Want to a career as a director but do not know how to get there? Here are eight directing tips from award-winning filmmaker James Genn.
By: Sophia Lin
One of the most highly coveted jobs in the film industry is none other than the top job on set: directing. The remarkable level of creativity, the expression of personal vision, and the opportunity for collaborative leadership are just a few of the numerous aspects that make many dream of having a career as a director.
For student filmmakers, however, it can be an aspiration that seems daunting, or simply too far off. That’s one of the many myths we’ll debunk here — anyone who sets their mind to it can direct. But, the more advice and insight you can gain, the better off you’ll be to set forth on the unique, enthralling path that a career as a director offers.
So take it from award-winning Canadian director James Genn, as he extends his most essential tips for directing both film and TV, across a diverse range of genres from comedy to horror. The recipient of Genie Award, Gemini Award, and Canadian Screen Award nominations, his work has been screened at festivals all around the world, including the Toronto International Film Festival. Most recently, he’s directed episodic TV content for the likes of Disney+, Hulu, and CBC.
Below, find nuanced, personal tips from a director who has not only had over decades of directing experience, but has created and continues to create some of the finest work in Canada and beyond. Keep reading to see how you can start your career as a director and make fantastic films.
1. Focus on Your Work
Filmmakers often find that they have to surreptitiously juggle two worlds: the purely creative facets of film and the unavoidable business side of the industry. Those who focus on a love of the craft and nurture a singular mission to create exceptional work, notes Genn, are the ones who truly do well.
As he emphasizes, “The agent doesn’t come before the work. Your job is to do work — do great work — and do the best you can and learn from your mistakes. Eventually, when your work starts getting seen by people and it reaches a certain level, then, trust me, the agents will come to you.”
2. Connect with the Audience
“When you’re working on a moment to moment, beat to beat, choice by choice basis, it’s really about how you are connecting to an audience,” says Genn. “How are you communicating ideas to an audience and making them feel something?”
The object of directing can be manifold, but one of the most important aims should be human connection. Though this certainly can demand a delicate counterbalance with personal and artistic expression, serving the audience should remain a staple of your work.
“As I’ve grown and matured as a director, it’s switched to becoming not about an expression of yourself, but about communicating ideas to somebody else. And the audience is first,” he adds.
3. Build Long-Lasting Relationships
As the saying goes, Hollywood is built on relationships. And that couldn’t be closer to the truth. Genn has maintained a close, career-long relationship with his first agent, who remains his agent still to this day.
“The one thing I can’t stress enough is that you build relationships and you stick to them,” he advises. “Your whole career is about relationship building. The people that you meet along the way and the type of vibe you bring to your work. Make that good and enjoyable for people, and they’ll keep calling you.”
4. Be Tenacious
“The tenacity worked. It took a long time, but eventually, I had done enough work that people had to listen to me. I was there, I hadn’t gone away,” Genn reflects.
In a fast-changing, ever-growing industry like film, staying tenacious is a key quality that leads to success. The name of the game is to keep at it — start out by volunteering on sets and working as a PA, and remain steadfast as you work your way up the ladder.
He adds, “The people who know how to communicate well, collaborate well, understand other people’s needs, and respect the value of every single person working on the crew and the cast equally — those are the people who are going to do really well.”
5. Take Responsibility
When it comes to responsibility, the stance a director has can have ripple effects across the entire cast and crew. This sets the tone for collaboration and interaction on set. As a result, a shift in mindset can be the crucial, defining difference between those who make it and those who don’t.
“The great directors I know, they take responsibility for everything they do,” Genn reveals. “They don’t sit around blaming the PA because they’ve broken something and they can’t get their shot. Everything that they do is their responsibility, no matter what the circumstances are. And they take that responsibility very personally. That’s how their work goes from being just work to being exceptional work.”
6. Manage Your Stress
“As a director, you have to live and die by decisions you’re making all day long,” Genn discloses. “It’s the stress of knowing that if you’re trying to shoot too much for the scene in the morning, then the scene you’re going to shoot in the afternoon, you’re going to rush the actors or you’re going to have to cut the shots down. So on a macro level, you really have to learn to manage your stress very well.”
Directing involves decisive leadership and vision, and often, many don’t fully consider the stress that may come with that. The key, however, is to decide and let it go. As Genn advises, “Don’t fuss about the things you can’t control and work very hard on the things that you can.”
7. Embrace Challenges
Pursuing a career as a director can sometimes feel like a great leap of faith. However, the secret to overcoming this lies right within you. Genn’s advice is, with your passion as your guide, wholeheartedly embrace the challenges that come your way.
“When you’re on a film crew at any level and you look around you, you see a lot of people that are there for the same reasons you are. And we connect to that. It’s a pretty hard thing to resist,” he explains. “You’ll sacrifice a lot of things in your life, including the daunting feeling of it, the challenge of it, because the reward of it is so great and the work that you do is so interesting. If it was too easy, it wouldn’t be quite as fun, right?”
8. Dedicate Yourself To A Career As A Director
“There’s a big difference between being able to just direct something and being able to direct something exceptional. And making something stand out takes a tremendous amount of effort and work,” Genn remarks. “It takes you sitting down at home and imagining ten different ways that some single scene, or beat, or moment in something you’re making can be done.”
Dedication is known to separate the great from the ordinary, and directing is no different. The amount of sheer hard work and thought you put into your craft will show. Therefore, the more you put in, the better.
He concludes, “Your job is to make things work at all costs. You find a way to apply your talents to a variety of genres, a variety of voices, and you learn how to do it better than anyone else.”
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