There is so much good advice out there, but almost none of it sticks. For every thousand pieces of advice you get, you might remember one or two. But what does stick is significant. You can learn a lot about someone from the advice they’ve retained. And you can learn a lot from them too. For the past few months, we’ve been asking filmmakers what advice has stuck with them. Their answers were as varied as their work. But we noticed something: When advice does stick with someone, it becomes not just advice they remember, but advice they give. It becomes their advice. In other words, the best good advice becomes part of who you are. Maybe something below will do the same for you.
There’s something this old-school ad guy taught me that I now do with a lot of our projects. He has this “Why Test” he does with clients and himself. It’s an exercise to get down to the bottom of why something matters. All you do is ask why. You’re doing a spot about this and the story is going to be that. You ask yourself, Why? Well, the story matters to our market. Why? Because, I don’t know, they buy stuff. Why? Because we’re trying to sell stuff. Why? Because I want to support my family. And he keeps going until you get to something that matters. Then he’s like, “Okay, there you go, talk about that. That’s worth talking about.” Sometimes it’s incredibly annoying, but it always works. All of a sudden you say something you actually care about. “Let’s talk about that.”
At the end of the day, they were shuttling people back to the production hub, and there weren’t any seats left on the shuttle. So [Janusz] Kamiński was like, “I want to walk anyway.” So he started walking back by himself. And I was just like, Oh man, this is my chance. Go talk to him! This was right around the time Munich came out, which is one of my favorite things he’s done, and I had the LA Weekly with me that had Munich on the cover. So I ran after him and asked if I could walk with him. He was like, “Of course.” …
So we ended up walking together, and I was asking him stuff like, “In War of the Worlds, how did you do that 360 shot around the van?” All this technical shit, and I could tell he was actually enjoying it. We talked for 15, 20 minutes, and when we got near the production hub, I was like, “Do you mind giving me advice on one more question?” And he’s like, “Sure.” I said, “I’ve been out here for several months, and I’m starting to realize how hard it will be to become a director.” I told him I was debating continuing on my current path or going to film school. I told him I didn’t know which option was best. And he said, “Well, what do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to make films.” And he looked at me point blank and said, “Well then go make films.”
I sat there for a second like, “That’s it?” And then it hit me. If I wanted to do something, I just had to start doing it now. The simplicity of it was so profound. I’d made my career into some crazy equation, when really it was the most elementary of ideas. You need to make the projects you want to make. If you want to be a filmmaker, you have to go make films. I remember him saying, “Get your friends, go make films, do whatever it takes.” I’ve taken that advice with me everywhere since then. I have that LA Weekly he signed framed on my wall.
I love foreign cinema. My advice would be to watch as many films as you can that weren’t made in the United States.
I’m trying to think of anyone who has given us advice that we’ve actually heeded. I often feel like we’re a fish swimming against the stream. The advice is usually to dumb down our content, be a little less honest, not be as fixated on high quality. But what I’ve learned is that, as a creator, you have to figure out what your voice is. Figure out what you’re here to create. There’s something very magnetic about a brand acting from their honest, authentic core.
One thing I always tell other people, and I believe this applies to all of life, is that being a really good listener is so important. It’s an extremely rare skill and something I’ve tried to cultivate — especially in documentary work, but also commercially. If you really listen to people and are invested in what they have to say — if you can understand their side without trying to get your own opinion in there, your own thoughts — then you can really go a long way.
I think you have to be prepared that nine times out of ten, it’s going to take a very long time to get where you want to go. Overnight success is rare and possibly a myth. I love filmmaking so much; it didn’t really matter. I didn’t notice the time passing. I didn’t mind working as a hedge fund secretary or a temp, and then taking time off when I knew there was going to be a shoot. And I didn’t mind working for free because I’d finally found the job I love.
In order to keep working as much as possible, you have to be an optimist. If you’re a pessimist, you’re not likely to make it, or it will just totally suck while you’re getting there. It’s a very difficult line of work to get into. As we all know, making movies is not a reliable business. There is almost no stage you can get to where it is reliable. Until you make it big, you’re going to be living paycheck to paycheck, if that. And even when people do make it, most are still living paycheck to paycheck.
Be easy to work with, easy to get along with; be proactive; and be somebody people want to be around. Skill is almost second to the kind of person you are. The skill will come and will improve with each job.
If you’re a pessimist, you’re not likely to make it, or it will just totally suck while you’re getting there.
Early on, I took anything that came my way. For example, I shot a ninja movie once. That’s not the genre I necessarily wanted to be shooting, but I was still excited to do it because it would be a new challenge. And on a low budget, it was guaranteed that hilarity would ensue. At that time, any script that came my way, I’d take it. The first script I got that felt representative of who I want to be as a filmmaker was Frozen River. I graduated college in 2000, and I didn’t get that script until 2007. So it took seven years for me to shoot something that felt like me.
So my advice to a young filmmaker would be to take every experience that comes your way in the beginning. Beggars can’t be choosers. The most important thing is expanding your contacts and building your reel. There does come a point where you have to stop taking everything, but you’ll know when that point is. It’ll be when you’ve shot a little bit of everything, and you’re like, “Okay, now I need to put my foot down, try to get an agent, and really focus on dramas.” It takes time before you can get there.
To just make things. A lot of times I won’t write a specific line or scene or story because I’m afraid of what the reception might be. Or I’m afraid it’s not going to be good. I can find so many excuses for not doing things. There’s always a reason not to do something. So I try to push myself to do things. Just keep making films. That’s all there is to it. Eventually you end up making something meaningful.
I once got an outstanding piece of advice from my Buddhist teacher that has been enormously helpful. I was about to direct my first feature, and a day or two before the shoot, I woke up in a cold sweat. I was having a panic attack. All I could think about was how it could go wrong. And that’s when this advice really sunk in: “Always rely on a happy mind alone.” Which means, basically, trust a peaceful, calm mind. Don’t trust an agitated mind. If you’re having a problem and there’s something you can do, then just stay peaceful and take the steps you need to take. If there’s nothing you can do, then there’s no reason to be agitated. It’s such powerful advice.
Most creative people I know — certainly people in the film world — feel this tension to do something good. We live in that state of tension all the time, mistakenly believing the tension is helping us, when really it’s just blocking our creativity. So that’s what I reminded myself when I started having that panic attack: my main job is to stay peaceful and take the actions I need to take.
I’ve gotten a lot of really great advice over the years. One piece of advice does come to mind, though…It was on my first job. I was a free camera PA on Twister, and I was trailing on the heels of the cinematographer, Don Burgess, like a little puppy. “How does this work, Don?” “How does that work, Don?” I’d just gotten out of film school, and I really thought I knew how to shoot and light. I had my light meter and was constantly asking him about exposure and f-stops. “What’s the f-stop inside the car versus outside the car?” “How dark is the shadow?” Finally Don looked at me and he’s like, “Alex. You’ve got to understand that being a cinematographer is about so much more than f/2.8. Look around.” So I look around and there are hundreds of people. There are helicopters taking off and landing. He’s like, “Being a cinematographer is about managing this whole process, keeping the continuity of the image, and being able to articulate yourself.”
That’s the biggest challenge of being a filmmaker — whether you’re a director or cinematographer or whatever: taking an abstract image that’s in your head and communicating it to a whole bunch of people. Getting everyone on the same page so everyone understands what they’re doing. Cinematography is all about communicating. And I don’t mean communicating on the grand scale of, “We’re communicating a movie to the world.” I mean literally communicating to 10 people exactly what you want.
You see, people get caught up in their own heads and everyone is standing around going, “What the hell does this guy want?” Or they’re always like, “Try it this way, okay, no try it that way.” You’re driving your crew crazy because they think that you don’t know what you want. A big part of my process is trying to know exactly what I want before I show up on set. Thinking of the best way to achieve it. Using diagrams. Storyboards. Shot lists. Then I meet with the crew and ask them what they think the right way to achieve it would be. Then we create a plan and execute. It’s the process of articulation. And for me, that’s been the best piece of advice.
Truly great advice is such a gift. And like any meaningful gift, it’s also rare. What piece of advice has stuck with you? We want to know. Leave a comment below.
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