I’ve gotten halfway decent at screenwriting. After doing it for over 15 years, six of them professionally, I feel I’ve earned the right to say, “Yeah, I got this.” And, thankfully, most times I do. Generally speaking, it’s pretty easy – not the art and craft of screenwriting, but the actual act of sitting down in front of a computer and punching keys. You create love scenes and death scenes, car chases and car crashes, dialogue and monologues – all with the push of a button. But then, something crazy happens once you’re done: People go off and make a movie out of the very things you wrote. I’ve grown to love that process, respect it, and by this point, understand it. However, this past summer I did something to totally disrupt all of that: I became the person who made the movie I wrote.
I learned a great deal during my first time in the director’s chair as I was making my film, “The Atticus Institute.” Just as I was fortunate enough to receive some tips and advice from filmmaker friends. I’d like to pass along a little bit of that information to you:
1. Surround yourself with talent.
You are the company you keep, as the saying goes. And it’s probably no truer than when it comes to making movies. If you’re new to directing, as I was, you will lean heavily on those with more experience than you. So, choose wisely – especially when it comes to your key positions.
2. It’s okay to say “I don’t know.”
Don’t fear these words. Don’t worry about looking or feeling stupid because you don’t know something. The reality is if it’s your first movie people don’t expect you to know much. And, rather than leading them astray and wasting their time by pretending you do, better to admit your ignorance of certain things and work together to arrive at a solution.
3. But, know as much as possible.
By this I mean, do your homework. Be prepared. If you’ve never directed before, talk with other directors and ask them what pitfalls you should avoid, how they work with actors, etc. I was lucky enough to get some really great advice from guys like Rodrigo Cortes, Gary Gray, Daniel Stamm, David Brooks and Eric Heisserer. If you don’t know any other directors, go online and find interviews with some of your favorites, or listen to the director’s commentary on DVDs. The more work you do in advance, and the better you’ve educated yourself, the better off you’ll be.
4. Find the right D.P.
This is obviously related to point #1, but it’s so important I feel it needed a standalone mention. Alex Vendler, my director of photography on “Atticus,” was instrumental in helping to bring my vision from page to screen. We were able to connect on both an intellectual and an artistic level, but more importantly, I liked the guy right away. This might seem trivial, but I assure you it’s not. If you, a newbie, aren’t able to get along with your D.P., you’re likely in trouble because that person might not suffer your inexperience lightly. In turn, you might find it difficult to communicate your vision when there’s no communication to be had at all. And, above and beyond being able to play nice together in the sandbox, a talented D.P. will make your movie look good – and that matters.
5. “You decide” usually isn’t an acceptable answer.
This one took me a few days to understand. The reality is that if someone – an art director, a wardrobe assistant, whoever – comes up to you and asks you to make a choice about something, they expect (and deserve) an actual answer. They don’t want to hear, “It doesn’t matter, you decide,” for a couple of reasons: a) It DOES matter, especially to them. Saying it doesn’t insults them and their craft, and b) While they are fully capable of making a decision on, say, the color of someone’s shoes or the type of umbrella a character will hold, the reason they’re asking you to make the choice is because they respect the specificity of your vision and want to do all they can to help you see it to fruition. So, even if you really don’t care about something, act like you do and give them an answer.
6. Work with producers who trust you.
This one might not entirely be under your control, but if at all possible, align yourself with producers who believe in your abilities and judgment. I was very fortunate to work with two producers, Peter Safran and Dan Clifton, who supported my ambitions with what was a fairly complex project and a limited amount of time and resources with which to complete it.
7. Fully appreciate the craft of acting.
If there was any area of directing I felt confident about going in, it was working with the talent. Being an actor myself, I felt I had a pretty good idea how to speak to “my people.” And while I did ultimately find this to be the case, I did come across instances in which I needed to dive a bit deeper and provide them with a more nuanced explanation of their character’s needs and desires.
8. Hire a casting director.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, can destroy a film faster than bad acting. Even with the greatest script in the world, if the actors’ performances are stilted, weak, forced, or false, you’re dead. Plain and simple. To that end, it is worth budgeting some money to hire a casting director for your film. For “The Atticus Institute,” the casting directors (Bass Casting in L.A.) had the particularly difficult task of casting two people – each of different ages to play the same character aged thirty years apart. Hiring a casting company also afforded me the opportunity to see as many people as possible for my lead roles of Dr. West (played by William Mapother) and Judith Winstead (played by Rya Kilstead), while also saving precious time by filtering out performers who, based on their initial auditions, simply weren’t right for these roles.
9. Don’t be precious about anything.
As a writer, I’ve come to accept that some things I write will either be changed or not make their way into the movie at all. But when you’re the director, and you’re the person making the decisions about said script, it’s easy to view that as an opportunity to safeguard it. Do not make this mistake, which is exactly what you’d be making – and a big one at that. The reason scripts change, at least a good portion of the time, is because they need to. So, once you’ve taken off your writer’s hat and put on your directing scarf, you have to do what’s best for the movie – even if it means changing the very thing you created. Plus, you might as well get used to this anyway, because things are going to change even more dramatically once you’re in the edit.
10) Remember: it’s impossible to fail completely.
By making the decision to direct a film, you’re also making the decision to do something extraordinary. When you set your ambitions high, even if you don’t end up quite reaching them, you’ll still have achieved something pretty damn great.
Chris Sparling wrote the 2010 film “Buried,” for which he won “Best Original Screenplay” from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, as well as a Goya Award from the Spanish Academy of Cinematic Art and Sciences in the same category. His Black List script, “ATM,” was produced by Gold Circle Films and released by IFC in 2012. His most recent script, “Sea Of Trees,” is slated to begin production in late 2014, starring Matthew McConaughey and directed by Gus Van Sant.
Anchor Bay Entertainment will release “The Atticus Institute” on January 20th.
READ MORE: How an Oscar-Nominated Editor Made the Transition to Directing