The Director’s Playbook

Written by Greg Garofalo.

It hurts me when film students direct their first film, fail spectacularly and decide directing isn’t for them. Now in all fairness, there are many who find a newfound passion in being director of photography, or production design and that’s great.

However, there are some who just think they don’t have the knack for it and they give up. So if you just finished your first film and you’re having an existential crisis, or if you’re just about to start your first film, take a deep breath and keep reading.

Everywhere you look for directing advice you usually find articles and books on the artistic vision you will have to have in order to direct a film.

That’s all well and good, but no one tells you that directing is more of a skill than a talent.

Don’t get me wrong, as a director you are the creative force behind a project and you need to have a vision. However, you need to be skilled and gain experience in order to get that idea off the ground. Like any other skill though, it can be learned. Here are some tips that can help you fine tune that skill.

1. BE CONFIDENT

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This one probably seems like a no brainer… or something out of a self help book, but it’s super important and can make or break your film. As the director, you are the captain of the ship and everyone is looking to you for leadership. If you know what you’re doing (or at least act like you do) it’s going to inspire a similar confidence in your cast and crew.

It isn’t as easy as it sounds.

The first film I ever directed I was a deer in the headlights. I was so nervous I was literally shaking. It was bad.. like really bad.

My second film I did was great, I had a much clearer vision of what I wanted and had a better strategy on how to bring that idea to life.

The difference in this confidence? I made sure to take a deep breath and believe in myself.

I know that sounds like a cat poster (or the lyrics to the Arthur theme song) but it’s true. During my first film I was constantly questioning the story I had written and my abilities as a director. Thoughts like “I have no idea what I’m doing”, “this isn’t working out” and “I just want to be done.” all raced through my mind.

My second film I decided to just take things one step at a time, to focus on each task one at a time, rather than look at things as a big impossible obstacle.

Taking things one step at a time and a deep breath will carry you a long way.

2. KNOWING YOUR STORY

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I can’t stress this enough. Don’t just memorise the script, but memorise the beats and the emotion of the script too. Learn to study your script like an actor would. Find the motivations, the character arcs, the foreshadowing, etc.

A great film is like a great novel; there’s always something more to dissect. Diagram your story and know every inch of emotion, theme and development.

To understand the beats and the emotion of your scripts, do some research on story itself. Start with the basics and study things like The Three Act Structure and  Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey.

This might not sound like something required for directing, but as the director you are the storyteller. Regardless if you wrote the script yourself or not you need to understand visual storytelling and what makes an objectively good story from a bad one.

3. PRACTICE AND LEARN VISUAL STORYTELLING

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A prose author focuses on the internal conflict of their characters, while a playwright will tell the story through dialogue. A screenwriter needs to rely on the visuals to drive the story.

Mad Max Fury Road is a great example of visual storytelling; look at Max and Furiosa’s fight.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dB74pkelfUI (embed in article)

It’s a dense scene, packed with visual narrative, and everything is intentional.

  • Max is demanding to be cut free when the woman sees her former captors on the horizon, Max doesn’t care. Instantly the film establishes a sense of urgency and a major conflict.
  • Furiosa is not the kind of character to just sit by and let things happen; she’s going to get the situation back under her control.
  • Even the refugee women get involved in the fight. Their involvement shows not only just how desperate they are to get away, but how the women won’t be helpless damsels. They’re going to be strong characters as well.

This is all set up without a word of dialogue.

When you watch it ask questions like:

  • What does Furiosa’s amputated arm tell you about her?
  • How does the desert setting complement the story?
  • What does the costumes tell you about the characters?
  • How does the center framing of the characters affect how you view the action?

I could go on, but you could fill a book dissecting that film. Open your eyes and ask yourself as a director, how do you show a story rather than tell one?

  • Film some shorts without any dialogue and force yourself to show a completely visual narrative and then ask how dialogue can enhance that story.
  • Watch films with the sound muted and take notes on what’s happening in the story, did the filmmaker succeed in visual story or did they rely on expositional dialogue to get through to their audience.
  • Read comic books. Yup, you read that right; comic books are an inherently visual story medium, they basically read like one big storyboard

4. PLAN A STRATEGY FOR DIRECTING YOUR ACTORS

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This is a HUGE one. I’ve noticed that actor-director communication not only makes or breaks the film, but it’s also a deciding factor for many aspiring directors in whether or not they decide to continue to direct.

After all, if you don’t have the knack for talking to actors you obviously can’t direct, right?

  1. Directing actors is a learned skill, it isn’t an inherent gift. Yes, you might be good with people and all that, but none of your people skills matter if you don’t have a strategy.

A friend of mine was directing a comedy recently. When I asked him how it was going he told me that he didn’t think his actors understood that his script was supposed to be funny.

In reality, it had nothing to do with his script and everything to do with directing.

Often times, comedy will call for a bit of exaggeration in both an actor’s mannerisms and their line delivery. This is something that is directly opposite of what most screen actors are taught. A screen actor is taught to keep a scene as real as possible. Minimize your mannerisms and facial expressions, play to real life and all that jazz.

My friend never took this into account; he just expected his actors to instinctually ham up their performance. While I’m sure his actors understand this about comedy, an actor isn’t going to break a cardinal rule without the director’s direction. See what I’m getting at?

In order to successfully direct actors, you need to get in their head. Study different acting methods such as Uta Hagen, Stanislavski and more. Learn about objective based directing rather than emotions based. Are you telling your actor how to feel or are you giving them a goal to build towards?

Also, make sure you have a meeting beforehand with your talent and make sure they know the subtext of your story. Give them as much character information as you can and learn about the methods they study and adhere to.

Not only will this help your actor know the story better, but it will help you make a better game plan. You’re a coach and you need to know your players’ strengths and weaknesses in order to win the game.

5. EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED AND IMPROVE YOUR COMMUNICATION SKILLS

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When it comes to filmmaking, you need to know that things are going to go wrong. No exceptions…things WILL go wrong.

You’ll have difficulty with your location, your equipment might break down or overheat, your crew’s morale will drop, and airplanes will seem to only fly during a take. You name it, it’s going to happen. You need to be ready for it.

Problems with shooting is nothing new, it’s just how it goes. You need to learn to roll with the punches and work around the obstacles. Make a joke out of it; find ways to keep morale up.

Make sure craft services has plenty of snacks to pass out. Trust me food, always tastes 1000x better on a film set than in any other context.

Keeping the mood light and fun is a double edged sword. You need to make sure your crew is on track too. I worked with a director who would throw a spare water bottle out of “anger” to jolt the crew back on track and it worked.

You don’t have to copy that, but find ways to keep your set under control without running it like an oppressive dictator.

You also need to make sure your direction is clear and concise. There’s no time on set to go into a lengthy explanation on how you need something done, you just gotta get it out.

6. RELAX AND FAIL, FAIL, FAIL

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You’re not going to be Scorsese overnight. Don’t be afraid to take a chance and fail at it. Just because your first, second, or third film fall flat on their face doesn’t mean you shouldn’t direct.

If you really want to direct, do it and don’t let failure stop you. Pick yourself back up and do it again and again until you get it.

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