5 Lessons that Will Make You a More Effective Film Director"The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it."
What would you learn about filmmaking if you sat down with legendary directors JJ Abrams, Alfonso Cuarón, and Joss Whedon?
The Directors Series at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival featured in-depth discussions with top directors, including three of our favorites here at Lights Film School: JJ Abrams, Alfonso Cuarón, and Joss Whedon.
For reference, Abrams directed and co-wrote Star Wars: The Force Awakens and has been involved in numerous other features and television series including Lost, Alias, and Fringe. Cuarón is the mastermind behind 2013’s Gravity, which won him an Oscar for Best Directing, as well as Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También, to name only a few. Whedon co-wrote Toy Story, created hit television series including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and brought Marvel’s The Avengers to the screen.
Lights Film School set out to find commonalities in these three directors’ discussions – recurring themes that help paint a picture of what it’s actually like to be a professional film director and screenwriter, and how you can break into the industry and succeed.
Without further ado, here are five thematic highlights from Tribeca’s Abrams, Cuarón, and Whedon Directors Series. This is the best of the best of what was said, synthesized, organized, and presented by our team to help inspire and guide you in your filmmaking journey!
I. Get Started Now, Not Later – & Study, Study, Study
Abrams discovered his desire to direct when he was just eight years old. “I didn’t even know there were directors at eight,” Chris Rock, the panel moderator, joked.
Abrams recalled his childhood tour of Universal Studios, which introduced him to the concept of a film crew, as well as the time he spent on the sets of shows and movies his father produced. “So you got your ten thousand hours early,” Rock quipped. “I Gladwelled around nine, yup,” Abrams shot back, concluding with an admission of the advantage of early influence.
Whedon also benefited from early influence. “My parents were theatre geeks in a big way,” he shared. “My mom would rent a bunch of sixteen millimeter movies and throw them up on our living room wall. I got to see movies a lot, the same ones over and over and over, which is really the key. That’s the thing that makes you go, ‘I wonder how that’s done.'”
For Whedon, the “ah-hah!” moment came at age sixteen, after watching Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. “That said everything to me,” Whedon reflected. “Like, ‘Oh, somebody directed this.’ Right after that, I got Truffaut’s Hitchcock, which was the Bible and the best comic book I’d ever read at the same time.”
Although Whedon articulated his desire to direct eight years later than did Abrams, the desire was there from the beginning. “I wanted to make the movies,” he told his friend and panel moderator Mark Ruffalo. “A lot of writers become directors because they want to protect their material. [But] directing is the other half of storytelling, and what I’ve wanted to do – what I’ve only ever wanted to do – is tell stories.”
Meanwhile, in Mexico, a teenage Cuarón was hanging out with a teenage Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón’s panel moderator and the only person in history to win the Academy Award for Best Cinematography three times in a row. They spent a lot of time watching “foreign films” together at a maverick movie theatre operated by a priest. This taught them a lot about the craft, which Cuarón supplemented with books about cinematography and working with actors.
“I knew since I was six I wanted to be a film director,” Cuarón said. He followed his passion to film school, where he and Lubezki learned the history of cinema, made plenty of failed but interesting projects, and established their collaborative relationship.
At first, Cuarón worked as a cinematographer, with Lubezki as his gaffer. After film school, they did a stint as a sound mixer and boom operator duo – “for survival,” Cuarón clarified. Cuarón then worked as an Assistant Director on American productions shooting in Mexico, where he learned how to run a set. This prepared him for a position with more creative control.
“We started to work on a TV show,” Lubezki elaborated. “It was The Twilight Zone of Mexico. We called it The Toilet Zone. No budget; it was terrible.” Even so, it afforded the friends the opportunity to direct, write, and edit whatever they wanted, so long as they delivered on time and within budget.
Remember, especially when starting out, every production is a chance to build your understanding, skillsets, and relationships with fellow filmmakers, no matter what the scale.
II. How to Unlock the Potential of Creative Collaboration
Listening to all three directors, I was struck by the emphasis on collaboration. Lubezki has known and worked with Cuarón for years; Ruffalo played Hulk in Whedon’s The Avengers; Rock called on Abrams for help with The Oscars.
Simply put, people work with people they respect and appreciate. “What matters in film school is the generation that you meet,” Cuarón summarized. “You meet people that will become the people you work with,” said Lubezki – and of course, this can happen anywhere, be it on the job, at an industry mixer, or in a church or bar or cafe.
Not surprisingly, there are specific qualities that distinguish a worthy collaborator. “You want somebody who’s actually going to do the job,” Abrams said. “That’s true of every department… You don’t want to have someone where you’re spelling out what the thing should be in detail. You want to go into meetings when they’re doing something they love, that they’re great at, and they show you what they’ve done and you think, I never would have thought of that.” Rock invoked the necessity of professionalism, putting particular emphasis on punctuality.
Both men also stressed the virtue of kindness. “Treat others the way you want to be treated,” Abrams advised. “And I know that just sounds so stupid. But… there will be times it’ll get all crazy, and it all gets nuts… You want to know that you’re surrounded by people who are looking out for each other and are there for each other. No one should be there for any other reason than to make the movie. So when I’ve heard that there are people who are difficult, I’ve almost always said, ‘No.’ Kind of a life’s too short thing.”
However – if and when you encounter difficult people – “be a gentleman,” Rock cautioned. “You’re gonna have meetings with the same people for pretty much your whole career… They’re not going anywhere. They move to different companies, and it’s like, ‘Oh no, not you again…!'”
Whedon brought further nuance to the table. “I have enormous respect for divas,” he admitted. “They’re usually people who do something extraordinary, and know it, and show up… But really toxic people I avoid. I cast for sanity.”
For Whedon, there’s a difference between a diva and a toxic person. A diva is complicated, but there’s a simplicity to what they’re doing and why they’re there, whereas “truly toxic people are just about trying to tear something down… Those people have no business in my life, and as far as I’m concerned, in the industry.”
Of course, there’s also a difference between destructive and productive pushback. For example, Whedon shared that his longtime editor often challenges his ideas in post, but it always stems from a shared desire “to make the movie”, in Abrams’ words.
“You’re not a difficult guy at all,” Whedon joked with Ruffalo while discussing The Avengers, “But you and I were always looking for the truth… I think that’s what movies are. They’re not what I wrote. They’re not your feelings about your character. They’re the frisson that happens when you bring those things together. They’re the frisson that happens when a studio has an agenda, and you have a certain vision, and you have to meet in the middle. It’s that connection between people that is not just collaboration, but ultimately what the piece becomes… And that’s where it gets to be art. When you give yourself up to it.”
The next time you experience a creative conflict with someone, ask yourself: why are we in conflict? Is it because we’re both pursuing “the truth” of the project? Or is it because one of us is being competitive or power hungry?
The best collaborators – and by extension, the best filmmakers, since filmmaking is a collaborative medium – check their egos at the door.
To be a filmmaker is to be humble; it requires a sacrifice of self to the greater good of the film. “If I’m talking to somebody who in a different way is as close to the story as I am,” Whedon synthesized, “then it’s a conversation. If I’m talking to somebody who’s not actually talking about the story – who’s just being vain… It’s a different conversation.”
As Ruffalo observed, a movie is made three times: it’s made when it’s written, it’s made in production, and it’s made again in post. Remain open to your collaborators throughout the journey without losing sight of your vision, and you’ll be in good shape.
Sometimes, though, we need other people to help guide that vision – not only in context of a film’s creative decisions but also in context of life aspirations. Cuarón recalled scouting locations with Lubezki one afternoon while working on a TV show in Mexico:
“You said, what do you want to do after this, you want to direct soaps? I said, ‘Why’, and you said, ‘I see that you’re so committed here that maybe that’s your thing and that’s fine.’ But that completely shook my ground because, suddenly I realized, ‘Wow, I’m getting too comfy here.'”
“That’s important,” Lubzeki stressed. “There’s a level of honesty that can be brutal.”
“At the time I got offended,” Cuarón laughed, “But the reaction of that offense was to start writing a screenplay for a feature film… It’s the right comment coming from the right person at the right moment that turns everything in a different direction” – in other words, hard words from a true friend and creative collaborator.
Cuarón then recalled his first big directing gig in Los Angeles. Day One was a disaster, in part because Cuarón was afraid of the responsibility of being a director. “The next morning I remember driving there and thinking, ‘No, I don’t want to do this again, I don’t want to go back.'”
But Cuarón did go back, and as soon as he arrived, he was summoned by his actor, Alan Rickman. “I was terrified of Alan,” Cuarón admitted. “But I go to talk to Alan… and he gave me the most amazing pep talk: ‘I’m here for you, all the actors are here for you, we believe in you.'”
Alan was “looking for the truth”. Consequently, he helped Cuarón build the confidence – and humility – to do the same.
Ultimately, successful collaboration is about building a team you respect and trust that believes in the film as much as you do. Cuarón talked about trusting Lubezki with the technical details of digital filmmaking; Whedon discussed his weakness with lenses and alluded to the necessity of trusting his cinematographer; Abrams praised his Star Wars costume designer for having “a martial art of just doing it great.”
At heart, to be a filmmaker is to work well with others around a common cause.
III. How to Choose Your Creative Projects
However, working well with others does not mean unduly compromising your creative vision. “When you’re hiring a director,” Abrams shared, “You’re looking for someone who comes in with a vision, a passion, and sort of shows you the movie before it’s been made… You want someone who can collaborate, but not someone who’s a pushover.”
But from where does that vision come? How do you know what to write and direct?
Early on, Abrams made a living rewriting other people’s scripts. The money was good, but most of the projects weren’t getting made, and Abrams found himself wondering what he was doing. His wife reminded him of a simple but precious truth: you have to do what you care about.
“Really write the thing that you desperately care about,” Abrams urged, “Because if it’s true to you, and it’s authentic, and it resonates for you, it’s probably the best litmus test that it will for other people as well.”
He described a moment during the production of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, when the team was preparing to shoot the film’s ending on the island of Skellig Michael. A skeleton crew climbed 642 stairs to the top of a mountain, contending with the unpredictable Irish weather. Mark Hamill, the actor portraying Luke Skywalker, was uncertain about the scene – would withholding his appearance in the film until the final moments feel like a cheap trick?
Abrams was mulling this question over when he looked at Hamill and realized Hamill was the same age as Alec Guinness when he played Obi-Wan Kenobi. Following an instinct, Abrams turned to his phone and pulled up John Williams’ “Binary Sunset” cue. Listening to the music – watching Hamill portray Luke in his Jedi robes, fading in and out of the mist, the ocean spread out behind and below him – Abrams teared up and knew the ending would work. He trusted that if it moved him, it also would move the audience.
Said simply, in the words of Cuarón recalling Lubezki’s advice during the production of Great Expectations, “Always trust your first instincts”.
Whedon’s first instincts led him to write about power and helplessness. “Somebody being helpless, their journey to power is the narrative that sustains me, and I think a lot of it has to do with being very helpless and tiny and sort of, you know, I had terrifying older brothers and a terrifying father and mother,” he confided.
Whedon channels his own life when writing and directing, regardless of the scale of the production. For example, reflecting on Avengers: Age of Ultron, Whedon said he was given the opportunity to make “an absurdly personal movie – where I got to talk about how I feel about humanity and what it means – for hundreds of millions of dollars.” When approaching the character of Hulk, Whedon and Ruffalo looked inward, in search of what makes them “Hulk out” in their own lives. This was the springboard that launched the franchise’s unique take on Hulk’s character.
And yet, Whedon said he wasn’t aware of the extent to which Hulk was modeled on him. “Even though we came at it like how does this relate to us, I had no idea that I was writing about myself,” he shared. “And that happens about probably twenty-five percent of the time. Very clearly begging for help. No idea, sometimes until years later. Like it was about four years after the end of the run of Buffy that I really just went, ‘Oh! Oh. I was Buffy the whole time…’ I had this shocking moment of idiotic revelation that I’d been writing about myself the whole time.”
Whedon’s honest assessment of his creative process really resonated with me personally – writing can be a way to make sense of the world even as you’re sharing what you’re learning with others. “If you’re not writing about yourself, why are you writing,” Whedon mused. “If you’re setting out to make something that’s going to take three years of your life, why would you not want to tell people something that’s important to you to say? I don’t mean a moral. I just mean an examination of the human condition. You want to be able to talk about the politics of personality… And to me, if I can’t do that, if I can’t make that connection, then I’m wasting people’s time.”
Incidentally, this question of how to make something worthy of people’s time was also a driving force behind Abrams’ work on both Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the Star Trek movies. Good stories respect not only their audience’s intelligence, but also their audience’s time investment. In today’s media-saturated world, it’s more important than ever to create content that maximizes its screentime and so rewards the viewer – there’s too much competition out there (and life is too short) to waste even a moment.
With this in mind, when Cuarón’s elaborate production of Great Expectations failed to live up to the standard he set for himself, he decided to return to his roots. “I rented like twenty VHS of the films that made me want to make films in the first place,” he said. “All these films we used to see [at the movie theatre in Mexico]… That was when I called [Lubezki] to do Y Tu Mamá También. We talked about, let’s do the film we would have done before going to film school.”
The celebrated end result draws on people, places, and situations the friends knew firsthand. “This reminded me more of the movies that I loved,” Cuarón concluded. “You know, all these movies that were very low budget… It was very close. It was very personal, in a way.”
That is the thread that unites these three directors on a creative level: when developing their projects, they trust themselves and the ideas that speak to them.
IV. How to Turn Your Idea into a Film
But how do you actually make your idea? Once you’ve come up with it, how do you write it; how do you direct it?
The reality is that there’s no “one size fits all” solution to the puzzle of script to screen. For Cuarón and Lubezki, the process was progressive. On their first feature, their concern was with the single shot. “What I think we learned was how to make a shot work,” Cuarón emphasized. “Not a scene, but one shot. How did you set up stuff, how can you light it, how can you direct the actors, the blocking.” Eventually, their concern grew from the shot to the scene, and by the time they reached A Little Princess, the whole film.
As their ambitions grew, so, too, did their cinematic experimentation. From lighting with dramatic objective to exploring the boundaries of point-of-view to embracing an objective perspective and available light, Cuarón and Lubezki approached every feature film project as an opportunity to test the limits of their craft. “It’s always an experiment to go to another place,” Lubezki explained, excited. “Sometimes we finish a movie and we don’t like it. Sometimes we get a lot.” Failure is instructive – even liberating.
Ultimately, Cuarón has found his way to a deceptively simple conclusion: “It’s not about looking pretty. It’s about looking right.”
The film dictates the style, which for Cuarón is as beautiful as it is mysterious. “I love the mystery of cinema,” he said. “It’s not about performance, it’s not about the script, it’s not about cinematography, it’s not about music, it’s not about editing. It’s about what gels everything together that suddenly clicks and gives you that experience. And it has to do with the use of the [directing] tools as a language” – the language of film.
Whedon speaks that language in a dialect all his own. “There is a heightened state,” he said, relating his work to the occasionally “less than naturalistic” state of a musical. “If it’s done right, there is this moment. This is where, you know, everything is building to this, and you have this perfect state where not only is everyone suddenly articulating who they are and what they need, but it rhymes… Everything I do is about that moment; somebody going, ‘this is the best version of me’… In the sense of dialogue, it comes down very specifically to the musicality of a phrase.”
“It’s a vernacular,” Ruffalo synthesized, prompting Whedon to discuss how comic books, too, have influenced his approach to writing and directing: “Every time you turn the page is an opportunity to go, ‘oh, shit!’ You always want something wonderful to happen. You want to constantly have those page turn moments.”
Of course, page turn moments don’t write themselves. “Characters are the reason I’m there,” Whedon said, “But they’re not a movie… Even a premise is not a movie, although that’s something in American cinema that we’ve forgotten. Structure is an absolute.”
And structure is hard – “it’s work, it’s math, it’s graphs”, especially when you’re working with an ensemble cast and operatic arcs, as Whedon does in many of his stories. In fact, Whedon has gone so far as to create color charts visualizing the evolution of characters’ emotions over time, in order to help identify how they flow and intersect.
“Almost without exception, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re never getting anywhere,” Whedon warned. “It doesn’t matter how cool the idea is, and how cool the characters are. You’ve got to figure out the reason why there’s a whole movie about it. So structure, structure, structure.”
You won’t always have the budget to echo Shakespeare in a Marvel movie, but dramatic demands do not change with scale. “When you’re doing a scene, it’s two characters in a space,” Abrams reminded everyone. Whether your set is the bridge of the Millennium Falcon or a contained underground bunker, you’re working with relationships – “those are the things that matter the most.”
Abrams also observed that the bar to entry into the filmmaking business has been lowered in recent years. “You can make your movie now,” he urged, citing Tangerine, which was shot on an iPhone and nominated for Best Feature at the 2015 Independent Spirit Awards. “If you do it – whether it’s a script you write or a performance you give – if you put it out in the world, people will see it, and if they like it, they will contact you. And that is the best advice I can give.”
He went on to remind the audience it’s unlikely you’ll land your dream job when just starting out in Hollywood. Even Abrams worked as an intern at a production company; Cuaron spent some time as a sound mixer. “You do what you have to do, to do what you want to do,” Abrams shared, with Rock adding, “You can shine anywhere – if you approach it correctly and do what you need to do, you can shine.”
V. Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
But even the brightest stars in the sky sometimes doubt their luster. It was truly humbling to hear these top industry professionals question their abilities.
“We both shitted our way here – they’re actually sitting there listening to us,” Ruffalo joked with Whedon, looking out over the audience. “I can’t believe they’re actually here.” Later, Whedon told Ruffalo he felt like his career was over. “That’s how we always feel, right?”, Ruffalo said matter-of-factly. “It’s over. The jig is up. They’re going to know now.”
Similarly, Cuarón recalled his first trip to New York to do color correction on a feature film. “I felt like an imposter,” he said. “I still have this feeling.” “I feel this same thing,” four-time Academy Award winner Emmanuel Lubezki said without hesitating.
If and when you feel in over your head, remember you’re in good company, and that for many, the specter of imminent failure never truly vanishes.
The key is to work through the uncertainty, trusting your instincts and the still, small voice that called you to filmmaking in the first place. I’m reminded of a quote from Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art:
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
“This is it, this is my true love,” Whedon said of writing, his voice rapturous. “This is why I’m on the planet, if there’s any reason at all – and that’s still the case, even when things don’t go the way you wish they would.”
And oftentimes they won’t, even for directors at the top of the Hollywood ladder. Nevertheless, we soldier on.
Because we love it, and that is what love demands.
Michael Koehler, with
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