My first years as a director were riddled with failings and flourishes. With mistakes and accidents. The tens of unsuccessful treatments, the barren periods of work, the occasional temptation to throw in the towel. Despite working in the industry as an AD for many years, the leap from the back of the lunch queue to the director’s chair felt like an impossible task. It took years of hard work, rejection and self-learning.
A filmmaker's life is anything but easy. Looking back now, those difficult periods served an important purpose. It tested my resolve, and I owe my successes to those drawbacks. They were the foundation blocks for the work I’m most proud of. However, here’s what I wish I knew during those formative years as a director.
1. Don’t let the losses get you down
To succeed in this industry, you need to become a specialist in failure. You need to know how to fail, how to harness your energy and to protect yourself from the pitfalls of career frustration - particularly the effects of not winning the pitch. So don’t let the losses get you down!
Do your utmost to remain philosophical, get better with each pitch, and avoid drowning your sorrows in Soho. Actually, does anyone hang out in Soho anymore?
Find rewarding places to invest your energy when things don’t work out, whether that be a passion project, long-distance running, going to a museum or catching-up with an old friend.
2. You are always learning
Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese master of cinema, was asked if there was anything more in the world of film he had yet to learn. His response: “The universe”. He was 80.
We are always learning. In life and in film. Don’t ever forget that.
3. Be original
Don’t lazily regurgitate old ideas or mimic current filmmaking trends. Repackaging old and outdated ideas and treatments is easy and misguided. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Instead, work that bit harder to form original ideas and filmmaking techniques that serve your project or pitch. Find your own voice. Be brave and true to yourself. Tell stories that only you could tell. Even if you don’t win, it’s much more satisfying that way.
4. Always be developing passion projects
You need to have personal projects on the side. Whether that be a feature length screenplay, or an art project or a comedy sketch show. Invest your energy and efforts in this work when you have the time, or when things don’t go your way with respect to commissioned work. It’s much more gratifying to realise these projects because they are inherently yours. You are the client and the creative, liberated from the common frustrations we experience as filmmakers on commercials and music videos.
5. Don’t spend too much time on Instagram
I could honestly fill a book on the pitfalls of spending too much time on social platforms. They are energy and confidence sinkholes. Don’t get me wrong, Instagram is a great tool for marketing oneself and sharing work and ideas. But it can also be a dispiriting place during periods of career frustration. Don’t pay too much attention to what other people are doing, focus on yourself. There’s a reason why racehorses are fitted with eye guards when on the track, without which they pay too much attention to the other horses and lose sight of where they might be planting their feet, losing their balance in the process.
So, focus on yourself, take time away from social media and allow for periods of reflection. Boredom breeds ideas. Don’t starve your daily life of a crucial and developmental state of mind by incessantly reaching for your iPhone.
6. Manage your finances sensibly
This should be taught in schools! I lived permanently in my overdraft during those first years in the industry. The cycles of work for a filmmaker are invariably irregular. It’s feast or famine. So don’t splash out when you get that first commercial. Avoid buying everyone in the pub a round. Set aside 30% for your tax bill and a further 20% into a savings account. You’re only ever one bad decision away from a barren run of work.
7. Don’t spend all your time with industry folk
“Calm down, it’s only a commercial” - Michael Winner
We spend far too much time talking about work. Morning, day and night. Weekdays and weekends. It consumes us. So be sure to spend time with new and old friends who don’t work in the industry. We’re not saving lives. There’s nothing like a quiet drink with a nurse or a teacher when you need a different perspective on things.
8. Be patient. It’s not a question of if, more a question of when. So, keep working. Every day. One foot in front of the other.
“It takes twenty years to become an overnight success” - Eddie Cantor
Winning your first promo, bagging that first commercial, financing that first feature. These things take time. Your job is to stay in the ring. Stay on your feet. Keep moving forward.
9. View other filmmakers as friends not foes / give away your gold
In my early career I viewed other directors as the competition. I was coy about what I was working on. I always responded with “busy”, even when I hadn’t worked in months whenever someone asked how I had been. That was a mistake. Other filmmakers are your comrades, your confidantes, your advisors. It’s a massive industry and there’s enough work out there for all of us. So treat other creatives as your friends, exchange ideas, open up about your frustrations. It’s good to talk and help one another.
10. Take time off
This is an obvious one! It’s important to rest the body and the mind. To travel, visit family, walk around your city with nothing but a good book. Protect yourself from burnout. Your mental and physical well-being is far more important than a pitch for a shampoo ad – I say this because I once missed out on a music festival in Japan with my school friends to work on a crummy ad. That was a dumb idea. Many years have passed and sadly I still haven’t seen The Strokes or visited Japan.