Lessons Learned as a Director

Over the past four years, Jenn Page has directed four Independent feature films. Having worked with some of Hollywood’s top talent, she stopped by Filmmaking Stuff to share her lessons learned as a director.

As a director you are completely responsible for everything on your movie set, one way or another. Everything…

Of all that you deal with, the hardest part of being a director is not getting final cut of your baby. You have put in all the work to make the writer’s script the best it can be, you have hired the most talented cast possible (or even more likely you’ve been handed a cast that you didn’t pick and have had to work hard to make them brilliant), you’ve dealt with numerous fires on set and managed to get through without anyone dying.

Unless you are funding the movie, music video, TV show or web series yourself – Or if you have Ron Howard status, you are not getting final cut. Even if the paper says you are getting final cut, you are not.

Directing Lesson 1 – Know What You Want

Only shoot exactly what you want to be edited in to the movie. Don’t get the ‘just in-case’ shot or ‘since we have it here’ shot. Know exactly how you want the scene to be edited and only shoot that. And if you don’t know how to edit the scene, it is time to learn because you need to be editing on set, in your head.

That takes confidence in your work and decisions, but as a director you should be confident (even when you are wrong). If you have any say in the matter, surround yourself with talent (cast & crew) and listen to their advice, needs and opinions. But in the end it is YOUR name on the project so you have to take responsibility from minute one (and minute one is choosing the right script) and never stop taking responsibility.

Jenn Page Camera

Directing Lesson 2 – Be Diplomatic On Set

It is harsh when you can’t choose your team and you get an argumentative personality on set. It really halts production to have to constantly explain your reasoning to your DP or Producers. It also kills your morale and passion for the film. As soon as you start trying to please the producer (or DP) to keep the peace, you get stuck with a mishmash of ideas that are half yours and half someone else’s and not strong in any voice.

You will always end up with a boring movie if there is no clear point of view.

Directing Lesson 3 – Radiate Optimism

Maybe you’ve hit day 12 with 6 more days to go, and you would rather tell the producer to stick the camera where the sun doesn’t shine while you go find the jelly donuts than continue to feel disrespected. You are not the first director to decide that you want to quit now and show them how much they needed you. However, the one steady truth remains: your name will be on the film or tarnished by giving up, so you can’t. You have to be the one person on set who stays positive, motivated, and keeps marching through no matter how ridiculous the set becomes.

In future articles I will dig deeper into the director/producer and director/DP relationships, but the bottom line is no matter what is happening on set, you need to be the one making the choices. So even when your DP insists on a closeup but you know you don’t want one in that moment then you have to trust your gut and move on. If you film that closeup to make him happy, I guarantee the producers will want to use that shot when it’s time to edit. Don’t even give them the opportunity.

Directing Lesson 4 – Go Easy On Coverage

When we are first starting out as directors we often think coverage means shooting anything and everything we can in a scene. Master, medium, medium closeup, closeup, extreme close up, try from this angle, maybe put the camera over here and shoot from this angle… The list could go on and on. You don’t need all that. Stop wasting precious time on set. When you mentally edit the film as you are going you know exactly what you need to make the scene be impactful.

Many of you think that you have done this in advance with your storyboards, but even if you have had the rare luxury of a storyboard artist on your film you will rarely have the luxury of time to shoot everything as you planned it. Until you are making big studio films where you get to work on one scene all day, you are in the land of independent features where your storyboards, shot lists, and any thoughts of how the day will go are thrown out the window.

Jenn Page - Blocking The Shot

There is never enough time. Never. Being able to edit while you shoot will actually give you much lost time back.

Directing Lesson 5 – Get The Performance

The digital age has created an “It’s not film” mentality. However, we should always shoot like we are shooting film. Make specific choices and don’t waste resources shooting too much. Okay, okay, I am the first person to say “just keep rolling” when on set, but not because I am not sure about what I want, quite the opposite. I keep rolling so my actors can keep working without the break in momentum. When an actor is in the zone, calling cut can actually be detrimental.

Letting the camera roll long enough to get the performance is still editing. You know you are close to getting the performance you need from them so you keep letting them move through it until the scene is nailed. Now that you have the performance and angle you need, you can move on. There’s no need to get anything else, no matter how much the DP might really want another take for himself. You got what you need, move on.

Directing Lesson 6 – Remember Good Collaborators

I have worked with some of the most giving, talented, open-minded, collaborative, hard-working people on the planet. Producers, DP’s, writers, gaffers, grips, sound mixers, actors, and beyond. I have people that I just adore and will take with me to the top of the mountain. Those are the people you want to have around you on every set, even if you can only get one in, having that person there to back your decisions or just be a lunch buddy, will help make you a better (more relaxed) director.

Jenn Page with Corey Feldman

If you are lucky enough to find a DP that you work well with and they are also an editor, then you are really in for a treat! The two of you will move through shots like they are warm butter. I rarely have to deal with anyone who isn’t a team player, but it does happen. It will happen to you at some point, and when anything is wrong or off in the finished film, I promise all eyes, fingers, and toes are pointed at you.

- – -
Jenn Page has been lucky enough to direct 4 Independent feature films in the past two years, working with some of Hollywood’s top talent. The mission of her production company Luminave Films, is to create great projects for women to star in, produce, direct, and even crew on. Since it’s inception she has directed, written, and or produced nearly a 100 projects including web series, music videos, and award-winning profit-generating short films for, by, and starring women. Click here to find out more about Jenn Page.

Comments

  1. philip pratt says

    very educative and insightful. this article is good for my career especially the side that addresses the director’s relationship with the DP. i am looking forward to more articles. i will give credits to Jason on any new film i will do. thanks

  2. Stan says

    With all due respect to the authors achievement in directing 4 features in 4 years, but I don’t agree with the ‘don’t even give them the opportunity’ mentality. Filmaking is a collaborative process, the aim is to make the best film possible, not just to stamp the director’s mark on a mediocre film. If a DP ( many of whom are very experienced) suggests a close up, I would only refuse it if it had absolutely no place in my shot list schedule; was detrimental in terms of time/budget, or if he/she couldn’t make a valid (technical/creative) case for it, and not because I didn’t want to give the producers options, incase that shot made it to the final cut. With this ‘prima Donna’ mentality, the film is likely to suffer and the final product may not be the best film that could have been made. I’m all for the Auteurist mentality of many director’s, however there’s a fine line between making the best use of the creative and technical potentials which your crew can bring to the table, and snuffing out all logic and good reason in order to satisfy the me me me mentality. If its all about you, then you should be funding your next feature. Sorry if my comments sound harsh, but the producers would rather have a great film brought about by a director who made the most of the talent of his crew, than a mediocre film which was all about the director.

  3. Emmanuel Afrifa says

    Hi Jason,

    As usual, many thanks for sharing these insights. However, I’m going to ask you to comment further on two points in Lesson 1 above, because I have a different opinion of those points. Your advice is to avoid the “just in-case” or “since we have it here” shots and shoot only what needs to be edited into the movie. Well, won’t it be a good idea to have extra footage especially when it was beautiful and unexpected? Like, if filming on location in some jungle and you come upon a very rare kind of bird singing, or two giant snakes locked in combat, will you ignore these natural scenes just because they are not in the script? What about a future project? I think adjustments can always be made on set to original plans, depending on the situation. Also, if you are in the habit of taking advice from your cast and crew members, some will sooner or later take that for a weakens and try to rather direct you. Be a good listener to suggestions, and be sensitive to their needs and opinion, yes, but stick to your own decisions and plans, unless you don’t know what you are doing. Maybe I misunderstood you. Kindly throw more light on those points. Thanks.

  4. says

    Very insightful perspective. All too often articles are about the technical. This is quite practical in the things some directors don’t think about. Also a useful refresher to the entire cast and crew to help keep the eye on the prize rather than the “more is better” mentality. Have a vision, capture it, go home.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *