Filmmaking Advice for My Former Self: 5 Things I've Learned in the Last Decade

The following may feel and/or be cliched, but cliches can be useful. Like a broken clock.

Over the past decade, there have been ups and downs. Few shining successes and heavy failures. Each and every instance contributing to the next. From Everybody’s Everything, a documentary on the life of Lil Peep, which debuted at SXSW 2019 to The Neighbourhood videos for Pretty Boy & Stargazing.

Here's the advice I’ve heard that’s stuck out to me, and some I wish I had when I started.

5. Listen, read, watch, repeat.

Frankly, I don’t know shit. I’ll never know enough, but I know more than I did 8 years ago. Consume as much knowledge as you can. Read about film, watch film, listen about film. The more you do, the less you won’t know.

Listen to Team Deakins, subscribe to Criterion Channel, read scripts of your favorite films.

4. "Never for Money, Always for Love"

Perfectly put by David Byrne of the Talking Heads

Put passion beyond funds. It’s easy in theory, but hard in application. Remind yourself at every decision. You will never have enough production budget or time. I don’t make films to make money, I hope to make money making films.

That being said, never compromise your vision. In fact, work a side job so you never have to. This might lead to less sleep, more stress, and less savings, but that’s your investment. The stuff you can afford to risk. And even if I never make piles of money, it was never the goal. I find resolve in the fact that I get to keep doing this full time and stop the side jobs.

3. Use what you have! Don’t wait for help

Look around, cover every corner of what is available to you. Where you live, what is at your disposal. Think up ideas that live within those walls. They won’t cost you anything. That extends to camera and crew. Your friends want to make movies, your iPhone can make movies.

So go out and do it. Buy and return lights from Home Depot, cameras from Best Buy. All you need is right there. Deakins shot Sid & Nancy with mostly lights from Home Depot… Tangerine was on an iPhone.

We had almost no money to move the camera on “Pretty Boy”… so we didn’t.

Mark Duplass' 2015 SXSW Panel sticks in my mind. The cavalry is not coming.”

2. Pre-production, Pre-production, Pre-production

Prepro doesn’t have to cost you anything. Make paper edits, pre visualizations, go on location scouts. Spending a day outside of your comfort zone will inspire ideas. Your entire paper edit might go out the window when you embrace a specific location. That’s filmmaking to me.

On “Stargazing,” we went to scout the theater location and the moment we saw the trap door, we knew we had to use it. You’d be surprised how easy it is to steal an incredible location. “Carry boltcutters everywhere.” 99% of the time I don’t permit, the fees will kill you and for small productions, it is often unnecessary. 

1. MIO [meaningful images only]

Every shot should mean something. There are no throwaways. On set, my DP Marz and I often repeat this slogan as a half-serious joke, but it rings true. If the image means nothing to you, then chances are it means nothing to everyone else. Personally, I try to focus on emotion. Does my frame communicate the single emotion I am intending the audience to feel? Many times the answer is no, but failure is the infancy of success. I appreciate all the times I’ve fucked up, and you should too.     

Ramez Silyan is a first-generation Syrian-American born and raised in Los Angeles. After receiving his bachelor's from UC Berkeley, he’s written and directed short films, documentaries, and music videos that have screened in competition around the world. His latest work is Everybody’s Everything, a documentary on the life of Lil Peep debuted at SXSW 2019.

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