How to Become a Film Director

Want to become a Hollywood heavyweight, with the power to make or break careers, film whatever you want without question, and be invited to every Academy Award after-party? Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet to attaining that level of fame and fortune without some sweat equity. Directors don’t just start directing unless you have the right last name like Sofia Coppola. However, she grew up in a filmmaking household, spending years on set alongside her dad Francis Ford Coppola.

What you really need to become a film director is bonafide experience with basically every facet of the film production process. Will you need to know how to sew a button back on a corset for a period piece or apply a latex mask for a horror film?

Not necessarily, but you should be able to explain what you’re looking for when it comes to outfitting actors. As well as direct how lights need to be set for certain shots, which cameras will be needed, and the emotions or movements you need from the actors cast in the film. That being said, knowing how to handle a needle and thread isn’t a bad thing either.

As a movie director, you’re responsible for everything that happens on the screen. However, directors don’t necessarily have carte blanche to do whatever they want, especially with some of the budgets being thrown around today. Producers often have the final say in budget matters, whether it involves how much to spend on actors, location shoots, or equipment rentals.

Creative License vs. Financial Reality

A director rarely deals with the economics of a movie, though they may find themselves hemmed in by them. The exceptions come into play when directors also act as the producer. Robert Rodriguez was the director, producer, screenwriter, and everything else on the low-budget but highly enjoyable El Mariachi. At the other end of the spectrum, James Cameron was the director and producer on both Titanic and Avatar.

On the one hand, first-time director Rodriguez had no choice but to do everything since he was making his film on a shoestring budget. On the other, Cameron had already made a name for himself with Terminator 2, Aliens, and The Abyss to be able to get the budget he needed for the lavish Titanic. As a rule of thumb, though, the producer secures the funds, controls the spending, and the director helms the creative process of making a movie, shot by shot, scene by scene.

Work Your Way Up

Quentin Tarantino was a production assistant on a Dolph Lundgren exercise video. Tim Burton was once an apprentice animator. George Lucas was a camera assistant. In each instance, they learned about the industry from the inside. Outside influences may have sculpted their styles – Tarantino was a video store clerk who watched movies all day long and Lucas, an avid reader, especially of Joseph Campbell.

Now Hollywood heavyweights, they learned the craft of making films by… making films. It could have been building stages, running cables and wiring, or working as production assistants to the working pros of their day. The lesson here: whatever it is, spend as much time as they’ll let you on the film set both doing, and observing as you go. Watch not only the director, but the key grip, gaffers, and other crew members go about their business. Take note of how they do what they do and get ready to jump when asked to move up to that next position.

In this business, who you know is almost more important than what you know. So do your job with diligence, show responsibility, and lend a hand whenever you can. Chances are, you will be noticed. When a production assistant job or best boy/girl position opens up, that hard work can take you farther than even the most impressive resume.

Keep your brain turned on. Get interested in other areas of a project or film. When appropriate, ask the cinematographer why she chose to use a particular camera or lens. Talk to a (willing) cast member about what gets them into character. If you find yourself rubbing elbows with a film editor, ask them which software they’re using or ask them about their approach to lining up various shots on the timeline. And always offer your services. If they need you, be there during every single step of the film production process.

And, of course, watch as many movies as you can. What makes a good jump scare? When is the best time to bring in a wave of music? Acclaimed action, comedy, and drama films, new and old, each bring something to the table. Try to figure out what’s unique about each of them, and what they deliver to that hungry audience.

As your skill set grows, from perhaps assisting special effects to learning sound design, to editing, you’ll automatically become known to the professionals in that orbit. So take that pre-production meeting if possible, absorb everything you can about how a movie is planned from start to end, then from shot to shot and scene to scene. It’s this kind of experience that will enable you to expand upon your working knowledge of filmmaking and which will simultaneously get you noticed and keep getting you hired.

Ultimately, you will be ready to use your professional film experience to direct a short film of your own. Once you’ve got the script in shape reach out to others in the industry to offer their opinions. They may be able to shine a light on areas that could prove daunting, hard to shoot, or just not essential to the story.

Even though you’re probably excited to get started, take ample time to tackle the pre-production with the producer, learn movie editing software so that you can edit the footage yourself or do it alongside a capable editor you’ve brought on board. Enlist friends and family to help. You’ll need all the bodies and brains you can get. You’ll also need a savvy UPM or producer to get that crew in proper form.

After post-production, look into local or regional film festivals and submit your film. Then let the criticism sink in, both good and bad. Is there a consensus on what worked and what didn’t? Did they dig the story, but felt the music was too choppy? Was the finished film a slick production but lacked a meaningful story? If that’s the case, take a writing class to see if it’s something you can improve on or go back to Robert McKee’s Story, Syd Field’s Screenplay, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat series.

Sitting in that director’s chair to helm a feature-length film is a long trek from sitting in front of your computer at home, learning just what it’s going to take to make your dream of being a film director your reality. But take heed. It can be done and has been done many, many times before.

Many famous directors attended film school, many didn’t, but nearly all of them got where they are by building their experience on sets, adding to their working knowledge, day by day, shoot by shoot. At Film Connection, we’ve devised a way to help you get the foundational knowledge of film school right alongside the practical knowledge of working on commercial projects.

An Immersive Learning Experience

With the Film Connection Film Production and Editing Program, you’ll be placed inside a professional film production company for six to nine months. During this time, you’ll work one on one with a mentor, taking on those day to day projects while learning creative aspects of a production.

This will lead to potential on-location shoots, time behind the camera, and learning how to edit pieces under the watchful eye of your mentor. There is no trial and error with our program. You are learning how productions are made from the ground up, from people who do this for a living.

However, there is one similarity between our program and working your way up the ladder on your own: Hard Work. From lugging equipment around the studio to operating cranes, dollies, and boom mics, being a student extern with Film Connection requires more than running for coffee or standing around watching the crew. Getting in, learning, and doing it yourself is what this no-nonsense program is about.

This kind of experience leads to knowhow you can use when it comes to doing those short films and projects of your own. The long days, the frustration of re-shoots, and the pride of a finished product are all par for the course when it comes to real-world film education. What you won’t take with you, however, is a load of unnecessary debt. With locations in 48 states, there’s no need to move to Los Angeles to start your climb to the top.

On average, Film Connection costs considerably less than traditional four-year universities or trade schools. Considering the time saved with our program and its modest cost of tuition and supplies, our graduates can finish their externships without being weighed down by student loan debt. Having had the opportunity to learn a lot and make meaningful industry connections, they can graduate in a prime position for building their careers in today’s filmmaking industry.

It’ll be the hardest thing you’ll ever love. Apply today.

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