4 Lessons on Being a First-Time Director from a First-Time Director

'Minor Premise'
I didn’t go to film school.

Written by writer/director Eric Schultz.

My path to directing my first feature film, a sci-fi mind-bender called Minor Premise about a neuroscientist who fractures his consciousness, came through my work as a producer. I started on the business side, moved to physical production, then to development. On each project, I soaked up everything I could. I learned from filmmakers like the Borderline Films trio, Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein, and many more. And each subsequent project became a stepping stone from one end of that business/creative spectrum to the other.

But I’d learned enough as a producer to know that my first time as director would be full of experiences I knew nothing about. Which leads to the first lesson I learned during Minor Premise

'Minor Premise'
'Minor Premise'

No Matter Your Inexperience, You Are the Expert of Your Film

Indie filmmaking is unique in that the individual with the least amount of experience is often the one in charge. You probably hire your department heads based on their work on past features. More often than not, your leads will have acted in several. But a new director may be the only person on set who has never before done the job they’re performing. Maybe you’ve directed shorts or like me, done adjacent production jobs, but not like this. It’s like if a car company hired you as their CEO after you’d watched an assembly line, and then surrounded you with a team of grizzled mechanics to instruct. In many ways, you are the novice, yet you are also calling the shots. It can be incredibly intimidating.

When that insecurity creeps in, it’s important to remember, despite any inexperience, you are the expert of your film. Only you have seen the movie in all its potential glory, every detail and nuance, watched in your mind’s eye hundreds of times.

Before Tarantino directed Reservoir Dogs, he asked Terry Gilliam how he conjures up his vision. Terry’s response is that as the director, you don’t have to conjure anything—that’s what the team you hire is for. You just have to know what your vision is.

On Minor Premise, I had specific ideas of how the tonal aesthetic of Ethan’s lab would progress during the film. From a dim buzz at the outset to oppressively dark and fluorescent by the end. But I never had to stress about how to achieve that lighting because I had a great DP, Justin Derry, and that was his bag. And as long as we stayed in sync, we could achieve that ideal version or at least get pretty damn close.

So the job of the director is to have conviction and to communicate. Beyond that, it’s deciding how much flex you allow to that idealized version. In other words, where on the Eastwood to Fincher scale do you sit?

Writer/Director Eric Schultz and Writer/Producer Thomas Torrey poring over the script.

Seek Collaborators Who Elevate Your Vision

That question of flexibility leads to the next lesson, which is: How close you get to your vision depends a lot on the team you surround yourself with.

For starters, you want like-minded partners. People who share your standards of quality and will hold you accountable to those standards too. And while a team that shares your vision is good, a team that elevates that vision is even better.

The structure of Minor Premise is pretty obsessive by nature, and so it attracted other minutiae-driven folks like David B. Jacobs, our script supervisor. David’s a fantastic sci-fi and comic book geek who remains the only person totally un-puzzled after reading the script the first time. By the time we were on set, I had to step up my game to get ahead of the inconsistencies that David was pointing out.

Similarly, we had created detailed schematics of Ethan’s lab in the writing, but my production designer, Annie Simeone, took those diagrams and brought them to life in a way that I never anticipated, riffing on fractal motifs and set design elements, such as the keyboard and guitar in his lab, that added new details to Ethan’s character.

I also had the advantage of two incredibly generous and close collaborators in Thomas Torrey and Justin Moretto. The three of us ultimately wrote the script together, but it was their concept and draft that originated it. Thomas and I spent hours poring over Excel sheets of sections and timings to make sure we had the narrative logic worked out. Moretto is a neuroscientist by trade, so he brought an incredible layer of authenticity to the story. So when we got on set, I was able to put more attention on directing the actors, for example, knowing I had two co-writers with eyes on a lot of other details.

Knowing I wanted my vision challenged and enhanced meant bringing on Christopher Radcliff early in prep to poke holes in the script. I produced Chris’ directorial debut, The Strange Ones, so I’d seen Chris’ approach to storytelling up close. Together we crafted a more nuanced arc to Ethan’s story, especially in relation to Alli and Malcolm. We then took that collaboration as a springboard into post-production, where Chris served as my initial editor.

I found similar collaborations across departments, from my composer Gavin Brivik to Adelina Atashi, who ran HMU, all of whom bought into the vision and elevated it, while embracing the limitations of our micro-budget.

Writer/Producer Justin Moretto and Production Designer Annie Simeone working on the R-10 machine’s head unit.

Turn Budget Constraints into Creative Advantages

A key to pulling off any indie is finding creative solutions for a tight budget. There’s constant anxiety when it comes to the wallet. But the trick is approaching constraints as opportunities for better creative outcomes. More money can lead to obvious, dull answers, while limitations require ingenuity. One example from Minor Premise I’m proud of is how we created the visuals for Ethan’s cortical spreading depression.

In the early edits, we watched our protagonist, Ethan Kochar, grow fatigued, go from sweaty to sweatier as his condition worsens, but it felt like we could up the stakes with a more immersive take on what was happening inside his brain. The obvious solution, from movies like Lucy or Limitless, is to use VFX to show this sort of neural progression. Computerized visuals of synapses firing, etc. But there was no way we could pull that off with our budget. Plus, the science in our movie is pretty lo-fi and scrappy. So instead, we came up with a route that was both fiscally prudent and fit our film’s identity: macro photography with practical elements.

My producer, Ross O’Connor, pulled a favor and booked a photography studio on a Saturday, and the day before, I took a train to a midtown butcher shop. There were a lot of strange looks as I perused their inventory of animal organs. Chicken gizzards, beef tripe, cow brains, sweetbreads… I bought some of each. Why not? At less than $100 all-in, it was all worth a shot, though my wife wasn’t pumped about how our fridge looked that night.

The next day, we cut cross-sections of the organs, put them in a fish tank, poured gelatin-infused water over them, turned on a couple of 5K tungsten lights, and started experimenting. At one point we added Alka Seltzer tablets to the mix, and then things got even more steamy and weird as the hot lights started cooking the meat.

We shot everything at a high frame rate on a macro lens and crafted the best moments together in the edit. The result was a unique visual representation of Ethan’s deteriorating mental state. It was the kind of spaghetti-at-the-wall, controlled yet imprecise, happy accident process that you can’t replicate. And because of that approach, it created a visual language specific to Minor Premise.

It was a fun day. Easily our cheapest of the shoot, and likely the biggest bang for our buck in terms of improving the film.

Film still from 'Minor Premise.' Cow brains, gelatin water, and Alka Seltzer for a cinematic representation of cortical spreading depression.

Focus on Improving, Not Winning

This was probably the most constant lesson and the one I battled the most with. Especially in post-production, when you’re alone in a room, confronted by a mountain of material and time.

More than any other film I’ve worked on, Minor Premise was a bear in the edit. The movie is so subjective and stylized and plays with time and structure in exciting but daunting ways. The process took much, much longer than anticipated. It took years.

After Chris Radcliff, I hired James Codoyannis as my second editor. At that point, we couldn’t afford someone full-time, so I worked with James on his off days. Then I’d go home and use the time in-between to obsess about the next round of things to try.

Each day, when we finished editing, we’d ask each other, “Did we make the movie better today?” We tried not to fixate on solving every issue, just making the movie a little bit better. If we did, no matter how small the improvement, the day was a win.

'Minor Premise'
'Minor Premise'
If your barometer of success is getting into Sundance or selling worldwide to Netflix or getting a top agent, more than likely you’ll leave disappointed. When I’d focus on those markers or compare my film to others, I’d feel bitter and sorry for myself. I’d get very “Ethan.” But when the focus was on what we were learning about our movie, I found we were more open to eureka moments, and over time, the movie took big strides.

You craft and you craft and you shape the film until it takes its final form, and someone, usually a producer, forces you to stop. Then you take a breather, sneak back into the lab, and craft some more. And ultimately you come out the other end a better filmmaker and with a movie that, while never the ideal, says something personal and resonant about how you see the world. I guess, if you’re lucky, you get to do it all over again, but our hope is Minor Premise finds its own obsessive geek audience in the meantime.

Click here to learn more about Minor Premise, which is now available to pre-order on iTunes    

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2 Comments

Great advice!

December 5, 2020 at 11:49AM

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Albert Acosta
Writer/Director
53

This article is incredible! I've been directing local business commercials for the past couple of years and this gives me hope to venture out and give a try at directing indie films. I've spent 2020 writing a movie of my own and I'll likely direct it when the time for that comes and coming across this motivates me to get out there more.

December 8, 2020 at 3:28PM

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Clark Tolleson
Creative Producer, Editor
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