Television directors aren’t as commonly known by the public as film directors. That is unless you’re Michelle MacLaren. Think of the biggest TV shows of the past decade and she’s probably directed at least an episode. Since getting her first directing job on The X-Files, she’s gone on to helm episodes of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul, The Deuce, Westworld, and Breaking Bad. She also served as an executive producer on the last of those shows and received the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series two years in a row.
As someone who is so accomplished in the television industry and is now turning her attention toward directing feature films, MacLaren is often looked to for advice by those hoping to be directors in either sphere. Below we’ve gathered some of her best tips for success.
It’s All About Point of View
First and foremost, a director must visualize every frame of a project. That means getting inside a character’s head from time to time. In a 2017 interview with the Irish site Entertainment.ie, MacLaren stressed this part of the job and advised that directors should understand subjective storytelling:
“One of the most important things that a director, when I was starting out, told me was, ‘Always make sure the camera’s telling the story.’ I thought about that a lot. To me, it’s all about point of view. Not that you always have to be in someone’s point of view, because you sometimes want an objective point of view and a sense of geography, but understanding whose head we’re in. Subjective storytelling. Kim Manners, who was a director on ‘X Files,’ he always said to me, ‘See the movie in your head and break it down, write down what you want to see.’ What you realize is that when you’re reading, you think, ‘I want a tight shot here, I want a close up there.’ It actually comes together and you learn that you can get these three things in one shot here. It takes time and practice. In television, we use multiple cameras a lot, and I had to learn how to adapt to that. I like using multiple cameras, some people don’t. Some DPs don’t, and I have to adjust to someone who isn’t that into it.”
You Need to Be Present
Directing involves an immense amount of planning for the future, but it’s important to keep your focus on the task at hand. MacLaren told AssignmentX in 2017:
“Whatever it is you’re filming, you need to be present. You’re always racing against time … I also think the most creative moments can come out of being present and also just out of necessity … You can’t be thinking about who’s going to watch this, and how many people are going to watch this. You’ve got to be thinking about ‘How do I make this the best scene possible, the best shot possible, in this moment, to tell the story I want to tell?’”
Learn How to Let Go
No matter how large the budget or how big the project, there are always going to be shots and scenes that just can’t be done for a variety of reasons. In an interview with Daily Dead in 2011, MacLaren recommended keeping this in mind from the get-go:
“You have to let go of some of your shots. Because you’re not going to get everything. So right before lunch we got a fair amount of squibbing, but we don’t have everything that I would like to have. But we made the decision to move on to the next piece of the puzzle, so at the very least we get the basic story and we can cut it together. And then hopefully, we can have enough time to go back and get some more zombie squibbing later.”
Make Yourself Invaluable
MacLaren studied film at Queens University, where she received a “basic education” in the art of cinema that “has proved to be really helpful.” In 2018, she gave back to the Ontario-based school, offering some simple yet very important advice published in an issue of her alma mater’s alumni magazine the Queens Alumni Review. The 1986 graduate said:
“The best advice I can give young people is this: make yourself invaluable. Make it so that people need you. Be willing to do anything … get experience, get exposure, and when you see something that needs doing — whatever it is — do it. Be proactive.”
Trust Yourself and Be Prepared for Anything
As a filmmaker, you can never fully predict what the earth will throw at you during a shoot. That said, as MacLaren told EFilmCritic in 2006, all you can do is go with your gut and surround yourself with a great team:
“Fight for what you believe in, trust your instincts, listen to those around you, involve all the players, choose your battles, HAVE FUN — oh, and when shooting in 130 degree temperatures on the prairies, know that it comes with tornadoes, flash floods, hurricane winds that destroy your set, mosquito infestations, and ticks (I actually learned how to remove ticks from my body).”
Look at the Real Life Performance
In an interview for the DGA magazine Director’s Quarterly in 2017, MacLaren suggested that while shooting, stepping away from the monitor when you can, and instead absorbing the performance taking place in front of you, can be to your benefit:
“I like to be as close to the actors as possible. So the best place to be is with the camera guys. I always like looking through the camera—not when we’re rolling obviously, but when we’re setting up shots. What I’m watching is the performance, and then I’ll glance down at the monitor just to see what the framing is and what we’re getting and what we’re not getting in that shot. But being able to look at the actor in real life as opposed to on a monitor is always better when you can.”
What We Learned
While becoming a director, whether in film or television, may be your ultimate goal, getting exposure where you can is vital when starting out as a filmmaker. As MacLaren often advised and appears to have done in the process of building her own career, being versatile in your abilities and willing to take opportunities that will give you experience is the number one way to grow as a filmmaker in the industry.
No matter what kind of project you’re directing, the creative process is essentially the same. Know your characters, know your story, and know your vision. Having a clear idea of what it is you want to shoot and visualizing your work in its entirety is most important at not only being efficient but making something coherent and powerful.