Peter D. Marshall, veteran TV director, First Assistant Director, educator, and creator of the course “The Art and Craft of the Director” has kindly agreed to an interview with ClickBitz.com CEO Marc Murphy. Mr. Marshall has put his 40 years of filmmaking experience into his course, resulting in a unique resource that is packed with valuable lessons for aspiring and working directors.

Mr. Marshall has worked on films such as Legends of the Fall, Dawn of the Dead, Happy Gilmore, and Bird on a Wire. He’s a true auteur and enjoys sharing his directing knowledge through his workshops (held around the world) and private coaching practice. Read on and discover many great tips and insider info for film fans and directors alike!

MM: Everyone watches movies and has a superficial idea of what a director does… but what does the real job of a director entail? Where is the bulk of your time spent?

PDM: There are many tasks the director is responsible for on a film. But the main role of the director is to know everything about the story by doing detailed script analysis; to cast the right actors for the roles and to direct them on set; and to create a visual look for the film.

MM: What misconceptions do people, especially directing novices, have about what a director does?

PDM: When novices think of directors, they see them calling action and talking to the actors. What they don’t see is all the prep work (homework) that has to happen before that.

MM: Briefly, what are the steps for a movie to go from an idea to funded project? At what point does the director get involved?

PDM: There are several steps to getting a film made. 1. Concept/Idea. 2. Writing the Script. 3. Financing 4. Pre-Production 5. Production  6. Post-Production 7. Distribution 8. Exhibition. If the director is also the writer, they get involved on Step 1. If they are just hired as the director, they usually come in on Step 3.

MM: How do you decide what projects to work? What key things do you look for?

PDM: Do I like the story? What is the budget? Who are the producers? Do I need the money?

MM: How does a director normally land directing jobs (what’s the process)?

PDM: There are several ways a director can get a job:

  1. They can produce and finance their own short film or indie film.
  2. They can write a script and find a producer or studio who wants to make it. However, the deal is that they (the writer) has to direct the picture or they won’t sell the script.
  3. They get hired by producers who already have scripts and are putting together the production team.
  4. For a TV series, the director is hired by the writer/producers.

MM: What is a key component every great movie has?

PDM: I believe all good films consist of the following: “A visually compelling story with believable characters who make us feel something.”

MM: What filmmaking lesson has really stuck with you through the years?

PDM: It is a quote from Frank Capra: “There are no rules in filmmaking, only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.”

MM: I wish everyone knew about that quote! What directors do you admire most and why?

PDM: Sergio Leone, Baz Lurhmann, Spielberg, Hitchcock, and Ridley Scott. They are true story tellers.

MM: Obviously directors shoulder a heavy load and are intimately acquainted with high-pressure situations. What tips do you have for directors for successfully operating under pressure?

PDM: Know the script inside and out. Do your homework in prep. Know how to speak the actor’s language. Listen to everyone – but go your way.

MM: What are your top 3 tips for someone who is a complete directing novice?

PDM: Focus on these three things – in this order:

  1. Story
  2. Performances
  3. Cinematics (everything else it takes to make a film)

MM: Name 3 books you think every director should read to better their craft.

PDM: I will give you 4:

  1. Directing Feature Films – Mark Travis
  2. The The Film Director’s Bag of Tricks – Mark Travis
  3. Directing Actors – Judith Weston
  4. The Film Director’s Intuition – Judith Weston

MM: Seriously useful reading! What is the most common progression for a young person who one day becomes a Hollywood director? Are there common jobs that everyone has to do to pay their dues?

PDM: There is no one common progression to become a director. Everyone has to create their own path. But there are some film jobs that a young person should try to do to help them become a better director:

  • Production Assistant (on the set)
  • Office PA (in the production office)
  • Assistant Director
  • Film Editor
  • Script Supervisor
  • Camera Department

MM: What’s one important thing they don’t or can’t teach you in film school (or film theory books)?

PDM: The one thing they can never teach in a film school, is what it is actually like to work on a professional film set. They can come close, but until you work on a set that is not related to film school (or student films) that is when you really start learning.

MM: What’s the difference between directing for TV and movies?

PDM: Basically, television is a producer’s medium while moves are a director’s medium. Because the writer/producer runs the show on TV, most episodic directors have very little creative control.

MM: What kind and amount of work experience do you need to helm a film with a significant budget?

PDM: Learn the art and craft of filmmaking. Work on shows that give you an opportunity to increase your technical knowledge (re: action scenes, stunts, crane shots, visual FX.) And try to get on a show where you can direct big name actors. Doing these things will give you more self-confidence as you progressively work up to larger budget movies. And of course, understand the business and politics of the film and TV industry.

MM: What is the most important technical skill for a director to have? What is the most important technical skill for director to have outside the pure craft of directing?

PDM: Understanding the editing process (montage) is a very important skill to have. Also, you need to know how to block scenes with actors in relation to the camera. You also need to know the “psychology of the camera.”

MM: What is the most important artistic skill for a director to have? What is the most important artistic skill for director to have outside the pure craft of directing?

PDM: Understanding story structure is essential. Also, communication skills are extremely important as a director. You will need to know the language of film so you can talk confidently to your crew and your actors. And you must be able to listen well. All good directors are good listeners.

MM: What myths do you see new directors buying into?

PDM: The downside of this business is that anyone can be a director. In other words, a director doesn’t have to know what they are doing because the movie will still get made. (I have seen this too many times on set!) So maybe a myth is that a young director feels they can just show up on set (having very little experience and having done no homework) and all they have to do is yell at people – because the film will get made no matter what their experience.

MM: What is the worst mistake a director can make?

PDM: I don’t know if I can say there is one worst mistake a director can make. There are many possible mistakes and it all depends on the show you are doing and the people you are working with. But basically, not understanding the story or knowing how to do proper script analysis are two of the big ones.

MM: What is the most common mistake a director makes?

PDM: Giving result direction to actors. (“I want you to be more angry!”) Essentially, telling the actor how you want them to feel without giving them a reason why.

MM: When and how can you tell how a movie is going to turn out? Can you spot problems live on set, in the editing room, or is the true quality of a film only revealed during a final screening?

PDM: If I knew the answer to the question, I would be a millionaire! :) But yes, you can spot problems early in prep and on the set. Can you fix them? That is always the big question. Many films have been saved in the editing room.

MM: Hmm, some Silicon Valley types think software can predict a hit script! Is it possible to make a good movie out of a mediocre script?

PDM: In theory no. But this is a very subjective question because everyone has their own idea of what a good movie is. (Remember the quote from Frank Capra!)

MM: Movies involve the input of lots of people. How close percentage-wise is the final cut to the vision you had when you imagined the script as a film?

PDM: The script gets written 3 times. When it is first written, when it is shot and then in the editing room. As long as you know the main story you want to tell (the theme) you can adjust to all the changes.

MM: Besides success at the box office, what does a director need to do to keep in the spotlight and keep working?

PDM: Understand the business and politics of this industry. Don’t be an egomaniac. Know how to get great performances from your actors and how to create a visual style.

MM: What is the most important thing you contribute to a film as a director?

PDM: To tell the story visually and help create believable performances.

MM: What would you be looking for if you were evaluating the demo reel of an aspiring director? What fundamentals do they have to have down cold?

PDM: Style of shooting;  the editing of the sequence; performances of the actors.

MM: What is lacking in typical school courses and textbooks that “The Art of and Craft of the Director” delivers?

PDM: I discuss insider tips that I have seen personally from my 40 years “in the trenches” of the film and TV business.

MM: Is “The Art and Craft of the Director” geared towards amateur directors, new film school graduates, or directors with industry experience? Or does it have something for all directors?

PDM: It has something for all directors, but it is primarily geared toward indie filmmakers.

MM: After someone studies “The Art and Craft of the Director” what other resources do you recommend they use to stay up to date?

PDM: Read the books that I have mentioned – and more!. Take as many workshops you can. Keep making films (even 1 minute movies on your iPhone). Get onto film sets – in any capacity.

MM: Thank you very much for all the excellent answers; much appreciated! Please check out Peter D. Marshall’s “The Art and Craft and Director” course to hone your directing skills and benefit from his hard-won film making experience! For loads more information on film making, visit actioncutprint.com; it’s an amazing resource! You can find film making courses, personal coaching, workshops, ezines, the best film and TV books, and Peter’s extensive and in-depth film making blog!