When I was 23 I moved to NYC and started classes at NYU Film School. As the months went by I kept waiting for the day when I would actually learn something. I knew the art of directing could not be taught. I knew the faculty was doing their best to provide the basic fundamentals of filmmaking but still, something was missing.
Some of it had to do with my classmates. They were mostly guys, all with goatees and backwards baseball caps. One freaked me out by coming to class one day with his hat so far backwards it was actually forwards. The cutting-edge spirit was reflected in their films, which were strictly divided between stories of film students trying to get pizza delivered to their dorm rooms or lovesick, guitar-playing mimes in Washington Square Park.
After three years I walked out with an MA in Directing and the profound sense that I had no idea what I was doing.
These words are an attempt to make up for that. They come after seven films and 25 years as a NY independent filmmaker. They are not meant to be gospel. They only reflect what I find sometimes works for me. Some may find them simplistic. In some ways they are nothing more than common sense. They are however based in reality and an apparently endless cycle of falling down and getting up again. If one or two aspiring filmmakers find some value in them then at least I won’t feel so bad about paying all that tuition.
The Director’s Job is Everything.
Many people have come up to me over the years and said, “I really, really want to be a film director.” The first thing I ask is, ‘Why?’ This isn’t meant to be sarcastic. It’s a real question. If you’re looking for the Path, the answer to this question will help you because being a film director requires the immediate acceptance of two facts:
1. There is no Path.
2. The Director’s job is Everything.
I’ll start with #2 because #1 requires much stronger medication.
In 1998 I wrote and directed Box Of Moonlight, starring John Turturro and Sam Rockwell. The film was an attempt to break out of the gritty urban cinemascapes I’d been working in; to re-examine the small-town America I knew as a kid. Much of the script was about the simple pleasures of jumping naked into a quarry, sleeping outside at night and getting arrested for throwing tomatoes. But, for some reason, it was one of the most grueling shoots I’ve ever been on.
Everything went wrong. On the first day of shooting the crane fell off its tracks and it took six hours to get it back on. The rain, the long hours, the bickering of the crew and the actors all started blackening my spirit. All the minutia of chaos began to infuriate me. The camera department forgot to order film. As a result we had to shoot long night scenes with tiny, leftover rolls of film.
Another scene required Turturro to walk barefoot along a rocky path. During the take I saw him stumble and flinch but he finished the scene. The moment I said cut, he erupted in rage. He’d broken his toe. He was incensed no one had cleared the path of pebbles and sticks. Much of his anger was directed at me, which only further darkened my mood. All I could think about was, ‘What the fuck does this have to do with directing?’
My wife came down to visit. She immediately noticed my state of mind and said, “Your mood is affecting the entire film. You are the captain of the ship. That means everyone is looking to you. If you’re in a bad mood, they all feel it. Now, snap out of it.”
The day she returned to NYC she left me a drawing of a stick figure on a tiny boat with the words, “Captain of the ship” penciled on it. As much as I appreciated it, in my mental state the waves she’d drawn looked enormous, as if they were going to wash me overboard at any moment.
That day we were filming underwater in an outdoor swimming pool. Turturro, Rockwell, Catherine Keener and Lisa Blount had to jump into the water over and over. The day started out sunny but quickly turned cold and gray. The actors were wearing only bathing suits. At one point I looked up from the camera and saw them all huddling together; wet, sullen and shivering.
I asked the 1st AD to hook up a heater. He said we didn’t have one. I went to the wardrobe department (sitting in hats, scarves and parkas) and asked for some coats. They said there were none. I asked for sound blankets. They were all damp and muddy from the week of rain.
Then, for some reason, an idea hit me. I asked the gaffer to get the biggest light out of the truck and set it up beside of the pool. In a few minutes it was up and blazing.
Usually the hot light is your enemy. It makes shooting in small, enclosed spaces stifling and unbearable. But, here it was my salvation. The four wet actors stood right in front of the lens, the steam from their bodies rising up into the cold air. After a few moments, they were laughing and joking with each other. It slowly dawned on me; setting up that light was part of the job. It affected what ended up on film as much as any direction or creative decision I’ve made.
The director’s job is Everything. This needs to be accepted completely; without bitterness or resentment. And that’s where it gets tricky. Because at these moments, all you really want to do is beat the shit out of somebody. It’s not difficult to understand why. The pressures of filmmaking are intense, especially on a low-budget film where there is no money to re-shoot, re-cast or hire a new DP. Everything crucial to the film has to be attained in that insanely brief shooting period. If something goes wrong, it affects the film. If a crew member’s attitude creates friction on the set, it affects the film. If an actor shuts down, it affects the film. And if the film is only half-realized, that affects how—and if—it is seen, which directly affects your chances of making another one.
So, yeah; things can get a little tense. If you’re reading this thinking, “I’m much more interested in the director as the medium cool, genius auteur,” then all I can suggest is that you stock up on sunglasses, leather goods and triple nicotine no-foam macchiatos and start writing the remake of Fantasy Island. Because this conflict between art and human nature is real and has existed on every movie set I’ve ever been on.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve tried to wear sunglasses to work many times. Unfortunately, I can’t see the monitor through them. After 12 hours they really start to hurt my nose and I always end up losing them or stepping on them. I’ve also found this image of the mysterious, uber-cool Director is just that—an image. Most directors, including myself, are in a constant state of doubt, fear, ecstasy and confusion all at the same time. Unfortunately, there are very few guidelines on how to deal with it.
Your only option, in the midst of the chaos, is to somehow stay creative. Stay excited. Stay curious and open to discovery. If you lose one moment to your own negativity or despair, you’ve given in. You are the captain of the ship. Everyone is looking to you for guidance, even when you feel lost, defeated and absolutely alone.
I have some thoughts on how you can prepare yourself. Stay with me. Just remember: The director’s job is to do whatever it takes to keep the film going, to keep everyone excited and committed to the miracle—capturing something alive on film.
Tom DiCillo made his debut as a writer-director with 1991’s Johnny Suede, starring Brad Pitt. Living in Oblivion, Box of Moonlight, The Real Blonde, Double Whammy and Delirious followed. When You’re Strange, his documentary on The Doors, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. For more information on DiCillo and his work, visit www.tomdicillo.com.