In August 2011 I stepped onto a film set for the first time as the director. I’d worked on film sets before, but never in this role, and in the first moments of that first day I started getting cold feet. My fight or flight instinct kicked in. My heart raced, my skin warmed up and my breathing came quick. But there was no way in hell I would flee.
Instead, I dug in. I took a deep breath and on the exhale tackled my first director-like task – I sent a Production Assistant to get me a cup of coffee.
And just like that, I felt like the Director.
Of the many stages of prep I went through for that day, one of them was to ask a filmmaker friend, Gary King, if he had any advice. Gary is a working filmmaker so his advice didn’t come in the form of a quote or a sound bite or a good luck pat on the back. Gary recommended I complete a special project that would allow me to practice directing a scene at home before I got on set to direct a short film.
It’s this project that I’ll share with you today. It’s a perfect first step for those writers who are new to directing but want to learn more. For those of you who have no interest in directing, at least consider the project I’m laying out below. I can’t imagine a better way to learn what works on film, and what doesn’t, than to actually get in there and make something from beginning to end.
And with that, time’s a-wasting, so let’s jump right in!
SCENE PROJECT OVERVIEW
The goal of the project is to shoot a single scene, edit it and then screen it for the kind souls who collaborated with you to create it.
But there’s a fun twist that elevates this project beyond just playing around with a camera and your friends. Pick a scene from a produced film that you, and ideally your collaborators, haven’t seen. Shoot the scene based solely on the script. When you screen your scene, watch the same one from the produced film back-to-back and compare your choices to theirs.
Screenwriters, I know you want to shoot a scene you wrote and soon enough you will. But to learn the most you can from this project, you need to set aside the baggage we all bring with our own writing. Instead take a fresh look at the elements that comprise a scene and what it means to have them move from the page to the screen. You will be astounded by how much you learn from this project and you can take all of those lessons right back to your own writing.
PHASE 1: GATHER YOUR RESOURCES
Before you begin, I recommend you invest in a couple of books that you’ll refer to for the details on how to complete each phase of this project. This article will lay out the basic steps, but you’ll need to explore each step in the context of your own knowledge, resources and career goals. In other words, get into the habit of self-teaching and then there is nothing you can’t learn.
You’ll want one book on how directors work with actors and another basic book on film directing. The two I used were Directing Actors by Judith Weston and Film Directing Fundamentals by Nicholas Proferes, but you can choose whatever texts work for you.
- Cast your actors.
- Procure a camera and recruit a cinematographer, a camera operator or a friend who knows how to shoot video.
- Select your location (I suggest using rooms in your home to keep things simple).
- Select your script and which scene from that script you will shoot.
As much as possible with this project, work with people who pursuing these jobs professionally. Everyone was a novice once and you’d be surprised how many people are willing to help.
When I worked through this project myself, I recruited two actors, Erin Cronican and Marissa Mutascio, and cinematographer Alain Aguilar. I chose a scene from the film Sunshine Cleaning that seemed a good match for the actors in terms of gender, age, and types, and selected a scene that took place in an elevator, which we could shoot in my dining room.
Everyone was excited to be a part of this project because it was a learning opportunity for them, too, and because I assured them I’d treat it as professionally as possible. And I did.
PHASE 2: PREP FOR THE SHOOT
Pre-production is the process of preparing each element you will need for the day you shoot. This is where those books will come in handy. The steps below are fairly standardized and straightforward, but they’re worth understanding. Keep in mind that you are shooting a scene, not a full script, so you’ll be working with an average of 3-5 pages. Each step won’t take a lot of time, but it will add up to a lot of learning about how to construct a scene for film.
- Breakdown the script – for shot listing and to understand the physical needs of the shoot (number of locations, type of props, etc).
- Analyze the script – to uncover how you envision the goals and beats of the scene and to prep for how you will work with your actors.
- Hold a rehearsal.
- Discuss the shoot with the cinematographer or camera operator and review your shot list.
- Prepare anything you’ll want in terms of set dressing, costumes and props.
Bring in lunch at the rehearsal. Bring in lunch at the shoot. Anytime you work with a cast and crew in person, feed them. Ask in advance about food preferences. And if you want to be a true pro, always have coffee, water and some bite-sized treats on hand.
PHASE 3: THE SHOOT
This is the part you’ve been preparing for and what you fantasize about when you think of directing. This is also the time where your mad creative and problem-solving skills will be your best friends. And at the end of the day, when you get to call out, “that’s a wrap!” you will be victorious and wonder why you didn’t try this sooner.
- Schedule a shoot date and time.
- Distribute final scripts and shot lists and also have them printed and on hand for the day of the shoot.
- Confirm last minute details, including actors bringing their own costumes, handling their own hair and makeup and what gear the camera operator may expect you to provide, e.g. extension cords or lights.
- Plan for food and drinks. If you can recruit a friend to be a production assistant for the day, you’ll be in much better shape if you do. Trust me on this one, you don’t want to direct and get everyone lunch.
- Get together and shoot the hell out of your scene!
Always treat everyone with respect. It’s better to ask for a little quiet time to think about how to tackle a problem than to get worked up or overwhelmed and then damage the trust and camaraderie on a set. People work harder in support of a goal rather than in spite of it.
PHASE 4: POST-PRODUCTION
When I went through this project myself, I didn’t think about editing until I got to this stage. I had an easier time imagining myself completing every step prior to this one, but editing seemed like a skill that would simply be out of my reach.
By the time I got to this stage, I’d already been given so much time and help from the cast and crew that I would have felt like an idiot telling them I’d bailed on the edit. Sometimes you just have to paint yourself into a corner to find the way out. For me, that was the edit.
- Review all of your footage and make note of your favorite takes.
- Cut the shots together to create narrative flow and character arcs appropriate to your scene. Favor the best performance takes over the best camera takes. A great performance covers all matter of other sins.
- If you want, add some music and sound effects if the scene calls for it.
- Adjust the volume for each sound track and try your best to get it to sound like one continuous scene and not like lots of separately shot takes.
- Add a title and credits. Yes, you will see your name after “Directed by” and, yes, you will feel like a rock star.
You will need access to some sort of editing software, there’s no getting around that. If anything came pre-loaded on your computer, such as iMovie, go ahead and use that. If you want to work with a different piece of software and have the means to buy it and interest in learning it, please do.
But whatever you do, be sure to finish your scene no matter what shape it’s in when you call it done. Nothing knocks confidence more than an abandoned project and the reason you started this was to grow, not to stall.
PHASE 5: SCREEN YOUR WORK
Handle this step however you see fit, but be sure to watch your scene and the produced version of the scene and then discuss the lessons learned. No matter what your conclusions about how your scene stacks up against the professional version, don’t lose sight of the fact that you blew away all preconceptions of what a writer can and cannot do, should and should not do and you dared to make a scene.
And once you finally put a big red check mark next to this project on your to do list, I’ll be curious, is the very next thought in your head, “When can I do it again?” Because that’s exactly what happened to me.
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