School is important
I chose Wesleyan University for its film theory program. There, I became intimately familiar with film history and terminology, which later proved useful for early jobs like script coverage and shot listing for my films (an important task for a director). I also created my first ‘serious’ short films with scripts, casts and crews, including my thesis film, The Professor, which earned honors at the school. Over the summers, I crewed on several features, including the movie Beer League (starring Artie Lange) and CSI: New York.
Get some experience
Working on film crews is one way to become a film director, since the contacts you make can help lead you to the money you need to make a film and can help provide services for it. That said, I did not take that road because I found the long hours and dull work too oppressive. I also interned for production companies in New York, traveling two days a week from Connecticut to do script coverage and meet with executives. This was where I first learned that the vast majority of scripts are terrible, and the most important thing a director can do to help himself succeed is get his hands on a good script somehow. Also while at Wesleyan, I made a feature film on an ultra-low budget, but I decided not to release it. I had two reasons for this – first of all it wasn’t very good and, second of all, a director’s first feature film is a very prestigious thing and offers unique opportunities. If you want to be a director wait to release your first feature until you’re doing great work. Don’t release one just because you can. Anyway, after graduating from Wesleyan, I moved to LA and worked for two years in all sorts of roles – I worked in the mail room at Sony Pictures, I was an assistant editor for a post-production house, I crewed on a children’s TV show, and I was 2nd assistant to a busy independent film executive. Although LA is the heart of the ‘film business’, I found that for me it was keeping me from actually making movies. Film-making in LA is prohibitively expensive and director positions, although more numerous, are also much more competitive. I decided to leave and go back to school. So, at Columbia University I received a range of training in writing, directing and producing, all of which I still use today. I also made dozens of contacts inside the school and outside the school, many of whom later offered me paid gigs. Columbia offered me the structure and framework to make more and better short films, which began to earn recognition at film festivals.
What I am doing today?
Today, I do gigs in all sorts of positions and capacities in the film world, including directing small commercials, corporate videos and occasionally short films or webisodes. I am also working on financing my first feature and am shopping it around to production companies I met through Columbia and through the various festivals and competitions I have entered.
You gotta want it
My advice is two-fold: One for those with money and one for those without money. If you have money, attend a top-5 film school like Columbia, USC, UCLA, AFI or NYU. If you don’t get in on your first try, re-apply until you do. Once there, make friends with EVERYONE and help everyone– your talent is important, but success as a director hinges as much or more on the strength of your networking and the favors you can call in. But please understand that to make the most of this opportunity, you’ll need not only money for your education but also to pay for the films you make. Some successful filmmakers I know made their breakthrough short films for as little as $5000. Some needed $250,000. I wish I was joking. Frankly, it depends a lot on what kind of films you want to make. And remember there’s no guarantee your first short film will be successful or will break through. If you do NOT have money, create a YouTube channel, find four or five willing friends and make a team to produce YouTube videos. If you want you can make narrative videos, but be aware that there is much more of a market for informational and practical videos, and remember that if you do want to WORK (i.e. make money) as a director you will mostly be doing commercials.
The most important tip for becoming a director is to behave as though you already are one. Pick your project and talk about it with everyone. Talk about it like it’s a sure thing, like it’s already happening. You’ll slowly attract people who want to be part of something exciting and glamorous. Then the challenge is holding everyone together while you finish the script, get the money, and actually put together the film. It’s a balancing act and it requires a lot of begging, pleading, cajoling and deal-making. You need a lot of heart to be a director. You must be inspiring.
What to watch
Watch a LOT of media- Films, television, YouTube. Cultural trends in film and video are evolving ridiculously fast these days and the incubation time of films means that that cool idea or shot you had thought up might have become ‘overused’ in the time it took you to make it! Film festivals in particular have cultural rabbit ears, constantly trying to attune themselves to the next big trend. Don’t pander, but do be aware when you’re swimming against the tide and be prepared to assuage people’s fears.
Agents are always handy
At the end of the day, if you want to be a director you have to put yourself in a position where you are directing and then impress someone enough that he/she hires you to do it again. The first few times you direct, it will almost certainly be on your own dime. And if you do it well enough other people will want to hire you to do it for their projects. After that, it becomes a matter of displaying good taste – choosing the right projects to latch onto. That’s where an agent comes in handy, if you can snag one.