Bryce Dallas Howard on Controversial Filmmaking Advice and Getting Busted By the Cops

By  · Published on July 12th, 2013

In 2011, everyone who knew Bryce Dallas Howard the actress was introduced to Bryce Dallas Howard the director thanks to Canon’s “Long Live Imagination” campaign. Howard’s father Ron (one of the country’s most famous narrators) also played a role in Canon’s project, selecting eight photos out of over 100,000 consumers submitted pics for Ms. Howard to use as inspiration for a short film.

The result was when you find me, following up her debut Orchids.

The experience for Howard was good enough that she’s returned for yet another round of Canon’s project and even though she’s not behind one of the films this year, she’s working with the likes of Jamie Foxx, Eva Longoria, Biz Stone, Georgina Chapman, and James Murphy.

Like Howard did almost two years ago, they’re all making shorts out of submitted photographs, but you can join that bunch by making your own. If you’re up to the challenge of making a 1–10 minute short out of a few ambitious photos, then head this way.

Howard herself has also been keeping busy as a director, having recently made a music-video for M83 and developing a few potential narrative-length debuts. She made the time to discuss with me her experience with Canon and how she made her way behind the camera. She started our conversation by joking about our site’s name.

You went to college, right?

I did, but I dropped out. I’m not a film school reject, but I’m a film school dropout [Laughs]. My dad is also a film school dropout.

What propelled the dropout?

I started working. I got a show on Broadway, then an original show, and then a job from M. Night Shyamalan. I thought, “I could either go to school or work with M. Night Shyamalan…” [Laughs] Basically, I was trying to figure out a way around it. I was very lucky my parents paid for my college education, but they came to me and were like, “We’re not going to pay. You’re working, so you’re going to have to pay.” I was, like, “Wait, what?”

They said the thing that was supposed to happened had happened, so they weren’t going to pay. Actually, I’m secretly a little insecure about having dropped out, so I’m currently enrolled at UCLA. Until I get that degree, I’m always perpetually going to be enrolled at a school.

[Laughs] You started directing theater in school, right?

My first time I directed a play was No Exit, a play set in a subway. Basically, it’s these characters in hell. I tried thinking of what was a good location for hell, so we did the subway. It was really fun and illegal to make. We did the show for three nights, and during those three nights, we had to move the show each time because we got busted by the cops. Shortly there after, when I started working and doing theater, I directed a production of This is Our Youth, with my husband, who I wrote when you find me with. It was a good situation!

What did you takeaway from that initial experience of working with Canon?

The process of doing the movie was so game-changing for me. When I first heard about the contest I thought it was a really cool and inspired idea, but also a little terrifying. We didn’t know what photos were going to be picked. In terms of the schedule, we had a week or so to actually go from looking at the photos to having a shooting script. It was really tight, so I was pretty nervous.

You know, writers so often have to look at a blank page, but here you’re not alone. You already have a collaborator and you’re given things that expand your imagination, places you may not be normally inclined to go. Writing when you find me, it really exposed me to a way of putting together a story I hadn’t thought of. I’ve done that ever since with making other short films.

Was it tough building a narrative around photographs?

Of course any kind of film process has ups and downs and days where you’re stuck and have breakthroughs. The advantage of developing a story this way far outweighs any potential snag. I’m so happy that Canon decided to do another year. They got five individuals known for taking on the same process with slight modifications. In addition to that, to open it up for everyone else, I want them to know what it’s like to do a movie like this. I thought it was great, but then we got a lot of support with getting on a short list for an oscar, and that can be the same for consumers who make their movies. If their movie gets chosen, we’re going to have a film festival and get behind it. It’s a good opportunity to launch their careers, which it’s done for me, in a sense.

After working with Canon, how did you feel as a director?

For me, Orchids was to learn what my natural strengths and inherent weaknesses were, and, boy, did I ever find out! After I did Orchids, I enrolled back in film school and did a million and a half workshops and worked with great professors and people, trying to hopefully get better. You know, when you find me was so cool because I could put that to practice. There was a learning curve with Orchids, but in that four or five year span between working with Canon, there was a lot more learning.

Did you always aspire to be director? Were you always hoping to balance acting and directing?

Acting is very important to me, and it remains very important for me. I would never want to do what my dad did by becoming a director full-time and step away from acting, except for his amazing performance on Arrested Development [Laughs]. I will keep acting, but I also have this opportunity to direct more now. I’ve been developing projects ‐ and one project in particular ‐ and I hope to launch one soon. The end goal would be a balance of both, but that’s asking for a lot [Laughs]. I’ll do my best and whatever happens happens.

Being a director yourself, do you feel more of a shorthand with filmmakers on set, having a sense for what they need?

I feel really lucky growing up with my dad. He was never very private about his process. We had ridiculous home movies of me at five or six, where my dad is talking to me as if I’m adult, always telling me about his frustrating work day. I’d always look like I’d be understanding him, but I was only five years old [Laughs]. It was very cool he did that, though. When I started working as an actress, although I hadn’t directed anything yet, I always felt highly empathetic for a director. It affects me in small ways, like, I would never think of being late to a set. I just know there’s so much going on for them, so the last thing they need is an actor causing problems. I think I’ve always had that in the back of mind, but I feel more strongly about that now having directed.

When you work with an actor who’s game for anything, easygoing, prepared, and professional, there’s no other way it’ll work. If I was working with an actor showing up late, didn’t show much care, and asked me a question between every take, I’d think, “Oh my gosh, is this out of an insecurity or something?” You’re not going to finish shooting by the time the sun sets working like that, so it’s essential. I’ve been really lucky having worked with some amazing people who are super cool. I hope my good fortune in that continues. I just did a music-video for M83 and poor Lily Collins was on the cement at 5am, totally cold, and by the beach. I thought, “Lady, you are the greatest.”

[Laughs] Do you think an actor should know the technical side of filmmaking?

I’d say it certainly doesn’t hurt. There’s a video Michael Caine did, where he did a great job of saying actors need to be conscious of the technical side, how to hit your mark, and the difference between a performance in a close-up and the performance in a wide-shot. I saw it when I was 16 years old and it made a difference for me. To this day, I remember all the tricks he identified in that video.

At UCLA I took this great class, Cinematography for Directors. I loved the teacher, because I thought I was going to go in there and be so out of it on a daily basis, because I didn’t know the difference between this lens or that lens. I remember she said, “Directors interpret the film through performance, while the cinematographers interpret the film visually. Don’t feel like you need to battle your cinematographer, because that’s not your job.” That advice was helpful. It certainly doesn’t help to be educated.

With the new filmmakers involved in Project Imaginat10n, what advice did you give them? And, when you started your short for Canon, what did Mr. Howard and other directors tell you?

I actually did some webisodes on this, sharing what I went through and the difference it made for me. I think the most important advice I got, which is the most “duh” advice, is to really be prepared. I take things as far as I possibly can on my own, so there’s less questions on the day. I’m intense about shot listing. I’m not saying this as a shout out to Canon, but I’ll do a location scout with my DP and go through the entire film and take photos on my 7D; it’s an illustrated shot list.

I know a lot of people who do their shot lists on their way to shooting or on the day, and that’s cool too. If it works for them, that’s fine. If they’re making a film for a first time or discovering their process, I’d urge them to really come in with a confident shot list. Obviously things will change, but it helps me. I also have a controversial piece of advice I’ll get to…

I’d say, story-wise, know exactly what’s happening in each scene and get on the same page with your cinematographer about that. If something happens to the location or weather and you need to change everything and throwout your shot list, then you’ll be okay because you know the tone, plot points, the dynamics, and the emotional vibe of the scene. The more time spent talking with your cinematographer and creating a strong understanding of a scene before getting on set is very powerful.

[Laughs] My controversial piece of advice is something I struggled with and still do, but it was a big deal for me when I heard it. I had this teacher, Joan Scheckel, who’s quite a revolutionary. She’s really brilliant, out there, and has these remarkable workshops. I once had a consulting session with her and she asked, “As a filmmaker, what’s the most important thing to you?” I said, “The most important thing for me is to be a collaborator, to really support people so they can bring their best everyday.” She responded, “Okay, yeah, sure, but that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is to have your way.”

I was shocked and didn’t know if I agreed, but as she explained it, I thought she was kind of right. She said, “If you don’t have a vision for the way you want things to go, you’re screwed. If your goal is, ‘I want you, you, and you to be your best,’ then there’s no goal there. There’s nothing. Focus on what you want to see.” It was pretty powerful for me. While I always had an idea for what I wanted, I would often compromise, in order to make others feel good. As a director, that’s not your job. Your job as a director is to direct.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.