Guest Article: Sitting In the Director’s Chair
Hey everyone! My name is Ace (yes, it’s my real name) and today I’m going to talk to you about the realities of one of the most coveted positions in the film industry: Directing. As a working commercial and film director I’m fortunate to have reached a level I’m happy with, though I always look upwards and forwards to the future, and would love to share some insights and information I’ve accrued over time with you guys that should hopefully help you take directing seriously as a career.
As you all know, directing is an incredibly difficult and competitive field. Most people who attend film school want to become a director. When they graduate, few do because they don’t realize the immense time and effort involved and bills start piling up and suddenly their dream career isn’t practical anymore. No one’s reading their script, people get married, schedules are conflicting, et cetera. My hope today is that you leave this article with a foundation (I can’t give you an exact route because everyone else’s is different, but I can give you the freeway) of how to enter in the real world. I’d suggest you start with primers; you can revisit the wonderful articles on creating your first short film, becoming a PA, and learning all the essentials of how to make a film. Tobias’ Film LTK (Links, Tutorials and Knowledge) is probably one of the most comprehensive databases on there. Kudos to him for sharing this valuable info with us.
So, you’ve graduated school, watched every one of Stanley Kubrick’s films, moved out to Los Angeles, are sick of fetching coffee for overly stressed producers and now you want to strike it out on your own as a visionary auteur. Congratulations! This is the first step: Really deciding to become a director. If directing is in your blood, you love storytelling with the camera, talking to actors, leading a crew, breaking down scripts and thriving on chaos, this may be your calling. It’s very important to make this choice early on because realistically, nobody will hire you if your card says director/makeup artist/script supervisor/editor/background extra. I don’t mean to discredit the value of having many skills. In fact, many cinematographers wind up directing commercials because of their strong visual sense. But figuring out what you really want to do in life is important because you can then work on that craft and people will begin to isolate what you’re good at and hire you based on that distinction. Put another way, no one hires an anesthesiologist to perform quadruple bypass surgery because that would just be…terrible.
After you decide to become a director, you should figure out what kind of director you want to be. Many directors end up directing multiple things, but no one director directs everything (Kubrick again, I think is the one exception, for he brings a fresh take to every genre he does). For example, a studio wouldn’t hire Michael Bay to direct the sequel to Lost in Translation, unless that meant Bill Murray blowing up the Japanese director that pissed him off, which would be amazing – but I digress. Established corporations, studios and the likes of which that produce specific content want specific directors. It’s an issue of safety. A company that makes cars would feel more comfortable hiring a car director than a comedy-dialogue director. A studio that does drama would want a director that can make actors upset and cry rather than make an actor do fart jokes. They’re investing hundreds, even millions of dollars in your project – they want to know you can do the job.
There are many different categories of directors and even sub-categories within those categories. Here are some of them:
- Film directors
- TV directors (half-hour sitcom, one-hour drama)
- Commercial directors (Car/Food/Comedy-dialogue/lifestyle/comedy/Beauty/Fashion)
- Web Series directors
- Music Video directors
- Reality TV directors
- Documentary directors
All of these come with their own intricacies, language and nuances that you should learn in order to become savvy to the field. For instance, in television the writer is king and can override your choices if they stray too far from his original vision. In film, it’s the opposite. And in commercials, the agency creative director, agency producer and client control the final edit. Music videos have a more free flowing nature to them whereas film is very specific. There are many books out there where you can learn the nooks and crannies. Here’s some:
- The 30-Second Storyteller: The Art and Business of Directing Commercials by Thomas Richter (great introductory book on doing commercials, which is a totally different animal from film)
- First Time Director: How to Make your Breakthrough Movie, by Gil Bettman
At the beginning, I would suggest trying out everything, figuring out what you like the most and sticking with it. On the higher levels, the directors awarded the biggest jobs consistently direct the same kind of material. The easiest representation of this is in film: Darren Aronofsky does deep, dark dramas with a flair of psychological edge, Wes Anderson does colorful, quirky indie films centering on the troubles of a patriarchal family with highly stylized diorama-esque cinematography. They’re quite opposite.
Now don’t get me wrong—you can definitely crossover and do different things. I love drama for instance but I also direct fashion commercials. But the chances of you getting hired on a higher level increase with how consistent you are. A client will have difficulty trying to hire you if you have a web series, a commercial, some drama and comedy spots and a music video or two on your reel unless it is a house reel for a production company you’re advertising. Variety, in this case, is not the spice of life. Clients want something very specific…and that’s your voice.
A director’s “voice”
A director’s voice, in my opinion, is his strongest selling point. It’s what separates him from any other director. Not necessarily a single piece he does, but his “touch,” that is recognizable throughout his filmography. When I think David Fincher, I think dark, moody, depressing, tense. That’s his voice. Luxury brands all around the world clamor to have David Fincher do their spot because of what he can bring to the table. All the A-list directors have a unique, singular voice that defines their body of work. Once you’ve discovered your aesthetic, don’t be afraid to hone in on it, even if it means separating yourself from other kinds of styles you might want to do. You will likely get hired on the strength of your voice anyway. When I first started scrolling through the lists of production companies to represent me, they all weren’t sure what I wanted to do because I had lots of things on my reel, but there was no defining theme. The response was the same: “Great work, but get back to us when your reel matures.” Or, “Not looking to add any builds at the moment.” A build is essentially a director that is still developing, or maturing. Confidence, assurance and strength rise with specificity.
Now if you’re adamant on doing several things, I’d recommend doing several different reels that you can submit. I’m working on my commercial one right now. My drama one is okay, but I’ve gotta tighten it up. And make sure to keep these reels short! Executive producers usually have less than three minutes to really look at your stuff unless you’re big and for good reason: they’re busy trying to bid jobs for you. It’s hard enough that they’re getting bombarded daily with reels, so you might as well make life easier for them.
The different routes of directing
Now, the fun part: finding the jobs. Once you’ve decided you want to direct string cheese commercials, or rap music videos with grills and hoes, you actually need to do the work. Depending on which route you take, there are many different paths but some of them intersect with each other.
- For television, one of the best ways to entry is as an Assistant Director. Sounds odd, considering in film ADs usually transition to Production Managers and Producers, but in television less so due to the director acting more like a slightly creative AD himself than a director. The hierarchy of television—especially network television—puts strict restraints on directors from time to creative latitude that they must operate within to keep their job. With television becoming more like film nowadays, the latitude is opening up but it’s not quite the level as film yet. So work as a PA, earn experience, then transition to AD, and then from there, maybe someone will notice you and hire you to direct one of their episodes. The great thing about TV directors is that they’re steady, and they make really good money. But at the end of the day, you’re still essentially building someone else’s dream. Still, many directors love doing television.
To get in, work on as many sets as possible especially within the studio or network TV system, and eventually someone will recommend you for a show.
- For feature films, what seems to be the best way is to do a short film version of the feature, write the script, and then pitch it as a package to producers, production companies, managers and agents. With the hundreds, if not thousands of scripts being read every day, it’s a little easier to catch someone’s attention with an eye-popping, mesmerizing short that gives them a taste of what’s to come.
For networking, send it to everyone. I mean EVERYONE. Not just the aforementioned, but everyone you know in Hollywood. Ask around. Based off the six degrees of separation, someone is bound to know someone especially in a big city-small town Los Angeles that could help push the project along. Rian Johnson, the director of Looper, got his first script Brick made into movie by sending it to everybody he knew in Hollywood, and even people he didn’t know. It took him a little while, but eventually he got it made. You really, really never know.
As far as making money goes, you will most likely not make any money on your first feature, but your second deal can be very lucrative and change your life in a lot of ways if your first feature does well. I’ll do a separate article soon on getting a feature made.
For Music Videos, if you don’t have any to your name, I’d suggest finding some indie band or musician that wants a video (plenty do in LA, believe me) and offering your services pro bono. But make it creative. Very creative. The biggest mistake I see in amateur videos is that they are very generic—it’s usually a case of someone in a studio singing to a mic in wide and close up shots that anyone with a handycam could have spat out in just a few hours. Director Ross Ching made his name by doing highly creative music videos with different visual effects, in-camera tricks, similar to French music video and film director Michel Gondry — therefore articulating his voice in a very original way. True creativity is overcoming logistical limitations with an active imagination. Think about it. With millions of bands and musicians competing for views, who wouldn’t want a very creative music video? In fact, the most watched things on youtube are music videos, so this route can prove to be extremely lucrative if you do it right. Once you’ve got a few polished music videos under your belt, it’s time to get some representation. While it’s nice to hunt for jobs, after a while it can become a little overwhelming unless you own your production company so I’d suggest signing with an established prod co. Check out LA 411 for commercial and music video companies and email the executive producers directly with your reel. Surprisingly, a lot of them respond. Since directors are the lifeblood of most production companies, they are always actively looking for fresh talent to supply them. Always be humble in your email, make your reel accessible for them to see, and once again, keep it short.
If you want to do music videos for Lady Gaga or Drake, it’s important that you have the backing of a production company, as they will vouch for you in their bid. No A-list client will take you seriously unless you shot to fame from youtube or the new media world, which I’ll discuss below. With medium level talent, you can show them your reel and negotiate a budget for their video.
Commercials are one of the most lucrative ways a director makes money. Most directors who aren’t really feature directors that make a handsome living do commercials. The reason is because companies and brands depend heavily on visual advertising to keep themselves relevant and ubiquitous in the world. The bigger, the bolder, the funnier, the more controversial the commercial, the better. Hence why commercials are priced at $3 million for the media buy during the Superbowl, because they have the highest exposure and impression rate during that event. They are also one of the most difficult things to get into for that reason as well. There is a very high production value precision level that comes with the territory, as well as the proper execution. It also requires you to be very specific.Many people get into smaller commercials in a variety of ways that consist of asking around, dumb luck, networking, etc. – but for the high profile projects, everything starts with your reel. The commercial reel is not a montage of stuff you’ve done, but a fixed number of “spec” commercials (fake commercials) that articulate the brand or product. These commercials need to look like the real ones that have actually spent a lot of money on them, and they must be written well. A word of advice to budding directors: Don’t try to write your own commercials. There’s people that actually do that. They are called copywriters. Their job is to tell the story in 30 seconds and they know how to do it because they are trained. They also represent the aesthetic of the company, so they know it better than you do.
Here is a spec commercial I directed a few years back:[vimeo https://vimeo.com/35550398 width=800 height=450]
If you want to do a spec commercial, I would suggest hiring a copywriter to write one for you, or grab one off specbank.com, which is a database full of screened specs that have either been killed by the agency or just one of their options. And even then, not all of them are that great. Find one that fits your aesthetic and then plan it out accordingly. The commercials are also very different, as there are many categories for each of them. There’s car commercials, liquid commercials (gels, hair products), comedy-dialogue, visual comedy, lifestyle, sci-fi, electronics, etc. My best advice is to do a minimum of three great specs that are all the same kind of commercial. They can have different stories, but you must be consistent. Either 3 car commercials, or 3 lifestyle ones. That way when you submit to the commercial production companies, they already know what kind of director you are. Variety will only confuse them, and safety is a huge issue when the average budget of a commercial is $300,000. Remember, these commercials have to look great, so spend the money on hiring a good DP and spend some time in really hashing out your shots so they look godly. If it’s comedy, make sure it is funny and that your actors are good. Nothing is worse than a comedy spec that fails to deliver.
When you submit, send it to the direct emails of the executive producers. You can find the companies on LA 411. Don’t be discouraged when you don’t get any emails back. The chances of getting signed to a company, especially a large one, is slim – due to their already incredibly impressive roster. But they got in the same way you will, so keep at it. And don’t shotgun the emails…tailor them specifically for the companies, make them as exclusive as possible so your email doesn’t read like spam or indicate to the EP that you’re sending it to every company in town.
If your reel is strong, you may get signed. But you might not for whatever reason. Keep submitting, and keep doing more specs to improve your craft. To paraphrase Harrison Ford, the reason he made it was not because he was the most talented, but because he lasted the longest.
Web series are a fun route to go because it’s highly creative, and there aren’t that many limitations except length and budget. Web series are usually punchy and short, and don’t have much money to them. But if a web series you direct catches on fire, people all over the world will see your style right away. They’re also getting more popular due to the diversification of content distribution. Many web channels do web series now, and bigger networks are starting to pick them up. People can watch this on their phone, their tablet, their computer, etc. You also have a lot of content that can go up on your reel. And if you do a web series with, say, a youtube star, that’s even better.
- While I’m not that familiar with Reality TV directing, but the money is good. You can start by working as a PA or some other assistant on reality TV shows. Then you can start shooting on the field with the crew (some of the crew positions in reality are blurred due to the fast-paced and chaotic nature of it, as well as the story structure). Network with people you meet on set, see if there’s a position that needs to be filled and scoop it up.
- If you’re passionate about a certain subject, one great field is doing documentaries. I don’t know about the money aspect in it, but it’s certainly fun, and you can reach a large audience with what you have to say—and the impact can be dramatic. That’s why it’s exciting. You’re essentially opening up the idea to people about a different perspective, and you can get them to shift their mindset. It’s how tolerance and morals can evolve in a social fabric such as ours. For documentaries, first find something you can’t fall asleep at night to without telling at least one soul, and then write an outline / story structure to it. Then when you’ve figured out how to execute your story, pick up your camera and shoot. The way you edit it is also important, as tonal shifts can change quickly depending on how someone articulates their viewpoint.
Once you’ve shot and edited your documentary, start submitting to festivals. The controversy generated by your doc can pick up steam and soon everyone will be talking about it.
Freelance directing is a slightly different ballgame. Since you’re just a director-for-hire, you subsist off the jobs given by random clients who probably want all sorts of stuff, so there’s more variety. To become a good freelance director, I recommend a strong network of people that you work with/for all the time, who can then provide great referrals. It’s stressful and exciting at the same time—you could be raking it in on one or two big projects one month, but then living off Ramen and tic tacs the next. It’s also more interesting because you’re not directing cars or hair products all the time. You could also use your flexibility to test out new equipment or techniques where you aren’t exactly constrained by the strict demands of a high profile client. This is also where having a variety of skills comes in to save you. Perhaps a client wants something shot and edited within the span of a few days, but there isn’t enough of a budget to cover several people. Well, you could always do it yourself. There’s a few really good articles in Tobias’ LTK page, which I’ve admittedly been depending on to help me along in my commercial directing jobs.
If you don’t have anything on your reel, I’d suggest directing and shooting stuff for free to build one. It takes a little bit of money and time, which is doable: people work nine to five and direct on the weekends. Directing is certainly an investment, but if you invest right your return will be well-deserved.
Learning how to direct
How does one study directing? Film school is a good route, but also so is fully immersing yourself in the craft. That means dedicating yourself every day to watching films, reading the right books, writing and picking up a camera and shooting.
You won’t get it right the first time. Robert Rodriguez said we have about 10 films in us before we shoot stuff that’s actually good. People don’t become basketball superstars or world-class violinists overnight. It does take raw talent, but it also requires honing it and dedicating yourself. Because directing is all about overseeing the whole vision, you should familiarize yourself with all the fields and crew positions, and understand everything there is to them. You don’t have to know how to do everything, but like the conductor of an orchestra, he knows how every instrument works. It would behoove you to do the same. It’s also about getting feedback for your work, understanding the value of constructive criticism and applying to grow as an artist. The constant immersion, feedback and reiteration is a method of practice that will tighten your technical and directorial expertise.
One thing I would like to stress is the discipline. Directing is a full-time commitment, and often I see directors veer off track because they are too absorbed in too many other things that they lose focus. It’s important that you write down your goals, like how many specs you plan to shoot, or a deadline for your feature script to get done, otherwise you’ll be languishing in Los Angeles not knowing where to go next. It’s often said that the top 20% of people who succeed in life write down their goals, so there must be some truth to it.
And it is not just about studying the field, but also immersing yourself in life. It means swallowing up other cultures, traveling to other continents and countries, speaking different languages, learning the lifestyles of niche groups, organizations and time periods. After all, directing is the ultimate expression of life through the lens of someone who has lived it [emphasis mine]. You can’t make a realistic depiction about boxers if you haven’t at least studied them, let alone interview real boxers. Having an open mind and being curious about the world allows you to include many different facets of life into your film, which gives it texture and energy. I read a book somewhere that humans crave storytelling; we’ve been doing it since the birth of civilization. With the technology we have today to tell these stories, why waste it by not actualizing ourselves to the fullest potential? My friend, Tobias, for example, is someone who goes through life with the urgency to tell stories through his experiences, books he’s read, movies he’s watched, places he’s been to, and classes he’s taken. He is actively living life. It’ll reflect in his films due to the nuances and details he can share with us.
When I moved to Los Angeles in 2008, I had no idea I wanted to do movies. I wasn’t like most people—passionate filmmakers since the age of 8, shooting videos or film in their backyards with train sets and animals. I moved to LA to get out of New York and explore the west, surf and just be a beach bum. So I did. I surfed in Venice and Malibu, rode up and down the California coast, had a girlfriend for a while, made friends and had a ton of adventures. And one day I walked past a film school and made the choice to go. Little did I know all that life experience in those two years before I started would help me in my storytelling and filmmaking. In fact, had not I not experienced university in 2004, traveled to Canada, Mexico and even internationally, I don’t know if I would have stuff to say. Life is a storyteller’s greatest teacher. It isn’t verbal, it’s experiential. You live to tell.
Directing is all about being open minded in general. Because most directors are freelancers, you never know where your next job is, so that forces you to become entrepreneurial. Meet people at bars, cafes, bookstores, etc.
Ask around, really network. Not only will it open up the opportunity for business, but you also enrich your life. You learn more about our humanity that way. You see the different lives that people live, and the stories they have to tell. A war veteran on his trip back home after four tours in Afghanistan. A wildlife photographer in Australia who got married to a blind Parisian. A Canadian hockey star who desired a normal life. The stories are endless, the perspectives innumerable. We live on a small oasis in a vast universe of infinite possibility, and who knows when our time is up—it’s up to us to decide how to leave our imprint on our little planet for the next generation to experience.
In closing, I’d love to leave you all with a quote that always hits me when I open up Final Draft and start a new script:
“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
I urge you all after reading this to pick up your cameras and go shoot – boy, am I starving for some new stories!
Thank you for reading, everyone.
Ace Salvador is a commercial and film director in Los Angeles. He is currently working for a fashion company, directing product reviews, narrative shorts and commercials, one of which has played in Times Square, New York City. He moved to Los Angeles in 2008 and started directing in 2011, helming a television pilot/movie titled “East Sandstone” that attracted the attention of CAA, Lionsgate, the Weinstein Company, A-list director Peter Burg and director/showrunner Walt Becker. He moonlights as an indie filmmaker, working on his writing and directorial debut: LA STORIES. In what little spare time he has, he continuously directs fashion, luxury and car specs, is working on his novel, reading philosophy, watching films of all type, occasionally surfing and dining in dark, moody lit French restaurants. His motto to live by is this: “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgWebsite: acesalvador.com (currently updating new reel)Twitter: @Acejsalvador