If there’s anything that’s even harder than making a movie, it’s making your first movie. All week long, we’ve been sharing words of hard-won wisdom given to us by some of the veterans of the industry, but what about the first-time filmmakers who’ve miraculously managed to mount a movie despite overwhelming odds (and underwhelming budgets)? For their perspective, we talked to John Krokidas, whose first film, Kill Your Darlings, stars Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan in the true story of the murder that brought Beat icons Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs together as young men. Here, Krokidas shares the five unexpected things he learned on his directorial debut:
You’re standing in the way of your own movie.
Something I didn’t know going in is that first-time directors are considered by financiers to be “deadly attachments,” meaning that even if financiers are interested in your script and your vision, you are still considered to be a strike against their desire to invest in the film. In some ways, that’s fair: They don’t know whether you can deliver the goods yet, and they might fear that you’ll have a nervous breakdown in the middle of shooting, as some first-time directors have. In order to balance out your deadly attachment, then, these financiers want you to cast movie stars. I think it’s funny that the question I get asked the most is, “How did you get so many movie stars to be in your film?” because the real answer is “Out of necessity!” That’s what it takes to get an independent period drama made these days — especially as a first-time director — and if you don’t have those stars, you’ll have to slash the budget and the number of locations.
The way that independent films are generally put together is that an investor sells off foreign territories before you even shoot the film, and just off of the actors’ names, they actually sell the movie to various distributors around the world before anyone has even seen a frame of the movie. To be honest, when we first cast Daniel Radcliffe, I thought, We’re good to go into production, he’ll help me reach my foreign sales number. Game over. And I was told, “Not so fast. Daniel Radcliffe cannot open a movie without a wand in his hand.” My response to that was, “He’s playing Allen Ginsberg, so there will definitely be some sort of wand in his hand … “
We still weren’t sure if we were going to be financed or not until The Woman in Black, starring Dan Radcliffe, opened the same day as Chronicle, starring Dane DeHaan. Those two movies opened at No. 1 and No. 2 at the box office and overperformed, which was one of those lucky moments I needed after four years of struggling to get the movie financed. We got the money we needed after that because Daniel Radcliffe had now proven that he could open a movie outside of the Harry Potter series, which finally balanced out my deadly attachment.
Background actors can ruin your movie.
This is something I discovered on day one: You can have your shot list memorized, you can know the emotional arc of the scene forwards and backwards, and you can get great performances out of your actors, but all it takes is one extra in the background to ruin all of that work. I remember there was this one moment during the shoot where Daniel Radcliffe broke down and bared his soul, and after that amazing take was over, someone whispered in my ear, “Did you see those cops behind Dan?” Sure enough, the two background actors we had cast as policemen were straight out of a Keystone Kops movie in 1924, shaking their fists and overemoting. Just when I thought I had nailed Dan’s greatest scene ever, I had to junk it because I had these two extras in the background ruining the shot!
When you cast background actors, you have no idea whether or not they can actually perform — the casting agent will e-mail you head shots for Cop No. 1 and Student No. 3, and it’s your job to cast them based only on those head shots while you’re busy doing eight other things. Usually, I’d pick the most interesting faces, but it’s like online dating: They’ll show up on set, and seven times out of ten, they won’t look anything like their pictures. I didn’t talk to the extras as much as I should have because I was more concerned with directing my lead actors, but when you hear about someone like James Cameron, who went up to every single background extra on Titanic to give them a name and a backstory and an objective … well, what first seemed like maniacal director behavior now seems completely logical, and something I’ll do on every movie going forward.
Don’t schedule your most important scenes for the end of the day.
We had a very short shooting schedule, but when we were figuring out what to shoot and when, I had no idea that the last scene you shoot each day will be the most compromised, because inevitably, you’re running out of time. I wish I’d known that going in, because for some reason, almost all of the important scenes from the first twenty minutes of the movie tended to be scheduled at the end of several production days. When we got to those scenes, often we only had an hour to shoot an entire sequence, so they had to be rushed, and when we finally got into the editing room, the first twenty minutes were the toughest to put together. We had fewer pieces and less coverage than we had for the rest of the film, and our greatest struggle in postproduction was how to make that first act of setup seem as dynamic as everything else in the film.
Knowing that now, my advice to other first-time filmmakers is to always schedule “tissue scenes” for the end of the day. Those are the connective scenes in between the greater dramatic moments — an arrival, or a walk-and-talk — and often, they’re the parts that end up on the cutting-room floor. Another option is to save shorter scenes for the end of the day, or shoot scenes that aren’t as emotionally difficult for actors to perform. It’s hard for actors to get to a dark emotional place if they know that you’re wrapping in 45 minutes.
Your movie will be much longer than you think.
The problem with calling your movie Kill Your Darlings is that everyone asks you, “So, which darlings did you have to kill?” I was convinced going in that I wouldn’t have to cut any of my favorite scenes, and I had even pared down my script before production to the point where I thought, A-ha, I’ve made it edit-proof … only to eventually find myself with a two-hour-and-twenty-minute director’s cut that was basically a movie and a half! And what I realized then is that I had a single-protagonist film that had become a multi-protagonist film by the third act, and if I wanted to get the movie down to a reasonable running time, I was going to have to make some hard decisions.
For me, the hardest darling to kill was cutting down Elizabeth Olsen’s performance as Edie Parker, Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend, in order to excise that extra half of the movie that needed to go. She had an amazing arc and her performance was nuanced and beautiful, but that arc had to be sacrificed for the good of the movie. And the thing that sucked is that I knew I would get reviews saying that Elizabeth Olsen was underused, and I did, and it hurt. What hurt even more than that, though, was knowing that I would have to call Elizabeth to tell her that several of the scenes that we had worked on together were not, ultimately, going to make it into the theatrical cut. And God bless Elizabeth Olsen: She not only took the news like a champ, she said, “John, I’m not the kind of actor who puts her own performance above the whole film. I understand that this is part of the process.”
You will get postpartum blues.
At the end of the production, you throw the wrap party, and when you look at this crazy family you’ve created over the past few months, you almost feel like you should all go and get tribal tattoos together. You’re so close that you’re basically a gang — and as the director, you’re the leader of the gang! You’re all in it together, and you’ve bonded so much, and nothing can tear you apart … and then the next day, you wake up and everyone else is gone. They’ve all moved on to their next project, and you realize that you are all alone. After you’ve spent months building this whole family with your cast and crew, they all move on and make new families. And they try not to talk about their new families too much because they know it makes you jealous, but when you call them to catch up, they kind of have to talk about them a little bit. It’s a weird feeling to go back to normal life after shooting your first film. You’ve spent years trying to make this moment happen and it finally has … and then it’s over, and everyone’s gone, and when you sign into your online checking account, you realize you have even less money than you did a year ago.