There is no real formula for both directing and shooting your first feature film. All I can do for you is lend the knowledge I accumulated during my own very specific experience as both director and cinematographer on my feature, Meadowland.
This is a cautionary tale.
To start, two key questions:
1 Have you DP’d a feature before?
2 Have you directed a feature before?
If you’re answering no to both of these questions, you probably shouldn’t do both at the same time, unless the stakes are really low. If you have extensive experience with either directing or DPing, you are possibly a better candidate for trying to do both. In short, I wouldn’t recommend DPing and directing your film unless you can do one of those jobs with your eyes closed.
For Meadowland, my priority was the story and performances. If I’d been primarily focusing on the visuals—if the look was consuming me—then I know I wouldn’t have had enough brain space to think about the story and character arcs. That said, the minute I read the script I knew what I wanted the movie to look like. It was engraved in my head. Once I decided that it was going to be a naturalistic look, which is what comes easiest to me, I could use all my other brain space to figure out how to make the story work. I wasn’t attempting a new visual style that was outside of my wheelhouse or that might distract me from the actors and from the story.
Do you need to do this?
You probably shouldn’t put yourself under this pressure unless some extenuating circumstance is forcing you to. Maybe your producers are telling you that you have 19 days to shoot. And maybe, from previous experience, you know what a 22-day or 24-day shoot can deliver. Maybe that’s the difference between an OK movie and an excellent movie. Part of the reason I chose to do both jobs was because it afforded us those additional days and my cinematographer experience taught me what a difference that could make.
Do you have the right temperament?
You have to be a certain type of person to take this on (a total asshole. Just kidding… sort of). You can’t be a person who’s easily stressed out or emotionally reactive, who freaks out the moment there’s an issue, because filmmaking is constantly solving one issue after the other. That’s true for both directors and cinematographers. You have to be somewhat zen to get through this endeavor successfully.
I love DPing—it’s how I came up in this industry—and I didn’t know if I wanted to leave that super-satisfying aspect of the process to someone else. There’s so much emotion in setting the tone with light and operating the camera, I felt it would go hand in hand with finding the performances. Perhaps because I’m a full-time working mom of two children, I had a hunch—a hope—that I could multitask, even though I hadn’t really directed since college.
Do you have the support of your team?
Make sure that everyone else on your team is on board. The only way to do both jobs is to have an entire crew behind you—because filmmaking is not a one-man sport. It requires a lot of people and a lot of moving parts.
Since storytelling and performance were my priorities, the main person I was concerned about clearing this crazy endeavor with was Olivia Wilde, our leading lady. If it was going to hinder her performance in any way, then I’d only be shortchanging the entire movie. We all know actors need a secure and safe environment in which to do their best.
Olivia’s only concern was—since I was coming off of being sick with cancer—that I might be biting off more than I could chew physically and mentally. Otherwise, it was her dream scenario for me to do both jobs, because she thought it would be a more intimate experience for us. My producers felt the same way. And my crew —from my first AD to my assistant—all backed me up, like, “That’s crazy, but fuck it, let’s do it.” When you have people behind you that you trust, that respect you, and are gung-ho about a concept, chances are it’ll be a lot more successful.
Do you know your story well?
Spend as much time as you can with the script prior to shooting. I was able to spend two years working on the Meadowland script with Chris Rossi, the writer, before we started shooting. Get to a place with a script where you feel you know it inside and out. If you’re that confident about the story, then you won’t feel unprepared.
If you’ve answered yes to all of the above:
Once you decide to take on both roles, do everything you can to set yourself up for success. I set out to scout locations that would be a cinematographer’s dream in terms of accessibility on a low budget. For example, I refused to look at any apartments unless they were a first-floor corner apartment. It was a very difficult job for my locations manager, but I knew that if I had access to every window, it would allow me to light the scenes the way that I wanted—with one unit out the window and avoiding any other bullshit in the room.
For movies with larger budgets, you’d have more flexibility here, say, if you had tons of manpower or lifts that you could get outside the windows. On Meadowland, I didn’t have riggers or lifts or money and we only had two grips and two electrics. Not to mention that our largest light was a 4K. My DP experience told me we needed easy access, so I could light scenes beautifully and effortlessly. I had a very specific—and fairly simplistic—plan for the lighting that I downloaded on the tech scout with my gaffer and the key grip, which allowed me to dedicate much more time and attention to the actors on the shooting days.
I wanted to light in such a way that the actors had complete freedom, which went hand in hand with the directing style I was setting up for myself. We could do almost anything we wanted—most blocking would work. In my opinion, nine times out of 10, whatever the actors are doing is what is going to be the most natural in terms of blocking. I’ve seen many directors get married to the way they imagine someone’s physicality or the intonation of a line to be. That prevents you from seeing bigger and better ways of doing things. For example, there’s a scene with Olivia and Giovanni Ribisi that takes place in the apartment. I didn’t know where either of them were going to move; I’d always imagined them sitting on the bed. Then Giovanni surprised me by hanging out in the doorway for a while before easing his way into the room to talk to her. Luckily, the lighting I had planned weeks before totally accommodated that—they would either be side by side or end up in profile—and in the doorway the shot was still really nice. Quick adjustments were made (i.e. cutting the light a bit because he was slightly front-lit) but the blocking was nearly instantaneous and natural. That’s how nearly every scene unfolded.
From a camera perspective, you can probably tell I like to fly by the seat of my pants. Most DPs are more meticulous than I am, and unlike most directors, I do not like to make a very specific shot list—only to get a sense of the amount of coverage to plan for. When a camera is a living and breathing character, it has the capability to draw more sympathy from the audience.
Actors can be amazing leaders in showing you what works and what doesn’t. I set up a scenario that had no hard limitations: The actors could do what they needed to do and I didn’t have to make big adjustments to accommodate them, technically speaking. Whenever they had a suggestion, or were going in a slightly different place than I wanted them to, the lighting would allow for it. And I prefer to be as fluid as the actors are—like another character in the scene. I like to emotionally react off of what they are doing. This all translates to “I trust you,” which can result in very assured, compelling and risky performances.
I knew we’d get a static wide shot locked off on sticks with handheld coverage. That’s pretty much the look of the film—it had to be as real as possible, otherwise the movie would fail. At the same time, the lighting was moody enough that I actually felt like I was taking more risks on this movie than I had in the past because I wasn’t trying to please another director or producer. When I didn’t want to use fill light, I didn’t use fill. There was no one telling me, “Hey, I need to see their eyes.” I decided when it was, emotionally, the right time to see their eyes.
Maybe my point is that you don’t totally break it down and separate the jobs of directing and shooting. It’s not like you shut your DP brain down to use your directing brain—everything needs to be working in tandem. I had to constantly anticipate what I would need in both departments so I could make quick, sound decisions. So while I don’t necessarily recommend shooting and directing all at once, I had such a great experience doing it. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible, and it’s incredibly rewarding. MM
Meadowland opened in theaters October 16, 2015, courtesy of Cinedigm.