Want To Be A Better Director? Try Being An Actor, DP, or Set Painter Says Director of 'The Frontier'

What defines an independent film with great performances from another with cringe-worthy delivery? The directing? The dialogue? Maybe if you could just afford to hire famous actors?

In his first feature film, director Matt Rabinowitz is out to show that you can take a group of relative newcomers and come out with a good film. How? In this case, much of the strength of The Frontier, a meditative portrait of a rocky father-son relationship, is in that intangible element of a film's success: the acting. Rabinowitz, who has been a cinematographer, a documentary filmmaker, and actor under directors such as Jonathan Demme, sat down with No Film School and his three principal cast members to talk about how he got performances on the set of The Frontier, which opens in theaters in NY and LA next week.

The three main characters in The Frontier are played by relatively (or completely) unknown actors Coleman Kelly (Tennessee), Anastassia Sendyk (Nina), and Max Gail (Sean). For Kelly and Sendyk, these were their first on-screen roles. Max Gail, on the other hand, is no stranger to show business having been a popular supporting TV actor in the 1970s. How did Rabinowitz direct such an unlikely group of people into performances that were "painfully awkward, rank with tension, and so real"? Take a look at the trailer for The Frontier, and read our interview to find out more about:

NFS: Matt, before directing your first film, you've been an actor, you've made documentaries, you've been a cinematographer. Did going through those disciplines help you on your first feature as director?

Matt Rabinowitz: I would absolutely recommend it. I think as many jobs as you can take in film no matter what you want to do, in film, go for it. Understanding all the positions really helps you to communicate with the people in those positions. And I still do all of those! I've also been a set painter; I've been a PA. I've always loved film. Since I was probably 10-years-old (after wanting to be an astronaut), I've always wanted to be a filmmaker. It's kind of the only job I've ever wanted and ever worked towards. So it was always pretty obvious, to me at least, that this is what I would be doing. In terms of this being my first film, we hit on this idea and just decided to go with it. And a lot of the themes from the film about fear and overcoming that and just doing something came from our thoughts on making the film. Just like, "Hey, let's just do it. Let's make a movie! Let's see if we can do this." And we did!

There's a movie now. And all the other jobs really helped inform directing a feature film. Because this is also the first time that I've worked with an actual professional crew that wasn't just me and a camera, holding a microphone with one hand, you know? So it was super helpful. Just knowing what their jobs entail, and how hard everyone's job is, because everyone does just a difficult job and they do it with everything they have. And it's important to understand even the craft services people are trying their best. It's really important to understand that and to know it. And to just to know their terminology, even.

NFS: Your cast is sitting here with us. Max Gail, you play the main character Sean in The Frontier. You were famous for your role on Barney Miller in the late 1970s, but you hadn't had a leading role for a very long time — maybe 30 years?

Max Gail: This is my first lead ever!

NFS: So Matt, how did you rediscover Max?

Rabinowitz: I've known Max for 90 percent of my life! I went to kindergarten with his daughter! And Max would drive our carpool. So I've always been aware of Max. And I was a huge fan of him even back then, watching Barney Miller reruns. He'd guest star on shows that I'd watch, he was in an episode of Home Improvement that I made sure to stay home and record! So when I knew that I wanted to have Max in the movie — I don't know that there was a specific point — but once the idea entered it my mind, it could not leave. Once the seed of the thought germinated it was him or nobody. He did such a great job and was so nice to read our script and want to do it. I feel so happy that this is his first lead role. I wish he'd had thousand of lead roles, but I'm so proud and honored that this is his first.

Gail: We were all first timers.

Rabinowitz: We were all first timers! In one way or another we were all doing this for the first time. That was really encouraging. Almost everybody except for the gaffers and grips.

NFS: You don't necessarily want a first-time gaffer — 

Rabinowitz: There was a two-person gaff team, and they'd never been part of a crew so small — that was a first for them. And they did such an incredible job with the amount of work they had to do. So we were all in it together. It was such a strong family feel. Actually, a lot of people from my family were crew members, so that really helped. We were like a crazy, motley pirate gang. All in this together! Bucking the system on a super low budget movie.

NFS: How does working with someone who is almost like a family member affect your directing dynamic? Does it help or make it more complex?

Rabinowitz: I think it helped. Max is so open. One of my big projects going in was just being open to everything. I'm not someone who had a giant ego; I just wanted to make a great movie. If it's someone else's idea, as opposed to mine, that's fine. Max had a lot of really great ideas. We had a dialogue throughout the entire making of the film and it was so helpful and I don't know that we would have had that had we not known each other so well. We could just talk about things and not worry about, "Oh, am I offending him?" So it was really nice. It was so helpful for me as a first time director that he was so willing to participate in such a strong way.

Nina (Anastassia Sendyk) and Tennessee (Coleman Kelly) trying to work things out - Film Still The Frontier Film
Credit: The Frontier Film

Gail: From the first time I knew Matt, and there's been a long time that we hadn't interacted, I knew there was always a person there. I can see now, back when you were four or five, there was a person there who would say hello and be looking around and taking things in. So that was a wonderful thing to have. And I think with Coleman and Anastassia, one of the wonderful things is that they come from a way of working from my same roots. They really brought a certain approach to acting that often gets lost in the process of actually making a movie or a TV show or something. It's not always understood by other people. You do have to be able to plug in the lights or they won't come on; there's also a way you have to be connected in acting. Their commitment to that was great. And the first time dealing with the camera around -- three or four days all of a sudden, they had it. At first it was like — 
Coleman Kelly: It was like, "What the — "
Rabinowitz: "Say the line toward to camera please!"
Gail: Or, "Don't stand in front of the camera!"
Kelly: That was the first thing that threw me off. You have to say the line right here. "You mean at the camera? There's no one there!"
Rabinowitz: "Two degrees over from the camera!"

Sean (Max Gail) and his estranged son Tennessee (Coleman Kelly) try to work it out - Film Still The Frontier Film
Credit: The Fronter

NFS: We're always interested in micro budgets at No Film School. You shot over 18 days, right? If I had backed your Kickstarter I guess I could have probably been able to see your set?

Rabinowitz: Yeah, we live streamed the whole thing! Part of the thing with our Kickstarter is that we live streamed the whole thing. If you donated five bucks or more, you could have access to this special site where we live streamed the whole process.

NFS: How did you guys feel about that?

Gail: A little reticent at first!
Anastassia Sendyk: Like anything else, it was there, and the first few days it was kind of like, oh my god. I hate this. And then you get used to it.

Kelly: It was just like someone was holding an iPad and would walk around. You'd be talking and all of the sudden — if we were really in the middle of something or focusing, there was a scene that was too personal, Matt would —

Rabinowitz: — I was the bad guy, I was the one denying access.

Gail: There is a need for actors to have a place to go to be actors while everybody was doing something.
Rabinowitz: The other thing is that we shot the whole movie in a 3-bedroom house. That's 20 crew members, three actors, and everything's being live streamed! It was incredibly frustrating and annoying at first! But after a certain point you just get so engrossed in the actual making of the film that you don't remember it's there. It was really interesting hearing people's feedback in real time. And a lot of people, mostly parents of crew and stuff, would watch the live stream and give us comments.

NFS: Really? Like, "This is boring — "

Rabinowitz: Exactly! A lot of them had no idea how films were actually made, or had ever seen a film set. In real time. And a lot of people were like, "Is this normal?" We'd be like, "We're working so fast! We're working so much faster than any other film!" You know like, a big budget movie, you maybe do 10-15 setups a day if you're really lucky. We were doing like — some days we were doing 35 setups! We were flying. We ended up two days ahead of schedule just because we were going so fast. And it was still, for non-film industry people watching the live stream, soooo boring.

Tennessee (Coleman Kelly) a bit upset with his father Sean (Max Gail) - Film Still The Frontier Film
Credit: The Frontier

NFS: What did you shoot on?

Rabinowitz: We shot on a Sony F3 that was really graciously donated by Ben Johnson of Upstream Media, who does a lot of video work and has worked with Neil Young since the 1960s. He was nice enough to let us borrow it for a month. Without that, I don’t know if we could have afforded a good camera!

NFS: So you had a good experience, you’d shoot on the Sony F3 again?

Rabinowitz: Absolutely! It doesn’t look like film, but in terms of digital photography, it’s about as good as you can do for the price.

NFS: Matt, what would be your overall advice having just finished your first feature?

Rabinowitz: Just do it. If you have an idea, do it. You’re not going to be Stanley Kubrick right out the gate. Stanley Kubrick wasn’t Stanley Kubrick right out the gate. We live in a society now where media happens so fast that if you do make a film and it’s terrible, it will be forgotten tomorrow. So you can make another one!


Thank you, Matt!

If you live in New York or Los Angeles, you can catch The Frontier on the big screen starting next week. If you'd like to catch it somewhere else, stay tuned to The Frontier site for more screenings and eventual VOD release. Here are the big screen slots so far:

Have you worked with actors that were new to acting, or who are your friends or family? Did it help or hinder you as a director?     

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Your Comment


Wonderful interview. I think streaming the production as a kickstarted reward is a fascinating idea though I could see how some would find it intimidating or distracting to the process.

If those live streams were recorded, it would be a great resources to share/sell for those starting out on a low (read: tiny/no) budget feature. To see how you negotiate filming in a single location, directing first time actors, light an enclosed space, move though so many set-ups in a single day would be a fascinating experience.

September 8, 2014 at 1:18PM

Daniel J Collins
You know, he's just this guy (with a camera)

The title of this article reminded me of another article I just read. On one hand you have this article saying "Want To Be A Better Director? Try Being An Actor, DP, or Set Painter" on the other hand you have Herzog saying "head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation."

I think they're both right. But I have to say that since I've moved to LA and started working in "the industry" my life doesn't have so much of that insanity and bizarre originality that it did in my place of origin. And I often find myself wanting to run away and work as "a warden in a lunatic asylum" or something equally as nutty...


September 8, 2014 at 1:24PM

Angus Lyne
Filmmaker and VFX generalist

I think they are both right for different reasons.

Going out and experiencing life will help you become better at your craft in a more creative way because you will have more life experiences to pull from which can influence your writing, cinematography, editing, directing, lighting, sound design and so on.

This article is more about understanding production from a technical aspect. My personal belief is that if you want to be a good director you need to start where the final story is constructed and that's in the editing room.

If you start as an editor you will learn very quickly what type of shots and story elements need to be included for you to do your job as an editor. So after working as an editor, you start shooting video and you edit that video as well. Very quickly you'll learn how bad you are at shooting and you'll see every mistake. Since you're also the editor you will have to fix these mistakes which will make you a better editor and a better cinematographer, because after spending 2 hours fixing a mistake you made as a camera person you'll always remember that hell and not make that same mistake again.

Then you move on to directing and as the cinematographer you quickly see all the ways you screwed up as a director and then you see it again as the editor.

This is a great way to learn if you can manage to do all those roles yourself. I'm still at the editor cinematographer stage and not interested in directing yet. But when I finally do, I will have a solid understanding of what needs to be there for the DP and the editor.

It's a great way to learn.

September 8, 2014 at 2:31PM

Julian Faras
Editor, Cinematographer, Director

Well that's why I said that I think they're both right. I definitely agree with you. I've spent most of my life learning about and trying to master as many crafts as possible. But my drive to do that came from having a very strange, crazy, unusual and inspirational life. So I think both points of view are valid. It's important to keep learning the technical but it's the wild experiences and strange encounters with real life characters and bizarre circumstances that breed true creativity.

One thing builds on another. And yeah being a good editor is going to make someone a better filmmaker. But likewise there are lots of things that will make someone a better editor and so on... It's really irrelevant where one starts or in which order they learn about different aspects of cinema, so long as they make that effort to understand the entire process of filmmaking as a whole. One doesn't even necessarily have to be a master of every craft, but having that experience and understanding is essential.

If I had to define the greatest education I ever had in the area of editing, it was not having the ability to edit at all. I'm very thankful for the technological limitations I faced early on as a pre-teen from a poor family trying to make films on a half-broken VHS camcorder. With no actual means of editing what so ever the best that could be done was to edit in camera and get the shots that were needed in a linear fashion. This is something someone would have to force themselves to do now days, but back then, for me, it was the only way. So by the time I first encountered an editing system I had an understanding that I don't think I otherwise would have had at that time.

September 8, 2014 at 4:24PM

Angus Lyne
Filmmaker and VFX generalist

Great interview, I really want to see the movie, do you know if it will be breadcasted in Mexico?
On the other hand, I studied for actor several years as part of my filmaking preparation and it really worked so far in my skills to communicate to the cast of my shortfilms, so I think his advices are great for every filmaker

September 8, 2014 at 5:24PM, Edited September 8, 5:24PM

Fernando Méndez Arroyo
Director, editor, script

Really wish I'd known about the live stream when it was happening! I'd thought of doing the same thing for a short film after getting familiarised with wireless tech on a shoot but hadn't realised it had been successfully done through a whole feature. Maybe it could be enhanced by breaking down the broadcast into the most potentially interesting moments of a shooting day, interjecting pre-recorded interview material into the mix or even having a presenter to interview any non-busy crew while setups are happening - makes me wonder how far it could be pushed to bring the viewer virtually on-set.
Would love to see something like that achieved in the future with the Jaunt VR/Occulus Rift: http://nofilmschool.com/2014/08/future-of-filmmaking-with-jaunt-vr-oculu...
Could be a whole new way to bring in a massive audience to anything you make.

September 9, 2014 at 6:16AM, Edited September 9, 6:16AM

Alex J. Withers
Writer / Director

I absolutely agree with learning as many jobs as possible in the film industry. It can do nothing but help a director be a better employer. I am a firm believer a team concept. If I as a director, I know what another persons job responsibilities are and what it truly takes to do that persons job, then it makes it easier to communicate what I need. It also seems to bring a respect to a higher level than someone who just shows up and acts like a director. It takes about an hour to figure out if a director knows what they are doing or not.

September 10, 2014 at 8:12AM, Edited September 10, 8:12AM

Brian Galyean
Producer, Director

I agree with the fact that film directing goes beyond that what you may read or learn with bare theory. The art of evoking certain emotions in your audience is achieved precisely by knowing how to evoke it in yourself, embrace it, and successfully transmitting whatever sensations you may experience towards your actors, and eventually to your audience. Can't wait for The Frontier to hit the Mexican cinemas.

Cheers to you all.

September 10, 2014 at 11:07AM

Diego Alcocer Manrique
Director, Writer, Animator, D.o.P., Producer & Composer

One of the things that I think going to film school afforded me was the opportunity to try out various positions on the film set which was perfect for my personality since I'm always so curious about how all the pieces work individually and how they come together. With the director being the nucleus of the set, I personally don't know if I'd have the patience and understanding necessary to allow everyone else to do their job.

As for the question asked at the end of this post, I did my short film with friends who were unexperienced. The rehearsal process was great. They were maintained an interest in the entire process which I think helped strengthen us as a team. During actual shooting, most of it was good, but there were moments when that flow was lost (for lack of better words). It got to the point where the one bad element was so distracting to me that I delayed editing. Would I do it again? Yes. But I would take the lessons from my last shoot and try to do better.

September 10, 2014 at 3:58PM

Shakima Landsmark
Writer, Director, Editor

To clarify, "With the director being the nucleus of the set, I personally don't know if I'd have the patience and understanding necessary to allow everyone else to do their job." ... if I didn't personally get a glimpse of what other team members go through to play their roles.

September 10, 2014 at 4:08PM

Shakima Landsmark
Writer, Director, Editor

I recently filmed my first (really) short film with a couple of friends who had experience in theatre and improv but not filmmaking.

From my experience with that I can say that I definitely understood how to tell them what I needed from them better and how to decide on what to ask to get the best results because I've been an actor in their position before.

I think that when you're working with an inexperienced actor, your best bet is to just write your character for them as much as you can. It's best to just let them be as honest as they can be.

So yeah, I think it helps a lot to try lots of different roles.

February 14, 2017 at 7:43PM