Director’s chair: Lee Changdong

Ten tips for aspiring filmmakers

22 December 2022

By Lee Changdong

Sight and Sound

1. Tell your own story

In order to make a film, we try to find a story that will please audiences. And so we wander around aimlessly as if searching for a solution to an unsolvable equation. Don’t look for a film that will please audiences; you must search for a story that you want to tell. Ask yourself, what kind of story can I tell? Why do I want to make a film? What story is it that I need to tell? If you’ve long since wanted to make a film, it’s likely the answer lies somewhere deep inside of you.

2. A story is not made, but met

Film directors are storytellers; they share their stories with audiences. Storytellers are creators, but do not make something out of nothing. Sitting at the desk, don’t try and forge a story unlike anything you’ve heard before. Stories are not formed at a desk. Stories are found among people in the streets; they are in newspapers; they are in the memories your mother shared this morning over breakfast. If you want to be a storyteller, you must observe people and listen to stories. There are countless unseen stories floating about the world, waiting to be born into wonderful films. What we need is sensitive antenna-like insight, which can capture all the things that pass by without us knowing.

3. Begin with something small

A story’s creation starts from a detail that, though small, is fresh and memorable. Rather than looking for a big story suited to film, it is better to focus on the small stories that surround us, that capture us and linger in our minds. Even authors like Stephen King and Haruki Murakami started with short stories, before developing them into novels. Small stories can be expanded into big ones, but can also be complete and highly meaningful tales in themselves. The act of presenting something small and simple, and making audiences feel that this extends to a wider meaning within their own lives – perhaps we can call this truly ‘filmic’. When it comes to titles like The Bicycle Thief (1948), Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987) and Amour (2012), we know them as small stories, yet great films.

4. Start writing the script now

If you want to make a film, sit down at your desk and start writing right away. Film production starts with the script. No matter how great the desire and plans to make an incredible film are in your head, without a script, they are nothing more than a dream. What if when you try to write the script you have no story to tell? What if the story evades you? In that case, now you need to find a story. That is your starting point. You must not delay writing the script.

5. Understand your actor

There are many directors – myself included – who don’t realise that, despite giving direction in front of the camera, they are not helping the actors to act well, but are instead impeding them. The most important thing a film director must do is understand their actors. It is only by doing so that you can bring out their best performances. In order to do this, the best thing is to try out acting yourself. Of course, it’s unlikely that you’ll get to stand on stage as a professional actor, but you will be able to get a small role as part of an amateur theatre group. You could also appear in a colleague’s short film or a low-budget independent film. Regardless, if you try out acting yourself, you will be able to understand the psychology of the actors as they stand in front of the camera, and you will be able to find your own methods to help bring a good performance out of them. Even if you are not able to experience acting yourself, you need to try, as far as is possible, to find ways of understanding what it is to be an actor and learn how to communicate with them.

6. Capture happenstance on camera

Film directing resembles playing God. You prepare and plan everything thoroughly, craft the situation and make the characters move within it. You arrange it so that everything is inevitably interlinked by cause and effect. We must, however, go beyond preparation and planning, and capture happenstance. The reality that resists the camera, and which we cannot control – it is here that we discover a cross-section of life at its most genuine. The actions and circumstances of all the characters exist there, in the shadow of uncertainty, in that place not clearly defined. If that is the truth of life, we must capture it on camera. Making audiences feel that chance incidents have been captured on camera, rather than being artificially manipulated or set up – this is what we call filmic, and this is what will be truly persuasive to audiences and evoke their empathy. It is a problem of attitude.

7. Fight against people’s conventions

People are accustomed to the conventions of film. This could be the conventions of genre, or of plots and characters. Investors and producers commonly push for adoption of these conventions. However, in following these, the director loses their individuality and what makes them unique. Rather than understanding and accepting convention, we must rebel against it. This means we must fight with audiences’ conventions, too. Though audiences are taken aback and show resistance to plots and characters that lie outside of convention, at the same time, if the film does not break apart from the obvious and predictable, they are disappointed. The truths of life known to us lie in a place apart from the causality of convention. What audiences truly empathise with is the one-off and unexpected nature of this kind of life.

8. Don’t lose confidence

In the end, film directors need to believe in themselves. During the production process, there are countless small and large choices set before the director, and decisions must be made. In many cases, you cannot look back on every one of your selections. Standing before these endless choices, as a director you begin to doubt yourself, and your anxiety grows larger the more daring and experimental you try to be. Numerous people will knock your confidence throughout production. It could be a producer or investor, it could be actors or staff whose opinions differ from yours, or it could be the assistant director trying to aid the smooth running of the day-to-day filming schedule. The worst situation for a director is to lose confidence on set. Not losing yourself is what will save you.

9. Stay true to yourself

On the surface, the world of filmmakers is flashy and gaudy like a glossy and colourful fashion magazine, but it’s easy for the inner lives of the people within it to become impoverished and empty. Filmmaking is almost like sitting at a casino table – it makes people dream of having the good fortune of great success at their fingertips. If we adopt a pose suitable for the red carpet’s flashing cameras and bright lights, it is easy to put on a façade and deceive ourselves. We come not only to consider putting on this façade as a given, but we kid ourselves that the façade is real. And so you lose sight of who you are and of why you wanted to make films in the first place. In whatever scenario, being true to oneself, and facing oneself head-on – only this will protect you.

10. Always leave your mark

Make audiences remember your name after they watch your film. Rather than wanting to make a film that people will like – one that looks as if you have collated all the strengths of various other successful works – you need to endeavour to leave your mark on the film and make people feel that it is “yours”. You need to be always thinking about how to put your signature on the film, how to prove that the film is yours and no one else’s. That might be through your own individual style, your own way of looking at the world or your own sensitivity. Even if it comes across as clumsy, if it makes people remember your name it will give you the strength to keep on making films.

  • Translated by Clare Richards