Becoming a film director isn’t a straight path. There are multiple ways of getting there but, ultimately, there’s only one driving force: you. Regardless of your education or current skill set, if you want to make movies, you will. But that’s easier said than done, so let’s go a little deeper to answer how to become a director.
How To Become A Director
1. Learn from the best
There is a certain technical competence that you'll need to become a director. But actually learning how to direct can come from two sources: working on your own films and analyzing other people's films.
Watching movies from great film directors is an easy (and fun!) way to understand film language. But don't take it from us, here's someone who knows a thing or two on how to become a director.
The internet is full of resources that allow you to study, analyze, discuss and appreciate the film medium. You can find filmmaking tutorials and video essays on sites like Studiobinder's YouTube channel or our free masterclass on filmmaking techniques.
Artists need inspiration, and even established filmmakers like Spielberg look for it in the work of his heroes and his peers.
Maybe you love David Fincher movies but you assume you'd never be able to direct like him. With videos like this one, when we look closely at the techniques and strategies of a particular filmmaker, it doesn't seem that impossible after all.
It's important to see how filmmakers like Fincher are operating at the top of the industry but there are also videos made specifically for us amateurs. If you think making something like Inception is beyond your reach, think again. Watch as we re-creating one that film's most insane VFX shots for pennies on the dollar.
Whether you're a die-hard Kubrick fan or you're head over heels for the films of Sofia Coppola, the internet will provide opportunities to "learn" how to become a director by simply watching. It's a passive education to be sure, and it won't replace hands-on experience, but it will activate your brain and make you a more thoughtful film director.
2. Crew on film sets
Becoming a director of film or television demands more work experience than formal educational training (though having a Bachelor’s is helpful). The best film schools can make a big difference in becoming a great technical director, but working in many capacities on-set will better prepare someone to become a film director.
Most people begin crewing as Production Assistants but there are many more options after that. Here's a great video that explains those options and the hierarchy on a film set.
Working as assistants to directors, cinematographers, and film editors introduces an individual to the full range of what a director does. Using these learned techniques from the field to write and direct personal films is another way to get noticed as a potential film director.
The experience and education you'll receive from finding work on a film set is invaluable — on the job training for any profession is the way to go.
HOW TO BECOME A FILM DIRECTOR
3. Write a short film
Becoming a film director is a job that you basically have to give yourself (at first). Major studios aren't handing out film director jobs and you can't just walk in and apply for one. That means you have to make THEM come to YOU. And that's why making your own films is a necessary step.
The first thing you need to make your own film is a script. You can write your own screenplay or you can find someone else's work. For every director looking for material, there are 10 writers with 10 scripts each just waiting for someone to make them.
If you're going to write the script yourself, the best option is to use screenwriting software like StudioBinder that will eliminate all the formatting issues that plague writers trying to work in Microsoft Word or Google Docs.
If you've never written a script before, the internet (once again) is here to help. You'll find a number of screenwriting websites with articles on every aspect of screenwriting — including how to write dialogue, character arcs, and even how to write a fight scene.
Now that you've got your script, it's time to start preparing your project. And just like that, you are one step closer to becoming a director.
BECOMing A DIRECTOR
4. Direct a short film
The qualifications needed to become a film director are less about formal credentials, and more about hands-on experience. There are many directors that have no formal education whatsoever. So, what does it really take to become a movie director?
You have to prove you can direct before anyone will hire you to direct. Start small — use your phone and some friends and make something like the mumblecore crew did. Get a handle on the basics and then, after a few "no-budget productions," you can expand the parameters.
After you've written your script, it's time to start planning. One of the first things to do is storyboard your project so you can visualize the best shots to tell your story.
In this video breakdown from Arrival, you can see that designed such an iconic scene starts with simple sketches in a storyboard.
If you can't draw, find a storyboard artist who can, or take photos instead — the point is to visualize your scene as much as possible in advance. This gives you the freedom to make the best shot choices possible before you have an entire crew waiting on you to decide what's next.
Here's a storyboard example using screenshots of a scene from Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners that illustrates how shot choices can be made ahead of time.
Once your prep work is done, it's time to mount your production. But where do you start?
Save up some money and rent a camera or hire a cameraman who has their own camera. Venture out and actually cast actors who are just as eager to work as you are. There are some do's and don't's with the casting process, but your project will take a giant leap forward in quality.
And then you do it all over again. Each film you make gets you one step closer to becoming a director for hire. Each project is a chance to meet new colleagues and build those relationships, which are key. And once you've done a handful of films that you're proud of, it's time to assemble your calling card that will help land you directing gigs: a director's reel.
PROMOTing YOUR WORK
5. Create a director's reel
A director's reel is a visual resume that anyone looking to hire a movie director will want to see. It is proof that you've done the work and put in the effort. On any project, the director assumes a mountain of responsibilities, which is why they don't just give the job to anyone.
But creating a demo reel has an art and structure all on its own. There are ways to maximize the impact of your work and choices to avoid that will diminish it.
Use your director's reel to showcase your work but it's also important that your personality and artistic sensibilities to come through. It might be tempting to make a "cool" or "beautiful" reel just to land a gig but, if that's not really what you're all about, it could backfire. Put your best work forward and be honest about the filmmaker you are and want to be.
PUT YOUR WORK ON DISPLAY
6. Submit to film festivals
Film festivals are a fantastic way to get your movies shown to audiences on the big screen. The best film festivals are tough to get into but don't despair — try smaller festivals first and work your way up.
Of course, everyone aims to get their film into Sundance. Even though the odds might be stacked against you, it's not impossible. In the meantime, consider attending the festival to see the kinds of films being accepted and, of course, for the all the networking opportunities. Where is Sundance again? It's in Utah in January so dress warm!
Here's Kyle Patrick Alvarez with a few tips on getting into "the big show."
Beyond that experience and that accomplishment, getting into a prestigious film festival can become a direct outlet for your next gig. As you ascend the film festival ranks, and you start winning awards, people will start to take notice.
And not just anybody — producers, agents, studio executives, and other industry types who are attending these festivals are specifically looking for talented filmmakers.
Congratulations, you've done it! You made a movie and audiences sat in a theatre and watched it. You've done it — you've officially become a film director.
7. Attend film school (maybe)
For some people, film school is a fantastic option. The benefits of obtaining a formal education are obvious but there are downsides as well. Even attending the best films schools has pros and cons.
FILM SCHOOL PROS
First off, one major benefit of a film school education is obtaining a degree. Not all film schools offer these, so make sure you understand this when applying. To be clear, the degree you receive from graduating film school has more value outside Hollywood than it does inside. If filmmaking doesn't pan out, at least you have "a degree in something."
What film school provides is that hands-on experience that we've already discussed. You'll be able to work with high-end and cutting-edge equipment like the best 4k cameras with the latest Cooke lenses, and you'll be learning from working professionals (probably).
FILM SCHOOL CONS
Don’t get me wrong, film school is an incredible resource. Especially when the school connects you with internships (paid or unpaid), or other industry contacts.
Depending on the school, the cost of film school can be tough to swallow, including any student loans that you'll take with you for years after.
But by no means is film school a requirement.
Take a look at some of these directors who didn’t go to film school. I think they did all right for themselves.
Tarantino, didn’t just skip film school, he dropped out of high school at age 15. And, yet, Quentin Tarantino's movies are some of the best out there. How the heck did he make it where he is now?
Well, he chose to surround himself with what he loved. He began working at a video store called Video Archives, as well as signing up for acting classes. It was in these classes where he honed a skill for writing. To this day, there's nothing quite like Quentin Tarantino dialogue.
And so once he began writing his own films, he had also developed a real knack for working with actors.
Christopher NolanNolan also has absolutely no formal filmmaking background. He was an English student who had a desire to make a film on a very, very small budget. His first feature, Following, did extremely well in the festival circuit — which allowed him to make Memento, the movie that launched Nolan’s career. Christopher Nolan's movies are studio tentpole pictures but, perhaps, his lack of a standard film education is why Nolan's directing style is so completely unique.
As the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe for the film, Selma, and the first African-American woman to win the Best Director prize at Sundance for Middle of Nowhere. It goes without saying that DuVernay is one of the preeminent female movie directors.
But her directorial skills didn’t come from the classroom. Sure, she went to college, studying African-American studies and English lit, but she never went to film school.
Her education happened “on the field.” She started in journalism, PR, and then eventually started making her own short films.
So what do we know? Well, you obviously don’t have to go to film school to know how to become a director.
But what else? What do these film directors have in common?
If you want a career in filmmaking, you have to make films. And you definitely have to surround yourself with people that are making them. No one will do it for you or knock on your door asking you if you’re ready for your big break.