There’s no easy way to make a film. The process is incredibly long and complex with a thousand unmarked pitfalls along the way. Sometimes you learn by falling into them. Sometimes you learn by having someone else point them out to you. Which is why we called our friend Adrienne Weiss, an accomplished filmmaker and coach who’s spent the past decade teaching up-and-coming directors at NYU and Columbia. What advice did she have for directors, we wondered. What did she wish someone had told her?
Below are Adrienne’s 7 tips for directors. They won’t make the filmmaking process easy. But they might make it easier.
It takes incredible effort to make a great feature film or documentary. So make sure you choose a story or subject that is deeply engaging to you. This will fuel you as you go through multiple drafts of the script, seemingly endless hoops to raise money, and myriad production and post-production logistics. If you care, if the film is special to you, it will sustain you and it will resonate with other people.
If you look at the great filmmakers in the world, people like Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) or Maren Ade (Toni Erdmann) or Martin Scorsese, they bring such fire and enthusiasm to their films. You have to fully believe in your film to nurture it into production over so many years. Norman Jewison came to talk to my class when I taught at NYU. He was in his eighties at the time, and he’d directed so many seminal movies. One of his most famous was In the Heat of the Night. The film stars Sidney Poitier as a homicide detective from Philadelphia, and Rod Steiger as a bigoted white sheriff in Sparta, Mississippi, in the mid-60s.
Anyway, there’s this moment at the end of the film when Poitier is getting on the train to leave, and Steiger carries Poitier’s bag for him. It’s one of the most powerful moments in the film: the bigoted white sheriff having transformed to the point where he wants to carry the black man’s bag. When Norman Jewison described the scene to my class, it was as if he’d just finished production last month. He described the scene in incredible, dramatic detail. It was amazing. Even 35 years after directing that movie, that moment was no less fresh for him, no less exciting. I learned a big lesson that day.
This happens in filmmaking all the time. People jump into a project very quickly. They throw a script together, rush into production, and then the next thing they know they’re saying, “Wait a minute. This doesn’t work. This isn’t that interesting,” and the production starts to run out of gas. It probably sounds weird, but it’s actually much easier to get the money and crew together and shoot a movie, than it is to take an idea and properly develop it.
I was reading a Buddhist book recently, and there was this great phrase in it, “Make haste slowly.” In other words, the best way to achieve your goals is to take time to accomplish them properly.
Once you have your story that you’re convinced you want to marry — and it’s not just a one-night stand — choose collaborators who are as passionate about it and as engaged with it and as reliable as you are.
One of the harmful myths of movie making — which anybody who makes films knows isn’t true — is that the director is the most important part of the production. Clearly the director is a central role and brings special things to the table that nobody else can bring. But filmmaking is an interdependent arising. To make a film, you need so many different people who each bring their own skill set. And the process of choosing those people is absolutely essential to the experience of making the movie and, ultimately, its quality.
A lot of newer directors have the attitude, I don’t need to prepare; I’m just going to be inspired in the moment! As a result, they often end up creating problems for the people they work with. Preparation — at every stage of the production — is vital to the success of a film.
One of my favorite artistic aphorisms comes from French filmmaker Robert Bresson’s book, Notes On Cinematography. He wrote: “Dig deep where you are. Don’t slip off elsewhere. Double, triple to the bottom of things.” Most people develop something a little and then “slip off elsewhere,” instead of digging into a single idea or task until they have a thorough understanding of it.
Once you get the hang of it, digging deep is way more fun. For example, collaborating with your key department heads in developing a consistent visual approach to your movie. Consistency of tone is so important. It’s what defines a great filmmaker. Think of Moonlight. Its tone is unmistakable and incredibly consistent. That did not happen by accident. Every choice contributes to the organic integrity of the piece.
Sidney Lumet once said: “Praise others when things go well, take responsibility when things are tough, and above all, make sure that everyone, from grip to composer, is working on the same movie.” Every person brought on board needs to get the material, to get why you’re passionate about it, to get equally excited about it, and to have talents that you don’t have. They also must be absolutely reliable.
Another common myth about directors is that they are the king or queen, and everyone else is there to serve them. To me, that is completely antithetical to the process of filmmaking. A good director is a servant to the project.
The director’s energy influences everything else. How you treat people, your behavior — it’s all going to ripple out and impact everyone. So this is an incredible opportunity to create harmony for people, to create joy for people, to create love for people, to create artistic fulfillment for people. And it’s totally up to the director. If you act like an asshole, then the cast and crew are going to be running around and reacting to that instead of collaborating with you. People don’t do their best work when the director is angry or depressed or anxious. It’s up to the director to define the tone of the experience for everyone.
This is a simple, practical thing: greet everyone warmly at the beginning of the day, and say thank you to everyone at the end of the day. It’s an important part of setting the tone for your working relationship. If you come in with a bad mood, it’s like a drop of food coloring in a glass of water. It’s going to change everything. But if you take the time to be present with people, it rubs off. I personally like physical contact. If you shake someone’s hand or give them a hug or even touch them on the shoulder, then that becomes “Oh, we’re actually present here together.” I’m a human being; they’re a human being.
I know it’s radical, but I believe it’s important to limit phone usage whenever people are working. When people’s noses are buried in their phones, it creates a major block to human connection that affects every aspect of the work — not to mention the experience of our lives.
I also believe it’s important to always see the potential in others. Being a director is, in many ways, being a manager. And that means you should seek to bring out the best in your cast and crew. If you’re having a problem with someone, it’s easy to go negative. Too often when there’s a problem, you think, I’m gonna do something about it! And then you fly off the handle. But if you first say, “Hey, what’s going on? Can we talk about this?” it allows you to understand what’s happening, and it opens the door to a shared solution.
Not everyone who’s making movies actually enjoys the process. A lot of directors and crews give in to the stress and pressure, and they just live in that state while making the film. First of all, that kind of attitude kills enjoyment. But from a purely practical standpoint, anxiety makes it harder to make decisions. And a director’s day is filled with decisions.
I believe a director is better off seeing the intention of: May this film bring benefit into the world. When we have an intention to benefit others, we can shed the demands and worries of the ego. It all comes back to “Why am I doing this?” If you want to tell a story that will make people laugh or think or feel — or maybe bring them something they haven’t seen before — it’s easier to surrender to the needs of the project rather than the needs of your ego. But if you’re thinking, I’m making this movie because I have to prove I’m a genius — in other words, if it’s all about you — then you’re setting up yourself, and everyone else, for a negative experience.
That’s part of the myth of the artist. And, sadly, I think a lot of people — a lot of artists — live that way. But it doesn’t make them happy. History is filled with great artists who were miserable and made everyone else miserable — even if they produced genius work. I firmly believe you can be happy and do great work. And the people who do that are the ones I admire the most.
One thing that really helps me stay in the moment and enjoy it is to remember that I’m definitely going to die and I don’t know when. I could die many years from now. I could die in a few moments. Nothing is certain and we never know how long we’ll have with the people in our life. When I remember that, it helps me appreciate whatever is happening at a given moment. Once that moment is gone, we can never have it again. Remembering that every moment is precious and fleeting is one of the very best ways to stay grateful and happy. It’s not only the best mind-set to be in when you’re directing, but it’s the best mind-set to stay in, period.
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