How To Become A Film Director – 7 Tips For Success

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Are you a newcomer to the film industry and want to become a film director? Who doesn’t as its one of the best jobs to have on a film set. 

But, I have to warn you, the path to becoming a film director is not as easy as you think.

Now that I have put the warning out to you, let’s add some positives to this post about becoming a film director. If you want to become a film director, there are many achievable ways to get you to where you want to be, and that is being the captain of the ship known as the film set.

The first thing that you need is to have a positive mindset and know it can take a countless amount of hours and hard work to achieve this result of being a film director. 

But when you get the opportunity to direct a film, it’s one of the best experiences a filmmaker can have.

What Does A Film Director Do On Set

The director is responsible for providing support through the pre-production, on the film set, and post-production to guarantee the narrative is delivered to life in an important, engaging, and compelling way.

But there is so much more than just directing the action on the set, there are many responsibilities off the set that the director is responsible for.

What does a film director do offset?

A film director on and off a set wears many hats. 

Below is a brief overview of the many different roles during the pre and post-production side of filmmaking that will help give more insight into the role of a film director.

Pre-production

Pre-production is where the film director figures out how to bring life to the story on screen. It all starts with multiple read-throughs of the script to understand all the key elements of the story and figure out the best ways to bring giving the story life.

What I do during the pre-production read-throughs of a screenplay is to make as many notes as possible during the breakdown of the script.

The most important notes I make at the start of the breakdown process of the screenplay is to figure out what drives the main characters of the story.

What I do from there is try to uncover the backstories of the characters to help the actors understand his/her motivations of the character, and then I try to figure out whether or not there is any need for re-writes of certain scenes to the screenplay.

Side note: I am not an established film director, and most of the films I direct are small independent features that I work closely with the screenwriter during the pre-production.

So, most of the time I don’t deal with any major re-writes as I have the screenwriter on the set with me during production, and changes tend to happen on the fly.

Once you have figured out the character’s motivations and backstory, it’s time to dive deeper into the screenplay to create a shot list and shooting schedule with my 1st Assistant Director and Director of photography.

The 1st AD is an extremely important role during the film process, as they help the film director determine the shooting schedules, the most suitable locations for filming, as well as the logistics of completing the film shoot efficiently.

Casting

Once you have figured out the key logistics of the screenplay, it’s time to start casting the feature.

The first thing a film director should do is bring a casting director on board to work closely with you in bringing in the right actors through the audition process, that will be able to bring the characters to life on screen.

Rehearsals with the cast

Having a read-through of the script with your casted actors is an extremely important process of the pre-production. This allows the film director to get a better understanding of the tone and action of the script, and what it possibly will look like on-screen.

While some film directors don’t like rehearsing scenes with the actors before the film begins shooting, but if this is the first time you are directing a film, it’s an extremely important process of filmmaking.

Why? Because you will have all the kinks worked out in regards to the screenplay as well as the actors having a better understanding of what you as the film director are looking for when you call the action on the set.

Pre-production meetings

Pre-production meetings with the rest of the department that will be working on the film set will happen daily as the film comes closer to the first day of shooting.

Most of the department meetings I have had involved the heads of each department, and then discuss any ideas they may have that might make the story even better than what I envisioned.

This is something I picked up on when I was watching the Masterclass sessions with Ron Howard (Click here to sign up for Masterclass.) Ron Howard gets everyone on the set to provide input during the film production process.

For example, you are directing a scene, and you think everything was perfect and you want to move to the next scene, by asking the grip, gaffer, assistant camera person what they thought of the take will reassure you that the take was great and time to move on, or they might add something that you didn’t see and you can readjust and do another take.

Sometimes I have shot some gems, by just readjusting the scene from so incredible input from people working in these departments.

How To Become A Film Director - 7 Tips For Success 1

Post-production

Post-production is to me the most important process of filmmaking because a certain edit or poor sound design can destroy everything everybody worked so hard in creating.

Side Note: When they say we can fix it in post, it’s a lie! You might be able to fix things in post, but it will cost you a crapload of money to fix it. So, do it right the first time.

During post-production, the director works closely with the editor of the film, the sound designer and the composer. They cooperate to retain the feel and vision of the story as best they can. 

Just keep in mind that unless you are skilled in editing, music composing, or sound design please leave these key people alone. There is a reason they were chosen in the first place, so let them be.

I am just saying this because I just completed a film as a 1st AD in which the film director ruined the post-production process because of tinkering with things that they shouldn’t have, and we ended up with a film that is a mess and may never see the light of day. 

Are there different types of directors on a film set?

To have a well-oiled machine on the set, some directing roles are needed to help the film director create the best film possible.

The following roles are great roles for those looking into becoming a film director but need to hone his/her skills before becoming the captain of the ship known as the film set.

First assistant director (AD)

The 1st AD oversees the crew and cast as well as keeping track of time and ensuring everything is moving at the right pace. 1st ADs are also accountable for minimizing risks and possible issues on the set.

Second assistant director (2 AD)

The 2 AD normally assists the AD as they’re needed. They also work with the call sheets, hair/makeup and wardrobe to guarantee the actors are all in the correct place and ready to shoot when wanted.

Third assistant director (3 AD)

The 3 AD is required to direct the extras, cooperating with the setup and any vehicle movement that’s needed. They are normally put in charge of the background scenes as well, to secure everyone is in the right place.

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Ways To become a film director

I don’t have a secret recipe to becoming a film director, as many great film directors in this industry became directors via roles like a director of photography or editors.

But, if you are willing to put the time and effort into the following suggestions below, you will be able to put yourself in the right path towards success.

Here are some suggestions that I have done along the way, to get to where I am today. Mind you; I am still plugging along in the industry and not yet a household name, but I am getting there.

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Watch as many movies as possible

Watching films is the cheapest form of film education available.

Why? Because you have the opportunity to dissect films from your favorite directors and learn why those directors are the best in the industry.

But the key point of watching movies is to pay attention to the details.

Have a pen and paper with you while you are watching your favorite films and try to figure out what shots you love, how many mistakes are being made in the film, and look for editing choices that you may or may not like.

Pay attention to how the story is being developed, is there a three-act structure in the film, is there a piece of dialogue you like?

A piece of advice that I heard from Shane Black, the director of Nice Guys and Iron Man 3, was that you should try watching movies without the sound and see how the story unfolds through just the images on the screen.

Get Some Filmmaking Gear And Make Short Films

As the saying goes, “Practice makes Perfect!” To become a film director, it’s important to start making your films to make mistakes along the way.

Short films are the best experience you can have when you are starting because you can find your style, as well as learn how to work well with a crew.

Get yourself some filmmaking equipment (click here to learn more), write a script or find someone you know that does, find some friends to help you on your film shoot, and get a project in the can.

I love making short films because it forces me to learn all the aspects of every position on a set. This way when you have the opportunity to work on an actual budget production, you won’t look out of place.

Take some acting classes

When you are directing a film, you need to build trust with your actors so they can give the performances you want.

What made me a better film director lately has been I have been taking acting classes along the way not only to experience acting but understand how to better communicate with the actors on a set.

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Read scripts

If you are thinking about shooting a short film, you probably will be working off a screenplay you wrote. But, I believe reading scripts that other screenwriters have written is a great way to learn about bringing someone else’s story to life.

When you read other screenwriters’ works, try to think about how you would film each scene. Envision in your head how you would position the cameras to shoot the scene.

Think about what type of lighting you would use in the scene. How would you direct the actors to get the right shot?

Think about film school

While I have a blog post that explains how to get into filmmaking without film school (click here), there are things you can learn in film school that is extremely valuable.

In film school, you have access to crews, on-set experience, and valuable contacts. Plus with film school, you have access to internships, workshops, and networking opportunities that you wouldn’t get if you learn filmmaking online.

The great thing about going to an actual film school like USC, UCLA, NYU, and AFI is that if you are chosen to direct, you have a crew given to you. 

Sure beats calling in favors which I have to do all the time in Victoria, BC, where I live.

But, if you are a great networker and don’t mind taking some online classes through Masterclass or Udemy, you can learn valuable information from them that will help you along the way.

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Get on a set as much as you can

To become a film director you will need to start working as part of the production crew as becoming a film director doesn’t happen overnight.

When you think of many directors that have become established over the years, most of them started as production assistants, camera operators, and many other roles on a set. If you can get on set doing anything, it’s the next step in becoming a film director.

If you’re a hard worker and trustworthy, people will want to work with you again. Then opportunities will begin to come faster to you and projects will get bigger as well.

It’s all about experience and time, or just be a nephew or niece to an industry executive that will get you the opportunities to become a film director.

Start networking

You’ve gotta network to get work!

Once you have completed a few short film projects under your belt, you need to create a demo reel to showcase your talent. A demo reel is your sales tool, that can help you open some doors.

But this topic is about networking and not demo reels, so for people to see your demo reel you need to network and start building relationships. Its easier to get your demo reel in someone’s hands if you have contacts ready to share the demo reel to the world.

What I started to do in terms of networking, before the pandemic happened, was to attend as many industry events as possible. Go to mixers, conventions, parties, premiers, etc. and introduce yourself to as many people as possible.

One thing I did the first year I attended the Austin Film Festival and Conference was to have a game of how many business cards I could exchange with other filmmakers.

This game was a great way to introduce myself to others, and share stories with other independent filmmakers who are going through the same ups and downs you may be going through.

Over the past five years of attending the Austin Film Festival and Conference, I have developed strong relationships with several filmmakers across the country, that if they asked for help, they know I would be there for them.

I don’t rely on them for work, but if someone came across his/her path and asked if they knew somebody that is an up and coming director to call, I know they would mention me.

Film Director
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Conclusion

If you are looking at becoming a film director, all you need is determination and experience and you will get to where you want to be in no time.

Just remember these key tips for success:

  • Learn as much as you can by talking online film classes, or in-person classes.
  • Study films and dissect them to understand how to make a perfect film.
  • Start shooting your own short films and learn from your mistakes.
  • Network and build strong relationships that will help you along the way.
  • Get on a film set and doing any job you can.

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How To Become A Film Director - 7 Tips For Success

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