Director Werner Herzog stole a camera to make his first film. He justified this action by arguing he felt he had a right to it, as though it were air he needed to breathe. The rest, the cliché goes, is history.
Herzog wasn’t some wunderkind right off the bat (well… his second feature, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, did have both iconic opening and closing shots); he was an amateur once. We’re all amateurs when we begin something.
That said, things are both more and less challenging these days when it comes to getting hold of a camera. We can’t all just steal one like Herzog. Different kinds of cameras are ubiquitous, though. And we can do many things to get ourselves going as amateur directors.
I think there are a few forms of direction. There’s directing on set, in the editing room, even while writing a screenplay. You want to develop a sense of control over the work in all phases of the game. How everything connects is through us, basically. It’s our mentality. Do we have it in us to just pick up an iPhone and get to it? If yes, get to it. It’s never been easier, technologically speaking, to create films of any kind. In fact, you’re almost regarded as something of an outlier if you don’t participate in social media, a visually saturated environment based totally on control of information.
And what does a director do? Control the flow of information in order to tell a story, to create a multitude of feelings and impressions visually.
You don’t have to work on a set to develop the necessary mental skills. But, and this is a huge but, you do need to be on set to develop an understanding of how things work on set. So volunteer to start. The internet is our friend. Search engines exist to make finding answers relatively harmless. There are any number of film-related sites or local filmmaking groups on Facebook full of listings for production assistants and other positions (see the end of the article for links).
There’s your in. Once you’re on set, do your job well and ask questions when you can. Create a good enough impression of yourself and everyone from set designers to DPs and gaffers will be happy to give you their insights. It’s all about being personable. Observe how the director operates. Question their decisions (in your own mind). Be respectful as a newbie on set. But think about what you would do. And you can leave the set knowing you’ve been on a production and you know to a degree how the person in charge gets everything to work.
Experience should be thought of somewhat relatively. There’s being on set and there’s thinking like a director. More set time means more experience. Being around filmmakers and directors will help invaluable. But it’s about getting a sense of why directors make the choices they do as much as it’s about understanding the fundamentals of set etiquette and whose job is what.
What’s next? We’re still amateurs. Just because we know some things doesn’t mean we’ve actually directed something. The great Akira Kurosawa once said that the advice he gave to aspiring directors was to write screenplays. Writing is a key to learning how to direct because you learn the basic structure of cinema. Pick up a pen. Get to your keyboard and go. Read screenplays to get a basic sense of how they work. Start with short films. Get to a place where you’re confident in your piece (get feedback from other writers if possible).
Then develop a production plan. Get some friends to help. Get some local film school graduates fresh out into the world and get their help. Amateur filmmakers want to create films so they can, in turn, get paid to create more films. Get your phone or another camera and get to work.
Directing then becomes about the actual “doing” part. Compose shots. Feel out why something feels flat… or fully alive. Talk to actors. Learn to provoke or encourage a performance. This is a collaborative medium, of course, but you want what you want as a director. Get what you want from the actors you’re working with. Don’t just think about directing.
Direct. That’s what you’re going to be doing.
Learn to look at film and wonder about what you would do differently. Develop your eye. And that’s really the crux of it. Hone the way you think about the world into something you can visualize on screen. Take that point of view, work on set enough, creative enough and you’ll soon just sort of become a director. Make use of those websites, Facebook groups and other sources. Go to film festivals and be prepared to network. Emphasis on “work.”
Experience can really only come through that combination of thinking and doing. We’re all different people, so we need to strike balances in our own ways. Once you do, though, the “amateur” will soon enough disappear. And then you too may be out there dragging a steamship over a hill just like Werner Herzog.
Adam D. Johnson is a New York-based writer and filmmaker with a taste for the weird. When he’s not writing, reading or watching appropriately strange films, he’s usually hanging around odd artists and performers. He also really digs traveling. Connect with him on Instagram