What I've Learned in 20 Years of Filmmaking

What I've Learned in 20 Years of Filmmaking

I'm sitting down on my birthday reflecting about everything. Yikes, what a mess. So many good things, so many bad things. I've succeeded in ways I'd never dreamed was possible and yet I'm still so far away from where I want to be. Oh, if only I could go back and do it all differently! Here's everything I learned the hard way:


1. Creativity is the most important human activity.

Thus, changing the world with art is the greatest job in the world.

2. Filmmaking is about social networking & market distribution - not filmmaking.

Yes: Movies are about entertainment. Cinema is about rare & precious moments.

But the business of filmmaking - mainstream, indie, experimental, Netflix, YouTube, local, national, or global - is interestingly not about filmmaking.

It's about if we like you (yes, you!) and benefit 10x by supporting you. This is an unshakable truth. Be likable and advertise. Your movies really only have to be 'good enough' to succeed.

3. Film is, unfortunately, a collaborative medium.

Again, no way around this. If you naturally love people - great! If not, learn :-p

4. Make your first feature film ASAP - the younger you are, the better.

Do not wait to become a better filmmaker. This is how you become a better filmmaker.

5. When you're first starting out, focus on style & spectacle.

In the beginning, the quality of your substance is not as important as the style of your spectacle.

6. All films are documentary films.

Every movie you make will also be about - on a deeper level - the way you made the movie.

7. Artists think by doing.

Never get stuck in research mode. Never take a hiatus from creation in order to learn more. A true artist expresses their philosophy through their medium. So a filmmaker "thinks" by making a movie, not by reading for weeks then writing an essay.

8. No matter how hard life gets, stick to your medium.

Never quit. Express your way out of the funk through art. You'll thank me later.

9. Finish everything you start as soon as possible.

In many ways, the movie industry is more about speed into market than product quality.

10. It takes six drafts for a screenplay to be ready.

No less, no more. And the first draft will always be shit. So don't sweat it. Let the first draft be shit, keep what works, and start the journey toward making it better. You'll be surprised how quickly a paper turd develops into a tight, fun screenplay. Thus, write madly and write often. 

11. Develop a production skill that's not directing, producing, writing, or editing.

I picked recording sound. What's yours? Which reminds me...

12. Good sound is more important than good video!

You can have a fun experience with bad video & good audio, but you can't have a fun experience with bad audio & good video. That's just evolution, man.

13. Directing is simply a matter of "This. Not that."

It's all about having good taste.

14. Make an immediate backup of all new footage.

You don't want to be the person who loses an entire film because of a hard drive malfunction, or stolen property. The more redundant you are about your data, the wiser you become as a human being. Always remember: Data loss is real.

15. Things always fall apart on movie sets.

Chaos is an important part of this process. Those who find ways to anticipate & harness chaos always have the most successful movie sets.

16. It becomes art the moment it influences an audience.

It's not art if nobody knows about. A masterpiece does not exist in a vacuum.

17. It's your job to cause trouble, to stretch culture, to be loud & bold, to do the crazy undone things.

If anybody has a problem with what you’re doing, just think “Hey! I'm trying to do my job here. I don't bother you at the office!”

18. Tell stories because you love people.

Any other reason makes bad movies and fuck you. Besides, art is monkey-centric. Why fight it?

19. Public failure as an artist is the only way to build confidence.

Don’t be afraid. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Remember: PEOPLE DEMAND TO BE ENTERTAINED. Go out there and change the world. We will accept it if you give it to us.

20. Develop your strengths and forget about your weaknesses.

Through life you're going to see other people succeed in ways that you never could. And it's going to nag and annoy. This is probably universal. Shakespeare, after all, wrote many sonnets about a rival poet he was jealous of. FUCKING SHAKESPEARE!

The only antidote for this is to focus on your strengths and forget entirely about your weaknesses. Cultivate something that somebody else could never possibly recreate.

21. Your movie's ultimately an intended effect.

Or, stated in structuralist term: Your movie has a FUNCTION (whether you know it or not).

If you get lost during production, or stuck when writing a screenplay, ask yourself: What is the one big effect I'm going for? What is the purpose of my movie? Defer to this effect. Or make up a function and give it a good shot. One strong effect all you need.

22. All cinema boils down to: FEAR & DESIRE.

Or: Sex and violence, as Walter Lippmann might say.

23. Tension is engendered, maintained, suspended, heightened, and resolved.

Tension is the dark matter of drama. And this is its magic formula.

24. Movies do not represent reality.

Movies are an aesthetic object. They're like toys, or music albums.

They are an artifice from beginning to end. Even documentaries - all documentaries - are constructed fabrications. They're lies, illusions, just like any other movie.

25. Crowds are only interested in images. 

Not dialogue, not ideas, not politics. IMAGES. Motion, action, sexy, mystery. Create amazing, iconic images and you'll be loved forever.

26. Festivals & grants look for prestige, not talent.

Prestige will never be handed to you, unless you’re born into it. Prestige must be taken. The easiest way to get prestige is through attention.

That also means your appearance matters. The way you brand yourself, how you socially interact, etc... After all: We're in the industry of illusions.

27. Splurge on a sexy poster for all your movies.

You deserve it. And people LOVE it! This includes your short films.

28. Creative success flourishes once you transform into a dogmatic optimist.

Because art is inherently optimistic.

29. The best film school is making a lot of movies.

And thinking about them afterwards. Make movies, watch them, then reflect on the entire process. Ask yourself, "How does my movie differ in quality from some of my favorite films?" Put pen to paper and figure it out. How could you improve?

Then go back out there & do it again.

30. Make things you love to re-watch.

That's why we got into this hot mess in the first place: because we love, love, love, love to make movies. To express ourselves. To indulge in our favorite parts of the medium. To experience joy.

Isn't that what life's all about?


Was God in Aronofsky's 2014 "Noah" The Demiurge?

Was God in Aronofsky's 2014 "Noah" The Demiurge?

Early Adopters, First Mover Advantage

Early Adopters, First Mover Advantage