The director of The Shallows and The Commuter shares his insight on making a thriller and more.

Best known for his continued collaborations with Liam Neeson and his critically acclaimed film The Shallows, Jaume Collet-Serra has been making movies for well over a decade. Originally from Spain, he came to America to begin a career in filmmaking, becoming a successful commercial director after a short he made as a student at Columbia College received some attention. In 2005, he released his directorial debut, a remake of House of Wax.

His movies have received mixed reviews, but one thing is certain: Collet-Serra knows how to make a tense thriller that does well at the box office, especially overseas. He is notable for his willingness to use inventive new techniques and locations for his films, such as being on a plane for the majority of Non-Stop and on a train for The Commuter. There is definitely a lot that aspiring directors can learn from him, and so we’ve compiled some of his best advice below. 

You Have to Make Your First Movie

Almost no one, in any field, but especially in filmmaking, will do a perfect job on their first try. Sure, your first film might be an embarrassing mess that you come to one day regret, but as Collet-Serra advises during an interview with DP/30, in which he acknowledges his mistakes with House of Wax, make it anyway.

“I think you have to do your first movie just because it’s the first one. You will learn a lot, and hopefully the next one will be better. It wasn’t my case since the next one was worse, but I realized that that’s what I wanted to do. And I left commercials almost entirely.”

Directing is a Juggling Act

Multitasking is a must for directors. While it may seem overwhelming at first, it’s something that helps the more you do it. Reflecting on his experience making The Shallows, for which he had to focus of multiple aspects of a scene all at once in order to build character, Collet-Serra expresses this sentiment in a 2016 interview for Little White Lies:

 “The essence of directing is that you’re directing more than one thing at a time. There are a lot of balls in the air. The more experience you get as a director, the more balls you can keep up there. When I started, I would do a scene and it would be about one thing. ‘This scene is about this character,’ and that’s it. In ‘The Shallows,’ there isn’t a lot of room – there isn’t anybody for her to talk to or react to. I wanted it to feel real. We put a lot of work into that character, building her slowly through the movie, and it paid off.”

Jaume Collet Serra Directing Unknown

Keep Your Audience Interested

Especially when directing a thriller, you need to make sure the story is told in a way that will keep your audience with you. At the premiere for Non-Stop in 2014, ScreenSlam asked Collet-Serra how he keeps a film with just one location interesting. Here are some tips he offered on ways to maintain engagement:

“It really all starts with the script and the character. Make sure that the audience knows what the stakes are and really like the main character. You use some tricks. Like constantly, even though it’s one set, you change the environment, by changing the lighting, changing the camera style and so the audience doesn’t feel like “oh I’m doing the same scene again.” You know, like something is different.”

Watch more from the red carpet interview below.

Deliver on Your Promise

An important part of directing is making sure to stay true to what your film is. You don’t want to string your audience along and subvert their expectations in an unpleasant way or overdo a particular theme. Throughout his career, Collet-Serra has done a variety of horror and thriller films, but he makes sure to remain within the appropriate boundaries of the genre, fulfilling his promises without exaggerating his work. He told We Got This Covered in 2016:

“I’ve done R-rated films, R-rated horror films, PG-13 horror films, PG-13 thrillers. I think that you have to deliver what you promised to the audience, but it can’t be gratuitous. It can’t just cross that line. Here, there’s some gore, but it’s a certain way.”

Jaume Collet Serra Directing Orphan

Iconic Moments Are Necessary

While it’s easy to discount some exemplary movie moments as cheesy, overly dramatic, or forced, let’s face it: when done well, iconic moments in a film can make for some of the most memorable and powerful in the story. A fan of classic Westerns like The Searchers, Collet-Serra draws on the idea of iconism to bring out powerful images and feelings in his thrillers. He told Esquire in 2015:

“There are many things in a script that are almost crossing a line, but because he’s Liam, and me, because I can take it to a certain level, we can get away with itNot everyone will like it. Especially in ‘Non-Stop’—there are many things that happen that are borderline suspension of disbelief. ‘Run All Night’ is more grounded. But still, there have to be moments that are iconic. It’s like a Western. You need those images.”

Jaume Collet Serra And Blake Lively The Shallows

Steer Clear of Water

Water and the open ocean can make for a very exhilarating thriller. But as an ideal setting for a film shoot? Not so much. And after working on The Shallows, Collet-Serra probably won’t be going back to the sea anytime soon. He explained to /Film in 2016:

“Everything takes very long because water destroys everything, you know. If it gets into the waterproof cage, it fogs everything, destroys the cameras and lenses. You have to be extra careful, dry everything, and pressurize everything. Every time you’re around water, the weather, the wind, and the tide changes. Nothing is consistent. You think you’re ready, and then suddenly the wind changes and your boat is going the opposite way, and now the crane is looking the other way. There’s nothing you can do about it. Even if you anchor the boats four times or whatever, if the ocean wants to move you, you’re going to move. So, it’s very, very tough. I don’t recommend it; I recommend shooting in a restaurant.

Check out some b-roll footage of the making of The Shallows here:

What We Learned

Making a film is sort of like an experiment. You create different stories, in different locations, with different characters, and in the process, you see what works and what does not. The more you try, the more you learn, and with that experience, the better prepared you become for your next project. Each film won’t be perfect, but so long as you deliver on the story being told, and get out there and make a movie, you’re still one step ahead of where you were before.