I hate to admit this, but on day one of shooting The Strangers, as I drove to the set of my first feature, there really was only one thing I couldn’t stop thinking about: “Action.”
As the empty roads leading to the warehouse passed by in a blur, I repeated that one word over and over. That morning, while dressing, I’d realized that over the course of my life I had never given that command out loud in front of anyone, let alone a crew of professionals and a cast of stars all ready to judge the kid from out of nowhere who was directing his first studio movie. Besides a two-minute short in college, I’d never really directed anything at all.
Shit, I’m never gonna make it.
I almost had to pull over.
In reality, directing your first feature is a whirlwind of first times, repeated over and over again. Over the course of the three months prior to shooting, I storyboarded with artists, studied blueprints with art directors, held meetings, cast actors and rehearsed scenes, all the time having no idea how it was supposed to be done.
Still, I had to direct it.
It seems so simple from a distance, the concepts of finding the right cast, picking a crew, finding a location. But in reality, from the minute pre-production began, I was thrust into a world I had only read about or at least seen glimpses of in DVD bonus features. I can remember sitting in my beat-up old four-door, outside of a bar I wouldn’t have even been allowed inside of a week earlier, building the courage to take my first meeting with a Hollywood movie star.
What if my name isn’t on the list?
I remember the sweat pouring down my face as I sat down for the first time in front of someone who I had only seen on screen. But on that day, she was here to meet with me, The Director.
Over the course of six weeks, from the time I was picked to direct The Strangers to the time pre-production began in South Carolina, I was plunged into a world I had barely ever stopped to think about. A world where I was meeting people who I had heard of and seen, but to whom I was the stranger.
The process is terrifying, at least at first. A producer once told me a meeting with an actor is like a first date that could result in marriage. The only thing is, you often have to decide if you want to get married that day. I had never worked with actors before, so what was I looking for?
I learned to trust my instincts. Over and over I met with talented men and women who had an opinion on the material and over and over I told them mine. The producer was right and she was wrong. It was like a date, but more importantly it was like trying to pick a partner to dance with; you don’t have to be the exact same person with the exact same tastes.
Finding your cast is about finding the right person to help you create a true character. It is about finding someone who can help the words on the paper come alive. You are not looking for a mate for life, just someone who can dance to the next song. I think the search helped teach me to talk about movies with artists, and to start connecting to people with my ideas. Soon, you learn to get over the hesitation of referring to Liv Tyler as simply “Liv.” You learn that actors are people like you. You learn that they are looking to you to help them do a great job (even if you are not famous).
Holy shit. They’re nervous, too.
Within a few weeks I had cast my movie and was headed across the country. In truth, I had no idea what I was getting into. I hadn’t even realized I wouldn’t be back for five months; I had to send for more clothes. (It turns out winters in the east are much different than the ones in Los Angeles or Austin.) But soon I started to realize that you just have to dive in. There was no coming home—I was here until the end.
Just don’t get fired.
Did you know that they don’t pay first-time directors until two weeks into production? Nothing says confidence like your boss holding your paycheck until the shoot is a third of the way finished.
I remember walking around during my first location scout, moving around the yard of some home, trying to decide if the space felt right. (You can spend hours looking at the window frames, debating on whether the mailbox should be painted blue or red. I chose black.) I moved away from the pack to study some angle I had inside my head for a shot. When I turned I realized that everyone had followed me; that the crew was there, all with 10 times more experience, watching for what I would say. I can’t explain the shock I felt at that moment. I was in charge. I was the one they took direction from. It was me who had to have an answer to the questions.
Questions. Questions are the key to what a director does. You are like a machine, being driven from place to place. Your life is simplified: Your food is brought in, your clothes are cleaned, your calls are answered, all so that you have time to think and respond to the hundreds of questions you deal with every day.
I once spent an hour looking at silverware arrangements. Not only does silverware never show up in the film, but in the end, I feel like I would have chosen a different set today than I did back then.
That was one of the biggest lessons that I was forced to learn: How to be the President, the General, the Director. You walk into a room and the attention of those present falls to you. You scream, you laugh, you cry and the energy of everyone is instantly affected. You are the leader and I had to teach myself how to manage my team in a way that they could all come together. There was nothing in the books I had studied over the years before production that could have helped me. No, you have to learn to own the title.
As the production moved forward I began to be grateful that in some ways I was naïve about the moviemaking process. In fact, I think the movie is better in a lot of ways because of it. Without the benefit of a past to fall back on, I was forced to cling to what I knew best: The script. I held on to my story and to the characters I had created because, as a writer, that is what I knew.
For me, the script was the bible. I only knew my way, so I had no other choice but to never let go of what was important to me. I knew how I saw the movie—every frame—the lighting and the set decorations. I knew these things because I had pictured them when I had first sat down and started the script in my head. I knew these things because when I wrote them they were all there. I truly believe the script itself is what got me through it all.
As I grew I learned more and more about bringing all the other parts—the people and their ideas—into the mix. As a director, every final decision is your call. To me the best directors find the balance between all the opinions they hear on the set. Now looking back, for good or for bad, I hope my choices give the film the intimacy for which I had strived. Do I look back and question some of my decisions? Of course I do, but I know that the choices came from a place of truth. I hope that shines through in the final film.
I think the actors I chose and the performances they gave have a realness that bleeds into every frame. I could never have asked for two better people to play these roles than Liv and Scott Speedman. Their eagerness to dive into their characters was so important to build on each day on the set.
To work with veterans, whether it was Liv and Scott or my production designer, assistant directors or cinematographer, allowed me so much insight before and after each day of work. Learning to listen and utilize these people’s different gifts and personalities is one of the most important jobs I had every day of shooting.
In the end, when I think about The Strangers, there were many ups and downs. I had to work with so many different kinds of people. There were so many people I learned from, laughed with and fought with. Early on, I was standing with the crew as we were waiting for a shot to be lit and I remember stating that I was “just a first-time director” to the gaffer, Brian Gunter. This man, who had worked on countless features, told me to stop saying that. He told me to stop saying that because the crew knew that I was the real deal.
In a lot of ways, his words meant the world to me, but it also showed me that I had a job to do and that I needed to shut up and go work. Whether it was my first time or my twentieth, I was going to make something that people would watch, something with my name on it. It would be judged whether I was a first-timer or not.
I believe that the experiences learned on the set helped make The Strangers what it is. I know that the movie has grown and changed as I have grown and changed, as more people joined the process and added their input, their sweat and their love.
I wanted this film to be about middle-class people. I wanted this film to represent people who do not live in mansions. I wanted it to ring true to where I grew up and to the people I grew up with.
I’d never change a thing about my first film. I just hope there will be more to come.
The Strangers is in theaters now.