Alex Cohen has directed three short documentary films, one animation, and three short fiction films. He graduated from Harvard College in 2018, majoring in Visual and Environmental Studies with a focus in film and video production.
[Editor’s Note: Before you delve into these insightful tips Alex has been wonderful enough to share with us, we wanted to tell you a little bit more about why we’re publicizing his work. The mission of GlamSalad.com is to inspire youth – and above all, to celebrate amazing young individuals doing awesome work. Alex is certainly one of them, and he’s currently hustling to fundraise for production for his next film, a short about a girl who is expelled from college due to some debauchery. You can learn more about the film and help make his project happen here. Thank you for reading, and without further ado, here are 6 tips for aspiring filmmakers from Alex Cohen:]
The following is a breakdown of six fundamental tips for aspiring filmmakers (particularly directors) that I’ve come to learn from both my own experience making films as well as from speaking at length with far more experienced titans of the business:
1. Write, and write smart
There’s one very important reality for people who want to make films but don’t know how to get started: nobody is going to come to you with a screenplay for you to direct. If your aspiration is to be a writer-director, writing your own films is already a part of your vision for your career; but even if you don’t want to write your films, the truth is that you’ll need to anyway when you are first starting out. And this is a wonderful thing.
Any good movie starts off as a good story on paper, and to practice constructing your own on the page is the first step toward understanding how to best bring stories to life. Thinking like a director includes being able to think like a writer. And honestly, even if you have a friend who likes to write and wants you to direct their stories, you also need to be putting special attention toward figuring out what kinds of stories you want to make. Nobody is going to write exactly what you like—except for you.
Writing doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Different people’s minds work differently; some are able to sit down and churn out dozens of story ideas in one sitting, while others specialize purely in dialogue, while others don’t really love any of it. As someone who has never been the most productive writer, here’s the best piece of advice I can offer for those starting out:
Write what you know, and write honestly. Maybe it’s a transcription of a real experience you once had, or maybe it involves real relationships between you and people you know, but the best way to make sure the emotions on the page are rooted in reality—which is the MOST important aspect of a story—is to draw from your own life. It’s very difficult to extrapolate the way you think something would feel. No matter who you are and where you come from, something in your life merits being put on a page. So don’t be afraid to put it there.
Another thing: inspiration can come from anywhere. Read screenplays to see how it’s done, but also read novels, articles, short stories, biographies. Listen to podcasts. Figure out what interests you and why. Learn about anything and everything. If you really love a story, you can even reach out to the author and see if they might let you cheaply option it. But no matter what, assume you’ll have to write the script.
There’s a second aspect of writing, though, and that’s writing smart. It’s great to practice writing your film about finding aliens on the Moon—and you can keep it stored away for when you have the budget one day—but you also need to write things that you can make, now. Practice thinking like a producer, and limit the scope of some of your stories. Some of the most creative thinking comes from restrictions, so try telling a story that takes place in one room, or over one day, and see what happens.
Your early stuff might be bad. It very likely will be, and that’s fine. Get feedback from people whose opinions you respect (although register it with the Writer’s Guild of America before you do and use discretion—some people like to steal), rewrite, shelve stuff, start new stuff, then look at old stuff again and see what you can do with it. The more you write, the better the odds are that you’ll end up with at least one thing that’s great.
2. Watch movies
If you love movies and want to make them, this should be pretty easy. For a long time, I hadn’t actually seen that many movies (and I still have a long way to go). But then I realized that being up-to-date on films is not just about educating oneself about the history of the medium, or seeing what stories have been told already (although both of these things are important). It’s about expanding your toolbox for when you want to be the one making the movie. Directing, among other things, is an exercise in problem-solving. You have a story, and you need to figure out how use a camera and actors to create relatable characters, stakes and tension, and real emotions in an audience. Sometimes you may have an innate sense of how to do this, but often you’ll need to look elsewhere. Figure out what you’re going for in a particular film, find other films that did it well (or did it badly!), study them closely, and use them to find a path forward. Plus, referencing other movies is a particularly effective way of communicating your own visions to the people around you, which is the majority of what being a good director is.
Every new movie you watch offers new tools for you to use or not use, and that will leave you even more prepared for when it’s your turn.
3. Find your people
Another important reality: moviemaking is not a solitary activity, at least not in the world of fiction. You can’t make a movie without help, from people who are also passionate and whom you can trust. Some of these people may already be your friends (Oscar-winning director of La La Land Damien Chazelle has worked with composer Justin Hurwitz for all of his films since they first became roommates in college). But a lot of them you will have to find. Scour your current network for those you may already know, and then get to work expanding it.
And this is where you must remember: the world of low-budget filmmaking is built on favors. The best way to find the people who will help you make your film (without charging you full price for their skills), if you do not know them already, is to help them first. Immerse yourself in the world of people who do what you want to do. Seek out work on film sets, be they student films, micro-budget indies, or larger-budget union projects. Be willing to work for free at the start, if you can afford it. Even if these jobs are just gofer work as a PA, this is where you will meet other people who work or want to work in film. Become friends with them, and work hard for them—not only because it’s right, but because they will return the favor. And dealing in favors will save you thousands of dollars on your projects.
And remember: if the script is good, lots of people will be not just willing but excited to help you out.
4. Live life
This applies both to your writing and to your directing skills. You may have all the technical prowess in the world, but you won’t be a filmmaker until you have something to say. The best way to figure that something out is to go out and live your life. Be willing to take on new experiences, and revel in them. And as you live that life, take careful note of all the ups and downs and store them away, with as much specificity as possible, so that you can draw on them when you are a) writing and b) directing actors. Within reason, try to explore the emotions you’ll need your actors to perform, because you need to be able to talk about them. Do your best to hone your perspectives on the world (even though they will certainly change) so that when you’re telling a story, your voice is clear. The more you understand about how the world works, the better of a director you’ll be.
5. Make films!
A tip like this can come off as both obvious and frustrating. If you want to be a filmmaker, you already know you need to make films—the issue is figuring out how! Movies cost money and time and there are a million reasons why you can’t make one right now.
But the people who found the most success didn’t wait for the “right time.” Nothing magically fell into place. They just did it.
If you really want to make movies, you should be thinking about the one reason why you can make one now. Yes, some movies can be expensive to make—but the point of steps 1 and 3 is to minimize those costs: don’t write only big-budget films unless you’d like to first find work as a writer and then maybe eventually start directing after you’ve made a name for yourself; and take the time to form relationships with people who will help you without cleaning your pockets.
Plus, remember that people shoot feature films on iPhones. We live in a wonderful time for filmmakers where cameras are ubiquitous and the technology in our pockets is more powerful than the computers they used to fly the Apollo missions. Don’t be afraid to use what you have just because it’s not an ARRI Alexa. As long as a film has a good story, good performances, and—I cannot stress this enough—GOOD SOUND*, people will love it no matter what it was shot on.
*(The sound issue is an important one to mention. If there is one aspect of filmmaking you should save money for, it’s making sure a movie has quality audio recording. It is a fundamental truth of modern filmmaking that bad sound irritates audiences. Even if the picture is beautiful. Unless you can find a really clever way to justify it in the story, do not skimp on sound. Rent a good microphone and recorder, and make sure someone knows how to use them.)
Directors do not get hired without reels. If you have no proof that you can make something good, no one will trust you with their money. So go out and start building that reel NOW.
The final thing to remember is that making a living as an artist, of any kind, demands resilience. Not everything you do will turn out as you imagine, and not everything that does will have the success you want it to. But every film you make teaches you that much more about what to do better next time, which means every film is worth it. Always remember this, and always move on to the next project. If you really love filmmaking, you’ll find that the process, not the result, is where the true magic lies.
Cover image captured by Markus Spiske.