How to be a Filmmaker (Part One)

This article will explain everything I know about how to be a film-maker.

It’s not much, but it’s what I know.

Who is this article for? It’s for the absolute novice. If you have no clue where to start, or what it means to be a film-maker, this article will help you. If you are in a small town or a part of the world where making movies is a distant dream, this article is for you.

This article covers what you will need to get started, how you can use what you have, and what it takes (both physically and mentally) to make you first movie. This could be a short film or a feature film. Both are races – the first is a sprint, the second is a marathon.


The ‘system’ of this article

If any of my favorite directors had published a treatise on film-making with instructions on how to: “Do this!” or “Do that!” I’m bound to listen. But I’m not them, am I?

So, I’m not going to litter this article with instructions on what to do. Rather, I’m going to give you questions you should ask yourself. Don’t ask me for the answers. I don’t have the answers to most of them, and the ones I think I know the answer to might hurt you instead of help you.

The questions are designed to ‘expand your horizons’. If you think hard and seek honest answers for these questions, the road to your film-making journey will be in plain view. I’m not saying it’ll be smooth sailing, but you’ll know.

It’s going to feel like an interrogation. I hope you’re ready.

Warning: If you’re expecting general platitudes and banalities, pros and cons, and either-ors, look elsewhere. I have strong opinions about this, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. Also, I use the terms film-making and filmmaking interchangeably, though they mean the same thing.

What is a film-maker?

First let’s define our terms. In the movie business we have many roles or job descriptions. Three important ones are:

  • Writer
  • Producer
  • Director

These are three different skill-sets. It’s very rare (rarer than winning five Oscars in a row) for any one human being to be brilliant in all three. That’s why these roles are separate.

However, many directors feel they should be the ‘author’ of their work, especially the ones who are involved in fiction. Many such directors also tend to write their own scripts. And, many such directors also have to run around hunting for money, and become producers as well.

Sometimes, you are lucky to have collaborators, but more often than not, if you’re a beginner, you’re more likely to wear many hats. These hats aren’t restricted to the above three roles. E.g., on The Impossible Murder, I wore the following hats:

  • Writer
  • Producer
  • Director
  • Production Manager
  • Editor
  • Visual Effects Artist
  • Colorist
  • Post Production Supervisor
  • Sound Editor
  • Distributor

A film-maker is one who is forced to wear many hats. You are either forced by circumstances, or by your own nature, or both.

The term ‘film-maker’ must include the role of director. Usually it also includes producer. The most common variation is the producer-director hyphenate. From here on, when I say film-maker, I mean producer-director as a bare minimum.

It falls on the film-maker to get the project out the door, get funding, collect man and machine, deal with logistics, shoot the feature within the stipulated budget, complete post production, market, find distribution and finally collect money. If you are successful, you will need to keep collecting money for years. If you fail, you might have to pay up for years!

It’s not only a responsibility, it’s a lifestyle.

What’s the difference between a film-maker and ‘anyone-with-a-camera-and-a-computer’?

The difference between a film-maker and everyone else is as follows:

  • Vision – You have a complete vision from script to distribution, and this super-vision also includes the actual movie, which is a sub-vision.
  • Responsibility – Since your project involves many individuals, the responsibility to see it through is tremendous. Small mistakes can be costly.
  • Liability – The penalty for failure is immense. Not only are you losing time and money, but also the opportunity to advance your career.
  • Time – A typical movie, from script to screen, takes three years. Three years!!?? Don’t believe me? Try it. If you have everything in place, you might be able to do it in two.

I don’t have to tell you the stakes are higher for a filmmaker than the average joe. When you make ten or twenty short projects a year (corporate videos, ad films, documentaries, whatever) you can fail on two or three, and you won’t be hurt so bad. A feature film, on the other hand, is the only project you’ll be working on for two years.

Even marriage is an easier commitment! This is why, to be a film-maker, you’ll need superpowers.

The 10 superpowers of film-making

To become a successful film-maker you’ll need 10 solid superpowers. Here they are:

  • Know thyself
  • Know your circumstances
  • Know your tools
  • Take your decisions
  • Gather facts and opinions
  • Make friends
  • Make time
  • Make money
  • Be the shepherd
  • Be the Phoenix

Each and every one of these superpowers is mandatory. Unless you have attained nirvana, you are unlikely to have all of these superpowers. Study your favorite filmmakers, the most successful ones, and you’ll see these superpowers in action.

There is a catch, though. These superpowers aren’t permanent. Ever watched a movie where your favorite superhero loses some or all of his or her powers briefly? This could happen for many reasons, but it must and will happen.

These superpowers are intertwined with your personal life, weaknesses, doubts and circumstances. Even when you’ve tasted success, you have to start from scratch on your next project, and you have no clue how it’s going to turn out.

So, let’s get to it.

Superpower #1: Know Thyself

Or, what you should do when you know that you know nothing.

What gear you need to get started:

A mirror.

The costs involved: The cost of a full-length mirror.

How to use this gear: Look at it every day.

Time this will take: Forever.


Questions to ask yourself:

Who are you?

What have you observed about life that you want to share? Do you really have strong feelings about something? If you do, what do you want from the recipient of your message? What makes you laugh, cry, get angry or sad, or scared? Can you make somebody else laugh, cry, get angry, sad or scared? Should you make somebody laugh, cry, get angry or sad or scared?

Do you have stories to tell? About whom? About which time or place? Why should you be the one telling this story? Can you see a more capable person doing a better job articulating your vision? What makes you so sure you are storyteller?

Can you lead a group of people? When was the last time you actually did it, and came out successful? Do people understand you? If not, why not? Is there anything you can do to make your ideas come out more clearly?

But first, are your ideas clear to you? What makes you sure?

Why do you want to be filmmaker? Do you want fame, riches and a big house? Guess which of these professions don’t give you all this if you’re successful at it: Banking, Sport, Business, Sales, Engineering, Medicine, Technology, Writing, and Politics? Are you looking to get into filmmaking for all the wrong reasons?

Where do you come from? Where do you want to end up? What’s your story?

Who are you?

Superpower #2: Know your circumstances

What gear you need to get started:

Your eyes and ears.

Costs: Nil.

How to use this gear: Look and listen every day.

Time this will take: Forever.

Questions to ask yourself:

Who are you friends and family? What do they mean to you? Are you a loner or a star? What has life taught you so far? What do people think of you? Do you need to ask to know? What is your relationship with humans in general? Do you prefer animals or solitude? How do you deal with the opposite (and same) sex?

Where do you live? Is the land, culture, people and economy capable of supporting films? Do you need to move? What do you hope to find after you have moved? You do realize that people are the same everywhere, don’t you? Why is that you feel your story can only be told with the help of strangers from another land? Are your own people incapable of understanding you? Are they not worthy? Are they intolerant? If you can’t change your own people, who can you change, and why do you want to change them?

Can you list the barriers you see? Do you know anyone who has successfully overcome these barriers? How did they do it? Where are they today? What abilities or disabilities do you have that might change matters for you? Do you know people who can help you overcome these barriers? Will this disrupt the lives of those around you, especially your loved ones?

How much money do you have? What would you do right now if you were given a million dollars? Would you buy all the cool things you dream about, or would you risk everything on a movie? Is money just a means to an end, or is it more important? What is your relationship with money? Can you live without it? How much of it will make you happy? Once you have this amount, can you guarantee yourself happiness? What has all this to do with the story you want to tell?

Will money make you a better storyteller? Will it give you better ideas? Will it help you to know yourself better?

In Part Two we look at superpowers number three to six.