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John Stockwell’s Golden Rules

John Stockwell’s Golden Rules

Articles - Directing

Here, actor-turned-director John Stockwell (Crazy/Beautiful, Blue Crush, Into the Blue), whose most recent film as a director, Dark Tide, comes out on DVD and Blu-ray today, shares his Golden Rules for directing.

As a former actor, I had a pretty good grasp of the on-set dynamics, but most of the real rules of directing I learned in the edit room, a previously no-go zone for actors of my stature.

  1. Continuity is overrated. Be respectful of the script supervisor, but don’t live in fear of their pronouncements. I’m still not sure that there is any imaginary line that can’t be crossed. And as far as continuity, there is a scene is Crazy/Beautiful where I cut in a reaction shot of Jay Hernandez from an entirely different scene, wearing a different wardrobe and holding a different prop, and no one noticed. If people are engaged, they aren’t watching the level of water in the glass.
  2. Don’t ever call “cut.” Try to keep rolling (at no cost in the digital age) between “takes” so that the army of stylists, make-up artists and set dressers don’t make their way onto the set. Reset times are never less than twenty minutes. And try to avoid playback at all times. Actors gathering around a monitor are a guarantee you will not be moving on to the next setup anytime soon.
  3. Keep an eye open for great things happening on the margins. As useful as storyboards, shot lists, pre-visualization, etc. are—don’t ever get so fixated on the pictures on the page that you are blind to what’s unfolding right in front of you.
  4. Be prepared for anything and open to everything. Especially when shooting on and in the water. Sharks and ocean swells don’t read call sheets or story boards. Try not to combine water, weather, wildlife and seasick actors, which I did on one of my last films. On land, you don’t need cover sets. If it starts raining, look at it as free production value. And if it stops raining midway through the scene, refer to rule number one.
  5. Actors rule the set. As frustrating as that may be at times, it’s reality, and I wish more directors had realized it when I was an actor. Adjust to their style, rhythms, strengths and weaknesses. On one of my first movies, I was rehearsing a scene with a young actress and on her first reading she was shaking and the tears were flowing and I was blown away. I immediately said “Let’s shoot,” and she was never able to regain the intensity and freshness of the first time she said the words. We never rehearsed again. Shoot the rehearsal. In the digital age, it’s the prudent thing to do.
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