From Writing to Directing: Famous Screenwriters Talk about their First Time Directing

Anyone who is about to make the leap from screenwriter to director is understandably anxious. Writing is like being a solitary soldier at a lone outpost, quietly scribbling away. Being a director suddenly makes you a general commanding your troops and fighting the enemy! You have to constantly be focused on others while planning, scheming, dealing with big obstacles and setbacks, and if not winning the war, at least surviving it, day by day. We recently spoke to four distinguished filmmakers who, once upon a time, took the plunge into being the captain of their movie squadron. They’ve supplied us with some great war stories and advice on how to make your first shoot a bit easier. They did well. And so can you. So, novice filmmakers, listen up.

Sarah Kernochan Puts Out Fires on Her Feature Debut

Sarah Kernochan is such a prolific, eclectic artist  — she’s made an Oscar-winning documentary, several albums of her own songs, written a novel — it’s amazing she’s found the time to toil so hard in the crazy vineyards of the film business. But toil she has. She’s seen several of her screenplays, including 1986’s notorious bit of erotica, 9 1/2 Weeks, get screwed up. So in 1998, she stepped up and directed the smart teen comedy All I Wanna Do.

Her time on the set as the writer did help her learn how to direct — even if a lot of what she learned was what not to do.

“I learned a fair amount when I was on the set of 9 1/2  weeks,” says Kernochan. “Most of it was adverse stuff, but it helped me a lot when I directed All I Wanna Do. When I got to the set it was chaos. The director, Adrian Lyne, was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. He was doing nothing but shooting pouring water…for days. The good thing that came out of it was, I was asked to work with the actors (Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger). That was really good for my directing chops. Still, the movie was a mess because they didn’t follow the script I had written. When I was done writing All I Wanna Do, I somehow convinced Miramax to let me direct, because I didn’t want my screenplay butchered . As it turned out, getting to make the film was only the first of many battles and struggles I had to go through to get the movie finished. But I certainly learned a lot about directing. Also, my husband, James Lapine, directed my script, Impromptu. He’s so talented at what he does and did such a good job, that being on that set was the opposite experience of 9 1/2 Weeks. I learned a lot by watching how calmly Jim dealt with problems on the set.”

What did Kernochan have to learn to deal with? Well, for starters, she had a DP and a camera operator who were in heated competition with one another.

“The camera operator and the cinematographer both had definite ideas about things, where we should put the camera, angles, the look of the film. And both were constantly approaching me — separately — and bitching about the other and how things should  go. That was really a nightmare. I would listen to them both, politely, and then go ahead and do what I wanted to do.”

Then, there were the actors.

“The movie is about a bunch of teen girls who are all good friends and get very angry when their all-female private school is integrated by bringing in boys. They are supposed to really bond over this. But in real life, various actresses were becoming cliquish with each other. Which was destroying the chemistry onscreen, because they’re all supposed to be one big clique. Also one of my leads gave an energetic, kickass audition, which got her the job. However, from day one, when we were shooting, she was so listless and laid back. Oh, I wanted to kill her.”

The movie got finished, however, and is funny and sweet. And Kernochan, whose screenwriting career continues to flourish, is philosophical.

There are going to be lots of surprises, especially bad ones, when you’re directing.

“There are going to be lots of surprises, especially bad ones, when you’re directing. You have to learn to deal with them without going crazy and know that things aren’t going to be perfect. As with the camera guys and the actors, you could never know beforehand that there would be personality clashes. You just have to learn to ride with this stuff.”

William Richert Learns How to Direct — by Writing

William Richert is the embodiment of the hip cult director. Especially due to his first film, 1979’s Winter Kills, based on Richard Condon’s novel about a Kennedy-like family. Having written the 1974 cult favorite, Law and Disorder, Richert soaked up enough experience from its director, Ivan Passer, to be ready, sort-of, for his debut as a director. Which is good. Because his first time out, he was directing John Huston, Jeff Bridges, Elizabeth Taylor and other heavyweights.

“I did have a great experience on Law and Disorder,” says the wild, garrulous Richert. “Ivan is a great director and I was on the set often. So I did, in a Socratic way, soak up directing by watching Ivan with actors. Although I didn’t really learn anything about the camera — at all.”

“I did have a great experience on Law and Disorder,” says the wild, garrulous Richert. “Ivan is a great director and I was on there often. So I did, in a Socratic way, soak up directing while watching Ivan work with actors.”

Still, when Richert was finally on his own set after many a financial setback, he managed to have a wonderful time directing. Even if he needed to learn a few things.

“At first, I felt I had no idea where to put the camera,” Richert recalls, “And that was especially embarrassing, because I had (legendary DP), Vilmos Zsigmond shooting the film. He let me look through the eyepiece, but that didn’t help. What did work was, I would walk to the actors or certain objects and frame the things with my hands. Vilmos got that and I was very happy.”

Richert also has some encouraging words for screenwriters: “Trust what you wrote.”

I found, early on, that by having a strong script and referring to it often, that things got pretty easy.

“I found, early on, that by having a strong script and referring to it often, that things got pretty easy. I realized that when you write a screenplay, in your head you’re really directing it too. You see it! So, just picture what you wrote — each day — and you will be fine. Don’t go on the set with ideas. Have the script with you and it will all go very well.”

Caroline Thompson Discovers Storyboarding and Makes A Masterpiece

You know Caroline Thompson’s screenplays, even if you can’t quite place the name. As the author, auteur really, of Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas and other wonderfully gothic tales, she is one of the few artistic and original scriptwriters in Tinsel Town. She sort of became a director by accident. Not to protect her work, not to control people — “I’m much too maternal to be a director,” she says, “I’m always wondering if the crew is hungry” — or any other understandable reasons. But she became a director, a superb one, when she helmed “Black Beauty,” for Warner’s in 1994.

“I was not consumed with the idea of directing at all,” says the funny, down-to-earth Thompson. “But because I’d had real success with Edward Scissorhands and ‘Nightmare,’ Warner Bros just came after me and begged me to do it. When I said ‘no,’ they just threw more and more money at me, until I couldn’t say no.”

However, as shooting of the children’s classic began in England, a real dilemma popped up for Thompson in the shape of a visual problem.

“I’m spatially retarded,” she says bluntly. “I just had no idea how people were to stand in relation to one another, nothing. I was good with the actors, because I had explained to Johnny Depp and Alan Arkin on the set of Edward Scissorhands who their characters were, but visually, I was kind of lost. So I asked them to provide me with a storyboard artist. And this person drew up every scene according to my instructions. I’d had the scenes in my head, but I’m one of those people who needs the storyboard.”

Still, as shooting went along, Thompson, who is so modest it’s a little scary, wasn’t sure she was handling this directing gig too well. But then, she was reassured.

I can’t recommend storyboarding highly enough

“About halfway through the shoot, Claire Simpson, the editor, and Alex Thomson, who was my DP, were watching some footage one day, and both of them smiled and looked at me. Claire said, ‘I think our director’s going to be okay.’ Which was not only a lovely thing to hear, but gave me the confidence to finish the film. Still, I found the job was not really for me. It was incredibly exhausting. I got pneumonia-twice-during the shoot and was just a wreck when it was finished. Still, a lot of people seem to like it, so I’m glad. But I can’t recommend storyboarding highly enough. It really saved my ass. Not everyone likes it. But I sure do.”

Gorman Bechard Goes Indie To Protect His Work

Gorman Bechard is a filmmaker — and novelist — whose work spans award-winning documentaries, like Color Me Obsessed, to several haunting fiction features, like You Are Alone. He became a director because he was tired of dealing with Hollywood dealmakers who paid him huge amounts of money to not make his movies.

“Back in the mid-90s, I had a script called Mosh Pit, that was so hot, it was immediately picked up by William Morris and attached to a big Oscar-winning actress. She then, of course, wanted some changes. So I made them. Then, my agent sent out the original script and the one with the changes — at the same time! This confused the hell out of everyone. For a year or so, I flew back-and-forth from Connecticut to Hollywood doing rewrites on this script or that script of mine. I was making good money, but nothing got made! Luckily, the digital revolution was at hand around this time. I bought myself a Canon XL camera and learned how to use it.”

After a couple of short subjects, Bechard made his debut as a feature director with 2005’s You Are Alone. He found it, if not easy, certainly a relief from all the turnarounds in Hollywood.

“I had a smallish crew. Also, I was careful with casting my female lead. Since I knew she had to carry the film, I made sure that my actress was not only good, but someone I could get along with and who had a good amount of stamina. I chose a woman named Jessica Bohl, after hanging with her and auditioning her. You can’t always control your actors, but do your best to find out if your leads are people who are not going to make you crazy.”

You can’t always control your actors, but do your best to find out if your leads are people who are not going to make you crazy

Does Bechard have any more advice for the first-timer? “Have fun,” he says surprisingly. “There’s a pretty good chance we’re not going to make a lot of money making movies, so if that’s the case, we should at least have a good time. I love to direct; I’ve learned to be my own DP and editor and basically, although it’s hard, I love it. So, yes, try to remember it’s only a movie and have a good time making it.”

Conclusions

Certainly there isn’t just one conclusion to draw from these experiences, but taking every director’s stories together, I’d say it’s most essential to be prepared. Even though that means something different for each of the filmmakers who shared their advice here. Be prepared for clashes of temperament amongst the crew and cast. Have a good script that you can always refer back to. Storyboard, if you think you’ll need to. And finally, remember to enjoy the experience and keep things light, no matter what goes wrong. First-timers? Remember what the great Orson Welles said about his debut: “Have the confidence of ignorance.” You won’t know all that much when you start, but by the time you are done directing your first feature, you will be especially ready to start your second.

Peter Gerstenzang is a video director and a prizewinning humorist.

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