It’s been a few weeks since I last posted as I took some time off for the holidays, and I figured what better way to kick off 2018 than by reflecting on the most important lessons I’ve learned over the last year.
Every year, all of us will grow as filmmakers and will continue to refine our creative abilities and knowledge of the craft. That said, some years yield more growth than others, and for me personally 2017 was a year of significant change in many ways – not just artistically, but tactically as well. Over the course of the year I directed and edited my feature Shadows on the Road, started writing my next feature, consumed as many educational books & courses as possible, watched over 100 movies, read dozens of scripts, collaborated with some great commercial clients (including 2 major film studios), launched my podcast & newsletter, and continued to generate more content for this blog at every opportunity.
While all this might sound great, don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of setbacks along the way too – Half started projects, unfinished scripts, extremely stressful days while shooting my feature (and brutally long nights while editing), and plenty of other challenges in virtually every way imaginable. At the end of it all though, I learned a ton along the way and want to share some of the more important anecdotes with you below.
So here they are, in no particular order –
Work as much as possible, but only on the right things. It’s imperative that as filmmakers we make as much content as we can, as it is truly the only way to move ahead in this business. Every project leads to a stronger body of work, better industry contacts, and more exposure. At the same time, the key is picking the right projects to commit to, otherwise much of our effort can be wasted on the wrong things. In years past I’ve taken on too much and had to work in overdrive just to stay afloat – which ultimately led me to generate a ton of content, but not much that I was proud of. This year on the other hand I worked very consistently, but almost exclusively on projects that I made sure were in line with my long term goals, and it paid off in leaps and bounds. I had more free time, but also saw more growth than ever by focusing intensely on what matters, and not dedicating precious time to projects that wouldn’t matter in the long run.
Keeping track of creative habits is the secret to being productive. At any given time, many of us will mistakenly assume that we are being more productive than we actually are, which can cause us to severely underdeliver on our filmmaking goals. If most of us were asked how many pages of a script we wrote on any given month, or how many film projects we would be able to tackle this quarter, we would grossly overestimate. This isn’t because it’s not possible to accomplish a lot in a small amount of time, but because it’s easy to let the time slip between our fingers, and we usually don’t realize until it’s too late. To remedy this issue, this year I’ve started to keep track of my daily habits so that when I set goals for myself I have a paper record of whether or not I hit my targets. I’m not always hitting every target (even while holding myself accountable), but the very fact that I am aware of my progress on any given day has put me way ahead, and I’ve accomplished more in 2017 than in any other year as a result.
When it comes to writing, always front-load the process. I’ve made the mistake in the past of rushing through the early stages of the writing process in order to get to the screenwriting phase. I would have an idea that I really liked, and would work very quickly on a beat sheet or treatment so that I could get to typing FADE IN as fast as possible (and therefore could start shooting ASAP). But ironically, rushing the early stages of the writing process meant I would spend far more time in the re-writing phase than I would have if I spent more time up front focusing on the idea from a top-level… And doing it this way definitely didn’t help me get into production any sooner. Now though, the vast majority of my writing time is spent just thinking – about the characters, the themes, the world, the tone – and by the time I actually start to write, I know exactly where I’m going. I aim to spend as much time as I need to in the very early stages of the writing process, and that allows me to avoid unnecessary re-writes.
Working in a peak state of mind = Drastically better creative results. No matter what I’m doing, whether shooting on set, writing a blog post, or editing a scene, I always deliver better results when I’m in a peak state. For instance, on some days it could take me 8 hours to edit down a scene from the exact same material that would take me 2 hours on another day. And on the 2 hour day, I would deliver a better cut, because I was in the right frame of mind. It sound basic, but skipping meals, staying up too late, not exercising, all leads to slower mental functioning. For that reason, if I’m having a crappy day, I don’t even bother working on creative stuff anymore. It’s just a waste of time. Instead, I figure out what I need to do to get my body and mind back to optimal performance so I can actually do some meaningful creative work the next day. And similarly I aim to plan my creative writing/editing sessions on days and times when I am most likely to be in the most optimal frame of mind. It’s not the amount of time you spend on something, it’s the quality of that time.
Collaboration is everything. Being able to do so much creative work yourself (writing, directing, DP’ing, editing, etc.) is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it allows you to get projects off the ground with minimal interference from gatekeepers, since ultimately you don’t need anyone’s approval to get started. On the other hand, it can sometimes cause you to miss out on opportunities to collaborate with other likeminded filmmakers that could have added tremendous value to your work. I’ve made it a point in 2018 to be more collaborative in every stage of the filmmaking process, and to work with as many other talented filmmakers as I can to learn and grow with them. There is a true compounding effect when you find the the right collaborators, making any bit of effort you put into the process go 10x further. Just because you can go at it alone doesn’t mean you should.
You are nothing without your network. In many ways this point really builds off of the previous one… Involving other people in your endeavors isn’t just important from a creative standpoint, but from a business perspective too. The reason one filmmaker may get a project off the ground, land funding, or book a name actors in their film, while another filmmaker can’t accomplish any of the above, is almost always related to the power of their networks, not just the quality of their work. As such, another goal I have this year is to connect with more filmmakers, producers, reps, financiers, actors, entertainment lawyers – really anyone remotely in touch with the world of film – to strengthen my personal network moving ahead. There are so many opportunities for mutually beneficial partnerships, and cultivating these types of relationships is mandatory for anyone who wants to move ahead in the industry.
Features > Shorts. When it comes to making strides in our careers and taking things to the next level, there is no better way to do it than by making a feature film. Don’t get me wrong – shorts are great, and I even plan to shoot a couple more this year. Shorts offer a way to experiment with techniques, explore new ideas, and refine your craft, but when you are ready for a feature, it will offer so much more… I’m seeing it first hand with my feature, which was completed just a few months ago. Even though we are still waiting to hear from festivals and have not yet premiered the film, many doors have already opened up simply because the film exists, and it’s leading me to new opportunities that would not be generated from a short form project. It’s a good reminder that all of us should always have a feature on the go, even if it’s just a micro-budget DIY project, as the ways in which we can leverage a full length film just can’t be replicated with a short.
All that matters is that your film isn’t boring. There is so much advice out there about how to structure your film, what types of characters to write, which directing techniques are most effective, and on so – but none of it matters if you bore your audience. You could follow every rule in the book, but it all goes out the window if your film doesn’t hook or excite or grip the audience in some way. It sounds simple, but we are all guilty from time to time of doing things “by the book” and relying on the fact that we are using tried and true methods to tell our stories, while neglecting to see things from the vantage point of our audiences. The solution is to approach every decision throughout the process with the question: Will this entertain or bore?
The simplest ideas can be the most powerful if they are primal. One of the best ways to ensure you are fully engaging your audience is by tapping into primal emotions. Every human being will be emotionally moved if they are told a story involving triumph, loss, heartbreak, death, or anything else that is equally visceral and universally empathetic. That’s not to say that execution isn’t massively important when it comes to any idea, but even well executed films often fall flat if the film’s DNA lacks an ability to connect with our basic, primal human emotions.
Don’t aim to please everyone, creatively-speaking. This is something I’ve felt strongly about for a long time, but it’s really been reinforced this year. The reality is, no matter what film you make some people will love it, others will hate it, and most will be somewhere in between… All of our favorite movies will still have at least a few bad reviews. Art is subjective, and that’s the beauty of it. The audience is part of that equation, and the worst sin we can commit as filmmakers is watering down our ideas as a means to pander to that audience. Aiming for a down the middle film that will please as many people possible is a recipe for disaster. No one will love it, and no one will hate it, but even those that enjoy it will soon forget it.
Small, consistent steps every day are so much more powerful than occasional big strides. I used to burn myself out by working very intensely for short bursts of time and then taking long breaks in between creative sessions. I would edit like crazy for a week or two, and then take a few weeks off to re-calibrate myself. I would do the same when it came to writing or working on my business. While I was doing it I felt like I was being super-productive (at least on the intense days), but in reality I wasn’t nearly as productive as I may have felt. This year I’ve really learned that there is so much power at just chipping away at my work a little bit at a time, every single day. I don’t need to make huge leaps every time I sit down to write or edit, I just need to do it consistently… Slow and steady wins the race. It sounds cheesy, but at the end of a 30 day month when I’ve written only 3 pages a day, I’ll have written a 90 page screenplay. Compare that to 4 of 5 days of intense work, writing 10 – 15 pages a day before getting fed up and taking the next 3 weeks off. I’ll take the former.
It’s easy to eliminate 80% of what makes you unhappy and unproductive. In a recent podcast I talked about the 80/20 principle, which I’ve been applying to virtually every aspect of my life, filmmaking included. As I mentioned above, I aim to work in a peak state of mind as much as possible, but in order to get there I need to eliminate the things that stress me out or cause me to procrastinate. For most of us, a disproportionally small amount of the things we do day to day (our habits, routines, clients, etc.) lead to the vast majority of our negative emotion, and by simply identifying what those stressors are and eliminating them, our state of mind and productivity can change instantly. Understanding this basic construct has had a larger affect on my day to day life than just about anything else I can think of.
“Don’t follow your passion, follow your effort.” That’s a Mark Cuban quote, and one that’s really shaped how I’ve looked at work over the years – particularly with regards to where I spend my time. Many of us assume that we should be working on things that are in line with our “passion”, but some of us really haven’t identified our true calling yet, and therefore are putting energy into the wrong things. Early on in my career I had no idea what I wanted to do. Did I want to write? direct? act? edit? I had no clue, all I knew was that film was for me. But by trying different things and following where my effort was taking to me, I was eventually shown those answers and have since developed a working situation that allows me to thrive. To this day, I still follow this ideology but through a more narrow lens. I pay attention to where my effort leads me when it comes to story ideas, directing techniques, visual style, and other creative choices. Doing so allows me to play into my strengths/abilities and really enjoy the process along the way.
“Cast” your crew as if they were your actors. It wasn’t until recently that I truly started to understand the power of crewing and it’s impact on any film’s final product. It goes without saying that anyone with common sense would assume that you want to get the best crew possible on any given film, but that’s like saying you want the best actors possible. There is really no such thing from an objective point of view, but there is such a thing as the best cast/crew setup for your unique set of circumstances. The best films I’ve made all have one thing in common – there was great crew synergy. They didn’t all have the most experienced crew members (some did, others didn’t), and they didn’t all have the same level of budget. But they all included people that were really a good fit for the project. They worked well together, believed in the film, and their sensibilities lined up with the creative intentions of the project, which are all qualities far more important than their hard skills alone.
Inspiring confidence in your team is everything. As crucial as it is to bring together the ideal cast and crew for any given project, none of it matters if you aren’t able to lead them effectively. And the best way to do that is by instilling confidence in them and allowing them to take risks. If your actors truly know that you believe in them, that you are excited about the project, and that you want to give them the room to experiment and fail, they will be excited too and will bring their A-game. The same goes for your crew. That doesn’t mean you can’t have disagreements or that there won’t be tough moments, but everything gets so much easier when you can create an environment where everyone feels inspired and confident in their own abilities to deliver, and it all starts with your enthusiasm about the film, and their involvement.
A working knowledge of post-audio is a massive asset. Most of us DIY filmmakers can do a lot ourselves – shooting, editing, color grading, etc. – but have a gap in knowledge when it comes to post-audio. And as I’ve stated many times on this blog: audio has more of an affect on our audiences emotions than visuals, by a long shot. In order for us to properly collaborate with post-audio professionals (and guide them to deliver the best results), we need to have a strong handle on the technical and creative limits/abilities of post-audio. We also want to have the capability to do it ourselves when we need to in a pinch. I spent a lot of time this year doing a festival mix for my feature film by myself, and probably could have cut that time in half if I was more comfortable with mixing and sound design. Lesson learned for next time!
Forget the rules. Probably the most important lesson that I can think of, and one that I’ve been reminded of this year is the importance of forgetting the rules. Almost everyone follows the same “rules” of filmmaking when it comes to storytelling techniques, but adhering to the status quo rarely leads to exceptional work. The best films often break the rules and set a new standard. They zig where other films zag and avoid trends like the plague. Sometimes these films are recognized for their brilliance, and other times they are criminally overlooked and misunderstood. But if nothing else, they are different, they are distinct, and they reflect boldly on the filmmakers behind the project. All that said, you really do need to learn the rules first in order to break them. There is no sense in being shocking or experimental just because… It needs to be purposeful.
And finally, there is no better way to expand your horizons as a filmmaker than to watch as many movies and read as many scripts as possible.
This year I have a goal to watch 150 movies. Last year my goal was 100 (and I beat it by 2!), while also reading several dozen screenplays and watching loads of great documentaries, masterclasses, behind the scenes videos, podcasts, and other inspiring content. There really is no better way to learn (with the exception of being in the trenches and actually making something) than to just consume.
So with all that in mind, I want to share a list of the 102 narrative films I watched this year – many of which I learned a great deal from.
Some of these are films I was dying to see, others I stumbled upon at random or watched for a second or third time. Some I loved, most I liked, and some were not for me… But I’m glad I watched every one of them as they were all educational in their own right.
Without further ado, below is my list!
The films are not ranked, and are ordered according to when I watched them –
BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID
THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972)
2 DAYS 1 NIGHT
BLADE RUNNER (1982)
YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL
A SINGLE GIRL
CHARIOTS OF FIRE
FIFTY SHADES DARKER
A GHOST STORY
THE PELICAN BRIEF
SCENT OF A WOMAN
ZERO DARK THIRTY
A FEW GOOD MEN
TO THE BONE
INGRID GOES WEST
THE BIG SICK
BEATRIZ AT DINNER
THE FLORIDA PROJECT
JULES ET JIM
PIERROT LE FOU
SEE THE SEA
FIELD OF DREAMS
THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES
THE NILE HILTON INCIDENT
3 BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
THE SHAPE OF WATER
SUMMER WITH MONIKA
THE DISASTER ARTIST
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
NOTES ON A SCANDAL
THIS IS 40
HOUNDS OF LOVE
It would be nearly impossible to pick a favorite film from this list, but I’ll pick a few favorites for those interested. From my highly subjective perspective, here are some of the films that really stood out –
MY TOP 10 FILMS RELEASED IN 2017
- THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
- THE FLORIDA PROJECT
- BABY DRIVER
- LADY BIRD
- HOUNDS OF LOVE
- CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
- INGRID GOES WEST
MY TOP 5 FILMS RELEASED PRIOR TO 2017 (BUT NEW TO ME THIS YEAR)
- LORE (2012)
- THE SILENCE (2010)
- 2 DAYS 1 NIGHT
- THE SALESMAN
MY TOP 5 RE-WATCHED FILMS THIS YEAR
- YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL
- TRUE ROMANCE
- NOTES ON A SCANDAL