The director of ‘San Andreas’ and ‘Rampage’ shares his advice on making it as a director.
Over the years, Brad Peyton has tried his hand in a variety of genres. Starting out with the short film Evelyn: The Cutest Evil Dead Girl, which made it to the Toronto International Film Festival, he went on to create the claymation series What It’s Like to Be Alone. Since then, he’s tackled projects as large as the sequel Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, the disaster movie San Andreas, and the video game adaptation Rampage, all of which star Dwayne Johnson.
Now that he’s had box office success and is a major player in Hollywood, Peyton is looked to for advice from those hoping to break into the industry. Below we’ve collected some of his best tips for success.
Follow Your Passion
In a 2015 Reddit AMA, Peyton was asked specifically for directing advice. He gave these simple words of wisdom for any creator to live by:
“My best advice in creating anything is to follow your passion. Then you can follow your gut, and your gut / instincts rarely lie.”
Face the Unknown
Directing is something that must be done out in public, in collaboration with others. In a Director’s Roundtable in 2015 (watch below), Peyton emphasized this aspect of the job, advising aspiring filmmakers to embrace the social requirements of being a director:
“The challenge with being a director as opposed to a painter or a writer, even though I’ve done both of those things too, is that you can do those by yourself. As a director, you have to face the fear of the unknown and test yourself, kind of in public, with a bunch of other people in order to achieve it.”
Understand the Bigger Picture
While you hope that your film is successful enough to spawn another installment, focusing on making the first story as strong as possible is most important. In 2015, when asked about the franchise potential for San Andreas, Peyton told ComingSoon.net:
“Truthfully, when you’re a filmmaker, you look at the story before the film and after the film. You’re trying to understand the bigger picture. The conversations you need to have with your cast begin long before the camera starts rolling. There’s always that potential. There could be a prequel, because these events happened. But there’s always that potential when you develop a character you love or when you have both ends of the story and see a place where one end could go. There haven’t been any conversation about it. Well, there have been some conservations. I didn’t really focus on it at all. I focused on making the best movie I could make. It does happen sometimes that you go, ‘We could put this line here about this’ or ‘We can out that line there about that.’ As long as it doesn’t hurt the movie, I’m happy to put in that line. But we have to make this movie really great, not the imaginary movie that might come years from now. I’ve always just focused on what’s right in front of me and tried to make that the best thing I could.”
In an interview with Dork Shelf in 2012, Peyton discussed the significance of balancing ambition with reality and setting out to do what you know you can accomplish.
“Part of what I brought to the table as a director is efficiency. I’m ambitious but that’s a funny word because it’s normally only used for failure. How many times have they said, ‘Oh it’s ambitious’ and they succeeded? So I looked at it like, ‘I am going to try and achieve a lot with the budget I have, with the time I have, and with the cast I have, because we need to be the younger brother to Pirates.’ That’s the attitude you have to have when you go into a movie like this. You’ve got to maximize the opportunity. So whatever the challenges were, you have to be able to step up to the plate and have a plan that no one is eventually going say, ‘That was ambitious, but you had seven days and you couldn’t do it.’ I’m not like that. I pre-visualize and I’m constantly looking at my iPad to try and find shots to cut. I try to figure out what I think will end up on the cutting room floor and then not shoot that. So when a producer says, ‘Oh we lost a day’ I’m like, ‘No worries.’ And they’re like ‘What do you mean, normally directors are panicking?’ and I’m like ‘No, I saw this coming and I’ve already dumped a scene in my head.’ And you know, that’s just one of the difficulties that comes with shooting a big movie.”
Care About Your Characters
Between Journey 2, San Andreas, and Rampage, Peyton has done quite a few spectacle-heavy films. Although he recognizes the fun in creating visually striking films, in an interview with Rappler in 2015 (watch below), he emphasizes the importance of making your audience care about characters too.
“I grew up in the ’90s, and I grew up on people like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, and no matter how big their movies got, you always felt like you knew those characters and that you were following those characters. And my argument is always with spectacle, and you know, scale and all that stuff and big act set-pieces is that like they’re very entertaining, but if you really want them to resonate you need to care about the people inside of the events.”
Prioritize Your Film
Being a filmmaker involves more than just going to work every day. Often, normal work hours stretch into long days and nights, and devoting your entire life to the project while it’s being made is not unheard of, as Peyton told the Just Shoot It podcast in 2018:
“The only hang up I have is that sometimes it takes me longer to digest other people’s ideas than my own. And I’m super aware of that so I go in ahead of time. I’ve adjusted all my behavior to factor into how I operate. At the end of the day, I think the people who care about making films, they put everything second to film. Like to me, that’s the sign of a good filmmaker, is that everything is second. Everything…everything goes out the window, except for the movie and it’s almost like an uncontrollable thing.”
What We Learned
Whether or not you aspire to be a high-concept filmmaker who works with large-scale sets and special effects, the same rules of filmmaking apply. Focus on creating a story that resonates with audiences and fully devote yourself to the project at hand.
If your sets are stunning but your characters lack development, you’ll lose your viewers once they leave the theater, if not in the first few minutes of the film. As a first-time filmmaker especially, it’s easy to be overly ambitious, but directing involves understanding what you can and cannot accomplish with the allotted time and budget you have.