It takes a lot of different skills to be a good filmmaker. That’s probably why it takes so long. You have to be a storyteller, an entrepreneur, a problem solver, a marketer, a networker…the list goes on. It’s a very hard job. So it might seem strange for us to say that of all the skills you could be practicing every day, writing is probably the most beneficial. And it will sound especially strange if writing isn’t something you particularly care about doing in the first place. But hear us out. The discipline of writing often is not about becoming a better writer (although that could be a cool bonus, if you’re lucky). It’s about becoming a better thinker ⎯ maybe even a better person.
“On your way to wonderful, you’re gonna have to pass through all right,” Bill Withers warns filmmaker Damani Baker in his documentary Still Bill. “And when you get to all right, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you’re gonna go.” In other words, it’s very hard to be great. And very few people get there.
According to a recent study by the Behavioral Science Research Institute, 70% of us will doubt ourselves at some point in our career. The other 30%, of course, will be lying to ourselves. Self-doubt is a curse of the human condition — it comes with being a person. But it is especially rampant among creative people. Maybe that’s because creative success is so nebulous. Maybe it’s because so many insecure people are, for whatever reason, drawn to making art. But we think psychologist Christian Jarrett might be on to something when he suggests: “In our world there is a pervasive myth that there is a minority of super achievers who are born with a magical gift, while the rest of us mortals struggle by with our ordinary talents.” We interpret our effort as lack of talent. We see our successes as flukes.
It wasn’t easy to find someone to interview about failure. It’s not just that people don’t like talking about their failures; they can’t remember them. Most failures are quickly forgotten — maybe as a form of mental self-defense. Everyone experiences failure; but when it comes to recalling specific defeats, people draw a blank. Which is why, over time, failure feels less like an acute pain and more like a chronic discomfort. It’s something we all must learn to live with. The question is: how can we live with it best?
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?
At just 26 years old, Daisy Jacobs was nominated for an Academy Award for her animated short film, The Bigger Picture. Short in this context is a bit ironic. The project was physically massive: life-sized paintings painstakingly animated frame by frame over six months. The result is striking — unforgettable even. Ostensibly a simple story about a family, the film explores life-sized issues including death, loss, anger, and grief. In many ways, the scale of the art matches the scale of the themes. But that might be too tidy of an interpretation. Daisy’s reasons for working in the large scale are much more down to earth: “Personally, I can get more into the character,” she told us. “He is the same size as me; and what he does and physically touches, I’m animating at the same scale I encounter in the real world.”
If there is no “right way” to make a film, then is there no “wrong way” either? If you’ve seen Paul Özgür’s work — an award-winning Dutch cinematographer whose films have screened at festivals like Sundance and the Berlin International Film Festival — you’ll start to question if there are any boundaries at all. “This is filmmaking,” Paul told us. “There are no rules.”
No matter how big our creative dreams, we still have to live one day at a time. Or, to put it in reverse (and to quote Annie Dillard): “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” We can’t montage our way to success. We have to live every moment between now and then. And what we do with those moments is everything.
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.
We’ve spent more than four years of talking with some of the best filmmakers in the world, and there are a few questions we haven’t asked. What had these filmmakers been totally wrong about when they first started? And what was the very best thing they did for their careers? We thought these two questions could help calibrate the navigation system — give us all a sense of what we should be moving toward, and what we should be moving away from. So we sent out a bunch of emails. The responses we got back were wonderful and surprising. Some were personal (Eliot Rausch’s sobriety; Reinaldo Green meeting his wife). Some were professional (Joel Edward’s disillusionment with the industry; MINDCASTLE’s belief in director’s cuts). But they all had one thing in common: these lessons were learned painstakingly and firsthand.