Lessons learned from directing my first movie!

We are officially wrapped on my first film "Hide/Seek," which was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life!   We spent the last five days seeing my words come to life in the woods of Guilford, CT, working 12 hour days, dealing with freezing temperatures, rain, snow, late hours, and everything else that comes from working on an indie film.   I've spent a lot of years in front of the camera as an actor, and the last few years behind the camera as an acting coach and on set coach for big budget TV shows, but being a director is a whole other challenge altogether, and I learned more on this project than I have on any other production I've ever worked on.   

Here are two great articles about the shoot:

Middletown Press

Guilford's Matt Newton Comes Home to Shoot Film

Guilford Courier

Guilford Woods Provide Perfect Set for Horror Film

Lessons from the shoot....

You can have a high quality production, but if you don't have good actors, the execution won't work.  I had both.  Great actors, great production value.  

Every day I had to answer 1,000,000 questions from every department, and it was borderline overwhelming.   I kept reminding myself that all that mattered was what was happening on the monitor when that camera is rolling.  I needed to capture sound and images that were powerful, evocative, and interesting.  There are so many things that can distract me and the actors from that, and I made sure to create an environment where everyone could do their best work on screen.

Every production should have a great producer.  Mine was Ellyn Vander Wyden.   She was on top of everything, and without her, this film couldn't have been made.  She was my voice of reason, my support, my budgeter, my messenger, and most of all, the glue for this whole production.  She made sure everything flowed seamlessly.

My DP, executive producer and mentor Doug Keeve was incredible.   I was focused on the acting, and he was focused on the visual--the lighting, the lenses, the angle, the continuity, and made sure the actors looked their best in each and every shot.  He taught me everything, and constantly told me to "make sure I get the shot," even if our toes were freezing off.   He encouraged me to experiment and to go outside the box, which is what I am constantly pushing my actors to do.

Casting is everything.   I never worried about the actors.  That work was done in auditions and callbacks.  On set I just let them do their thing, and had them do it many different ways.  That's all that mattered.  We had a shorthand way of speaking, and I got the most incredible performances from them.  They are phenomenal, and any director would be lucky to work with them.   Literally we were throwing dirt on Bryan's face while burying him alive, and he didn't complain once.  

Being on set is so much different for actors than being in an audition.  In auditions, we feel like the whole audition has to be perfect, on set we just need moments to be perfect, because we can use lines from different takes to piece together the performance.   Crazy, right?

Sometimes we secretly rolled before and after I said "action" and "cut," when the actors weren't paying attention, as the moments when they weren't "acting" were just as interesting as the ones when they were "doing the scene." 

I learned to look beyond the obvious in terms of shot setups, to offer unique ways to telling my story, interesting angles, and to put my stamp on it.  That's the way actors need to think when stepping into auditions.  

Believability is everything.  Every time the camera was rolling I would say to myself "Do I believe this?".     Is the duct tape tied around his hands strong enough so that the audience is convinced the actor can't free himself?  Do we feel like the situation matters to the actors? Is the grave we built deep enough for it to believable and scary?   These are the things that keep an audience interested.   Once they don't believe it, they stop paying attention.  It was my job to make everything completely real.

Every day I watched dailies on my computer.  Sometimes I wished we had shot it differently, sometimes I was blown away.  You never know how it's going to look until it's all cut together.  You hope you got the right angles, and that everything makes sense.  It's clear in my mind when I'm writing it, but you have to make sure everything comes across to an unknowing audience.

Sometimes we would film an actor's closeup 4 days after they shot the other part of the scene.   That's what they don't tell you in theatre school.  We had to go back and watch the dailies to make sure the actor could match the performance from four days before.  It takes a special kind of skill to do that.

Sometimes we are filming scenes with a drone cause it's cool and then it crashes into a tree branch and the shot is unusable.  

Good food is essential on any film shoot.  We had the best catering and Kraft service I've ever had, thanks to the Marketplace in Guilford, owned by my friend and fellow high school theatre alum Jason Iglesias.  I'm talking sushi, tacos, smoothies, greek food, homemade hot chocolate with marshmallows.

 Sometimes we are losing light and the actor can't take 10 minutes to get into the scene.   That's when you just have to go for it, jump off the ledge, be fully present and trust that you will be there.

Preparation is 5%, the other 95% is the magic that happens when the camera is rolling, and you find those "happy accidents" that make a film so special. 

My cast...

I am so proud of my actors.  Bryan Manley Davis, Sophie Knapp, Michelle Vezilj, and Ned Van Zandt are the hardest working actors I have ever met.  They endured everything to make this film great.    I put them through the ringer on this film, as many of the scenes require an immense amount of emotional depth and concentration, and they were able to do that, all the while taking direction on the fly, improvising, holding the roll while planes flew overhead, or while we moved a piece of hair out of their face, and everything else that is very difficult to do while trying to stay emotionally connected to a scene.  That is the hard part of this medium, and requires such focus.  These guys are tremendous actors who blew my mind with their work, professionalism, passion, and complete dedication to the project.   It made for an intensely creative environment, where I was able to bring them to very difficult places.   I watched back the dailies, and they are phenomenal.   This is what I work on in my classes, and because some of them were students of mine, they knew what to expect.

My crew...

Douglas Keeve was my mentor on this film, and also my DP, and guided me through this entire process.  He and I worked together when he directed me in Poster Boy, and we had a shorthand way of working together.  Being a first time director is nervewracking, and I had 15 crew members staring at me wondering what we were doing next, an AD telling me we are running out of light, actors who were freezing, and a constant feeling that we had to rush.  Doug told me to stick to my guns, and make sure that I got the performance I wanted no matter what.  Sometimes that involved having an actor do ten takes, as they were traversing ranges of emotions, from fear, to rage, to desperation, to guilt, and we needed to give the editor many different options, as we won't know what we want until we look at a rough cut of the film.  If you rush through that, you miss the important moments.  He constantly told me to "get the performance you want."   The rest of the crew, from the interns who were dragging fire pits around, to the wardrobe, sound, production manager, AD, and everyone else, all wore about six different hats, made very little money, and worked their asses off.  That is what it's all about, and I am forever grateful.

Up next...

We are planning on submitting to all major festivals, under the Short Film Narrative Program.   Among those on our target list are Sundance, Tribeca, Cannes, and Toronto.  Over the next four weeks our Emmy award winning editor Jeff Reilly will come up with an "assembly cut," which I will then look at to make adjustments.   Once we are happy with our edit, we will send off to a colorist for color correction, a sound editor for sound mixing, a composer, another person to do titles (credits, etc.), and then we will submit to festivals.   We raised more than our goal on Indiegogo (thanks to you guys!), which allows us to pour more money into this part of the process, and make it better than our wildest dreams.   

Thank you for following this process so far.  I hope it has been as rewarding for you as it has been for me.  There is so much more to come, but I am really enjoying shining a huge spotlight on this, as I think it's really important for actors and other artists to understand the nuts and bolts that go into a passion project like this.   




Matt Newton

acting coach/writer/director