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How to Become a Film Director

How to Become a Film Director
Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

So, you’re interested in becoming a film director. Great news! It’s a fulfilling career path, but, like anything else, it will be filled with challenges, ups and downs, and hard work. For those of you who are new to directing or have some questions, Backstage has you covered.

What is a “director”?

In the simplest terms, a director is the person on a film set who makes the big decisions. He or she literally directs the course of action on a set and in a film, controlling a project’s artistic and dramatic aspects, visualizing the script, and guiding the cast and crew to make it all come to life.

What does a director do?

If you’ve moved past the first question with a resounding “duh,” let’s move onto some of the specific functions a director actually performs.

The director is basically in charge of bringing a story to life. He or she is the chief person responsible for creative aspects of a project. The director is tasked with making decisions on look, script, locations, costumes, special effects, and coaching. Sounds fun, right? It is, but slow down—there’s some hard work involved.

A select few will luck out and be in the right place at the right time, but for others, it might require years of paying dues. Even Quentin Tarantino worked a few gigs before becoming the legend he is today, like a recruiter for an aerospace company, a video store clerk, a film extra, and even an Elvis impersonator on “The Golden Girls.”

What role does a director play on set? Off set?

First, let’s start with laying out the groundwork for pre-production. This is when the director, along with other creative types, gets the game plan together, so to speak. There are artistic choices to make, as well as practical ones.

During pre-production, the director will be looking at casting, shot selection, styles, and color schemes. He or she may also be responsible for rehearsal and filming schedules, as well as playing the fun role of location scout, depending on the size and budget of the production.

This is also when a director will work to obtain funding for a film. Unless he or she is independently wealthy, this piece can take some time and could very well bleed over into production and post-production periods. In fact, funding is one of the most frustrating parts of the whole “making a movie” process according to Vladan Nikolic, filmmaker and media-studies professor at New School University.

“You spend 90 percent of your time hustling for money and explaining to people who have no creativity—but think they do—why the film should be made,” he told Backstage via email. In other words, “Only 10 percent of your time [is spent] making the actual film.”

Another important element of pre-production that shouldn’t be underestimated is casting. Proper casting is critical, Nikolic says.

“I don’t mean that you have to stick to the image you have in mind for a character, sometimes a different actor can completely surprise you and bring something to a part that you have never thought about,” he says. “But it is true that if the performances in a film are weak, it’s usually the director’s fault, not the actors’, as the director is in control.”

Then comes production. This is probably the part most envision when they picture being a film director: on set with the cast and crew calling “action” or “cut.”

For good reason, production is an important time for a film director. This is when he or she gives notes on performances and shots and makes sure all the blocking is just right.

Brace yourself: There will be a lot going on, and something will almost always go “wrong,” which is why pre-production is so important. According to Nikolic, “If you did your job well, you will be able to handle unforeseen situations.”

Also, during production, recognize that not every scene needs to be treated equally. At least, according to Nikolic.

“Give yourself time and space to do the most important scenes right,” he suggests. “These are the ones that the audience will remember and that your film will be judged on. Less important introductory or informational scenes can be cut, changed or rushed through, if need be. You never have enough time and money to do a film exactly how you would like to do it, you'll have to compromise. But be smart about what you compromise, and don't waste time shooting a scene over and over again, if it's not an important scene.”

During production, keep in mind that “you are the leader of a collective moving towards a supreme creative goal,” says Paul Warner, professor at the New York Film Academy and award-winning film and stage director. “So the director must keep the producers, key collaborators, crew and actors engaged in the artistic mission.”

Then, finally, comes post-production. This is when everything comes together. And ideally, if you’ve placed the best people together, you might be able to take somewhat of a breather. This is when the director will take on more of a supervisory role. There is editing to be done, color correction, and sound and visual effects to be added. It’s the time when the film gets its final shape.

Nikolic’s best advice for new directors? Find an experienced editor. “You will be too close to the material and not see the forest from the trees,” he says. “It happens all the time. Otherwise, you will edit the film yourself, and only three years later realize that it could've been so much better.

“Editing is a matter of talent of course, but it also hugely depends on experience. The more you do it, the better you will get. The fact that so many people now know how to use editing software doesn't make them editors. Editing is about telling a story and not about pushing buttons.”

Although supervising might sound fun, or at the very least, less stressful than the previous stages of production, you won’t be completely out of the loop.

You need experience “observing,” says Warner, “so you can understand the vocabulary to better communicate with the editor, sound house, colorist, etc.”

He says that the director and editor spend weeks cutting a picture.

“You are supervising, although many directors, especially those starting out in the micro-budget arena, have ended up needing to edit, just out of economic necessity,” Warner says. “So I see many directors now who really have those creative skills in terms of picture cut.

“However, sound and color are really specialized fields that are completely different from the skill set required of a director and your film will be greatly enhanced by hiring those who are most gifted in these arenas and then overseeing or guiding them.”

What are the different “levels” of directors?

There’s a bit of a hierarchy in the directing department. The director, naturally, is at the top.

Then there’s a first assistant director. The AD supervises cast and crew, keeps track of time for the director, makes sure filming is on schedule, and is responsible for eliminating and minimizing hazards on set.

The key second AD (2AD) is in charge of tasks like moving the cast through hair, makeup, and wardrobe. Scheduling is this person’s primary role, and he or she is in charge of call sheets and assisting the first AD as needed.

As movie sets get bigger, a third AD (3AD)  is needed for directing extras and vehicles for background action for large crowd scenes.

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What training or skills does a director need?

College is not a must according to the filmmakers interviewed for this article. Of course, as professors, they know there are benefits to attending a specialized film program, but it won’t make or break you.

That said, those who opt to not attend film school need to be self-taught in a number of areas.

Richard Walter, screenwriter and longtime co-chairman of the graduate screenwriting program at UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television, encourages directors to rehearse with actors.

Directors need “an ability to work supportively and nurturingly with actors,” Walter says. They should “encourage actors to lend their own vision to how the role should be played, should abandon preconceptions about how lines should be delivered. Instead of eschewing creativity from actors, they should encourage, solicit and celebrate it.

“Actors may mess up a movie, but, far more likely, they’ll make it better than the writer and director imagined it could be.”

Walter points out that in France, the director is called a “king,” but says his advice to directors is to not “be the king or queen. Be a citizen, a collaborator. ‘Co’ means with. Labor means work. Don’t be a tyrant or an authoritarian but a member of the creative family of artists and craftspeople making the movie.”

How do I start?

First, you can rest assured knowing that “every experienced famous, wealthy, adored director once had little experience, so [you] are in great company and should feel encouraged,” says Walter.

Nikolic suggests shooting something every single day. “Not everything has to be a finished film, not everything has to be good, but that’s the way how you train your eye and advance your craft,” he notes.

Post your work to social media. Put it on Vimeo or YouTube. You might not get discovered that way, but it can’t hurt to showcase work you’re proud of.

Then, if you can, get a job on a film set to see how others work.

Another good idea is to watch films critically. Walter says a director should watch a movie just like everyone else. But Warner thinks there are good reasons to study films when watching them to develop “a strong viewing sense of cinematic history.” This would include “studying the directorial spine or intent and how that is illuminated by shot design, the visual arc including color palette, editorial and sound design choices, and of course the precision of how that director has directed the acting beats.”

Reading scripts is another tip. It’s a good way to practice bringing someone else’s story to life. When you read other people’s scripts, try to think about the details of how you would shoot each scene.

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How do I get paid to direct?

The simple answer is experience, which will lead to exposure from festivals or screenwriting competitions. Once you gain experience, assemble a reel and get an agent.

Walter says landing an agent is necessary. “Create the kind of engaging material that would convince an agent that here is an artist worth representing,” he says.

“If you make a short film and someone sees it in one of the major festivals, such as Sundance, that agent is most likely going to want to see a full-length screenplay that you would want to make next and the tone/style of the short demonstrates your ability to work with actors and communicate something that is similar in style,” Warner says.

“An agent is most likely going to feel more inclined to collaborate with someone who has already made a lot of inroads and demonstrates ambition and drive as well as an understanding that films need some kind of attachments, be it money or stars, to make it of interest to the agent.”

But it isn’t something you should expect to happen “until you have a successful film,” Nikolic says.

“No agent will take you before that anyway,” he says, noting that you don’t have to make a feature. “Maybe you have a short that wins or gets noticed at Sundance, for example.”

“The reason is that an agent can sell you only once the industry starts paying attention to you, so the idea is that the agent will get you more and better opportunities for more money than you could on your own—at least, that's the theory. It all depends on the agent though, and what your expectations are.

“If you're repped by one of the big agencies in L.A., you have a greater chance to be packaged in bigger movies or TV series. On the other hand, agents focus on the flavor of the moment, so if there's not much demand for your name/brand/type of work from the industry, you will have to find opportunities yourself.”

How did some famous directors get their start?

Everyone starts somewhere. And it’s not typically as the director of a successful film.

Tim Burton is one rare case. He graduated from CalArts, which Walt Disney himself helped found. This created a pathway for Burton to become an apprentice animator upon graduation and directed a blockbuster—“Pee-wee's Big Adventure”—a few short years later.

For the rest of us, it can take time to get your bearings, create an impressive reel, and make the right connections.

Take “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins. He moved to San Francisco in 2007 “for love.” A Banana Republic employee at the time, Jenkins told people he was a filmmaker despite having made any films yet.

His relationship didn’t work out, but he did connect with a college classmate who invested $15,000 in his first film, “Medicine for Melancholy,” which Deadline described as a film “loved by critics and seen by almost no one else.”

Or “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins, whose first official job on a film set was as Second Assistant Camera in 1995’s “A Modern Affair.” After finalizing the deal to direct the blockbuster’s sequel, she is now the highest-paid female director of all time.

Ava DuVernay, who is currently directing “A Wrinkle in Time,” a film that has a budget of over $100 million, went to college for and started her career in journalism. She then moved into public relations before making her feature directorial debut in 2008 with a documentary, a project that required a much smaller budget than a feature film and let her learn the craft.

They’re not alone in the unique paths they took through their directorial careers:

  • Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni both got their start writing screenplays.
  • Federico Fellini used a job writing for a humor magazine to make film-industry contacts.
  • Quentin Tarantino's big break came when “Reservoir Dogs”—which he wrote, directed, and acted in—was accepted at Sundance.
  • Wes Anderson grew up making silent films on his father’s Super 8 camera.
  • Steven Spielberg was an unpaid intern at Universal Studios in the editing department.
  • Elia Kazan was a successful stage actor for years before picking up a camera.
  • Alfred Hitchcock’s first job in film was as a title card designer.
  • Spike Lee made his first feature film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” with a budget of $175,000 and shot it in two weeks.
  • Akira Kurosawa worked for years as an AD and writer.
  • Mel Brooks didn’t direct his first film until he was 42.
  • Kathryn Bigelow earned a master's degree in film.

Basically, there is no one way or right way to become a director. The path is different for everyone.

How do I find my “style” as a director?

Let’s be realistic. Finding your style or voice could take a few tries. You might want to experiment with different approaches before you settle on any one direction. Make it personal. Embrace your influences. Own your characters. Hold onto your integrity.

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