But what I really want to do is direct.
It’s something we hear so often in the film and TV industry that it’s almost comical. Becoming a director is not easy. It’s one of the most sought after jobs in the world.
So how do you become a film director? Directors are often hired not only based on their abilities but on the financial successes of their previous films. This leads to a common catch 22- how can I get the chance to direct a well-funded film if a prerequisite is to have directed a successful, well-funded film?
So really, your main obstacle to becoming a director is getting your first shot. There are 2 main ways to do it: Get enough attention for independent projects you’ve directed OR work your way up in studio film.
The Indie Darling
15 years ago, there was only one strategy as an indie director with dreams of making a major motion picture. You made an indie film and tried to get it in all the best film festivals, hoping it would be seen by someone with enough juice to get you a meeting at a studio. Now, there are many more ways to get the kind of attention you need to break into the big leagues.
Film festivals still have their place, but online platforms like YouTube, Patreon, Twitch, and other forms of social media have created the opportunity to build an audience. Even if you’re not creating exactly the type of content you’d like to eventually direct, having a sizable following on one of these platforms can be a compelling indicator to studio execs that you know how to give an audience what they’re looking for.
Alternatively, you can start working in studio film at an entry level, often as a production assistant. The hours are long, the work hard, the respect non-existant, but you’ll have an inside track to get in front of the right people when the time comes. Virtually every PA wants to be a director so you’ll need to climb the ladder before you start pitching ideas to everyone who is trapped in an elevator with you. The roles that are most often able to transition to director are Director of Photography and Assistant Director. The DP runs the camera department, so this role requires exceptional talent behind the camera. And although ADs (which are numbered based on their position- 1st, 2nd, etc) share a similar title as a director, the work they do is much different, running the set and corralling cast and crew rather than making creative decisions.
Even as a 1st AD with the ear of the right people, you’ll need an impressive reel of directed work. This means you’ll be heading into the murky waters of indie film regardless. But in this scenario, you’ll have the benefit of having worked on major productions and learning from skilled, successful directors.
Regardless of how you get there, you’ll want to be successful once you start directing. These roles, even undertaken at non-professional level, will help give you a good foundation as a director.
Directors don’t have to be great actors (and if Quentin Tarantino is any indication, they aren’t) but it helps to spend some time acting, even if at a community theater level. One of the most important tasks of a director is to get a good performance out of talent and acting is an extremely difficult and often emotional endeavor. Much how a tattoo artist should have at least 1 tattoo, experiencing what an actor goes through when taking on a role is essential for directors to coach a performance out of their cast.
“Casting is 60% of directing.” The quote is attributed to any number of people and the percentage changes all the time, but it still rings quite true. With the right actor in a role, a director’s job can be much easier. The job of finding that actor is not as easy or straightforward as it might appear, so plenty of experience with casting can aid in that search.
Before you start driving you need to know the destination. For a director to have a clear vision, they need to know what they want a finished product to look like. For them to know how footage will work as a whole, they need to know how it pieces together. For a director to understand how best to direct, they need to know how to edit.
Be prepared for a difficult climb. Director is the place that virtually everyone in the, already very competitive, film industry wants to end up. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible, just don’t get discouraged when you can’t just stroll onto a set and take over.