Every successful director has been asked at some point or another to share their wisdom with an new generation of eager hopefuls, and they all have their own take on how to get started in the business. Steven Spielberg told Matt Damon to start with a small story. George Lucas insists you can’t call yourself a director if you don’t know how to make the right decision. For Tom Cruise, being successful is all about finding a crew that works as hard as you do. Everyone’s a little different, but there is nonetheless a common thread running through the tips and tricks imparted by established filmmakers. Here’s a roundup of the ones most seem to agree on.
1. JUST GET IT ALL OUT
When you’re just getting started, keep filming. Your chances of making a winner on your first try, or even after your first 20, are infinitesimal. Think of your early work the way an artist sketches their subject before putting paint to canvas. Don’t try to get everything right the first time, just try to master something new with every project.
2. BUILD YOUR TEAM
Start to build a core team of people who will continue to work with you as you hone your craft. If you and your crew work well together, and have survived multiple projects, you will reap the benefit of directing people who understand exactly what you’re looking for. There’s a reason so many successful filmmakers work with close relatives. They were the only crew available for that very first backyard blockbuster.
3. YOUR FIRST BUDGET IS IN YOUR WALLET
If you can learn to make a movie with nothing, you’ll have no problem making an epic once your reputation attracts investors. Cut your teeth on all the challenges of making a zero-budget short. If necessity is the mother of invention, an iPhone and a couple of friends are surely the parents of creative genius.
4. DON’T WAIT FOR HELP
If you want to make a movie, go make a movie. A great director understands the role of every member of the crew, and most have done the job themselves early in their career. Finding help is a bonus, but first and foremost you’re on your own. Work with what you’ve got and focus on whatever it is you do best. Tell the story any way you can, without waiting for someone else to tell it for you.
5. WATCH AND LEARN
No matter what you want to do with your camera, chances are someone else has already tried. Watch the movies that you think are really impressive, and break down the components that make it so. The answers to most of your technical questions can be found in the works you admire and want to replicate. Master the basics and the finer points will follow.
6. BE BRIEF
Oscar Wilde famously apologized for the length of a letter by saying if he’d had more time, he would have written a shorter one. Telling a captivating story in five or ten minutes is the essence of good filmmaking, and your first attempts should be short and succinct. Go back to point number 1 – at this stage you’re looking to be prolific, not perfect.
7. VALUE DIVERSITY
Once you achieve some measure of success, you’re not going to be able to make the same film twice. Plenty of filmmakers get typecast, just as actors do, and become known for a certain genre or style. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re not drawing from other cultures, experiences and perspectives. Always value the input of those with an entirely different world view because their story may be more compelling than your own.
8. SUBMIT YOUR WORK
Once you’ve completed a piece that you’re happy with it, start showing it to the world. Get it on YouTube and submit it to festivals. It won’t be your best work, unless you’re planning to have a very short career, but you need to get exposure in order to build your credentials and get the funding for more complex projects.
9. KEEP TRYING
Learning the art of filmmaking is an exercise in trial and error. If you’re like most great directors, you’re going to make a lot of bad movies before your experience and talent start coming to the fore. Just keep shooting. Samuel Beckett had the right attitude when he said “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.
10. ENJOY THE RIDE
Try to keep in mind that in the end, it’s the daily challenges of creating a feature that are going to sustain you in filmmaking. Enjoying personal or financial success is certainly a goal, but if you don’t enjoy the process, it’s not much of a life. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that becoming a successful filmmaker involves a lot of hard work, a little luck, and a pathological desire to keep filming, no matter what anyone else thinks of your work. And don’t listen to other filmmakers. Apparently, that won’t help either.