Congratulations! You're directing a feature film. Maybe it's a micro-budget indie flick or something you're shooting with your friends (or both, ideally!). Directing a 90+ minute piece presents a whole new series of challenges that are unique to longer productions. In this post, I'll detail the 7 steps to making a better film. Some of these I had figured out long before my first feature, and others are things I had to learn the hard way. By writing this, I hope to save future filmmakers some of the headaches I had, enabling them to make better films.
1. Know What Your Film is About
Every film has a core - an essence. Black Hawk Down is a story about brotherhood and doing whatever it takes to keep your buddies safe. Jurassic Park is a story about the intersection of man and science and its often unforeseen consequences. Knowing what lies at the heart of your story means the difference between a film with a voice and a film that wanders listlessly. (i.e. the "Student Indie Film Syndrome")
Having this singular understanding of your film's core will help inform every decision you make in the directing process. It drives the visual narrative, the characters and the soundscape. By adhering to this school of thought, your film will emerge from the editing bay more coherent and idiosyncratic.
The unfortunate side of this tip is that, very often, you are not the singular creative voice contributing to your film. Your D.P., writers, executive producers, production designers all have their own ideas of what your film should be. In my personal experience, The writer, my co-director and myself were rarely on the same page when it came to the film's core and themes, leading to a very (in my opinion) dull film. Remember to stick to your guns and make your voice heard. The more you can unify your crew under a singular idea, the better off you'll be!
2. Coverage is Everything
I hear this a lot from D.P.'s: "We should be careful not to over cover this scene." Your shot-list then dwindles from the seven shots you had planned down to a measly three. In our experience, time and crew problems generally only allowed for four shots and an insert per scene. As a result, we had to start getting creative, covering an entire scene from one or two angles. It felt very akin to the Golden Age, when camera moves and quick cuts were far less prevalent.
The issue with this school of thought is that you're essentially giving up options in the editing room later on. All editors know that editing a movie is down to one principle: Knowing whether or not to cut. Sometimes all an editor needs is two shots. Sometimes the scene demands it be all in one-take. Other times, a series of inserts will best tell the story. By making the decision to shoot as few angles as possible without considering what the scene really calls for, you are essentially guaranteeing the scene won't flow properly in post.
Be sure to go over the shot list with your D.P. and 1st A.D. before the shoot so there are no questions as to whether or not this insert of a tea kettle is "really necessary." If that insert is the defining moment of your scene, you fight for it!
3. Talk to Your Actors
I think a lot of directors starting out want to have a lot of input on what the camera is doing. "Aw, yeah! Let's dolly in!" or "Put it on a MoVI and spin around him!" or even "I'm thinking we hit the wall with some HMI's and put a ton of CTO on those practicals." Stop right there! If you have a good working relationship with your D.P. and you've prepared in advance, none of this needs to be said. They know what shot you want and if they don't they'll ask. (I'm super guilty of this one, myself.)
What you should be doing instead is speaking with your actors. And by speaking with them, I don't mean telling them what to do. Working with actors means listening a lot. Let them give you their input and their ideas. Building characters is a collaborative effort, after all. Make sure they are comfortable with the scene and RUN A DAMN REHEARSAL. Unless you are going for spontaneity and have a good relationship with your actors, you should always run a rehearsal or two so you don't burn through three takes by the time anyone knows what's going on.
4. Don't be Afraid to Speak Up
There's a fine line between a dictatorial director that runs the set with an iron fist and a lame-duck director that sits back and lets the D.P. and 1st A.D. take the wheel. Film-making means compromising a lot of the time and you must, first off, understand that you aren't always going to get exactly what you want. That's just the nature of making films.
However, it is all to easy to fall into a pattern of saying "yes" to everything and, slowly but surely, you watch as your film ends up being in everyone's hands but yours. Yeah, it would be great if holding your ground means not ruffling a few feathers, but that's not how the game is played. Especially on indie/student sets, people will go out of their way to make it known that they disagree with your direction. I'd say 40% of the crew on the film I directed had many less-than-supportive things to say to my co-director and I. That kind of subordination is generally eliminated as soon as you step onto a set with a reasonable day-rate, but not every first-time director is that lucky.
I can't emphasize this enough. Stick to your guns. If you change a scene's blocking because the 2nd 2nd told you it was stupid, you're giving up your creative vision to someone who is far less qualified at directing than you are (you got the job after all, didn't you?). Taking criticism and input is important for any filmmaker, but take it at face value. If a producer says "More fart jokes!", don't be afraid to plant your foot and say, "No."
5. It's Not Your Fault
From the table read to the release day, every single issue with the script, the film and everything surrounding it is going to be pinned on you. We still live in a world where people - in and out of the industry - give directors way too much credit. Given this unfortunate piece of cultural misconception, you'll be spending a great deal of time trying to fix things that aren't your problem.
The producers forgot to buy the props you needed? The casting department told your actors they could get their hair cut? The marketing team thinks you're making a documentary about the rise and fall of KFC? It's easy to try and micromanage every aspect of your film because, in the end, it reflects on you.
There's a point where you've done all you can do. The damage is done and you have to make the best with what you have. From my own personal experience, our entire crew was filled with students and people inexperienced at their positions. As a result, more went wrong than you could possibly imagine. During post-production, my co-director and I had to spend a few months working 30-40 hours a week after coming home from full-time jobs just to fix what we could before release. I'm proud of the progress we made but there was just too much to do in too little time.
In the end, you must understand that even if everyone's putting all the blame on you, it's not (usually) your fault. Take a breath. Relax. Welcome to directing indie features.
6. Be Prepared
Most new directors waste a ton of time on set because they did not come prepared. The second you make eye contact with your D.P. in the morning, she should know the scene back and forth, how many shots there are, what gear she'll need and what the lighting setup will be. You wave at the casting department and 1st A.D. as they walk by. Because you discussed the blocking and shot order already, you're free to grab some eggs and sausage from the crafty table.
Shooting a feature is like fighting a war. You need to keep your generals informed on your strategy if you want to win, planning carefully for the battles ahead. When you get the chance, speak with your actors about some of the scenes coming up within the next two-to-three shooting days. By getting them thinking about the scene, they're more likely to go back through the script and come to you with more prevalent questions and ideas the day-of.
Some great ways to prepare are crafting a shot-list or storyboards with your D.P., reading the script over to make sure nothing is missing/needs to be addressed, or meeting with the production design team on exactly what you need the set to look like long in advance.
7. Directing is Writing
Very few good directors working today leave a script untouched and shoot what they've been given on the page. A director is ideally hired before the script is finalized, so they have time to add some input or thoughts of their own to the story as the writer finishes up the later drafts.
As a director, understanding story, character, motif, theme, plot devices, rhythm, perspective and style are absolutely key to crafting a meaningful, memorable film. Assuming your writer is open-minded and willing to collaborate (As most professional writers are), have a few meetings with him and give him your input. It will greatly benefit your film in the long-run.
RELAX! Seriously, there comes a point where the D.P. just needs a sec to set up the shot. The actors are prepped and everything is set for the next day. Have a laugh with the actors. Grab a juice box from crafty and take a seat in video village. Maintaining your sanity is key in an environment that can be incredibly mentally draining.
I hope these tips helped shed some light on the process of making a feature. Obviously, there is a ton more I could write about, but these are just a handful of the biggest takeaways I had from the whole experience. If you have any specific questions or tips of your own, drop me an email on the contact form or submit a comment. Maybe I'll do another one of these at some point!
As always, keep on shooting!