6 Filmmaking Tips From Oscar Winning Directors

By  · Published on February 20th, 2013

You know how sometimes your favorite series will do a clip show, or how a popular radio broadcast might replay old segments that tie-in thematically in order to take a vacation? Well, I’m using the occasion of the Academy Awards to do pretty much the same thing. It’s sort of obvious that several of the directors featured in this column are also Oscar winners. It’s a veritable Hall of Fame. Doing an Oscar-themed entry is a little bizarre because several weeks feature a gold-owning alum anyway (so this isn’t a complete list of the Best Directors featured on 6 Filmmaking Tips), but it’s still worth packaging their advice as a kind of collective knowledge set held by people who have statues on their mantel.

Which means, depressingly, an excerpt from our most popular entry won’t be featured here. Not to mention others like Kubrick, Cronenberg or PTA. Fortunately, there are some truly immense talents who have hoisted Oscar on high even if some towering talents never had that particular honor.

So here are some filmmaking tips (for fans and filmmakers alike) from an incredibly elite club of Best Director winners.

Martin Scorsese: Never Stop Looking for Inspiration

Nominated for: Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Hugo

Won for: The Departed

Scorsese: One night I was watching late-night films on . . . I think it was on Showtime. There was this film called Yeelen [1987]. The picture had just started at 2:30 in the morning, and the image was very captivating, and I watched the whole thing. I discovered that it was directed by Souleymane Cissé and came from Mali. I got so excited. I had seen Ousmane Sembène’s films from Senegal ‐ he was the first to put African cinema on the map, in the ’60s-but I hadn’t seen anything quite like this . . . the poetry of the film. I’ve seen many, many movies over the years, and there are only a few that suddenly inspire you so much that you want to continue to make films. This was one of them.

Spike Lee: So you’re telling me that Martin Scorsese, the father of cinema, needs inspiration to make more films?

Scorsese: Well, it gets you excited again. Sometimes when you’re heavy into the shooting or editing of a picture, you get to the point where you don’t know if you could ever do it again. Then suddenly you get excited by seeing somebody else’s work. So it’s been almost 20 years now with the Film Foundation. We’ve participated in restoring maybe 475 American films.

That’s from a conversation in “Interview” magazine between Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese where an important distinction is made. It’s easy to see master filmmakers as endless wells of imagination, but stone sharpens stone, and that well needs to be replenished. The key? No matter how natural a storyteller, no matter how much experience, there will always be a need to find that creative spark.

Read the full Scorsese entry here

Steven Soderbergh: Exhaust Your Interests and Move On

Nominated For: Traffic, Erin Brockovich (in the same year)

Won For: Traffic

In an interview last year with “Film Comment,” Soderbergh stated the following about what draws him to such a variety of projects: “Filmmaking is the best way in the world to learn about something. When I come out the other side after making a film about a particular subject, I have exhausted my interest in it. AfterContagion, I’m still going to be washing my hands, but I don’t ever ‐ I’m not going to pick up another book or article about Che as long as I live.”

Soderbergh is a versatile filmmaker specifically because he sees the filmmaking process as a path to discovery. This is probably why Soderbergh doesn’t have a clear thematic thread connecting his films: while the director certainly imbues his work with a perspective, he sees filmmaking as a learning process rather than a given outcome. Thus, Soderbergh’s films are free from “statements.” Even his portrayal of a figure as politically divisive as Che Guevara is more ambivalent than didactic. Still, this statement doesn’t explain how he ended up making three Ocean’s films.

Read the full Soderbergh entry here

Peter Jackson: You Always Want to Change a Movie Once It’s Done

Nominated For: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Won For: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Read the full Jackson entry here

Kathryn Bigelow: Stand the Heat

Nominated For: The Hurt Locker

Won For: The Hurt Locker

“We started shooting [The Hurt Locker], just because of the nature of actors’ schedules, in July in 2007 in Amman, and Amman has a slight elevation. I had also scouted Kuwait, which at that time of year, is truly punishing. I think the day I was there, it was about 135 degrees. I couldn’t even imagine what 135 degrees could feel like. It sort of feels like you’re standing in front of an overheated car with the hood up, but you can’t get rid of the car; it’s just this blast of hot air, and it’s very punishing. That was Kuwait.

Anyway, we were in Jordan, and there was an average temperature of about 115 degrees, and the most challenging aspect was putting that bomb suit on Jeremy [Renner] every day. Jeremy is an extraordinarily talented actor, but you’re asking him in that kind of climate to put on a piece of wardrobe ‐ it wasn’t just wardrobe, but an actual bomb suit ‐ that weighed between 80 and 100 pounds. Every day. You know, spend all day in it. That was really punishing. I was very sensitive to his needs and his oxygen levels, and trying to keep him as comfortable as possible, there’s only so much that can be done. That was probably the most difficult physical, logistical aspect of the shoot.”

All of this was in service of getting as great a sense of authenticity as possible. Bigelow also mentions that going to a studio would result (amongst other things) with them probably wanting to shoot in Morocco if they could even see fit to leave the California desert. That might have been an option, but Bigelow wanted something better, especially in hiring Arabs to play Arabs. As a consequence, they had thermometer-busting heat to deal with, and through all that, her concern was for her lead actor.

That’s why this tip can also be called “No Complaining.” If Bigelow can risk dehydration, what’s stopping you from filming in your own backyard?

Read the full Bigelow entry here

The Coen Brothers: If It’s Cheap Enough, Everyone Wins

Nominated Collectively For: Fargo, No Country For Old Men, True Grit

Won For: No Country for Old Men

Not only were those early days in Evil movies educational and a gateway to a mentorship from Sam Raimi, they also held a golden lesson. When asked by an interviewer about Fargo‘s potential lack of appeal:

“Yeah, but then again, we knew the movie’s cost would be so cheap, that it’d be hard to lose. So we thought that, okay, maybe it wouldn’t be a huge, big commercial hit, but for $6 million…,” said Ethan. “Who cares?”

The pair have spoken before on wanting to make their financial backers happy on every project, but when your ideas are esoteric and out of the mainstream, it’s also good to keep the risk low. Plus, the confines of a smaller budget leave the weight to the dialogue, plot and characters. It’s safer for the commerce side, and it’s a positive challenge for the art side.

Read the full Coen Brothers entry here

John Ford: Keep an Eye on Your Second Assistant Prop Man

Nominated For: The Informer, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man

Won For: The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man

You might just find your John Wayne:

Not only has Ford been nominated five times, he’s won more Best Director Oscars than anyone else in history.

Read the full Ford entry here

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