As a comedian, actor, and writer, Jay Chandrasekhar has made a name for himself as an indie filmmaker and television director. His most notable film, Super Troopers, which he made with his comedy troupe Broken Lizard, gradually gained cult success in the years following its release in 2001 and spawned a sequel releasing in 2018.
In addition to working on (and in) his own films, Chandrasekhar also dipped into the Hollywood waters with the Dukes of Hazzard movie but has found greater success directing episodes of popular shows such as Community, Arrested Development, New Girl, Psyche, and many others.
Having now worked in the industry for more than two decades, Chandrasekhar can be looked to for advice from those hoping to follow a similar career path. Below we’ve gathered some of his best tips for success over the years whether you want to make indie films or work in television.
Make Your Own Content
Beyond just having an idea for a film, convincing a studio to fund your idea is one of the most difficult parts of being a new filmmaker. Chandrasekhar commented on this struggle in an interview with Paste magazine in 2013 and suggested a way to combat it:
“I think the smartest thing you can do is do it yourself as much as possible—write it, try to raise the money, and make it. Most people spend their lives writing and selling scripts to Hollywood and Hollywood doesn’t actually make that many movies. The ones that they do, they’re making from their top flight, high-level people. The chances of a beginner getting a real chance to make something while they’re in their twenties is slim, unless they make it themselves. Then, we’ll watch it and we can judge it, and if it’s good and commercial then you can be allowed in the system. The truth is, the system is somewhat closed. A lot of people write great scripts for 10 years and get nothing made. You have to be incredibly proactive to break into this business and that really means writing your own material and making it.”
In 2017, he gave similar advice in an interview with the Washington Post:
“We can’t make movies without scripts, and there’s no cost to writing a script, so my advice to newcomers is to do it yourself: Write your own script, shoot your shorts, edit your shorts. It’s going to seem like it’s a waste of time, and it feels like nobody sees them, but eventually you’ll get better at them and people will see them. Then, you’ll be a low-cost alternative to me, and somebody may give you a chance.”
Hold Onto Your Day Job
Success as a filmmaker rarely happens immediately, if at all, notes Chandrasekhar, so it’s important to retain some stability while you’re working toward reaching your goal. In an interview with Austin Culturemap in 2013, he shared these words of advice:
“If you want to provide for your family, maybe show business is not a high degree of success. You will need to keep your day job until you make it, and know it’s an odds thing just like the NFL. I personally wouldn’t recommend anybody to go into this business. The people who actually continue on are the ones that actually end up making it. You have to be a self-generator. You have to find out if you can be a writer and director, and if you want to produce you have to pow-wow around town with both money people and writers and be able to put the two of them together!
“The funny thing about this business is there’s this huge wall that sort of dominates everything, but the truth is there is a hidden level of people who want to invest in movies and don’t want to go through the studios. There is a market out there for non-studio generated movies. Having a major studio buy your script can be great, but studios buy a lot more scripts than they produce.”
Be Your Own Editor
Even after production has wrapped up, a director’s job is not finished. As Chandrasekhar told Signature Views in 2017 (see the video below), you should take advantage of the post-production process and learn to be a filmmaker by being an editor.
“The smartest thing a filmmaker can do is become a good editor. Filmmaking at the end of the day, in addition to the story, all of the equipment, and the actors, it’s really about time management. So the smartest filmmakers are the ones who pre-visualize in their head and are literally shooting the show that they need to put the story together. And the way to become a good editor is to go out and shoot a short and then take the footage and sit there at the machine and cut it yourself. Don’t hire an editor to do that, because then they’re going to get all of the information and the knowledge. Once you cut your film together, you’ll be like, ‘Oh no, I missed that close-up.’ And you’ll burn into your brain this rage in yourself for blowing it. And you’ll go, ‘I’ll never miss that close-up again.’ And the next time you make a different mistake, but it burns into your brain and you learn how to make a film by editing.”
There is a lot of freedom that comes with being an indie filmmaker, but having discipline is key to getting things accomplished. While promoting The Babymakers in 2012, Chandrasekhar told Daily Actor:
“You know, making an independent film is so great because you’re your boss. And you have to be disciplined. You know? Because there’s nobody telling you anything. But you have to kinda, you know, if you have an instinct to do something, you do it. There’s nobody to run it by. Casting is up to you. You know? And it’s… it was… once we pulled it out of Warner’s, we kind of, we changed the character of Ron Jon — he was originally an Eastern European. But Borat was too great, he could never top Borat. So we switched it to an Indian and I played him. And we just added jokes, added jokes. And also, we made their relationship more real. Because I’m just kind of more interested in ‘real’ now.”
In spite of all of the yeses you hope to hear throughout your career, there will undoubtedly be many more nos. In an interview with NPR in 2017, Chandrasekhar advised preparing yourself for rejection if you want to last in the business:
“Ultimately, it requires a lot of luck and certainly talent. But really what it requires mostly is how you react to being told no, you know? Because most of show business is being told no. Right? I mean, every one of our movies was really made out of rejection rage. I mean, you know, you’re like, oh, you don’t think I can make it? Watch me. I’m making it.”
Wheel and Deal
On top making most of the artistic decisions on a film, a crucial part of the job also involves being at least somewhat business savvy. In his 2017 book “Mustached Shenanigans: Making ‘Super Troopers’ and Other Adventures in Comedy,” Chandrasekhar writes:
“Making films requires the creative skills you’d expect, but it also demands immense non-creative skills, like the ability to raise all that money and the savviness to work the studio’s politics. Indeed the most prolific filmmakers are also great wheeler-dealers who spend a thousand hours networking, negotiating, raising money, and arm twisting for every hour spent writing, performing, and shooting. This career is a relentless hustle, because Hollywood is crowded with too many smart, talented people pursuing the same dream and the same pool of entertainment investment dollars. And unlike in law or medicine, there are no college degrees required — no barriers to entry. Just ask the Kardashians, who are riding a wave of stardom on the back of a sex tape. That’s who I’m competing with.”
What We Learned
While Chandrasekhar’s Super Troopers took years to become a success, it’s clear his longevity as a filmmaker derives from his resilience and willingness to work on a variety of projects. Breaking into the film industry is extremely difficult and rare, but there are many ways to go about it, and with the right amount of discipline and determination, it’s not impossible.
Fully understanding your responsibilities as a director and being involved in every stage of the process will be extremely helpful in the long-run, especially if you want a place in the indie business. At the end of the day, however, simply creating your own films and learning from your mistakes can be the best film school there is.