Written by Shane Stanley
What’s essential to being a good director? First and foremost, its passion. Regardless of what you want to believe, filmmaking will be one of the most seductive, yet volatile and deceptive relationships you will ever grapple with. I’ve quipped it’s my “forbidden fruit” or “fatal attraction” because of the pleasure and pain it causes but for many of us that is all part of the allure. Filmmaking will rip your heart in two, leave you beaten and broken – both physically and financially – and just when you’ve mustered up the nerve to put an end to the abuse, it reaches out and asks you – no, begs you – for one more chance promising it will be smooth sailing moving forward.
How do I know this? Because I try to break up every time I finish a film. When it’s a wrap – correction – mid-way through pre-production, I swear I’ll never do it again and can’t wait to get the project over with so I can start looking into alternative ways of making a living. But when all is said and done, the movie has taken shape and my wounds have healed, I start missing my team as well as the fantasy even I get lost in when a new project is on the horizon. Believe it or not, I too find myself inspired by the same dreams that motivate you. Besides, I started working in front of the camera at 9 months old and while I turn 49 this year, have come to the realization; “what the hell else am I going to do with my life?” Sadly, I don’t know any other way and if you’re as lucky as I am to be so unfortunate when you’re approaching the big 5-0, you’ll know exactly what I am talking about. Confused? Good. But you won’t be when your odometer has reached my mileage.
Okay, now that I’ve discouraged you, are you ready to get uplifted and inspired? I will assume you said, ‘hell yeah!’ with your fist raised into the sky and will continue reading…
When we talk about passion, I don’t mean the desire to be rich and famous or walk the red carpet surrounded by A-listers, screaming fans and persistent paparazzi. I would like to think by now you’re mature enough to realize that’s all bullsh*t and extremely thin icing spread out over very fattening cake. Passion is when you can’t sleep because your obsessed with the thought of leading your crew into battle. You toss and turn at night because you’re driven to tell stories with a camera and wring out every ounce of an actor’s soul for that perfect performance. You daydream about going into the edit bay and fighting tooth and nail to get the cut just right and all of the accoutrements perfect. Passion is getting your hands dirty and putting in the time when every one else is out playing grab ass – not because you should but because you love to and cannot see filling your days doing anything else. Yeah, that’s the passion I’m talking about. Sure, you need to know the fundamentals of filmmaking and I believe that starts in your classes, out in the field, and especially in the edit bay where you get first-hand experience on what works, what doesn’t and why. But this isn’t a lesson on the craft – cats like David Mamet, Sidney Lumet and Elia Kazan have written great books to help with that and I suggest you go read them. This is a lesson in channeling your passion into productive leadership, which is essential to great story telling and plays a huge part when wearing the Director’s hat.
Passion is contagious and when the Director is passionate and driven it touches the cast and crew in a positive way and ultimately shows up onscreen. Like respect, leadership is earned, not given or assumed. I feel it’s crucial for a Director to walk softly and carry a big stick and to find the balance of how to handle the two. If you disrespect your team, they will quickly lose respect for you and once that’s gone, it’s practically impossible to get back. Never forget or dismiss the amount of responsibility the Directing job will shoulder on top of the art of filmmaking itself, but also don’t lose sight of how hard your crew works to help make your vision become a reality. Everyone is of equal importance on a set. I didn’t say it’s a democracy and we’re all at the same level but we’re all equally important and without everyone working in harmony, it’s a lot harder to get anything done. It’s like an engine not firing on all cylinders – it just misses. Make sure to let your team know you appreciate them at the end of every day so they feel motivated and inspired to continue working hard for you.
Being successful comes by surrounding yourself with greatness. Ask any Director you admire and they’ll tell you the job cannot be done without an amazing team supporting the mission. Always strive to grow and include people on your projects that you not only can rely on, but those who also will elevate and challenge you to become a better filmmaker. Don’t let someone’s experience intimidate you or discourage you from bringing them onboard fearing you might look inferior to the team or seem like less of a big shot. Some of my greatest achievements were made possible simply because I brought on people who not only had a tireless work ethic but also had tremendous knowledge of their craft. Together we are stronger and that will resonate ten-fold in your end product. I cannot tell you how often I see newer filmmakers cut corners on hiring the right Cinematographer or Editor because they fear they might know more and look inept. The dumbest thing we can do is partner up with someone who’s less than the best we can get – especially in some of the most crucial elements in filmmaking.
Being a Director is largely about the ability to lead. It’s being able to get a cast and crew of 40-60 people to follow you into the depths of hell and thank you for the experience upon your return, regardless if they got third degree burns along the way. Directors need to possess basic people skills and the ability to look someone in the eye, stand on their hind legs and have uncomfortable conversations without missing a beat – you know the discussions most people try to avoid. You have to be able to talk an actor through a performance when they’re struggling or maybe even convince them to come out of their trailer because they’re simply scared to death that they’ll fail. (You laugh, it happens more often than you think). A Director needs to respectfully tell their Cinematographer when they don’t love a shot they’ve set up and have conversations with a Producer without losing their cool when they’re informed they are not getting that SuperTechno 50 foot crane that was promised – conversations that too often take place on set and in front of the entire crew. It’s not about having the loudest voice or the hottest temper, it’s about being a diplomat and showing people you don’t buckle under pressure and how you handle adversity. You must understand no two human beings are alike and how you speak to one individual can cut them down and break their spirit while the same words can lift someone else up and encourage them to become your biggest asset. Heck, some of the greatest Directors are the gentlest souls you’ll ever want to meet. Legends like Spielberg, Ron Howard and Clint Eastwood come to mind but you have to be a lion leading the lambs and show those lambs you’re the boss and your vision is THE vision without being a screaming lunatic. You know, the ‘more bees with honey’ approach – implement it.
I mention all this because our passion can get entangled with being unkind or even irrational. We artists have the uncanny ability to make excuses for our behavior and if you’re not on track to becoming the next Damien Chazelle, it will only be a matter of time before you’ll find yourself all alone without a support team that’s worth a spit. Admit your shortcomings and apologize for your mistakes. Never be afraid to say, “I don’t know,” I promise you; it will go a thousand miles. The filmmaking community is a tight knit group and scuttlebutt of improper behavior and poor etiquette spreads like wildfire. Unfortunately a lot faster and further than when you’re nice to people.
Most important, don’t be reluctant to give back. We filmmakers rely on favors and people going the extra mile for us, so be gracious and appreciative whenever you can. Return the love and bless someone else in return on his or her project when they reach out to you for help. To this day, if I’m available, I’ll jump at the chance to edit or operate a camera when someone asks because that’s what people did to help get me where I am today. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 48 years working in this business – every day I am on set or honing the craft in the edit bay, I learn something new and grow from it – and I love to learn and grow.
Until next time, keep shooting!
Shane Stanley, filmmaker and author of the popular new book, “What You Don’t Learn In Film School” is a lifelong entertainment industry insider, who has worked in every aspect of the business, covering a multitude of movies, television shows and other successful projects. Stanley has been a steady earner in film and television since he was in diapers with a career that started in front of the camera at 9 months old and grew into a life of an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker spanning more than three decades. To order a copy of Shane’s book and for his seminar schedule, please visit: www.whatyoudontlearninfilmschool.com