What marks out filmmaking in contrast to artistic activities like writing, painting or sculpting is that it is a team effort. The most successful directors are those who excel at managing teams, getting the best out of each team member and enabling them to work towards a shared vision. For one reason or another, though, some filmmakers do a lot of different jobs themselves, either on their own movies or on other people’s. This can be a great way for them to learn and enhance their primary craft. This article looks at some of those who have benefited from taking this approach.
Multiple Oscar winner Spike Lee is now one of Hollywood’s most successful directors and producers, so it’s easy to forget how hard he had to work to find his feet in the industry. As well as writing the scripts which launched his career, he filled in with other tasks on set, as camera operator, cinematographer and editor. He also acted in many of his early films – not an easy thing to pull off at the same time as directing – but was clearly bitten by the bug, as he continued to take small roles in later works such as Summer of Sam and Red Hook Summer. Throughout his career, he has also provided mentoring and support to upcoming African American filmmakers and has gained a reputation for being generous with his time as well as helping people to network.
She may be a big name now, having won an Oscar for experimental docudrama Nomadland, but Chloé Zhao’s climb to the top has been anything but straightforward, and the quality of her work today owes a good deal to what she learned along the way. Like a lot of independent filmmakers, she found her feet in the short film community, where limited resources frequently make it necessary for everyone involved to do multiple jobs. In her case, this included developing the editing skills which contributed so much to her successful features, as well as operating a camera and working in continuity on set. An internship as a researcher contributed to the development of her award-winning writing skills, and she produced all her own movies as well as a couple directed by others.
Though best known as a director of documentaries like Beautopia, Katharina Otto-Bernstein has also directed a fictional movie (The Second Greatest Story Ever Told) and has actually spent most of her career as a producer, again focusing mostly on documentary but not doing so exclusively, and including a television series (Für Umme) and a couple of shorts. She’s written documentary scripts and a TV script, and, like many of the best directors, has worked as a camera operator (on Absolute Wilson) – something which makes it easier to understand, on an instinctive level, what it’s reasonable to request from others. She’s even had a small acting role in the TV movie Teething with Anger.
29 years went by between Jane Campion becoming the first woman to win the Palme D’Or, for The Piano, and her becoming the third woman to win Best Director at the Oscars, for The Power of the Dog. In the interim, she directed just four feature movies, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t busy. Aside from directing a short, contributing to anthology movies and directing popular television series Top of the Lake, she was serving as a producer on other projects and mentoring new talents. Prior to her success at Cannes, she also worked as a camera operator and editor, and fans of her work won’t be surprised to hear that she has some experience as a cinematographer. She has written all her own films and even composed the score for one of her shorts.
If you really want to find innovation in the movie industry, don’t follow the money. It’s where budgets are tightest that filmmakers need to do everything for themselves – and, if they don’t have all the requisite skills, they learn them. Alexis Bruchon received widespread acclaim for his début feature, The Woman With Leopard Shoes, but still more interesting is the story of how he made it: writing the script, casting from amongst people he knew, building the set at his parents’ home (with a little help from his father), then handling the direction, cinematography and editing all by himself – and winning praise for all of them. He even taught himself how to compose the score by remixing audio samples. He’s just hit the festival circuit with his second movie, The Eyes Below, to further acclaim.
By gaining experience at ground level and enriching their understanding of what different jobs involve, directors and producers can gain the respect of their team members and engage with them more successfully. This results in better quality movies for the rest of us to enjoy.