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Filmmaker Survey: What We Wish We Knew Before Making Our First Movie

Filmmaker Survey: What We Wish We Knew Before Making Our First Movie

If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, it seems that everyone including your grandma has advice to share with you — and often, it’s not very helpful. Ultimately, you have to forge your own career path. But advice from the pros can be helpful and inspiring when it comes from the right people. We reached out to some of our favorite narrative and documentary filmmakers to ask them what advice they wish they had received before they began their career. The filmmakers who responded are listed below (along with the titles of their most recent films):

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Tracy Droz Tragos (“Rich Hill”)

Do not wait for anyone else to give you permission to make your film, to validate your credentials, to recognize your worth. Don’t get sucked into a “day job” or the mode of “being a good student” and lose sight of the big picture. The only way to become a filmmaker is to be one. Move forward with conviction, confidence and humility – be provocative, disruptive and compassionate (including with yourself). You will make many beautiful mistakes, endure epic failures and embarrassments – savor these moments, but don’t ever let them paralyze you. Your film is waiting for you. (And you will need your friends to help you make it – so don’t be a jerk, be a collaborator!)

Lucy Walker (“The Lion’s Mouth Opens”)

Work with people you love, people who you can’t wait to eat meals with and to learn and grow and explore and create with.

Louie Psiyohos (“Racing Extinction”)

The one piece of advice I wish they had shared was that filmmaking is the most fulfilling career in the world. I was a still photographer for National Geographic for nearly two decades and I thought I had the best job in the world, but filmmaking gives still photography wings and brings an audience to territories of the heart and mind I personally couldn’t achieve with stills. At National Geographic we aspired to make every published picture something of a masterpiece and it was daunting to think about trying to create 24 of them every second of a film. But the added elements of voice, a great score and story can carry some of the burden of keeping the audience engaged between the more visually stunning sequences. When everything comes together there is a rush that’s better than any feeling in the world – because you know if you feel it, the audience most likely will too, and there is nothing that makes us feel more human than a shared experience. 

Adam Wingard (“The Guest”)

I tend to learn everything the hard way, through trial and error, so even if I’d been given this advice it probably wouldn’t have sunk in. Filmmaking should always be about the final result. I think originally I had all these ideas that making a film was like a party and that it was important that I bring my friends onboard and everyone would have a good time. When making “You’re Next” I had the most stressful, opposite of fun experience. But ultimately, it was the first time that I walked away totally proud of the final results. I was surprised at how quickly my terrible, stressful memories of making that film were transformed into fond nostalgia. All that matters is if the film works, everything else is superfluous, but with that said, it CAN and hopefully will be a fun experience.

Lynn Shelton (“Laggies”)

I wish someone had told me that acting is not the same thing as directing. Having experience working with actors as another actor does not automatically translate into being able to direct them. It gives you a great deal of empathy for the process (which is extremely useful) but directing actors requires a separate skill set and communication strategy than those used in acting.

If you have an acting background, I recommend that you take a “Directing Actors” class or at least read a book or two on the topic before taking on the challenge. Judith Weston’s “Directing Actors” was a helpful starting point for me. If I’d read it before directing my first feature instead of after, it would have made the process that much easier on both my cast and myself!

Doug Block (“112 Weddings”)

I wish I’d been told about the importance of mentors. I never had one and had to learn filmmaking the hard way, by simply doing it. If I were starting out again today I’d somehow contact those filmmakers whose work I most admire and ask if they need a serious, eager, hard-working, dedicated intern or assistant looking to soak up everything like a sponge from the very best.  

Douglas Tirola (“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon”)

If you can, accept and go to every festival your film is invited to regardless of how big or small. Making films is collaborative, but you don’t often get to meet and interact with other filmmakers, as well as the programmers, writers, critics, executives and audiences that support and also love independent film. The people you meet will become your collaborators, your friends, your resources and your support system. When that day comes on your next film and something isn’t going the way you hoped – which pretty much happens on every film – the relationships and experiences that you make at these festivals will help you to keep working in ways you couldn’t have imagined.

Marshall Curry (“Point and Shoot”)

Carry more batteries/memory cards than you could possibly ever use. The best stuff always seems to happen at the end of a long shoot day, and if you cut it close, you are bound to find yourself watching an amazing moment unfold while you hold a dead camera. 

For previous “Filmmaker Surveys,” check out this one we did on the issue of censorship, this story on whether theatrical distribution is essential and this one we did on whether film school is necessary.

Indiewire is striving to spur discussion in the indie film community about a variety of timely issues. If you’ve got a topic you’d like us to feature, please let us know in the comments section below.

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