Notes from Breaking In

Notes from Breaking In

Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start is a book by Nicholas Jarecki. In it he interviews 20 film directors, all of whom are currently working in Hollywood or otherwise active, and he asks each of them how they got their start and made their big break. 

The book is inspiring and informative, and a must for anyone trying to build a film career. What follows are some interesting patterns, thoughts, and bits of wisdom which stuck with me: 

* They all had their own script. 

Virtually all of the directors had a script that they developed and wrote on their own. This is important because it gave them their only bit of clout at the negotiating table. Without a reel, or connections, or resources, the quality of that script is what gave producers and investors the faith to commit to the project. It was also important legally, because the filmmakers owned the material outright and could control it as needed. 

Many of the filmmakers were adamant about writing, story craft, and its importance in their career. After several interviews, one gets the silent understanding that you should not expect to direct someone else’s script until you have impressed the world with one of your own. 

* None of them ‘worked their way up’. 

Some started in something else, like music videos, and eventually crossed over. But virtually none of the directors started as a PA and went up the movie ladder. For one thing, crew positions are so specialized that such a career path is impossible. But more importantly, none of the directors waited for some sort of sign, or some form of permission to make their movie. They just made their movie. Likewise, they all advise new directors to dive in and get the movie made. 

* They all held out against the relentless runaround.

All along the process, but particularly during fund raising and distribution, filmmakers are unfortunately handed unholy amounts of bullshit that tests faith. Often, they had an experience that threatened to derail the whole project. Just as often what saw them through was simple persistence, a commitment to see things through and do the best they could. So if you want to make movies, make sure your skin is as thick as dragon scales. 

* Many started later in life.

Rather than going to college, getting an internship, graduating and getting a job, many of the filmmakers took the long way around. One filmmaker lived in Japan for several years. A few worked odd jobs for just as long. Many did not like or did not finish school and did not even consider film until their thirties. Despite the uncertainty of such periods, the filmmakers generally considered it important life experience and a source of wisdom for their filmmaking. 

* Once they fixed on their career, they did not take ‘no’ for an answer.

When they started out, they were just like any guy on the street. But they held firm to their beliefs, got the movie made and navigated the festivals and studio negotiations. In short, they believed so much in their projects and themselves that other people had no choice but believe with them. 

* Drive is more important than talent. 

Many of the directors spoke of someone they knew at school or in a workshop with better filmmaking skills. They also noted that such filmmakers were rarely working today. The difference was, again, persistence, and the simple fact that the directors being interviewed were more active. A message often repeated was that the people working today were the ones who just wanted it more. 

* Directing is all about being a good father and best done with lots of hugs and love and consistency. 

This came from Barry Sonnenfeld. According to him, “All directing is is really having an opinion about everything, and through this you create a tone and style that makes it seem like you had a plan from the start. Directing is ultimately about having an opinion and making sure that your opinion is consistent”. 

* Enjoy your career. 

Peter Farrelly was emphatic about this. His point was that people make the choice to be writers or actors or filmmakers, and then they turn around and complain. He made sure to remind the reader the freedom a creative career offers. Rather than let yourself get embittered because of certain sacrifices, make peace with them and enjoy yourself. A creative career is much better when you are at peace with yourself and your circumstances. 

* Top level people are accessible. 

The numbers may be unlisted, but somebody has them, and they actually don’t mind answering questions. You should do them the courtesy of being prepared and respectful, of course, but there is a way to talk to anyone. You just have to find it. Likewise, studios are not impregnable fortresses. There are ways in. Just be clever. 

* People like genuine compliments. 

A nice corollary to the above point, if you like someone’s work, TELL THEM!! Filmmakers like praise as much as anyone, and since they work so hard on their films, a genuine sincere compliment can go a very long way. 

* Finish what you start. 

That pretty much explains itself.