10 Tips for Startup Directors

By Pete Chatmon

Timeline? What Timeline?

There are no mile markers in the career of a filmmaker. Most of your friends have a certain understood progression that they comfortable anticipate until Enron or Bear Stearns goes belly up. Work five years, don’t make mistakes, and become a manager. Five more years, a VP of something. Ten more years, a divisional president. Ten more years, who knows, CEO. They may not become CEOs, but they will follow the map of their profession. Well, we’re filmmakers, and it could take five years to write your script. It took me six for Premium. It took four years to secure the financing – a few of these years did overlap. All of this effort for what would be a 23-day shoot. There is a tremendous amount of effort, focus, and thought to get your project from script to screen. There is no timeline – there is nothing but commitment to the process and your growth as an artist and dare I say, a business person. While all my friends were moving into apartments and celebrating life’s progressions, I was sleeping in my momma’s house, running an office out of my bedroom, running each mile one step at a time. I’d say it was worth it.

Remain a Student in Search of Extra Credit

Some of you will go to film school, some of you won’t. That’s not important. What is important is that you remain a student of the craft, the technology and the business of film. Watch and study Criterion Collection DVDs which are chock full of extras and behind the scenes content. PA on films and other projects in your area, wherever you live. Read book after book after book – I provide my clients with a Recommended Reading List. Read the trades. Join organizations. Shoot film.

Self-Promotion: Allow Me to Reintroduce Myself

Unless you’ve written the next great American screenplay, and unless you did that and happen to have great connections, making your film is going to be the result of a marathon, like I mentioned earlier. The difference here is that your personal marathon is not on NBC on the first Sunday of November. It may not even be in the local newspaper. The training and progress of your marathon will only be in the places where you promote yourself. Your website, your blog, your email blasts, your Facebook and MySpace groups and pages, etc. If people know you are running they can be there to cheer you on when you hit that wall and they can be there to give you water. The reality of this analogy is that the people you self-promote yourself to will be there to contribute time and possibly money when the time comes – as long as you’ve shown that you are worthy of both. The results of your marathon … your finished film … will be what we all judge you by, but the process will have been enjoyed by people investing in your future. And, oh, my website is double7film.com, and I am available for production consulting, for commercials and music videos, marketing campaigns, and of course, feature films. I’m also looking for an agent so holla. Self-promote people!

Know Your Audience

This point is all-inclusive. Executives at studios, decision-makers at production companies, actors, crew, investors, and the folks who will ultimately see your film are all your audience. Know how to speak to each one of them. I am the same Pete Chatmon in every situation, with every meeting … my integrity never changes, nor do the things I am willing to compromise on, but the approach could leave some people wondering who was that dude? You have to find your own style, and some may argue with me on this, but I know from experience that being aware of your audience’s concerns, and acknowledging them in your conversation, goes a long way toward making them feel comfortable with you. Making a film, depending on one’s relationship to the project, can be a two to three year partnership. People want to know that you get it and it won’t be a horrible experience dealing with you for all that time. To be specific, these are the things to keep in mind:

Executives at studios and decision-makers at production companies: Companies have mandates as to the specific type of material they are looking for. Know this.

Actors: What about your project would be attractive to this actor?

Crew: Perhaps someone has the experience but has never been given the chance. A casting assistant could very well cast your film, for less money than a casting director, and with more conviction and heart. A line producer could help produce your film for producer credit. A camera operator may never have been given the chance to shoot a film. Know this.

Investors: What about your project is attractive? The fact that the entertainment industry is sexy? Does your prospective investor have a big ego and would love to show up his wealthy friends by being involved in an exciting film? Is there a mission statement or social initiative that might attract investors? Is it because they knew you since you were yay high?

Folks who see your film: It’s a heist film… What is the audience expecting to happen? What had you best not leave out in order to fulfill their expectations?

All I’m saying is, expectations are very important. You just need to know when you’re not meeting them so you don’t look stupid or amateur.

Understand the Way a Set Works and the Demands of Each Position

You are the captain of the ship. You will be blamed for stuff that isn’t your fault and applauded for ideas you didn’t conceive. Your actors and crew are smarter at their jobs and better at what they do than you will ever be, but by knowing how a set works and the demands of your crew, you can (a) avoid looking amateur and (b) keep everyone happy by not asking for ridiculous, or often impossible things. I strongly recommend that all directors take acting classes so you know what it feels like to put your whole essence on display. You will quickly realize just how much you’d want to be in good hands too.

What is the Goal of Your Scene?

You will fall behind schedule during your shoot. It is inevitable. If you are shooting a low budget project, it is highly likely that you won’t be able to go into overtime too often, if at all, due to the exorbitant costs. So what are you left with? You are left with the demand of having to shoot most of your scenes in the allotted time no matter what. I ask “what is the goal of your scene” because if you map this out for every single scene of every project that you direct, you will ensure that when time gets tight, you will at the very least put the camera exactly where it needs to be to convey the overall (and most important) message of the scene. You will love yourself for this. You will love me for having told you this. All the gravy shots and camera moves that you want to show off will mean nothing if there’s no close-up on that key piece of evidence the detective in your story stumbles across to push the story forward.

Know When to Fight

Sometimes you will need to push yourself into overtime… or make yourself fall behind schedule because the importance of the scene demands it. On Premium, Zoe Saldana’s first day was the 3rd day of shooting – which was also the 3rd of 5 days at the gas station location we had secured. I had never met Zoe in person yet, we had just spent about 2 hours on the phone talking about the film and the character, themes, etc. I believe she knew Dorian Missick, but not very well and had never worked with him. Well, the first scene up for the day was their final dialogue scene in the film, at the gas station, one year after they’ve gone through a helluva tumultuous time – none of which had been rehearsed, shot, or broken down outside of the work we’d each prepared individually. I took 10 hours to shoot this scene, between every take telling my team that, “I know we’re burning film… I know I’m pushing us behind schedule… I know tomorrow’s going to be a 10 page day,” because I knew it had to be perfect. I feel that we got it and if some of the earlier scenes suffered for it, so be it – I knew this was a moment that I had to fight for. Know what counts and fight for your moments too.

Be Honest with Your Cast, Crew, and Yourself

I don’t care how you live your life. When it comes time to do the work of your film project, honesty is your only commandment. If an actor’s performance is off, and this actor has been on the Wire and worked with Jonathan Demme and other Oscar winning filmmakers – you are going to have to look that actor in the eye and say, “that’s not what I’m looking for”. Trust me, it’s tough, but just like you have to understand the dynamics of a film set and everyone’s role, Frankie Faison knows that a good director is only working to mold their performance into what works for the project. When I got over this apprehension, we began to make beautiful music. This honesty policy also extends to how you communicate with your crew and everyone else on your team, but understand that it all begins with you. If you’re not honest with yourself, your film will scream and holler it’s lack of authenticity and it will be less than paper thin. Not a good look.

Give Credit

I already mentioned that your actors and crew are way smarter at their job and better at what they do than you will ever be. For this very reason you will find that they will resolve insurmountable problems during every stage of the process – pre-production, production, and post – making you look really good in the process. You may be the authority on the material, but trust that you are not the sole owner of good ideas. Encourage collaboration and give credit when it is due. I give a shout out to Kevin Frakes for helping with executing so many producing aspects of Premium‘s production and editor K.A. Chisholm for saving the film (and me) from a scene where I didn’t get all the necessary details to push the story along properly. Trust me when I tell you I’ve given hundreds of thank-you’s and shout-outs along this journey.

Embrace the Challenge

Filmmaking is hard. Anything worth achieving or accomplishing is. When you finish your film and have that premiere screening, whether it’s at a film festival, Loews Theater, in your living room, or at a bar – you have joined the ranks of an elite bunch. The few, the proud, the accomplished filmmaker. There are many who talk and say what they will do. There are countless accomplished self-promoters who lack follow-through. There are innumerable creative geniuses with a million ideas but none that they have followed through to completion. These people are not filmmakers. These people have not embraced the challenge and obstacles inherent in achieving their dreams. But you have. You read this article through to the end, which means you are already wired to succeed… All you have to do is embrace the journey that lies ahead and the challenges will simply be a part of the process.

Pete Chatmon is the director of the feature films, “Premium” and “761st”, and the founder of the Double 7 Boutique marketing and ad Agency.  Anthony Artis and Pete Chatmon are the co-hosts of The Double Down Film Show at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/doubledownfilmshow and on iTunes where you can download the expanded audio version of these tips. Their blogs can be found at DownAndDirtyDV.blogspot.com and Double7World.com, respectively.

Featured in StudentFilmmakers Magazine, September 2009 Edition.

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