time around that anybody can do from the comfort of their own quarantine bubble:

  • Analyze your favorite performances – watch films of a similar genre and make note of all the things you like. Every director I’ve heard speak has referenced how they were influenced by other directors and sometimes lifted the techniques of their fellow filmmakers.
  • Create a visual shot list – in addition to the detailed shot list you’ll provide to your camera department, use imagery to explain your vision, provide inspiration and examples to your DP. Pinterest is a useful tool for finding film stills and scene shots.
  • Beef up your character breakdown – dive a bit deeper into the motivations and obstacles each character is facing, but give your actors the space to create, try different variations and own their performance.
  • Create a scene breakdown – this will help explain the tone, what the characters might be thinking if there’s minimal dialogue, and help your actors feel immersed in the world you’re trying to create.
  • Virtual table reads – I can’t stress enough how helpful table reads are when you’re in pre-production, as this will help to refine your dialogue and make it sound more human. It’s also a forum for your actors to float ideas around how to deliver their performance and see the story come to life in its entirety.
  • Virtual rehearsals – if you’re on a tight indie budget, rehearsals with your cast are kind of a luxury, but quarantine or not, try doing it virtually. Google Hangout works well as the camera automatically switches to whomever is speaking.
  • Virtual meetings with your DP – review the shot list and scene breakdown, capture his or her feedback, ideas and input and adjust accordingly – this is the person in charge of the visuals of your film and your key collaborator!
  • Don’t let the minutiae of pre-production overshadow your creative process – if you’re also producing your film (like I did while working full time), it’s easy to let the many moving pieces of production suck up all your energy. Allocate time to ideate and prepare creatively as well.

When I look back to shooting our first scene, and literally not knowing when to say action or cut, to our final day of filming and feeling much more comfortable in my role, it goes without saying – directing is something you can really only learn by doing. Surround yourself with a great crew, be positive, be open and willing to pivot and above all else, make your actors feel safe and supported.

Any directors out there with additional advice, please share in the comments!

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Everything I Learned as a First-time Filmmaker

Production on my first film wrapped nearly 3 months ago, and it’s taken me this long to sit down and reflect and put into words how it all felt. Not a necessary ritual of course, but it’s how I process things. The swirl of emotion isn’t as raw all these weeks later, but strange things stand out about that day. Like the vibrant colors of the autumn leaves and the rain that waited until the exact moment we packed up to leave our final location. My husband stuffing my pockets with heat packs to then give to our freezing actors. Uttering the words “that’s a wrap,” something my crew had to prompt me to do because the rookie director forgot.

I’m writing this from my favorite cafe in Topanga Canyon. The last time I came here to write, I was knees deep in pre-production, sifting through dozens of emails from prospective assistant directors and lighting techs. I wish I could go back in time for one minute to assure myself that everything would work out better than we ever dreamed it would. But that’s all part of the journey, isn’t it? Venturing into the unknown and all of the anxiety and self-soothing by way of chardonnay that comes with it.

I didn’t go to film school. I studied business and have maneuvered my way around an endless list of corporations over the past two decades. I didn’t know the first thing about producing or directing, but I do know what hard works looks like. I know how to listen and collaborate with people and be completely open to failing. I know what it’s like to work long hours, manage large-scale projects and stay within budget. So I suppose my day job prepared me for the hustle that’s required in indie filmmaking. But I never could have prepared for what the experience would actually feel like. Film school or not, you kind of have to jump in and absorb all the learnings you can. Sink or swim, as they say.

Whether you’re a first-timer like me, or you’ve been at it for a while, here’s my list of personal anecdotes I hope are helpful to someone out there, just as all the hundreds of film blogs and articles I devoured were for me.

Do it yourself. To quote writer/director/producer Paul Haggis, “Please don’t ask me to read your script; what’s important is that YOU believe in it.” I wrote, produced, directed, self-funded and co-casted my film (on top of maintaining my day job) and while I’ve never worked so fucking hard in all my existence, I’m proud to say I made it happen. You don’t need to wait until someone else believes in your project. Get out there and get it done.

Invest in a talented crew. If you’re indie, your budget is undoubtedly tight. I feel you. But, as our brilliant cinematographer reinforced, the only way to successfully make your days is to invest in your team. If you have friends and family who work in film who are open to joining your crew, all the better! That was the case for me and I am forever grateful.

Leverage your personal network. Per above, I was fortunate to fill some of the spots on my crew with friends and family. But remember, not all roles require a background in film. My husband and dad were exceptional PAs/pedestrian traffic facilitators. My mom catered craft services. All of our background actors were friends and family. A friend designed our storyboards while another — who has a background in entertainment — helped me hold auditions and source our cast. More friends helped set up and tear down our set. It takes a god damn village, so don’t be afraid to ask for some help.

Ask questions and be vulnerable. Again, leaning on my personal network, I set up informational meetings with friends of friends who worked in film and production and made no secret of my lack of experience. Don’t be afraid to ask what may seem like basic questions. Be prepared and be mindful of people’s time. And say thank you!

Communicate your vision clearly. I can’t stress the value of over-preparing enough. Create your shot lists well in advance and get feedback from your DP and your editor. Speak simply and succinctly when rehearsing a scene. Provide crystal clear feedback to your actors and balance your feedback with praise, pointing out everything that worked. Film sets are no place for the longwinded, and thankfully, that is not a verbal ailment I suffer from.

Be open to feedback and pivoting. The one thing you can count on in filmmaking is last minute changes. Things will shift to accommodate timing or logistics or a million other constraints you may be facing. We shot in a tiny 16×20 storefront for 2 full days, so I know what I’m talking about. Be fluid and be open, as sometimes an unexpected pivot can lead to a better outcome.

Theater actors make great film actors. This life-changing advice came from a few different sources. One, writer/director Sean Baker, who suggested tapping in to the theater community to source your cast during a Film Independent panel discussion. A few months later, an actor and friend of a friend (thank you personal network!) suggested the same thing, specifically a theater program in Vancouver where I sourced three of our actors.

Most of all, be present. Those 14-hour days go by quickly so try and take a moment to really absorb what’s happening. I’ll quote one more director, Greta Gerwig, who I saw speak while we were in pre-production and these words permeated my subconscious throughout production.

“You only get to not know what you’re doing once. Don’t miss it, because it’s incredibly powerful.”

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Taking Direction from Great Directors

A little over a year ago, I was sitting in my usual perch leading up to the Academy Awards — the wine bar in my favorite LA theater – taking in all the nominated films, as any film geek does. As I was settling my bill a familiar face floated by, en route to a photo op before ducking into a closed event for directors (working and aspiring). It was Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild, Big Little Lies), my bartender confirmed, mispronouncing his name as only an American can.

I watched as film folks flooded the entrance to the theater, a steady stream of political graphic tees, unintentional fashion statements and tote bags with the quotes of great writers. A crass generalization but befitting of future storytellers. I admired them but never in a million years did I see myself among them. I’m much more comfortable lurking in the back of a dark bar or café awash in the glow of my laptop, trying to make sense of the stories that swirl in my head. Screenwriter, maybe. Director, no fucking way.

Then I wrote something that started out as a gift to a friend and morphed into a sweet little short that won some awards and suddenly hiding behind my laptop wasn’t enough. I’ve been to numerous live reads, lectures and film festivals and interviewed enough screenwriters to know that the chances of having your material made into a film are microscopic. If you want to get it made, in most cases, you have to figure out how to do it yourself.

This year, I registered for those director events. I met people who are just as terrified as I am to direct their first film. I mopped up as much creative energy, advice and inspiration as I could manage. I was reminded that every director was a first-time director at some point, as Greta Gerwig so aptly put it “you only get to not know what you’re doing once. Don’t miss it. Because it’s incredibly powerful.”

Some other helpful tips I picked up at Film Independent’s 2018 Directors Close-Up series:

  • Consider casting theater actors, particularly if you’re on an indie budget
  • When directing, have the actors envision something that will help strike the right emotion or reaction
  • If you’re shooting on location and intend to work with local talent (as I do), set up auditions via Skype or Google Hangout
  • Sometimes, for smaller parts particularly with children, consider casting amateurs
  • SoundCloud is an excellent resource for scoring your film, as it has a wealth of unsigned artists with original content
  • “Work with what the actors have. Find what they have in them and exploit it.” – Ava DuVernay

Without sounding too corny or rom-com (which is, ironically, the genre of my short) I always find the most bizarre signs present themselves when you need a little bit of cosmic encouragement to keep going.

Josh and Ben Safdie (Good Time) were panelists during one of the director events, and they were talking about sound mixing and used “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” by the Beatles as an example of isolating vocals. Lucy in the Sky is the working title of the feature I’m currently writing. The fuck.

Then one night after work, I ducked into this little Russian floral shop, not because I was in the market for flowers but because it was freezing and my Uber was taking forever. I’ve never seen so many red roses in my life (is that a Russian thing?), literally the only thing these crusty old guys were selling was roses. Save one single bucket full of white hydrangea, which is a reoccurring prop in my film. Okay, universe, I hear you.

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