It’s an amazing moment when you decide once and for all to direct your first film.
I come from the writing side of filmmaking, so my first go-round at directing was for a short film, and it was this crazy parade of conquering one filmmaking milestone after another. The excitement of each new step as a director was an intoxicating force that drove me through the entire filmmaking process.
With that all-consuming anticipation though came an immediate challenge: to show great patience and invest enough time into developing my script. Showing this patience is harder than you’d think.
Each stage of filmmaking is built upon the quality of the work achieved in the previous stage – for good or for ill. Meaning, if you settle for a weak script, then every step afterward is built upon a poor foundation. And it only gets worse as you keep piling more and more filmmaking on top.
Do everything you must to prepare to direct for the first time, but always keep your eyes focused on improving your script.
1) BEGIN AS A SCREENWRITER
When you’re first developing your script, give yourself the freedom to think like a screenwriter and not a director. You’ll have plenty of time in later drafts to rein in the production appropriately to fit your budget and directing skillset. In those early days with your script, let your writer’s imagination run free and uncover those gems you can only find through boundless creativity.
While you’re still in your writing phase – and especially before you take your script out into the filmmaking world – get notes from your trusted readers and do the necessary rewrites. Do this again and again until the feedback you’re getting from them is super strong.
Being the director doesn’t make you Teflon. On the contrary, you’re now not only selling everyone on your script idea, you’re also selling them on you as a first-time director. Without a track record in directing, the only power you have is to bring a rock star script to the table.
2) DEVELOP THE SCRIPT AS A DIRECTOR
Read through the script with the eyes of a director. Challenge what’s on the page and don’t embellish with what’s in your head.
This isn’t the time to focus on production elements, such as composing shots or prepping to work with actors. Instead familiarize yourself with the screenplay in a fresh way and begin the process of moving from page to screen.
Ask yourself if the story is clear enough as written? Do you understand its intent?
Are the characters well-defined and distinguishable from each other? Are they motivated from within?
Is there enough narrative drive to propel the story from beginning to end? Does one scene lead naturally into the next?
All of the questions you uncover at this stage should be hashed out and incorporated into the script. This process will continue to develop the screenplay as well as give you a clearer idea of how you will bring this material to life.
3) ANALYZE THE SCRIPT WITH YOUR PRODUCER
Once you feel your script is a very strong read, it’s a great time to bring in a producer for your film.
Don’t underestimate the power of a well-crafted script when hiring a seasoned producer. A producer will look for a script that can lead to a great finished film as well as entice experienced cast and crew to come on board and support a beginner director.
Once you are partnered with a producer, they too will have notes on the script. Make any script changes you agree with before taking the script out beyond your producer.
The producer will also work with you on the realities of shooting your script on your budget and may even bring in a Line Producer at this stage to work up a preliminary budget.
A producer is an excellent ally to help you get your script in shape to be production-ready.
4) ORGANIZE A SCRIPT DEVELOPMENT TABLE READ
A table read is an invaluable tool for script rewrites and I highly recommend having one before you begin casting.
In order to bring experienced and talented actors to your project, you’ll need more than just a great script; you’ll need a great script for an actor. Hearing your script read aloud by actors, and listening to their feedback, is one of the best ways to prep your script to go out for casting.
I think table reads are so valuable to your script’s development that I wrote an entire Script magazine article about Hosting a Table Read for Your Script.
5) TAKE FEEDBACK FROM OTHER FILM PROFESSIONALS
As you head through pre-production, stay open to feedback from key cast and crew as they are being hired.
Does the Production Designer and Wardrobe Department have enough in your script to work with? If not, go back and think about the environment that your story and characters live in and build that into your screenplay. It’s worth weaving these new ideas back into your script to keep you and your cast and crew focused on your vision.
Auditions offer another great chance to hone your script; they’re like a table read on steroids. These actors are vying for the roles and will show you many ways your script can be interpreted. Wear your director’s hat in auditions, but let your writer-self be a fly on the wall. Make note of any dialogue or character traits that are consistently confusing to the actors and go back and strengthen those aspects of the screenplay before you get on set.
When you approach experienced professionals to join your team, make it clear in your actions and words that you are seeking collaborators and be open to their focused points of view.
As a beginner writer-director, you will be extremely reliant on the support of your team. You’ll look to everyone to bring their best and allow you to focus on your job as a director.
But keep in mind, your writer-self is on your team, too. If screenwriting is the craft you’ve been slaving over, and directing is the new feather in your cap, then don’t cut corners in your arena of expertise. Be patient in development and put in the time because that script of gold you’ve been training to write is the best gift you can offer to your new director-self!