We have all seen the names and faces of great Directors and their glittering sidewalk stars in Hollywood—names like Scorcese, Lucas, Cameron, Spielberg, (see also: 30 Best Directors Today), and when I talk to PAs (Production Assistants) on set, it seems that most aspire to claim their places as Directors. Who can blame them? Success often brings with it notoriety, wealth, and influence, and many projects find legs when well-credited Directors sign onto them.
So what is the formula to becoming a recognized Director? On occasion, I get asked, “How do I get there? How do I move up the ladder after being a PA on set for a year or two?” with youthful enthusiasm, and I am happy to help provide some guidance. Note that we’ll be discussing Directing, specifically, so if you are a creative simply looking for direction on what to do next, consider reading Advice for Aspiring Filmmakers first.
Navigating the film world is different for all of us. Know that it is extremely rare for young directors to set up shop and capture the world by surprise. There are no overnight successes in the film industry, contrary to popular belief. If you are passionate about directing, you will need to keep your nose to the grind, set progressive goals, then work and pray for others to develop an interest in giving you breaks to step up gradually over time.
What does that look like? Beyond continually taking opportunities to observe and participate on set (PA and other work with gradually higher entrusted roles), you will want to start with the following:
- Take an Acting Class (or two, or three…). Observe what actors go through and how the instructor works with them. This will help you in providing effective instruction on set.
- Network. Keep your call sheets and reach out to other creatives with whom the director would interact in production design (set dresser, wardrobe, etc.) and learn their stories over coffee.
- Direct. Lo and no-budget, we all do them from time-to-time to keep our tools sharp and to lend a hand. Find a good short or work with a writer to create a solid story and experiment with defining your “voice.” It is in this playground that you get to work with color, sound, tempo, etc. When a paid project comes along you will be ready to step into it, and your demo reel will support your claim.
- Define yourself. In business, defining self is equivalent to finding your niche, and it will often settle in one of the main film/storytelling genres. Start by asking, “What am I energized to create?” Is it dark comedy, Rom-Com, action-adventure, …? Go after that, and later, after you get established, you can branch out.
- Be curious.
- Study directors and their styles across time periods and genres. What made them so great? Generally, it was their style, creative choices, and their ability to influence a team toward a common goal. As the Director, you are the quarterback calling the plays to move downfield.
- Additionally, be curious about the world around you. Again, thinking about your genre, be on the lookout in the natural world, science, politics, etc. to observe and ask questions. Hidden in the stuff that much of the world passes over are gems that can be made into stories.
Additional thoughts? Questions? Feel free to comment here or to reach out directly.
Oscar image courtesy of libreshot.com