Make Your Movie: Notes On Directing

As a director there are a million things going through your mind while in production. You oversee every aspect of the film, even if you don’t have a hand in making each happen. You should approve every detail along the way. There’s a lot of pressure there. You might even start to doubt yourself. Luckily, there are a great number of books out there on the subject of filmmaking. In particular, directing. Many will recommend, “Directing Actors” by Judith Weston, which is a great read. However, much like any instructional book on filmmaking, I felt that once I’d finished it, much of what I read wasn’t as intuitive to put into practice as I’d hoped.

Then, someone gave me a curious little book entitled, “Notes on Directing“, which is a book by Russell Reich put together with Frank Hauser based on 12 pages of notes Hauser, who ran once “ran the professional theatre at Oxford University”, would distribute to friends and students of his. It’s extremely comprehensive and, though it’s generally notes for theater directors, I’m sure you’ll see it’s easily translated into the world of film.

Below are just a few notes I found extremely helpful and my take on how to execute them:

70. “Please, PLEASE be decisive.”

This is a big one. Many inexperienced or untrained directors will assume that being a good director, means being a “nice” director. We’ve all heard the horror stories of directors shouting orders at cast and crew, making life on set almost unbearable. However, being nice can sometimes translate as being a push-over, and you definitely don’t want that. As questions arise during production everyone will look to you for the answers. When this happens you should always have one, even if you don’t think it’s the right one. Remember, you can, and should, change your mind when you see one of your decisions didn’t turn out the way you planned.

21. “Don’t expect to have all the answers.”

A good director will have great ideas. But a great director will include and consider the ideas of his crew members when dealing in areas of their expertise. Ask them for feedback from time to time. Especially if a problem has come up that you can’t find a solution to. You’ll surprised at what they come up with. In the end, you have the final say, but you should always trust your crew. You wouldn’t have hired them if you didn’t believe in their abilities.

63. “Always sit and read a scene before blocking it.”

In fact, never start rehearsing without first having scheduled and recorded a table read. This is a key step in getting what you want out of your actors. Tell them to read each line as they would during production straight through without interruptions. Make only mental notes during this session. Take the recording home and review it with a pen and a sheet of paper for each actor. Jot down your notes for each where ever you feel they need guidance. Then, either hand it to them at your first rehearsal or email it to them as soon as possible, informing them that these instructions are not set in stone but are merely there to help them as they rehearse their lines at home. You’ll find that this not only cuts your rehearsal time in half, but it helps you as a director organize your thoughts and pin point your actors’ strengths and weaknesses so that you can better develop their character on set.

41. “Don’t keep actors hanging about needlessly.”

Even on a super low-budget production, it’s always a good idea to set up a break room or some area where cast and crew can go while they’re waiting to be called on set. If this is not possible, I recommend allowing them to either go for a walk or have a seat somewhere out of sight of the production. Hire at least one PA that will be in charge of the phone list and keep track of cast and crew’s coming and goings, and call them back 5 minutes before their scheduled to come back. If you’re working with a small group it’s something your Assistant Director (AD) can easily handle. More than 10 people, I would definitely get a Production Assistant on board.

43. “Make sure [the production crew] get proper breaks.”

All too often I’ve been on sets where the main focus is on the actors, and rightly so. But it should never be at the cost of your talented crew. They work hard, very hard. They carry heavy equipment, climb ladders, and get down right dirty on the job. Proper time management and scheduling should always take into consideration the needs of all members of production.

62. “Talk to the character, not the actor.”

I try to make it a point to call the actors by their character’s names. It helps keep them ‘in the zone’ but also allows you to differentiate between the actor’s ego and the character’s needs. Say you’re going through a scene and, though the actors are saying their lines correctly and the blocking is spot on, something is still missing. You need to evoke more confidence. Instead of asking your actor to say the lines proudly, Say: “Wonderful! Touching! They’re so proud of each other!” You’ve just delineated to the actor what their character is missing without telling them anything they were doing was wrong.

102. “Don’t stand still.”

Acting equals action. (Where have I heard that from?) You should always have your actors doing something. Even if their character is watching television or reading a book, instruct them to continuously switch through channels or flip through pages as they do this. It won’t be entirely realistic but it’s better that than watching a potted plant on-screen. If the character is immobile then add movement to the scene with the camera. The big swooping camera shot in the Danish film Festen (the Celebration) by writer/director Thomas Vinterberg comes to mind, where the character lies still in bed staring at the ceiling as the camera moves in from an extreme wide shot to a closeup of Paprika Steen‘s face.


I highly recommend reading “Notes On Directing” for more invaluable tips you can use both on and off set.

Do you have any directing tips you’d like to share with our readers? Post them in the comments section below.


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