First-Time Tricks of the Trade


Being a first-time director is like jumping into the deep end of a pool. You may have prepared for this job by directing short films, attending workshops, watching other directors work and reading lots of books. All of that is good, but when you embark on directing your first feature, you’re still jumping into the deep end, where there’s no lifeguard on duty and no one to yank you out if you drop below the water line. But there are some tricks you can learn quickly that will work for you if you are willing to embrace them enthusiastically.

1. Act confident (even if you’re not).
Every director has to do this. Steven Spielberg was once asked what he considered the hardest part of directing. Without hesitation he said, “Getting out of the car.” That moment where you step onto a location or set can be the most frightening moment imaginable for a director. But even if you have doubts about your ability, you must never let it show. You can talk to your friend—or your shrink—about it, but not your crew and definitely not your cast. Feign confidence at all times.

2. Know your story like the back of your hand. Know it from top to bottom, inside and out.
Easily said, but not so easily done. The bottom line is that the director must know the story better than anyone else—better than the writer, better than the actors. You must know the backstory of your characters and their inner-workings: Their needs, wants, desires, fears and fantasies. You must know how the structure of your story supports the telling of it. You must be like a highly-skilled NASCAR mechanic who knows his car so well that he can locate, analyze and fix the slightest malfunction within minutes and send the car back out on the track.

3. Be willing to admit to what you don’t know.
This is essential. You are human; don’t pretend to be a super-director who has all the answers. Earlier I said to maintain confidence at all times. Part of that confidence lies in your willingness to admit when you don’t know something or don’t have the answer.

4. Listen to all ideas—good and bad—and be willing to consider them all.
This goes hand-in-hand with admitting when you don’t have the answer. Remember, directing a film involves collaboration; you are not expected to do it all on your own. Listen to your cast and crew—they will have great ideas. The important thing is not whether you use their ideas, but that you listen to them and allow them to participate. Now they will bend over backwards for you.

5. Be the first one on the set.
I know it’s impossible to do this every day, but think about it: The rest of the cast and crew arrive and you are already there. Think of the message you’ll be sending—and the respect you’ll earn.

6. Create a safe place for the actors, not one filled with criticism.
This is a topic worthy of several articles and long discussions, but understand one thing: People come to see your movie because of the story, the characters and the struggles they undergo for survival. The actors are the single most powerful tool you have in telling your story, so you need the best from them. The way to get the best from your actors is to create a safe world that is void of criticism. You should be the only one to talk with your actors about their characters and performances. By doing this, you are freeing them to do their best work.

7. Be patient.
This is tough to do when everything is going wrong. It’s really tough when the sun is setting, you’re about to lose a location, the producer is breathing down your neck, your DP wants to quit and your lead actor is struggling to find the performance you want. But you must remain patient. It is patience that sends the signal to everyone else that “Everything will be okay. We will get through this. Everything is under control!” Lose your patience, and the whole house of cards will begin to shake and crumble.
8. Set boundaries, but allow for free expression.
This concept is one that you have to embrace with every person on the set. You must be strict about the boundaries that you have set with each person, but you also must allow your fellow artists (especially the actors) freedom of artistic expression within those boundaries.

For example: Stage your scenes clearly and precisely so that the actors know exactly where they are going and what they are doing. Insist that they stick with the dialogue in the script as written—these are the boundaries—then let them have freedom of expression within those boundaries. Let them feel the emotions, needs, desires and fears of their characters genuinely and express them as openly and honestly as possible.

9. Be decisive, even in the face of indecision.
This is similar to showing confidence, but in this case it’s about making decisions. You can show all the confidence you can muster and admit when you don’t know something, but when it comes time to make a decision, you have to make it! If you later realize that you made the wrong decision, be decisive and confident enough to make another decision to correct the problem.

10. Be willing to be difficult in the pursuit of excellence.
No one really wants to be difficult. We want everyone to like, admire, support and respect us. But there will be times when you have to be demanding, which could make you unpopular or disliked. Your goal is to make the best film possible, and sometimes that requires that you take the dark road to get to the light.

11. Let everyone know your plan and your vision.
There is nothing worse than being on a set, in any capacity, and not knowing what is going on, how well the day is going and whether you are pulling your weight or just getting in the way. It’s up to the director to establish a form of communication that keeps every member of his or her team involved, aware and feeling appreciated.

12. Trust your crew. They know ?what they are doing better than you do.
This last trick really includes all of the others above, but it’s about humility. It’s about showing appreciation and acknowledging the talents of others. “Trust the intelligence in the room” should be your motto. You hired the best team you could find or afford, now you must trust their talents, ideas and intelligence. Know that if you openly collaborate you will likely create a film that rises above your own abilities, imagination and even your own dreams. MM

Looking for even more tricks? Check out Mark Travis’ new book, The Film Director’s Bag of Tricks: Get What You Want from Writers and Actors, available on Amazon.com and in bookstores worldwide. You can also check out Travis’ daily blog at www.markwtravis.wordpress.com or find him on Facebook.

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