How to Become a Film Director | StageMilk

How to Become a Film Director

Written by on | Director's Chair

There are few career paths as difficult, competitive and yet desirable as that of film directing. The very term “director” is near-synonymous with fame, recognition, creative control and, let’s face it, cool. Whether you’re a life-long fan of cinema, an actor keen to explore your craft from the other side of the camera or simply a storyteller with a lust for power, you may be happy to learn that there are a number of things you can do to help you ascend to that lofty director’s chair.

If you want to become a film director, the best thing you can do is to study filmmaking, create your own work and look for opportunities to showcase your material. Formal training at an institution will help you develop foundational skills, introduce you to potential collaborators and give you support in the way of equipment and production logistics. From there, you can begin to use your work to leverage more desirable, ambitious and paid projects.

Of course, the central question is not which path guarantees success, but which path is the most correct for you. In this article, we’ll look over some of the best ways to become a film director—the line of work in which very few are chosen, and fewer still are called.

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Should I Go to Film School?

For most directing hopefuls, this is the most important question they will ask themselves. Our recommendation (provided you have the means) is to go for it. Film school will teach you the foundational basics of your craft, improve upon your existing knowledge and help you roll back any bad habits you may have picked up out in the freelance wilderness. You’ll study with experts—sometimes industry professionals themselves—and get a chance to meet a diverse array of people at your level who will grow their skills and standing in the industry at the same pace as you. (Twelve years on from my own film school graduation, I still encounter and work with my old peers in the professional industry.) 

Film school graduates, by way of their qualifications alone, communicate to potential employers and collaborators that they’ve got the sticking power to see a long-term project like a degree through to finish. And as film school is also the place where you learn to accept filmmaking as a team sport, a degree/diploma/certificate can signal to the industry that you’ve learned to play well with others.

Skipping film school has been somewhat romanticised in a post-Tarantino-video-shop age; Quentin, himself, famously quipped “when people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘No, I went to films.’” While this is as valid a path as any, do consider how many Quentin Tarantinos there are in the industry and how your knowledge and skill might stack up in comparison. It’s worth mentioning that film school is not the only place you can learn about the craft: read books about cinema, watch films (with a critical eye) and scour the internet for tutorials/video essays and articles. You might get by without formal training, but you’ll guaranteed to fail without any education at all.

Directing a Short Film

Your career begins proper when you direct your first short film. It’ll likely cost you a fortune, exhaust every favour you’ve ever collected in your professional and personal life, but it’ll serve as the first calling card you put out into the industry—a showcase of your skills, your style and where you want to head next. If you choose to attend a film school, you’ll likely get the opportunity to make a short film during your studies using the equipment and expertise of those at the institution. When weighing up the cost of making a film independently versus studying, remember to factor this into your decision making.

Primarily, short films serve three purposes for up-and-coming directors:

  1. Recognition at competitions and festivals. Allow critics and filmmakers to experience your work by sending your short film all over the world. A good filmmaker/producer will know which festivals suit their work best (always be researching), meaning a single short can be put to work on the circuit sometimes for years. Websites such as FilmFreeway compile festivals and competitions from around the world, meaning that you send out multiple, international submissions with ease.
  2. An industry calling card. A high-quality short film is something that you can send to producers, agents or anybody else who you think may be able to aid you in your career. It’s a great strategy for letting this person or company know that you’re capable of seeing a project through, and what they might expect were they to hire you for something more substantial.
  3. A (relatively) cost-effective learning experience. Perhaps the most important point starting out: short films are where you learn by doing and failing. Learn your lessons and make your mistakes in a contained, less-public environment before you start opting for more ambitious and risky projects.

      The funny thing about short film as a medium is that few filmmakers set out to create one just for an audience to see—paid, or otherwise. There is literally no market for them, and their purpose for being is tied to at least one of the above points. However, don’t let this turn you off investing in one: think of it as a helpful career stepping stone that brims with the promise of your next, bigger, better idea. The most important project you’ll ever make is always ‘the next one’.

      There is perhaps no more frustrating platitude in the creative industries than ‘it’s not what you do, it’s who you know’. While networking is as important to being a director as it is to any career in the arts, it is best not to rely on industry contacts—or your own standing in the industry, for that matter—to get your foot in the door.

      Generally, an entry-level job in the film industry does not guarantee you’ll move up (or in any direction) to the coveted director’s chair. Even if you’ve got years of experience, even if you know the most powerful people in the business: you’ll still have to prove yourself. And that’s not even taking into account the person without those contacts who’s likely hustled twice as hard to beat you to the post. While it is true that some people work their way up the food chain, it’s more likely they started out as an actor, or a cinematographer, or maybe a screenwriter and have some serious credentials or recognition in their primary field. As an actor, you may have the opportunity to direct a short film based on somebody knowing you and your work. But, chances are, professional film directing jobs will never materialise this way. It’s better you leverage your contacts and create your own opportunities.

      Directing a No-Budget Feature

      With the proliferation of sophisticated, affordable filmmaking technology available to the general public in the past few decades, the option to jump straight into directing a low-to-no-budget feature film has never been more possible. While we’d advise against trying it without any filmmaking experience whatsoever (as we said above: make all your mistakes in a short film first), directing a micro-budget feature film can not only act as a great professional calling card, it can even find a release in theatres. 

      Directors who have started their careers in this manner include Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), Peter Jackson (Bad Taste), Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) and David Lynch (Eraserhead). If you’re interested in wading into feature film territory, we recommend looking at these films and others like it; manage your own expectations and plot out something achievable within your means.

      Be Your Own Producer

      In the same way that an actor shouldn’t ‘sit at home and wait for the phone to ring’, an emerging director should never wait for a producer to come along, discover their talent and offer to put their film together. Organise, plan, finance and execute your own productions. Don’t wait to be discovered, don’t wait for that perfect funding/grant opportunity to come along. Hustle: make your film! Even if it turns out to be god-awful (and most of your early efforts will be, accept that right now), you’ll be respected for demonstrating work ethic and sticking power. Being your own producer will separate you from 90% of the other aspiring directors out there. As always, create sustainably, but be prepared to make some personal sacrifices to achieve your goal.

      And a quick note on crowdfunding: there is no shame in organising a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for your production. Just remember that you only get one of these in your career—one chance to rally people people in your life for financial gain. Choose when you use this wisely: if there’s a way of doing your current project cheaper or in any other way, consider that option first.

      Develop Yourself as a Director

      Whatever path you find yourself taking to become a director, it is vital that you continue to hone your skills and improve yourself. Film directing requires a lot of resource and effort; at some point, however, you will learn that the greatest threat to your career is not lack of projects, or money, or recognition, but a lack of drive. Keep making work, keep creating opportunities. Keep studying—either formally or in your own time—and look for ways to make the next, bigger, better project happen. Maintaining momentum is always your greatest asset.

      And as you begin this journey, always make time to stop and check in: look at what you’ve accomplished so far and where you want to go next. Remember to celebrate your achievements and be proud of them—there may be fewer in your career than you might hope for, at least to start off with! Film directing, as with any other role in the creative industries, is a job that will not happen unless you believe in your own abilities and self-worth. So be kind to yourself: cheer yourself on. Celebrate hard work and victories won. You’ll be calling “Action!” before you know it.

      About the Author

      Alexander Lee-Rekers

      Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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