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Lessons First-Time Directors Won't Learn Until It's Too Late

Kill Your Darlings_John KrokidasOkay, maybe you’ve done your homework so you’re sufficiently prepared to direct your first film. Maybe you’ve got some excellent ideas and have talent bursting from every pore, but guess what. You’re going to miss something. We all do. And when that happens, it’s usually the most inane, most seemingly unimportant damn thing in the world that messes up a take or keeps you from making the best movie you can make. Since completing his feature directorial debut, John Krokidas has shared 5 lessons he learned from directing his Allen Ginsberg biopic Kill Your Darlings — things that he never expected to happen, but did.

Kill Your Darlings, which stars Daniel Radcliffe, is Krokidas’ first feature film and he surely gained a lot of new experience, some of which he shared with Vulture. It’s actually kind of refreshing to get advice from someone who isn’t a Hollywood veteran that has a bunch of successful features under their belt. It’s definitely a nice change of perspective.

Watch your background actors

This has probably happened to all of us who have directed anything ever. You’re focusing on your main actors, they’re giving the performance of their lives, and everybody high-fives afterward to celebrate a job well done. Then, you take a look at the footage later and realize that one of your background actors was looking straight at the camera the whole time. Krokidas says:


This is something I discovered on day one: You can have your shot list memorized, you can know the emotional arc of the scene forwards and backwards, and you can get great performances out of your actors, but all it takes is one extra in the background to ruin all of that work.

And the issue isn’t only an extra making a silly mistake. Sometimes directors forget that extras are actors too, and need direction other than, “Yeah, go over there and point at that landmark.” Help them find their motivation. Help them give a great performance. It might seem like overkill until you have to scrap the best take of the day, because an extra wasn’t given your attention.

Don’t save the best for last

I’m notorious for keeping everybody on set way longer than originally planned. The running joke is, “Oh, it’ll just take 5 hours.” Because of my perpetual ignorance and over-optimism of how long a shoot is going to take, the work is slow to start and gain momentum, because, “Hey, we’ve got plenty of time.”

But you don’t. And soon you find yourself at the end of the day running around the set, herding actors and crew; you’ve completely abandoned your complicated stabilization rig and you’re shooting handheld now, because it’s faster. Well, Krokidas says that scheduling the important, more dramatic scenes first will not only cover your ass if you run out of time, but will also ease the tension and pressure of your actors.

Schedule “tissue scenes” for the end of the day. Those are the connective scenes in between the greater dramatic moments — often, they’re the parts that end up on the cutting-room floor. Another option is to save shorter scenes for the end of the day, or shoot scenes that aren’t as emotionally difficult for actors to perform. It’s hard for actors to get to a dark emotional place if they know that you’re wrapping in 45 minutes.

Post-Wrap Blues

John Krokidas

I hate to end on a downer, but — it’s true. Chances are you’re going to get sad and depressed after you finish your first film, and probably all subsequent ones, too. I mean, if you think about it, you’ve spent most of your life dreaming about making your first film, and when you’re actually shooting it, it’s an absolutely surreal experience. I remember watching our actors perform the first scene of the day as I watched on a monitor. It captivates you — it really does.

Your cast and crew become your family, because you’ve spent so much time together, and laughed and cried with one another, and yelled at each other, and solved impossible problems on-set together. Most of all, you all shared a collective dream about a collaborative effort, and when all is said and done, the screen goes black, the champagne and wine bottles empty, and you’re left with the memories, sure, but you’re there alone.

It’s a weird feeling to go back to normal life after shooting your first film. You’ve spent years trying to make this moment happen and it finally has … and then it’s over, and everyone’s gone.

Now that you’re ready to listen to sad songs with the BTS of your movie on mute, what do you think about John Krokidas’ advice? Do you have any you can share?

Link: 5 Things They Don’t Tell You About Being a First-Time Director — Vulture

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  • I love this. Gives me great confidence as I have yet to direct my first feature!

  • I really can agree to the advice “Don’t save the best for last”… it’s true.

  • I think his advice about the background acting is really useful, I directed a movie with some background acting (teenagers in a school), and what I did was call for help, while I was paying attention to the main actors and all the action, the director assistant was paying attention speacilly on the background acting, sometimes “share” the view is a good solution.

  • Unbreakable on 10.15.13 @ 7:25PM

    The post filmmaking blues is really spot on and I wish more people talked about it. I didn’t think I would feel that way after making my first feature but it hit me pretty hard. I’d literally worked everyday of my life since I was 10 to get a feature in the can and I had and it was like…okay…now what happens.

    Because the truth of the matter is that shooting a movie is like taking the road trip to the mountain. But editing the movie is making the actual climb and if you’re doing it yourself its filled with all the trappings of mountain climbing i.e./ loneliness, fatigue, pain and plenty of suffering as well as incredible rushes of energy. I think part of that “depression” is the realization that even after you feel like you’ve climbed that mountain through the filming process you’re still technically at the base with plenty of climbing still ahead.

    • I find editing something with messups fun. It’s a good challenge, and more often than not there is an alright solution. For example, an actor in a small local film has a scene shot over two days – he wore a different hoodie (color mainly), but with the same style. In the end, we turned the sequence into a small title sequence which kinda gave us a reason to make the whole scene monochrome. Could barely tell it was a different color when it’s grey.

    • There’s also that weird feeling that, even though, technically, you’ve made it, it doesn’t actually mean anything till the film comes out. I’m in the same boat. So much so that I went and made a ridiculous forty minute martial arts short straight afterwards. Great!

  • Great read!!!! What a champ! – Totally agree with getting the more emotional scenes done at the start of the day… A downhill sprint to the finish line is easier on the mind than an uphill one.

  • here’s a lesson for new directors. make good stuff.

    • Nope. Just make stuff. Lots of stuff. Over and over again. Bad will get better, good will become consistent and – with talent, luck, preparation and effort – you might OCCASIONALLY flirt with greatness.

      • jd holloway on 10.16.13 @ 10:07AM

        This.

      • James Cameron disagrees.

        • Ah, but WHICH James Cameron? The James Cameron who cut his teeth directing FX on low-budget Roger Corman films before being fired from his own first feature (ahem…Pirhana II…) for forgetting to shoot a close-up of his star actress? Or the James Cameron who slathered 200 million dollars of FX onto a bloated romance novel at sea, then disappeared up his own @ss for 10 years before returning to foist high frame rates and a 3D cartoon on his adoring audiences? They appear to be two markedly different people.

          • Just James Cameron, you know, the guy who made Terminator non union in one year for 6m as his first directorial / writer credit, then made Aliens as his follow up.

          • The point being that he worked his way up to making those films, including failures and schlock along the way.

      • The sooner you can get the bad stuff out of the way the faster the good stuff can come.

        • I agree with you about getting bad movies out of the way, but it’s strange how some directors seem to get their good movies out of the way first, then move onto bad ones.

          • Absolutely. Tarantino addressed this in an old Charlie Rose interview, but sadly seems to have fallen into the trap himself. Something about success and fame and adulation from sycophants seems to dull the sensibilities over time. It’s not ability that wanes, but maybe energy? Motivation? There’s tons of good stuff within the Kill Bills, Basterds and Django, for example, but the movies on the whole aren’t as compelling or satisfying as his earlier work.

  • “And soon you find yourself at the end of the day running around the set, herding actors and crew; you’ve completely abandoned your complicated stabilization rig and you’re shooting handheld now, because it’s faster.”

    Haha awesome!

  • I change my desktop background to this image after every film I finish:

    http://www.explodingdog.com/january2/imlisteningtosadsongs.html

    And I do listen to sad songs.

  • Background actors can ruin everything, keep a close eye on those people!!

    Solid tips here, thanks for sharing V!

  • The first tip is important, but only half of the story. Never, ever, ever speak to your background. That automatically upgrades them to a Principle— your UPM and Line Producer will kill you. That is the AD’s job and he should be on it.

    Also, have someone else watching for background mistakes during takes. You as a Director need to be paying attention to the performance and able to work with your Actors.

    • This pretty much is my take on it as well.
      BG actors tend to overshare/emphasize their performance/ideas which will end in disaster, once you’ve awoken the beast by paying attention to the individual. Have the AD deal with it, the script person pay attention to it during the take. Then watch the recording, then move on to the next shot.

  • One of the most important things you can do is hire a good Assistant Director!

    A good AD handles the logistics and frees the Director to just worry about the artistic needs of the film. The Director should just be able to say what they want and trust that the AD will guide the crew to deliver it in a timely fashion. The first feature I worked on, people kept bothering the director with such minutia as “I can’t get the coffee pot to work, where should I plug it in?” He kept getting pulled in so many directions, actually directing seemed to fall further down the priority list.

    Also, the AD is also the person officially tasked with managing background actors, so it really isn’t something the director is “supposed” to have to worry about.

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