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ASK A Director

Los Angeles–based director; Amazing Grace, Rome

Just listen up. Listen and don't go in pretending you know how to do it. It's such a collaborative medium, and you need help from other people. And then, as you get more experienced, you'll really know what your own vision is and how to protect that vision. But in your first movie, I think, just listen. Cast well and listen. Listen when you put your crew together; listen when you put your actors together. The L-word is the thing to do with your first film.

Memphis, Tenn.–based writer-director; Black Snake Moan, Hustle & Flow

Stop thinking about what's going to get you famous, stop thinking about what's going to open a door in Hollywood, and really start thinking about what kind of filmmaker you are. What are the books that you are most attracted to? What's in your playlist? What painful things have happened in your life that you can draw upon that you go, "Right or wrong, that's me." Because [if] you start mainlining into that emotional well that's in yourself, you're going to find that there's going to be people who sit in a dark theatre, looking at a screen, and they're going to connect to you.

With that, the second bit of advice is, maybe you don't need to do it here in L.A. If you are from a place, go back to that place. You may live in some small town in Ohio; you may have people there that are going to help you make your movie, just like I had people in Memphis helping me make my movies on digital video.

Los Angeles–based director; Malcolm in the Middle, Firehouse Dog, Wonderfalls

I'm finding [that it's] harder and harder for first-time filmmakers to break in. Steven Spielberg gave me my break [on the TV series Amazing Stories] based on a student film of mine that he admired. Twenty years later, you have to win a reality television show to get that same break. That says a lot right there.

I have always said it's the content, it's writing. Hollywood is flooded with people who can direct—and who can't direct. It's being really good at working story with writers, being a good writer yourself, being able to do more than just say, "I have an idea." Because that's good, but you've got to have some of the chops to pull elements together to turn that idea into something, a script of some kind, something you can show to people and get them excited. If you look at the number of sequels and remakes, you can see we're just dying of thirst for a fresh idea.

You have to plan. For my money, I don't understand directors who don't prep. You can't save money that way; you can't be smart, productionwise. From my point of view, the stronger the plan you have, the more you can tell everyone, all departments, what you want, and the closer you'll get to getting what you want. If people don't know what you want, if you haven't communicated it clearly 'cause you don't know yet, then they're not going to be able to build a bridge between what you see in your head and what you see on film.

And you have to surround yourself with the right people, producerwise. I've been in snake pits, and I've had good experiences. As a first-time director, just don't be in business with the wrong people.

Los Angeles–based writer-director; Lonely Hearts

There are many components necessary to becoming a successful filmmaker. There is, however, no one way to do it. Here are some things I've identified that have helped me.

A compulsive work ethic isn't a bad condition to embrace. While I can't always be directing, I can always be writing. When I'm not writing, I'm usually reading—books, not screenplays. Books break you out of the three-act structure and linear thinking. They also exercise your imagination and ability to visualize. Reading is directing because you're always creating that movie in your head.

I think filmmakers should take acting classes. Filmmaking is largely about understanding human behavior, and that is what actors do: create behavior. Behavior isn't just emotional choices, consciously chosen, either. Rather, behavior begets motive, motive informs intention, and intention leads to action. In other words, the character is what he or she does. To understand all this, one should attempt it.

Share authorship. I think it's critical to make every person on the set feel as though they have a stake in the movie. I try to thank every person on the crew every day. I want to understand everyone's job, but then I let them do their jobs and let them know I am honestly grateful to have them on my team. The loyalty you get in exchange makes the experience of making the picture a dream.

Protect your process. Don't let people who don't understand what you're trying to do see your work too soon. Whether it's a first draft or a first cut, [let] only people who want to see you develop as an artist look at early work. Always remember that the one thing that connects all successful people is that none of them ever quit. While not quitting doesn't guarantee success, quitting always guarantees failure.

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