I’m doing a series talking about the lessons I have learned doing various jobs throughout my life. My first article was about being a soap opera actor. This one is about directing an independent feature film.
Directing is different than producing. (I can do those lessons on another day.) The director is the boss, cheerleader, visionary, and motivator on set. I have produced five films in my life, but I’ve only directed one – Hitting The Nuts. HTN is a multi-award winning improvised mockumentary about a small town poker championship. It’s available on DVD now, but we have some exciting news that I will be able to share next month regarding wider distribution. Until then, here are my…
Five Lessons of a Film Director
1. There’s never enough __________.
Fill in the blank. There’s never enough money to do what you want. Never enough time in a day. Never enough experience at key positions. Never enough lights to make a shot work. You have to really want to make a movie to make a movie. That don’t want to get made. You have to methodically pull them out of the mirk of the universe one inch at a time.
Making low budget movies has taught me that you can always do more with less. Sure, there are things you can’t do without money. Bu there’s always another way. Sometimes the other way is actually better.
Here’s a deleted scene from Hitting The Nuts. The scene was set in the interior of a doublewide trailer. We didn’t have one, so we had to recreate one with no real budget. We couldn’t find a room that worked for us. So we bought paneling. We gathered some props from Goodwill. Then we found someone to give us a free room. We made the corner of this room look like the interior of a trailer. It worked. By the way, the free room was the director’s basement. And the paneling is still there. (Don’t remind my wife.)
If you are doing something worthwhile, you will never have enough of something you need to get the job done. That’s ok. Pivot and move on.
2. You can’t make a bad deal with a good person.
This is a favorite saying of Jim Nyberg, my parter at Rebel Pilgrim Productions. He makes deals for a living in various sectors. He knows from experience about how to build the right partnerships to accomplish a common goal. We do our best to only work with good people.
On HTN we tried to only work 12 hour days, but we had a few hit 16 hours. If we didn’t have good people, we would have had a revolt on our hands. It wasn’t good leadership on my part. But they let me learn my lessons. As a result, on A Strange Brand of Happy, our last movie – which shot for twice as long – we never had a day run that long.
Whatever you do in life, you will likely need to ally yourself with someone. My first test in any partnership I make is simple. I ask myself if I would let this person spend the day alone with my wife and kids. If I can’t say yes, I say no to the deal. No matter how good it seems.
3. Serve the story.
The single most important thing on a film set is the story. And the story can be a needy, fragile diva. But she must be served. Without her, nothing matters. Every major decision must move the story toward completion. I can’t tell you how many times I have liked a person or a scene or a location or whatever, only to find that they don’t serve the story. In which case, I can’t let them try to tell it. The above deleted scene is the perfect example. It is one of my favorite scenes in the movie, but it didn’t make it into the movie. Because it didn’t serve the story.
We would do well to think the same way of our personal and business lives. What story are you telling? Is everything aligned to serve it?
4. Manage morale.
By far, the number one responsibility of the director on an indie film is to manage morale. Everyone on set is working for less than their normal rate. Many are volunteering. Maybe on a forty million dollar blockbuster, the director can cocoon and “just direct.” But not on a film with a budget. Happy people do good work. Upset people do not, regardless of how professional they try to be.
Think about the best work experiences of your life. I bet the morale was high. And I bet the leader of your team was the biggest reason why.
5. Always Be Improvising.
The fact that my first feature was an improvised movie was a great break for me. Not just because I know and love improv, but because it set the tone for my understanding of filmmaking. I played an Amish Farmer in HTN. We had arranged to shoot all the exterior scenes on the farm on the last day of shooting at a real Amish farm. At the last minute, the Amish family we were working with us told us that their church found out about the film. They told them they couldn’t participate. It was bad news.
Now we were sunk. Two of the biggest scenes (the first and last) were at this location. It’s harder than you think to recreate an Amish farm. (No light bulbs, electricity lines, farm machinery, etc.) But we found one that would work at the last minute – two hours away. It meant we’d have get our company there in one piece and plan everything on the fly. It was a challenge, but it worked. And it wasn’t all that stressful, because by the last day we had learned to improvise our way through anything.
Good plans sometimes fall apart. All you can do is make another good plan. That’s life.
If you want to see the farm, you can watch the first few minutes of HTN here. It was a perfect location, until we got into the edit bay and noticed a light bulb over my head. But that was nothing a little CG couldn’t erase.