Editors’ Introduction: Normally this feature is created by diving into the deep end of interviews, but when David Slade agreed to write an entry himself, there was no way for us to refuse — partially because he’s a very talented filmmaker and partially because he has us tied up in his store room.
Slade earned cinephile street cred with Hard Candy and then scored genre love for 30 Days of Night before doing his best to beef up the Twilight saga. Now he’s the executive producer and director of Hannibal — a cooking show, we think — whose season finale is this week.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) directly from a man who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty in the kitchen.
Have a Vision, Write it Down
This might sound grandiose and obvious but let’s break down what we mean when we say “a vision”:
Your vision is the way you see the film that you are making in your head. The degree to which you can see clearly will depend upon your ability to visualize the cinematic process. If you don’t see it clearly, focus on it until it becomes clear, and then take it out of your head and write it down on paper.
If it is not coming into focus, then you need to work on the problems that are standing between you and getting the vision into your head. Break the problem down into smaller manageable parts. Then try to focus again.
The vision is the film behind your eyes, its going to be a lot of work to get that film from behind your eyes and put in on a screen but you will work very hard and you will get it there. To get the film in your head on the screen first you have to take it out of your head and explain it to everyone who is working with you. This will take work and planning.
For example if you imagine complex dolly shot but don’t know how the grip equipment involved in making that shot works, then that isn’t a vision, that is an idea. You have work to do.
Being able to communicate what your vision is clearly and with specificity is the most important thing a director can do. Draw storyboards, even if you cannot draw, use stick figures or take photographs of action figures. Make diagrams: A film does not make itself, but the film will get made if you are in production. To make the film yours, you have to know what you want on a daily basis.
Love What You Do and Work to be Good at It
If you find a script that you think you can make work, don’t do that film!
Make the film that you love. When you find a film that you love, every molecule of your being will be moving in the direction of making the best film you can possibly make. This should be your default mode of operation.
Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
Prepare obsessively and meticulously. When you are in the moment of production with 100 people asking you questions you will not remember all the great ideas you had that you didn’t write down.
So go through those ideas and make a B plan and a C plan. There is never enough time on set. So focus on what is important to you. Things will crop up that may seem important, but they may just be urgent. Its important to know the difference, and you can only do that by having a plan. The sun will go down and you will lose the light at the end of every day. Also remember that, generally speaking, nothing on a film set that has anything to do with changing the process of shooting happens in less than 20 minutes.
Be Okay Not Sleeping, But Sleep When You Can
The night before your first day of principle photography you will probably not sleep, that is normal, you may think that you are going to die. That is also normal. You will get your sleep back at some point and you will not die. Try reading something that has nothing to do with what you are filming for 20 minutes before going to sleep; it’s the only way I have managed to get to sleep during production.
Don’t Fix It In Post
Fix that shit right now.
You do not know what is going to happen tomorrow; the earth is constantly orbiting the sun and making days that will end with or without the shots you need. Don’t assume post production will rescue you unless you really know a great deal about the mechanics of post production and know you have enough in the budget to cover the kind of fixes that can be done digitally.
Your DP or 1st AD may suggest to you that you fix a problem in post, go through with them what that solution is, and then run it by your producers before agreeing. When you wrap, your 1st AD and DP will go onto something else. You are the one with the problem that still needs fixing.
If you don’t drink coffee, you better start.
When I met with Sam Raimi to talk about directing 30 Days Of Night, he told be I needed to start smoking. Now I have never been a smoker and don’t intend to start but the sentiment was kind and honest and comes from basic director survival skills. Instead of smoking, I downed a lake of coffee.
Appreciate good coffee when it’s available, but drink whatever they have on set and always say thank you for it.
As your call times push and your turnaround between wrapping and being on set again to shoot shortens to what you will perceive to be almost nothing. Then you will understand that coffee is more important to your film than the camera you are shooting with.