On my most recent film, An Aria for Albrights, I had the pleasure of working with a professional editor for the first time. It was the next step in taking myself out of the equation for specialized skills that other people are better at than me. In college, I hired a sound re-recording mixer for the first time and, hearing the drastic improvements that a professional audio engineer could bring to the table, I refused to ever let myself near audio ever again. Towards graduation, I quit acting as my own cinematographer. Then, I stopped writing my own films. Rather, I started developing ideas with writers much more adept than myself. Now I’ve called it quits on editing my own projects and I could not be happier. Did these movies become any less of an artistic expression for me because I narrowed my focus to directing and producing? No. If anything, it allowed me to build upon my strengths and collaborate more with other great artists. Filmmaking is a mashup of all great art forms and I have a ton of respect for individuals who have honed a specific skill.
Today’s culture puts a huge emphasis on “doing it yourself.” Content has inundated YouTube and SoundCloud, Vimeo and Spotify. We lift up the singer/songwriter, the writer/director, the person who can juggle while brewing coffee and planting their own quinoa. The point is, we expect a film to be a director’s original idea. We discredit musicians who do not write their own material. This article is in no way meant to shame the super talented folks who have mastered more than one craft. However, individuals who are great at more than one specialty are the exception, not the rule. Some of the most memorable work in history exists through well-paired, collaborative efforts.
I’ll never forget browsing the shelves of Barnes and Noble and coming across a tantalizing title: “Rebel Without a Crew” by Robert Rodriguez. As a young, aspiring filmmaker, I devoured each page and took it as sacred testimony. After all, I loved Sin City, Desperado, and thought Rodriguez offered a very alluring argument to filmmakers. In lots of ways, his words empowered me. “First step to being a filmmaker is to stop saying you want to be a filmmaker.” He made me feel like a legitimate artist. Stop talking about it and do it. I loved that mentality and still do. There is nothing wrong with Rodriguez’s approach of assembling his resources and making the best movie he could with that very approach. It was, however, at a very different time in history when meeting potential collaborators was much more difficult. Not everyone is the next Rodriguez or Tarantino or Soderbergh, and that is totally okay.
At many film festival Q&A’s I’ve received the question: “How did you come up with the idea for your film?” To which, I usually reply, “I didn’t.” It’s not that simple. It is automatically assumed that the independent filmmaker must have written her own script. Why else would anybody want to spend time and money making something that wasn’t their idea? Well, we forget that symbiotic relationships between writer and director, director and producer, brought us most of cinema's great achievements. Songs too. Does it make Peter Bogdanovich any less of a legitimate filmmaker for not coming up with the idea for Paper Moon? He came up with the title, yes. He decided on the casting, yes. He put his own directorial stamp on the project, but he wasn’t struck with idea-lightning one day and decided he wanted to make a film. In fact, how many screenplays adapt novels that most of us have never even heard of? Lots. Does that make these screenwriters any less legitimate for not having their own, original idea? No. It makes them smart. They found material that spoke to them and had an idea on how to make it their own. Francis Ford Coppola signed on to direct The Godfather because he needed to make money. Plain and simple. He took it as any other directing job. It was only by accident that he connected to the material and made it into the iconic film that film students swarm to. The fact is, very few people are actually able to conceive and write an original screenplay. Even fewer are able to conceive, write and direct their idea to its fullest potential. Sure, any writer could try to direct their own script, and any director could try to write something they want to make, but oftentimes this can produce less than desirable results.
Frank Sinatra built his music career singing the hits of Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Rodgers & Hammerstein, to name a few. Many songwriters, like Rodgers & Hammerstein, wrote songs together because one was a brilliant lyricist and the other a star composer. Throughout his earlier work, Edgar Wright collaborated with Simon Pegg in writing the screenplays for his films. There is also a great transcript of a brainstorming session for Raiders of the Lost Ark showing a brilliant collaboration between Steven Spielberg, Lawrence Kasdan, and George Lucas. This idea bash shows how fluid and enlightening it can be to work with other artists. Throwing things out there without self-editing but having partners you can trust to mold your vision into its final form. As a filmmaker, I encourage you to find the artists you want to surround yourself with. The people that make you better. Author and artist Austin Kleon calls this “[identifying] your fellow Knuckleballers” in his book, "Show Your Work!" In the age of social media, online forums, and websites dedicated to indie filmmakers, this is easier than ever to do. Most states have at least one film festival. Get to it and start meeting people. But don’t work with everyone you meet, work only with those who make you better.
If you feel confident about writing and directing your own work, don’t keep your writing close to your chest. Send it to as many people as possible (ideally people who have way more experience than you) for feedback. As Howard Aiken said, “Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats.” We are not trying to solicit compliments, we are trying to get better. Mike Birbiglia hosts readings of his screenplays in New York. The incentive? His favorite New York pizza in exchange for honest feedback. He invites writers, actors, and creative individuals who he refers to as much more talented than himself. These meetings happen over and over again until the script is finally ready for production. I would also encourage that you look beyond your own imagination for inspiration and ideas if you want to pen your own material. Stanley Kubrik, regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, pulled most of his inspiration from novels: The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, the list goes on. He notoriously did not stick very close to the source material with The Shining, but starting with already great literature allowed him to conjure his vision from a place where so much legwork was already done.
I will say this: making a movie entirely by yourself (or juggling way too many roles) is better than sitting on the couch and telling people you’re “working on something.” Talk is cheap and I applaud anyone who has actually done it. I am offering up the fact that we are all looking to get better, or at least we should be, and going about things the same way will oftentimes produce similar results. In other words, if you want to get better, you’ve got to look at what you can change and improve upon. For me, it was a matter of wearing less hats and focusing more on the one that I really care about: directing. If you’re a young filmmaker starting out, you might be thinking, “how will I convince others to work with me if I’ve never made anything?” Chances are there is a less-experienced cinematographer, sound designer, composer, writer, editor, or producer out there looking for the chance to collaborate and show you what she’s got. Heck, there may even be an experienced artist who loves your material so much that they are willing to work with a first-time director.
A great script or a great idea will usually be enough to get people excited about collaborating. If you don’t have that great idea or script? Find the writer who is looking to have their first short film produced. Devour novels and unearth that great short story begging for an adaptation. Go to film festival screenplay readings (how my friend Jake Hull found the script for a short he ended up making), scour the internet and forums for people you admire, make an effort instead of writing everything off as hopeless. We live in a very small world where it’s easy to collaborate with great artists from around the globe. The composer I work with is from Budapest, my sound designer lives in Tbilisi, Georgia, the talented fellow who draws up concept art for me hails from Sweden. Work the extra hours to pay for a flight to bring someone in who will add a ton of value to the project. Be flexible and collaborative and most of all, be genuine and a pleasant person to work with. That goes a long way. Other creative individuals have ideas that you would have never dreamed up. Get that gross ego out of the way and put the project first. There’s absolutely no need to do it all yourself. So don’t.
Alexander Jeffery is the Executive Director of the El Dorado Film Festival and the award-winning director of The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy and Memoir.