Can Anyone Become A Real Filmmaker?

March 7, 2020

If you're interested in becoming a filmmaker, I would recommend you give these 3 Masterclasses a try:

Watch, listen, and learn as Martin Scorsese teaches his first-ever online class.

Spike Lee open the doors of his Brooklyn office to teach filmmaking through scripts and storyboards from some of his greatest films.

From storyboarding your vision to collaborating with actors, learn filmmaking from an Oscar-winning Hollewood legends, Jodie Foster.

Lessons include topics like: film education, filmmaking process, filmmaking influences, developing your style, directing and technology, working the the script, discovering a story, casting actors, production design, working on locations, costume design, understanding cinematography, shooting on a budget, working with crew, film editing, color grading, black and white, sound design, the power of music, marketing and promotion, the future of film making, finding your own way, the art of storytelling, improvising with actors, vision and big ideas.

Everybody wants to become a filmmaker, but nobody wants to work to create good films

One of my favorite quotes is from Darren Aronofsky when he was talking about making The Wrestler. He said it was the first time he realized all you need is one camera and one actor to tell a story. He made that movie with resources, sure... but it was a skeleton crew and with actors working for scale.

If you have an iPhone and a $90 microphone, you can make a a small feature. You just need a great story that uses locations you can get for free. Then, you just need to discover local talent. It costs nothing to hold open auditions.

Rian Johnson spent years trying to make brick for $3 million until his longtime producer Ram told him “there’s no difference between a 3 million and $300,000 movie except what people get paid.” That inspired him to make Brick for $300k and they still shot on film. He had a great story to tell and that’s what ultimately mattered.

Go make movies, don’t let money stop you, but make sure you have a great story first. Get people to give you honest feedback on your script, and when enough people tell you “oh my God, you have to make this” then you’re ready to go make it no matter what equipment or crew size you have.

I think the point is with today’s technology you don’t need the $300k anymore. Robert Rodriguez made his first feature in the early 90s on film for $7k. Image what he would have done with an iPhone and a cheap microphone?

Be creative and make cool shit. Stop trying to figure it out and just go do it with whatever it is that you have. No one cares what camera you shot with or what actors you have as long as you can connect to them with relatable characters and a compelling story.

Look around you. What do you have? Can you write a story based on what you can get for free? Do you have friends you can use as crew and teach them to hold a mic or drag a camera around for you even if they’ve never done anything on a film before? If you have a story to tell, go tell it. Even if no one ever sees it, go record hours and hours on your iPhone, and cut it together on your iPhone (yeah, there are real editing programs on mobile phones now that rival software used on desktops).

A camera, a microphone, an actor, and a story that connects.

Oh, and food. Pay for lunch. That’s it. Go shoot your story. Practice your craft every chance you get.

How to jumpstart your filmmaking career

Don't spend too much money on gear just yet. Find another job and during this time you should read, write out your screenplays, study film history and technique, watch films, and live your life while grinding out the bucks.

Don't spend anything untill you are comfortable with a few completed scripts and then is the time to go into production. You will be better prepared and will perhaps be able to spend more money (time) on your work. Listen to music. Particularly classical as a great deal I believe is public domain.

Buy a DSLR and learn photography in your free time. This will be very helpful in understanding the fundamentals of image making and will apply to cinematography.

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Forget that film school is out there. Watch films, write, read and learn about film production and the business end. Be curious about everything and apply yourself with great pressure to your passion. Arguably, and this my well be false, but you are 28 years old and may have more life experience then the younger welps that are able to attend film school (i'm not knocking it or trying to offend). Do not relent and continue to study and envelop yourself in film.

Books to Aid:
Stanislavsky Directs
Painting With Light by John Alton
The 5 C's of Cinematography
American Cinematographer Manual
Film Technique and Film Acting by V.I. Pudovkin

Film Documentaries:
Lost in La Mancha
Hearts of Darkness (Apocalypse Now making of)
Burden of Dreams
The Making of Alien
The Making of Star Wars

If you truly want it, never relent. Peruse with honesty and a irrevocable passion.

Oh, and having a grounded perspective of both what is likely to not happen for you and what possibly could is important. You need money to live, but it's not everything you NEED.

"However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light" - Stanley Kubrick

Oh, and buy this, get you phone out, and start making films:

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Can you create a good film without paying for crew?

If everyone is in it on a shoe string budget, then it’s an amateur project and no one should expect to be paid as a professional as long as they’re willing to volunteer. Now, if that movie ever gets sold by some miracle, then a good producer should make sure everyone gets a part of that for their efforts. You can defer pay, it’s completely ethical to do so (as long as you make good on the deferment if any money is ever made) and is often the only way a no-budget movie gets made.

Slamming your fist down and saying “fair pay in every situation” is righteous indignation and gatekeeping that completely removes context of the production. A group of people getting together and equally deciding “let’s just get this movie made” is not taking advantage of professionals or only offering exposure. It’s a group of artists coming together and deciding not to let money get in the way.

That’s why I’m also saying to do most of the work yourself as well. YOU can grab a camera and shoot, direct, light, edit, mix with today’s technology. You often don’t have to involve a lot of people, and certainly not many professionals that should be paid.

You’re not a Daniel Day-Lewis level director yet, so you shouldn’t expect your actors to be yet either. Remember, someone gave DDL his first shot at some point, and I bet he wasn’t that great... but maybe he was pretty good? You’ll challenge yourself as a director as well on how to pull the best performance out of the actors you do work with. Have an open audition for actors and non-actors. You never know some person that always dreamt of being an actor but never had a chance walks through the door and you discover the next Jennifer Lawrence.

The great thing about young and hungry actors and shooting on a cheap medium is you can do 100 takes until they get close to that place in your head. Wear them out, keep tweaking, keep working. If you saw something special in them at the audition, you know you can get it from them.

I’d also say don’t be too precious about what’s in your head. Truth is truth, and what’s in your head might not be the truth of the scene in the moment. Know what you’re trying to say emotionally and story wise with the moment, and then go discover the performance with your actor. Even if you had Daniel Day-Lewis to work with, he’d never want to conform to what was in YOUR head, he’s want to go with what was in the character’s head (if that makes sense).

Kevin Smith got a bunch of local knuckle heads together and made Clerks. Robert Rodriquez found a dude with a cool look that had never acted in his life to be the bad guy in his first movie.

Go audition people, go find that waiter or waitress that has an interesting look, pan for gold. The point is, you can at least make something for no money and you never know where it’ll take you. Just make stuff.

How to find actors to work for free?

Yes, it’s good to pay people, but artists will often lower their wages to minimum wage happily to help a new young filmmaker. You can also make a movie with a skeleton crew with the right script.

It’s always good to watch out for people, but you’re also promoting a type of gatekeeping by discouraging people from making movies until they can pay professionals a “living wage.” I hear you, I agree with you that it should be the norm... but guys like Adam Wingard went out there with friends and a handful of actors they knew and made feature movies for less than $20k to get their start. Now they’re in positions on giant studio features where they can hire people at full rate.

I’m talking about getting out there with friends and shooting a no-budget feature as amateurs for practice and if things go magically maybe you get noticed and get a small release and some money for your efforts.

I volunteer happily for no or little pay on passion projects all the time as long as that person is willing to do the same for me some day. It’s called community. You’re conflating greedy indie producers with struggling artists and that’s wrong headed.

No one can force someone to work on a movie. If someone agrees to work voluntarily or under scale then that’s their choice. Even the unions have low budget agreements where people can even work for free. It’s not entitlement to get out there and bust your ass to make something happen. Thankfully there are artists out there willing to help others and not gatekeep people from entering the cinema arts.

Pay when you can, yes. Ask for help when you can’t, but go and do it. It is possible and there are people happy to help if you’re upfront and honest with them.

Should you go to film school?

The ones who want to make films have been making them since they were kids without people telling them to "just go out and make movies." From my experience, most people in film school were either rich kids who didn't know what they wanted to do, or people who thought that going to film school is a free ride to becoming a director or major producer.

Here’s the thing, a lot of film students don’t realize truly the work you have to put in as a filmmaker. They all want to be directors and to do none of the work that comes with climbing up to that step. And with film school, EVERYONE writes and directs. So what happens when these students go out into the real world and realize they can’t just become a director overnight or write a film and sell it for millions? They leave to do other things.

“I didn’t go to film school, I went to films.” - Quentin Tarantino

I dropped out of FS after I realized that it does absolutely nothing for you in the real world. Nobody on a film set is checking your resume or cares about your emphasis. If you're truly dedicated in the field, you've already taught yourself the basics you learn in film school through genuine interest and research, and what you don't know, you'll teach yourself on your own. In the end, the people who aren't passionate will weed themselves out.

Film school teaches you the basics like lighting, editing, etc. It doesn't teach you how to be creative, and it doesn't teach you passion for filmmaking. If you have passion and creativity, it has already pushed you to understand most of those things on your own and what you don't know, you will learn quickly on set. Unless you don't already know those things, then film school will be useful but if it's something you're genuinely interested in and you don't know the basics of lighting and editing, what have you been doing the whole time?

What I'm saying is you get all of that same experience on set for free and there is no reason to pay for it. You're not going to be looked over for a job because you don't have a degree from a film school - you're more likely to miss out on a job because you don't have experience. A natural interest will drive you to look at your work and compare it to the films you admire, to see how you can get yours to the same level whether it's lighting, sound, composition, storytelling, etc. Film school is good practice for that stuff, but it is not a requirement and that's all I'm saying. I left film school my second year in, finished at a state university for my BA, got a job as a PA on set and worked up from there. I promise you, nobody has EVER asked about my degree qualifications regarding a film/TV job. Not once.

Why the story is more important than your budget

I’d trade one amazing story for all the money in the world. Those are the things that are truly hard to come by. So many people try to make movies that are “cool” or “look amazing” but at the end of the day that will ALWAYS fail on a no-budget shoot.

What will succeed is truth, characters dealing with life and emotions (love, sex, fear, poverty, humor). Try to be human not hip. Tell a story that breaks someone’s heart, uplifts them, or makes them feel like they cheated death and got away from the killer. If you can tell that story, you can make it for zero dollars and still move people, then you’re a filmmaker.

How difficult is it to become a filmmaker and turn it into a living?

Although I don't think this is what most people like to hear, but, as with any creative field (or most fields in general), your ability to NETWORK vastly outweighs your actual skill in the field. It's truly a sad thing, but actual ability doesn't mean much when you are looking for a lucrative job in the Film Making industries.

Think about it this way: say you saw a terrible, terrible movie trailer. It was so bad that you had to open up three other tabs and go on Facebook and Twitter while the audio was playing in the background just because you couldn't stand to actual watch the horrible thing when, all of the sudden, you get a call from a good friend who's opinion you entirely trust.

He told you that this movie is a must see in theaters, and the trailer doesn't represent it at all. He tells you how amazing the movie is and you have to go see it while it's in iMAX. Chances are, you're going to go see the movie in theaters if you really trust his opinion. This is the way the industry works.

Most of my gigs went down through this scenario in the early years it took me to get a lucrative film making career off the ground: I made friends with a guy, let's call him Joe. One day, Joe grabbed lunch with Sarah, who told Joe that her boss, Scott, was looking for someone to film something for him. Joe told Sarah that he knew a person (Me), and gave her my number.

Sarah gave my number to Scott, who, in turn, was actually asking on behalf of his friend Charles who was getting married. Charles calls me up, and I get hired to do his wedding. At his wedding, I meet John, Rick, and Kate. And the cycle begins again, and again until a bunch of people are telling their friends, who trust their opinions, to hire me - which gets me more gigs than any film reel or killer advertising could have ever done for me.

The sad truth of the matter is, if you are not good at making friends and being able to network, you will (most likely) not make it in the industry. Even now, I have friends calling me about opening positions at networks like NBC-Universal, Hallmark, El Rey, etc - and, chances are, if I applied to any of those positions, I could easily get it due to the recommendation of my friend who already works there. It's an unfair advantage that screws people who may have more talent than me out of a well paying position, but talent doesn't pay the bills.

Now, since you are asking "How" to become a Professional film maker - here's a quick little cheat sheet that'll help you start to roll out a network:

  • Get a business card. First and foremost, get a business card with your name, number, and email.
  • From there, Film Weddings. Your cousin's wedding. Your friend's wedding. Your Manager from McDonald's wedding. Weddings pay well, the standard of "professional" video isn't far beyond adding some sappy sentimental music on a montage of lens flares and the bride and groom kissing. As long as you are confident in your skills, and competent in your shots - you're going to great at it. At weddings, you will always have people come up to you and tell you how they may be getting married soon and how they want you to film their wedding for them. Give them your business card, and you just started branching out. I mean, at most weddings, you're going to get a ton of ladies coming up to you telling you how they are planning to get married soon, it's a hotbed for it.
  • Easiest way to break into the industry.
  • From there, music videos. Music videos are similar to wedding montage videos - and there is always a demand from amateur artists looking to pay a couple hundred dollars for a relatively good looking Music Video. From doing weddings, at least in my experience, at least one in every three weddings will have some sort of aspiring musician in it's mix, who will ask you how much you will charge to film a music video. It's an easy side step into a more creative (albeit more competitive) space.
  • And from there, just keep growing your network and business. Keep up to date on Social Media, upload samples everyone - and, within a few years (I'd say, if we are playing it safe - 3 to 5 years), you should be getting booked enough to make a career out of your film making.

But remember, never stop aspiring to chase your real dreams. If you want to make movies, always jump for those gigs, even if they pay less. Nothing is worse than being stuck filming things you absolutely loathe for the rest of your life - at least, in your free time, always try to do what you actually want to do. And remember: at first, any gig is worth taking as long as it pays - but as you become established, you need to take gigs in the industry/path you wish to take. You aren't going to make movie connections filming a wedding video, nor are you going to make music video connections filming a documentary. Plot a course to take you where you need to go.

How to become a film director?

The list of ways is ever growing because there is no real set 'way in'. Every single person who has gotten into a position like that has done it slightly differently than the person before them.

Lots of people get in on account of money and nepotism, but for those of us who don't have that luxury, we have to rely on things like the internet -- make short films, get them out there. Tons of directors have made their way in starting with a short film that got just the right attention - and the internet has only widened that window.

Other folks have written scripts that turn heads, although this often requires the help of at least an agent or a connection who can get it on the desk of someone who can actually do something with it.

Others have transitioned from smaller careers directing commercials and music videos (although this is no easy feat to enter either)

And still others have entered the business through strokes of luck and coincidence - (James Cameron stepping in to direct Piranha 2 after the original director left).

At the end of the day you have to find your own way and it's going to be uniquely yours. It may be like some others, but it won't be the same. Network, strategize, read, study, but most importantly, make shit. Go film something!

You need to know someone. But it's not that hard to know someone. I got one of my first jobs because I struck up a conversation with a dude at a bar. Boom. But anything higher than a PA on something like Star Wars is unionized and getting into those unions is a whole other conversation/clusterfuck.

And to be in an above-the-line creative position you most certainly need an agent. I don't know specifically Dan's story (and everyone's story is different and there's no one way to break in, mind you) but if I had to guess I'd say he worked his ass off as a crew member on a few shows, put together his short, got it done, it attracted the eye of an agent, who signed him and got him work doing 10 Cloverfield Lane. Yes, it's a lot of luck, but you can create your own luck in this business as well.

If you want to be a director, and it truly seems like you have the skillset of a director - understanding a little bit of everything so that you know your limits, possibilities and the medium you are working on, but understand little enough to let the actual professionals to master the specific areas, according to your wishes, you'll be bouncing back to this insecurity of "what next" constantly. It's the blessing and curse of our profession: you're never satisfied, and you should never be satisfied.

What I suggest you need more than anything is a producer to team up with. Head over to film festivals and meet with producers. Forget everyone else, forget the writers, composers, actors, distributors, even agents and managers, and whoever flock the festivals who have very little to do with your next step, and focus on meeting producers and talking about films with them. Not necessarily your films, but films in general. Find a person with whom you click together. Establish a relationship. More than going to the forest with a mushroom book in your hand, as we say in Finland, see what comes to you - most important is to find the person you feel comfortable with, artistically, financially, sense-of-humour -wise, someone you feel you can trust (you never know, but you have to take a leap of faith during your career a few times).

Then, see what this person has. Maybe he/she is looking for a director for his project he can finance; maybe he/she has a script he'd like to develop with someone. And he/she will for sure turn to you and ask: what do you have in mind. Maybe he/she has a writer you can team up with and develop your stuff.

This doesn't have to be, and shouldn't be a lone battle, team up with someone you can trust and go fight the world together. Even if you get burned, which probably will happen few times before you find the right one, you're on the right track.

Nobody makes films alone.

At what point should you give up on becoming a filmmaker?

I think it really comes down to what YOU want.

Do you want to have a family of your own? Kids?

What exactly do you want to do in film? Get into a festival? Make it big and get a million dollar maker? Win an Oscar?

I think you really need to figure out you point A to point B first. The fastest way you get from point A to point B is a straight line. But if we don't figure what exactly what we want our point B to be, than that line will be full of turns and curls before ever reaching to the point or drifting you to a new one that has nothing to do with it.

Once you figure that out, you have to figure if the commitment is worth it because for anything in life there will be scarifices. That's why I ask the family question, this could takes years to get there and hinder relationships for example. Or by trying to get to where you want, you might be sacrificing your livelihood for example, Ang Lee was a poignant filmmaker during his NYU days and getting a lot of recognition. Once he graduated he was stuck with nothing. Married and having a child he didn't earn much if not, nothing at all. Lee spent years just writing scripts before getting his first feature made. But in the process made his family go through a lot.

And ultimately if you decide to not put up with the sacrifices that need to be made then that's fine there's nothing wrong with that. Ultimately we will always have to choose what's best for us in our own interests. And even if you decide film isn't the career path you want to take you can still enjoy it as a hobby certainly. I remember listening to an employee for Fiat saying he had a chance to go pro in soccer but ultimately decided not to. Even though he doesn't play soccer professionally and does a completely different line of work he still plays the sport every other weekend so he's still able to enjoy the sport he loves. He just doesn't get paid to it. If anything film making can still be a hobby you can throuoghly enjoy.

Ultimately I think it really comes down to this. What is your dream? And I don't mean a career. But a dream. I don't mean to sound pretentious but from experience and helping my friends and colleagues' thought process figuring that out first can really help out with any life decision.

How would you break into filmmaking if you were starting again?

I do not know any other way to break in as a content creator without creating your own content and getting an agent to rep you as a director. But I'm sure there are a plethora of other ways to do it as there is never 1 path in this business.

Shorts and web series are basically commercials for yourself and the other creatives involved. If the story is part of something bigger, it could also be a commercial for a feature or tv show idea, but you will likely never profit off of the short itself. Think of it as a tool to get yourself a job or a rep. And making shorts is a hell of a lot harder than it sounds (or it can be anyway.)

I used my position as an AD (also a freelancer, welcome to the fucking suck) working with some tiny companies to rub elbows enough with the producers to get them to hire me to direct a couple shorts. And the shorts were basically commercials for these tiny companies as they build their own networks and body of work to move up to doing bigger and better things. (3 shorts with 2 different companies, almost done with post on all, they vary in quality from "brilliant" to "shit, what was I thinking?")

So if I were you, as you dive into this freelance world, try to build a relationship with the above-the-line folks that's close enough to where they will take you seriously when you say you're a creative. And also definitely try to make your own shit. Find a friend who can write, a friend that can shoot, etc.

Before I could afford rates, I only worked crews for half a day and supplied beer afterwards. (Because of this, the content was obviously short, but some of those dumb short-shorts played a part in the aforementioned tiny companies trusting me with their shit) So I'd say unless you're sitting on a war chest of funds, just do something super simple and clever.

Depending on the length and whatnot it'll either live on the web or do the festival thing, whichever route it takes make sure A) that it's good and B) that you tell every person with a goddamn pulse who might be in a position to hire a director either now or someday about it. (And C) if it's not good, go back to the drawing board and try again.) And then you do something else that's a little bigger, and bigger, and then who knows maybe you're in the running to direct Avengers 9 some day. Or you're sitting next to me under a bridge begging for change. The biz is crazy.

So yeah. There's probably different/better/easier ways to go about this but that's what I'm rocking over here and I haven't starved to death yet so somethings working.

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