How to Become a Director
There is no sure-fire path on how to become a Director. That’s the bad news and the good news. Unlike other professions, like a Lawyer or a Doctor, in which there is a prescribed education and examinations to follow, the path to becoming a Film Director is usually paved by the person who has set his or her mind on becoming a Director. You’ve heard the phrase there are many ways to skin a cat? Well, there are many ways to become a Director, because what works for one person, might not work for the other. On top of that, times are changing. Can you believe YouTube has only been around 14 years? The idea of putting video directly on the internet for everyone to see is fairly new and has opened up a new path for aspiring filmmakers to get noticed. You are diving in at a great time! But here’s the skinny. If you want to be a Director, you must have an entrepreneurial spirit.
There are many people like you who started their careers by looking for guidance. In the book Breaking In, which was written to give aspiring Directors some answers before the age of the internet, Roger Ebert, who wrote the forward, muses over the many successful filmmakers he interviewed over the years and what he learned from them. He said one question always put a spark in their eyes: “How did you get your start?” The two consistent things he saw in many of the answers were how the Directors talked about their loneliness and their resolve. That seems heavy but stick with me. Writing a screenplay is a lonely experience, and getting it made is a huge task. Nobody will understand how important it is to you, but you. That’s where the resolve comes in. As Ebert points out, “It is a career you have to make for yourself.”
It’s true. Whatever path you take, whether it’s film school or not, be ready to take the lead. To quote Ebert again, “Studios don’t send recruiters to campuses to hire young Directors. The film schools turn out hundreds of thousands of graduates a year, and if you want to make feature films, there are no jobs and no openings except the ones you make for yourself.” So I bet you’re wondering, but where do I start? Let’s look at a few things you can do to get you closer to your goal.
In our discussion of how to become a Director, we’ll cover:
- The skills a Director needs
- How to build a Director skill set
- How to get a job as a Director
- Getting yourself out there
- How to actually become a Director
What Skills Does a Director Need?
A Director must be a good leader and a good communicator. She must understand the elements of story and be able to develop a vision from a script. She must be able to communicate this vision to her team and effectively lead them through the process it takes to put that vision onto the screen. But there is more to it than that.
In his book, On Directing, John Badham refers to directing as “part art and part craft….” Art, of course, is often associated with talent, which he says is, “virtually impossible to teach, difficult to describe, but unmistakable when observed.” That said, the craft part, the anatomy of film – the shots, the design, the sound, can be learned. But what makes a Director stand out is her point of view. It is the Director’s job to interpret the script and add her “take” on it.
Can that be learned? Perhaps. This is one of those things you won’t get at film school, so read, travel and talk to as many people as you can from as many places you can. When you have a worldview, you are more likely to approach stories in a different manner. That’s not to say you can’t pay homage to other great Directors, but like any artist, you must find your own voice.
Filmmaking tools are more accessible than ever. Get your hands on a camera, or make friends with someone who has a camera and start telling visual stories. You can even use your phone. The more you make, the better you will get. You just have to get started.
How Can I Build a Director’s Skill Set?
You might be a natural leader and a go-getter. Good for you! But some people need a little more structure. For those folks, film school is one place to get started. Film school will give you a lot of practical skills and will help you develop a network of co-creators. Making a film by yourself is virtually impossible, so this is probably the best perk of film school.
In most cases, film school forces you to experience the whole process of filmmaking and the students get to work on each other’s films in order to gain experience in a safe environment. You also have the benefit of Professors who will mentor you, so each step you make you have the advantage of feedback and support.
But what if you are not the film school type? There are plenty of great Directors who did not go to film school. It’s not a must. There are certainly ways to learn the craft. There are webinars, podcasts, books, and most of all, practical experience. The key is passion.
Consume whatever you can about the craft and watch as many movies as you can. Take them apart, figure them out and then start making them. Filmmaking tools are more accessible than ever. Get your hands on a camera, or make friends with someone who has a camera and start telling visual stories. You can even use your phone. The more you make, the better you will get. You just have to get started.
How Do I Get a Job as a Director?
Part of building a career as a Director is developing relationships. Now, this happens naturally in film school, but beyond that, you have to keep expanding your network. Getting on a professional set (and this goes for self-starters, too) is a great way to meet people.
But how do you get that first job? You’ve heard about the entry-level Production Assistant (PA) gig, but how do you score one? They aren’t advertised in the classifieds.
That’s because they are waiting for you to come to them. Getting that PA job isn’t as difficult as it seems. Make a resume and knock on doors. It’s all about timing and numbers. You show up on the right day, you got yourself a shot. You show up often enough, they know you’re serious and they will give you a shot.
If you don’t live in Los Angles or New York, where most production companies are, most cities that have film production have a website that lists current productions with email addresses to send a resume. A word of advice: Don’t stalk anyone. Be polite, and let them know what you have to offer. You have value.
It does help to know where you want to work. If you are interested in development and the corporate side, send your resume to the production company office. If you are interested in working on set, send your resume to the production office. If you are interested in post-production, send your resume to post-production houses. All of these places are where you meet people and learn. I myself targeted post-production because I knew that Editors worked with the footage. Becoming an Assistant Editor gave me the opportunity to see coverage day after day and I quickly learned the pieces it took to make a movie. Later I had to learn what it took to make those pieces, but I knew this is where I wanted to start.
Ultimately, you will meet people who will help you out, whether it’s to get an Agent or a Manager, or to helm a film. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight. You wouldn’t get married after a first date, would you?
Getting Yourself Out There!
Don’t just tell people you’re a Director. As I said above, get out there and direct! Get feedback and get better. When you think you have something good enough, put together a website, get a YouTube channel or a Vimeo account and share it with the world. Let people know you are serious and you are creating things regularly.
What about a web series? Many artists are diving into this space because they aren’t waiting for opportunity to knock, they are creating their own opportunities. Think Broad City.
The other way to get noticed is by submitting your work to film festivals. You don’t have to start with a feature. Start with a short. The submission fees add up so I would save the film festival route for that gem you really think is going to take you to the next level. Film festivals offer great networking opportunities and they also give you an audience for your film. Just watch out for scam festivals.
But How Do I Actually Become a Director?
I know the advice above focuses on acquiring skills and how to network and that feels a world away from being attached to a film as a Director. But here’s the thing: if you do all of the above and you are truly dedicated to your craft and have a unique point of view, someone will notice eventually. Ultimately, you will meet people who will help you out, whether it’s to get an Agent or a Manager or to helm a film. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight. You wouldn’t get married after a first date, would you?
- Say “yes” as often as you can on the job. Be a problem solver.
- Don’t be too cool to get coffee. You’ll be too busy to get coffee one day, also.
- Read trades like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.
- If you want to get the email of a production office, call the office of the production company and politely ask where you can send your resume for the production.
- Listen to the Director’s Guild podcast.
- Jarecki, Nicholas and Roger Ebert (2001). Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start. Broadway Books. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
- Badham, John (2013). On Directing: Notes from the Sets of Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, and More. Audible. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
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