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The 10 Most Important Lessons I’ve Learned About Directing Narrative Films

Ask any budding filmmaker what their goal is for the future, and nearly all of them will say – I want to Direct. Yet so few of them really understand what directing really entails… And I can’t fault them. I certainly didn’t have a clue for the first several years of my career.

The truth is that directing is a very complex job with a whole lot of moving parts. And in order to be the best director you can possibly be, you need to fully understand and embrace the complexities of the role, and continue to refine your process over the course of your career.

Many first time directors come from some other discipline in filmmaking, such as screenwriting or cinematography. When they first start out as directors, they’ll often prioritize one aspect of the craft heavily over another – for instance camera work or dialogue. But for a director to truly excel at their job, they need to have a deep understanding of every creative facet of their role, not just one.

Developing a truly well rounded skill set is task that can take years if not decades to accomplish. It’s not something that you’ll learn from one project, or one shoot, or one class on filmmaking. It’s something that you will slowly learn over the course of many, many projects, and will continue to develop for the rest of your career.

While I’m still pretty early on in my own career, I’ve made enough films to have learned some valuable lessons from both my successes and my set-backs. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a short list of what I consider to be some of the most important lessons on directing that I’ve picked up along the way.

Here we go – 

You need to understand the craft of acting

When it comes to directing talent, having a thorough understanding of acting philosophy and technique is going to be critical. I’m not suggesting you need to take up a career in acting, but at least familiarize yourself with the basics. If you don’t know the difference between Meisner and Method, that probably means you need to start doing some homework. Every actor works differently, and it’s part of your job to know how to best communicate with each, and evoke the best performances possible.

This includes working with non-actors or talent that have little training. Every person needs to be coached into a performance differently. Some need you to understand their technique so that you can speak their language. Others need to be challenged or pushed, and many need to be gently guided. It’s your job to understand how to speak to every actor in the way that will be most beneficial to them.

Directing your actors is only part of the process

In the very early days of cinema a Director’s main (and sometimes only) job was to direct their actors. They would walk onto an existing production, sometimes only days before it began, and coach the actors into great performances. When the shoot wrapped, their jobs were done, and rarely did they even have a say in the edit. Some first time director’s still believe that their main job is to direct actors, but in today’s landscape that is simply not the case.

One of the trickiest challenges for any director on set, can be finding the right balance between working with actors and working with crew. Your actors need you and you should always be there to guide them. But your crew needs you too, and knowing when and where to be is a skill you need to develop instincts for. Never put too much emphasis on one area of your production, and not enough on the others. If you really want to get the best results from your actors, you need to create an environment that will allow you to capture their best work. And in many cases, that means focusing on other aspects of the craft that will ultimately elevate their performances.

Keep all direction short and sweet

This is especially true for directing actors, but is equally relevant for directing your crew. On set, there is very little time to waste, and words can be misinterpreted very easily. Whether you’re directing your actors, or walking through a lighting setup with your DP, keep your words concise and to the point.

For instance, if you want your lead actor to play a scene with more anger or intensity, then say that. Tell them you want to see more anger. That’s all they need to know. They don’t need to know the entire life story of their character and which emotional memory from their childhood they should be pulling from. If that’s something you want to discuss with them, you’ve got to do it well before you step on set.

90% of directing happens in pre-production

By the time you step on set, the vast majority of your creative work should be done and much of the film will have already been directed. Your choices in casting, art direction, locations, crew, and so on, will all have an immense impact on the look and feel of your film, so if you attempt to skimp out on pre-production and make up for lost time on set, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle. You will also have missing countless opportunities to direct your film before it even began. Your main job on set is to ensure all of the pre-production work you’ve been putting into place is going to be executed as planned. It’s not about making major decisions on the fly.

Some first time directors fear that their films will lack creative spontaneity if they over-prepare and don’t leave enough room to “find it on set”. But this notion really couldn’t be further from the truth. The more you prepare, the more efficient you will be on set, and the more time you’ll have to experiment with new ideas and allow some serendipitous moments to happen. Without preparation, all your time on set will be eaten up by trouble shooting.

Always think like a writer

I love to write scripts, as do many directors. But even if you aren’t a writer by trade, you need to understand the fundamentals of writing and constantly apply them throughout the filmmaking process – from development to post-production. You need to understand story structures, character arcs, exposition, and countless other critical screenwriting fundamentals in order to guide the writing process effectively. You may be working with an excellent writer, but that writer may be creating a script that isn’t fully in line with your vision. Without a working knowledge of screenwriting, you won’t be able to guide the story in an effective way, and your vision will never reach it’s full potential.

Writing is a lifelong journey, and you should always be expanding your horizons by reading other screenplays, or texts on the subject. Story by Robert McKee is a great starting place.

Editing is writing

To expand on my last point, I can’t stress enough how much your knowledge of screenwriting will come into play once you enter the edit. Picture editing mirrors the writing process in many respects, and a solid understanding of story writing will allow you to make far better choices in the edit than you might imagine.

You never want to cut scenes based on style alone, and without the fundamentals of writing in your back pocket, your instinct may be to choose style over substance. You always need make decisions based on character and story, even if it means sacrificing strong visual moments – and your knowledge of writing will help you make those near-impossible decisions.

You are the conductor

You can’t do every job yourself, and you shouldn’t try. Naturally, you want to put your stamp on your film, but that doesn’t mean you need to micro-manage any one department. It means you need to conduct, as if your entire team is an orchestra. You need to oversee every person on your crew, every department, and every cast member to ensure they are working harmoniously. You can’t do that properly if you’re only focused on one area.

Ultimately this is what will allow you to leave your stamp on the film. There is no one area that will shine more than another on a film. Everything is up there on screen for the world to see, so if you really want to make it your own, you need to treat each and every facet of the production with equal weight and respect.

Your theme is your guiding light

Part of “conducting” your crew, means sharing a consistent vision with everyone on your team. This is what will keep the picture moving in the right direction and ensure you are all on the same page from a creative standpoint. Having a deep understanding of your theme, and keeping it top of mind as you make critical decisions is by far and away the best way to achieve this.

Whether you’re giving notes to your writer or sharing an idea with a production designer, your theme will always serve as the guiding light that unifies all creative decisions. In many respects, if you don’t have a strong theme, you don’t have a movie. So before you get too deep into the filmmaking process, ensure that you’ve fully identified your story’s thematic premise and allow it to permeate every decision as you move ahead.

Communication is everything

Just because you know your story, characters, theme, or visual approach inside and out, doesn’t mean everyone else does. Take whatever measures you can to ensure everyone on your cast and crew “gets it”. Whether that means doing extensive rehearsals, creating overheads, or going on tech-scouts, you always want to look for opportunities to use the tools at your disposal to communicate your vision more effectively. Otherwise, no one will be able to serve the film.

And always remember that communication is a two way street. If anyone on your team has an idea, listen to it. There are no bad ideas, some just may not be right for your film. You should always aim to create an open dialogue where you can share ideas freely with your team, and they can share their ideas with you. If your film starts to feel like a dictatorship, no one will be able to do their best work.

Your #1 job when shooting is deciding where the camera goes

Unless you are DP’ing your own film, the two most critical camera decisions you need to make are what lens to use, and where to place the camera. In other words – Don’t tell your DP how to light the scene. Choose a DP that is in line with your vision for the film, and spend enough time with them in pre-production so that you are both speaking the same visual language. That will allow you to focus on blocking, camera placement, and lensing, the most important visual decisions you should be making on the day.

Lighting can take a tremendous amount of time on set, and if you’re working with a DP that you trust, you want to use that time to work with the actors, go over script changes, make final decisions on art direction, and so on. Many directors (myself included) come from a background in cinematography, so it can be tempting to spend too much time with the camera department and not enough with the rest of the crew – not to mention your cast. This is a mistake you will pay for in the editing room.

In Summary

Directing a film can be highly complicated. It takes a massive amount of determination, a unique combination of skills, and the right team to pull it off. But if you have a genuine love and interest for all of the aspects of filmmaking – from acting to writing to editing and beyond, you are in the right line of work. It may take many years to refine your skills, but as long as you keep shooting, and always understand your role in it’s entirety, you will continue to improve.

I learn something new on every shoot, and even on projects that I’m not happy with I am still able to grow as a filmmaker. I’m certain this is the case with many of those of you that are reading this now, and hope you’ve been able to take something away from this article that might help in your growth as well.

That’s about it for now. So get out there and shoot something. Whether it’s a masterpiece or a complete failure, learn something from it, move on, and do it all over again.

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About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

8 Comments

  • Abbigail Rennes
    January 21, 2017 at 4:14 pm

    I guess I would have to say from my experience that giving a note, “this scene needs to be more angry” isnt as helpful as a result-orientated direction like “you want to stab her” (metaphorically) because then there is room to play. Also, the number one thing I look for in a performance is listening. If the actors are truly listening to each other they will respond naturally, at least most of the time. That’s only after one short film in the directing chair, I have a ways to go yet. Great article I was nodding a whole lot.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 23, 2017 at 9:30 pm

      Thanks so much Abbigail – and great point about making sure the actors are listening. That’s so important… It’s also good practice to prompt your actors with questions that can help them come around to your vision, as opposed to telling them how it is (like many of us mistakenly do!). Appreciate the note, and best of luck on your future projects.

      Reply
  • Manish
    January 21, 2017 at 4:13 am

    ” So get out there and shoot something. Whether it’s a masterpiece or a complete failure, learn something from it, move on, and do it all over again. “, what a great words

    this is my motto now don’t try to make masterpiece at first attempt

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 23, 2017 at 9:28 pm

      Thanks so much Manish – glad to hear this has resonated with you!

      Reply
  • Juan Pennisi
    December 8, 2016 at 12:25 pm

    I loved this. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      December 9, 2016 at 4:10 pm

      Any time Juan! Thanks for the note.

      Reply
  • AYFER SELAMOĞLU
    November 27, 2016 at 11:03 am

    Thank you so much for your sharing what you have picked up along the way. Like a big men… generously…

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 30, 2016 at 9:55 pm

      Thanks for the note! Always happy to share…

      Reply

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