Okay. Full disclosure: I never went to film school. In fact, I was actually rejected by two of ‘em. I applied to USC and UCLA, and while both accepted me academically, their film departments… not so much. So what did I do? I enrolled as an English major and MADE FILMS ANYWAY.
So there’s point #1: whether you’re college age… or 12 years old like I was when I started making films on Super 8 mm…
1) DON’T WAIT FOR PERMISSION
Stanley Kubrick didn’t go to film school. He didn’t even go to college. He made money playing chess in Washington Square Park, then took photographs that he eventually sold to magazines, and finally, just for the hell of it, became one of the greatest directors of all time. So if you want to make movies — to quote Nike, “Just Do It.” Cameras and post-production software are cheaper and more accessible than ever. Hell, you can shoot a movie on your phone! So the truth is, you kind of have no excuse NOT to do it.
Now despite not being in a formal film program, I did have an ace in the hole in college: I made a bunch of great friends who shared my love of film and story-telling (people you’ve never heard of like Shane Black and Tim Robbins and Ed Solomon and David Silverman) and when we weren’t doing our regular school work, or going to parties and drinking beer, we were probably making films. “Why?” you ask. Because A) we wanted to, and B) it was an excuse to hang out together. So that’s Lesson #2:
2) WORK WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Nobody’s good at everything, but most people are good at something. So when I started out, I asked my friends who were actors to act, my friends who could draw to do storyboards, and my friends who were musicians to do the music. When everybody has something to do — something that’s their unique talent, their arena — it motivates them. It’s also the key to filmmaking on a bigger scale because unlike painting or poetry or making Kabuki masks, movies are collaborative – and collaboration is just another form of friendship where you’re bonded not just by liking the people you’re with, but by DOING SOMETHING TOGETHER.
The other thing about working with your friends is that you’re comfortable with them. And vice versa. You don’t feel obliged to put on some kind of act to make your crew and actors think you “know what you’re doing.” Being relaxed is the key to doing good work, and that includes being comfortable enough to make mistakes — and learning from those mistakes — rather than wanting to jump off a bridge in humiliation. In other words:
3) DON’T BE AFRAID TO FAIL
At first, anyway. Nobody’s a genius right out of the gate. And if they are, they have nowhere to go but down. Look at Terence Malick. After two amazing and highly lauded films in the 1970s (Badlands and Days of Heaven), he pretty much disappeared for twenty years, suggesting that the burden of topping himself was too much to bear (my own career has what appears to be a long dry spell, but that’s for another column). Point being: you only really learn from making mistakes. So make them, learn from them, and move on. Sometimes mistakes can actually improve the work. In ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, director Alan J. Pakula made a point of including flubbed takes in the movie to add to the realism. It was nominated for eight Oscars. Me? Fresh out of college, I wrote three (3) screenplays that I put in a drawer and never showed anybody. Then I wrote a fourth that I thought might be up to snuff. I gave it to an agent… and started my career, leaving those first mistakes in the drawer where they belonged.
There is a mistake, however, that’s not good to make, and it’s this: Boring The Audience. That doesn’t mean cram every scene with deafening car chases or naked women or giant robots, it means be aware of your audience. They’re generally pretty smart, especially today when they’ve seen almost everything, so your job as a filmmaker is very simple:
4) TELL A STORY
This may sound ridiculously obvious, but think about the last ten movies you saw. You might remember some amazing actions scenes or CGI effects. Or you might remember a fine acting performance, or some particularly striking cinematography… but what all that tells me is that the director might have fumbled the ball. Because all the “stuff” in a movie is there for one reason: TO TELL THE STORY. And whenever you’re paying more attention to the “stuff” in the movie than the movie, it’s my personal belief that the director is failing. It’s not his or her job to dazzle you with effects or bludgeon you with fast editing – it’s their job to spin a yarn, and make you care what happens. Have you ever started watching a favorite film of yours late at night on cable and find yourself helpless to stop watching through to the end? Nine times out of ten, the reason isn’t the acting or the costumes. So what constitutes a “story” and how do you come up with one that’s worth telling?
Maybe we’ll talk about that next time.
Until then, allow me to quote my awesome first assistant director Tommy Irvine: “Why aren’t we shooting?”
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