**This blog post, which I co-authored with Patrick from Stillmotion, first appeared on the Stillmotion blog.**
In July, I had the amazing opportunity to attend Stillmotion’s EVO Experience, a 4 day filmmaking educational intensive.
When Stillmotion’s founder Patrick Moreau handed me a booklet and on the cover it said “Director’s Handbook”, my first thoughts were:
Director. OK. Deep breath.
This is what I wanted, right? I came to EVO for a challenge. But, director? Leading a team of 6 to tell an important story that matters. Gulp. I was equal parts excited and nervous for what the next 48 hours would hold.
I used to be a photographer and have recently fallen in love with the power of film. I’m also a mother of two wonderful kids. As a busy mom with a part-time career, I’m used to juggling responsibility and making decisions. But, I don’t have a ton of experience in motion. And I’ve certainly never dove into anything as ambitious as leading a team of 6 to develop, shoot, and deliver a story over 48 hours.
I wish I could say that I felt excited and up to the challenge. But, really I felt like I was going to puke. I felt responsible for the experience that the 6 people on my team were about to embark on. They had taken time away from their own work and families to come to EVO to learn. And as director I felt like I needed to make sure they had a positive experience. Not to mention, we had an unknown story that we had to tell in two days.
Could I really do this? We were all about to find out.
At 2pm we were handed our project briefs. The ball was rolling. There was no turning back. In the next 48 hours we would be telling the story of Oregon Public House, the world’s first non-profit pub.
Here are my top 5 directing tips that I learned from my first time directing:
1) Be prepared for questions. A LOT of them.
I had no idea how many decisions you are faced with as director. No clue. I thought 5 days away from my kids would mean answering less questions. Whoa, was I wrong.
I wish I would have been able to count the number of questions I was asked in the 48 hours of our filmmaking challenge. It felt endless.
- How should the shot of the bartender pouring the beer feel?
- Do you want the shot of cleaning the table to be shot directly overhead, or an angle?
- Have we secured the location for filming Rhona’s part of the film?
- Our original plan for Rhona’s interview just won’t work, where do we go instead?
- Did someone call Rhona and let her know the new plan?
- Do we need to rearrange the schedule to give us time to find a location?
- We are running late, should we push back lunch?
- Do the photos of the pub being built need to be printed on matte or glossy paper?
- I can’t find matte paper, do we REALLY need matte paper?
- Does the background noise of the ice maker bother you?
- How many different hands do you want holding the photos?
I quickly learned that the reality of being a director is that it is all about making decisions. And because the decisions just keep coming, you can’t take forever on each question. You need to decide pretty swiftly what to make a call on, what to delegate, and what to discuss in more detail.
I also learned that sometimes I had to go against a crew member’s suggestion for a decision. Which was especially challenging because there usually wasn’t time to explain my thinking. I would try to circle back later and share where I was coming from, but even that was hard as I was often on to the next decision. And the next. And the next.
The good news is that on the first day of our challenge, we filled a white board with over 50 keywords informed by our research about OPH.
We drew lines between connected keywords. We circled words. We un-circled words. We put stars by words. We crossed out words. We landed on five keywords to guide our storytelling for the project: community, sustainability, connection, effortless, and opportunity.
So, while there were a million decisions to make in 48 hours. We had a filter to help make those decisions. Did the answer to a question, support our keywords and our story? If so, it was worth spending time on. If not, the keywords were a helpful way guide us to move on.
One example where the keywords informed a big decision in the film, was when we were setting up to film the historical photos of the pub being built. We had planned to slide across the photos on one of the the wooden pub table. But then P asked me, does that fit with the keywords? When I took the time to think about, sliding on the photos didn’t really feel right when we held it up to the lens of our keywords. We’d simply fallen into that common trap of going with what we knew, what worked.
Instead, we asked ‘What would say community and connection?’ Putting the photos in people’s hands. Lots of different people’s hands in the community. We took the time to stop and think through the choice, and doing so really made the historical photos shown in our film more authentically connected to our story.
2) Never stop listening.
After we had our keywords, our next big question was ‘who would be the heart of our story?’ Who would be that singular perspective for the audience to connect to and through which our story would be told.
Ryan Saari founded Oregon Public House, the non-profit we were making a film for. He is charismatic and engaging. He’s a pastor and well-spoken. He makes a TedTalk look like a walk in the park (with a pint in his hand). And he came up with a CRAZY idea for a pub that you’ll see in our film below.
He would have been a great choice for the heart of our story. But we couldn’t just settle for the obvious.
If the well-spoken, engaging, and charismatic founder of OPH wasn’t our heart, then who was? And why were we making the process seemingly so hard on ourselves? Because by doing so, we didn’t move the story by choosing Ryan at the start. We put him on our list of leads, but we also kept listening and digging deeper into the story.
As we dug deeper, we started to build a list of possible hearts that included:
- The neighborhood mail lady who also volunteered at the pub.
- A local couple who helped build the pub, with mom carrying a newborn on her back.
- A retired gentleman who had volunteered every week since the beginning.
- The pub’s general manager who was SO passionate about helping individuals grow.
- An original founder of the pub who comes weekly for his founder’s benefit of a free pint of beer.
- A pub neighbor who has lived nearby for over 40 years who has seen the area transform and change over the years.
Then it happened.
One of the charities that OPH was supporting at the time was Braking Cycles, a non-profit that connects homeless youth with bikes for mobility and mentorships in bike repair for job skills. Ryan had mentioned Rhona, the founder of Braking Cycles, as a possible connection.
She was further down our list, only because we talked about her later in the meeting with Ryan. After going through many leads that were not panning out, we sent Rhona a Facebook message. And she immediately responded that she was available to talk.
When we began our call, Rhona told me that she started Braking Cycles to help bridge a huge gap that exists for homeless youth in Portland. To use the best of what Portland has to offer (green thinking, recycling, bikes, coffee) to give homeless youth opportunities.
Braking Cycles had just gotten off the ground and Rhona was so honored to have been chosen as one of the charities supported by OPH this summer. Rhona’s dream is to grow Breaking Cycles to a place where she can open a bike and coffee shop that pairs homeless youth with mentors to learn job skills in bike repair and customer service. Rhona said she knows that the support and exposure from being chosen as an OPH charity will help make that dream a reality.
So then, I asked her why she was so passionate about helping homeless youth through Breaking Cycles.
And then she told me she was born into homelessness.
Her birth certificate listed a camp ground as her first address because she lived in a car for the first 7 years of her life.
She continued to tell me her story about being on the streets and addicted to drugs at 11. She said she knows what it is like to sleep under a bridge. To run and be in danger.
She told me she was on the streets and pregnant at 14. And that her baby saved her life.
When she became a mother at 15, she made a promise to herself that she would put herself in a position someday to come back and help homeless youth. And she’s doing just that with Breaking Cycles.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I called Rhona. But I can tell you I wasn’t expecting her story. A story that moved me so deeply. A story of a woman who had been through such heartbreaking hardships at such a young age, but found the strength to return to the streets and help youth that are in the position she once was.
Our team reconvened to talk about the heart of our story and it became pretty clear that Rhona was our heart.
Rhona came to meet us for the first time at 9:30pm the night before we were to begin production.
We could have made the obvious choice that was right in front of us at 4pm. We could have saved ourselves several hours of stress as we tried to search for additional options for the heart of our story.
But we trusted the process and kept listening. We continued to dig and search for strong connections. And in doing so, we really deepened the story we told.
3) Make the time to take the time.
In a parenting book I read many years back, I found a powerful nugget of wisdom. Time-outs are just as often for the parent as they are for the child.
I wish I would have remembered that lesson more on our shoot day. I could have used a few time-outs during our EVO shoot. Just to regroup and remember what was important in our story. But, I was daunted by all we had to accomplish in such a short amount of time, so I kept charging forward.
There was a communication breakdown between us and Ryan and the pub staff about how much we would be up in their business at the pub on the shoot day. We needed to be behind the bar to get shots of a beer pouring. We needed to mop their floor. We needed to set up lights and have gear in their space. We needed to talk to patrons during the lunch rush.
The staff was friendly, but it was clear we were in their way. And they weren’t prepared for us being in their way all day. Once we realized that the staff wasn’t thrilled we were there, we could have all really benefited from a time-out with the staff. To explain that what were were doing there on that Wednesday was going to help OPH in a big way. To tell their story so they could help more charities.
Our crew was moving on multiple setups in the pub. Everyone was doing their best, but we were an inexperienced team, so we were not necessarily working as efficiently as possible. We lost our interview location. We were behind schedule. And we only had one day for production.
When you have too much to do in too little time, stopping to pull people together seems like the wrong thing to do. But we finally took five minutes for a team time-out. We recapped where we were at, celebrated our successes, then clearly went over what everybody had to do to complete the job. It pulled us together and reminded us of our goals.
It energized and focused us together as a team again. Those five minutes made all the difference in how we closed out a long and tiring day, and how connected every team member felt to the story we told together.
4) Never forget about the experience.
In the first few moments of my Tuesday phone call with Rhona, we had a connection. Even though our life experiences were vastly different, we clicked. We talked about our kids and about wanting to make a difference in the world.
As we were waiting for the crew to set up to film Rhona, she and I looked through some photos she brought of her daughters when they were babies. As we talked about motherhood, we both got pretty emotional. I was running on 2 hours of sleep, and hadn’t seen or talked to my kids in days. She was showing me photos of her as a teenage mom. The authentic experience you’re looking for on-camera was so there, but we just hadn’t gotten to set yet.
I planned to just continue that energy and experience on to set.
But instead, when we got her on set, I got more official. I stayed back by the camera. I didn’t engage with her in the same way that I did off camera
I feel like I gave the teleprompter and crew more attention than Rhona. Did she need another turtle on the prompter to slow it down and help with pacing? Was my DP set to roll? Did audio feel ready? Should we flag that harsh light coming in from the window? What is our focal length and framing?
Rhona did several takes of the script and they were pretty good. But the takes didn’t go there – to that emotionally raw place we had shared before, off camera.
A few takes in, P. came in close to Rhona and reminded her of a powerful story she had told earlier that day. A story about teenage Rhona who was hungry and alone. She had stood for hours staring at leftover meatballs in somebody’s fridge. She was trying to sort out how to eat just one and move the rest around so that nobody would notice. She was balancing not haven eaten for days with the potential of abuse if she was caught.
But taking that moment to be there with her. For real. To remind her of what this is about, and who she was trying to help, made all of the difference.
The take after P. moved in close, grabbed her hand, and spoke with her is the one that you will see at the end of our OPH film. And it’s POWERFUL. It was a huge teaching moment for me to see that it really is all about the experience. On and off set.
It is oh so easy as a director to get so overwhelmed with the amount of questions you’re getting hit with that you forget that you also need to create an experience for both your crew and those in your film. The time-out was a moment for our crew. And this conversation with Rhona was a moment just for her.
5) People first. No matter what.
By 7pm on the shooting day of our EVO challenge, we had already been shooting for 10 hours. We were behind schedule. Our team was tired and hungry.
We were also losing our light. The sun was setting and there was no way to stop that.
And to top that off, we still had one of our most challenging series of shots to accomplish. And it was one of those shots that just make your story – the one we couldn’t live without.
We needed somebody homeless, on the streets, to open our story and setup our hook.
Rhona took us to the Burnside Bridge which is quite the eye-opener at dusk. On, under and around the bridge, hundreds of homeless people settle into their tents, sleeping bags, and refrigerator boxes for the night.
With Rhona’s help, I approached several homeless people on the bridge and asked them if we could film them. Alison who was getting ready for the night in her tent, didn’t want her face filmed. Lucy was in a sleeping bag on the bridge, and while she let us film her, she was actually 45 years old. We needed a homeless youth.
Just when I thought we weren’t going to get the shot we had planned for, Cassie approached us. I told her how filming her would help our story to make a difference for homeless youth. She wanted to do it, even though we were out of the fast-food gift cards we had been handing out to those who were allowing us to film them.
While Krystal, Ahbi and P. setup the shot under the bridge, I talked with Cassie. She told me that she left home two years ago at 16 because as a lesbian she wasn’t welcome in her parents’ home. She told me about how her day was upsetting because the police questioned her earlier about a stabbing that happened under the Burnside Bridge. Right where we were standing.
I could have caved to the uncomfortable situation and stopped talking. I could have rushed us along because we had no light. But instead, I kept talking with Cassie. Listening and making sure she felt heard.
She sat down for the opening shot of our story on the train platform under the Burnside Bridge and held a sign asking for money. But before she did, I told her “I’m right here with you. You’re not alone.” I sat down on the dirty ground across from her, as close as I could without being in frame. We locked eyes, and we shared a genuine connection.
Whether a CEO or a homeless teen under a bridge, always put people first for the deepest storytelling.
The Final Unveiling of our film (just 48 hours after we started)!
We all gathered at Stillmotion for the premieres of the EVO films. When I arrived, after editing up to the very last minute, I was so happy to see that both Ryan and Rhona, from the non-profits, were able to attend. I gave Rhona a big hug and she introduced me to two of her daughters and two of their friends.
When it was time for our film to play, I was sort of watching the film but mostly watching Rhona and her daughters watch the film. Watching their reactions to the story our team told.
I learned later that night from Rhona’s daughter, that she didn’t know all the details about her mom’s story of being homeless. Our story helped her daughter know her, and love her, just a little bit more.
In just 48 hours we’d told the story of Oregon Public House and it had already made a difference.
We were an inexperienced crew, but we worked together to create a really powerful story. We did so by allowing our keywords guide our decisions, always listening, remembering to value the experience of our crew and talent, and always, always putting people first.
For me, it was a powerful experience to know that in a short amount of time, you can band together with other storytellers that you just met, and create a film that really means something.
I couldn’t have made this film without the incredible talent and hard work of the other members of my team:
Patrick Moreau and Zippy Etzel : Stillmotion educators
Krystal Ford : Producer
Abhishek Anchliya : DP
Gita Kim : Second Camera
Mark Teskey : Gaffer and Lighting Director
Josh Callow : Field Audio and Sound Designer