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16 directors, from Sam Raimi to Rian Johnson, reveal the best creative advice they've received
Thanks to cheap and accessible technology, pretty much anyone with an idea (and preferably a friend or two) can go and make a movie. Cinema has always been a constantly evolving form, with its changes so often driven by fresh young filmmakers who have no ties or loyalty to its past. New tools, from handheld cameras in the '70s to iPhones today, only expedite those transformations. But even the most avant-garde and trailblazing directors have looked to their predecessors for a bit of advice here and there, because making movies is equal parts artistry and disaster management.
Here's a more cinematic metaphor: Directing a film is like being the captain of a ship headed into uncharted waters, with a brand-new crew that can include some very temperamental and enigmatic sailors. Any and all advice is precious, whether you're looking to the stars for navigation or trying to navigate movie stars.
And so over the course of the past two years, during interviews with some of our favorite filmmakers, we at SYFY WIRE have picked their brains for the best creative advice they've ever received, looking for the kind of insights that have informed their careers. We'll continue to update this page as we get to collect more anecdotes.
Working With Actors and Other Practical Matters
When you're on set, projecting confidence is key, no matter how terrified you may feel. These pearls of wisdom from directors about the practicalities of filmmaking and working with actors should help you feel a little bit less terrified.
I went to a screening at The Egyptian, it was a series of screenings, and they screened the original Poseidon Adventure and Scrooge. It was a retrospective of this British director, Ronald Neame. He worked with Alec Guinness a number of times. He was telling a story about Alec Guinness and the first time he worked with him. He had always admired and respected him, and now he was directing him. He was loving his performance, and he saw Alec Guinness over there and he had a weird look on his face.
He came up to him and said, "What's wrong?" And Guinness was like, "You know, you're not praising me enough." He said, "Are you serious? You're Alec Guinness, I didn't feel like I had to praise you. You clearly know what you're doing." Guinness said, "My boy, if you expect to have a career making movies there's one thing you have to remember: All actors are 12-year-olds at heart, and they have to be praised." Then he walked away.
It was amazing, because at the time Ronald Neame, he was in his 90s when he was doing this thing. I was like, "Huh. I'm going to remember that." I think it's true. (Full interview here)
Roger Corman gave me a piece of advice that he gave to everybody who works for him. He'd always take you out before you started shooting and he would give you a little tutorial about what to do and how to do it. His first piece of advice, most important, was sit down a lot, because it's a difficult job. So I took that advice, but I realized the movie was so cheap that I was making, there were no chairs.
It was always practical advice. It was never aesthetic advice. His aesthetic advice was something like, figure out how long it takes to make it great, and then figure how long it takes to make it good, and then figure out how long it takes to get an image. And then go for the image.
Yeah, it's nice to be a perfectionist when you have the time and money, but you know, for most people making films they don't have the time or money, and certainly not with television. On the other hand, you can't just say "Okay, we're done here" when it's not right. You've got to have some sort of level, like "Okay, it's got to be at least this good if we're going to move on." (Full interview here)
The best advice I ever got was to get plenty of coverage. It was from a guy called Alan Clarke, a great director who suddenly passed away at the age of 55, a great loss. He was a very radical director and to get that kind of advice, which feels like very conservative and traditional advice from a very radical director, tells you to make sure you got your back covered. Because radicalism, which everyone enjoys, has to be soundly based. You can be as radical as you want, provided you've got the footage.
That's the best advice I've ever had. Get plenty of coverage. Don't not do that last shot just because everyone's rolling their eyes and wants to go home, which is a thing you get with crews sometimes. Get that extra shot. Be charming or be horrible, but get the shot, because when you're in editing, that's when you'll need it. (Full interview here)
Push Yourself and the Scene
Filmmaking is a race against the clock. There's never enough time to get everything done on set, and as Boyle alluded to, you should do whatever you can to squeeze out every last shot. But it's not just about getting coverage — even if you have your shot list checked off, you should always be trying to one-up yourself (without abusing the crew, of course).
Reed Morano (The Handmaid's Tale, I Think We're Alone Now):
I think the best creative tip I ever received was to never be satisfied when you think about a movie. There have been many great pieces of advice I've received over the years, but it's "don't be satisfied." Once you've cut something together, it's good to take it apart ... Something I think about when I'm in the edit is whether this scene is everything it could be, or am I just clunking it down the way that it was written in the script?
It's just something I think about. I would say it's something I learned myself; sometimes you are editing movies so fast you go through it and you're like, "OK, that scene works, just leave it there," and then you realize, if you go through it enough times, you're like, "You know what, this scene is simply performing the function of telling us some kind of exposition." You've got to think, "How can I make every moment of the movie be exciting?"
I just think you have to always think as a filmmaker in order to challenge yourself, you can't just accept what's written on the page, you always have to think, "How can I elevate this thing?" That actually is something we said to each other on Handmaid's Tale. (Full interview here)
I remember when I was at AFI, I had an instructor, Peter Markham, who I really admired, who said that all films should be mischievous, and I remember that really resonating with me.
And then I remember there was one scene that I had shot for a short film for school. And it was a suspense scene and I was drawing out the suspense for what I thought was like an interminable amount of time, and then some payoff came, and he pushed me, saying, "You could have drawn that out further." And that was a very big moment for me, because I find that whenever I'm like developing something, I'll ask myself, could I push this any further? (Full interview here)
Be true to yourself, that's an old favorite. Patience is the most useful one. I'm very lucky. From the beginning, I've only done what I really wanted to do and believed in. I was always the one giving the good advice, and that was saying no to all of the things I didn't have control over.
And, also, I like being surprised by other people's better ideas. It's not about an ego that says, "My way is the only way." That's tedious and boring. (Full interview here)
I had the opportunity to watch the great Richard Donner direct. It was on the set of The Goonies, I got invited down for the day. He's a brilliant director and I learned through watching him how collaborative he was, what a great response he got from actors by listening, taking the right ideas and developing them, hearing ideas that weren't right and explaining why they weren't, and refining the vision for everyone involved as to what they were after.
I saw that collaboration and I really wasn't like that at the time, and I thought, "This is how you really get something great." You don't have to be afraid, you don't have to stick to your storyboards and only do your vision. You can have that but still be open to other ideas and improve your vision. You really want to surround yourself with a great team of actors and crew. You make your picture better through collaboration, and he showed me how to have the courage to do that. (Full interview here)
Nicole Kassell (Watchmen, The Leftovers):
The first thing that pops to mind is actually hearing an interview that was done with James Schamus. I was listening to it on the radio or a podcast. He talked about how you're raised or told to do what you love, but actually you really need to also know and be able to do what you don't love in order to do the part that you love. And so it spoke to work ethic. He was talking as a producer, like, yeah, he doesn't love negotiating nudity riders, but he loves producing, so there's the grunt work that goes to it.
So I think what I'm saying is there's nothing like directing to me. I love it. I'm passionate about what happens when you're on set. There's a lot of hard work or stuff around it that is not all ... I don't love everything about it, but you do the work to do what you love. (Full interview here)
Jake Kasdan (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story):
I think the thing I was trying to figure out is, how real can you make the thing? How do you learn to relax and letting something be almost documentary real, even when it's in the context of something very stylized and broad: I think probably the best creative tip I ever got about it was, you're best off to think in terms of trying to find the voice that sounds authentically like yourself. And I don't mean dialogue voice, I mean that sort of sensibility that feels authentically like yourself, in the midst of all different genres. It has a tendency to eliminate ways that you can make them better than your own.
As I was getting ready to do my first movie, a lot of people told me that. I would get different versions of that same sort of thought from all of the really smart directors that I was talking to. Everyone has different ways of thinking about those issues, but that's the unifying theme: Find the part that is you in any different kind of story. And that's what you're hanging on. (Full interview here)
Passion, Persistence, and Getting Started
Advice about how to handle yourself onset is only useful if and when you actually get there. There is no one way to break into Hollywood, but as the filmmakers below learned, there are generally no shortcuts.
I wrote Brick right out of college and spent years trying to get it made. Steve Yedlin, my DP, and I were trying to figure out how to get it made. Should we make a short that's about Brick? Can we cut a trailer together for it or something? We were thinking strategy and had our heads totally encased in trying to get money to make this movie and a friend of mine finally said, "Man, it's been a while since you just made something."
So I just started making some shorts just for fun, with no idea how they would apply to my career or if they would help me professionally at all. I did them just because they were something that I wanted to see done. That was the best thing I could have possibly done.
That's the best advice I've ever gotten: Just make stuff for the joy of making stuff. Don't put the cart before the horse in terms of thinking, "How do I break into the industry? How do I make a career? How do I get to the next step?" All of that stuff will follow if you just get better at forming your voice and keep making stuff that you love. (Full interview here)
I think the best advice I ever got was for those people really at the start of their careers. Find people who are as passionate about filmmaking as you, that complement what you want to do. So if you want to be a director, you find someone as passionate about editing, or as passionate about lighting, or as passionate about acting. If you can team up with them, it just gives you so much more momentum to get things done.
Especially if you're working on the very low-budget side of things and you're trying to put together a short film or even a very low-budget feature. I think if you can find just a small team, it makes people take you more seriously, and it gives you much more chance of trying to do it, as opposed to trying to do it on your own. (Full interview here)
My old boss, Fred Seibert, used to tell me to have meetings with people, people I didn't know, and don't pitch them. I was a young kid; I was like, that's crazy. What are we going to talk about? We can't just sit there. Basically, the point he was making is you get to know these people because they have to entrust you with all this money to make something, and so they have to know your character.
So I started having these connections, and it really worked. I've held that tip and I've been doing it ever since, and keeping in contact with not just artists but also executives and people that ... and that when I have a meeting, I don't necessarily pitch anything. We're just kind of catching up and seeing what's what. (Full interview here)
The best single piece of advice I ever got was in my brief tenure at my USC film school before I dropped out. I had a writing teacher who told us when we wrote a spec script and sent it out to producers, to put a grid on the back of the script — because back then you physically sent the script to people — and every time it came back rejected, put a checkmark in the grid. And when the grid fills up with checkmarks, you'll finally sell the script. And what he meant by that was that every rejection would bring you one step closer to finding the person who was going to buy it.
Really what he meant by that was that failure isn't getting the rejection. Just put the checkmark, "That's okay, I got rejected." Failure's not getting back up, we all get knocked down in the business in every form. When you do something creative and put it out there, you expose yourself to criticism and rejection. Even as successful as I am, I get rejection all the time. (Full interview here)
David Ayer (Training Day, End of Watch, Suicide Squad):
Chair time. You just have to sit down and put the work in. Too many people talk about writing. You always see around L.A. people sitting in Starbucks with Final Draft, pecking away. Writing is just lonely, brutal, dirty work, and there's no way around it. You have to sit in that chair and stare at that blank page. My mentor Wesley Strick really taught me screenwriting. (Full interview here)
This agent once told me that you have to write your way into the movie business. No one's going to let you direct, so you have to write your way in with ideas. And that was good then and it worked. (Full interview here)
Eli Craig (Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Little Evil):
I had this small role in this Clint Eastwood film called Space Cowboys. It was right when I was trying to figure out — I knew I was a decent writer but I really wanted to be directing my own stuff. I just didn't know what the next step was. I really wanted to just be hired to direct my script, but nobody would do that because I didn't have enough stuff behind it to show, other than my little short horror comedies made when I was 9 years old.
I would always watch what Clint Eastwood was doing. I had this moment to be on set with this legend. I was sitting next to him at video village. I don't think he even noticed I was there. I was watching when they were shooting something else in the monitors and just watching him.
Finally, he looked over at me and I just had this moment. He started talking to me and he said, "What do you really want to do?" I said, "You know what I really want to do? I want to figure out how to direct my own stuff." Clint looks at me and he kind of pulls his shades down, he goes, "You want to be a director?" I was like, "Uh-huh." He was like, "Then go be a director." Then he put his shades back on and called "Action."
I went off and did this documentary. I directed that, which kind of went nowhere, but it propelled me to apply to graduate film school at USC. I was like, okay, at least then I'll have the opportunity to have a lot of debt and to play around and direct stuff. I think it was the "just do it" moment. Just go do it, if that's what you want to do. And I followed his advice. (Full interview here)
Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Captive State):
Keep doing it. Sounds silly, but just keep at it. I think I spent 15 years, from the age of 20 to 35, actively trying to make my first feature film. I failed endlessly, or was rejected endlessly, and found a way through odd jobs, and being a bike courier, and making sandwiches in a bar, and a bartender, and various things, to sort of get by, but I refused to take other career work or explore other career work with this notion that one day, I'll get my film off the ground.
It was just the very fact that I stuck at it that it finally happened. It wasn't any degree of talent, or anything like that. It's all about putting yourself in a position where people eventually can't say no. (Full interview here)
With additional reporting by Adam Swiderski, Dana Forsythe, Tony Timpone, Eric Vespe, and Todd Gilchrist.