Let’s talk about voice.
What is it? How do you find yours? What is it good for?
I was on a call with a manager recently and I asked her what she looks for when signing up and coming directors.
Without hesitation she said: a recognizable and distinguishable voice.
Your voice is the sum of everything you put into your movies.
It’s a complex mix of elements that make up your directing style, storytelling choices and personal experiences.
At the same time it’s simple.
Your voice is you.
But do you have any idea what your voice is?
The paradox of finding your voice
Earlier this week I listened to a fantastic episode of the Scriptnotes podcast with Neil Gaiman.
Hearing how Gaiman, one of the most recognizable voices in fantasy writing, started out by imitating his heroes fascinated me.
Every filmmaker I know started out loving movies.
But when we make our first films we have no idea what we’re doing.
Thus it makes perfect sense that we start by imitating the movies we love.
For me it was Star Wars, Indiana Jones and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
My first film was a Star Wars parody called Wood Wars.
From there I fell in love with British gangster films. I especially loved the style and wit of early Guy Ritchie films.
When I look back at my first few films I see how I used elements I’d picked up from all the films I love.
Some fit, some didn’t.
But then something changed.
I tried becoming what I thought a “real filmmaker” was.
I was actually embarrassed that my taste was too broad.
I liked genre films, not art films. I preferred fantasy over realism.
So I stopped listening to my own taste and instincts.
I entered what I like to call my “pretentious phase.”
In my mind real filmmakers made serious movies about serious stuff.
For years I was caught up in the filmmaker I thought I should be, instead of embracing the filmmaker I am.
This all culminated when I was writing my thesis for film school.
I had this idea of doing a chamber play style intense drama. It was a story about a man and a god set in a cabin on top of a snowy mountain.
Except there was no story.
I banged my head against the wall for months trying to crack it.
One day my wife remarked; this doesn’t sound like you at all. Why don’t you write the movie you want to make?
I had permission to be myself.
I scrapped the whole thing and only kept the idea of a god and a man.
I went from hard drama to fantasy comedy.
All of a sudden the words came spilling out.
I had a draft of the script in no time.
Total Awesome Viking Power was born.
The strange thing about finding your voice is that even though it’s in you the whole time, it takes massive amounts of experiments, failures, pain and suffering to lure it out.
We only discover what kind of filmmakers we are through practice.
I’m a fantasy-obsessed nerd with a soft spot for underdogs on epic quests. I also tend to come up with ideas that start with “you know what would be funny?”
I’m also still figuring all this shit out.
The path and how to find it
Through my own experiences, and anecdotally through those of other filmmakers, I’ve found a few common steps you can follow to discover your voice.
1) Start with your taste.
What do you like?
Why do you like it?
Whatever it is that gets your inner filmmaker going, this will be the foundation of your voice.
2) Try stuff on.
Much like you would when buying clothes, see what fits, what cuts you like, what colors and styles. Keep the stuff you like, leave the rest.
This is one of the main advantages of starting out making shorts.
It let’s you experiment and figure yourself out without the pressure of making a feature.
Writer Jim Collins has a great concept he uses when he talks about finding what works. He uses it about businesses, but it applies to filmmaking too.
Fire bullets, then cannonballs.
We only have so much time and resources, and by making smaller projects we allow ourselves to learn faster, and adjust quicker.
We want many iterations and fast feedback fast when we’re in this discovery phase.
That way we can zone in on the stuff that makes us unique storytellers.
3) Once you have an idea of who you are as a filmmaker it’s time to load the cannons and fire some cannonballs into the universe.
Why it matters
Here’s a film industry truth for you:
People are lazy. Agents, managers, studio executives and producers all want to do things the easy way.
When we are breaking in, we want to help them realize working with us is a no-brainer.
A filmmaker with a clear voice they can put a label on makes their lives easier.
They can say: I got this great up and coming director who’s amazing at character-driven teen rom-coms.
Or, I got this Norwegian comedy director who loves Vikings, he’d be perfect for your CollegeHumor Viking/Ninja/Knight thing. (PS: This actually happened)
As much as it sucks to be put in a box, it’s easier to break in when we’re known for doing one thing extremely well, rather than being good at a bunch of different things.
My philosophy is get known for being world class at doing one thing first. Diversify later.
First we open the door, then we explore the house.
Finding and using your voice as a filmmaker is what sets you apart from the millions of other filmmakers out there. To find your voice:
- start with what you love
- experiment with different stories and styles
- keep what works, leave the rest
- aim to make many small films, rather than a few big ones when you start to get more feedback quicker
- once you feel like you know your voice, go big
That’s it for this week.
I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to read.