There’s that moment in every doomed relationship when you know you’re going to have to end it.
He shows up late (again). He makes a derogatory remark about your best friend. He laughs too long at your joke (or not at all). You get this sinking feeling deep down in your gut that the end is near. You’re sad and a little afraid, because breaking up is hard, and the thought of spending Saturday nights alone on your couch watching Netflix is depressing.
I remember the moment my career as an Assistant Director started to feel like a doomed relationship. I was on the set of Caroline in the City. The show’s star, Lea Thompson, paused during a rehearsal to ask director Jimmy Burrows about a joke that wasn’t landing. I was supposed to be grilling the best boy about why he needed an extra man for the next day’s shoot, but I really wanted to know why that joke was falling flat. Was it the set-up? Or the delivery? Or something else? (Turns out it was the blocking.)
I inched closer as Lea Thompson voiced her concerns to Jimmy. How did she know something was wrong? Did he feel it too? Could he fix it? She glanced at me, not in an unkind way, more like, “Can I help you?” Because conversations about line readings are not the purview of a second AD, and shouldn’t I be working on the call sheet or something?
I felt a flash of shame. Not about the call sheet, that was done. About revealing that I was more interested in what Leah and Jimmy were talking about than what I should be doing. Second AD’ing on a multi-camera sitcom is a great job, with fair hours and generous pay. But it’s largely managerial—you clock hours, keep the company on schedule, tell people when to come to work and when they can go home. I had been doing it for seven years and longed for something more.
Of course I did what most people in dead end relationships do: I stayed. For the rest of that season and into the next. That flicker of shame became a blazing inferno. I started binge eating, smoking and dating inappropriate men to punish myself for not having the courage to make a change. My job had become easy for me, and on the surface I was cruising. But inside I was self-destructing, because I desperately wanted to be a creative, and my job didn’t give me many outlets.
The show did not get picked up for a fifth season and I was sprung. A friend knew of an opening as an assistant at a boutique production company. The weekly pay was less than I made in one day as an AD. I had no prospects for another AD gig, so I took it.
Over the next 18 months I read a lot of scripts. I also answered phones and walked the boss’s dog. I wasn’t making much money, but I was thrilled to be talking to writers, meeting producers, learning how movies came together. Reading scripts made me want to write some. I made it to page 30 at least a dozen times. Not exactly success, but it was a start.
I got fired from my assistant job, so I doubled down on my writing. My early scripts were terrible, but I was not shy about showing them to people, and with the help of some kindly mentors and a screenwriting class at UCLA Extension, they gradually got better. Then something horribly wonderful happened. My boyfriend dumped me. And I finally had something to write about.
Thanks to that painful break-up (and the free time I suddenly had), I finished my first script. I had some contacts from my old job, so I boldly reached out to them. One person out of the 20 I asked to read it actually did, didn’t hate it, and helped me connect with an agent and manager. My script was not marketable, but it was honest and fun, and I landed some writing assignments. I was woefully inexperienced, but over the years I honed my craft.
Ten years into my career as a screenwriter, that sinking feeling that I was stagnating returned. I was tired of sitting at a desk all day. I wanted to be back on set, creating more than just words on a page. I wanted to direct.
I had written All I Wish when I was pregnant with my first child. It’s about a woman struggling to find her life’s purpose while most people her age have already figured it out. Crippled by self-loathing, our protagonist (played by the brilliant Sharon Stone) drinks and smokes and sleeps around to punish herself for the fact she is a creative person who is not creating. It was deeply autobiographical (sigh), and I knew this was the one I should direct myself.
Whereas most writers-turned-directors couldn’t tell you what a dolly grip does or why the lead man has a swing gang, I knew my way around a set. A film crew has its own language, which includes hand signals, military slang, and lots of profanity. I spoke it fluently.
Theoretically I was perfectly qualified to step into the job. I had spent more hours on sets than most working movie directors (who only do a film every few years). Plus I had written the script, surely I understood it as well as anybody. Yet convincing “the money” to let me do it was no easy task. It’s not just that they are afraid that you don’t know what you’re doing—though that’s part of it. They’re afraid other people will be afraid you don’t know what you’re doing, namely actors and their agents. If you can’t get actors, you can’t direct a movie. And you can’t get just any actors, you have to get movie stars. Because without stars, no one will find your film in the crowded marketplace. And no star wants to work with someone unproven, because if the movie fails, it’s their face everyone sees.
So how do you convince money, actors and their agents that you can direct a film before you’ve actually directed one? For me, having written the script was a solid start. And I definitely got bonus points for confessing it was largely autobiographical. People believed I understood the story because it was my story. I had instant street cred.
I also knew a fair number of people who could vouch for my sanity—executives, agents, independent producers. So I had a foundation of confidence and trust. But by far the most important thing I had was perseverance. Because it takes a lot of asks to get a meeting with a meaningful actor. There are a lot of aspiring directors, but very few movie stars. So if you want one, you’d better be prepared to wait.
Actors love to surprise you with their choices. Every time I try to guess what kind of role a particular actor might be looking for I am wrong. The gal known for comedy wants to do a thriller. The serious guy wants to show his funny. Agents often have very specific agendas for their clients, so you should ask. But guess what? Sometimes they’re wrong. The lesson here? Pursue who you are passionate about. You will be told over and over that your casting ideas are unrealistic. You want realistic? Go work in a bank. It is not realistic that any actor with marquis value will want to do your first film. Ask anyway.
In the world of independent moviemaking you will be hard pressed to get a nickel from anybody until you have a cast. If you don’t have access to agents, partner with someone who does. Be prepared to send gifts to get your script to the top of the pile—a carefully chosen book, something the character might wear, or eat, or use in the film. Sometimes it works. Often it doesn’t. Getting a star is often the hardest part of getting a movie off the ground, because you wait a long time for an answer, and it’s usually no.
While you are waiting for an actor to sign on to your project, get yourself ready. I understood coverage and blocking and angles from my days as an AD. I could make a shot list in my sleep. If you can’t, don’t worry. Your DP and script supervisor will help. The beauty of a set is that it is sharply departmentalized, and you will have an expert in every discipline at the ready to help you. Except for in one area: directing your actors.
The most important thing I did to prepare myself to direct was take an acting class. You can not truly understand what playable direction is until you plug yourself into a role and try to play it. Working with student directors is a great way to learn what doesn’t work, because they make a lot of mistakes—as they should, they’re students! The number one rookie mistake? Talking too much. I’m not talking about in rehearsal; in rehearsal you can talk as much as you want about whatever you want. But on set, your time is limited, and—more critically—most actors can only hear one or two adjustments at a time. Overload them and they will tune you out.
Acting classes teach you how an actor breaks down a scene, how they prepare, what they respond to. You learn that if an actor tells you she can’t play something the way you want her to, you can’t force it, you need to try something else. It will scare you when an actor says they have a different idea than you if you haven’t tried playing scenes lots of different ways and experienced that many approaches can work. When you are on set, you can ask advice about a prop or a shot, but when it comes to a performance, that’s all on you. If you only have time to learn one thing, learn to work with actors. You can take beautiful pictures all day, but if you don’t get a performance, your film will suck.
The other area where I had zero experience was editing. Neither writers nor ADs go to the edit room, ever.
Personally, I don’t think hanging out in someone else’s edit room will help you make a great film, because your footage is your footage and knowing what someone else did with theirs is irrelevant. My number one piece of advice: don’t be afraid to try something radical. The first scene of my movie moved to the middle of Act One! Show your cut to anyone who will watch it, and if they are bored there is something wrong, keep mixing it up. Oh, and get cutting pieces—inserts, reactions, establishing shots. Often these are not in the script. And trust me, you need them.
People ask if they should make a short film. I suppose if you’ve never been on a set making a short could be a valuable learning experience, but I’ve made two and no one’s ever asked to see either of them. Experienced agents and actors know that sustaining long form is very different than stringing a few great shots together. If you have something to say, then go for it. But if the film is not really, really good you shouldn’t show it, and it takes a long time to make something really, really good. Personally, I think your time is better spent in acting class.
Being a director is a magnificent job. It’s creative, collaborative, social and super challenging. Getting the opportunity takes a long time. So enjoy it when you get there. Seriously. A fun set is a productive set, and you set the tone. People do their best work in a positive environment, so stay positive. And good luck. MM
All I Wish opened in theaters and on VOD and Digital HD March 30, 2018, courtesy of Paladin and Universal Pictures.