Guest Article: “On Directing” Philosophy
Hey guys! It’s Ace. I’m back again. It turns out that my last article on Directing was a hit, so much so that some of you guys had the time to email me and thank me for influencing a serious life change based on what I wrote. And even one of you came down to see me to seek additional advice (hope you had a good trip, Regina!). I was so flattered and inspired that I felt compelled to dispense some more advice from a combination of my own experience and lifelong reading to help you filmmakers as you progress further ahead in your career.
While my last article focused on the different paths of directing, this article today will be on “Directing Philosophy,” – a mindset that will hopefully help you strike it out on your own as an independent auteur. Like I said before, directing is far from easy. Most of us end up scratching our heads on where to go next. The democratization of technology, while awesome in its own right, makes it more difficult as now anyone with a handicam can call themselves a director, which makes the costs per job go down and therefore infinitely harder to sustain making a living as a director. It’s why most people quit. And there’s nothing wrong with that—it is a very tough career. But if you make it, you can really reap the windfall.
Let’s go back to the basics. What is directing? Directing is the art of storytelling through film. They’re no different from painters or novelists except they use the magic of the camera and the synthesis of all the art forms to tell their story. They also employ other artists and technical staff to make their vision as true as they imagined it. Because directing is also the business of storytelling through film, it can be very lucrative, drawing hundreds of millions of dollars to the box office. It’s also the reason many people are attracted to the field. In my eyes, everybody is an artist, but most people cannot sustain themselves as a director because they’re unaware of the challenges involved. Being a director, itself, is a business. You are an entrepreneur. There are clients, overhead, taxes, profit models, scalability factors—things that overwhelm the everyday artist. Not to mention, you face an uphill battle. Young Lion, Clio and Sundance Award winners, directors who rise up through nepotism, WME and CAA signed directors, studio directors, feature film directors, other commercial and music video directors, other film school directors, and independent directors are all competing for that same job. Why should a client and production company invest in you when they have a bankable roster they can fall back on? And what about the hundreds of other things you have to deal with, like rent, bills, equipment costs, timeframes, etc? It’s dizzying.
When I quit my job three weeks ago, something unfortunate happened: my roommate had to leave our apartment because he could no longer pay rent. That’s $2000 dollars for a two-bed in Miracle Mile—not exactly the cheapest of places. Instead of freaking out, I went back to my library in my room and started reading. I read, I read, and read, and I came out of it feeling relieved.
I now have 3-4 projects on the table, and am not worried in the least about paying rent. How did I go from completely screwed over to being overwhelmed with work?
Nicholas Nassim Taleb, author of the bestselling book, Black Swan, tells us about the concept of “antifragility”. Essentially, being antifragile means that you benefit from shocks; things thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk and uncertainty. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness – the resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.
In the book, The Start Up of You, a scenario is described between two people. In scenario A, a person is working a 9-5 job for an insurance company for 5-10 years. In scenario B, a person is freelance, hopping from one job to the next. On the surface level, the 9-5er is more secure; he gets a paycheck every week, he has a routine, he’s stable. The freelance person has to constantly worry about getting new clients, not knowing when his next paycheck is going to come, and is generally living a chaotic life. Which of these is going to generally fare better? The 9-5er of course, right?
Not in these times. The US is experiencing a paradigm shift. With the change in technology, the introduction of crowdsourcing, cloud computing and social networks, more and more people are gravitating towards doing lean startups; essentially companies with little to no overhead, minimum viable product (testing, reevaluation and redesigning based on constant focus group feedback), and being entrepreneurs. More and more people are starting their own companies, realizing that an overpriced university education is not necessarily an indicator of a safe and secure job. On nights and weekends, they write apps, work on digital services, think through new ideas, cobble together business models while acquiring new skills, learning new technology and so on ad infinitum…these people are the driving engines of American innovation for the future. They feel that everything is coming to them via the private sector, and that government contributes nothing to their lives apart from annoyance. One article called this “New Libertarianism.” I’m apolitical, so you can call it whatever you want, but you can’t deny this change happening. I’m sure – if you study at Cal, which some of the readers of this blog do – you see it every day in Berkeley and around the SF Bay Area, which happens to be one of the global centers for innovation and new ideas.
With this shift, the smart and motivated freelancer in scenario B is more likely to succeed than the 9-5er. Like all empires, companies are bound to fall and when that day comes, person in scenario A will freak out because they’re so accustomed to their routine they won’t know how to get their next job. By contrast, person in scenario B will have spent all that time being resilient to the shocks, through networking, fighting tooth and nail for their next gig, researching on how to improve their skillset, growing and strengthening their marketing skills, meeting more people, widening their client base, and therefore becoming antifragile. In addition, they can scale up their business where they can make enough money off one deal to cover an entire year’s salary. They’re adaptable. Without frequent, contained risk taking, we set ourselves up for a major dislocation at some point in the future. But when we inoculate ourselves to big risks, it’s like we inoculate ourselves against the flu virus. By injecting a small bit of flu into your body in the form of a vaccination, you make a big flu outbreak survivable. By introducing regular volatility into your career, you make surprise survivable. You gain the ability to absorb shocks gracefully.
We all must learn to become antifragile directors. It’s very difficult at first, but it gets easier over time. Our robust resilience through our time spent towards our careers first unshackles us from working for the Man, and secondly, starts to develop us as brands. And brands are impossible to ignore—Gucci, Prada, Lamborghini, Pepsi, Coke, Apple, McDonald’s, Disney, Warner Bros. Sure, one day they will fall, but it’ll be many lifetimes before that happens.
Tobias Deml, if you’ll indulge me my dear reader, is an excellent example. In fact, he’s a shining example of a true entrepreneur. Coming here from Austria, with hopes and ambitions, building his skillset as a cinematographer and director, meeting tons of people, doing charitable things such as planting his own garden, bringing equipment to GIANT filmmakers at Berkeley, teaching a class on Cinematography and Filmmaking, helping tons of people on their sets, all while jotting down and recording his experiences on the very blog you’re reading right now—all of these things are indirectly shaping his career as a brand that will become antifragile. Not because he is selfish, but because he knows the true value of helping people and that charity will always come back to help you as well. There’s no small wonder why he goes to LA almost every weekend doing shoots; his immense value is indispensable. In fact, that’s why I flew him down to shoot my project, LA Stories, where he commanded a great set and allowed us to do awesome work together. I’ve half a mind to fly him down again, just to see his handsome Austrian face, but not this month because I have to pay rent.
When you spend your time becoming robust, resilient and antifragile, people start to take notice. They realize that they’ve come to depend on you, and that no one else can do it better. They need you. No one else. Just you.
The concept of “Corners”
Let’s talk about corners.
Everyone has corners. The whole world has corners. You, and I, your ex-girlfriend, and even my dog has corners. The US has a corner. China has a corner. Lindsay Lohan has a corner, and so does the mailman down the street. A corner is a bad situation people need to get out of. When they are backed into a corner (I can’t pay rent, your ex-girlfriend cheated on you, my dog Max needs his jumbone), you have to find a way to get them out of the corner. Some corners are tighter than others.
When you pull someone out of the corner, they can breathe. They can live. They’re free. In fact, they’re so free that they’ll pay you for saving them. They’ll pay you a lot sometimes. They put money into your pocket. They put your money into your pocket.
See what I’m saying?
Your value is inextricably linked to your money. How much you’re worth. How much you’re worth it to them when you get them out of the corner. When you reframe your perspective as a director as not just a storyteller, but as a problem solver, how effectively you can get people out of the corner, your worth rises.
I took Tobias down to LA to shoot my short film because I was in a corner. I had a project with almost 100 people in it, long steadicam shots, underwater shots, and complicated movements. I could have picked any number of cinematographers, but I wasn’t sure about their worth, because I didn’t know if they could improvise solutions. Could they get me out of a bind if necessary? Are they only concerned with lighting and camera and their day rate, or are they concerned about the project as a whole? Do they have a strong passion for solving problems? If I were to line ten of them up against a wall, which one would be able to solve all my issues in a matter of minutes? Do they care that much about the story? Are they up to my high expectations? I don’t know, but this is what I did know about Tobias: he is extraordinarily talented, he has one of the largest networks I’ve seen, he has tons of people who referred him, he knows how to save money by implementing unique and cost-cutting solutions as opposed to asking for more, he’s smart and fast, he knows how to roll with the punches when problems arise, he’s done many projects before, and he knows how to cull together a fantastic, positive and focused, hard-working crew. And his personality and attitude beats almost every single cinematographer out there. In my eyes this was someone who knew how to get me out of the corner. He was antifragile. Therefore, I hired him.
When you’re starting out, no one really cares about you. Doesn’t matter if you’ve graduated a top tier film school, it’s all about the value. Can you get the job done? Can you get myself or my company out of that corner? As it is natural law that most people are interested only in themselves, you always want to figure out how you can help people, as opposed to what they can do for you. It’s the same process I go through when hiring people. It has little to do with ego, and only talent to some extent. It’s more of how he or she can help us out of our corner. The corner is only what matters.
When you are so focused on helping people getting out of their corner, you will earn their respect, they will pay you double your value, and they will introduce you to many of their friends and networks. People love recommending other people, but only if their services were so great it would be a sin not to recommend them. A great director is a great leader, a great storyteller, a visionary, a value-giver, and most of all, a problem solver. Directors look at corners and say, “Yeah, no problem. I’ll get it done, and I’ll get it done tomorrow.”
Now, how do you spot corners? Well, the world is full of them. Everyone has corners. In my opinion, Los Angeles has the most corners on earth because everybody wants to make something of themselves in a business that depends heavily on networks and connections. In an ideal world, every director would have a job because of that incredible demand.
When you reframe your perspective that way, it’s no longer a question of…”If you ever need a director/actor/makeup artist/warm body…” and more a question of “How can I help you with what you need? What is your issue? Let’s see if we can solve it right now, but if not, is there a way we can make this work over a period of time?”
It’s about being “The Great Helper.” The guy people go to whenever they really need a corner to get out of. Spotting a corner involves aggressively implementing the opportunity-creating strategies that will allow those corners to more easily reveal themselves. It means all the stuff people mentioned in the other guest articles: joining and creating groups, being in motion, taking side projects, hustling, asking what their corners are. Who knows. The opportunities may prove to be serendipitous. But they also may give you nothing. However, you build resilience from that. It all involves risk, which is natural to a filmmaker. But pretending to avoid risk causes you to miss opportunities that can change your life. It lulls you into a dangerously fragile life pattern, leaving you exposed to a large blow up in the future. What’s more, you also can never perfectly anticipate when the inflection points occur or any other career-threatening event will occur. When you’re resilient, robust and antifragile, you play for big opportunities with less worry about the possible consequences of unanticipated hiccups.
Really, the only long-term answer to risk is resilience.
Becoming anti-fragile and spotting corners
How do I become antifragile and spot corners?
Since I’m freelance, I have a lot of free time. Almost all of that is dedicated to prospecting. Finding those corners. I spend anywhere from 10-12 hours a day doing this. A business cannot survive without sales. As an artist, you need to be mindful of the fact that you are also your own corporation and that you need clients. Fortunately, because of the nature of the business that we are in, we are bought for our unique vision. Until we develop a robot that can do what directors do, we’re still highly valuable. Now we just have to market ourselves to make people aware of that.
1. Develop a website for what you do.
2. Accrue knowledge and experience and get good at your skillset. Shelbie’s article on creativity is fantastic, and reminds us what we have to do to stay creative, as well as Ryan’s article on productivity, Sheila’s article on meaning and purpose and all of Tobias’ resources on this blog. All of this is geared towards to building yourself as antifragile, especially for the freelance world where volatility and shocks are common as oxygen.
3. Start pounding your networks. Start with the ones closest to you, who will go to bat for you in a time of need. They will be the ones most likely to help you out due to the psychological factors of proximity, familiarity and connection. All of my referrals come through my first tier of networks (my inner circle). At the very least, they can provide you with some important advice. When you move into your second tier of networks, the people who have weaker ties to you or only know you in a professional sense, build those up as well. Build a rapport with those people. Don’t be sleazy and just ask for a job through them. It’s all about the relationship. See if they have any corners that need solving, even ones that don’t pay yet, because you never know where that might end up leading you. This is what builds your referral engine.
4. Develop what’s called an “Elite network”. Elite networks run the world. Though we live in a democratic society, it’s these networks that pull the strings on what happens in our sociopolitical globalized world. Gertrude Stein had the Stein Salon, gatherings that would cull together the most powerful talent at the time (Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce) that would define modernism in literature and in art. There are elite networks that exist among the co-founders of LinkedIn, Facebook, Youtube, Google and Paypal. If abused, these networks can run amok, e.g. Nazi Germany.
Hollywood is especially driven by these elite networks—hence the studio system, high-profile agencies, elite production companies, and a handful of producers that market the best directors in the industry.
By engaging yourself in an elite network, you raise your chances of being exposed to a high profile client, company or institution that will recognize your abilities and hire you. In addition, these networks will reveal corners that have a high demand to solve.
What kind of people are in an “Elite Network?”
- People who have an exceptional degree of self-motivation and self-worth
- People who are incredibly ambitious, and are willing to spend the time and effort to “change the world”
- People who have their life in order, but let chaos define them and survive through Darwinian instinct
- People who don’t do 9-5 jobs. They’re smart enough to realize the value of time and make money off deals and projects instead
- People with a high sense of art, culture and aesthetics. Most of them are also very well read (A lot of Europeans, I’ve found, are like this)
- People who are extremely well connected, and continue to enlarge their elite network by meeting more people and inspiring them to lead, rich, fulfilling lives
- People who are leaders.
- People who tie their sense of destiny to doing amazing things
- People who allow ideas to cross-pollinate into many different mediums and platforms
- People who are very well educated (this is not limited to academic education, but also autodidacts and apprenticeships, as well as reading)
Unfortunately only about five percent of the world population, I’d say, is like this. Due to the immense amount of discipline, concentration and investment as a person involved, people of the “elite” are hard to find. But I maintain that all of these things are required if you want to be a very successful director. If you want an example, look no further than Tobias himself.
If you continuously hang around these people, you will increase your own standards to match theirs and by proxy, you will start making headway in your career. As I write this article, actually, I am putting together a team of elite directors who are going to do a series of artistic short films which I plan to do big things with.
5. Mine all of the job sites and company contact pages. Yeah, cold-calling and cold-emailing sucks, but it becomes only a matter of statistics if you apply to thousands of places. You may get 10 places calling you back, which is already more than enough for the aspiring filmmaker. But when you call/email them, see if they’re in a corner and try to offer a solution to their problem. “I saw your company had a lack of video content on your website, and I was wondering if I could offer my services to you on a freelance basis to greatly improve your exposure?” Empirical data to support your argument would impress them even more. “It says that according to such and such, Youtube SEO videos showed a 300% growth rate” but say it in a way that doesn’t sound like marketing hokum. As someone brighter than me said, “When force is not an option, what do we do? We use the next best thing: persuasion. And when it comes to persuasion, stories are important. Anecdotes are persuasive. Data dominates.”
Your experience and knowledge backed by evidence will make the company believe they really are in a corner, and that they do need you. Remember: life is all about sales. You sell yourself everywhere you go, whether it’s for a potential date, a job, or an investment for a film. Learn how to become a master salesman.
6. Attend events, conferences, panels, etc. In Los Angeles, and I’m sure in Berkeley as well, there are tons of events going on every second. We should be grateful that there are so many and we can’t attend them all. But these communities with like-minded citizens will more than likely have the same interests in you. From there you can widen your network. You can pursue opportunities and spot corners. Because you are an entrepreneur, you must actively engage life for it to bear fruit. The friendships and business relationships you make at these events may become your main source of revenue in the future.
You just never know.
7. Always grow. Freelancers aren’t static. That’s the beauty—you can always keep growing. Keep watching films, especially the classics, as Shelbie reminded us. Read a ton of books, not just on film, but anything you can get a hold of. The smartest people in the world don’t have movie theaters—they own huge libraries. While I never took a marketing class, I learned a ton about entrepreneurship and sustaining my own business from reading a ton of books:
- The 48 Laws of Power
- The 33 Strategies of War
- The 50th Law
- The Start Up of You
- Turning Pro
- The Advertising Concept Book
- The War of Art
- The Writer’s Devotional
- The Long Tail
- The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing
- How to Win Friends and Influence People
…are just among the many in my library. Write every day. Shoot on your camera as much as possible. Make short films, web series, whatever – as long as you keep moving. The deeply more immersed you are in the life of film, the more unconscious and conscious knowledge and expertise you can bring to the table when someone is in a corner. Will a producer hire the guy who only saw one movie a year and sat passively for the rest of it, or will he hire the director that watched 1 film a day and filmed a ton of shorts and read a lot of books?
One thing I highly recommend is watching directors commentaries. There’s no excuse for not watching people that have done it before and succeeded to a high degree. Here’s a good start: http://filmschoolthrucommentaries.wordpress.com/commentaries
When you watch these, you get a sense of how extraordinarily detail-oriented these directors are, and how their process optimizes for perfection. I recently watched the BTS of “The Social Network” directed by David Fincher, and in it he explores every single word of the script, watches every little detail to the point where he is telling his crew to move a piece of art 3 inches camera left, or 3 inches camera right, watching for boom shadows, doing 99 takes, microfractally analyzing every actor’s physical movements and response to the scene, going through the entire script while interrogating Aaron Sorkin (the screenwriter) if this word makes sense or not. That high attention to detail, exhibited by many directors such as PTA, Guillermo Del Toro, Stanley Kubrick (!) and Michel Gondry et al is the reason why their films are so successful. The audience may not see those details right away, but they will unconsciously feel that the film they are watching is a good one.
8. Have multiple spinning plates. As of this writing, I’ve got LA Stories, several short films and a feature in the pipeline. Not to mention, I’ve got a few other entrepreneurial ventures up my sleeve, including being a marketing director for a biotech my friend is starting up. The reason for this is not to spread out your focus, but to have backups in case one of your projects doesn’t come out the way it should. And you are bound to fail several times before you get it right. A friend of mine posted something brilliant on his blog the other day that said this:
“Every mistake we make is like the space that exists between each step on a ladder. This space is what provides the platform for upward movement and growth. Without this space, there are only two stripper poles that hinder and regress. Trying to avoid mistakes out of fear is the only true failure that exists.” If you have multiple spinning plates it’s accurate to say that one of them will break because you might not be able to balance them all. But that’s okay. Fail hard, and fail often. It makes you stronger.
The worst case scenario is saying you only have one project and that it’ll take you to the top—while it’s a great dream to have, statistically it won’t happen. It’s important to dedicate focus equally to each of your projects, not skimping out on the details for every one of them. Multiple plates also primes your brain to introduce new ideas, cross-pollinate thoughts, encourage hard work ethic and develop motivation, and enlarge your network.
9. Demonstrate your value. The clients you’re rescuing from the corner want to be sure that their rescuer isn’t incompetent, whacky or likely to drop out. They want to know that you’re stable and can provide value. The more value you have that you can offer, the better. Remember: some of these clients will become repeat business, so every gig you take is an audition for the next one. At the beginning, you can even impress them by extending your services and value beyond your rate in order to keep them for the next thing. Be professional, polite, timely, follow through on what you say, and provide great value. Your opportunity by getting them out of the corner is that you’ll be the first one they call when they get into a new one; the corner that only you can get them out of again.
When selling to the client, you can cite other things in the past that you’ve done that will make them put stock into you. For instance, I tell some of my clients that I’ve co-written a book, founded an ad agency, and spoke at a university in front of a business group. These aren’t necessarily related to my directing, but they demonstrate my expertise, knowledge, leadership and discipline as someone who wants to be taken seriously. That way you become robust and resilient to any doubt they throw at you regarding what you’re capable of.
10. Start thinking of yourself as your own corporation. Draw up contracts to protect yourself. Know how your earnings will be delivered. Figure out how to do tax returns. It’s important to prevent yourself from being screwed over in the process. In a big city, things like this can happen.
11. Live life with great interest and intensity. That isn’t to say don’t enjoy it. You can relax on a beach with the palm trees swaying and the ice melting in your Margarita, but don’t take it for granted. Enjoy every moment, take in breaths of fresh air, allow ideas to congregate, savor the times you have with friends and family. Write, party, read. Mourn the deaths of those who pass, and celebrate those who are born. A successful director is a man who has lived a wholesome life.
12. Take care of yourself. Hollywood is one of America’s largest exports, and they depend on their writers and directors to ensure that long-held sovereignty. Eat healthy, exercise, sleep, meditate—whatever it takes to keep yourself in optimum condition. Film sets are cold, hot, long, and full of stressed-out people, but if you’re focused and energized, it’ll make things a lot easier.
All of this sounds intimidating and overwhelming, but I think of it like this:
A long time ago the Greeks had a word called Arete. In its most basic definition, it means “excellence of any kind.” The notion of excellence was tied with fulfilling one’s purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s potential. Being the best you can be. In this day and age, I feel that many of us, myself included, don’t live up to our potential, so we settle for less. While it’s easier, why should we? We only get one life. When we’re afforded opportunities, we should grasp them. When we have a chance, we should engage risk. When we spot a corner, we should get ourselves out of it.
Last year, I was in a big corner. Hurricane Sandy hit my house and the floodwaters rushed in. It was bad, but luckily my family came out okay. This year, another hurricane scraped by my extended family overseas: Hurricane Haiyan. The brushes with death felt very close and very real, and I was suddenly reminded of a quote by the great Marcus Aurelius:
“Not just that every day more of our life is used up and less and less of it is left, but this too: if we live longer, can we be sure our mind will still be up to understanding the world—to the contemplation that aims at divine and human knowledge? If our mind starts to wander, we’ll still go on breathing, go on eating, imagining things, feeling urges and so on. But getting the most out of ourselves, calculating where our duty lies, analyzing what we hear and see, deciding whether it’s time to call it quits—all the things you need a healthy mind for…all those are gone.
So we need to hurry. Not just because we move daily closer to death but also because our understanding—our grasp of the world—may be gone before we get there.”
The greatest rejection of death is life. It’s a fate none of us can escape, but we can choose to rebel against it by doing the exact opposite: living, breathing, and establishing a powerful will that can extend our lives into infinity–into immortality. The way we do that is through our creations, our charity, our devotion to our planet and people—our humanity. If we start with that, if we go down that scary road with very few petrol stations, we can look back on ourselves and say confidently that we’ve lived a full life, and we can leave this world a better place.
I know I will.
Good luck out there, filmmakers!
Ace Salvador is a writer/director, author and serial entrepreneur. You can find his work here: http://acesalvador.com, and his blog here. Not to forget his book, Mad Men Yourself: A Gentleman’s Guide to Personal Development, which can be found here.