How to be a screenwriter


So you want to direct movies?

I noticed that a lot of people were coming to my site by Googling “How to direct a movie!” so I thought I should actually write something here on the subject of how to be a director, which is the first thing you need to be if you are to direct. The following will explain what I mean.

I also decide that when talking about how to direct a movie I should use a lot of exclamation marks! In fact, I believe that the exclamation mark is the only punctuation that represents in a nutshell everything you need to know about directing! After about ten minutes on set, after spending months of preparation, your entire state of mind and being with be exemplified by.... !!!!!!
The first lesson then is, be careful who you take a lesson from!
Now I don’t want to decry my talents as a director, but I’ve been a screenwriter far too many years to worry about what I am going to do when I grow up, and have only just managed to start directing anything. I got fed up writing and doctoring stuff nobody made, and suddenly realized how much a decent camera costs nowadays. Once you have a professional camera in hand and learn which end is the front and which the back, you realize that all you need are some actors and you can make a movie.

You can even make movies with crap cameras. In fact, you can also enthrall an audience with nothing more than a sock puppet and a lot of imagination. But for reasons not unrelated to greed and self-importance, working at a level with absolutely no chance of hitting the big time, never appealed to me.  But there is a time and a place for the camcorder, as I shall explain later on. Bearing in mind then that nobody tells the director how to direct his movie, read on.
The second lesson is, in order to direct a movie you have to be a director!
Are you a director or just a guy who wants to tell stories? I hear people saying, as they blithely tell me they are going to find a couple of million dollars to make a film, how they are not doing it for the money but merely want to tell good stories. If that is all you want to do, get the sock puppet out and go stand on a street corner entertaining people. But once you start thinking about telling a story that requires a lot of other people bending to your will, you usually have to start paying them and that means borrowing the money from someone who will want it back one day, and that opens up a whole can of very wriggly worms. Most of whom are not concerned with telling any story and least of all, your artistic integrity.

Either you pay that debt out of your day job, or by selling your product. And if you want to get into the cinemas and on the TV, you are going to have to have a product made to a professional standard. This means using trained actors and technicians who depend on this for a livelihood. The last thing they want to work with is an idiot, especially an idiot who cannot pay them.  In short, they want to work with a director not a story teller. They want to work with someone who relishes the power and the responsibility, who relishes maneuvering what is an industrial enterprise into an economically viable position. They want someone who makes sure everyone gets a pay day and has a career!

Remember that camcorder I dismissed as small time? Well that is where you start: small time. For that matter, getting hold of the sock puppet and trying to provide just ten minutes of entertainment with that crude tool might be a good place to start your training.  Do not worry. Greed and self-importance will come in time and you’ll want to upgrade soon enough. In the mean time find something special to do with whatever crude tools you can muster and work the imagination, and then you will begin the road to becoming a director. But remember that being a story teller is but one aspect of the equation. One might say that being an awesome bullshitter is more important, though perhaps that's the domain of the producer!
The third lesson is, know thyself, or at least know your situation.
So despite my acquisition of some professional level equipment and relatively high skill levels as cameraman, editor, musician, driver and caterer, I know that my “let’s do the show right here” attitude can only produce a certain level of product. I need to be able to command a couple of million dollars, at least, of investment. Which means I need a commercial proposition for independent investors, and/or access to some soft funding, i.e. government or arts foundations, that back what is considered artistically valid with no obvious commercial outlet.

In my own case I have no access to government funding. I am not a UK resident, which somewhat limits my ability to claim that I am using UK facilities and furthering UK cultural development, and I am not Chinese, which limits my ability to apply for Hong Kong’s meagre support. I am also of an age where I cannot expect a long and creative career ahead of me if only someone gives me the support and encouragement at this crucial stage of my development. Life being what it is, missing your moment where youthful exuberance is at a premium, does not make it easier to plead your case later on.  So my reality is that I have to work out how to give an investor a good return on their investment. If one can make money for someone, they do not care how old you are or, for that matter, how ugly and stupid you may well be. And so I have to prove myself through making small sample works at as high a standard as possible and put those forward as part of my presentation to gain investors. Scripts I can do, but attaching myself as director isn’t necessarily a deal maker, and unfortunately more likely a deal breaker!

To overcome the prejudice and the very real concern for my lack of track record, this takes a lot of scheming, a lot of work, and a lot of subjecting myself to the sort of criticism that I have not tolerated for thirty odd years as a screenwriter.  I am, the oldest film student in the business! This is my situation, my problem, and also my solution. I'm a curiosity! Im milking it for all its worth. It's the reason I do not hide my juvenilia, the reason I am so open on my blogs, on my Facebook page, on my twitter account. The world likes to think that there is always hope for you and age is no barrier. I am the nice guy who through integrity, grit, determination, happy thoughts, humour... boy do I milk my humour!!! In short, I want people to want me to succeed and want to take a look at whatever mildly amusing, underfunded, dreck I can conjure up out of nothing more than hot air and sleight of hand. I want them to say, if he can do that with nothing, just think what he might do with something!

Luckily I'm a smart arse who knows how to do most things on a film set. And if nothing else, I can write. So I am writing what can be made on the small scale, positioning myself in that market as producer or director, with the intention of scaling up on the back of scripts I would normally put onto the open market as commercial vehicles, but when the time is right attach myself as director and not capitulate on this point in negotiations. And, well, the strategy has worked. It worked a little slower than I had hoped it would work but I shot a bunch of shorts and then grabbed an opportunity to direct a feature. And I grabbed it!!! It could so easily have been taken away from me or offered elsewhere. The obstacles I encountered just kept on coming but I hunkered down and refused to let them defeat me. If you don't have the budget for your movie, you pay with your sanity! But now I have a feature film to my name. And that means I am a director. I am also a producer and a writer. I've got the full kit.

Now I'm rocking and rolling! I might direct movies like no other director directs movies, but hell, the director can direct however he damn well likes. That's what being a director is. Remember that? Always remember that!
The fourth lesson is, remember what the first and second lessons were?
My strategies as a director, and the decisions I make at all points in the directing process, have a lot to do with my situation and my experience, and are not necessarily to be copied by anyone else. I am playing the indie-film production game that appears feasible here in Hong Kong. There may be easier and better options for you in your region, at your level of experience, and at your age.

If you are a teenager, I would say grab a cheap HD camera and get a few friends together and have fun. You are the director and the director can direct any way they damn well please and if the result is entertaining and you had fun, then there you go, mission accomplished! And there is nothing an old fart like me can tell you. And if there was, you do not deserve to be a teenager and should hand your youth over to me right now as I know exactly what to do with it.

If, callow youth that you are, you want to take this further, then whatever you did, you just do more of it and begin the process of scaling up and professionalizing. Which means you now are looking for show reel material to get yourself into a decent film school, maybe win some prizes, or even skip school and start getting agents interested in you. You can finance yourself making adverts, music videos and TV shows while you piece together the finance for that breakthrough feature. I say, while you are making adverts, music videos and TV shows, but that does not mean you will be directing them but rather working on them in various assistant capacities. The apprentice system operates in this field and there is nothing quite as useful at breaking you into the realities of production that simply working on professional shoots even as a lowly runner. Welcome to that scramble up the muddy slope we call life.

What you will find in this process of developing your own projects, working on other peoples, and taking courses, where your own special methods, own attitudes, own network of collaborators, own tortuous career path, lends a unique flavour to your work, is that you will learn the professional process and how to work within a complicated industry with a lot of complicated technological requirements as well as political and artistic issues.
The fifth lesson is, to be a director you probably have to be a producer and a writer!
You will, on googling “How To Direct”, discover a lot of obvious information.  Information like: You need a script! Well, maybe… and I’m a scriptwriter saying this. But if you’re the writer and director, you can always write with the camera. It some times works. Some times it doesn’t. But you are the director, you can do whatever you damn well please as long as you can afford it.

Either way though, you need a plan! You need to schedule your shoot so that everyone knows where to be and what they should be doing. You need to plan to have the right equipment at the right place. You need to make sure there are toilets available, transportation, and food. And you need to have the time to shoot the film in a way that it edits together and tells the story.

You could get someone else to deal with all the practical stuff and you, as the “director”, can concentrate on directing the actors and telling the cameraman which shot to take.  Here is the basic method of shooting: you establish the what, where, how of a situation with a wide angle of some sort, and then cut into the action to show details and reactions. You then create transitions that continue the action, or contrast it, to take us to the next beat of the story.  Big action stories require some big open vistas whereas more chatty character pieces tend to avoid the big wide angle and use more mid shots to establish situations. All films go for close ups and some times really big close ups showing the hairs in the nostrils and on the back of the hands. Though you’ll find that comedy tends not to do that, despite it being funny, and big Epics some time focus on extreme close ups as well as extreme wide angles with huge focal depth.

You got all that? You knew it anyway didn’t you? You watch movies. You watch TV. You know this stuff instinctually, though perhaps not the distinction between styles and genres and all the nuances.  And Scorsese just sticks the camera on a crane and takes the whole scene in one swoop. Now what’s that all about? Apart from being pure genius.

You get the point? Most of this stuff you know and every director is different, and what counts is practice! And to get the practice in you need to be your own producer, writer, location scout, caterer and even actor. Or you throw money around until the police come and escort your from your home while the bailiffs move in.
The sixth lesson is, do anything you like as long as you know what it is all about.
It pays to become a bit of a movie buff, though not so you lose sight of the general audience reaction.  You need to analyse and look at how scenes are put together. You need to read up on what critics tell you about their meaning. This is film school stuff, and despite everyone having a low opinion of film school, especially since you do not need to know anything to be a great director, there is some use for this. Knowledge is no handicap. Just don’t let it kill your enthusiasm, because then you will lose the one thing you have to have!

And what was that about not losing sight of the general audience reaction? Film buffs often love boring movies. They love them because the photography is great, the camera angles innovative and cut together in fascinating ways. They forget that the point of all this is to portray something funny or dramatic. Remember the sock puppet? If a film isn’t more entertaining than a sock puppet some one is going to want their money back. You’ve watched a Wong Kar Wai film? Twenty minutes in, one sort of gets it and starts thinking about pizza. Genius no doubt, but for me he’s selling pizza and a curious respect for Chris Doyle, his cameraman, over and above the director. But Wong gives good festival presence and does the business side of things, so falls in with my definition of a director even if his films seem to me like parodies of what used to be known as Art House movies. He has worked his career well and knows his product, knows his audience, knows how to add value to his reputation and thus finances, and make his art work for him. I still find the films dull and they still don't appeal to the mass audience. 

It is a great mistake to think that if the mass audience do not like your work and your work is photographed beautifully and comprises of moody actors and lots of peeling paintwork, that it is somehow a work of genius. There is always the possibility that it is just dull and derivative of past Art House successes. In this creative arena you have to be different, very different, and still coherent. Your genius may well be in the presentation of the work rather than the work itself which, as I hope I am making clear, is part of the director's job and in some cases might be the dominant part. Whatever you got, work it for all its worth!
The seventh lesson is, remember what I said about nobody wanting to work with an idiot?
Dealing with actors is one of the hardest parts of directing. It is usually recommended that you have some idea about the actors’ process, though actors all have their own and some of it can be pretty loopy. But if you cast them, you usually cast them because you thought they could do the job. So whatever it is that they do, you have to work it into the process, even when it becomes irritating and time consuming. Actors are always skirting with the danger of making fools of themselves and so they like to protect themselves. When the director starts making difficult demands they will try to bring the situation back to something they are familiar with and know will work.  This, we call “resistance” and blithely assume it to be a bad thing and that the director has to overcome it.

If you are David Lynch and you make a difficult demand, the actor will think perhaps he should try it. He hopes it will extend his or her range and create a new depth of performance.  But if you, the idiot, make a difficult demand, there is a good chance that it is stupid and will do nobody any good and the resistance is justified! All of which means, that the director must know the script in depth and cast the right people and be aware that he or she is an idiot until proven otherwise.

Getting to know a script and the actors thoroughly enough is not always that easy. It would be nice to rehearse but rehearsals are not always extensive on a film because shooting the rehearsal can be just as effective as waiting for the rehearsals to get it right. Often rehearsals come up with something that cannot be replicated. Unlike directing for the theatre stage you are not creating a perfectly oiled machine that can repeat itself over and over every night. You are looking for the one take that says it all, and that some times can be the first ever encounter with the script and the location that the actor has.  The actor thus has to trust that at least the director knows what is going on and can recognize gold when he sees it and the director often has to do a lot of thinking on their feet and pretend that they know what is going on.

The secret of thinking well on your feet is to eliminate as many uncertainties as possible before the event. Apart from really understanding a script, understanding the actors is a must and many directors believe that casting is the most important part of directing. If you watch what the actors have done before, then you go and cast them to bring that to the role. Star actors often bring a whole baggage of expectations to a set and must live up to them. The star’s job does not end on the film set; they have to cultivate their brand in between jobs. A director that does not understand this and wants the star to act outside of the parameters of their stardom will be thought to be an asshole. If stars think you are an asshole, you are in serious trouble and your director status may well slip back down to idiot again.

Luckily you probably wont have to face a star until you’ve made someone a star.  The character actors that never get into Hello Magazine are often relegated to secondary positions where versatility might be useful, but it won’t make them a star. But if you see something in them that can, with the right script, make them an icon, then even if your skills on set are a bit shaky, the end result might well make your career. Now you’re the idiot who cast Schwarzenegger!  Nobody will ever call you an idiot ever again, except the screenwriter, but that is a whole different story... Who was the guy who made Schwarzenegger a star? Some dick head who once got sacked by Roger Corman, and worked on dumb moves like Piranha, and once hired a camera to shoot a short and spent half the time dismantling the camera to work out how to get it running…  I remember his name now - James Cameron! I believe he’s been doing quite well recently.

Why is James Cameron a big shot director? Is he a great writer? Hmm... is he a director who coaxes extraordinary performances out of his actors? Hmm... Is he a maker of movies that film buffs love? Hmm... is he noted for his tact, smooth dealing with press and critics, and easy relationships with people? Hell, he's been divorced five times! But is he the maker of some of the movies that everyone else in the whole world loves and will go down in movie history as the most successful films ever made in the whole history of the universe? D'uh, yeah! He came through the ranks and saw the big picture, literally! 

Some one once told me I was not arrogant enough to be a director. Well, I like to compare myself with James Cameron. I think that's pretty arrogant of me. And I can be an arsehole, a self-centred narcissist, deluded into thinking that his chaotic directorial style produces fresh and surprising performances rather than images of actors in a state of fear. I can also be thoroughly distracted and full of gloomy thoughts at the sheer awfulness of the brand of self-centred egotistical humanity one unfortunately has to deal with in the film industry. But hey, in the end, I get them on my hard-drive and do whatever I please with them. All power comes back to me in the end, no matter how loose my reigns are during the process.

Remember, as ever, the director directs how he can. And if the results work, next time he will have better resources, more power, and the ability to screw up on a much larger scale. If that does not worry you one jot, then you will probably do fine.

Lesson eight is, reach for the stars.
How one spots a star before anyone else and thus takes him or her out of your league is a mystery. But looks and controversy are good for the movies. Good looks pop out of the screen. You need actors who know how to make themselves look good, who know where the light is, know their best angles, know how a twitch on their face can read in close up. It does not matter if they are not able to deliver long complicated speeches. In the movies the visuals dominate.  Did I mention that the career of a certain Mr. Schwarzenegger is worth studying?

Come on, admit it, would you have cast him in anything? I mean, I’m a screenwriter. I want people who can act, who can make my dialogue sing, and who can move gracefully spreading wisdom and enlightenment through their presentation of my grand vision.  The director phones me up and says, Larry, you have to take all that dialogue out. I got this guy who can’t walk, can’t talk, but the camera loves him! The press loves him! The make-up girls complain about him screwing around with them, but hey, he’s a big guy with big needs and already the media are gossiping about him...  And at this point I’m screaming and the director is talking about getting another writer in if I won’t do what’s necessary.

You would have done Schwarzenegger a disfavour casting him in a film version of Hamlet, but casting him as a monosyllabic robot… 

Now that’s directing! 

And so is making sure that the script has a part that takes best advantage of Arnie’s peculiar charisma, even if it means pissing the writer off.

Of course having someone who thinks they are a star, thinks they know the angles, thinks they know how to best light themselves, and so on, but are complete idiots and get it all wrong, is not uncommon.  But then so are stupid directors, bad lighting cameramen, idiot costume artists, moronic makeup guys, etc etc. Idiocy and stupidity know no barriers especially in the film industry, and that is why there are very few people on the A list. When making a decision you should always ask yourself, is this the idiot talking or the director?

When a successful film is made, the director sticks with his team and often sticks with the actors he knows made it a success. They also stick with the writers they know they can work with, some times to the detriment of the script that the producer hired them to direct! But that’s another story, and also another incentive for a screenwriter to turn to directing. Then you become a director and realize all screenwriters are pains in the neck. As a screenwriter, of course, it is my job to be a pain in the neck and punch directors. And as a director, I have to take the punches. One hopes that the idiot gets knocked out and not the director.
Lesson nine, be loyal to those who make you look good.
Trust is very easily lost on a film set and everyone working to their highest capabilities without upsetting command structures, fragile egos, time schedules or budget limits, is the only way to make anything that stands the scrutiny of people who have paid to watch it.

The director must be a team leader not an hysterical bully, a moody prima-donna, or a wild egomaniac making impossible demands. Humility and confidence can go a long way to attract good people to work with you. Though often money does the attracting and this is where life gets unfair because lots of movies get made with everyone at each others throat and everyone swearing they will never work with each other ever again, until the next time. Even rubbish projects can bring the same unsuited team together again and again if money has been raised! Rubbish films on which everyone had a bad time, happen over and over again despite everyone knowing better. What a miserable way of making a living! 

The fact is that a good proportion of people on set are biding their time before they get their film project together and become directors. They are looking for a million and one reasons to be in your shoes, and can spend a lot of energy undermining you and proving that you are an idiot. If you find a nice team and everyone is happy doing their thing, you are a lucky director, but only if the team is successful. If not, then they are bunch of assholes who dragged you down to their level.

Some times the film is so so but everyone had a good time making it. And some times the film is great and everyone hated every moment. Your aim is to have it both ways, and then stay with the people who made it that way. But...

Lesson ten, just accept that not everything works the way it should.
Remember the first lesson? Be careful who you take lessons from. Some directors are your kind of directors and you can learn from them. Others do stuff that if you tried, would be a disaster. And most directors are mediocre so not exactly great role models. The advice about how to direct that you get on web sites is probably not from great directors and the great directors often give bad advice! So my opinion here is probably no better and no worse than anyone else’s. It would certainly be worse if I, of no great achievement, outlined a method of directing. On the other hand, what I am doing nowadays might be bottled and sold as Hollywood’s Secret Success Formula. Google it up! I am sure there are plenty of people selling you something like that for a hundred dollars a pop.  But until I get my Oscar, keep your money in your pocket, and heed my advice to find your way through the doing and the studying of film and video, and through the developing of relationships and self knowledge. There is no quick fix and just sticking people in front of a camera, shooting it and cutting it together, is only part of the equation. 

Hitchcock for reasons that I never understood, is held in far higher esteem than I hold any of his movies, though I do find it endearing that he got his rocks off torturing women by throwing birds at them. He did however say some things about directing that are worth paraphrasing. Essentially he said that you write the script, add the dialogue, then once the interesting bit has been done, you have to shoot the damn thing. Apart from it being worth considering in depth that distinction between writing the script and adding the dialogue, it is also worth considering how he found the shoot tedious and actors an inconvenience. The point I am reiterating here is that directing is not just about standing on set shouting action, nor about concerning yourself with directing the actors, nor even just about the one project in front of you, it is about being a director. It is about taking the broad view and the narrow view, about developing lots of film and TV projects, and looking for front of camera talent, and technical virtuosity. It is about writing scripts, working with writers, and sitting down for meetings with financiers and producers. It is about engaging with public taste and developing changes in that taste. It is about having sophisticated opinions and viewpoints, and placing your creative ideas within an acceptable context. And it is about fighting battles with censors, financial backers, creatives of differing visions, and still coming up smiling.

How do you direct a movie? You have to know what you’ve got, know what you need, and know what you want! The rest is up to you. In short, you just buy a camera and go do it anyway you damn well like because you’re the director! 

Or the idiot... NO! Today, you are the director! 
What's he doing? He's wanting to do what? 
Did you see the costume he wants me to wear?
I'm not going to crawl through that shit! 
If he expects me to kiss that guy... 
Hell, he's taken my best line out of the script... 
No, you cannot blow that car up here, you'll kill someone... 
It's after five o'clock, everyone's on overtime!