How do you write, direct, produce, edit, and sound design a film—while also starring in a lead role?
I just completed a film called This Is Not a War Story, a narrative hybrid film that featured a supporting cast of non-actor combat veterans. I played the role of a Marine returned home from the war in Iraq opposite actor Sam Adegoke, who also played a Marine veteran, a mentor to other vets recently returned home. The non-actors portrayed themselves, so it was a combination of script and improvisation around which we built this film—dealing with trauma, suicide, and moral injury.
I also wrote and directed this film, as well as produced, edited, and sound designed.
This might sound a little scatterbrained or like the batshit plan of a megalomaniac, but in my view, these roles, and most especially the roles of writer, director, and actor, are intrinsically connected. They are three sides of the same coin—and acting and directing, more specifically, are the inverse of one another.
The art of directing
It’s been said often enough that no director worth their salt is not also (in some form) a skilled actor. While on the surface the skillsets required are worlds apart—the director consumed with technical minutia, the actor breathing life into and out of their emotional range—these two roles do fundamentally overlap, and directing yourself as an actor is only as doable as your awareness will stretch of this basic fact.
Directing an actor well depends on knowing what the hell they are going through and are up against, scene by scene. It depends on knowing, viscerally and experientially, the vulnerability, the embarrassment, the isolation, and the art of allowing oneself to be witnessed, which constitutes being an actor. The director must know all of this before taking such a drastic leap as to direct oneself.
Being insurmountably averse to direction of any kind from other people, I would be my own worst enemy. So for this reason, I might be a good case study on the subject, being also introverted and averse to anything social that isn't tethered to a concrete purpose and a clear beginning, middle, and end. That is, I would not be taking the leap for reasons other than having to, having no other conceivable choice.
Actors know when a director is prioritizing the camera and the shot. Actors know when they are truly being asked for input or when they are being asked to be a puppet meant to move in time to a cool camera angle or to embody the right shape or line for a director’s obsession with symmetry.
That awareness makes the actor, their emotional energy, their honest investment withdraw. The sensitive director comprehends that the beating heart of the film, any film, regardless of genre, is the human being at the center of it. All else is forgivable and forgettable—but the character, the actor, is indelible, and must be the bearer of truth and the voice of all that is truly at stake.
At least, these were my wild precepts before I took the leap myself.
Here are seven things I learned from the experience.
Only do it if you have to
There are things you do in life because it would be fun, or interesting, or a challenge. Directing yourself in a feature film is not among those things. It is to be filed under “extreme and urgent.”
There is no mistaking the impulse for something else. “Having to” means precisely that you know exactly what you’re about, your vision is leaping with clarity out of your heart, and any person you come into contact with hears and sees this articulation—“having to” means that you cannot do it any other way, or do without it—it means that you know what you have to say. This is not mental knowledge, or the sermon you will preach—this knowledge is bodily, it is rooted in your emotional reality, and it cries out to be answered.
So, ask yourself: do you feel that you have to play this part? And, if there are any doubts, test it. I tested my own conviction on this point. I tried to cast the role. A few realities struck me all at once, and I am ever grateful I went through that process. It showed me precisely what I would be gaining and what I would be losing if I cast someone else in the part.
In the case of This Is Not a War Story, for example, if I replaced myself with a stranger a few weeks before shooting, I would be junking over two years’ worth of immersion with the non-actors, the veterans, in their world, building trust and comfort, that would translate on-screen. I knew immediately that all of the improvised scenes would take on a much more reserved and cautious tone, whomever I put in that role.
Do not pull the trigger until you find your DP
The whole film’s schedule and fate should be in a holding pattern until you find the right DP. This person is your blood, your brother and sister, your doctor, your priest, your drinking buddy, your comrade, your soulmate.
Without this key position filled correctly, any attempt you make to appear in front of your own camera will go awry. The connection between director and DP, especially in the circumstance of the director also acting, is tantamount to the film being realized as it was envisioned. There is no way around this crucial fact.
Had I not found and grabbed Ryan DeFranco from the ether of the film world, I might have made a very different film. There are several things to look for when making this assessment, and almost none of them have to do with what you will find on a resume.
What charges up this person’s enthusiasm? When do they light up? Are they obsessed with the same things about film that you are obsessed with? They should be. Do they have inclinations to direct, are they inclined toward directing their own work someday, or have done already? Good. Note the respect of boundaries and make sure it’s air-tight. You want a storyteller DP, but not someone who is going to hijack your vision.
I was searching high and low before Ryan appeared—I knew exactly the temperament and orientation I was looking for, and I waited. It took a frustratingly long time, but I waited, and it was worth it. Why? Because when we were on set, I could intuit Ryan’s responses to what was playing out, check it against my instincts, and not even need to look at footage compulsively after every take. I was gunning for a DP whose taste I could trust enough that I would not have to live in an endless playback loop in video village. I knew that that would be an energy killer, a time-waster, and would most certainly, and most importantly, take me out of the reality of the scene I was to play. I needed to rely on his instincts and responses in the moment.
Being able to do this is what liberated me from micromanaging the camera once it was in place. I trusted RDF, but this is not something you can choose to have with any person. It’s highly individual and specific, so you ought to respect this process within yourself and honestly clock how much intuitive feedback you have with the person you want to put in this position. It’ll take the time it will take—and then it will pay off.
Take your time
It might sound obvious, but time is your most precious resource. Now, as an actor/director, you’re dividing your time in a very strange way. Depending on your method of approach to acting, you might be utterly immersed in a reality pretty far removed from that of the director. I come from method acting, and a lot of what I drummed up for this film originated in work that I did at the Actors Studio and the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, a million years ago.
Having a DP I trusted and could intuit, the next conundrum was who to be on set—the director or the actor? I had a very specific case on my hands with This Is Not a War Story. My character was a Marine. I thought I could lean into that a bit, in the sense that a Marine would not make a bad film director. Whereas a director might make a pretty shitty Marine. So I decided that my default position (in this case) would be to stay in character. If Isabelle had to direct a scene, so be it. But Talia the Director would never be acting in a scene.
This brings me back to the issue of time being of the essence. Nothing can replace clarity of mind as the ultimate asset—if you’re scatterbrained or harried, rushed, confused—you will make decisions in a state of panic that do not serve the film. When you’re bouncing between identities, you’ve got to build in a buffer of time, so that being in a perpetual hurry is not among the things that deter you.
Films are notoriously time-sensitive. So how on God’s bleeding earth can you afford to “take your time” while making a film?
Make sure that your money is going directly into spacing out the shooting schedule. Do whatever you have to do to space out those shooting days. We’re not shooting film anymore—there has to be some advantage to this.
Well, one advantage is that you’re not renting expensive film equipment or shipping cans to a lab. On War Story we shot for two weeks, then took an intentional break for three or more weeks. We resumed and shot no more than three pages per day. This is unheard of for an indie film, unless it’s how you designed the film from the get. If you’re shooting five to seven pages a day, you will be chasing your tail and get lost in oblivion. If you deliberately set out to shoot no more than three pages per day, there is a chance that the most precious resource, time, will be your friend.
When you have time to consider your next move—when you have time to digest what you have been doing, how it has been going—you can orient your mind and body to the task at hand without undue hindrance and pressure. There will always be hindrances and pressure in filmmaking. The least you can do to support yourself in this impossible task of directing yourself is to take your time—build it in philosophically to the scheduling of the film, make sure everyone is on board with that before proceeding, and then go for it.
I had endless conversations with DP Ryan and Swiss-army-genius production designer/wardrobe supervisor Noa Bricklin about scheduling the film in this way. We started shooting in June, and we ended the shoot in October. We had reshoots for a few days the following May. We had a total of 39 shooting days, spread out over that time.
Build in reshoots
Assume that there are a few key scenes that you just won’t be able to get a grip on until you shoot them. This is actually fair advice if you’re “just” directing.
But be that as it may, when you’re acting as well, you would be well served to identify ahead of time those few scenes that you know are going to be the most difficult, for myriad reasons, and build into the budget and the schedule the means and time to reshoot them.
I did this for several key scenes in This Is Not a War Story. They were highly emotional scenes that I felt intensely apprehensive about. I had to sit with the footage long enough to know that the scene needed to be reconceived and reshot. Sometimes you really cannot know until you see how it plays out. And you can’t see it on the day, if you’re in it—no, not even with playback. There’s a uniquely false sense of security that comes with playback as a means to check your performance.
This is something I did exactly zero times on the set of This Is Not a War Story. I did check a shot here or there at Ryan’s recommendation in terms of technicality, focus, and so on, why do we have to do this again, at his petitioning, but that was it. I did sit with footage on my own and share it with my producer and guardian angel, Rosario Dawson.
The risk of playback is this: people want to support you, and they want to go home. If you playback, you are eating hours of work time. You are also inviting opinions from people who are understandably myopic. You need a true sense of your work, and that comes with solitude. No one around you cheering you on. Just yourself and your sense of what the hell you have done. Reshoots are key to making those troublesome scenes work out in the end. That, and this next point:
Have at least one producer who is a guardian angel
I was fortunate enough to have two. But you’ve got to have a parental figure over your shoulder, looking out for you.
In the throes of the most obscene difficulty with War Story, I could call Rosario and run a situation by her, and hear her voice of reason and sanity. I almost made the film with a different actor in the role Sam Adegoke played. I had been in rehearsals and got a thousand signals of problematic behavior, but being on a warpath, I was distraught. I wanted to cast Sam, but I assumed we couldn’t afford the travel and flight situation. The current actor was driving me batty, but I wanted to "rise above it."
Rosario checked my sanity, my instincts, and advised me on no uncertain terms. This was unequivocally one of the most important decisions in the life of the film and it was her influence and perspective that saved it. She was hearing what I was actually expressing—as opposed to the content of what I was saying—and encouraged me to go with my gut and hire the actor we really wanted.
Likewise, during the most intense doubts of whether or not I myself could really pull off this character, Rosario was front and center reminding me of her enthusiasm and love for what I had to give as an actor. Her faith in this aspect of the work was the single guiding force that compelled me to keep going, at times. I had more faith in her perception of what made an actor An Actor, more than my own. I was also slipping into character more and more, and what accompanied this were deep feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing, and so on—demons that I had to play this part specifically to exorcise, or at least attempt to.
Without Rosario’s guidance, I might have lost myself in the role and lost my director-self to the demands of the role.
My other guardian angel was producer Noah Lang. Like the DP search, I had been on the hunt for a good long while for a producer who had great taste in film, a solid work ethic, and a compassionate framework for doing this work in the first place. Noah would swoop in with the solution to this or that impending production issue and resolve it with enviable clarity and calmness.
That’s the thing about finding your guardian angel. Their calm and focused presence, even in the most irrelevant and banal of conversations, can and should be enough to snap you back to the reality of yourself and your endeavor. And in the thick of the hustle, it’s the difference between losing your cool and your center, and staying aligned to your true North.
Get second, third, fourth, and fifth eyes on it
I don’t necessarily advise being your own editor—I did it out of necessity.
But when you do arrive at a cut that you can look at and not cringe, show it deliberately. Showing it randomly is not as likely to tell you very much, as being very selective and deliberate in this process (the edit).
The key thing is knowing what to expect, and seeing if your expectations match reality. Is this person bound to be sympathetic to your performance? Good—gauge when and where they check out, or what made them check back in. Is this person totally aloof and not inclined to watch a movie like this, having no particular investment in you as a character in the film? Great—was there a time when they did feel something? What caused that?
There are many ways to gauge whether your performance is doing what it needs to do. It might be advisable to have one person, possibly two, with whom you share footage while you are shooting. It’s a very dangerous arena, though. It can change your whole plan of attack, so choose wisely. Your best bet is someone you have known for a very long time. The longer the better. Whether their opinions and worldview are radically different from yours is immaterial, the key thing is knowing what to expect. If their reactions play along with your expectations, then you know what you have.
But this system of measurement only works if you really know that person, and that takes time. I shared footage in real-time with my producer, Rosario, as described above—and I also shared footage (while shooting) with my cousin and writing partner Brian Priest. Brian and I had made a film previous to this, Descent. He’s been my best friend for 20 years. I know that our film sensibilities are quite different, but I know him well enough to know what to expect from his reactions. And he is also not someone to mince words or hold back. This is immensely valuable. I know that he is not positive toward something unless he truly feels positively towards it.
So, if you have such a person, great. But if you don’t, remember that sharing footage comes at a cost—unless you really know where someone is coming from, it’s very hard to interpret what they mean. Writing and film groups are fine as far as it goes, but I would treat that environment with very healthy skepticism, and always hold fast to your instincts.
Put the actor first
There are many schools of thought on this. I come from the Lumet-Nichols school of thought—so if you’re making a Marvel movie, this might not apply to you. I think it could, but that’s another conversation.
Putting the actor first means tangibly recognizing that the actor is your human element and above all else, the most important aspect of (nearly) anything you are shooting. Royalty is not an overblown word for this way of thinking. The person who agrees to be in front of your camera—whether they’re a trained actor or a non-actor—is a person who embodies the full spectrum of human vulnerability. The utmost respect must be paid to that person who is willing, and able, to allow themselves to be seen and to be heard.
When you yourself are the actor in question, it becomes that much more of a challenge and an actual task to maintain self-compassion such that you can tolerate, encourage, and assert yourself. Without a daily, hourly dose of self-compassion—not to be confused with pampering—you will not find your way to the finish line of directing yourself.
The fastest way to shut an actor down is to belittle them, to tease or talk shit.
These kinds of directors I find impossible to fathom. When you see the results, immediately, of your ability to connect, genuinely, with the actor—and this often and usually means one-on-one, quiet interaction—you understand the importance of being their ally and, in effect, their parent. So must you be toward yourself if you are to accomplish this double feat.
The same goes, again, if you are “just” directing—putting the actor first means recognizing that the breathing, beating heart of your film will make or break the story and its impact, and is not something that can be fixed in post. Getting the coolest camera angle on planet earth is meaningless if your performances are constricted, unreal, forced, withdrawn, or overblown. Likewise, if the acting is truly present, captivating, unpredictable, and true.
There’s nowhere you can’t go, in a story or the heart of the audience.
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