HOW TO DIRECT A FILM ON A SMALL BUDGET
Let's face it: directing a film looks really hard. WNW Member #7027 Mikél Leyva embarked on his first directing gig so we had a few questions for him. Like how he juggled his creative brain with solving logistical challenges, getting the crew to work as a team, and keeping his day job in advertising. Oh, and the pressure: "As a director, the final outcome of the film is on your shoulders alone. No one is going to accept anyone else’s mistakes as excuses. In the end, you either made a good film, or you didn’t."
What inspired you to direct Falling?
I’d been wanting to direct a film for a long time. Whenever I heard interviews with my favorite directors, I often felt that their way of deciphering life-stories was closest to the way that I related to life. But I’m aware that no one’s going to hire you to direct a film if you’ve never made one before. So in 2008 I decided to just go for it and direct my first one.
Where did the story come from?
I was living in LA working on a music project with a drummer friend of mine, while looking for a story for my film. And a close friend there was about to marry into quite a volatile relationship. Their tense wedding planning made me contemplate that need to secure an idea of love at all costs. I wanted to figure out what drives all of us to continually fall in and out of different versions of love, and that seemed like a good beginning for my film’s story. My focus was on the need for love, and not the discovery of it.
"I wanted to figure out what drives all of us to continually fall in and out of different versions of love, and that seemed like a good beginning for my film’s story. My focus was on the need for love, and not the discovery of it."
Where did you find the time while working on commercial projects?
It wasn't easy. I saved money for a few months to start with a small budget, and to take time to do pre-production. Then I set off to San Francisco to lead a large online project for Microsoft while preparing my film. I’d wake up before 6am every day and send film pre- production tasks to my crew. Then I’d go into the agency to lead the Microsoft project during the day. And then follow up on the film tasks in the evenings. I found it more natural to treat both projects pretty much the same, rather than to try to switch modes between personal and client projects. I must say that a huge number of people helped along the way, friends and many (then) strangers too.
"I’d wake up before 6am every day and send film pre- production tasks to my crew. Then I’d go into the agency to lead the Microsoft project during the day. And then follow up on the film tasks in the evenings."
Any advice you can share on learning to sit comfortably in the director's chair?
The phrasing of this question made me laugh – maybe Ridley Scott actually ’sits comfortably’ in the director’s chair, but I think the rest of us are on our feet orchestrating everything under pressure. But as for directing advice, I might just repeat what my good friend (and producer) David Levine said when he called me after reading the script for Falling. He said something like: “Mikel, no matter what happens, don’t compromise. Just don’t compromise." I’ve worked in every creative channel, and this advice has felt particularly meaningful in filmmaking. But it took me making a film to really understand the value of it. When making a creatively affected film, there were many more moments than usual in which you choose to either push on, or compromise.
"If you’re going to make a film, dig in deep, find something honest in you that you can be passionate about. Because it’s likely to take all of that to do a good job, and for your story to be worth sharing; then godspeed."
Another element I find important is motivation. I’d say that each of us sees the world in our own unique way, and our own way of living and understanding our experiences. And there’s already more half-hearted bad films out there than any of us will have time to take in. So if you’re going to make a film, dig in deep, find something honest in you that you can be passionate about. Because it’s likely to take all of that to do a good job, and for your story to be worth sharing; then godspeed. You will succeed in some ways and you will also make mistakes. But that’s okay, just learn from it all, and keep going.
What were some of the biggest challenges on set?
Film pre and post-production can have a project pace close to advertising, but directing on set is quite different. During filming, time is quite unforgiving, and you’re all working to create one big event, with parts that are being recorded at the same time, like an orchestra or scenes in a play. You prepare actors and crew for weeks to play scenes in meticulously transformed spaces that you only have for a certain amount of time, in which budget and the options for shots are directly linked. This event would be challenging to replicate.
And although you work with so many people, as the director, the final outcome of the film is on your shoulders alone. No one is going to accept anyone else’s mistakes as excuses, and having to re-shoot is not a viable option. In the end, you either made a good film, or you didn’t.
Compared to leading an ad agency project over a set of weeks (or more), one directs the course of a shoot by the second. And there’s a rhythm; it’s more similar to making music. Also, when under time pressure, people are hesitant to risk working in ways they haven’t worked before, which sounds understandable, but trying new things is often what you need them to do. And as a director you’re shaping the creative environment constantly and quickly. You define when and how it is collaborative, and when it’s time to keep moving, in a much faster pace.
I was operating in such a driven mode that when someone on the team wasn’t 100% on board, it was very noticeable to me. And so began this dynamic between my creative ambition, and my team’s skills and motivation, which I had to navigate constantly while making this film.
"As a director, the final outcome of the film is on your shoulders alone. No one is going to accept anyone else’s mistakes as excuses. In the end, you either made a good film, or you didn’t.
What differences did you notice in how you approached your work in advertising and this personal project?
Inspiration was gold. At a big ad agency you already have some of the best talent in their field and a team structure. But on a personal project there’s no accountable company structure or obligations. People don’t really ‘have to’ do what you ask, and your team could potentially walk away from your project at any time. So to make the best personal film possible with a rather small budget, and the majority of the team being junior volunteers, you have to find what will drive people to care as much as you do.
How did the process of Falling make you think of teamwork differently?
I'd like to think that I've always treated my teams with empathy. But directing volunteers while striving for professional quality means that I had to push a lot of people further than they expected to go. And I'm very grateful that this challenge made me consider what each person is getting out of working on the project, and out of working with me. In advertising, the client experience, the portfolio pice, and pay are often enough, but we don’t often think about what we have to give back to our teams. And I actually really enjoy nurturing talent. I’m the eldest of 3, maybe that’s got something to do with it.
In post-production, the dynamic changes again. And you may have a very clear idea of where you want something to go and feel compelled to micromanage. But if you do that you could block that person’s ability to make creative decisions, and you end up shooting yourself in the foot. So you need to read your effect on the team..
There are times when you just give a direction to aim for and that’s enough, but there’s often times when you need to support your team member enough to enable them to get on that journey with you.
Having directed a big project depending on a lot volunteers has been a gift in a way. You get more candid reactions from your team, and you learn to read people better. And without a budget, you really have to learn to inspire people to care for the work as much you do. Not only does this make you a better leader, it also reconnects all of you with the core reasons that drive the work you do.
"To make the best personal film possible with a rather small budget... you have to find what will drive people to care as much as you do."
What's next for you?
I’m currently most interested in how the emotive aspects of film/video can mix with the uniting power of digital media. I'm also looking into ways that I can contribute to projects that provide a social benefit - especially in the area of bridging perspectives. In terms of filmmaking, my next step is to continue developing my voice, and make more films. I want to find my ‘dream team’ of writers, producers, cinematographers, and crew to continually work with on many projects to come.
I’m currently editing Part 2 of Falling, and plan to finish it by Spring.