What makes a great filmmaker? As a filmmaker myself, I used to ponder this question, a lot. And I also used to listen to other filmmakers give their answer to this question. Some of those answers have included: patience, hustle, working smart, hiring the right team, etc., etc. But unfortunately, at least from my understanding of things, I don’t feel that any of these answers in and of themselves are the answer to what makes a great filmmaker, simply because they’re too small. These prescribed answers, by the very nature of them being prescribed, don’t come with the full picture as to why a particular filmmaker has achieved success. And sadly, this leads wannabe filmmakers down bad paths with a narrow frame of mind. And considering that these types of answers come with a lack of understanding, it might be worthwhile to ask one’s self: Can anyone achieve success without understanding?
At this stage, you might begin to think that “understanding” is the reason for why a particular filmmaker has become successful, but this is, again, the same problem. By declaring that understanding is the answer to what makes a great filmmaker, you have turned understanding into a prescription and thus, are not going to broaden your understanding. What this all reflects is that the mentality of searching for a prescription, a hack, a “how-to”, won’t provide you with the understanding that is required to get you where you’d like to go. It’s this frame of mind that is holding wannabe filmmakers back.
But what makes this dilemma worse, especially for those who are new to film and don’t know any better, is that the entire film industry is filled with prescribed answers. For example, you will be told that you have to use The Hero’s Journey in your screenplays, you have to have coverage on shoot, you have to have 3-point lighting, etc., etc. You’re told that if you do these things that you will become a great filmmaker. But the results speak for themselves. Not every film that has The Hero’s Journey is a great film. And conversely, there are some films that didn’t use The Hero’s Journey that are great films.
To be fair, when it comes to these examples, such as The Hero’s Journey, these examples are resources, resources that can be very useful, in the same way that a hammer is a very useful resource. But you wouldn’t paint a wall with a hammer. So, this mentality that you must have, for example, The Hero’s Journey in all your films is stupid. This highlights that it’s much wiser to understand what The Hero’s Journey is, why filmmakers use it and develop the judgement as to whether or not to use The Hero’s Journey with the given film you are making.
But what makes this mentality especially insidious is when this frame of mind persists despite negative results. When less and less people are going to the cinemas, when subscribers are leaving streaming platforms, when the amount of negative reviews increases, when films are earning less and less money, many within the film industry will tell you that you still have to follow their standard, even though it’s not working. And it appears that the only reason why they’re saying this is because they simply don’t know what else to do and don’t want to confront themselves.
If this all tells us anything it’s that arrogance is the death of film. We can’t always continue to do what was done before simply because that’s the way it has always been. Film must evolve. Film must continue to search for new ways to express itself. And this can only be done through filmmakers who are inspired to innovate.
The next question that is probably on your mind is: How does a filmmaker innovate? Ironically, this is going back to the same problem that we were presented with at the beginning of this blog post. Filmmakers cannot ask questions that’ll lead to prescribed answers. But since arrogance is the death of film, then maybe, adopting a frame of mind of not-knowing is the path forward.
During the 1960s, a handful of filmmakers in France, were disillusioned by the films coming out of America and decided that they were going to make films that didn’t follow the standard at the time. They’d use the environment around them, they’d have longer takes, improvisation, breaking the 4th wall, completely messed around with editing, plot, story etc., etc. This became the French New Wave. And this new wave of films has had one of the biggest impacts, if not the biggest impact, on film. Ironically, the French New Wave died as soon as these filmmakers started to argue that their way of making films was the right way. But these filmmakers started out with the intention of doing things differently, whilst also not knowing whether or not what they were doing would work.
And fittingly, this is how our minds work. Many of us seem to be under some illusion that how we think is that we extrapolate knowledge from the external work and treat it as such. But this is not the case. If it were then every fact that was ever conceived would remain a fact. The sun would still revolve around the earth. How we really think is that we have a theory as to what might happen, vet that theory against reality, which then leads us to a realization and this, in turn, develops into another theory. But at no point in this process are we taking knowledge from the external world. A lot of us just pretend that we know things, when really no one has a clue.
So, where does this leave you? I don’t know. I don’t know what’s best for you. And I don’t know how you’re going to become a successful filmmaker, assuming that that’s what you want to become. So, instead, let me pose to you a different question: Why aren’t you where you claim you’d like to be?
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