I’ve been to a few Q & A sessions recently, and I now feel pretty familiar with what might get asked when the mic is handed to the audience. Some polite enquiries about the story are usually followed by questions about logistics—where things were filmed, what cameras were used, and such. Occasionally, some brave soul asks where the money came from. But the tone is always respectful and positive. This is a shame because by far the most instructive questions—for a filmmaking audience at least—would be irreverent, negative ones like, “What would you do differently?” or “What was the worst day of the shoot?” or even “Who was the biggest nightmare to work with?” I can’t promise I’ll answer that last one (the lawyers will always be with us), but I can certainly recommend ways to avoid the worst pitfalls of first-time filmmaking.
Here are the five danger zones, as I see them:
1. Mind the budget. I know, I know, I feel my eyes glazing over, too, but bear with me. I am not a producer, and few directors or writers really are. We think we’re above all that, when, in fact, it’s absolutely vital to see your script from the producer’s perspective, because if you don’t you’ll be squabbling and fighting or, worst of all, moaning behind each other’s backs. So, as the director, you must also think like a producer, and then the producer might start thinking like you. To ensure this, meetings in pre-production should be face-to-face wherever possible, and every head of department should be around the same table as often as possible. We shot Cheerful Weather for the Wedding—a period film, with a large cast and many locations—in 28 days, and for less than a million dollars. We managed it because the entire production team was intimately involved with the producer’s decision-making.
2. Don’t believe flattery. For writer/directors, it’s great when people tell you how much they love your script, especially when you’re looking for a cast and crew. Positive feedback from actors, in particular, can build confidence at a time when it is usually in short supply. But don’t for a second get fooled into thinking that this means the script is perfect. It won’t be. Ever. The moment you believe you have done all you can to the script will be the day it stops getting better. The actors may love it, but it is still unmade, unshot, unseen. You must remain in a state of paranoia that your script is still not quite ready—and therefore you will keep striving to improve it, even when the cameras turn over.
3. Don’t try to be friends with the cast or crew. I was wildly over-excited to be finally making a movie, and I couldn’t help behaving like a spaniel on the set—wanting to be everywhere, do everything, being buddies with everyone. But make no mistake: Neither the cast nor the crew wants your friendship. You are, let’s not forget, a total nobody, so put Mr. Nice Guy back in the locker. Instead, cultivate their trust. This is all that matters, and can only be achieved by being in complete control of the story you wish to tell. Oh, and if you pull that off by the end of the shoot they will all admire and respect you anyway.
4. Don’t get personal. There will be very tough days on your first film, when you wonder why you ever thought you could carry it all off. (Our worst day involved six inches of snow, three car crashes and a dead cow, in case you were going to ask.) When things go wrong you can be fooled into thinking that you’ve been let down by people who you hitherto believed were 24-carat dependable, and it will be hard not to take it personally. But don’t. No one is dying. It’s only a film. And if you manage not to take these trials personally there will be a wonderful pay off: You will be offered unexpected support and succor from people who barely knew you existed. I’m not saying I pulled off this superhuman feat by the way, but it’s all there in Rudyard Kipling’s If, and it’s still true.
5. Don’t forget to smell the roses. Production on your first film goes mighty fast, but you only get one shot at it. If you aren’t enjoying it, then get out of the film business. My proudest achievement on my first film was that the cast and crew had a good time (I know this because the wrap party was sensational, they all got drunk, and tongues were not so much loosened as unleashed), and I did too. There is nothing—nothing—more rewarding than good teamwork. And if you’ve got a good team, you’re going to have a blast.