When I was 23, I moved to NYC and started classes at NYU Film School. As the months went by I kept waiting for the day when I would actually learn something. I knew the art of directing could not be taught. I knew the faculty was doing their best to provide the basic fundamentals of filmmaking but still, something was missing.
Some of it had to do with my classmates. They were mostly guys, all with goatees and backwards baseball caps. One freaked me out by coming to class one day with his hat so far backwards it was actually forwards. This cutting edge spirit was reflected in their films which were strictly divided between stories of film students trying to get pizza delivered to their dorm rooms and lovesick, guitar-playing mimes in Washington Square Park.
After 3 years I walked out with an MA in Directing and the profound sense I had no idea what I was doing.
These words are an attempt to make up for that. They come after 7 films and 25 years as a NY independent filmmaker. They are not meant to be gospel. They only reflect what sometimes works for me. Some may find them simplistic. In some ways they are nothing more than common sense. They are however based in reality and an apparently endless cycle of falling down and getting up again. If one or two aspiring filmmakers find some value in them then at least I won't feel so bad about paying all that tuition.
The Director's Job is Everything.
Many people have come up to me over the years and said, "I really, really want to be a film director." The first thing I ask is, "Why?" This isn't meant to be sarcastic. It's a real question. If you're looking for the Path the answer to this question will help you because being a film director requires the immediate acceptance of two facts:
1. There is no Path.
2. The Director's job is Everything.
I'll start with #2 because #1 requires much stronger medication.
In 1998 I wrote and directed, Box Of Moonlight, starring John Turturro and Sam Rockwell. The film was an attempt to break out of the gritty urban cinemascapes I'd been working in; to re-examine the small town America I knew as a kid. Much of the script was about the simple pleasures of jumping naked into a quarry, sleeping outside at night and getting arrested for throwing tomatoes. But, for some reason, it was one of the most grueling shoots I've ever been on.
Everything went wrong. On the first day of shooting the crane fell off its tracks and it took 6 hours to get it back on. The rain, the long hours, the bickering of the crew and the actors all started blackening my spirit. All the minutia of chaos began to infuriate me. The camera department forgot to order film. As a result we had to shoot long night scenes with tiny left-over rolls of film.
Another scene required Turturro to walk barefoot along a rocky path. During the take I saw him stumble and flinch but he finished the scene. The moment I said cut, he erupted in rage. He'd broken his toe. He was incensed no one had cleared the path of pebbles and sticks. Much of his anger was directed at me which only further darkened my mood. All I could think about was, "What the fuck does this have to do with directing?"
My wife came down to visit. She immediately noticed my state of mind and said, "Your mood is affecting the entire film. You are the captain of the ship. That means everyone is looking to you. If you're in a bad mood they all feel it."
The day she returned to NYC she left me a drawing of a stick figure on a tiny boat with the words, "Captain of the ship" penciled on it. As much as I appreciated it, in my mental state the waves she'd drawn looked enormous, as if they were going to wash me overboard at any moment.
That day we were filming underwater in an outdoor swimming pool. Turturro, Rockwell, Catherine Keener and Lisa Blount had to jump into the water over and over. The day started out sunny but quickly turned cold and gray. The actors were wearing only bathing suits. At one point I looked up from the camera and saw them all huddling together; wet, sullen and shivering.
I asked the 1st AD to hook up a heater. He said we didn't have one. I went to the wardrobe department (sitting in hats, scarves and parkas) and asked for some coats. They said there were none. I asked for sound blankets. They were all damp and muddy from the week of rain. Then, for some reason, an idea hit me. I asked the gaffer to get the biggest light out of the truck and set it up beside of the pool. In a few minutes it was up and blazing.
Usually the hot light is your enemy. It makes shooting in small, enclosed spaces stifling and unbearable. But, here it was my salvation. The four wet actors stood right in front of the lens, the steam from their bodies rising up into the cold air. After a few moments, they were laughing and joking with each other. It slowly dawned on me; setting up that light was part of the job. It affected what ended up on film as much as any direction or creative decision I've made.
The director's job is Everything. This needs to be accepted completely; without bitterness or resentment. And that's where it gets tricky. Because at these moments all you really want to do is beat the shit out of somebody. It's not difficult to understand why. The pressures of filmmaking are intense, especially on a low-budget film where there is no money to re-shoot, re-cast or hire a new DP. Everything crucial to the film has to be attained in that insanely brief shooting period. If something goes wrong it affects the film. If a crew-member's attitude creates friction on the set it affects the film. If an actor shuts down it affects the film. And if the film is only half-realized that affects how and if it is seen, which directly affects your chances of making another one.
So, yeah; things can get a little tense. If you're reading this thinking, "I'm much more interested in the director as the medium cool, genius auteur," then all I can suggest is that you stock up on sunglasses, leather goods and triple nicotine no-foam macchiatos and start writing the remake of Fantasy Island. Because this conflict between art and human nature is real and has existed on every movie set I've ever been on.
Don't get me wrong; I've tried to wear sunglasses to work many times. Unfortunately I can't see the monitor through them. After 12 hours they really start to hurt my nose and I always end up losing them or stepping on them. I've also found this image of the mysterious, uber-cool Director is just that; an image. Most directors, including myself, are in a constant state of doubt, fear, ecstasy and confusion all at the same time. Unfortunately, there are very few guidelines on how to deal with it.
Your only option, in the midst of the chaos, is to somehow stay creative. Stay excited. Stay curious and open to discovery. If you lose one moment to your own negativity or despair, you've given in. You are the captain of the ship. Everyone is looking to you for guidance, even when you feel lost, defeated and absolutely alone.
I have some thoughts on how you can prepare yourself. Stay with me. Just remember: the director's job is to do whatever it takes to keep the film going, to keep everyone excited and committed to the miracle--capturing something alive on film.
Many questions. Don’t know if I have the answers. Your project sounds great. Personally, I’d say get started on it. You never know where it will end up. And that is a good thing.
I’ve found that whenever I treat something a little too preciously, or with too much reverence, it kind of becomes stale. Since it appears you’re going to have people basically contributing for free I wouldn’t worry so much about the perfection. I’d go more for spontaneous impulse. Spontaneity keeps people excited.
I like that.
My room mate just called it The Gong Show, without the Gong.
Tell me how bad you think this idea is.
1. Storyboard with a cartoonist. get sharp stylized beautiful storyboard prints. Have the cartoonist make an album on Flicker, and post the storyboards on the website.
2. Start running lines and dubbing them over the storyboards, so it’s a still photo with voice over. Have each piece posted on Youtube, 12seconds.tv, and other places specific to the audience that each piece might attract.
3. Have the composer begin putting together conceptual pieces for the film. Have them loaded onto reverb nation, myspace music and various other sites.
Thanks for your comment. My observation about No Path can be both terrifying and exhilarating. Believe me I have felt both. But, the real meaning of it is that the only way you can proceed in this business is the way you discover for yourself.
Like I said, many people don’t want to hear that. And so, many people end up trudging along the same old paths lined with all the souls that have been bought and sold. Then they get somewhere, who knows where, and they start grinding out these lifeless, thudding pieces of crap that all look the same, sound the same and produce the exact same euthanasia on anyone unfortunate enough to watch them.
Is this what you want to do?
It sounds like it is not.
I can’t be your mentor but maybe some of the words on these pages will inspire you to keep going, to believe there are other alternatives and that is precisely why I have not lost complete faith in movies.
The internet. Good observations. For me, I find the ability to effortlessly put a thought down in words and have it accessible to people very freeing. It is a form that feels very comfortable to me. There is no waiting, no second-guessing and most importantly no censorship or “authorization” from some other power.
Of course, the question becomes, who if anybody ever reads those words?
I think the same is true for the visual image. Yes, the internet makes it possible for anyone to make a film and post it somewhere. But, who will know about it? Who will watch it? How will having people watch it on the web enable the filmmaker to keep making films? Or provide him or her with an income to finance other films?
I don’t know. Personally, I hate the idea of film being reduced to the computer screen, the iPod, or iPhone. Sure, it is a venue, but so much is lost.
Film is the other religion. It is best appreciated in a large, dark room with a big screen, great sound and a room full of people. I’ve seen the effect of such an environment. It is tremendously powerful. It is communal. It actually is spiritual (without all the guilt and hell and virgin births).
The thought of someone watching one of my films on the web, while checking their cellphone bill, writing an email, googling Michael Jackson and ordering the Farrah Fawcett poster fills me with great unease.
To me, the cycle of making a film and getting it seen should be regenerative. It should keep the filmmaking effort alive. Right now the internet is still some infinite, universal bucket holding the dreams of the entire world.
That’s a lot to sift through.
(that makes sense, right?)
What sort of opportunities are available to us nobodys through the internet that once were only available to very specific somebodys?
Well first, thanks for getting your friends together to watch Delirious. I appreciate it.
What a great comment to get. First, thanks for your offer of assistance. I will sincerely keep it in mind for any and all pending projects.
Valley Cottage, NY
[erik at theseededplanet.com]
[guapo-1 at erikjonsun.com]
It’s crazy reading your description of an onstage, in-public fight. You can’t help but look at these things afterwards and laugh, because A. they’re so stupid, and B. they’re so stupid.
Thanks very much for writing. I think you are right about people’s impressions of most professions. Except maybe for garbage collectors. I think their job is pretty clear. Not putting them down, I’m just saying I don’t think too many people would be surprised or disappointed to discover what the job entails.
I’m glad you’re staying with us. There is some Doors news. See the new page above called News.
Much more to say in a week or so.
Hang in there.
Well, you’ve made my day. Thanks very much for writing. My plan (if I have the time) is to go through the entire process of making a film. There are so many things I’ve learned by being smashed in the face that I think could be interesting, helpful or maybe just diverting to filmmakers.
The next one will deal in more detail about how to stay creative on the set.
Good to hear from you. Glad the musings cheer you up. Actually they cheer me up too. Or at least help me stop taking things so seriously.
“Film directors are the architects of our modern myths. They are the shamans at the edge of the village.”
First of all, I really enjoy your movies, always looking forward to the next one.