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6 Filmmaking Tips From Scott Derrickson

By  · Published on November 3rd, 2016

The Doctor Strange director offers some not-so-strange advice.

Like a lot of filmmakers, Scott Derrickson started out making horror films. He admits in interviews that he once had dinner with Robert Wise, long before being tasked with remaking his sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, and was told horror is the best genre to begin with “because it really shows what you can do as a director.”

Derrickson has other reasons why he’s been interested in the horror genre, much of them related to his religious faith. In fact, many of the filmmaking tips we can find from the writer-director, now famous for helming Marvel’s Doctor Strange, stem from his Christian beliefs. However, they’re all ultimately universal and can be followed by anyone.

Write Your Way In, And Write Your Way Through

“Write a great screenplay,” Derrickson suggested during a 2012 Reddit AMA interview (alongside screenwriter C. Robert Cargill) when asked how to break into the industry. “Screenplays are the currency of Hollywood.”

Last month, in another Reddit AMA, he gave the same tip almost verbatim. And in a 2013 interview for Thalo, Derrickson indicates that after getting your foot in the door, you have to keep it there:

Work on your writing skills. Realize that Hollywood is an industry built to keep you out, and once you’re in, it’s designed to cycle you out ‐ so you have to get up every day and work all day long to give Hollywood a reason to let you in, and then to keep you in.

Do Your Job Well

This seems obvious for most professions, though anyone who has seen a lot of movies knows that many in Hollywood do their job poorly. The seemingly basic advice comes from an essay Derrickson wrote early in his career about his duty as a Christian in Hollywood called “The Filmmaker’s Progress.”

The essay is published in full in the book “Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture,” but you can find the following excerpt in a shortened version adapted for the magazine Youth Worker.

When I was hired to write and direct a movie, my Christian duty suddenly became quite clear: My primary duty as a Christian in Hollywood is to do my job well.

As I looked around, I saw that other Christians were working in Hollywood as writers, directors, producers and actors. All of them had one thing in common: They put a premium on the quality of their work. Many of them were part of a new, young generation of Christians who wanted to understand, appreciate and participate in cinematic excellence, both as film viewers and as filmmakers.

I joined up with these other believers and became part of a group that I will call the Quality Club. Our signature Bible verses are Colossians 3:23 (“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” [NIV]) and Proverbs 22:29 (“Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men” [NIV]).

Members of the Quality Club strive to produce work that combines excellence, marketability and moral integrity. And even though Hollywood is a place that often rewards bad behavior, we strive to treat people with love, honesty and respect.

Hollywood is competitive and cutthroat, though, and in last month’s Reddit AMA, Derrickson recognized that it’s not just about doing your best but doing the industry’s best. Answering a query of how to work in film he said:

Have talent and work harder than everyone else.

Part of that involves taking risks and doing something nobody else has done before, as he intended with Doctor Strange. He talks about that in this recent interview:

Deepen Your Love for Cinema

As a filmmaker who is Christian, Derrickson does a lot of interviews with Christian press and is regularly asked specifically for advice for others of the faith interested in getting into the business. And he has more to share beyond that inspiring essay. From a 2005 interview for The Christian Post:

I think that Christians who have an interest in filmmaking need to deepen their love for cinema. To be honest, that’s what I think has been missing historically from the Christians who want to succeed in the Hollywood industry. I think that there are a lot of Christians who are interested in the industry because they understand that culture is shaped by Hollywood and they understand the social impact that cinema has but I don’t think that they love cinema itself enough to become the best in that field, and I think Christians need to recognize what an extraordinary art form movies are, and to love them in their own right.

Again, it’s not just a good tip for Christians. He gave this trio of advice during the 2012 Reddit AMA to all people who want to work in Hollywood:

People in the film industry need to be a) passionate about film, b) have a great work ethic, and c) have very thick skin.

And it also goes for people not aiming to be filmmakers, too. Here’s one of his usual comments about why we need horror and darker films in a 2014 interview for the National Catholic Register:

I think it’s important for anyone who takes cinema seriously not to limit yourself to just optimistic or happy movies. I think that’s a problem. You’ve got to be willing to let the art of cinema take you into some darker places if you’re going to make full use of it. There are some people who shouldn’t watch horror films, and I’m all right with that.

It’s not about putting something evil in the world. It’s about reckoning with evil. We don’t need any more evil in the world. We need a lot more reckoning with it.

Watch him say pretty much the same thing directly in this 2014 Reel Faith interview:

Make Good Art, Impact May Follow

In a profile on Derrickson for Chimes, the newspaper of his alma mater, the Christian university Biola, he is quoted on how the school and his faith have influenced him as a filmmaker, and this advice is also not necessarily limited to people of his same religion.

[Horror is] a great kick-off point for people to talk about things they often don’t. If horror is done with some artistic ability and class, it has that effect.

With [The Exorcism of Emily Rose] I wasn’t setting out to intentionally impact the culture, I was just trying to tell a story well. If you want to be a filmmaker, an artist, your job is not to impact the culture ‐ your job is to make good art. What that does is God’s business. It’s the work’s business.

To try and go out there and change Hollywood is just not my attitude. Except that I am Hollywood. I’ve changed Hollywood because I’m in it, so what I work on is changing myself. I work hard to behave ethically and be different than a lot of people who are out doing what I’m doing. With more people doing that Hollywood would inevitably change.

Aim For the Right Target and Hit It

Derrickson explains what he believes to be the goals of a good filmmaker in the above tips, namely do your best and make great art. But whatever your goals, it should be emphasized that you need at least one that you can hit, and you should hit it. From last month’s Reddit AMA:

Watching the final cut of the film was deeply satisfying. A filmmaker cannot depend upon critical reviews or box office for satisfaction ‐ even if they are good. The only true reward for any artist is to pick a worthy target and hit it. When you know you’ve hit your target, that is everything.

He also stated this tip in an illustrated tweet back in July:

Failure Makes You Stronger

And if you don’t hit your target, or if you don’t hit the target others expect of you, then that’s OK, as well. From our own interview with Derrickson back in 2013:

I’ve found that there’s little or nothing I can do to prevent or control the bad feelings that failure invokes, but my entire life has been marked by both failures and by pain that transformed me and my life into something better. I don’t fear pain or failure anymore because I’m too grateful for the pains and failures of my past ‐ they have made me who I am, and most of the good things in my life are a direct result of them in some way. Sinister is a good example ‐ I’m so grateful to have made that film, but I never would have done it had The Day The Earth Stood Still been a bigger success.

In a relevant tweet acknowledging his error in casting Tilda Swinton in a traditionally Asian character role, he reiterates he learns from his mistakes:

What We Learned

Christians sure have some good advice and beliefs regarding art and entertainment! But just because Derrickson is defined in part by his faith and has taken a lot of lessons for himself from Christianity, the universal goodness in these lessons can be applied to all. At least, they can for the personal journey of each individual filmmaker in the business who isn’t in it just to get rich and famous.

And it’s not just about the power of prayer to magically get the job done and have it be successful. In fact, it’s pretty grounded and difficult and can still lead to failure of some kind. The work ethic and openness and willingness to keep learning and keep going is key to a satisfying if not lucrative career. Of course, if you get to make a Marvel movie, that can be a bonus.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.