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6 Filmmaking Tips From the 2017 Oscar Nominees for Best Director

By  · Published on February 22nd, 2017

Only one will get the award, but all five give winning advice.

Most of this year’s contenders for the Best Achievement in Directing Oscar are new to the category. While some of them have been recognized in the past for screenwriting, Mel Gibson is the only prior directing nominee, and he’s also a winner in this field. Now he’s up against Denis Villeneuve, Kenneth Lonergan, Barry Jenkins, and Damien Chazelle, the expected recipient of the Academy Award.

Chazelle, who will be the youngest winner of the directing Oscar if he’s given the honor, is meanwhile the only one of the five whom we’ve featured in our Filmmaking Tips column. Now he’s back in our spotlight with extra advice, joined by tips from the other four. Who knows, maybe by following all of these, you too can become an Oscar-nominee – and maybe winner.

Damien Chazelle (La La Land): No Shit

Beginning with an additional tip from Chazelle, just this week he shared some seemingly obvious advice with Vulture about the need for only good stuff throughout your movie.

You’ve got to have a good beginning, a good ending, and no shitty scenes in between. The beginning is when the audience is most susceptible, the most vulnerable, the most fertile. How much do you maximize that moment? And then the other most important moment is when the lights come back on and people exit the theater, because that last scene is going to roll through their heads right afterwards.

He goes more into detail from there with a handful of specifics, most of them using his own films and others that inspired him as examples. It’s worth reading the whole piece, but here’s another quote from the beginning, on beginnings:

Right as the screen is going black, the audience doesn’t know what they’re about to see – it could be Citizen Kane. In other words, it’s the only moment you ever have them where their minds are as open as they’re ever going to be and they are truly ready to think of your work on the highest possible terms. You want to try not to fumble that ball, to preserve that sense of them thinking this could be an amazing work of art for as long as possible.

Watch Chazelle at work:

Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge): Stay Put

In recent years, Gibson has had to be self-deprecating when asked for advice. On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last fall, he offered tips to his younger self, including “shut the fuck up.”

Two years ago, he had something more serious to say at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival following a special screening of Mad Max. Whether he means for it to or not, the advice has two levels of meanings regarding the significance of Hollywood as a place and a part of the film industry. Via Variety:

A lot of people used to try… this happens with actors and directors… They come to Los Angeles, and they believe it to be this kind of Mecca of filmmaking, and I think it used to be, but I don’t think it is anymore. I think it’s wherever the inspiration is. It’s wherever it’s going to… it’s a homegrown thing. You got a better chance of making a world-breaking phenomenal story here in Karlovy if you are local and you understand it than you will have traveling to the West Coast of America. Nothing much is happening there now.

Watch Gibson at work:

Barry Jenkins (Moonlight): Stay Active

Like Gibson, but for much different reasons, it took Jenkins a long time after his last feature to get back in the director’s chair for his Oscar-nominated latest. But he wasn’t doing nothing, and he says continually doing something is important for filmmakers who might be able to be prolific. Here’s what he told The Iris back in January:

You know, I stayed active, I did quite a few short films, quite a lot of commercials and branded content. You have to stay active, because the muscle atrophies if you don’t. The brain is a muscle like any other. But then two, there was a time that I worked on things, and not that they weren’t personal, but I wasn’t as honest with myself as I was with this, about why I was making it, why I loved it, why I was putting so much time into it.

I think if you’re always asking yourself those questions: why am I doing this? Why do I love this? What do I hope is the outcome of this? If you get those answers and you find the piece to still be meaningful, I think you’re working in the right direction… that’s not a guarantee that things are gonna work. I can’t say if I went back in time and I made this film again, that I would be ending up on this couch talking to you. But I also wasn’t beholden to that as a result. I was just so fully in the process: I have to make this film right now. In this way. With these people. And here we are.

Barry Jenkins (Moonlight): Read Her

Because most of these nominees are also writers, three of them also recognized in the screenplay categories this year, we have a bonus tip from Jenkins to fill out the sixth slot. When asked for advice for new writers in a 2016 interview for the Writers Guild of America, West, he simply said to read, but he also gave some specifics of what to read:

It’s not going to be a writing thing; it’s going to be a reading thing. Read screenplays. Read screenplays. Read a lot of screenplays. You have to. When I finally did film school, I did like a year – and then I stopped the program. I took a year off. I read scripts. I watched a lot of movies, mostly foreign films. I got a subscription to Sight and Sound. I took a film and photography class. I wanted to ingest what I thought was the very best version of what I was trying to do. So I read everything by Robert Towne and Charlie Kaufman – two totally different approaches to screenwriting, equally brilliant. I still read screenplays all the time. Michael Haneke’s Amor? That is crazy, crazy, crazy good. But if you’re really looking for a script to start with? Read Her. If I was a new writer, I’d read Her. A thousand times.

For more advice from Jenkins, here’s a Masterclass talk from earlier this month at the International Film Festival Rotterdam:

Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea): Get Used to the Assholes

Yes, there are a lot of assholes in the movie business, but here we’re actually talking about opinions, which as the saying goes are like assholes, and I guess also the assholes (including us film critics) who feel the need to constantly offer them to artists like Lonergan. He makes it sound like it’s a struggle to deal with, and he says all you can do is just get used to it. From a recent interview for the Writers Guild of America, East:

The other part, which is external, is that you have to get used to everybody telling you their opinion about what you’re doing. And when I say get used to it, I mean figuring out a way to handle it without hurting your work. How you do it depends on your personality. But handle it you must because it’s impossible to function with that much input. Don’t ask everybody what they think of your work. Be aware that most comments, smart or dumb, are critical and not utilitarian. Understand that the problem that appears in Scene 20 may be caused by something that happens (or doesn’t happen) in Scene 8. Don’t lie to yourself, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Follow your own interests and never mind whether it’s Like A Movie or not.

Last fall, in an interview at and for the Toronto International Film Festival, Lonergan gave some related advice on staying true to yourself and not listening to what others think you should be doing:

I suppose my generic advice is to do what feels right and true to you and not worry about whether it’s supposed to be in a movie or not. “Supposed to be” means somebody else’s idea. I think movies are always best when the creators follow their own ideas that feel truthful to them. “Follow your own interests and trust that they might be interesting to others” is my own creative template.

And he begins the following video interview and talk for BAFTa with the same sort of advice. There’s a lot of good stuff here beyond that, too.

Denis Villeneuve (Arrival): Start With Something Real

Finally, we have the most prolific of the nominees, despite being only the third oldest, and he’s also currently the most “Hollywood.” Villeneuve has done a couple Reddit AMAs, and as usual one of the anythings he’s asked about is advice for young filmmakers. Last year, he gave the following simple yet fairly unique and specific tip:

Grab a camera – go outside and shoot reality! I started doing my own documentaries being my own cinematographer – that is the best way to learn.

Watch Villeneuve at work:

What We Learned

This year’s Oscar contenders in the directing category have had great successes as well as certain struggles, and so the tips they have to offer at this special point in their career is thoughtful and very sound while also seeming to be obvious and basic. You need your whole movie to be interesting, you have to trust that what you find interesting will be interesting to the audience, and you can find that interesting material wherever you already are.

As usual, we learned that you should just go make something locally and at first maybe something real. Never stop, just keep producing stuff big and small, long or short, commercial or personal, anything. Meanwhile, learn from others by reading their successful screenplays. And don’t worry about doing what anyone expects of you or of movies in general. But yeah, definitely take that extra advice from Gibson to keep your mouth shut as far any offensive opinions you may have are concerned.

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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.