Directing films is not a finite goal, it’s a process and you never stop learning.
Here’s four and a half lessons that I’ve learned the hard way over the years:
1 – Casting casting casting!
I used to think something like… “I’m a good director, so I’ll get a great performance out of any actor”. WRONG.
When we were casting for Bionique we had a tough situation. We had no budget so we weren’t offering any pay other than gas.
We auditioned over 100 people, most actors and actresses that auditioned were just starting out which means they weren’t very good yet. Still, we were able to find hidden gems for all the characters.
The hardest by far was the lead role, Anne.
As soon as Catherine Siggins finished her audition I knew she was our Anne. The only problem is, she looked different than how we originally envisioned the character.
Our second choice was great too. I liked her a lot and she looked closer to the original vision, but you could tell immediately that Catherine had more experience, so I decided to go with her.
And boy, I’m happy about that choice!
Our production day for the Africa sequence was crazy. We were shooting at this ranch in Altadena and rain started pouring on us.
We did have a rehearsal a few days before, but still, the cast had practically no time to get into character and no time for more than a few takes. They had to just go and they pulled it off because they knew what they were doing.
They say casting is 80% of directing and I believe it. So stop thinking of casting as your personal beauty pageant and focus on getting great actors that you can work with.
2 – Rehearsals
Back at the ranch (I learned so many things on that shoot). I mentioned we had rehearsed a few days before. Which, even with our great cast, turned out to be the only way we could pull that off.
A rehearsal lets the cast know what you’re going for and it also opens your director mind into seeing what they bring to the table, which is a lot if you did cast those good actors we talked about.
On the production day we didn’t have time for this at all. We were running all over the place trying to get the shots done with the rain, and I didn’t have time to explain more than a couple of things to the actors. Like I said, they had to just go.
But during rehearsal we could take it slow without worrying about shooting schedules.
The amazing cast and crew of Bionique.
3 – Come prepared with your shot list
This one seems to be a bit controversial. It might be a thing of personal style, but I don’t think so. I think is that there’s this dream of a director creating beautiful shots on the day that will fit perfectly in the edit room…
Alright Mozart. Let’s talk production realities.
In reality a director needs to lead a team of dozens of people that need to work together to achieve every single shot.
Yes, you can figure them out on the day, but since everybody has to wait around until you do. It is not the most efficient day of doing it, especially if you’re on a budget.
I know a few people that say shot lists are restrictive, but I don’t see them that way.
First of all, since you’re not in the middle of the production day while you’re figuring your shots out you can take your sweet time! You can take as many hours or even days planning out your most important shots.
Second. A shot list is pretty much just a guideline. A tool to help you figure out what you want to shoot. They’re not written in stone and they can accommodate to whatever happens in the day.
I like writing a priority number next to each shot between 1 and 3. That way if poo-poo happens I know what shots I can get rid of immediately and without rushing because I already figured all that stuff out on the planning stage.
3.5 – Turn your shot list into a storyboard or animatic
Bonus points if you can make a storyboard or an animatic (animated storyboard).
These help everybody in the team tremendously to know how you see the shots in your head.
Do them whenever possible, then print and post them on a board on the set. As each shot is done cross it off yourself, trust me, it feels awesome!
On my last shoot I forgot to put them in the open (I just them in my tablet) and it brought some confusion.
4 – No matter what happens, it’s your responsibility to make it work
This one is more like a reminder to learn how to work with people.
Keep the drama in front of the camera. If your crew is fighting either you or themselves it doesn’t matter if it’s your fault or not. It is still your responsibility to shoot the movie.
Learn to listen. Sometimes the wildest suggestions make your movie better, other times they don’t fit the movie you’re trying to tell and that is okay, it’s your decision. Just say so respectfully and move on. Sometimes it helps me counting to ten while repeating in your head… “Nobody is trying to ruin my movie”.
I said it before. You are never finished as a director, you’re always learning.
I hope these lessons I’ve learned save you some time and problems.