How to Become an Film Director

Film directors, as the title suggests, are those who interpret the visual language of the screenwriter’s work and lead the intensive and hugely collaborative process of bringing it to life via the artful positioning of equipment, guidance to the actors, crew and to the all who are involved in the myriad of post-production endeavors. Film directors, though just a part of an infinitely complex whole, are generally given the most credit (or blame) for the success of any given movie.

A film director’s vision is first fed by his or her detailed analysis of the screenplay. After perusing the script several times, the director will begin to develop his or her vision of the writer’s intention. This is what creates the core of the interpretation, the seed of the film to be. Every director’s vision is different, which is part of the reason why this profession can be so immensely gratifying. This essence of what the play is about and what its message might be is what shapes a director’s take on every aspect of production. A production of a particular play can vary dramatically (no pun intended) from one staging to another.

That all being said, there are few things you should already be doing previously to contemplating schooling and, ultimately, a career in this artistic pursuit. The first and most obvious past-time with which you should be devoted is watching movies! Not just re-runs on late night TV, but you should actually be going to movie theaters, both big and small, experiencing the magical smell of popcorn, the sticky floor beneath your feet and the interaction with your fellow moviegoers. This would include new blockbusters and classics, studio and independent, full-length features and even student shorts. Over time this will introduce you to the language of film and the basic elements of what makes a good movie (and a bad one too for seeing and understanding what doesn’t work is often the fastest way to learn what will). As time progresses you will acquire the ability to evaluate and note both the merits and flaws of each film you see. This is a foundation upon which you can build a successful career if you also have talent, tenacity and a tremendous work ethic.

Take a look at this infographic. It will give you a brief overview of the industry.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Ben Feuer

Atavision

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I became interested in film in high school after (a bit arbitrarily) deciding not to pursue a career as an actor. At the time I was very into Twin Peaks and Moonlighting with Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd, among other things. In a fit of inspiration, I bought a camera and started creating short films on my home computer. I was using YouTube the first year it came out, although it did not have much impact on my career. I began with a documentary about the Belmar Boardwalk and another about the 3rd American Idol auditions.

Advice

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.

Be inspiring
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.

Connor Williams

Director/Actor

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When I was about 8 months old my parents were pushing me in a stroller on Pier 49 in San Francisco. A casting director came up to them and said I should audition for a commercial. My parents thought it was some sort of scam, but they took me to the audition the next day anyways and basically other adult actors held me. I didn’t cry, so I got the gig. I shot the commercial about a week later. My parents didn’t pursue acting for me, but they did get a copy of the commercial.When I was older we moved from California to Idaho, and while unpacking they came across the video and they showed it to me. I then told them I wanted to be an actor. Since Boise is not known for making movies, my dad paid for a class where I was taught how to shoot video with a camera, use a boom mic and editing skills. At 10, I made my first short, and it played in festivals in Oregon, CA and Athens, Greece. I won some money and a karaoke machine. From there I just kept making shorts and entering 48 hour film contests. I won more awards with several of them. The only reason I made the shorts is so I could act in them.

This past year I am in Jared Hess’s (Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre) new comedy Don Verdean. It’s a very small role, but I’m also one of the leads in The UnMiracle, co-starring Kevin Sorbo and Stephen Baldwin. Anyway, when I was recently up for a series lead and didn’t get the role, I decided I would now try to take control of my own fate and direct, produce and act in my own feature length movie. The movie Spoilers is what came of this and is like a modern day version of The Breakfast Club, but with today’s teen problems: social bullying, racial profiling, teacher/student sleeping together, date rape, and sharing and believing in your faith. I cast teenagers from New York, Chicago, Texas and California. I was able to get Terry Kiser (Bernie from Weekend at Bernie’s) in my film. We shot it in fifteen days working 10-12 hour days over a 17 day period. Seven of those days I had to work at Pizza Hut, so it was pretty exhausting. Spoilers was up for Best First Feature in two Film Festivals last month. I did not win, but it was cool to be nominated. I did win a great award at The Victoria Texas Film Festival. I won the use of 60,000 dollars’ worth of equipment and services usage as long as I shoot my next feature in Victoria. I plan to shoot in Victoria in 12-18 months.

Advice

Thoughts on education
I have done all my films after taking a $75 class to get started. My first instinct is to say ‘no’ you don’t need a formal education to direct films. I learned so much on my first feature that I can’t wait to do it again with everything I learned. But, with that being said, I have applied to one film school. If the numbers (my cost) make sense I will attend. If not, I’m still moving to LA in August to network and audition for any and everything. I’m subleasing a place and will try LA out for a few months and see if I like the vibe and see how it goes. After 6 months I will either stay in LA or move to Salt lake City, Utah where my current agent is and go to community college and audition in the slower paced state of Utah and finish my script.

Go for it
Just do it. I go to different functions and listen to people talk about doing it but they never do. I’m not sure why. Just start out with short films. Once you get that part down, and if you are so inclined, go make a feature. Surround yourself with people that know what they are doing. I was very lucky in hiring my DP Andy Byrd. He worked his butt off. We went over the shot list, and of course, I told him I wanted different angles on the scenes and after the first day I knew I hired the right guy. I didn’t have to say much because he got the coverage I needed. Find out who is making films in your town and volunteer on a project. I’m not the best at networking, but I am getting stronger in that area. Go work for free and see how it all works.

Be unique
As I mentioned, I think doing your own thing is probably the most realistic way to get started in the biz. I was contacted by someone after they saw my film, and they asked me to direct their movie with a million dollar budget. They are raising money now, so we will see if that happens. I think for big budget films you aren’t going to walk in and become the director. You have to work your way up. But again networking could be the key of directing someone else’s indy film.

Sabina Vajraca

Independent Film Director

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I was born in Bosnia, a small country in Central Europe. My dad loved movies and we spent almost all of our dad-daughter time watching them. By the time I was 8, I was already bitten by the bug and declared to everyone I was going to be a film director. When I was 14, however, the Bosnian War broke out. Our first place of refuge was the neighboring country of Croatia, where we lived for 2 years, before being granted a political refugee status in the USA and relocating here. During that time, I discovered theatre, and by the time I was in the States I had shifted my focus from film to stage. I got a BFA degree in theatre from University of Central Florida and promptly moved to New York City upon graduation. I got a full time office job and spent my evenings and weekends creating theatre.Then in 2003, 11 years after we were forced to leave Bosnia and 8 years after the war ended, we were asked to go back and reclaim the property we were forced to leave behind. I had an idea to film this experience. I knew nothing about making movies, however, so I got a few books and arranged to meet with friends of friends who made documentaries before. A month later I was in Bosnia, filming what was to become my first film – a feature documentary titled Back to Bosnia.

Two years later, the film premiered at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles and went on to screen at over 30 festivals around the world. I traveled with the film, meeting many people who have since become my good friends and champions. During this time, my childhood passion got fully reignited, and I shifted my focus back to film directing. Instead of film school (which I could not afford at the time) I decided to learn by doing and started making short films with my friends. I financed all of them (including my documentary) with credit cards, while still holding a full-time job to pay my bills.
I also knew there is only so much that can be self-taught, so I looked for the opportunities to work with others whenever I could. A chance search for creative jobs on Craigslist led me to Max Mayer, a writer/director looking for an assistant for his feature film Adam. While working alongside him I also started writing feature scripts myself. Then, at a film party three years ago, a mutual friend introduced me to Lawrence Mattis, who loved one of my scripts and a small music video I made called Bela Lugosi’s Dead, and he became my manager.

Staying true to my desire to learn from others, I started reading other people’s feature scripts and a year ago came across one that I felt was written just for me. I got attached to direct it, and we are now looking for financing, with a plan to shoot it this summer/fall, if all goes according to plan. Fingers crossed!

Advice

Thoughts on education
In terms of the technical part of film-making (i.e. how to talk to actors, how to breakdown the script, how to block a scene, etc.), I would say it is very useful to get some sort of education, but it does not necessarily have to come from film school. I myself never went to one, but I did have 4 years of technical training from my theatre degree, and it definitely gave me the confidence to “just go for it” when I eventually did. That said, everything I learned about actual directing I learned from doing it over and over again, making mistakes, learning from them, and going for it again. And all of that happened ‘in the field’, far away from any school. However, film is a business of knowing people, and the best place to meet them is at some sort of a formal institution, and I would say a film school is useful for that. I find not having that support system behind me made my path significantly harder.

So I’d say no, it is not imperative that you go to film school. You can learn pretty much everything they teach you there by simply jumping in and doing it yourself (with some help from a workshop or two). But if you want to make your path a bit easier and approach the film school as a networking haven that it is, and can afford it, then go for it.”

Three tips
Persevere – You have to have enough confidence (or is it stubbornness?) to keep going even when all the odds are against you and (seemingly) no one is on your side. You have to ignore all those naysayers, both out in the world and in your head, who tell you it’s too hard, who compare you to other directors and ask how come you didn’t make it yet, who tempt you with “safe jobs” and “normal life” (this is particularly hard when you’ve been struggling to make ends meet for a while). In this business only those who keep at it, year after year, failure after failure, survive. Make sure you have that grit in you before you start off on this path.

Be kind and generous – This really is a business of relationships. All my successes came from knowing people who were willing to help me out, be it my college friends acting in my films for free, or industry people who loved my work pushing me ahead of the line. As you meet people along the way, seek to create friendships rather than just business relationships. Help them with their dreams if you can, even if there is nothing (tangible) in it for you. Volunteer on other people’s sets, willing to do anything, even if it’s just holding traffic or getting coffee – you learn a lot by watching others do it.

Control your ego – There is a thin line between confidence and arrogance, and it is very important you keep on the right side of it. Film directors have a reputation for being egomaniacs, but the truly great ones are far from it. You need to be confident enough in what you have to say with the film you’re making to convince dozens of people to follow you, come what may, but at the same time be humble enough to acknowledge when someone in that horde happens to have a better idea about one thing or another, and listen to them.

Build relationships
Find a film set and volunteer your time, knowing full well that you’ll be doing jobs no one else wants to do. It’s ok. It’s relationships that matter, remember? Build friendships with people around you, learn everything you can, and then go home, write a short script about something you know – this can be a story from your life or from your imagination if that’s where you spend most of your time – and then ask all those friends you just made to help you film it. And if you don’t like writing, then see if any of the people you just met do, and offer to direct one of their scripts instead. Helping others achieve their dreams too – double Jeopardy!

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become Film Director?


Though film school is a viable and potentially helpful way to go for the new filmmaker, one must keep in mind nonetheless that there is no film degree in the world that will enable the landing of the film directing job of one’s fantasies. This is not like a trade school in which you are taught the basics of, say, welding, and then are automatically placed in one of many jobs that are out there waiting for qualified candidates. Like so many art careers in which there are few jobs available but an astronomical number of people wanting them, you are in for a long and potentially brutal slog toward greatness. Another point often made by successful people in the business, including and especially film actors, is that the in the film industry nobody gives a rodent’s behind what college you went to. What does count for most in the position of hiring is the all-important track record, namely the movies you made in the past, particularly ones that are fresh.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE TO BECOME AN FILM DIRECTOR?

  • University of Southern California, Los Angeles
    USC is renowned for providing a top education in film and television production. The program here offers a wide range of classes that develop the requisite technical skills while also encouraging creativity. Classes of a theoretical nature are provided, such as in film history, while the necessary practical aspects of filmmaking are of a great focus, such as editing, production design, web producing and cinematography, not to mention directing. Students from USC have done quite well as the film industry is USC’s backyard.
  • New York University
    The Tisch School of the Arts at NYU is considered one if the very best and is where one can find the Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film and Television. Students here study film techniques while also gaining hands-on professional training that leads to a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts Degree.
    Classes are taught by faculty who have experience in the film business and there is a focus on practical preparation for a successful career in the field.
  • University of California, Los Angeles
    UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television is arguably one of the top professional schools in the country. The school endeavors to give students a dynamic education that motivates then become not only working professionals but also compelling, artful storytellers as filmmakers.
    Classes are taught in film history, cinematography, editing, directing, digital media and animation to name a few and majors have access to the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which is the largest university-based moving image collection on the globe.
  • Chapman University – Orange, California
    The Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University is another top notch film school that is within the region of major production studios in California. The school offers an undergraduate program in film theory or film production. The latter is where the technical aspects of shooting, editing and producing films are explored. Classes are conducted almost like a workshop, ensuring students acquire hands-on experience. Also notable is the state-of-the-art facilities at the school that provide students with the latest equipment in its sound stages, studios and editing suites.
  • Pratt Institute – Main: Brooklyn, N.Y.
    The Film and Video Department at Pratt Institute is designed to develop total filmmakers. Students learn to master many aspects of filmmaking, including writing, directing and editing, in order to prepare them for success in their chosen careers. Instruction in film techniques and utilizing the latest technology help students learn the necessary skills for becoming a commercially and artistically successful filmmaker.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

The first thing you should obtain is a “director’s reel,” which is basically a showcase of under four or so minutes that highlights the best of your work. In the beginning, such a reel would likely be comprised of some of those aforementioned uploaded videos with which you flooded the internet. It is basically a virtual calling card that shows off the best of your efforts. This is one of many ways how a film school can be greatly helpful. In school you will certainly be given the tools and the help necessary to create with your fellow students. This is one way to get a proverbial leg up when you’re starting out because if you don’t have a reel, you cannot back up your claim of being a director, and no person is ever going to give you an opportunity. So, in short, create content and put your best into a snazzy 3 to 5 minute reel that will capture and hold the attention of viewers and, at the least, elicit an exclamation of “Wow, this person is good!” Anything short of this, and you are likely to be relegated to the dustbin of broken dreams…

There are many useful resources for newer directors who already have some experience (and a reel) and wish to apply for directing jobs. One common way is to search the listings on Craigslist in Los Angeles and New York, general under the headings of “crew gigs” and “creative gigs.” Occasionally, a posting or two will appear in which someone is seeking a director. Sometimes the listing will be for an independent feature, mostly other times it will be for a web series, short, music video or a non-union commercial. Another tactic is to simply open up Google and search for those “seeking director reels” or “hiring film directors,” etc.

Another way is to attend a film school and major in film production. A good film school provides many opportunities to the budding director, including instilling discipline and actually shooting something with proper equipment and with fellow students to help you. In return you too will need to assist your fellow student directors and, as secondary yet vital consequence, you will have learned about the many other positions that are necessary to successfully make a film, for indeed this is a collaborative art. And, equally importantly, in a decent film school you will meet people who share your passion and drive. You will likely make life-long friendships that can aid and abet you down the road and, by virtue of being in school, will learn from professionals who are both your teachers and, potentially, mentors.

The truth is that this career path is a long and arduous one that requires the aspirant to sacrifice, remain singularly committed through thick and thin, and to never give up no matter how challenging it may be. Now, keep in mind that in order to be hired as a director one needs to have a body of work. As with so many careers in the arts, one is faced at this juncture with the classic “Catch 22” scenario: No one will hire you if you have not worked and you cannot compile a work history without first being hired, at least it so appears. This is where the aforementioned tenacity comes into play.