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6 Filmmaking Tips from Lake Bell

The actress-turned-director shares advice on breaking through.
By  · Published on August 29th, 2017

The actress-turned-director shares advice on breaking through.

In a world where men dominate the film industry, Lake Bell is making the struggle seem easy. In less than seven years, she’s gone from scene-stealing actress to successful writer/director, winning screenplay awards for her debut short, Worst Enemy, and her first feature, In a World… This week, her sophomore feature, I Do… Until I Don’t, is hitting theaters without any pre-release festival presence.

It’s not as simple as it looks. Not only did Bell save up to kick off this branch of her career, but more importantly she had to work hard to break through and break out as a filmmaker. She does have some lessons and tips to share from her experience, though, and we’ve compiled some of them below.

Start Small

As noted above, Bell didn’t just jump into directing a feature. About a decade into her acting career, she made a couple shorts and had the opportunity to hone her skills directing episodes of Children’s Hospital, the Adult Swim comedy she stars in. She tells the story in a 2014 interview with The Debrief:

“You don’t have to think you’re going to win an Academy Award because you did one thing. I think you aim for goals that are attainable. With me,  they were like, ‘You have this script, you should direct it.’ And I was like, ‘Hell no. I’m not going to direct a movie, an entire film without ever having directed anything. I don’t want to set myself up for failure like that.’ And then my agent said, ‘Well, then write a short film and direct that.’ And I decided that was something palatable, that was something I could do.”

She continues:

“I saved up and invested in myself. I was lucky enough to be able do that, because I had saved up some money from television. Then the short film went to Sundance and that’s just what happened. That was the beginning of my career as a filmmaker and it was absolutely invaluable, it changed my life. Because then I had a visual calling card for what I wanted to do and how I wanted to speak to the camera as an artist. So then I used that to find financing with my script In A World…and everything just sort of went from there. But nothing will get done if you don’t do anything. It’s an obvious thing, but it’s a beautiful thing because it comes down to being easy if you allow it to be.”

Lake Bell directing an episode of ‘Children’s Hospital.’ Photo by Darren Michaels (Cartoon Network)

Find Your People

Although you probably could make a movie on your own, typically it’s a team effort and you need to bring others into the fold. You also can’t get anywhere without help from above or from peer support. Basically, become popular and surround yourself with friends.

She tells The Debrief in the same interview:

I think in general, making content is easier now with the technology that’s available. You don’t have to be a millionaire to make a web series, for instance. Or even just a video or a sketch. For me, I’m just like, you need to start writing or collaborate with people who do write, and look for your community and look for your comrades who are likeminded and forge a community of people. It’s like, put yourself around people who are a step ahead, or on the same plateau as you. Get in a creative war room together and be bold enough to try to put some things forth.

Test Yourself to Be Fearless

Gotta Have Faith

Bell also says in the above video, “Don’t have a backup plan, if you mean business.” What she means is, have faith in yourself, your talent, your project. If you want it and believe in yourself and will work hard to get it, you have a better chance of achieving your dream than if you don’t do any of those things. If you have a backup plan, that means you would be fine doing that other plan instead anyway. She tells Refinery29 in a brand new interview:

“There’s just gotta be a sense that you have every faith in yourself. And you have to really, then, have every faith in yourself. You can’t mask it. But I do think it’s important to, if you have a strong voice and you have a strong work ethic and belief in yourself, then I feel like that’s a really good place to start. But you can’t even afford to have any laziness. So if you want to do something, you’d better be pretty on the front foot about it. So when people say, ‘Oh, if you want to be a writer, what’s the one way to start?’ I’m like, ‘You gotta write. Like, all the time.’ And the great thing about writing is, you don’t need an agent to write. You don’t need anything to write. You literally just need your tools to actually, physically write.”
To have faith in your project, Bell believes you really have to want it and love it and maybe even be obsessed with the subject matter and story you’re working with. From a 2015 interview with Business Insider:
“I’ll be totally honest in that I feel tremendously lucky that I am offered incredible jobs all the time to direct, but the problem that I have just personally is that there are only so many years in my life to dedicate to certain projects. So when you’re directing something that’s generally two years of your life, you have to understand that. If I’m going to pour that kind of love and energy and sweat and heartache, all that juju into something, I’m going to lean into my own projects before someone else’s. So what I’m doing right now is not a lack of offers but looking for support of my own endeavors. I think of myself as a content creator and hopefully one day a content enabler and supporter of others, so that’s what my immediate and hopefully future journey is. To remain on this path that needs to be fluid, that needs to be able to give and take and alter to meet the needs that are whatever ahead of me creatively. But you have to be steadfast.”
Admitting to her obsession with the subject matter of her first feature, Bell told a fan during a 2013 Reddit AMA:
“I wanted to make this movie mainly because it infected my brain from every angle. I think that to have the energy to make a movie, you have to be obsessed with the subject.”

Take On Hurdles With Grace

In the same Reddit AMA, Bell encouragingly addresses a fan who calls her a role model for young women aspiring to be filmmakers:

“It is difficult, yes. But it is our responsibility as women to take on hurdles with grace. And the most graceful way to address your dreams is to just do them. I saw an interview with [real estate mogul] Zhang Xin where the interviewer asked what she was thinking about as she entered a room filled with male suits, and she laughed and then blankly said ‘I just don’t think about it.’ And I think the simplicity of that conceit is really powerful, because I share that feeling that we shouldn’t feel victimized as women, we should just go about our business and mentor and look up to both men and women: if they are doing what you aspire to do, they should be an inspiration to you regardless of gender.”

Lake Bell and Ed Helms in ‘I Do…Until I Don’t’ (The Film Arcade)

‘Til Death Do You Part

The final tip is interesting to consider now that Bell has made a movie on the idea that marriage is dead (I Do…Until I Don’t), though the movie does counter that idea.

From a 2013 Fast Company interview:

“I know full well that making a movie is like getting married; it’s a huge commitment and it will be with you the rest of your life in a bunch of ways. So when I went into ‘In a World,’ I tirelessly combed over every detail.”

Sure, marriages can end quicker than the time it takes to make a movie. But you do always have to live with the fact that you have an ex, right? If your movie fails or isn’t great and you wind up embarrassed about it, too bad, that thing sticks with you forever, on your IMDb page as well as in your heart. So the point is to go into something that looks promising and comb over every detail to make it work.

What We’ve Learned

As a woman filmmaker who is getting things done, a lot of interviews with Bell focus on how she’s breaking through gender barriers. So a lot of her tips do focus on what women can do to make it in Hollywood or the indie film world. And a lot of that advice is to just do it and not think too much about the barrier even being there. To that, most of her tips can apply to anyone regardless of gender. But hopefully more talented women follow them.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.