6 Routes into Directing
How Do You Get Into Directing?
'How do you get into directing?'
Although this almost always means, 'Can you help me get a directing job?', it's a question I've given a lot of thought to. Below is my short and opinionated guide to the 6 common ways you end up in charge of a film set.
But first -- whatever you decide to do, understand one thing clearly. There isn't a way into directing. Because there's no such thing as a generic director. There are only specific individuals who people are prepared to pay to direct. And a hell of a lot more people who no-one is prepared to give that level of responsibility to.
The difference between these two groups is up to two things. The individual, and the environment. You can't control the environment, unless you plan to move to LA. But you can control what you've done, what you're doing, and how you behave. You can add layers of proof that what you do specifically adds value to the project in hand.
Because as a director, being you is your ultimate value.
Being you for a living is a fantastic and a daunting thing. Because truthfully, the only way to get into directing is to work out a way for people to give you money to be you. To employ your instincts. To trust you and give you the responsibility of making a project happen.
If you succeed, your path is going to be as individual as your voice.
Before we get started, you need to ask yourself a set of questions, and look honestly for the answers.
Who are you?
Who are you?
Who are you?
Why is your voice a worthy one?
Not in terms of everyday life, but in terms of having an interesting and unique enough viewpoint and skillset to demand the attention of hundreds of thousands?
Do you truly believe your voice matches and surpasses those around you for that one script, film, project? Why do you believe that? Can you truthfully say your voice represents something more valid than a hundred other human beings who have equally valid stories and skills and dreams?
If you could step out of your body and your ego and look at what you've done as a stranger, would you be impressed? Would you give you a chance over someone else?
How resilient are you? How many punches can you take? How do you act and talk about a film you think is a big piece of shit? How would you react to someone else saying exactly the same thing about you and your film?
And how are you under stress? Real stress? Not occasional, but months of endless and grinding conflict: the kind of pressure that turns coal into a diamond, and then explodes that diamond into millions of tiny pieces?
Take a moment to think about these things. Your answers -- or lack of answers -- to these questions will determine your path forwards, and in many ways will determine whether you succeed or not.
Because your path forwards, whatever it is -- is yours and no-one else's. And almost everyone who succeeds ends up with their own story, their own journey: a combination of more than one path with its own twists and turns, triumphs and tragedies along the way.
DISCLAIMER: The below thoughts are just my opinions, man. If you don't agree, hit me up in the comments, or better yet, write your own blog post and prove me wrong. This is just the world as I see it, and if it pisses you off -- well, no-one's forcing you to read it.
This is the obvious choice. The choice that feels like a path into the film business. The way that Coppola and Scorsese and Lucas did it. If you're a teenager with supportive parents, probably the way your Mum and Dad think you should do it. For some, it's the quickest route to success. For many more, it's also a quick route to discouragement, dissatisfaction, and wrong-headedness.
Film school will give you a leg up in certain ways that no other route to directing will. It'll give you a long period of time to learn and to study, and to practice your ideas. Good film schools will give you access to great teachers, and occasionally to great artists. That's an amazing thing. But make no mistake: you'll leave film school just like any other graduate: back to square one, and about to learn that a lot of what you've been taught doesn't hold water in the world you want to have a role in.
Through my fifteen years of experience on set, a certain disturbing pattern has revealed itself about a certain section of film school graduates. In very reductive and over-simplified terms, film graduates -- particularly directors, producers and DoP's, are frequently less pleasant to work with, and produce less impressive results, are quicker to feud and expect those around them to do more work.
Before a lot of people's heads explode, I'm not talking about all or most film graduates or students. At all. I'm just talking about enough people that this is a thing. And if you're lucky enough to go to film school, you should be aware of it, and act accordingly.
So where does this stereotype come from? Several places. Many film graduates have --generally -- spent a lot less time on set than runners. They've often inherited ideas of how people in certain roles think and do things, how to act and how they should be treated -- before ever having experienced or observed that role on set for themselves. Add to this the gut-wrenching anxiety inherent to most film environments and the insecurity this creates in anyone who has responsibility on set, and you end up with an unfortunately common stereotype of the film-school director, DoP or producer...
Brittle and snooty, quick to boast and quick to blame, status-anxious and apathetic about the project at hand. Someone who floats over the project and the people involved rather than connecting with them. Someone who has a pathological unwillingness to show enthusiasm to others -- and an unwillingness to treat anyone else on set as a valuable member of the team.
Again, if it wasn't already clear -- I'm not talking about most film students. I know a lot of brilliant directors who've started off at film school. I've given this a lot of thought, and I think that a lot of this weirdness comes from a simple fact. Film sets are collaborative places. People who get on with others and find common ground tend to flourish. Whereas film schools are highly competitive places. People are constantly having to prove they're better than one another, and this can become a deeply ingrained habit that doesn't translate well into that collaborative environment.
Also, it may be that people who aren't great go on about their credentials a lot more than people who are: and so maybe a lot of great folks you work with will have gone to film school, they just won't be mentioning it every five minutes.
Film school doesn't authentically recreate working on a paying set. So if you're a film student, supplement your studies with as much on-set experience running as you possibly can. Not mentoring programs. Get your hands dirty. Run on set. Get people drinks, get confident with lugging shit around, get familiar with every part of the set and everyone on it. Get on first name terms with everyone you can, especially other runners. Understand all the reasons why a battle-hardened nineteen-year-old who fetches people drinks can command more respect on a set than the arrogant and untested director who barks orders from the monitor.
And whatever your position, never use the fact that you were trained at film school as justification for your presence on set. Like everyone else, you're there because you're you.
My bias is showing through here, but I think this is the one route that almost everyone I think of as good has at least tried. It's the most accessible route into film, and it pays you money. I truly believe that the single biggest head start you can give yourself is running on set. If I could do it again, I would quit school at sixteen and run on set -- I would probably have a decade-long head start on myself.
And if you run on set and you don't like the experience, you're probably not going to enjoy directing. Being able to do everything and anything for other people instills a confidence that is impossible to take away from you. It's not always fun, but it allows you two very valuable things:
1) You get to prove your worth to people who can help you. You need a small army of dedicated people to help you on your journey. And even if you impress a Mr or Ms Big, you need to get your hands on a great DoP, and AD, and gaffer, and art director, and sound recordist, and a hundred others including other runners -- and you may well need them to work for free. That won't happen until you've proven you're worth their time and their respect. That process might take a couple of years -- by which time the other runners you work with, who will now be your friends, are the DoPs, and ADs, and art directors who are willing to work side by side with you.
2) You get to observe how other people do things. The good and the bad. You get to see how directors work under pressure. How they manage people. Whether the shots they come up with are any good. You're given a thousand lessons every day, if you're paying attention.
Working up from a runner to a director isn't easy, and takes time. But you get paid to learn, and earns you respect.
Making Your Own Films
Making Your Own Films
If you want to direct, you need product. You need to make stuff to be able to prove you can make stuff. So it goes without saying that you have to go out and make all the stuff you can, at the highest level quality you can.
But how to turn making your own stuff into a viable route into directing? Honestly, I think anyone who says they know how to do that is lying. Even the people who manage this have to acknowledge the absurd amount of luck involved in such a transition.
If you make a short that gets seventeen billion views, then guess what? You're probably going to get paid to direct. But in a landscape saturated by millions of hours of terrible shorts and even worse features -- where you could forge a week-long playlist on amazon prime or netflix of films that are so bad they would make you want to kill yourself -- it can feel absolutely impossible to get your work noticed -- even if you create something great.
So my advice would be, don't think of making your own stuff as a viable route into directing. Think of it as a process you have to continually engage with to be able to call yourself a film-maker. Don't succumb to mental masturbation, or an 'all or nothing' view of your next project. It's not going to win an Oscar, or a BAFTA, it's probably not going to screen at Cannes. Don't ever put more in than you can afford into a project. Treating art like gambling is the quickest route to losing a taste for making films altogether.
So, this is probably the hardest route into directing, but the most important to engage with continually. Almost no successful director got their career simply through making their own films. But I can't think of any director who got anywhere without at least something that proved what they might be capable of. In that way, making your own films is as much as a catalyst for on of these other routes as it is a route in itself.
You could also call this, 'connections'. I don't know if this works outside of Los Angeles in its pure form of going to parties and events and talking. As a socially awkward person who despises the concept of self-promotion, this is not my thing, and I don't know anyone who has 'networked' their way into a film deal despite the tens of thousands of film-makers who traipse to Cannes, Berlin, Santa Monica, and countless film festivals to talk loudly in parties in the hope that Mr / Ms Big will be awed by what they overhear and immediately break out the cheque book.
As far as I can see, the only way to get something out of networking is to already have something everyone wants. So you either need to already have a dynamite pitch, be friends with an A list actor, or have a part-time job as a coke dealer.
And don't be naive. Any social interaction involving film will come down to a transaction involving money and power. You want something from someone powerful, and correspondingly, they're not going to give it to you over a thousand others without something in return. I'm not talking about unacceptable sexual behaviour. I'm talking about the concrete and immovable fact, that applies whether you are young or old, male or female -- if someone powerful is offering you something, there is an implied price. If you don't know what that price is, you're probably not going to like it. As the old poker saying goes: if you look around the table and can't work out who the donkey is, then you're the donkey. Remember Cosmo's Golden Rule of dealing with Producers: be aware, and make informed choices based on a pessimistic view of human nature.
Whether in a party or a networking event or a meeting, you need to always ask yourself -- if the person across from me looks excited by my pitch, what do they plan to get out of this? If you've never made a film, don't have a script, and there's no reason to single you out from a thousand others, and the excited 'producer' who wants to help you develop your script with meeting after meeting has no other projects in the pipeline: they're a fantasist, or they're trying to use you. Learn how to tell the difference between real producers (who will probably try to politely avoid you) and fake producers (who glom onto young and creative people because it validates their self image as someone important).
Networking almost only works when you already have value. You have a film, or a script. You have something other people want as badly as they have something that you want. Otherwise, you're only ever a young and enthusiastic tool to be used in some way for personal aggrandisement or to set a certain agenda. Trust me on this: there aren't many saints sitting at the top of production companies.
What about networking for Creative England or any other national funder? I've put a few thoughts on this under 'Luck' -- because honestly, I've never seen talent outshine expediency in any of those programs.
So in short, unless you have a lot of money, you're phenomenally good-looking, you're sociopathically good at manipulating other people, or your last name is Coppola, networking probably isn't a route into film-making. But along with making your own films, it's often an essential catalyst along with another route.
Segue From Something Related
Segue from Something Related
Along with film school and running, this is the other classic route. Develop power in another field that gives you access to film until you can insist on calling the shots. With film, this often goes from writer / editor to director. In advertising, this goes from Art Director / Creative Director to Commercials Director. A lot of great film directors worked their way up through TV and then hopped across. With enough power you can jump direct from Music Videos, Commercials or online content straight into Film.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this route. Advantage -- you get paid. You often get to practise what you want to do for a living on an everyday basis. You get access to study the people you want to be like, and see how they work. You get contacts and you get to prove yourself in a related field.
But there are some disadvantages, too. For every director who makes it, there are ten creative directors, music promo shooters, directors on Hollyoaks, and commercials producers -- who look at themselves in the mirror every morning and ask, 'What the fuck am I doing with my life?'
If you think everything else I've written is a bunch of bullshit, trust me on this. I've been directing commercials for close to 15 years in the hope of jumping across into features. Yes, you're getting paid to work in a field close to the one you love. Yes, it might be the only practical way you can make a living until you catch the big fish...
...but ultimately, you're being paid to be distracted from your main goal in life. And your instincts will begin to reflect the work you do every day. TV, or ads, or content, or promos, will become your comfort zone.
So, if you work in ads, or TV, or games, or content marketing, and you want to tell stories -- make sure you continue to learn and practice, or you will become one of the sad people you noticed when you started. The one at the top who always looked like they want to kill themselves.
'Who are they? Sitting in their own office, surrounded by awards, getting a big pay check? Why are they eyeing up the light fixtures and looking up 'how to tie a noose' on youtube? What's their problem?' you ask someone.
'Oh, that's just Dave. He always wanted to be a novelist,' someone tells you.
'I'll never be like that,' you think...
...so make sure you don't.
Through Being Lucky
Nobody gets anywhere in a the crazy pyramid-scheme that is film-making without being a lucky sonavabitch. No-one. Look at Kubrick's biography, or Spielberg's -- or anyone's. No matter how unbelievably talented, no-one gets anywhere without the chance to show what they can do. The younger they are, the luckier the circumstance. Yes, David Fincher has been one of the best film-makers in the world since his mid twenties. Yes, he showed amazing promise, even in his teens. Yes, he excelled at every role he turned his hand to on a film set. Yes, his neighbour was George Lucas. Yes, he lived a stone's throw from ILM. Would having been born in the North of England stopped David Fincher from being a world-class film-maker? I don't think so. But the circumstances around him catalysed his talents and accelerated his route into features.
Luck includes: meeting the right people at the right time. Having something specific and immediately relevant to what someone wants. Coming up with an idea that chimes with a lot of people. Being useful through who you are or what you represent. Living -- or having the freedom and financial ability to move -- to somewhere where a lot of film is made.
But the single biggest component towards luck comes from something you actually can control. It's one simple attribute you can develop over time: recognising an opportunity as it materialises, instead of realising you missed that opportunity after the fact. Being able to distinguish between an opportunity and a waste of time will save you years of frustration and false starts.
As mentioned earlier, I also include in the 'lucky' route any plans you might have of getting picked out by a BBC Writers Room, a Creative England / Scotland / wherever you are national film funding programme. These programs are always crap shoots, whose final talent pool has as much to do with expediency of the higher-ups' agendas, as any kind of objective marker of the talent on display. If you get in, these programs can really help you get places -- just don't count on these being a part of your journey, any more you would count on getting the short you're making next weekend into the BAFTAs.
Your Path is Your Path
A final word
Honestly, this whole thing turned out to be a lot longer than I expected, and I come off as much more opinionated than I thought. But there's one final subject we need to talk about briefly before you plan your next steps.
Don't try to steal someone else's journey. Don't copy the paths of your heroes. It doesn't work. Trust me. You'll waste years in advertising trying to be Ridley Scott, or years making music promos trying to be Spike Jonze, or assisting at an Post House like David Fincher. Every time and person and opportunity is unique. So be you. Try your best. And whatever happens, always remember to do what you think is right in this world -- and that there's a lot more to life than making movies.