Did Theater Prepare Me for Filmmaking?

These are incomplete lists.

Theater gave me…

-Familiarity with actors and acting.

-Understanding what a scene is.

-Comfort with collaboration.

-Comfort with chaos.

-Flexibility – Willingness to see what is actually THERE and let that inform the process, as opposed to insisting ONLY on the original vision.

-Focus – the experience of drilling down in rehearsal and tech is an excellent preparation for the kind of single-mindedness necessary in all aspects of filmmaking.

-Resourcefulness: what stuff you have isn’t as important as what you’re able to put in the audience’s mind.

-Diplomacy and Management – you must work with many extremely talented constituencies who take pride in their work. Some more sensitive than others. You MUST be a leader. You MUST be aware of when to push and when to pull and when to let people alone to be brilliant. You WON’T always get it right. Theater and film demand this equally.

Theater did NOT prepare me for…

-The uncertainties of producing: how do you plan a film when your locations aren’t locked? You plan it, and also work on the locations. This is one of the biggest differences – a lot of the elements that are fixed in theater (the space you’re performing in…) are variables in film that must be dealt with. All location shooting involves the coordinating of an invading army, and the diplomacy of experienced ambassadors. Not even touring quite prepares you for this kind of work.

-Thoroughly understanding the 2-dimensional nature of film. Watch more movies, on a big screen. Obsess over them. Watch more. In theater the medium is humans and spaces. We need light to shape and understand the medium. So too with sound. In film the medium is light itself, and sound itself. 

-A documentary approach: removing as many performative aspects as possible from a scene and finding ways for us to experience life rather than watch a performance. Admittedly, theater demands some of this too, but I had not yet aimed at it with much energy.

-Controlling the audience’s point of view with the camera.

How Horror Taught Me What My Job Is

I directed a horror film recently. The story itself had some bits of humor and absurdity, but ultimately it was an exercise in delivering the genre.

It was revelatory. And I mean that in the “oh shit it’s so obvious but I’ve always ignored it” kind of way. It screened in my class and people vocally reacted to moments in the film in a way nothing I’ve ever directed has produced. It actually achieved its objective.

Horror is about creating a feeling in the audience, it’s about cueing up primal emotions and fears, building a rollercoaster ride of tension and release. The audience comes to the theater expecting a rollercoaster. And if you don’t deliver, it’s pretty obvious. It demands that you use every tool available to you in order to produce those waves of emotions. And they’re obvious, primal sensations that boil down to a couple basic primal scenarios deep in our lizard brains: the fear of being hunted by something we can’t quite see, sometimes disgust (evolutionary fear of infection/pathogens), panic or terror at the loss of our own faculties, relief, even laughter, at momentary safety, and the emotion of horror itself, which I’d categorize as “the feeling of being a wriggling bug under the toe of an incomprehensible giant.”

The audience comes to the theater because they WANT to go through these emotions. Somehow the ups and downs of simulating these emotions is something people pay money to see. Yes, there’s story, and comprehension, you can intellectualize it, but at the end of the day the audience is paying for an emotional experience that it is your job to deliver.

(they aren’t paying for your drone shot, they’re paying for the experience and perspective of flight)

Horror makes the director’s job baldly plain. Produce the desired experience, or fail.

My little film achieved its objective because the genre gave me a comprehensible objective.

And that made genre clear to me. After three years of film school, all it took was directing one horror film to define something that I’ve struggled to define my whole life.

What the hell is genre?

There’s academic explanations galore. But for a DIRECTOR, for a WRITER, for a MAKER, a PRODUCER, there’s only one definition that matters.

A genre is a package of expectations. Yes, there are plenty of conventions in genre, having to do with characters, settings, structures, etc. But what’s important, to directors especially, is to consider that the genre is not the story the audience walks in expecting to SEE. It is the kind of emotional experience that an audience walks in expecting to HAVE.

And brilliant directors know this, intuitively. They know that they can stray outside the bounds of conventional expectations, as long as they deliver the kind of emotional experience people are coming to the theater for. A lot of films probably fail because they are fulfilling the SURFACE expectations, but not the deeper experiential expectations.

A lot of films transcend genre, or mix genres, but they almost always still deliver the genre.

Horror and comedy are extremely hard because they demand that you deliver a specific emotional effect. But my question for myself is: what if I could have that same focus of “deliver the emotional experience” on EVERY film, even non-horror, non-comedies?

Oh, right. That’s my actual job, whether I’m directing, producing, writing, editing, fight choreographing…

And it’s the producer and director’s jobs to see this MOST clearly, and guide the process towards that end.

I’m going to keep digging into this – mainly because I suspect there might be something primal to genre, and that we have genres that fall by the wayside, only to be rediscovered.

Why do I Love Directing?

It’s the people, both real and imagined.

I love the actors. I love actors. I am an actor, I lived and breathed it for a time, and it hasn’t gone away. But after a while I became disillusioned with acting. Directing changed that. It made me realize what bright, mad, wonderful humans actors can be (and volatile, maddening creatures as well, but it’s all part of the fun).

I love the crew. I love the creativity and talent and perspective and power that a team of real creatives brings into the world. They make a process more than a process. I love seeing the connections made between people on those teams, as one idea bounces off another.

I love producers. When they’re good, my god, they’re good, they do things and make things happen in a way that I admire in the same the way I admire, I don’t know, superheroes.

I love the audience, I love the fact that they’re smart, emotional, and have high expectations. And when they’re engaged, I can feel that this is the completion of the work. When it works, it’s like we’ve built an invisible bridge from our hearts to hundreds, thousands, even millions of hearts in the human audience.

So I must tend to my own heart, that something worthwhile can cross that bridge.

And why do I so often want to sit in the middle of all these, as opposed to take some other role?

Maybe I’m just a glutton for both love and punishment, because as much as I love all these people, each of them have, through choice, or mistake, or the high demands of their own excellence, ripped me to shreds. And that’s just the good times.


I think it’s also because I love the stories, and the characters. And when I know I can see them, really see them, then other people will too, and it becomes a sensation, a momentum, a crazy interplay of the fictional and the real, that culminates in that bridge.

I think it’s because I love building bridges.

Editing Software is Not New, it’s Ancient

Odds are you made yourself a cup of coffee this morning.

Go back to that moment. You may have trashed the details of it already, but reconstruct it a bit.

Look closely at the coffee pot, at the mug.

Now step back further, and look at yourself taking the mug from the cupboard. Try to get a full body view. Now watch yourself pour the coffee.

Hm, let’s see where you are emotionally. Try to reconstruct a view of your tired face as you approach the cupboard. Don’t worry, no one else is watching. Now watch your face as you take out the mug, grab the pot, pour the coffee, add cream or sugar. Work out the details of this moment as it happened to you, trying to watch your own face.

Ok go back. Let’s start with your face as you emerge into the kitchen. Now jump out and see that image of your full body reaching for the mug in the cupboard, now look at the pot as your hand grabs it. Look very closely at the coffee as it spills into the cup. Watch the cream swirl. Now try to capture the look on your own face as you take that first, blessed sip.

Programs like Avid, Premiere Pro, or Final Cut are outgrowths of the old physical form of cutting actual film – but the principles they are built upon are analogous to processes that have existed far longer. These programs reveal something about how our minds work upon the images within our head – they externalize something everyone does.

For me, the hardest part of the above exercise is seeing the look on my own face. It’s really hard to envision in an honest fashion. Maybe that’s something I’m looking for when I look at art – “is that what we look like?” And we don’t know until we see it, but when we do we smile, we laugh, we are moved, because we are revealed to ourselves, and in seeing something true, somehow we feel seen.

How Many Moves Does an Actor Have?

There’s a million things that a character can want, in a writing sense, or a psychological sense.

But much of the work of directing or writing or acting isn’t actually working on the subconscious wants. Once you’ve got those worked out (or, in a director’s case, a script that presumably has those built in), you’ve got to physically realize the scene itself.

Then I think there’s a limited number of things in terms of a physical want. Maybe this doesn’t work for every scene, but I think it might be a useful lens through which to see every scene.

Let’s keep the traditional maxim – there’s only two directions in a scene: toward and away. (I’ve had the privilege to learn this a few times over from my professor and early mentor at USC, Barnet Kellman, who teaches a masterful class on working with actors, rehearsing, and blocking – this next bit is something of an expansion on things I’ve learned from him).

The physics of the wants then probably break down into these:

A thing you want to hold or get rid of

A place you want to get to or escape from

A person you want to be close to or far from

Maybe we could define it as simply as this: the physical want of any given moment in a scene may be defined as the person, place or thing a character wants to move towards or away from. (Maybe there’s an action of “maintain the current distance” as well)

I had another two basic actions that I initially thought might count as fundamental on this level:

A thing or person you want to destroy

A thing or person you want to create, heal, or repair

And I thought that they may count as fundamental. But now I don’t think so. It’s hard to call the physics of repairing a car, wielding a hammer, or fixing a computer a basic action – they’re typically obstacles overcome in service of the initial three. R2-D2 messes with the computer in order to open the door so the characters can move away from the soldiers and towards the ship.

But there are scenes in which the primary action of the character is somehow poured into making something — scenes of Michaelangelo painting a masterpiece or Hunter S. Thompson furiously writing…but are these scenes? Or do scenes just involve them somehow, and the primary drama of the scene still boils down to that simple dance of towards and away? A painting scene is hard to interpret as drama. But if Michaelangelo is painting the Sistine Chapel, and drops his paintbrush to the floor far below, and has to climb down a rickety ladder to get there, a ladder that, unbeknownst to him, is slipping against the floor, maybe that’s physical drama.

Is there more to human drama than this? Sure, on an abstract, psychological, dialogue level. But when you turn the sound off on the tv, the fundamentals of the scene still play out in a grammar that boils down to something like this.

How to Make Great Things Fast

Across all the professions I’ve happened to work in, I’ve realized there’s a common phrase all the seasoned professionals have said to me at one time or another.

“Don’t rush.”

Acting, directing, fight choreography, personal training, fundraising, construction, writing…in all of these, at one time or another, one or more old pros have said this to me. “Don’t rush.”

At the same time, across all the jobs I’ve held, I’ve always had times where we had to deliver fast. In fact, a demand for speed is absolutely the norm.

So what gives? Why do all the people who know their stuff say “don’t rush” but at the same time we are constantly demanding speed out of our work?

First of all, yes, there are times when the boss is demanding impossible speed, when the market wants something before it’s ready, when I myself am demanding too much out of my own capacity to deliver. Sometimes somebody has to be told things will have to slow down or else things will fall apart.

But the boss isn’t always wrong. And sometimes great things get done quickly.

So there must be a difference between speed and rushing.

Rushing is blind – it’s focusing on the finish line, it’s cutting corners. It’s heedless – let’s just get something to show that we’ve done something. I’m going to write 5 pages today so I can tell myself I wrote 5 pages. For me, it often comes from a place of needing to validate my identity as an artist, a writer, a mature person, what have you.

Speed is different. Speed requires focus, concentrated energy drilling down on the immediate problem. You can’t rush a screenplay, but a professional knows how to focus in and work on THIS scene, THIS character moment, THIS line, this action beat. And then how to step back and assess it QUICKLY against the mechanisms of the whole story, then dive back into the immediate.

In weightlifting, I’ve encountered a phrase that I think is a key concept, perhaps even worthy of being called a mental model. I first encountered it specifically in Olympic lifting, which is a VERY technical art form, and can result in a lot of bodily pain if done wrong, repeatedly. The phrase is this:

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

It doesn’t mean move in slow motion. It means give every overlapping portion of the movement its due – there’s a setup, an initial pull off the ground, a movement of the hips, a pulling from the shoulders, almost pulling yourself DOWN under the bar as it moves up over your head, and a solidifying of the body as you land beneath the bar.

It’s a lot different from “throw this bar over your head 20 times.”

So if you’ve trained each movement, separately, and also how to move from one to the next, a more complete movement emerges. A smooth one.

But this also refers to taking action. When you slow down your mind, you focus on the moment, and then the next moment can follow smoothly, and the next, and the next, and because you’ve smoothed out the motions, the bar travels upwards at unbelievable speeds. Instead of focusing on several movements, you’ve re-integrated them into a single smooth motion.

You can muscle things out, or you can remove the friction. One beats you up. The other doesn’t, and leaves you ready for the NEXT movement.

So when the old timers have said to me “don’t rush” they didn’t necessarily mean “don’t ever move fast.” Rushing, to me, means I’m prioritizing muscle over removing friction.

You can’t rush writing. You can’t rush acting. You can’t rush directing. You can’t rush producing. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t go fast. The key components, then, are knowledge and focus. KNOWING what to focus on, one moment at a time. Knowing HOW to slow down in order to speed up.

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

(To be clear – I think this quote originates the Navy SEALS, referring to how to train for operations, and also execute them. I may have gotten it from Jocko Willink, Tim Ferriss, or Dan John – I honestly don’t remember)

“It’s Who You Know” – Really?

Have you ever encountered some new skill, seen someone demonstrate something to a class, and think to yourself “I can do that, but I need to disappear to a place by myself, perfect it, and return so that I can wow everyone with how good I am at it?”

I have. A lot. And the impulses behind that, the things to do to mature beyond those impulses, are the subject of a different post. What I’m interested in here is how this has influenced my strategy.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life prioritizing skill, developing my own ability. And to some degree, this has gotten some good results.

Let’s call the skill “What.” WHAT must I, myself, do, in order to do something awesome? What must I, like Bruce Wayne, learn in secret in order to emerge as the One who TOTALLY STUNS EVERYONE out of NOWHERE?

I dunno, maybe this perspective is a little…unbalanced?


This was made most obvious to me, as I look back on the way I started out my graduate program at USC. I got to know some wonderful people, and was learning at a rapid, sometimes painful pace. About a year and a half into the program I started to suspect that something was wrong with my approach to school, however. I wasn’t getting selected for things I wanted. I wasn’t even getting asked to help on projects. People would ask how I was doing, but generally I didn’t feel connected to the program, to the people IN it (with a few very special exceptions).

I realized that I’d isolated myself, in a sort of internal, competitive effort to become the best, to get “so good they can’t ignore you” – I, in turn, had myself ignored the possibilities of other people. I’d said no to enough projects in an effort to protect my own skill development, that I’d given people this subconscious message: I don’t have time for you.

But what is it they say about Hollywood? “It’s who you know”

I always thought of that phrase as sort of hollow. Shallow, even. But what if…I have laden the idea of short-term connections with a lot of negative bullshit?

So I started to help out more, to say yes to more people, to see if I could come on board someone else’s project and help move the needle for them.

And lo and behold, film school started getting better, more interesting, more connected. And yeah, I have let some of “my” projects slip to the wayside. But I started to realize that “who” is as important as “what.”

I’m still a lover of solitude, of creative loneliness and sitting by myself to toil something out of nothing. But if I think of the best times in my theater career, they were with great people. And the best results of that career came from the “who” far more than the “what” – and the who ultimately demands the what, demands the skill, demands the selection of great material, because you damn well BRING IT if you’re going to do something worthy of the great people you’re surrounding yourself with.

Do you want to raise your game? Being in the presence of people who demand the best out of me has always seemed to just pull that out of me. I didn’t have to demand it out of myself, I just had to respond to the excellence around me.

And you can be the most skilled and talented [insert job here] in town, but if no one likes working with you, if no one feels a sense of connection to you, how far do you actually think you’ll get?

Who is Qualified to Write About Directing?

Let’s get a little impostor syndrome out of the way here.

I think directing, like a lot of our art forms in America, is the subject of so much love and hate. Much like actors, who are a joke (waiters) until they are adored (ohmygod the FRIENDS cast is getting back together!!!), directing in America is on a madly swinging pendulum of approval, disdain, adoration and disgust, when it comes to how people seem to look at you.

(how YOU, aspiring director, think people are looking at you)

But if you want to be an artist, that whole thing of “how most people look at you” must cease to matter. Because it’s not about you, it’s about what you make. How you are making.

Am I a Great Director, who has been given the laurels of Director by some grand committee, so now I’m approved to bloviate about Directing?

I highly recommend reading Finite and Infinite Games. It creates a really valuable distinction.

The game of titles is a limited game. The game of doing is unlimited.

I direct. That’s something I’ve done and will continue to do. And I think it’s worth writing about how it’s done well, and how it’s done poorly, and I’ll be wrong sometimes and right sometimes and that’s fine.

I direct. I write. I act. I choreograph fights and design action. I produce.

Whether someone else wishes to bestow the titles along with those actions isn’t up to me. What’s up to me is what to do with my time, my creativity, my effort, my heart.

So I direct. And I think it’s worth my time to write about that experience. I hope it might even be worth someone’s time to read about it.



The Dangerous Real World

I have been fortunate enough this year to have gone on a lot of trips to weddings, bachelor parties, and engagement parties. Each trip was like a small vacation in itself. Because they were all for either steadfast old friends or exciting, relatively new friends, each event had that sort of glow to it. The kind that starts to fade when you pack up your bags and return home, expecting to work the next day. You say to yourself “back to the real world,” even though in your heart you know that everything you just experienced is just as “real” as the work you are about to start. In a way it is even more “real,” because the vividness and potency of those memories will last far longer than any cycles of labor you may go through the next day, and definitely will have more value than any dollars you may earn through that labor.

When we were in college, specifically ending college, we spent a lot of time talking about how we were about to enter the “real world.” Of course, what we meant by this was “the world of having to financially fend for yourself.” You might throw socially and vocationally in there too, but college is already a test of your capacity to socially define yourself and vocationally make choices about your direction. The “real world” really referred to having to pay for our own stuff, and pay back any debt we may have accrued while we were still forming our brains.

Again, it is a terrible misnomer, because when I think back on college I am full of very vivid memories of real life and experiences, some very good, some bad. It is simply because they were not “economical” that they don’t fit in with our wryly named “real world.” The things we can’t put a dollar value on don’t get called “real” even though we know them to be fully real.

We do the same thing as artists with our work, and we make what I believe is a deadly decision of language, even though we often do it in jest. We sweat and toil to bring about moments of beauty and passion or profound images, and when we walk away from the experience, we say “back to the real world.” Or when we go about the business of negotiating a fee or a contract for our work we refer to it as “the real world of being a working artist” as if it is somehow more “real” than the profound work we have engaged in.

Why do we do this?


I’ve been reading a phenomenal book, it’s called “Small is Beautiful” by E.F. Schumacher. It was written in 1973 and lays out what has become the foundation for the modern sustainability movement. He starts by addressing an easily overlooked problem: the primacy of economics as our main mode of measuring good. The science of economics has somehow become our measure of success on both a personal and a global scale, even though economic principles alone (whether applied via private enterprise or public enterprise) cannot provide a moral basis for action, and in fact will always be boiled down to the idea that “more productivity for less work is better,” and the “better for what?” question is never really answered. The book is excellent and bears reading by anyone who thinks about work, money and the world, which is everyone.

Schumacher provides insight into our question of the “real world” when he talks about how we have been overwhelmed by the idea that quantitative distinctions are somehow more important than qualitative distinctions. He points out that this ranking is a false construct, but it is easy to make this error because quantitative distinctions are easy to define and qualitative ones are hard, fuzzy, and require a great deal of study and thought. This is not deriding quantitative data as a mode of understanding the world, but we have to recognize that we ultimately choose what data to use, or even how to go about gathering that data, in a qualitative manner. We can’t escape it.

When we make personal decisions about money, when we as artists or professionals negotiate a contract, we are ultimately making a qualitative decision. We always bring other factors to bear other than the dollar value of the item purchased or the contract we are signing.

It is deadly to distinguish between the “real world” (of quantitative problems) and the “dream world” of good work and good experiences because they are ultimately the same world. The world of personal finance that we dreaded entering when we were in college is a world in which we have to make value decisions, and if money itself is the primary value then we should all quit being artists. But it is not. Money is a mode of transferring value, it is not in and of itself value, and it is an imperfect measure of value.

I’m certainly not advocating that we flip the whole thing on its head and pretend that money is meaningless. Money is meaningless by itself, but it is full of meaning when placed in the context of 1) people and 2) other things of value. An example: what charity one gives to, if at all, is a strong indicator of what one values.

Money is a mode of transfer. We need to know how to deal with it and be unafraid of that, and put it in its proper place. It should not be at the top of our values when we measure what is real and what is not, but neither should we as humans and as artists pretend that the world of money, the world formerly referred to as the “real world,” is a sham simply because it is not the only reality.

What I am advocating is a fresh perspective on money, art, and value for those who are working in the field, and for those who are being educated in the arts, education in the business of art. Young artists can be taught a balanced appreciation for the value of what they are doing and the value of money itself. Too often I believe these students are graduating with a strong sense of creative purpose but a weak and frantic sense of what money is, how to manage it, how to pay rent and taxes, and what all that has to do with making art. It can be learned the hard way, which breeds resentment, or it can be taught. I think the latter is more appropriate and anyone who is looking for a college program should keep an eye out for programs that provide at least some training in the business of the arts, because an artist is a sole proprietor and if you don’t know what that means you had better learn fast.

I could never have gone to those weddings and parties with all of my wonderful friends and family without the expenditure of money, sacrificed for some very worthwhile experiences. This is not a case going to a dream world by means of what was done in a real world, but rather the intersection of some very real things within a single world.

So get real.

(As for the issue of the work of artists being a very real contribution to the rest of the real world, that is a post for another day. )