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The Best Filmmaking Tips of 2017

Directors of some of the most successful movies of the year share some great advice.
By  · Published on December 20th, 2017

Directors of some of the most successful movies of the year share some great advice.

As 2017 comes to a close, we looked back on recent interviews with directors of the year’s top films. Giving their advice on everything from breaking into the industry to the writing process, Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), Jordan Peele (Get Out), Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and Dee Rees (Mudbound) all shared insight on what they’ve taken away from their careers. Below we’ve highlighted six of their best tips.

“Stick to Your Guns” – Christopher Nolan

With it becoming more and more difficult for filmmakers to break into the business, it’s easy to feel tempted to compromise on creative choices for the sake of getting a movie produced. There those who want to change the story and the way it’s told to maybe fit a more mainstream audience or reach a certain demographic, and it’s difficult in the moment to say no to those requests. However, during a Q&A at the Film Society of Lincoln Center following a screening of DunkirkChristopher Nolan told aspiring filmmakers:

“I think the only advice I’ve ever been able to really offer people starting out is to sort of stick to your guns. You know, there’ll be something, there is something distinctive that you want to get across. Generally, that’s the thing that is most challenged by the people you’re trying to convince to let you do it, and I think the only thing to do is really stick to your guns and try and achieve something different, something unique, personal to your voice. If you let people, you know, smooth off the rough edges too much there won’t be anything that you’re bringing to the table and that’s what’s important with your first work in particular.”

Watch the video of the event to hear more:

“Be Tough, Fragile, and Open” – Guillermo del Toro

Similar to Nolan’s advice, The Shape of Water director Guillermo del Toro emphasizes the need for directors to be tough but also fragile at the same time. At a Q&A at the London Film Festival, he explained:

“To me, it’s a strange profession we chose as directors because it’s a combination of being tough as nails and being as permeable and fragile as you can. And you need to sort of separate the two. You cannot be completely fragile because then you won’t make movies. You should become a poet or a painter, you know. A filmmaker is never going to die and they’re going to find a drawer full of movies that he never did. And ‘oh my God’ it’s going to be on DVD and Blu-ray. It won’t be. You have to be a tough motherfucker to get into the business side and fight and tell the bastards, ‘No, no. I’ll do it my way.’ A lot of fights. You have to be tough in that and you have to fight and be able to defend what the movie needs to be. Defend it, and then at the same time you need to be incredibly, incredibly permeable and fragile. For example, you can be screaming at your producer one moment about the crane not being ready, and then you have to be completely open with your actor and watch the actor perform. So it’s very very strange.”

Watch the video of the event, in which he continues the advice, addressing fear, control, openness, and the orchestration of accidents:

“Pick the Right Projects” – Patty Jenkins

Possibly one of the most important things about being a filmmaker is working on a project that is just as suited for you as you are for it. In a “Close Up” interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins stresses the importance of working on the right film, so as not to have major problems later on, and then making sure to have clarity about what is going to be done before filming. She says:

“It’s the biggest advice I ever give young filmmakers. Pick the right projects and take it seriously because you don’t want to end up in a bad marriage. You don’t want to be like idealistic and say ‘maybe I can change their minds,’ maybe you can’t. You know, and if you can then you’re on that ride. So, it was a wonderful experience. I don’t think it’s always that way, but because of the fact that there was such clarity about what we were doing going in, and then you know, I just did it.”

Watch the video for the whole discussion:

“Follow the Fun” – Jordan Peele 

Writing is not always an easy job, but one way to overcome the hardships of creating a story and writing a script is to make sure you’re having fun with it, as Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele noted in his keynote address at the Film Independent Forum:

“I had internalized this idea and said, ‘Look, I can’t worry about this movie getting made, I have to write my favorite movie that doesn’t exist.’ And so that put me on this path of working on this. And it wasn’t like every night, for five years. It was — I allowed it to be my hobby. I allowed it to be the project that I would go to instead of watching TV. That would be the most fun thing I could do with my time. And the whole purpose of it was to help me get better as a writer. I know that from ‘Key and Peele,’ when you’re having fun writing, that’s where you get the east/west bowl shit. It just works. Fun works. That’s kind of my advice to anybody, any writer or artist dealing with writer’s block, which we all deal with. Follow the fun. If you’re not having fun writing, you’re doing it wrong. Shift up your tactic.”

Watch the video for more: 

“Start Your Own Game” – Dee Rees

Filmmaking is a competitive business, and you’re unlikely to find work waiting for someone to come look for you personally. At a press conference for Mudbound put on by the New York Film Festival, writer-director Dee Rees recommended putting yourself in the picture and begin working on something:

“For any filmmaker I would say you just have to write your way into the picture. Or if writing is not your thing, if you’re a shooter, shoot your way into the picture. You have to have some craft that gets you into the game as a young filmmaker. No one is going to come looking for you. No one is like ‘you know what we need? An NYU graduate.’ You know, so you have to create the thing that people want to make, and just that’s your way in. So I would say if he’s a writer, keep writing, if he’s a shooter, keep shooting. You have to just bring your own ball and start your own game.”

Watch the video of the event for the whole discussion:

“Listen and Observe” – Martin McDonagh

Part of making a film seem authentic means observing things in real time and emulating that. In an interview for Moviemaker Magazine,  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri writer-director Martin McDonagh says:

“If there’s anything that can teach you to write dialogue, it’s listening to people. That’s one of the most important things. In some ways, you’ve either got dialogue or you haven’t. I don’t know if there’s any way to test it, really. As long as you’re honest with yourself and keep writing and being honest as to whether it’s good or bad, there’s no secret. Listen to people, observe people, as opposed to going to the movies and listening to characters. You can sit in a diner or on a bus, or walk down the street and listen, properly, and if possible write down exactly—to a word—how people speak, that can help. I learn by traveling to small-town America and speaking to people. I like to take trains a lot and now and then a bus or two, and I like to go into local restaurants and listen to people. In my daily life, I hardly ever swear, though my characters do quite a lot. But I don’t judge them. A lot of my characters are working class people, and that’s the language that these particular types of working people choose to use. It’s never to deliberately shock; in fact I hardly even notice that there are so many swear words in there until people point them out to me. While traveling, I keep my eyes open for an interesting town or landscape. That’s what happened with ‘In Bruges.’ I like a town to be a character and a backdrop to a story.”

What We Learned

Making films is difficult, and getting films made can sometimes be even more difficult. But as many of these directors advise, being able to express your own voice and defend your vision is an effective way to last in the industry. Work for the projects that feel right for you and that you feel you can handle. Writing a great script takes time, effort, and practice, and there’s no one way to do it, but getting something on the page and keeping at it often is essential.

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