Directing essentials is a broad term. There are as many schools of thought on how to run a set as there are directors. There are online courses titled directing essentials. And if you ask other filmmakers what directing essentials are you’ll get wildly different answers. Everyone works a little differently as a director so I’m always hesitant to give out advice as to how to run your production. There are people who thrive with larger crews and those who work best when in smaller groups. There are directors who cannot even begin to function without storyboards, and others who find them too stifling.
There are, however, some things that I apply to every director. While some of what I list below may seem like common sense to most of us – I’ve found that common sense is sometimes evasive on a film set. In the throws of production you are surrounded by a myriad of pressing creative issues and your normal daily routine is thrown out the window.
As a result, some of the basic self-care and big picture things tend to escape people’s mind and I recently saw this happen to a friend of mine so I thought now would be as good a time as any to go over a few tips that all directors can use no matter how big or small your production may be.
Directing Essentials Rule #1: Time is everything on set
There is never enough time to get everything you want done on set. Whether you’re trying to get two hundred set ups done or you just have one long steadicam shot you have to nail, time is always slipping away when you’re on set. Most of us have come to rely on our phones to tell time but phones on a set, especially for a director, are toxic.
The first tip I tell all directors is that you want your phone with you in case you need to make calls but put it in airplane mode while you’re shooting and only turn it on when you need to make a call. Don’t try to turn the airplane mode on and off between takes and setups. It’s inevitable that you are going to forget to switch it off and you WILL ruin a take at some point and it will most likely be the best take – it just works out like that most of the time.
Put your phone on airplane mode and just forget it unless you absolutely NEED it
You do, however, need to be cognisant of your timing. I don’t think it’s good to rely on your Assistant Director to constantly tell you how much time you have before lunch. There will be times where your AD is wrangling cast or crew or off doing other things and you need to be a little more self-reliant and responsible for how long your shots are taking.
Cheap, Digital Watches are the Bomb
Instead of relying on your phone, your first AD, your producer or anyone else on set, I highly advise people to buy a cheap digital wrist watch to wear during production. I have one I found on ebay for about $12 and it works perfectly. You don’t want an Apple Watch or any kind of watch that can potentially die on you because you forgot to charge it because on longer shoots you will eventually forget to charge it and then you’re without a timepiece for the day.
Being cheap is also crucial because you will bang up your watch when you work occasionally. If you’re on an independent production you will be moving gear at some point and doing a lot of the hustle yourself. When you’re shlepping around camera gear, apple boxes and c-stands you’re going to bang into a wall or a door post every now and again and if you’re wearing a Rolex or some sentimental watch that someone gave you as a gift you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed.
I also think it should be a digital watch because when you’re on your 16th hour and your tired and trying to get your last two shots, sometimes remembering that the 8 on a clock is equal to 40 minutes is something your brain just can’t handle.
Also, digital watches usually have a light you can turn on and off so you can see the time in darker situations and they often also include a stop watch which is great for knowing how much time you have left on lunch or what not. My cheap little $12 ebay watch also has a pedometer which lets me know how much I can gorge on craft services. I usually reward myself with a piece of junk food when I hit 10,000 steps.
Directing Essentials Rule #2: You can’t function without energy
Speaking of craft services, the second big piece of advice I give directors is to find their cashew. J.J. Abrams is known for scarfing down cashews on set. You want to find some kind of healthy-ish snack that is going to give you energy. I’m not sure how much protein vs. carbs you should be eating so I’m not going to start recommending specific foods. I know that cashews work great for me but what works for me might not work for you. Find something that’s not total junk, doesn’t require a fork or plate to eat, and gives you an energy boost.
If you’re making your first feature chances are that you’ll be so excited just to be on set that you probably won’t need to eat anything for energy at first, but trust me when I say that your body will give out at a certain point. It’s much better for you to eat little snacks throughout the day even if you’re not hungry so you don’t crash. On a similar note I would also recommend making sure you drink enough throughout the day so that you’re not dehydrated. You should have a bottle of water by your side constantly. If you haven’t gone through two by lunch then you need to re-evaluate how much your drinking.
Some directors also find it beneficial to sit down most of the day. I’ve seen directors who really make use of their director’s chair! Often you’re the first in and the last to leave as a director so if you’re not going to be chomping down on energy bars or something similar than sitting down as much as you can seems to make sense to me – it’s just not something I do personally. When I’m on set I bounce around like a fly trying to get out of a window but if you’re able to do it then go for it.
Find something that’s not total junk, doesn’t require a fork or plate to eat, and gives you an energy boost.
I had a veteran actor on set once who didn’t have his own seat but did manage to take naps on just about anything until he was needed. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t want me to reveal who he is so I’m going to keep him private but I was very impressed at his ability to sleep on a coach, lie down on an ottoman and take a snooze, or even find a comfortable spot on some carpet and doze off. The bottom line is that the days on set are long so if find a way to keep your energy going.
What lighting decisions you make, how you work with your actors, whether or not you storyboard are all decisions that you have to make on your own but if you run out of time or energy on set then you’re totally screwed…so keep those two assets in check and you’ll be able to navigate through the rest with enough time and patience.