I talked recently with two screenwriters about their plans to direct their first films this year. One of them has already moved from “wishing for it” to “going for it” and the other is right on that cusp. They both sound committed to getting their films made, and I’m excited to watch their progress because there’s nothing like the first time.
My goal is to make a film this year, too. Even though I’m armed with a little more experience completing a film than they are, I still feel that enormous hurdle to getting the ball rolling that comes with each new project.
After talking with them, I remembered how much harder it seemed to go from having never made a film to having made one, than it did to go from one film to two. There was an air of inevitability that surrounded my second film because I'd already completed a first.
If you’re planning to direct for the first time, you should begin by getting some basic experience before stepping on set to direct. Aim to work on a few film sets, try some introductory directing projects, and take a class or read filmmaking books. Start now with Making Movies by Sidney Lumet and I dare you not to be inspired to continue.
Once you’ve made the commitment to direct, you should actively start developing a script. Take the time to select the project for your directing debut – one that gives you the best chance to complete your film and accomplish your goals.
WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS?
Documentary filmmakers may have one set of goals, whereas narrative filmmakers may have others. For first-time directors, goals usually include some of the following: to learn the basics of directing; to screen at film festivals; to use a short film as proof of concept for a feature length script; to tell your story, your way.
Figure out your goals first and then when you consider a possible script to direct, think about whether that project can fulfill your specific goals.
Is it in a genre that represents the type of work you’re looking to make? If writing is your strongest skill, will this story highlight your writing? And is it a story that means enough to you that you’re willing to invest your time, money, sweat, and tears into getting it made?
WHO ARE YOUR ALLIES?
I strongly encourage screenwriters to get on-set experience whether they plan to direct or not. But if you’re looking to direct, this is essential because there’s no substitute for working on an actual film production.
The allies you make on set, as well as those you make through networking and introductions, are the backbone of the team you’ll need to make your film. List the people you know you can go to for anything from help on set to letting you bend their ear for advice. You want to especially embrace those with more experience than you for both mentorship and jobs on your film.
In addition to your industry allies, you’ll also need the support of your family and friends. You will lean on your personal allies for moral support, to help spread the word, and for fundraising help if you go the crowd-funding route. This is your day-to-day, decade-to-decade support system so don't underestimate the value of having family and friends push you toward your goal.
WHAT ARE YOUR RESOURCES?
When you’re setting out to independently produce a film, explore what free or heavily discounted resources you can bring to your production. If you’re able to procure assets that make a real difference to your bottom line, you may look to build your project around that asset.
A free – and ideally unique – location can save time, money and stress. And if it’s an unusual location, add production value. Anywhere from your home to your parents’ home should be on the table. Do you have a friend who owns a small hair salon or a store or a bar? Keep your eyes open for multi-use locations that can double or triple for other sets in your film.
If you’ve been gaining on set or industry experience, then you might have a cinematographer friend who can bring a camera and some lighting to your production for free or a reduced rate. If this is a significant percentage of your budget, then it may be worth building a schedule around the availability of this type of equipment.
WHAT ARE YOUR DEADLINES?
When making your first film, there’s a good chance you’ll look to film festivals for support in connecting with your audience. If festivals are vital to your distribution plan, work backward from festival submission deadlines to create the milestones for completing your film.
Other factors can come into play when creating deadlines for your film. Are there any weather extremes where you’re planning to shoot? If weather in a location can swing into blistering heat or brutal cold, you might need to plan your shoot for more manageable conditions.
Free resources often come with deadlines that you’ll need to factor in. I started my second short film on the heels of my first because a free location became available but was only free for a limited time. I didn’t want to lose out on this incredibly valuable resource so I selected my next project, wrote the script and built the schedule all based on this free location.
HOW WILL YOU COVER YOUR BUDGET?
Unless you have a friend who is an experienced producer and will produce your film for free (and if you do, go, call them now!), you may need to pay a producer to join your team before you’ve worked out a complete budget.
Do your research when hiring a producer, including getting referrals, seeing sample work, understanding the producer’s skills, and being sure they are enthusiastic about working with a first-time director.
If you’re working with a beginner producer who has little experience line producing, you can bring in a Line Producer to write a preliminary budget, otherwise the producer may be able to handle this for you. This budget will allow you to pinpoint opportunities to rework the script to bring the final budget into a range you can cover.
An experienced producer can also help organize fundraising plans if you’ll need to raise money. Be sure if you run a crowd-funding campaign to consider its schedule alongside of the development schedule for your script. You don’t want to stop working on your rewrites when you’re raising money if you hope to have the best script possible when you get on set.
When I committed to directing a film for the first time, it seemed like there were endless obstacles ahead. But what I learned is that you don’t have to tackle them all at once.
Put in the time to select the right project for your directing debut and you’ll set yourself up for the best chance to complete your film, meet your goals and love it enough to turn right around and do it again!
- More Write, Direct, Repeat articles by Kim Garland
- Alt-Script: Five Good Reasons to Write a No-Low Budget Script
- Alt-Script: What the Heck Does Independent Filmmaking Mean?
- Balls of Steel: Ava DuVernay’s ‘Middle of Nowhere’ Journey… and Screenplay
Get directing advice from David Mamet
On Directing Film
For invaluable advice on short film ideas, download the 1st chapter of Roberta Marie Monroe’s book How Not to Make a Short Film! and create inspiring short films today.