The perfect route to becoming a director is clear: spend a few years at film school, dazzle with your student films and then take a few assistant roles on bigger projects, while still directing shorts, commercials or even music videos. All the while you are increasing the depth and quality of your showreel. You’ve already been mentioned a few times in industry papers, the blogosphere has noticed you as a name to watch, and you’re feeling optimistic.
At some point, let’s say in 10-15 years time, your telephone will ring. It’s a big name producer – an industry legend, quite possibly puffing on a big cigar, and he needs you to direct his picture. He thinks the script is Oscar material, and more than that, he wants a hit at the box office. Even though it will be your debut feature he’s convinced that you are the only woman or man with the talent to bring his vision to the big screen. You don’t want to sound surprised and make some small talk about the size of your trailer and who you want to star, and then you agree to make the movie. The generous seven-figure contract on offer also helps to convince you.
Or maybe not…
What is it they say? The gods laugh at those who make plans. While such a scenario isn’t completely impossible, the reality is totally and utterly different in 99.99% of cases. Much more likely is that the industry will be completely indifferent to what and where you studied, fairly apathetic to the quality of your showreel and only interested (if at all) in the last few projects on your showreel. Anyone that does show vague interest in you will be more interested in whether you can deliver projects on time, on budget and demonstrate some modest degree of commercial success.
So what do you need? Make sure you know someone – anyone – who can put in a good word. Maybe you’ll be fortunate and find the most persistent and persuasive agent in the business, maybe someone will actually recognise your talent, but don’t count on it. Talent can be found everywhere, luck can’t.
Given this impossibly competitive landscape, it’s no wonder that so many would-be directors are now focusing more on independent films. This alternative avenue also opens up a chance for film fans to make the jump from fandom to actually being part of the industry.
Names such as Quentin Tarantino are a case in point: Tarantino’s encyclopaedic knowledge of film comes from having worked years in a video rental store before making his mark as a screenwriter, actor and director. Reservoir Dogs, with a modest budget of just above one million dollars, would later be acclaimed as the greatest independent movie of all time and the inspiration for literally thousands of wannabe directors. Independent film festivals like Sundance have likewise helped to serve the growing community of independent filmmakers.
Today we are on the threshold of another renaissance in independent and guerilla filmmaking. Advances in technology make it easier than ever before for young filmmakers, students and film fans of any age to direct their own amateur efforts, the best of which will cross over to mainstream success like Reservoir Dogs before them. For all the CGI sophistication of today’s blockbuster hits, budget and special effects are no substitute for great storytelling.
While Tarantino may be the godfather of all independent filmmakers intent on building a career in film, it is his friend and sometime filmmaking partner Robert Rodriguez who has provided the most direct inspiration for anyone who has ever hankered to make their own film.
Tarantino’s micro budget for Reservoir Dogs would have seemed like a fortune to Rodriguez when he made his breakthrough film El Mariachi with a budget of just 7,000 dollars. Despite that, this cinematic ‘David’ still managed to beat many of the Hollywood ‘Goliaths’ and eventually gained such attention that it was inducted into the Library of Congress for its cultural and historical significance. The movie was later remade as Desperado starring Antonio Banderas, and with Rodriguez again at the helm having successfully made the jump from film fan and amateur filmmaker to mainstream director.
Rodriguez now enjoys A-List status as the director of films such as From Dusk Till Dawn, Spy Kids and Sin City, but far from being protective of his hard-earned status, he continues to try and inspire other film fans and would-be directors to test their luck in the industry. His Ten-Minute Film School is near legendary among film aficionados and is ample evidence that there’s really no barrier to making your own movies:
If Rodriguez’s success with El Mariachi seemed an impossible act to follow, others have gone on to enjoy even more commercial success with a similar approach. The Blair Witch Project was made for another absurdly low budget of $22,500 – less than the catering costs on a typical big-budget movie – and went on to generate box office receipts of almost $250 million. Whether you’re looking for financial or artistic success, or simply want to express your love of movies, making your own film is now theoretically open to anyone.
If you’re inspired by Rodriguez’s attitude, but aren’t quite as confident in your own abilities, why not investigate one of the many short courses on filmmaking. The privately run New York Film Academy, for example, is known for its range of accelerated acting and directing classes, including just one-week workshops. This hands-on, learning-by-doing approach could be just the method you need to gain the confidence and skills to direct your own film, regardless of whether you plan on making a short, a feature or even just personal family or documentary films.
To prove a point, Rodriguez supposedly plans to make another film next year on a $7,000 budget with no crew and just friends in front of and behind the camera. The message is clear: filmmaking has never been as accessible as now, and in the same way that the internet has created a million bloggers – all micro media channels in their own right, and a raft of ‘citizen journalists’ – technology is also now set to inspire a new generation of filmmakers.
You love films, so why not get out there and make one?
Article by James Lee-Tullis
If you ever made the leap from film fan to leading director, what type of director would you become?