WRITE, DIRECT, REPEAT: Mining Film Directing Lessons from Your Work

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After all the writing and rewriting, prepping, shooting, and editing, you will at some point, be done with your film and when that moment comes, congratulations!

It takes a ridiculous amount of commitment and sacrifice to make any film, so when you finally finish one, you just want to put a bow on it and send it out into the world.

Behind-the-scenes of my latest film, THE END OF MARA, where I looked to build upon what I'd learned from my previous films.

Behind-the-scenes of my latest film, THE END OF MARA, where I looked to build upon what I’d learned from my previous films.

But if you move on to your next project without taking stock of all you can learn from the one you just completed, you’ll only have reaped part of the rewards of finishing your film.

The following is a process I’ve been developing for myself to run through at the end of each project I complete. Adjust and adapt to the specifics of your own work, but do look for ways to make the absolute most of every opportunity you get to write and direct.

Perform a Project Post-Mortem

As tough as it is to look your mistakes in the eye, it’s a necessary part of your development and growth as a filmmaker.

After you’ve completed your film, assess what you felt worked well at each stage of development and production, and what didn’t. What did you learn through the editing process that will affect how you prep and shoot in the future? With your first films, you’ll most likely look at what footage you missed while shooting or what elements of your film didn’t turn out as you’d hoped.

When possible, get feedback from those you worked with to uncover what your strengths were from their point of view and where you can look to improve. Especially focus on collaborators who would move from project-to-project with you, like your producers or cinematographer. Make it clear you’re looking for honest feedback, not pats on the back, with the goal of improving both the processes by which you get your films made and the quality of your finished work.

Write Your Own Case Studies or Blog Posts

When I first decided to write this column for Script magazine, I wanted to create a resource for new writer-directors where I could share my experiences — both wins and losses — and the lessons I learned from each.

I also knew there would be personal gain to breaking down each phase of production, reviewing how I tackled it, and what I found worked and didn’t. But I had no idea just how incredibly valuable this experience would be toward my growth as a writer-director.

You don’t need a column to analyze all you’re learning if you’re willing to put in the time to look critically at your work. Depending upon whether you prefer this work to be public or private, you can tackle exploring your lessons by writing case studies for yourself or blog posts to share with others. The overall process is the same whether you keep it private or share your findings.

Be sure to invest the time to write down the problems you faced, the solutions you utilized, and how you would tackle that same problem in the future.

If you just go through this process in your head, you’ll end up glossing over the details and getting only superficial return on your efforts. But if you write out your case studies you’ll be forced to articulate your thoughts, find connections, and come to richer conclusions.

Assess Areas for Growth

After you’ve explored your performance on your last film, you can take stock of any new skills you’d like to acquire before you direct again.

After directing two short films, I found my inability to edit video was both slowing me down in post-production and making it more difficult for me to edit on the fly in my head — a skill you’ll find is invaluable on set. I made it a priority to learn basic editing skills before my next film. I read a book, took a class, and shot and edited short videos to get the basics down.

Looking at your own work, what are the skills you can learn between projects to make you a better writer-director on your next go round?

Do you need to spend more time developing your scripts and getting additional feedback before stepping on set? Maybe joining a writer’s group is a good match for you. Do you need more practice directing actors? Try a scene directing exercise to keep your skills sharp.

Do you want to learn more about lenses or framing? Camera moves? The storytelling power of scene blocking? Makeup effects? These skills can be studied between larger projects allowing you to develop your craft even when you’re not actively making a new film.

Update Your Goals

A final area to consider as you finish up a project is whether this latest work shifts or affects your filmmaking goals.

I’m currently in post-production on a third short film, and once it’s complete, one of my new goals will be to create a director’s reel. I challenged myself to hold off on cutting a reel until I had at least three directing projects to include, and after this film, creating a reel can become a new goal.

In addition, I now want to shift my attention to feature production in order to continue growing, and I also want to throw my hat in the ring and pursue for-hire gigs in both writing and directing.

Take a look at your own portfolio, considering both your writing and directing work. What are the strengths and where are the weaknesses? Do you want to pursue more directing work but don’t feel you have a strong enough reel yet? Are you looking to write for TV and want to develop your own web series to learn the craft and create samples of original work? The completion of a project is an ideal time to take stock of where you are, where you want to be, and what the path between the two might look like for you.

There’s gold waiting to be mined in the lessons you learned from making your films. It’s up to you to decide at the end of each project whether you want to just walk away with a new film or also walk away a much better filmmaker. If you push yourself to scrutinize and learn from your own work, you can absolutely have both!

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