10 Lessons I Learned in 10 Years as a Filmmaker

June 17th, 2012 – Today is exactly 10 years since the first day of principal photography on the first project I directed. I will celebrate by sharing 10 lessons I learned in 10 years as a filmmaker.

1. The director’s reel is king


The one thing I am glad about is that I started on the right foot from the very outset and saw the film school scam for what it really is, and focused instead on acquiring real filmmaking skills and building a reel. Ten years on, it is clear to me that this was the right thing to do.

I have written about this in the past but it cannot be repeated enough: the director’s reel is the director’s CV; without a reel you are not in the race.

My tip for you:

Do not be taken in by the sales pitches of film schools and bluffer-networkers. Develop some real filmmaking skills and build a solid reel. The real unit of analysis here is the number and quality of projects on your reel, not absolute time, so the more quickly and efficiently you build a reel, the sooner you will be doing what you really want to do (presumably well-paid, highly creative directing gigs).

2. The “uninspiring studio executive” archetype exists for a reason


A few years ago I was able to secure a meeting with the second-in-command at a very famous production company. As I had comparatively easy access to this guy, I thought it would be silly not to meet him, introduce myself and show him my reel (which was of a lower quality back then).

I reported to security and, having had my identity checked, I was allowed in and given directions to the bungalow. I parked my car and, squinting in the mesmerizing Southern Californian sunlight, I walked towards the bungalow, knocked, and let myself in.

I meandered through framed celebrity photographs and trophies and finally reached the office of the production company’s founder, where I found my contact and his assistant throwing paper balls at each other. You couldn’t make this stuff up! I enjoy a bit of fun as much as anyone, but I found this scene so irritating, so grindingly inappropriate for a business meeting, that to this day I am unsure of how well I concealed my contempt.

He was cordial enough but clearly enjoyed the buzz of being a high-level movie executive far more than film production itself, and everything he said sounded hollow. (I also know that he walked into this cushy job without paying his dues, as was made obvious by his clear lack of appreciation.)

After a brief conversation in which he didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, he was back on his cellphone and resumed the self-satisfied chatter for which overpaid, dull studio executives are justifiably infamous.

My tip for you:

Never leave a stone unturned, and if you have easy access to somebody who might help you, set up the meeting and do your best. If nothing else, it will open your eyes to the dark side of the film industry and will thicken your skin, which is always a good idea.

3. Film crews are awesome


As my projects grew in complexity and I started working with more professional crews, I noticed just what a pleasure film crews are to work with. I love them all: from the trainee grip to the 1st AD to the producer, they all contribute to a delectably intoxicating vibe that is so typical of good film sets. The sheer energy and efficiency of film crews at work is exhilarating and hopelessly addictive.

My tip for you:

I encourage you to start staffing your productions with the best and most experienced crew members you are able to get hold of. If you have a decent reel and present yourself well, you will be amazed at the caliber of staff that you can attract. Your communication skills and your reel are both assets that can be improved constantly: self-improvement is everything it is cracked up to be.

4. Cast the absolute best actors you can – no compromise!


I have worked with actors with little on-camera experience and with actors who are sublimely talented and experienced: at risk of stating the blindingly obvious, talented actors with plenty of on-camera experience are unquestionably the way forward.

Being a film actor is a profession, just like being a dentist or a gardener. One of the key characteristics of professional film actors is that they can show up with their lines fully learned and will deliver precisely what the director asks regardless of their mood. You ask them to make it sadder and they do; you ask them to make it happier and they enliven it; you ask them to deliver the line in exactly the same way but a little more quickly and they speed it up – with no argument or struggle. That is a real film actor.

My tip for you:

Go for the most experienced and talented actors you can get hold of and do not compromise on this. Hire a casting director, if you can. As a director, you are not in the business of giving inexperienced actors a chance — you’re in the business of making the project the absolute best it can be. This is the true responsibility of a director, and the sooner you embrace it, the better.

5. Sharp film editing skills are one of the best ways to outshine your peers


Practical experience has shown me repeatedly that having a razor-sharp understanding of film editing is one of the most efficient ways to make massive improvements to your value as a film director. Invest some real time and hard work in mastering film editing and I give you my word that you will never regret it.

This is true regardless of whether you want to edit your project or not. If you acquire top-notch editing skills, it will make a very real difference to the way in which you design and direct your shots, and will also make a difference to how you communicate with the editor.

My tip for you:

Develop razor-sharp film editing skills.

6. Actors and crew want to be directed


There appears to be a myth among some newbie filmmakers that directors would be wise to tiptoe around their actors and crew members, ensuring that everyone gets to express the view and that nobody is displeased. I happen to be a director who shows up knowing exactly what he wants in terms of performance, camerawork, production design, music and editing, and I have never had a single word of complaint from anyone.

The opposite is true: I enjoyed massive respect and support from actors and crew members, who loved the fact that I had really done my homework and knew what I wanted. I remember one sound recordist who, far from being annoyed, expressed appreciation that I took such an interest in personally assessing the quality of the sound takes (a result of having learned a lot about the pitfalls of location sound recording on my very first film).

My tip for you:

It’s called “directing” for a reason. Prepare thoroughly and have the completed film/video crystal clear in your head in every detail before you start shooting. There are always plenty of opportunities for last-minute tweaks and improvisation, but the more you prepare, the more your project can benefit from the freshness of last-minute improvements.

7. The dark side of the business: agents, distributors, film festivals and executives


Having waxed lyrical about the joys of working with actors and crew, it would be negligent to omit the dark side: film festivals, distributors, agents and executive types.

In my experience all of the above have several traits in common: they are not part of the hard-working, creative filmmaking contingent, they have a different agenda and they generally cannot be trusted. I am loath to perpetuate a “them and us” paradigm, but in my opinion it is more important to share my experience with candor and clarity.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do business with distributors, film festivals, executives and agents: you must. What I am saying is this: understand how they think, understand the ways in which they can harm you, and watch your back.

In some ways it is their job to exploit creatives to the maximum possible extent, and you have to appreciate this before you can tackle them on a level playing field.

Yes, there are some exceptions, but trusting an untrustworthy character is more dangerous than not trusting a decent person, so I focused on the warning rather than the feel-good “not every agent is like that” disclaimer.

My tip for you:

Do your homework and watch your back.

8. Learn how directors are selected in your area of interest


Films, episodic television and TV commercials hire directors in different ways. The reel is always crucial, of course, but there are differences that you absolutely must understand.

The director selection process in TV commercials is particularly idiosyncratic. Many aspiring TV commercial directors assemble reels that cover more than one niche, but that is suicide, because a TV commercial director’s reel must be absolutely focused: it must contain only comedy, or only fashion, or only food, for example. Many newbie directors don’t know this and end up spending a fortune on reels that have a car commercial, a food commercial, a fashion commercial and a comedy commercial, making the director completely unemployable.

My tip for you:

Before you shoot anything, ask yourself what practical contribution it will make to your employability as a director. Make sure that this decision is based on how the business really works, and not on an abstract model in your head that does not reflect reality.

9. Still love your first film? Bad sign!


Learning is a developmental process, and therefore if you are still improving, it is inevitable that your early efforts will make you cringe. I have improved so much since directing my first film that I literally cannot even watch it by myself — it is just too uncomfortable!

It is always a very bad sign when a fully grown adult still feels very proud of an amateur short film made 15 years ago, because this is a strong indication that this filmmaker has not improved much during that time period. As one’s skills and sophistication improve, it is inevitable that the first attempts look amateurish and immature, just like the paintings you made when you were four years old.

Reflective practice is the process in which one thinks carefully about past experience for the purposes of learning and improving as much as possible. I strongly recommend that you engage in reflective practice constantly.

My tip for you:

Whenever you complete a project, watch it repeatedly and learn as much as possible from it. The aim is to improve your skills and acquire new ones, and more generally to become more sophisticated and discerning, with finer judgement. This is known as artistic maturation and it is a real joy!

10. Practice, practice, practice!


My e-mail subscribers are familiar with this advice, and I never get tired of repeating it because it is the only way to improve your filmmaking skills — it is also completely free!

My tips for you:

Grab your camcorder and experiment a bit every day with camera movement and focal length. This is the sort of activity that allows you to tell your DP which lens to fit onto the camera on a professional shoot with great confidence!

– Learn one new film editing technique every day and either spot it in one of your favorite films or practice implementing it with some footage you can quickly shoot with some friends.

***

10 lessons in 10 years: I hope you enjoyed it. I have more to share for the future.

I hope that my tips will help you to get where you want to be as quickly and efficiently as possible. Good luck! 🙂

13 thoughts on “10 Lessons I Learned in 10 Years as a Filmmaker

  1. Very nice sir. keep writing.

  2. Heya) This article really opened my Blind-Eyes! Concerning Reel… Please, could you give some videos, good examples of reel on your taste? Thanks in advance.

  3. Ok, Thank you for such clear information 😉 Awesome work!

  4. mahmud ullah says:

    nice and lovely advice. thank you very much sir. thank you.

  5. My god. These tips and recommendations are so refreshing. It’s like your have a nice, but honest uncle in the business helping you along.

    keep it up.

  6. Thank you ,i learnt alot. you have saved me alot of money that i had planned to flush down into film school.

    keep well and God bless.

  7. Hey bro thnkx for the article. i have a question about the reel . if i film a reel of action or comedy and i want to do a fantasy film when i get into hollywood, will they let me film it(will someone produce it?) as long as i have my reel showing that i can direct a film ? basically i’m asking will they judge off of my reels directing skills, or will they judge by genre. what is their ultimate conclusion to draw?

    • It is strategically much safer to focus your reel on the genre in which you want to work. The less of a leap of faith people have to make to hire you, the better your chances of being hired.

      I strongly recommend you read this section of a past article — the specialization of a director’s reel is not as extreme an issue in movies as it is in TV commercials, but it helps to develop that strategic mentality. These days it is needed more than ever.

      You should also read this article.

      Remember the most important part: it is better to shoot something than to have no reel at all, so if you can’t afford to shoot fantasy, shoot another genre.

      Good luck,

      -Ed

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