Notes to a First-Time Director

When I was on the set of Phil Spector a last month I got some great advice on directing my first film, A Short History of Decay,  from David Mamet. A week later, as I was heading to LA, it occurred to me that many of my friends in the business would also have some interesting things to say about taking that first daunting step into directing.

How does a neophyte walk into a situation crowded with experienced professionals and start running the show?  (Or, does one even attempt this?) How does someone who hasn't acted since stinking up a high school production of Othello talk to seasoned actors about their craft? So, camera in hand, I started asking them.  As Mamet had predicted, everyone was generous, supportive and helpful.

Techies P.S.: This was recorded with a Nikon D7000. Okay, some of these are a bit out of focus. When I realized that I couldn't really see through the camera's LED screen, I bought a Zacuto viewfinder which allowed me to actually see what I was shooting.  I recommend the product to anyone shooting with an HDSLR.

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  1. Some good advice from your friends. Before I directed my first short, many years ago, I'd attended a screening of 'Kinsey' in NY where Bill Condon was speaking after. I'd walked up and asked what his advice was to a first time director. His response, paraphrasing: "prepare as much as you can because some mornings, during shoot, when you wake up unsure and doubtful about everything it's the preparation that will come to your aide."

    I agree with David Rosenthal about never leaving a setup without getting what you want. And if you have a great group of people on set by your side, they'll want to accommodate you because they'll also want the best take captured on film...or CF cards.

    I'll add one tip from my own experience: Never assume that an actor, no matter how big or experienced, doesn't want to be directed. (S)he's done his/her homework, but you're the only one who knows how everything should fit and (s)he expects your guidance. But then, different strokes for different folks. You'll know what I mean by that.

    First time directing, more than anything, is also a personal discovery session. You'll find out what you're good at and what you're, surprisingly, excellent at.

    Best of luck!!

    • Well, I've taught 2nd grade for 30 years and this sounds like good advice for someone taking my place as I'm about to retire:

      "prepare as much as you can because some mornings, during shoot, when you wake up unsure and doubtful about everything it's the preparation that will come to your aide."

      and then:

      "I'll add one tip from my own experience: Never assume that an actor, no matter how big or experienced, doesn't want to be directed. (S)he's done his/her homework, but you're the only one who knows how everything should fit and (s)he expects your guidance. But then, different strokes for different folks. You'll know what I mean by that."

      I'd substitute "teacher" for "actor." Pretty close to the same meaning.
      As to: "different strokes for different folks." God bless "everyday people!"

      As Doc Marlowe said, "Hey, boy-gie"

      Michael, I love you and wish you the best.

  2. Your film was a great primer for anyone about to jump into the deep end.

    Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. You'll be on your feet all day. Make sure you have weather appropriate gear.

    Stay away from the sugary crap on the craft service table. Drink lots of water and get a good breakfast.

    The fish stinks from the head down. It is your set, and you set the tone. It can be incredibly stressful, but a happy director makes for a happy crew, and a happy crew will help you push that rock up the hill. In addition to being an artist, you must also be a manager. Reassurances and thank-yous go a long way.

    In the edit room, don't be afraid to kill moments you love if they don't propel the story forward.

    Love your actors even when they are not lovable.

    Pace and tone. Know what they are before you start shooting. Don't change the tone unless there is a clear reason in the story to do so.

    Directing your own project is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

  3. The advice about not sweating the little decisions is good. In my business (software), it's fast moving and there are a million choices which need to be made, but when faced with choice A or choice B, you can:

    1. Choose A
    2. Choose B
    3. Think about it some more

    when 99% of the time, 1 and 2 are pretty equally good and the only disastrous option is 3.

  4. Loved, this Michael. A great little documentary actually.

  5. Wonderful, concise, practical! I only clicked on it to be the 1000th viewer (which, who knows...youtube still catching up with your tally) but am so glad I did.

    I'm curious if Jill Soloway's father is the guy who owned the 16mm reversal lab Cinelab...there might be a family resemblance. Also, hello Jack Gilpin, if you're reading this!

  6. What a day. It was my 60th birthday and myself and my Basset Hound Miss Maggie were working with For Mike on his movie, "A Short History of Decay" Maggie loved by all and I of course barley tolerated. EVERY ONE WAS GREAT!!

    In the over 50 years I have been doing background this was one of the more enjoyable projects. If Mike and Big Fan Productions come bye for another project I hope to be honored working with them again.

  7. Mr. Maren, I directed my first film "Help Wanted" it's dreadful, the CIA uses it now as there primary enhanced interrogation method, after five minutes the prisoners start talking. What I did after that failure was like jumping on grenada to save the movie and salvage something out of this first attempt at directing. I went back and made a documentary about the top ten things I did wrong and why to demonstrate to first time filmmakers what not to do. The documentary is entitled "Some Assembly Required" and the tag line is "They don't teach failure in film school" I'll be happy to send you a copy and hopefully you can avoid the mistakes I made. I wish you the best of luck, enjoy this time and like business my partner says a lot of people talk about making a movie, very few actually do it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMbmB6rSGZg

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