As a director beginning to dive into the world of features, I’ve found it a bit tougher to find practical advice to people like me, but from other crew and cast members who work with newer directors. Hearing what Ridley Scott’s advice says is fine, but my film’s budget is probably what they spend in coffee at craft services.
I reached out to some friends to just pick their brain about helpful insights into what can help other directors like me. For the $100 million dollar budget film, you likely won’t need a refresher. But for the 1st, 2nd, or 4th feature director, hopefully this could help you the way it helped me!
I met Nick the way all parents hope their kids meet people - over the internet. I moved out to LA in 2014, and connected with him on Twitter - we both ride hard for Dallas, Dirk, and film, so I figured I’d introduce myself. #shootyourshot
Nick, you’ve spend countless hours on set working with all types of directors - what do you do?
NR: I'm a Script Supervisor, I'm looking to make sure that the movie will follow the rules of screen grammar (or at least bend them in ways that will make sense), watch the continuity and prevent any errors that may come up, create a log of everything shot, and create reports for the editor. It's a lot, but it's a rewarding experience, making sure that the film will work in the edit. When working with a director I try to be their right hand man and safety net. There's a lot that the director has to think about, I'm there to take some of that pressure off.
Directing, especially a first film, is a prolonged anxiety attack. It looks glamorous, but there's thousands of moving parts that can take a viewer out of the film. I try to approach a director with a calm manner and explain whatever issue that may come up (say the 180-line) and propose solutions, instead of just announcing that a mistake has been made. I try to let my experience on set become their experience on set, and help them to make the best decision they can.
What attracts you to a director that’s still growing in their craft of making feature films?
NR: There's a lot of things to look for in a first timer. Eagerness and excitement is one thing - a positive, creative person has an energy that transfers over to the crew. If a film crew is fed and they believe in a director, they can move a mountain if you need it. A director that can still put forth that sort of vibe as we're prepping for the last shot, running into a hard out after a 11 and a half hours of an overnight makes a lot of difference. Additionally, vision is a huge key. Anybody can shot wide-ots-ots-cu-cu (THEO: These are different kinds of camera angles - this Studiobinder article goes into much more details), a director that hands over a shotlist and you just go "cool" when you see what's in store for your day, that's something special.
Are there any bad decisions you see feature film directors make consistently?
NR: The biggest mistake beginning filmmakers make is running a scene until it's perfect while shooting a wide. Especially if it's a long scene. A big wide scene is nice to have, but it's going to take a long time to get every beat perfect for an 8 minute scene. Time is your number one enemy on a film set. Especially for a smaller one helmed by a beginner. Save the time, get the big important moments in your coverage. It's where you'll naturally land for the edit - your bigger moments are going to play in the emotions in a person's face, not in the big auditorium with them at the top of the bleachers. When starting out a lot of people run the wide over and over and over until it's perfect, then move into coverage. By that time their actors are exhausted of their energy and a lot of time has been wasted. If playing a scene in a big wide for most or all of it is your artistic choice, by all means do it that way... But if you're wanting to use an Oscar-worthy close up of your lead actress learning that her mother has died... then you don't need it in the wide.
You’ve got a lot of experience that working with so many directors. Any advice?
NR: The best advice that I can give you is that you need to fight for more time. A lot, lot, lot, lot, lot, lot of low budget features are being made for 9-12 days. That's not enough time. That's rushing it. I know there's money restrictions and availabilities. But especially when you're starting out, you need time to experiment. And to shoot safeties. Cover a scene one way, then do your weird ceiling fan shot. Try it out. If it works, great, if not, you've got it. Not having time leads to shooting the basics, which anybody can do. This is an artistic medium - this is your chance to express yourself. Try shooting it in a slow zoom. Grab the coverage and everybody's happy. Try it out in the edit. Shooting a feature in 11 days... (THEO: I’m sweating bullets right now) you don't have time to rehearse, you don't have time to shoot a scene with different emotions. Try, try, try to do what you can to have more time. Not saying good features haven't been made in short time spans... but it's a lot easier when you have room to breathe and try things. Besides that... You can't over prepare. Shotlists, overheads, etc. Anything you can do to help communicate your ideas and goals to the crew will be helpful. Some people show up and then tell the crew they want x, y, and z, but had the crew known they'd be, for instance, starting on the dolly, they could have been laying track and preparing. Time wasted. Prepare as much as you can, but also be prepared to improvise.
You’re dropping knowledge right now. Last question, what film should first-time directors watch?
NR: There's no one film, they just need to see more. See more big films, see more little films, see things that are similar to your project, see things that are different. Just watch more.