Monday, February 8, 2010

First timers

The issue of first time directors offers a look into the fears, anxieties and insecurities of many distributors and studios towards those damn "creative people" without whom they would not have a job. My first experience with that term came when I was doing commercials, used by salesmen at a TV station. It was a "them vs us" sort of thing as in "you creative people are different than the rest of us". Sometimes it was a compliment, sometimes not.

By creative, I'm referring only to directors for now as this job is the source of all those fears and doubts by the above mentioned people.

Nobody wants a first-time feature-film director. 

But every director was a first-timer once.

 I got my first chance at directing a movie after working as a writer, producer and director of more than 500 commercials and maybe 20 documentaries and corporate films. It happened after I had left a TV station in Calgary to "go on my own". Frankly I was tired of commercials and ad agencies. I wanted to do serious stuff. Movies.

My friend Doug MacLeod and I decided to do a movie when he mentioned a family friend of his owned an old hotel in Lake Louise in the heart of the Rockies. We drove out and walked through it and then went back and hammered out a script in a few weeks. We called it Ghostkeeper, and it was about a woman who kept a creature in the proverbial "basement" of the hotel, which was called Deer Lodge. It still stands today by the more regal Chateau Lake Louise, which many of you must know of.

As luck would have it, Harry, another friend and co-worker left his job at the TV station as well. We got together and decided we'd make the movie. These were heady times for the film industry in Canada with 100% tax shelters and we raised about $650,000 (1980 money) within five months. Those tax shelter days now are gone due to too much money-grabbing by lawyers and accountants.

Then it came to the director job. I had tons of experience in commercials and had always planned I would direct. And since Harry and Doug didn't want to, I was the director. Simple as that. During production, there was only one person who felt I wasn't competent enough to direct traffic. He was the 1st AD, (first Assistant Director)the one person just below director category.  His job is to move the production forward, make sure no time is wasted.

He felt he should have the job as he had done many features. But not as director. He would write down things on the time sheets like "director took 15 minutes to make decision" or "10 minutes lost to director indecision". And all his time sheets would come to me as my own company, Badland Pictures, was producing the film. So I simple ignored them.

I was lucky that way, both Doug and Harry had confidence in me, and I had considerable experience to back it up. We finished on time and on budget.

One big item I left out is the distributor. We didn't have one. We were sure we could find one when the movie was completed and better, we raised all the money ourselves from oilmen in Alberta.

Distributors change the scenario.

Once the distributor enters the picture, he or she begins making demands. Things like "a name actor" and "a name director".  You mention 1st time director and they visibly begin shaking and sweating. And since they probably have put in some of their own money, they don't want to take a chance on a first-timer getting behind schedule, being unable to handle actors or generally making a bad movie.

Not that name directors don't make bad movies. Ever hear of Ishtar? (Read Vanity Fair's article on Elaine May this month)

Shirley will be a first-time director in the world of feature films. She has made a lot of short films and other work as well as working in Art direction and graphic design and a large volume of work in photography. All of which is closely related to making a film. In other words, she is one of those "creative people". Like me. Like other directors. Ridley Scott came from the same world, as did countless other directors.

So how does one get to become a first time director if they haven't done a feature? Either they fund the movie themselves or they have a producer who believes that they can do it. I have worked with enough directors to know Shirley is perfectly capable of doing a feature and most likely better than some of the directors I worked with.

One thing I learned from my first feature was that, while I often worked with a3-6 person crew on commercials, I had 42 people on Ghostkeeper and surprisingly that made it a lot easier rather than harder.

There are other things that make it easier to approve a first-timer, an Academy-award winning short film, a YouTube video that gets a million views, having a father like Ivan Reitman (whose son Jason made Juno), or doing A-list commercials.

Another thing essential is surrounding the first-timer with a solid and experienced feature crew with an emphasis on the DP and the editor. My preferences for Travel Day are people with at least 3 feature films behind them.

Is it fair? No. But nothing is fair in the film business world. So you start from that and work forwards. Shirley will direct her first feature as every other director has and will go on to her second and third and so on.

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