So You Want My Job: Film Director

by Brett & Kate McKay on May 20, 2009 · 45 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job


Today we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable man jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

Speaking of living one’s dream, John Dowdle has what many men who consider the dream job. I have to say that while I’ve enjoyed all the entries in this series, John’s is one of my favorites, because after all, who hasn’t wondered what it would be like to make some movie magic? AoM appreciates John taking some time away from negotiating Tinseltown to give us a glimpse.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? Where did you go to school?)

I’m originally from St. Paul, MN, but I now live in Los Angeles. I’m a movie writer/director. I went to the University of Iowa for two years and then transferred to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where I graduated with a film degree.

2. Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.

Basically, the director is the artistic head of a movie.

There are three main phases to the job of directing a movie:

1. Pre-production

In many ways, this is the most important part of the process. It’s where the ideas of a film are translated into a kind of game plan, both from an artistic angle (casting, shot selection, style, color schemes, etc.) and a practical (scheduling, locations, etc). In many ways a movie is made or broken in pre-production.

2. Production

This is probably the phase most people associate with directing. Being on set, calling “action” and giving notes on performance and shots. This phase often feels like trying to paint a picture with a hundred people standing behind you screaming, “hurry up!” It’s very stressful and very exciting. Some days are truly soul crushing and some days you just feel electric.

3. Post-production

Often the longest phase of making a movie, and in many ways the most gratifying. This is where you assemble all the parts into something that feels like a movie. The director sits with the editor as the movie is put together and finessed to hide all the ridiculous mistakes the director made on set. Then sound effects are added and mixed, the color is corrected and visual effects are laid in. The director oversees all of this. (But doesn’t actually have to be able to do any of it himself, which is very convenient.)

4. Why did you want to be a movie director? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I actually wanted to be a writer first. Growing up in Minnesota, I never knew any directors or even really thought about that as a possible job. When I was 14, I started writing a lot. By the time I graduated high school, I was writing all the time. I decided to go to the University of Iowa because they have a great writing program.

There I took a film course where we studied things like the French New Wave and films by Tarkovsky and the Italian Neorealists, and it just blew my mind. I had no idea film could take so many forms. I was hooked. A year later I transferred to NYU to study film production, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

I find the process of filmmaking a truly magical one. The way shots fit together to create the illusion of things happening that never did. Sculpting time and space to tell cinematic lies. It’s thrilling.

5. If a man wants to become a movie director, how should he best prepare? Do you recommend going to film school?

Film school is a great way to jump start a sense of film language. Making shorts and then showing them to people is invaluable in that sense. But I don’t think film school is necessary. I know a lot of very talented directors who learned by just doing it.

I do think it’s important to learn to write, though. Having a good sense of story is invaluable. I believe nothing is more important than that.

6. How did you personally get your foot in the door of the movie-making business?

I made a movie. And nothing happened. And then I made another movie (“The Dry Spell”). And it got into some festivals and got our names out there a little bit (I say “our” because I work in tandem with my brother Drew). And then we made a third movie (“The Poughkeepsie Tapes”) and it got into the Tribeca Film Festival in 2007, and it caused a bit of a stir. MGM bought it, and a producer named Roy Lee heard of us and offered to let us pitch ideas to him for a remake of the Spanish film REC the same week. We were up against much bigger filmmakers, but we gave it everything we had and got the job. That film became “Quarantine.”

It took me 13 years of destitute poverty to start making a living making films. Before that, it was pretty brutal at times. I was almost evicted a dozen times. I once had to pawn my entire collection of jazz cds so I could take someone out for a business lunch. I once sold my car to make a short. Stuff like that.

7. How do most filmmakers go about getting attention for their work?

Film festivals are a great way. In many ways, those are the gatekeepers to the industry. Screenwriting contests are good. I think just doing it. Making films and making more films. I remember being terrified before a premiere and my wife Stacy told me, “It doesn’t really matter if it goes well or not, because tomorrow you’re going to get up and you’re going to keep doing it.” And she was right. The attention will come in time if you just keep doing the work. I believe that.

8. What are the chances of a filmmaker being able to earn a decent living at their craft?

It’s tough. There’s an adage, “It’s hard until it’s easy.” I think that’s pretty much it. It’s extremely difficult to get anyone to pay you anything, but once anyone does, someone else will probably pay you too.

9. What is the best part of the job?

I love that the job changes constantly. Pre-pro, production, post. They’re such incredibly different jobs with different crews, different temperaments, different paces and skill sets. The only real constant is the project itself. And that looks incredibly different from one week to the next. It’s a job that never stays the same.

10. What is the worst part of the job?

The drive home from set where I realize, in retrospect, all the things I could have done better. Some of the politics can be frustrating. Bad reviews.

11. What is the biggest misconception people have about the job?

I think people sometimes overestimate the role of the director. (Even directors!) I think directors sometimes get too much credit for both the good ideas as well as the problems. It’s such a collaborative art. A film is never “by” one person. It’s made from a lot of work and skill and suffering by literally hundreds of people.

12. What is the work /family/life balance like?

It can be a bit rough. It’s important to have a very understanding wife. I find I’m either home a lot (during development and post) or not at all (during pre-pro and production).

13. Any other advice you’d like to share?

My best piece of advice if you’re looking to get into directing, is to not get good at anything else. The people who seem to stick with it are the ones who have no other marketable skills.

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Hallock May 20, 2009 at 7:56 pm

I work in post-production (3D modeling, animation, advertising), and people don’t realize how much work goes into that end of a production. 50-80 hour work weeks can be standard.

2 Jason May 20, 2009 at 8:33 pm

Wow, as someone who’s really into movies and dreams of being a director myself, this was my favorite interview so far.

Saw Quarantine by the way, and thought it was great.

3 Bob Iger May 21, 2009 at 2:03 am

I don’t really agree with the last line that the people who seem to stick with it, are the ones who have no other marketable skills. I think there are enough talented people in the business (at least in Europe) who came from all kinds of different backgrounds (painters, writers, …) to become a movie director

4 Seth Q. May 21, 2009 at 5:01 am

This is awesome! Thanks John for taking the time to do the interview! Very interesting stuff.

5 Micah May 21, 2009 at 5:19 am

> “My best piece of advice…is to not get good at anything else”

I have never, ever heard that advice given in a serious way before. Interesting interview. Nice beard though.

6 Joe May 21, 2009 at 6:44 am

“Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less.
Three shall be the number thoushalt count, and the number of
the counting shall be three. Thou shalt not count to four,
neither shalt thou count to two, excepting that thou then
procedest to three. Five is right out.”

7 Bob C May 26, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Hey John, need any help? You have my dream job! I’m 1 year out of college and looking for *any* kind of production work I can get involved with. Check out my resume and reel!

8 Brendon May 31, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Do I need a beard to become a film director?

9 Carmen July 27, 2009 at 6:52 pm

is it hard to get the job as a director? my dream is becoming a director and a writer and i just pray to god that he’ll give me that opportunity! but im sometimes scared that it won’t happen, could you help me?, that would be great!

10 kiran January 6, 2010 at 12:39 pm

hi this kiran iam student off architect i have lot off intrest to direct the move i just want to learn that but i dont have money for that but if i get a chance i wil try to give my best of the of best for that pls help me

11 Detrick May 4, 2010 at 9:14 am

Hello, my name is Detrick and I was just wondering if my skills as an Artist can help in directing?

12 Marisa May 21, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Hi…Im still in school but I really want to go study film directing after school.I live in South Africa and here they make allot of international movies.Should I go to a film school in Cape town South Africa or would it be better to go to a film shool overseas??

13 Madison Brogan October 16, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Hello, i was wondering if you actually knew the names of the directors who didn’t go to film school. I need to know because i’m thinking about becoming a motion picture director. I want to go to college but you said film school is not neccesary, soo if you could let me know that would be great.

14 Madison Brogan October 16, 2012 at 8:02 pm

Continuation of my last comment…or do you think film school is a good idea for me?

15 Nathan October 22, 2012 at 4:43 pm

as a movie/book fanatic i absolutely love this kind of stuff… im currently doing A-level media studies but i cant help but feel it isnt much like the real thing, ive seen alot of films i think have the potential to be greats and i personaly think i could do despite probably being oblivious to 1001 reasons i couldnt. this interview was really good and opened my eyes a littleive always fancied being a movie director but its always seemed like aspiring to be a singer or a footballer, the dream but probably not much chance of it happening. i will save and buy a video editor for my laptop, not coming from a very wealthy background this could take a while but i will follow your steps and hopefully you’ll see my name on the big screen ;) lol

16 Terry Baxter November 15, 2012 at 10:21 am

Please do not shoot me for being a female posting on a “manly” site. Yet my name sounds manly and I have always work in male dominated industries. I love your site and the creative and interesting stories. Keep up the awesome work. I too intend to be a director and recently just completed 3 marketing videos that I am proud of and leaves me hungry to keep going. This article has inspired me even further!!

17 Dharmendra kumar das November 17, 2012 at 11:03 am

I shall be a film director.please give me information how can i learn directing a film work.

18 Amber Richardson December 13, 2012 at 8:07 pm

I thought that was great advice. I know that I can really do this. By hearing from someone who has experienced it, I think it was very helpful. Thank you and I very much appreciate the advice! I definitely thank the guy who took the time to get the information needed to know about film directing. Thanks again!

19 Drew Shealy January 9, 2013 at 8:23 pm

I have always wanted to direct films, and every time i ask someone how to make a good film, they tell me watch more movies, so i do, iv seen REC and Quarantine and they both are very good movies, an to answer Madison Brogan’s question Quentin Tarantino did not go to film school or high school for that matter he dropped out in the 8th grade, also Christopher Nolan once said in an interview that he has never been in a film school of any kind, i have looked at a few film school’s for myself but it seemed to me all they want you to do is watch movies, so i just saved my money by doing that at home, thank you very much it’s always good to hear how a director got there start,

20 amy January 10, 2013 at 12:50 pm

I’ve been making a living as a filmmaker for 7 months now. It’s possible to get a job within any other crew position other than film dir. I work as a script supervisor and that way I can make a living working on film sets whilst building up money and contacts to be a film dir.

21 Max Ramaekers January 14, 2013 at 9:58 am

Im two years away from graduating high school and am really interested in filmmaking. So far I’ve made a few music videos using nothing but my iPod to film, because i just don’t have any other options. Its really interesting and fun to do, and while doing it i realized i might want to get a job in this industry later on in my life. Directing and filming my own videos was pretty much what made me start, but so far its still just a hobby. A hobby i truly enjoy though. Thats why I probably am going to film school in belgium( I’m belgian but i currently live in Cameroon), and make my hobby my job. This interview made it clear how the potential risk of not being able to live off of this is high and thats pretty intimidating, but i guess if you’re really passioned by it you could do anything right ;) Im gonna take the shot, Thanks!

22 sydney January 16, 2013 at 7:19 am

Very enlightening words john,thank You!
Growing up as a nigerian,it is frowned upon to do anything else other than the cliche career path(lawyer,banker,doctor..etc) your parents want you to follow. Well i’m done with my first degree and i’m working with a shipping company. But this isnt what i want,i’m not happy with it,all my life i’v always loved movies,i’v always wanted to be a part of it.and now i wanna pursue that dream of becoming a motion picture director. What advice can you give me on where to start from?

23 Emmanuel January 21, 2013 at 5:57 pm

I really wanna learn hw to direct and produce movies

24 Nate McGhan January 29, 2013 at 2:58 pm

This really inspired me even more to pursue my dream of being a Director/Writer. I really Had no Idea of what I wanted to do as a Career, but now I have an Idea of what my calling might be. I’ve made one short film that was really just for fun and I’m on the verge of making more short films. when you said Film festivals and Screenwriting contests might be the best way to get your name out there for Major Film producers, well that really hit me. I have a great Imagination and I’m very good when it comes to writing stories. Hopefully one day I will become a well known Director/Writer, thank you for tips and recommendations. I’m sure it will help me with my future goals.

25 TDD March 2, 2013 at 3:59 am

Becoming a Hollywood Movie Director is my ultimate passion. But unfortunately, Im short of finance as well as Im at the wrong part of the world. Are there any scholarships for international students to study film making in LA or NY (USA)?

26 joseph March 13, 2013 at 12:36 pm

it through be here i my country there are no film schools i like be come a director one day i am in (sierra leone west africa)

27 Doc April 4, 2013 at 4:32 pm

A lot of commentors have requested more information. It is my understanding that directors, especially the great ones, have found success in going out and getting what they need, or finding a way to accomplish their vision without what they first thought was needed. Commentors, you’re on the internet right now, tab over to Google and there are more resources available on the web than imaginable. There is no limit with art, and in film-making, it’s about working with whatever limits you find. Just don’t limit yourself, especially by sitting back and hoping someone will take you by the hand and do it for you! I wish the best of luck to all of you hopeful visionaries.

28 Alice Carter April 11, 2013 at 12:52 pm

I’m an 18 year old girl from London and this is my dream job. I have made about 14 short films so far and each one has been a learning curve. Apart from my latest few films the others have not been to the standard I would have liked, but I guess it’s all about practise. This interview is really helpful and I can’t wait for university in September do get a degree in filmmaking and get my confidence up! Thanks again for the article :]

29 Ntokozo April 12, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Im gonna be the next rolie nikiwe i believe that. . .the post is very informative

30 edmond April 16, 2013 at 12:03 pm

i am a script writter i want someone who know this job to help me.

31 Airiel April 30, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Thank You!

32 Mary shampkins May 1, 2013 at 5:23 pm

Thank you so much for all the information.

33 joseph June 28, 2013 at 3:50 pm

am from tanzania 22years i want to be a movie director coz i love it an when i watchn our movies i get much upset coz poor directing an poor production only i want is to make revelotion in my country movie industry i love my country TANZANIA

34 Julian Chircop June 30, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Thank you very much for this motivating advice. I want to learn video editing and at the moment, am preparing my own series of short videos on Youtube. They are part of a series I’m going to make and I really hope it gets popular and will always be full of creative ideas. :)
I hope all those who post on this site will fulfill their dream in due time and to be positive and young at heart no matter what

35 Janardhan July 2, 2013 at 1:45 am

I have a great Imagination and I’m very good when it comes to writing stories. But, I have no Financial back ground and I came from very poor family. Hopefully one day I will become a well known Director/Writer, because i just don’t have any other options. thank you for tips and recommendations. Please give me more suggestions to me. I’m sure it will help me with my future goals. I wish All the Best to all of you hopeful visionaries. Thank you very much. Am waiting………

36 Humble Akpan July 4, 2013 at 8:25 pm

Nice interview section u got here. Currently am a known movie director in Akwa Ibom State. But i want to improve in my directing skills, please how do i go about this.

37 Ryan R Johnson Producer August 10, 2013 at 10:16 am

Independent film suppliers are showing the fact that major companies no more will be the only judges of what the public prefer. At the time you additionally distribution on the web and news flash web-sites, from rumor to whole videos. It really is a totally new world. A lot of it fine, some not.

38 brandon August 28, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Directing…? People would you stop asking the question, “What should I do?” like a scared little person. Try it if it doesn’t work out O-Well try something else but you tried.
Also every case is different some may get picked up just by making a YouTube clip these days; so their is no sure fire way to get to the chair, only thing that matters is you try to get there.

39 A.D. Peru September 18, 2013 at 7:17 am

thank you sir.

40 Marc Murphy October 2, 2013 at 1:19 pm

Good stuff! I did an interview with director Peter Marshall and he also said that a good story was critical! You can’t really make a good movie from a mediocre script.

It doesn’t seem like there’s any one way to become a director. Film school seems like a good idea. Constantly directing whatever you can is also seemingly important.

41 Jake Schefer November 25, 2013 at 6:40 pm

Poughkeepsie Tapes is my favorite found footage movie of all time. It is inherently chilling and disturbing.

I found this interview to be great as well.

42 snehal gupta December 27, 2013 at 8:23 am

hi every1. plz watch this dashing video on new concept.

43 Ryan January 17, 2014 at 10:34 am

I’ve had a few dream jobs:
Professional Photographer
But then I started to get hooked on filmmaking. And unlike the other jobs, filmmaking actually seemed possible. You see, with acting, most people either started when they were REALLY young, or they have parents in the acting business, paving the way for them. But with filmaking, you can’t just be born in it, and most don’t start making films until their later teenage years. Then I read this post, which just encouraged me more. This guy likes to do it for the same reasons as me, and, as he stated, he became very interested in writing at 14, same as me. So, Thank you, for encouraging me to follow my dream as a filmmaker(director). God Bless

44 newtofilm January 29, 2014 at 3:30 am

Hi, I wanted to clarify something. How much of the specification of the camera work does a director do? (And I mean for films with a production budget that will get at least a national distribution, so not just backyard indie movies).
I wanted to know how much does the cinematographer specify and how much the director specifies? I assume it all boils down to the individual – is this true? For example: there is a dialogue scene in a library. So the director shows the cinematographer the script and the location and the cinem. would then propose: we start with a wide shot looking down, we cut to the corner of the library, we pan to one actor, we cut to the other actor, we switch angles, we cut to what’s on the table, etc. And the director reviews that and changes the types of shots, sequencing, etc. Or is it the director’s job to first propose the detailed sequence of all the shots and then the cinem. proposes any additional shots? Is it a shared job?
The reason I ask is because if I wanted to direct the acting for a movie, can I find a cinematographer who will basically be responsible for specifying the camera work? Can we divide roles that way? Or do cinematographers usually expect to be told what to do and then they just go and make sure the shot gets filmed as it was specified?

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter