I recently heard one of my favorite directors, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant), say that his biggest concern for young filmmakers coming up behind him is our outsized focus on results, our obsession with recognition, and our overwhelming need to be seen as a big deal. Basically, he’s worried about our egos getting in the way of making substantive work. For him, empathy is the central focus as he engages the process of making a film.
There’s no easy way to make a film. The process is incredibly long and complex with a thousand unmarked pitfalls along the way. Sometimes you learn by falling into them. Sometimes you learn by having someone else point them out to you. Which is why we called our friend Adrienne Weiss, an accomplished filmmaker and coach who’s spent the past decade teaching up-and-coming directors at NYU and Columbia. What advice did she have for directors, we wondered. What did she wish someone had told her?
Eliot Rausch likes parables and has a habit of turning them into beautiful and thought-provoking, albeit highly ambiguous, short films. On the surface, the form might seem outdated. Parables aren’t data-driven. They’re not timely. They’re not easily retweetable, shareable, likeable, loveable, Snapchat-able. They don’t contain takeaways. All reasons why it would be easy to write them off. And all reasons why we need them now more than ever. “Our time is limited and our attention spans are really short,” Eliot told us. “There’s something incredibly beautiful about passing on these short parables to future generations.”
On Directing Film by David Mamet is a short book, just over 100 pages; but it contains everything Mamet knows about directing films, which he admits isn’t much. But then, that’s his whole point. Directing is a craft made up of a few simple tools mastered painstakingly over time. And one of those tools — maybe the most important one — is understanding how to craft scenes. “The unit with which the director most wants to concern himself is the scene,” Mamet explains. “Make the beats serve the scene, and the scene will be done; make the scenes, in the same way, the building blocks of film, and the film will be done.” To put it gently, some of Mamet’s perspectives can be polarizing, but asking them can challenge your own perspective on what makes an effective scene.
Why wait around for the perfect script to come your way, when you could spend time writing a script of your own? Probably because it’s a lot easier to have someone else do it. But with that strategy comes some serious risk. Mainly that the script never comes at all. The smarter, if much more painful, option is to take control of your creative destiny and write it yourself. Which is exactly what commercial director Lloyd Lee Choi is doing right now: hacking away on a feature-length script in hopes of breaking through the creative ceiling he’s reached while creating 30- to 60-second spots. We called him recently to see what he’s learned about writing. Here’s what he said.
Commercial filmmaking is experiencing a tectonic shift. Clients are expecting better projects for smaller budgets, and if you’re part of the old guard, you may get a few cold sweats thinking about when or where the next project will come from. If you’re an up-and-comer, though, the outlook is a bit brighter. Just take it from Dan Walser, Executive Producer at Neighborhood Film Co., and Ryan Smith, Creative Director at Counsel, who just wrapped up our commercial Find the Music You’ve Been Missing.
If our conversation with Dan Sadgrove seems to rove a bit, bear with us. It’s what he does. “I don’t have a mortgage or assets. I have a suitcase of clothes and that’s about it,” he told us. The director films projects during his travels across the globe, so when our conversation went to Vietnam, South Africa, or West Texas, we let it go there. And while it may seem like he lives a romantic life on the road, Dan didn’t hesitate in admitting that it’s a hard life as well. In fact, he was reluctant to encourage anyone to take it on.
If you gave five different filmmakers the same prompt, you’d get five different films. That’s because every objective element of the process (plot, characters, story) passes through the most subjective filter of all: our perspective. What results is an infinitely nuanced version of reality, with all of our biases, opinions, and values attached. This perspective is what makes films unique and it’s defined by our first-hand experiences, which is exactly why U.K. Director Charlotte Regan’s films are successful — she writes what she knows. Nothing more, nothing less.
Humans are productive beings; it’s in our nature. We excel in building, creating, and existing in a constant state of motion. But, this comes with its downside too. We’re also prone to overworking and overstressing. Burning out. So, how do we maintain a healthy lifestyle without self-destructing? Maybe we need to change our perception of what “productive” really means. As Tina Essmaker, founder and former editor of The Great Discontent, puts it, “when you make space in your life, the universe will fill it.” In other words, sometimes we need to get out of our own way.
Procrastination is often an act of self-preservation. When we know something will be difficult, we naturally tend to avoid it. This instinct may have been useful at some point (stone age, maybe?), but for us creatives, it can be our worst enemy. While we wait, problems seem to multiply, obstacles grow larger and while we’re busy thinking about those obstacles, the opportunity may be slipping away. Director Brent Foster experienced this first-hand; ultimately, it’s why he started his award-winning “While I’m Here” docu-series: