Learn from one of today's great filmmaking minds.
Like most young filmmakers in the industry, Ti West did almost everything himself. From writing to directing to producing and editing, West has dabbled in every role to bring his projects to life. This is a sentiment that many of us can relate to as we’ve made shorts on shoestring budgets with very little outside help.
Watching a West feature like X or Pearl reminds us that something great can come from someone who believes in their vision wholeheartedly. West, who uniquely gave us two films from the same universe of sex and violence in the same year, has tackled a massive filmmaking feat this year, inspiring any filmmaker who finds the task of writing a feature film in a year a daunting task. He is a revolutionary voice in modern filmmaking, and we will take any advice he has to offer.
MovieMaker met up with West at the Venice Film Festival and asked what lessons he has learned from his filmmaking career. Here are the 14 lessons West gives to anyone who wants to make anything.
14 Tips from Ti West
1. Get out and make stuff.
West believes that “the right situation and resources” will not come around for anyone. Being a filmmaker means going out and making “more stuff.” If you want to make a movie, then write the script, find collaborators to help you make it, and find a way to show it even if it means just posting your short film to YouTube.
During the writing for Pearl, West would set a timer on his phone and write for 20 minutes. Trying to write something great will make you doubt that you can write that something. Instead, sit down and try to write anything that makes sense at the moment. The beauty of the filmmaking process is that things will be edited and changed.
2. Always be prepared with an answer.
Being the director means that you are the go-to person when anyone has a question. This means that you will need to be prepared and have the answers ready when the questions are asked. Even if you don’t know the answers, don’t fake an answer. Instead, know who to go to to find the answer.
Don’t be afraid to make decisions either. The director needs to be the one directing the shoot, so be prepared and know what you are wanting from each day on set.
3. Making a movie is a challenging, psychologically draining, traumatic experience.
“I’ve done 17 episodes of television in the past five years, and I’m a better filmmaker because of it. That’s 17 times I’ve had to edit something in four days,” West said, emphasizing that you will get better at doing something the more you do it.
“A lot of people wait for the inspiration to strike,” said West, but that strike of inspiration doesn’t happen all of the time. Most of the filmmaking is being present and forcing yourself to create anything. It’s “a challenging, psychologically draining, traumatic experience,” said West. “Once you know that, each day, you can chip away at it.”
4. Be open and thoughtful about the fact that everyone has insecurities.
Everyone on set is ready to make something great, but how each person gets there will be different. “You have to be open and thoughtful to the fact that everybody there… whether they will admit it or not, are going to have insecurities surrounding [the film],” West said.
Be empathetic to the fact that there will be clashes on set and find a way to be the best communicator on set. Understand what people’s goals are, and respect them, even if those goals are not completely fulfilled in the end. Try to help everyone feel satisfied by wrap day. The journey behind the camera is just as important as the final product.
5. Understand why everyone wants to be a part of the project.
West finds that if the cast and crew are all on the same page about their reasoning to work on the project, then it makes the rest of the production easier. Nobody likes to be misunderstood, so why work with people who don’t understand or agree with the story that is trying to be brought to life?
6. The details you may be passionate about are actually meaningless.
“I learned a lot from doing TV as of late, because you’re not personally connected to it so much,” West said. “So you watch the people who are personally connected to it have their strife. And you go, 'Oh, wow, I’m you in my other life.'"
It is important to understand what matters when you are working on a project. Some of the things that might be important to you don’t have any effect on others. Take a step back and ask yourself if this one moment or prop that you’re passionate about has meaning. If you don’t know, then ask someone you trust. In the end, you’ll save time and energy by not focusing on the minute details.
7. Know how to articulate what you want from an actor.
Being prepared with an answer is important as a director, but it is also important to articulate what it is that you want from a scene.
“It’s not obvious what you’re supposed to say and how to communicate what you want,” West said about being a director. Not everyone gets the chance to bring their vision to life, so know what it is you want and know how to translate the idea to others. It will help shape performances, create trust between you and the cast, and save production time.
8. Be prepared for when shit hits the fan.
“When the time comes to shoot the movie, everything’s going to go wrong,” West said. “So the more prepared you are, then when something goes wrong, you can pivot easily, and you can turn it into something that’s still good for the movie.”
Prepare for the worst, yet expect the best. Keep this in mind throughout the entire process, and have faith that everything will work out in the end even if it doesn’t go according to plan.
9. Power through the uncomfortable feeling that is work.
We have all sat down to create something and felt the crushing pressure weigh us down until we are unable to make anything. Anxiety is no laughing matter for creatives, but we have to find a way to power through or nothing will ever happen.
“It’s an uncomfortable feeling that you just have to power through,” West said.
The gratification you will feel after your job is complete is unlike any feeling you will ever experience in your life. You just have to see it through til the very end.
10. Be as ruthless with yourself as you can.
Self-editing is a healthy part of the creative process. Understanding that the movie will be rewritten and edited until the final cut is turned in will give you the freedom to tighten certain scenes or expand on a character through a simple moment.
Don’t feel like you are married to the first draft because that first draft will not exist at the end of the process.
11. You don’t always have to make something difficult out of strife.
Not everything special is made out of conflict. West’s mantra is “\don’t harsh the mellow,” because he believes that having a good time while creating a film makes the experience memorable and fun for everyone. Nobody wants to dread the work they do, so try to make the experience great for everyone, including yourself.
12. The plot is not necessarily the most important element of each moment.
“People say, ‘Well if it doesn’t move the story forward, you don’t need it.’ That’s bullshit,” West said.
While those people may be right sometimes, the plot isn’t necessarily the most important element of each moment.
When filming a scene, ask yourself what the most important element of each shot is. What are we pulling from this moment? Where should we look, and why? Having intention behind your decisions is the most important element of each moment.
13. Appreciate movie-watching.
People have been watching movies for well over a hundred years now. What’s great about watching movies from a time long before you or movies that you might have simply missed out on is that you will have a different way of thinking about the movie because it affected you in a specific way during a specific time.
That’s why it is great to rewatch movies that you haven’t visited since the first time you watched them 20 years ago. Our way of thinking is constantly evolving, and films give you this space to think and appreciate what the filmmakers were tiring to say or do. It will directly influence you and your decisions on set whether you know it or not.
14. Find collaborators who understand what your project is right away.
“My movies are pretty esoteric. So I’m looking for collaborators who get it right away, and it becomes very apparent who doesn’t get it and who does,” West said.
This is why he enjoys working with the same people over and over again. They understand what he is going for, and there is very little chance that they will miss the mark that West wants to hit.
You don’t want to micromanage everyone you work with, so find collaborators you can trust.
Let us know what you think of Ti West’s tips for filmmaking in the comments! And if you haven't already, check out our interview with the filmmaker.