Lessons First-Time Directors Won't Learn Until It's Too Late
Okay, 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.
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?