7 Directing Tips From A First Time Feature Director
Preparing to make your first feature film is like preparing to have your first kid. You can read the books, take the classes, and learn to breathe, but when it comes time to deliver, you're never actually ready.
Rod Blackhurst knows this firsthand (the "making your first feature film" part, not the "delivering your first baby" part), and now that he's in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign for his first feature, HERE ALONE, Rod has decided to offer up some of tips and lessons he learned from his first feature production.
As a director I've spent years gathering and storing knowledge, anticipating the day when I could make my first feature film. Over a decade ago, I applied and was rejected -- from NYU, AFI, and Columbia film schools (I was rejected twice from NYU). Since then, I've been working my way through the film industry from the ground up (production assistant, editor, camera assistant, cinematographer, just to name a few) gaining more know-how and ideas of what to and not-to do. This past June, the day I was anticipating finally came and I was able to direct my first feature film, a post-apocalyptic horror thriller film titled, HERE ALONE. I also produced the film along with David Ebeltoft, who wrote the script, and Noah Lang.
While I have learned a lot since being rejected from film school, to the time of this post, I feel that the following 6 'things' helped me not only launch my first feature, but carried me through (relatively unscathed) the production period and into post.
Produce Your First Feature
Before HERE ALONE David Ebeltoft and I spent five years trying to find producers for two other feature films, including NORTH, a film we co-wrote with our friend Elgin James. Even though NORTH was a 2013 finalist for a SFFS/KRF grant and Elgin a Sundance Lab and Festival alum (and respected writer/director to-boot) we still couldn't find a producer. During those years, 99% of our e-mails and phone calls went unanswered. We don't know why. It just seems to be the modus operandi in the film industry when you're an outsider trying to bang down the barriers to entry. It was frustrating being unable to find any Producers who could or would take on our films, but those frustrating years also taught us key-aspects of producing a film; budgeting, scheduling, casting practices, and papering a film from scratch. After a while, we found that we were becoming adept (or at least passable) producers ourselves, so we decided to do what every crazy director/writer duo who think they're passable producers should do; launch our first feature ourselves.
As David wrote in an earlier post, 5 Essential Tips on Making an Indie Film in Your Backyard, HERE ALONE was designed around the physical production strengths of a small community. David's script also played to my strengths as a visual storyteller and was designed to be manageable for us (remember, first-time producers). We only had 4 roles, 6 locations, and largely day light exteriors, simplifying our physical production and equipment needs. In short, HERE ALONE was practical for our production level and allowed us to ambitiously schedule a 20-day shoot spread out over 2 seasons (16 shooting days in June, 4 shooting days this coming December). That practicality also allowed us to craft a budget that complimented what we were able to raise as first time filmmakers (in financiers eyes: untested).
Storyboard Your Entire Film
Five months before we started principle photography I sat down and made a detailed shot list for all 211 scenes. I cannot express how helpful this process was. First off, I became intimately familiar with every detail and clue buried in the script, even the ones that the most thorough director may forget about or overlook. Then based on my shot list, I storyboarded all 211 scenes. Don't be afraid to do this even if you're not a good illustrator. I'm not a good illustrator, but as you can see in the side-by-side comparison below, the information and process is more important than whether or not your drawings look like a graphic novel or stick figures drawn by a 4th grader (okay, 2nd grader). We then sent my shot list and my, ahem, storyboards, to an illustrator we hired to make them much sexier.
Rod's 'drawings' on the left, Storyboard Artist Erik Korsgaard's drawings on the right
When it came to shooting, we had the now-sexy storyboards for each day's scenes printed out and taped onto large foam-core boards (in the order that day was scheduled) for every crew member to see. These storyboard boards helped everyone quickly visualize exactly what we needed to accomplish that day and provided valuable information to department heads. For the Production Designer, roughly how much of this set will we see and need to dress, for the HMU head, how tight will our framing be so that we only need to work on what's on screen, etc.
Costume Designer Brooke Bennett and Director Rod Blackhurst talk about the storyboards for the day.Credit: Trevor Eiler
While we ran out of time in pre-production, our original plan was to create an animatic for our entire film based off of the storyboards. We also wanted to record the audio of a table read and then edit an animatic version of the entire film, complete with temp music cues. Next time!
Find Your Tribe
Elgin James (see above) once described filmmaking as a battlefield. On that battlefield imagine you're stuck in a foxhole, surviving the worst that trench-warfare can dish out.
Who do you want to be stuck in a foxhole with? Who do you want next to you when the enemies howitzer's fire 24-7, you're running low on sleep, hungry, and there's 6 inches of mud inside your boots (did we mention that it rained sideways 50% of the time on set)? Who do you trust to have your back? Who is there to make sure that every inhabitant in that foxhole survives the fight, and isn't just there for themselves? Who is going to stay cool under pressure?
This may go without saying, but surround yourself with people you trust. Surround yourself with like-minded, egoless, and selfless collaborators. HERE ALONE was successful because our foxhole was full of folks I trusted and who were concerned with the story being told and the bigger picture; how do we tell this story on time, on schedule, and on budget.
Every film needs -- a multitasker that will show up, wear several hats, and is unafraid of changing dynamics and circumstances. Find them, empower them, and never go to set without them.
Let Every Scene Go Thirty Seconds Longer
We needed to shoot 5 to 6 pages a day (instead of the recommended 4). Because of that high page count we didn't have the luxury of doing many takes, especially when scenes required shooting coverage. While I was able to do it some of the time, I wished I would've let every scene develop for thirty seconds past the final words scripted. When I was able to have those 30 seconds, we discovered these 'little moments' that brought magic and well-deserved realism to a scene. In those moments I was able to let go and trust my lovely actors, giving them free reign as vehicles for their characters. Those 30 seconds showed me, time and time again, why I wanted to work with them in the first place.
Shoot A Silent Master
If you have the time, shoot the master of your scene without any dialogue. Ask your actors to physically move through the scene, without saying a word, without moving their mouths. This exercise will show you what's most important physically in the scene AND it might give you some of those wonderful quiet moments that you need in your edit.
Find the Fearless Multitasker and Empower Them
One week before the start of principle photography we called my friend in Seattle, Trevor Eiler, and asked him if he'd like to spend a month in western New York as our Set Photographer. The previous summer Trevor had quit his job as a creative director in advertising to spend a month traveling around the world helping me rebrand Airbnb. So while I knew Trevor would be down for the last minute adventure what I didn't know was how invaluable he would quickly be to the production.
The day he landed Trevor (remember, our Set Photographer) began helping our one-man Art Team/Production Designer Rob Ebeltoft to finish building a set. A few days later, our now Art Department Assistant/Set Photographer segued into another role as our 1st AD that due to some tough circumstances had became vacant. I need to note that Trevor had never been an Assistant Director before, yet he was fearless. On day one, when the camera rolled and the rain poured, our 1st AD/Art Department Assist/Set Photographer kept our set running and somehow, still found time to take amazing photographs.
Every film needs someone like Trevor, a multitasker that will show up, wear several hats, and is unafraid of changing dynamics and circumstances. Find them, empower them, and never go to set without them.
Share The Spoils with that Tribe
HERE ALONE is a low budget film with (what we think) is high production value. The reason it looks the way it does is because our crewmembers, who worked far below their normal rates, did it out of love for the project. They believed in the narrative and they believe in me, even before they saw what we were capable of. We felt it important to reward this belief from the get-go and give our key collaborators points-on-the-backend (a percentage of potential profits) for their hard work. This tactic is sometimes referred to the Duplass Brothers Model'. Jay Duplass muses that if you create a scenario where you have a wildly successful film, and have rewarded all those that worked on it for below a standard day rate with back end points, those folks will all want to work with you next time as they all shared in it's wild success (ergo, spoils). While we recognized that independent films rarely make a lot of money, should HERE ALONE find financial success we believed it was important to give the crew, that worked tirelessly to help create it, a piece of that success.
Ask Me Anything
For those of you who have read through my rambling nonsense to this point - I'd like to open up the floor and take your questions in the comments field below. Next week I'll answer as many of them as I can and hopefully provide a few more insight into the tricks of the trade.
Rod Blackhurst is the director of the 2012 SXSW short film WOULD YOU, staring Dave Franco and Chris Mintz-Plasse, the Funny or Die Exclusives GO F*CK YOURSELF and YOU'RE SO HOT PART DEUX, and the Vimeo Staff Picks ALONE TIME, EARLY INNINGS, and LIFE. He is now running a Kickstarter campaign for his post apocalyptic horror thriller HERE ALONE.