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Directing on a Dime: Six Lessons from Year One

Directing on a Dime: Six Lessons from Year One

Blog - Directing on a Dime

Welcome to Directing on a Dime, where indie moviemaker Andy Young provides tips and insight for moviemakers whose budget is more The Blair Witch Project than Avatar. Have questions for Andy about low-budget (or no-budget) moviemaking? Ask away at .

Happy anniversary!

As of yesterday, I’ve been writing for MovieMaker for a full year now. In that year, I’ve interviewed several of my moviemaking heroes, attended festivals both as press and as a moviemaker, won a few awards, crewed on over 30 different short films and tried my hand at directing commercials, episodic television, animation and live theater. Oh, and after two years of banging on the door, I finally got into film school.

In the first article I wrote for MovieMaker, I shared six things I learned while making my 2010 feature film The Legend of Action Man. Here are six things I’ve learned since:

1. Work with pleasant people
Don’t let the DVD “behind the scenes” features fool you—making movies is not always fun. It’s a lot of hard work, and when you’re pulling 8-12 hour days, people tend to get cranky. Sometimes the production suffers because of it. I try to be on good terms with anyone on my sets, because honestly—especially at the stage I’m at right now—I’d much rather work with a crew member who doesn’t have a lot of experience but is nice and excited to work than an expert who’s a jerk and a stuck-up prude. I’ve had experience working with both, and the nice ones get hired back. You’re probably thinking, “Wouldn’t you rather work with someone who’s better at their job, even if they’re a jerk?” Here’s my rationale: The pleasant ones aren’t experienced now, but they will be someday. They’re the ones that will keep getting hired because of their positive attitude and good work ethic. If nothing else, people just like to work with them. So after a few years, not only are they great to have on set, they’re also experienced! Keep your friends close and your enemies off the lot.

2. Outsource to people who are better than you
On Action Man I did everything. Literally, everything. I was the director/editor/producer/writer/composer/camera operator/sound designer… I learned a lot from taking on all those jobs myself, but looking back I think Action Man would have been so much better if I had given some of those jobs to people who I know were better than me. I like directing, I like editing and I like writing, but I hate being DP. On the “Shenanigans” episode I directed I worked with four different cinematographers. Sometimes they were experienced and sometimes they weren’t, but their footage always came out a million times better than anything I could have shot, especially with having to balance everything else I had on my plate. Find people you like working with and let them do what they do best.

3. Learn to adapt
David Fincher said one of my favorite moviemaking quotes of all time: “You don’t know what directing is until the sun is setting and you’ve got to get five shots and you’re only going to get two.” Things are going to go wrong. It’s inevitable. The most you can do is be prepared for the worst and have a crew that’s ready to fight with you. But when that’s not enough, sometimes you have to kill your babies and make some tough decisions. Sometimes it’s in the form of your only camera battery dying as the sun is going down, sometimes it’s in the form of an actor getting a noticeable haircut halfway through production, sometimes it’s in the form of rain starting to come down in the middle of a scene you’ve already shot coverage on, but the mark of a good moviemaker is being able to adapt when shit hits the fan.

4. Lean to compromise
Film is a collaborative art form, and it’s at its best when everyone gets a say and is allowed to do what you’re hiring them to do. That being said, sometimes their ideas might conflict with your vision, and you have to be prepared to meet this conflict. Actors suggest lines, DPs suggest framing/lighting choices or producers suggest “If we do this and don’t do this, we can meet our day quicker.” Push your ever-swelling ego to the side for a moment; this film may be your baby, but you need to have the ability to take a mental step back, see the big picture and, if nothing else, take their suggestions into consideration. However, if they suggest something you know for a fact won’t fit your story, then stick to your guns. Your job is to tell a cohesive story, and it’s up to you how to tell it effectively. But don’t be stingy; humor them, do a take their way. You might end up liking the result.

5. Feed your cast and crew
I made a joke about this in my Action Man article and haven’t heard the end of it since. It was a joke. Feed them. If you aren’t paying them, be up front with what you can offer in exchange for their services. An IMDb credit, footage for their reel, experience, exposure… whatever you can offer, follow through with it. And yeah, provide lunch.

6. Try your hand at everything
This is especially true if you’re in film school or just starting out. Try things that aren’t in your area of expertise or don’t necessary fit with what you’re planning to go into. Produce, direct, write, boom, grip, DP, AD… try everything to get some experience. If you go into film school or the working world thinking, “I’m gonna do this and only this and only on my films,” you’re not gonna get much experience. Don’t be picky. Take opportunities and make connections along the way. Who knows, you may find a career path you like even more.

Especially if you want to be a director, try performing. Take an acting class, do an open mic, try stand-up, do something that will regularly get you into the headspace of a performer. Acting is one of the hardest jobs out there: You have to stand naked in front of a crew that’s either passive towards the material or frustrated and trying to keep the show on the road. Then your performance is chopped and skewed by the post team before it’s sent out to an audience. It could be a passive audience or a paying audience, 10 people or 100,000,000, but it’s still an audience. Try to understand that mental obstacle they’re constantly hurtling, level with them and get them into a comfortable space. Doing so can help a great performer really take the gloves off, and that’s when you get a performance worth watching.

Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer who lives in Austin, Texas and studies in the University of Texas at Austin’s film program. At the age of 21, he has directed over 150 short films and one feature, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of only $200. Andy also has experience directing for theatre, television and animation, and he continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.

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