One of the best ways to learn craft of filmmaking is to study the work of masters, and to listen to their words of wisdom. Below, I’ve compiled a handful of my favorite pieces of advice from some of the world’s greatest filmmakers to help you get inspired.
The quotes below are pulled from a variety of articles, interviews, websites, and in my opinion represent some of the most critical lessons for working directors on all levels.
Steve McQueen: Shape your actors
You have to create an environment where they feel safe and then make them into spheres, so however they roll, whatever direction they go in, is right. They’re like dancers – every part of their body has to be used. There’s no restraints, no censorship. If you create that environment, things happen out of the ordinary, which, as long as you’ve got the camera rolling, you catch.
Terry Gilliam: Never grow up
As a child, I always drew funny creatures, funny characters. But I think the trick is not to grow up, not to learn to be an adult. And if you can maintain the kind of imagination you all had when you were babies, you would all be wonderful filmmakers. But the world tries to make you grow up, to stop imagining, stop fantasizing, stop playing in your mind. And I’ve worked hard to not let the world educate me.
Sofia Coppola: Connect with your talent
Having been in front of a camera, knowing how vulnerable that can be, I am sensitive to that vulnerability in my actors. I feel like there has to be a connection, you have to find the same things funny. That way, you’re on the same channel and you’ll be able to communicate more effectively.
Quentin Tarantino: Stay away from video village
One of the best things a film director today can do for an actor is not being stuck in the video village, not be watching it on a monitor, not be watching it on a TV set, sitting on a chair, often times in a whole other room than where the scene is taking place. I think you should be sitting right by the camera. If you watch the acting right by the camera, right in front of the actors, it’s as if they are acting just, and solely, and utterly only for you. The rest of the crew doesn’t matter, the audience, later in the theater doesn’t matter, it’s a million miles away and maybe it will never happened, they are acting only for you.
James Cameron: Be a blank slate
Don’t get seduced by your own stuff. Don’t get high on your own supply. The hardest thing as a filmmaker is when you’re watching a film that you’ve worked on for several years. You know every frame so intimately that holding lots of the objectivity of a new viewer who has just seen it for the first time is the hardest thing. Every aesthetic decision you make — and you make thousands of them every day, have to — in theory, must be done from you being a blank slate. You almost have to run a program, like a mind wipe, every time you watch the movie.
Richard Linklater: Execution is everything
There are a million ideas in a world of stories. Humans are storytelling animals. Everything’s a story, everyone’s got stories, we’re perceiving stories, we’re interested in stories. So to me, the big nut to crack is to how to tell a story, what’s the right way to tell a particular story.
Agnes Varda: Use cinematic language
For me, a film is not written by the screenplay or the dialogue, it’s written by the way of the filming. The choices that you have to make between still shot or traveling shot, color or black-and-white, speedy way of acting or slow-motion or whatever, all these choices, and the lens you choose, and the camera you choose, and then the editing, and then the music or not, and the mixing—all these choices all the way through the film, all through the making of the film, that’s what cine-writing is.
Stanley Kubrick: Understand your own taste
The director’s job is to know what emotional statement he wants a character to convey in his scene or his line, and to exercise taste and judgment in helping the actor give his best possible performance. By knowing the actor’s personality and gauging his strengths and weaknesses a director can help him to overcome specific problems and realize his potential. But I think this aspect of directing is generally overemphasized. The director’s taste and imagination play a much more crucial role in the making of a film. Is it meaningful? Is it believable? Is it interesting? Those are the questions that have to be answered several hundred times a day.
Chris Nolan: Be prepared to do it all yourself
While it’s wonderful to have a great community of filmmakers around you, you have to be prepared to do everything yourself. That’s something that never goes away. You have to be prepared to carry the flag for the film because if you’re not, nobody else is going to bother. The tricky thing is, it can seem like arrogance because it’s the film you made, but there’s no way around it. You just have to do it.
Peter Bogdanovich: Watch the right movies
Get familiar with the Golden Age of Movies. Movies were better-constructed and better-directed in the years between 1912-1962. So I think it’s the foundation of the art. And I think that anyone who directs movies should have a working knowledge of that foundation, before they start turning on the camera.
Werner Herzog: Read
More important, for an aspiring filmmaker, is reading. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read. If you don’t read, you’ll never make a great film.
Francis Ford Coppola: Work from theme
When you make a movie, always try to discover what the theme of the movie is in one or two words. Every time I made a film, I always knew what I thought the theme was, the core, in one word. In The Godfather, it was succession. In The Conversation, it was privacy. In Apocalypse, it was morality. The reason it’s important to have this is because most of the time what a director really does is make decisions. All day long: Do you want it to be long hair or short hair? Do you want a dress or pants? Do you want a beard or no beard? There are many times when you don’t know the answer. Knowing what the theme is always helps you.
Akira Kurosawa: Refine your focus
During the shooting of a scene the director’s eye has to catch even the minutest detail. But this does not mean glaring concentratedly at the set. While the cameras are rolling, I rarely look directly at the actors, but focus my gaze somewhere else. By doing this I sense instantly when something isn’t right. Watching something does not mean fixing your gaze on it, but being aware of it in a natural way. I believe this is what the medieval Noh playwright and theorist Zeami meant by ‘watching with a detached gaze’.
Martin Scorsese: Surprise yourself
Always get to the set or the location early, so that you can be all alone and draw your inspiration for the blocking and the setups in private and quiet. In one sense, it’s about protecting yourself; in another sense, it’s about always being open to surprise, even from the set, because there may be some detail that you hadn’t noticed. I think this is crucial. There are many pictures that seem good in so many ways except one: They lack a sense of surprise, they’ve never left the page.
David Fincher: Take full control
There’s nothing worse than hearing somebody say, ‘Oh, you made that movie? I thought that movie sucked,’ and you have to agree with them. You are going to have to take all of the responsibility, because basically when it gets right down to it, you are going to get all of the blame, so you might as well have made all of the decisions that led to people either liking it or disliking it.