Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one compiles filmmaking advice from John Krasinski.
John Krasinski will forever be known as Jim from The Office, which is something he doesn’t mind. Since his acting breakout with the show in 2005, Krasinski has also worked as a screenwriter and a director, debuting with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in 2009 and then later directing The Hollars and A Quiet Place, which he stars in with wife Emily Blunt. The latter was not only his first positively received effort, but its Rotten Tomatoes score is among the best of its year.
Having made it as an actor and now rising in his success as a filmmaker, Krasinski is sought out for words of wisdom to those hoping to break into the industry. Below we’ve gathered some of his best tips from over the years.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from John Krasinski
1. Make it Specific
Simply writing and directing any story isn’t enough. As Krasinski said in a Q&A at The Hollars screening in Boston in 2016, the story you tell has to feel specific and personal if you want it to truly resonate with an audience:
“There’s gotta be something that connects in a very visceral way. It can’t just be a story. You know what I mean? It can’t just be a story about people. It’s like that weird thing they talk about in ‘X Factor’ but it’s gotta feel personal in some way to me. I have to feel like there’s something very important. And I’ve tried to do that…certainly in the movies that I’ve done recently. There’s gotta be something that I feel very personal to beyond the story. And for me its specificity. Especially in a world where there’s so many remakes and there’s so many genres being told, right? I mean look at something like ‘The Walking Dead.’ I’d thought I’d seen as many zombie things as I was ever going to see, and then you have a show like ‘The Walking Dead,’ which is amazing. So it’s all about specificity. I remember my first writing class in college, my teacher said, ‘First — this is pretty harsh but it was totally true — everything that could be written has been written. It’s all been done. So the only thing you can do is make it specific to you.’ And I thought ‘Wow, that’s kind of a bubble deflator,’ from day one. But it was absolutely true. And this is a perfect example. How many family movies have you seen? Probably a whole lot, and I always connect to the ones that feel specific and connect and make you feel something because there’s a part of you in there.”
Watch more of the Q&A here:
2. Make the Movie What it Needs to Be
As a director, you’re responsible for the finished project as well as everything that leads up to that point. As Krasinski told IndieWire in 2016, use that power wisely and efficiently:
“You’re responsible on every level. You’re responsible for deciding on clothes and deciding on what the set looks like and what the shot looks like. You have that responsibility and, in the editing process, I think it becomes tenfold. The editing process is the most important process, because you have to get your movie in there. A movie should be exactly what it needs to be.
If you’re showing me a three-hour movie, it better be because there’s no version of a two-hour movie that would be as good. That’s fine. I feel like with a movie like this, that’s dealing with light-hearted, uplifting stuff, but also some heavy stuff, you don’t want to lose people in the sort of monotony of ‘this is getting too much or too boring.’ You want it to feel exciting and tight and moving fast, so I knew the lower the number we could get without being crazy — If we could get it below 100, certainly, but 90 I think is the sweet spot for this kind of movie.
A movie is a spectacle — you are entertaining. The challenge is not to lose your audience. You have to hold on to them the whole time, and I hope that’s why this movie is so powerful to people, because by the time it’s over you’ve gone through so many roller coasters of emotions that you go, ‘That was a good experience.’
3. Don’t Change for Anybody
With so many outlets producing television, the chances of getting your idea made are higher than they’ve ever been. That said, Krasinski advises focusing on your idea and making it land with audiences rather than focusing solely on pleasing studio executives. He told the Hollywood Reporter in 2016:
“I personally think it’s one of the most exciting times to be in this industry because it’s the Wild West. Yes, there’s this argument that we’re oversaturated with content, but it also makes us all have to do better work; we gotta fight for people’s attention. But 10 years ago, if you didn’t have an idea that they could put on network television, you didn’t have a job. Now, there’s a hundred different outlets for you. So if you have an idea, be specific, be vigilant, and never give up on what that idea is, because that’s what’s actually going to get people to watch it, rather than changing every little thing as people give you notes because you want it to be on TV. Look at ‘True Detective’— that never would have been on television 10 years ago. Now, you can have it be exactly how you want it to be and get credit for it. So basically, don’t change for anybody.”
4. Go With the Best Ideas
Part of being a filmmaker means being open to input and inspiration from others. In an interview at Sundance in 2016, Krasinski emphasized the importance of remembering that making a film is a group effort:
“Be collaborative. The #1 idea should end up on screen, no matter who says it. Once you get that crew and you get that cast, we’re all in the same boat and we’re trying to make something good. So just follow that and go with it. It’s too often you do see people quelling a really good idea because it’s not theirs, and that’s terrible.”
Watch more of the interview here:
5. Steal Everything
Learning from other filmmakers can be like film school. In an interview with Collider in 2016, Krasinski noted that while acting he often pays close attention to the directors and how they work. In fact, you’ll note here that one of the above tips is stolen from another filmmaker:
“The name of the game is steal everything from people that are really good that you work with (laughs). One of the best parts about being an actor is that you get to work with all these great directors and watch them work, and for me I definitely take a little bit of every director with me, I try to learn as much as I can from each and every director. So, for instance, I remember George Clooney saying, ‘You can make a bad movie out of a good script but you can never make a good movie out of a bad script,’ so material is king, so I knew that going in I had a great script. I remember he also said, ‘The best idea has to end up on screen,’ no matter whether it’s the guy shutting down the studio at night saying he has an idea of what you can do better, you take everybody’s idea and you push them up; it’s a collaboration and a team sport. So little things like that along the way I definitely used from everybody.”
6. Delve Into Subjects
As a filmmaker, you have the ability to explore different subjects and topics with your films. While Krasinski believes in the importance of diving into different subject matters, he also emphasized the significance of going beyond just telling your audiences what to think. During a 2013 Hollywood Reporter roundtable, he said:
“I think that the idea of manipulating your audience to believe something or to believe it the way it wasn’t done and trying to portray it as something completely different, that didn’t really happen, I think is incredibly dangerous. So, you know, to delve into certain subject matter I think, is always, in my opinion, important as far as to sort of observe it and you know, live through it and experience it. But at the same time exactly to the end that he’s asking you to do, which is the responsibility of saying ‘What do you feel about it?’ rather than ‘This is what I believe happened, you should all take this as truth.'”
Watch more here:
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
In Krasinski’s case, it’s clear being an actor helped to prepare him for a directing career. There’s no shame in learning from others. If you have the opportunity to observe, soak up all of the knowledge that you can for when you embark on your own directing project. And borrowing from others can mean anybody. Collaboration is key, so don’t shy away from building on everyone’s ideas. Just be sure that at the end of the day, you’re making something meaningful, that has value to you, that is the best it can be. If you don’t resonate with your work, or feel a particular connection to it, no one else will either.