Saturday, June 21, 2008


Please put away any initial thoughts of the way you think a real movie director should sound and act doing their job. It's tough not to want to emulate directors you respect both in style and attitude.

I learned that during my first two independent feature films Consignment and In With Thieves that were produced under the flag of Slice Of Americana Films with the soundtracks being put together with the help of Jackin4beats.Com.

Consignment is the explosive and violent story of Tommy Jones, a Virginia Beach drug dealer who is fed up with the dangerous world in which he has been living. Frequent panic attacks and the desire to go legitimate with his new wife begin to dull the street instincts that have allowed him to prosper working for sadistic drug kingpin, Detroit Mike. When Tommy shows weakness, Detroit Mike makes plans to have him killed. In need of fast cash to go straight Tommy hooks up with his cousin Carmelo, a reckless drug dealer in California. The pair quickly get in over their heads, taking a large shipment of crystal meth on consignment from a ruthless Latino gangster. Double-crosses, a series of brutal murders, and an old secret from his wife's past force Tommy into a lethal showdown with Detroit Mike.

The soundtrack highlights tracks from up and coming East Coast & West Coast artists that include Custom Made Recordings, Ayreon The Don™, Malice & Da Commission and others.

IN WITH THIEVES is a crime saga that blends together a Cuban cartel deep into voodoo, blood diamonds being pushed by an African based crime group, ruthless Albanian gangsters, and an American burglary crew. This makes for a provocative film that expands the urban genre to a broader group of viewers.

Who can forget how hardcore of a director Robert Rodriguez looked on the cover of 'Rebel without A Crew'. Rodriguez's story inspired guerrilla filmmakers everywhere that they could shoot an ultra-low budget action movie like 'El Mariachi' that was entertaining, while giving the finger to the traditional way of getting a movie done.

Quentin Tarantino is a cool as they come. His style is often 'borrowed' from because he knows how to tell a good story using pictures. Tarantino has creative influences like all directors who grew up watching movies. The difference is Tarantino turned those influences into his own unique style.

There are many more directors who make great movies and look cool doing it I didn't mention for the sake of brevity. There's even more directors who's personalities and colorful nature keep them in the publics even if they haven't had a hit movie in years. The cult of personality is a real factor in the world of movies. It can keep some directors working or at least in the media eye until they can turn out a good movie. In Hollywood that may work, but on the true independent side of filmmaking your image won't get you anywhere unless you can make entertaining movies.

Instead of wasting your energy to create a colorful image and developing your own cult following like a rock star. Focus on learning what a director does and has to deal with during a movie shoot. You don't want to be all style and no substance. Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, The Coen Brothers, and Kevin Smith all had to prove themselves by making good movies before anyone knew who they were or cared.

It takes more than deciding where the camera goes to be a movie director, especially when you're directing an indie movie where you won't have the luxury of sitting in video village cut off from all the other production gyrations going on. I've wrangled cable, broke down equipment, dressed sets, and a dozen other jobs as 'director' on indie movie shoots. It's not glamorus, but it gets the job done.

General rules of thumb that will help you become a stronger director.

A strong grasp of the entire process it takes to make a movie is important. There's different departments that work together to bring a film together. The camera department, sound department, make-up/wardrobe department etc. You need to know what they do and how to maximize their efforts to help achieve your creative goal as a movie director. On big budget movie shoots the departments are very distinct and well supported. They remind me on a smaller scale of Roman Legions who together comprised the Roman Army. As a director you are the Ceaser of your filmmaking army small or large. Knowing how to best utilize your team comes from understanding how these departments work. On indie shoots more often than not the departments blur together out of necessity. During the shooting of the urban movie Consignment we had one person with an assistant doing key hair and make-up while also heading the wardrobe department. These two departments were put together because I knew how they worked and how to bring them together to keep the production moving.

You should learn basic camera shots, angles, and moves. Know what a medium shot is. Know what a reverse-angle shot is. Know what a dolly shot is. Know what a two and three shot are. I suggest you pick up 'Film directing Shot By Shot' by Steven D. Katz'. It can provide the technical foundation you will need as a director to help your creative vision come to life. Keep in mind their is only so much you can learn from books. When you get on set you'll hear terms for shots, like 'cowboy guns' and 'cowboy no guns' not covered in a book. It's a medium shot from the waist up no guns to thigh up guns. People will yell 'Wolf!' which means stop. "Flying in (insert film gear here) means bringing in. No shame in asking what a term means when you do not know. Ignorance is not bliss on a movie set.

I was a grunt production assistant (PA) acting as a human stop signing controlling traffic with another PA. I got called on the walkie we were rolling and to not let any cars through. I gave the hand signal to the other PA, production had limited walkies, that we were rolling. He nodded knowingly for two takes. During the middle of the third take he let a motorcycle roar through killing the take and getting us both chewed out. I later asked if he missed the signal, he told me he had no idea that signal meant rolling. He never worked on a movie before. Asking what i meant would have saved us being chewed out.

That story ties into how crucial communication is when your making a movie. You have to be clear to with everyone involved in your movie about what you're going to do, what you need, and what you're looking for them to do. People look for this, they expect this from a director. Don't leave cast and crew guessing about what you want. There's never enough time or money to play that game during production. Communication runs two ways. Make sure people can ask you questions if they're not clear on something you said. What might make total sense to you can be lost in the translation as it goes out to the troops.

Accept you're not always going to make the right call on every shot. You're never going to be totally happy with the way some scenes turned out. You'll always want to go back and re-shoot certain scenes again. Fight through it. It might not seem like it during crazy times of filming, but if you have paid attention to the details you will have shot yourself a movie at the end of production. Trust your instincts. I was a nervous wreck after CONSIGNMENT was in the can. I could barely sit down with the editor Tim Beachum to watch the raw footage because my neck and back were seized up with stress.

Sure enough a couple of the camera moves I chose for a few scenes did not turn out like I had envisioned. A few of the calls I made as a director just didn't work. i was a mess, editor Tim Beachum was surprisingly relaxed about it all and talked me down from the proverbal ledge. I was positive my movie was doomed. What saved the day?

A tip I got from an old school Director of Photography (DP) I listened to before shooting. No matter what kind of amazing camera move you want to experiment with to shoot a scene grab at least one take of a master or a standard three shot for coverage in case your wonder shot goes to hell. Turns out the coverage I thought was never going to use because surely my awesome camera moves would work. Some didn't. The extra coverage I grabbed did end up covering my ass in post.

The editor had enough coverage from those few takes to cut the movie together without losing continuity. I had spent three or four takes on what I thought were the coolest shots only to end up using the basic takes that worked. The other side of the coin of that is some of the shots I had taken chances on worked beautifully. Nothing like hearing an editor say, 'that was a real pretty shot' or 'loved the way you shot that scene'. So if it all goes to hell with your experimental shots have at least a little standard coverage to get you through. If it comes down to time. Plan ahead to give yourself a take or two with the shot you really want and a take going by the book for coverage

Having a solid sense of how to tell stories using moving pictures and thinking about how a scene will cut together before you yell 'Action!' is a smart. It gives you much more flexibility as a director to be creative, take chances, and experiment with a scene. Knowing the basics how to cover a scene allows you to bend the rules.

Stay away from being a paranoid and insecure director. Yes, you have to keep firm control of your movie because a movie directed by committee doesn't work, but there is a fine line between control and paranoia fueled by insecurity.

I was working on a shoot film in Los Angeles with a director that was wired pretty tight. He asked me once if any of the cast or crew said things about him behind his back. Of course they did. That's what people do. Of course I lied like people do in that situation and said no. He was completely convinced that one of the actors were forgetting their lines on purpose to undermind him and the DP was just waiting to hijack his movie all together. He was wrong. They were talking about what an absolutely paranoid hard on he was.

It all came to ahead when a camera shot wasn't working after numerous takes and the director went off into one of the most colorful profanity laced fits I had ever seen. I mean for a tiraid it was a beauty to watch. Arms flailing, a prop glass being thrown against the wall like a child, and everything else you expect from a person who lost control. "Why isn't this working?" was the last thing he yelled. The 1st A.D. smartly told everyone to take five while things cooled on set.

The director got himself back together and we took another take that didn't work. We were losing daylight and had a lot of other scenes to shoot to make the day, so the DP suggested a way the shot could work, by using a different camera position and move to get the action the director wanted. Right on cue, the paranoid director completely over reacted. He told the DP to piss off he. He was the director and wasn't going to let him hijack his movie. The DP cooly said, "stop being so insecure. I'm here to make your movie, not mine." The director blew off the suggestion without a second thought. He never got the shot he wanted to work and scraped the scene from the final cut. Who knows if the DP's suggestion would have worked? It would have made sense to try it considering the other shot wasn't working.

It was a different story on another shoot all together. A friend of mine was directing his first feature. He didn't have a lot of money, but he brought on a DP with a resume an arm long and for the lead this hot B list actress that had some slasher movie credits. He invited me out to visit the set. My friend was a director with energy and enthusiasim to spare. He knew exactly what he wanted from everybody on the set. He gave the DP detailed notes, his shot sheet, and they had already gone over in detail the storyboards my friend drew up himself before shooting began. My friend was in total control.

I was looking over his shoulder into the monitor during the crucial shooting of the final scene of the movie. He had the actress in this amazing bikini being chased by a knife wielding killer. After the first take there was a problem. The actress ran slower than the actor playing the killer. On the next take he told the actress to speed it up and the actor to slow it down. Still didn't work. My friend watched the playback with the DP. Then asked the DP what he thought would work to get the shot. The DP got the shot to work by changing the blocking and moving the camera. My friend got the shot and the ending he wanted because he was secure enough as a director to utilize his DP, not nutralize him.

Those two experiences really gave me some perspective on getting through directing a movie. During CONSIGNMENT I ran into a major problem that threatened to cost us shooting a crucial murder scene. We had been working all night and instead of chasing daylight we were trying to beat it. We had a shooting scene that had to be shot before the sun came up, we had about an hour of night left, and there was no option to push the scene. We were losing that location for good after we wrapped. After a couple less than stellar takes I turned to my DP Royce Dudley. We have to make this work, we can't lose this scene I said. I took the actors through a last minute rehearsal without rolling on the camera to see if I could cover the scene a different way. Royce stood back like he did sometimes watching. After the walk through rehearsal he said, "I can get your scene" and he did. Thanks Royce!

On the IN WITH THIEVES shoot I brought back an actor from CONSIGNMENT I really enjoyed working with named Jerome Hawkins.
I write and direct my own movies, so I get really involved in not only the action, but that the lines are delivered the way I want them. So here we are shooting a scene, when Jerome tells me he's really feeling adding something to a line, keep in mind this movie is my baby, but I felt his vibe. I gave him one take to run with it his way. The line he added to close the dialogue was great. We added it to the script and kept it in the movie. Did I feel he was underminding me? No. I was secure enough as a director to let an actor I respected contribute creatively to the movie.

These last couple of stories might seem to go against what I said about not directing by committee, taking chances that don't always work, and keeping control of your movie. I still feel that a movie can't get done right when you have a weak director who listens to everyone on what their movie should end up looking like. I still feel you can't be afraid to take chances on shots that don't end up working. I still feel you have to keep control of your movie. It's one thing to be overly paranoid about someone hijacking your movie, but it's equally destructive to you as a director to cave in when someone is trying to tell you how to do your job as a director.

You also don't want to become so completely narrow minded that you can't brainstorm with your key production personal to problem solve, work creatively with your DP to see your vision materialize, allow your talent to spread their wings from time to time in a scene, or see when you need to be open minded enough to change the way you're shooting a scene so that it can work. You surronded yourself with a good team let them help you make your movie. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well it takes a production team to make a movie.

it will always be your overall vision behind the way a movie will turn out, but being open to collaboration with your cast and crew creates a more positive set. You don't want mindless robots going through the motions. You want fired up people eager to lend you all their talents to make your movie rock. Don't let your ego get in the way of you seeing the big picture.

Some myths I do not buy into about being a director.

You're not a real director if you don't shoot on film. Nonsense. Once you've completed a movie on any format you're a real director.

A director needs to know how to light scenes. The more you know about any aspect of film production the better, but if you don't know about lighting a scene you can still direct. What I do is make notes on the look, feel, and mood I see in my head for each scene. I pass that along to the DP so we can discuss how to make it happen. I also like to suggest to the DP movies to rent with scenes I feel lighting wise are close to what I'm going after. Your DP is the master of light. He'll deliver the lighting set ups you need.

The director needs to know how to run the camera. Not true. It's very possible you will never touch the camera once during a shoot. I myself for the most part watch through a monitor. I do look through the camera after the DP has set the frame for the shot, but I rarely run it.

It's easier to direct a low budget indie movie than a mainstream Hollywood movie. Wrong. Directing a low budget indie or a Hollywood blockbuster both have their own challenges for a director to numerous to list. In the end you still have to be able to tell a good story using pictures. It's never easy.

A director sits in video village all day while everyone else works. I wish that was true. A director has to be on top of everything going on during shooting. They deal with the actors, check with camera and sound to make sure there were no problems with the take, and put out a dozen other fires that pop up.

Some ideas I do buy into as a director.

Never let anyone give your actors direction or notes, unless they are coming directly from you. You're the director It's your role and your role alone to work with actors to get the performances you want. No one else should ever be allowed to work with the actors. One time I was on a roof looking at a scene. I didn't like the way the blocking was playing out, so I walkied the 1st A.D. some directions to pass along to the actors. That's as far as I felt comfortable having people work with talent.

It's your set and you should be the only one to yell CUT! I had an actor once in the middle of the take turn to the camera and say cut because they flubbed a line. It wasn't their call, it's not anyones call but the director. They were warned and when it happened again they were released from the movie.

The director is the driving force behind a movie. Nobody is going to care as much about your movie as you do. You have to keep everyone pumped up and on track to finish a movie. You want your passion for what you're shooting as a director to be contagious on the set.

A director needs to be able to be secure enough to listen and collaborate with cast and crew. This is not directing by committee but having the leadership ability to fully maximize everyone's talents. Your movie can only turn out better because of it.

You have to be a cheerleader and a salesmen. When things are not going well on set you need to be able to keep morale up. After a particulary rough day of shooting I let everyone know what a great job they were doing and how excited I was by the dailies I looked at each night. I had to keep them excited about the movie now, not when they would get paid a week later. The next toughest thing is keeping people going after you've hit 12 hours. You have to sell them on your ability as a director to not only finish the movie, but turn out a good one that people will want their names attached to in the credits. You would be surprised how many people worked on a movie for credit only and the movie never got done or turned out terrible. Let them know you're not that director. If they stick with you and dig a little deeper you will put out a good movie.

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