Is it too late?
November 27, 2011 2:36 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to become a director. I'm a 40 year old female. Is this a realistic ambition?

Say a 40 year old female with zero experience wants to break into Hollywood as an actress. I'm well aware that this is nearly impossible, but is it just as impossible if she's trying to break into behind the camera jobs? Ideally I'd like to direct, and I'd like to work my way up to that from screenplay adaptation.

I'd probably be willing to do all sorts of ridiculous things, like go into debt to go to film school or work as a waitress for years while I interned some place for free. But before I take those kinds of leaps, I'd like to know if my age would likely prove prohibitive.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (28 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Age would be much less of a problem than a possible lack of money, connections, and experience.

Before you do anything else, you should direct shorts for YouTube/Vimeo and see how that goes.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:39 PM on November 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

I think the first thing you should do is get a digital movie camera and a computer with film editing software (suggestions, anyone?) and just go out and do it. Shoot enough footage to make a two-minute movie and put it on YouTube or someplace similar. There must be some good how-to books on the subject. Your film very well may be terrible and take you a long time to complete. Next, do it some more. Try not to be discouraged.

Is it realistic to think that you'll be the kind of director who gets $10 million a picture and accepts golden statues? No. That's not a realistic ambition for practically anyone, experienced or not.

But is it realistic that you can learn how to do something new that you're passionate about? Sure, why not?
posted by Buffaload at 2:42 PM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

No, your age is not prohibitive. But I think your plan of action (go to film school, slave away for others) is not your best bet for two reasons: 1) You're not 22. 22 year-olds still think they learn valuable job skills in college and are willing to be beaten to death for no wages for a chance to grasp the ring, and b) No one gets a directing job that way.

If you want a direction job you have to go and get it. Get a camera and a computer with professional editing software and get to it. You early stuff will stink, you will learn a ridiculous amont, you'll get better and in a few years you'll have a sparking portfolio of the kind of work you want to do, a network of people to work with and quite likely people who would like you to direct things. (Whereas graduates of film school are prepared for people to get them to intern to get coffee on film shoots with 2am calls. Even the top grads.)

Most of the modern brand name directors got their start this way. Even those that went to film school didn't follow the path of someone else (interning, etc) after they left.

Do it. That's all there is to it. A director needs to be a self starter and a leader. If you can't do those things then you're not cut out to be a director.
posted by Ookseer at 2:49 PM on November 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

Nth'ing the others, definitely get a start making online shorts. It's relatively cheap, easy to do, easy to get feedback, and heck it's how Bieber got noticed.

Start with books, if you like it enough then start taking local classes. You don't need original content, imitation is a great way to learn and all that background of learning others' styles will help you develop your own. So go remake your favorite scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark like Shyamalan did.

You either learn w/o too much cost if you love it or hate, and if you're any good. And as long as you're following your passion, does it matter if you "make it big in Hollywood"? The successful people don't pursue awards, but pursue their passion and acquire the awards along the way.
posted by jpeacock at 2:54 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seems to me that the key to becoming a director is to make a film. There are enough second-unit directors who have done amazing work, who've never gone on to be primary directors, that "working your way up" isn't likely to happen. Nobody's going to come to you and say "we'd like you to make a film", but if you can demonstrate that you know how to put together a film, more doors will open.

So find a couple of people, put together a script, storyboard it, figure out what it'll cost to shoot, adjust accordingly, set up a production schedule and make a film. Once you have a film in hand, figure out how to get it shown.

As inspiration, may I suggest Logan and Noah Miller's Either You're In Or You're In The Way (disclosure: I lived in the San Geronimo valley for a little while, and we walked down and watched them shoot Touching Home and chatted with Jeremy Zajonc, their line producer).

I'd start by shooting lower than they did: Make some shorts, maybe some spec commercials, the kind of thing where you can shoot with your friends in an evening, edit for a few weeks, and then show at filmmaker's evenings (I live in Northern California and there are several regular "here's my latest short" sharing groups here, must be hundreds in LA) and maybe work up to the festival circuit with those before you start figuring out how to finance feature length stuff.
posted by straw at 2:56 PM on November 27, 2011

Do you want to have a family? Do you want to have a life? Do you want to have money to retire on? 'Cause about 75% of my friends and family work in "the business" at various levels, above- and below-the-line, and let me tell you this: It's a shitty, shitty lifestyle for almost everyone. I really could write a hundred thousand words describing the horrors I've seen, from the careers lost or never launched, the crap way everyone treats each other, the emphasis on youth and flavor-of-the-moment, the excellent projects never made because the money can't be found, or the excellent projects made and then never seen because of the distribution/marketing system. Friends with gigantic careers -- names you'd know -- who aren't working. Or working, but not getting paid what they used to, by a long, long shot. The Los Angeles production world nowadays is like Detroit a few years back -- we're teetering on the brink, not quite out of the fight, but there's a sense that the whole thing is on the verge of collapse.

And yeah, I'll say it out loud: Your age is going to be a gigantic hindrance. (Sorry, but that's true.)

Watch What Just Happened. Then don't do this unless you literally cannot do anything else.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:22 PM on November 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

Kevin Smith shot Clerks in the convenience store where he worked, on a budget of less than $30K. These days movie making is even more accessible than that. You could probably shoot a successful cult movie on a frigging iPhone for $0. You do need great ideas, great taste, and the drive to persuade other talented people to work for free and make it happen. Make one decent movie and you are a director.

Note that Kevin Smith DID go to film school. Although he didn't finish, I assume he learned a lot, and that's also where he met his life-long producer partner. Film school would almost certainly be a good idea.
posted by w0mbat at 4:03 PM on November 27, 2011

Don't worry about trying to claw your way to the top of the "mainstream" greasy pile. Seriously, fuck that noise. Do your own interesting, artistic vimeo/Youtube projects yourself on a shoestring, meet other creative people, take advantage of learning forums all over the net and take it from there 100% on your own. When you fund and control your own projects, there's literally no downside. Well, aside from not getting rich-- but how often does that happen, anyway?

The mainstream is overrated. Do you really want to go into massive debt, put yourself through hell, and sell your soul to Satan himself-- all so you can have some measly credit in "Who Farted? III"...? I didn't think so.
posted by aquafortis at 4:06 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

IIRC, Shane Carruth started film school and was annoyed that he wasn't learning what he wanted to know and so he went off and made Primer.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:09 PM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

To back up what w0mbat said, Kevin Smith told a story on his podcast once that involved him talking to his sister about wanting to become a director. It boiled down to this: if he wanted to be a director, he should direct things. That's what would make him a director. It's what makes a writer -they write.

If you want to be a director, direct something for YouTube or somewhere else that won't post you a ton of money. But go out and do it - otherwise, you're just talking about being a director. Schooling helps, but that doesn't make you a director more than having an English degree makes you a writer.
posted by SNWidget at 4:23 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

talk to @milesmaker on twitter. He'll give you the real deal on this.
posted by parmanparman at 4:55 PM on November 27, 2011

I would think that since you're starting from scratch, taking a few film classes, even at a community college, would be a good way to get a jump start. You'd pick up some skills that might otherwise take you a long time to learn. In particular, I would take some editing classes. If you're not familiar with it, the software can be a beast to learn.

Regarding your age, I just heard Regis Philbin say last week that his career didn't get going until he was in his late 50's. It's never too late.
posted by MexicanYenta at 5:08 PM on November 27, 2011

Blahlala's take on this is probably pretty realistic. From arriving in Hollywood to being successful is a long hard trip, it takes talent, energy, hard work, and the ability to support yourself while you make next to nothing doing grunt jobs.

The number of successful directors who start out making home movies and posting them on facebook and youtube is, well, pretty much -0-, that's not how it works.

Your age isn't a problem, your energy level might be... my kid arrived in LA at about the age of 24 or so, worked his butt off for about 10 years doing everything from hauling dirt to running cross country errands (he once delivered a hat from L.A. to Vancouver for a commercial shoot), after ten years he finally rose above the Personal Assistant/Production Assistant level, 5 years later he's still working to break through the next level from Producer to being more in control of his own creative life.

It takes time, it takes hard, hard work to rise above the masses.
posted by tomswift at 5:36 PM on November 27, 2011

Let me add, he arrived in L.A. with a degree in film and communication and experience in graphic arts...
posted by tomswift at 5:37 PM on November 27, 2011

Twenty or thirty (or more) years ago, getting a film degree made a lot more sense. These days, there are so many resources available (like, for example, entire film school courses online, free) that you really don't need to spend all that time and money. This isn't a new concept: Quentin Tarantino said his film school was working at a video store and watching everything they had. And the biggest hurdle has always been the expense and difficulty of working with actual film and linear editing equipment, but nowadays, with cheap HD video cameras and cheap non-linear editing, anyone with around $10,000 or so can start a freakin' production company. (That's the lowball, anyway, but even double that is pretty cheap).

Nth the advice that you just. need. to. make. movies. Period. Put them online, promote them, and if no one likes them, try try again. This quote from Ira Glass should set you off on the right path:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

posted by zardoz at 5:38 PM on November 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Another way to get your feet wet is to compete in things like the 48 Hour Film Project -- on Friday night you receive a genre and some plot elements, and then your team has forty-eight hours to write, direct, film, edit, color correct, score and title the film. You can typically find very good actors to participate, even SAG talent sometimes, since the talents' commitment is really only one day.

As Zardoz pointed out, $10k will buy you an entire production company worth of HD gear. The quality/dollar ratio out of video DSLRs is astounding and with some hacks you can even shoot single system audio to save more money. iMovie is free and Final Cut Pro X is only $300.

I suspect that tomswift is depressingly correct that this probably won't let you break into Hollywood via big blockbusters, but you could give Wes Anderson or Lance Mungia some competition.
posted by autopilot at 5:49 PM on November 27, 2011

You're not going to become a feature film director at 40, unless you're very well connected, have enough money and/or friends to bankroll a calling card film (which needs to be very, very good) or have famous friends who will act in it.

If you write a script, ala Diablo Cody, that does very well, gets optioned by some big company with a star attached, gets made, and you write another script, you might be able to direct that that 2nd film, assuming the first film does well.

Possibly you could work in TV, but more likely in reality than in episodic tv--you need to be able to shoot and cut, in order to compete with the kids who can do both and will work for nothing.

Most 2nd unit guys today started in stunt coordination--check the credits. Almost no one moves up from 2nd unit, anymore because huge crowd shots can be CGIed so easily.

It is too late. It's possible to direct webisodes, local videos, make a web series with your friends, but the chances of an unconnected 40ish woman with no previous experience cracking A-list Hollywood are slim to none.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:50 PM on November 27, 2011

Here's the blog of a woman with an MFA who's roughly in that age range. She's been in LA since 2002, work and has worked desk jobs in various post houses. Besides the grad degree, she's got a reel.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:14 PM on November 27, 2011

Lena Dunham made the well-reviewed Tiny Furniture last year for about $25k. This interview has some good insight into how she did it, and how the film has been a springboard for her career.
posted by judith at 6:28 PM on November 27, 2011

compete in things like the 48 Hour Film Project

Seconding this. My neighbors down the block -- and this in a small midwestern city -- have a videography business (weddings, etc.) that supports them, and diligently compete both in the 48 Hour stuff in the area (it's regional) and make commercials for big name clients via the "crowdsourced" -- over several contests, they've won over $15,000.

As a route to directing a feature film, it may not be traditional, but it's one of the ways that lower bars to entry are letting people get noticed.

I have to say that many things considered film is a path I wish I'd followed at this point, but I'm even older. I also had a professor in college who had lived in LA in an apartment full of people all strongly motivated and creative in different areas. None of them really succeeded (and her memories of the experience were mostly typing up the others' screenplays). It's a business that has a huge oversupply of talent, despite what the end product turns out being.
posted by dhartung at 7:22 PM on November 27, 2011

In 15 years you will be 55. This will be true whether you decide to pursue this or not. Would you rather be a 55 year old who pursued her dream, or a 55 year old who never tried and instead lived what Thoreau referred to as a life of "quiet desperation"? Anything is possible, and if you don't try, you'll never know. I say go for it! At the very least, you'll have interesting experiences. And if all goes right, we can add you to the list of "Metafilter's own...".
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:35 PM on November 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Here is a interview with the director of the much acclaimed documentary Buck. She is an older woman, a self-starter who made the movie despite having no previous filmmaking experience. To sum it up, her success seems a combination of hard work, perseverance, serendipity and connections.
posted by Pantalaimon at 7:46 PM on November 27, 2011

I'd like to work my way up to that from screenplay adaptation.

I can't tell: are you already working in screenplay adaptation? Are you trying to move from that to directing? If so, work your contacts.

If not, then I think making your living as a director is not very realistic. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try to make movies, it just means you should keep your day job.

A friend's husband has wanted to be a director his entire life. He has a degree in film and has made a several short films. He is a quite sought-after film editor, and has over 30 credits in IMDB, so he was well-connected. She's a screen-writer so they had a script. They both teach at film school and know what they are doing. They toiled away in development for years, finally cast and shot it, and got it in film festivals. It starred three well-known TV actors. It received zero buzz and bombed at the box office. They lost a ton of cash and aged a decade.

Being a successful director is a long shot even when you have a film degree and 20 years in the business. On the other hand, he feels like it was worth it to be able to say he had given it his all. On the other other hand, his wife doesn't think it was worth it at all, and prefers not to talk about those years.

Contrast this with my neighbour who is a filmmaker and also a full-time lawyer. She has a ton of short film credits, is super passionate about her craft, loves it and talks about it all the time. I don't think she could stop making films if she tried, she lives and breathes it. But she knows it's just not likely to be something that's going to keep a roof over her head.

For me, it's not so much about your age, as it is that you don't appear to be making movies already. If you had twenty years experience goofing around with a camera and film editing software, you'd be farther along in your dream. So, by all means, make some films, just don't chuck your whole life in--or go into debt!--until you've got a few under your belt.
posted by looli at 8:21 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

to be honest, unless you have some amazing hidden secret talent and really awesome connections, this is not going to be in the realm of realistic in terms of your being able to achieve it before the age when most ppl start retiring.

my best friend (who got a film degree from a prestigious program) has been in the business for 10 years. he's a director for a major spanish language music network and has won some awards for his work. he writes and films shorts (on his own dime) on the side, and has won some awards for them. his goal is feature films. he still isn't there yet. 99% of the profession is putting in the time and making connections, and the last 1% is being in the right place at the right time.
posted by violetk at 8:36 PM on November 27, 2011

I'd probably be willing to do all sorts of ridiculous things, like go into debt to go to film school or work as a waitress for years while I interned some place for free. But before I take those kinds of leaps, I'd like to know if my age would likely prove prohibitive.

Your age is prohibitive in that you have far less time to reach your goal. But it is far from your biggest hurdle.

What concerns me about your question is that you seem worried that you will sacrifice and there will be no payoff. But this is in fact by far the most likely outcome... and it's no different for a 20-year-old.

There are only a few thousand active "hollywood" directors in the entire world (if even that many). There are tens of thousands of people that have sacrificed everything *for decades* to be one of the chosen few and have never seen a payoff.

The way I see it, there are only two viable ways for you or any other random person off the street, regardless of age, to become a director of major hollywood motion pictures and their odds of success are extremely low.

1. Be a director. Nothing is stopping you. Find a script, find some investors, shoot the movie. You are now a director. To become a hollywood director your feature film must be a huge financial success. This is in fact how many directors broke into hollywood. See Sam Raimi, Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez. But of course, all three of them had experience in making films before they directed their first feature. Robert Rodriguez has an excellent book on how he made it in hollywood. Your lottery ticket has odds of 1/250,000,000

2. Be very lucky. Network like crazy. Make everyone you meet understand that this is your goal. Be in the right place at the right time. Be extremely, insanely lucky. Your lottery ticket has odds of 1/500,000,000.

The other thing that seems strange to me about your question is that you don't mention any background in film, screenwriting or camerawork even at a hobbyist level. Have you done any of these things? How do you know you want to be a director if you've never directed a film before?
posted by j03 at 12:58 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes. Definitely doable. For some inspiration, read this early interview with Dorthe Scheffmann - an award winning short filmmaker. From there she's moved on to commercial directing and a feature film. Her first was self-funded, and a labour of love. Good luck!
posted by teststrip at 3:15 AM on November 28, 2011

Totally doable. So is climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen. So is winning the lottery. The more salient question is not "is it doable", but "is it realistic". Only you can answer that, but what we can do is provide you with a realistic description of the challenges, and then you can decide if you can handle it, or wish to handle it.

The way to do it is not through "working your way up" - the odds of succeeding through by the means of "work my way up to that from screenplay adaptation", is pretty much zero.

First let's meet head on, the question of age. There are two things I have not seen mentioned so far that have to do with age.

As a 40-year old, you are less plugged in to the concerns of the key movie-going demographic. Why does that matter? For Hollywood it does, because that's the kinds of movies they like to make - overwhelmingly.

Why can't you step out of the Hollywood demographic and address yourself to smart 40+ year olds, who also watch movies, even if less avidly than the teens and 20's key demographic? Because if you step outside of Hollywood, it means going completely indie/guerilla - and that means you really have to know how to play the promotion and hype game, nobody is doing it for you and you have to stand out from a sea of low-budget competitors.

Hollywood addresses itself to marketing with whole departments, a lot of money and relatively few films compared to the tens of thousands of indie products that are completed year - and if you play outside of Hollywood, that is a game that is most successful with young people (who are naturally more into group following and bandwagon effect) - how often do you hear of a band/fashion/film spreading like wildfire among teens/20's and how often among 40 year olds? You are not plugged into the young demographic - that's the handicap of age. Are there exceptions? Sure, see Larry Clark for example. But take a look at those exceptions - each is a pretty extreme situation all by itself. So in that sense your age is strike one against you.

Strike two I partially alluded to when I mentioned the "group following" of young people. When humans are young - teens and early twenties - they tend to form very strong bonds with each other (i.e. not across generational divides). That allows the scenario where young people get together and work like mad and support each other in projects and eventually go places career-wise and are then in a position to help each other. That doesn't happen very often for folks in their 40's. They don't band together naturally. So what can you do? People mention "networking" - but that's only useful when you already have a career and are meeting other people in the industry and comparing notes and filling in needs for each other; if you as a 40 year old turn up at one of those networking events (which really can be anything, including a pool-side party with industry people present), and you don't already have a career, then you have nothing to offer; you fit nobody's needs, because all you have are needs, needs and more needs yourself. At least as a 25 year old with your mid-20's buddies, you can count on them giving you a hand as you're one of the band and if one member makes it, s/he's liable to help the others in his/her little group. As a 40 year old, you got no band - you can only sell what you have, and just starting out you have nothing.

That is why "working your way up" is a not a winning scenario for you. Because that implies Hollywood, and at 40 not only you don't have enough time to "pay your dues", but your bonds are going to be weak compared to bright ambitious 20 year olds. You are not going to build any networks worth anything. You'll get to know a lot of people, but so what? Nobody is going to hire you to direct... unless you have a very strong asset - an original screenplay that you wrote, or own completely. And if you do, then why bother with "working your way up"? You can do that from outside the entire Hollywood industry. Hollywood is all about the box office. You can be a monster whom absolutely everybody hates, but if you can make box office $, they'll work with you (one - Jewish - producer joked that he'd work with Hitler, let alone Mel Gibson, if there's box office $ in it); and on the other side, you can be a beloved universally adored has been, and because you're a has been, even after an illustrious career filled with Oscars, nobody will bank you if they don't think there's a return on their $. See? That's what counts in Hollywood - what do you have that they desperately need? Your wanting to be a director is not something they desperately need.

This brings us to what you can do. If you really want to direct, you must direct. And you can only do that outside of Hollywood. Once you are successful, Hollywood will be delighted to pick you up, but until then, don't sit by the phone. Nobody is calling.

Make shorts. Don't spend money. This is your school. Make 10 shorts - some as short as 1 minute. Set two goals. One: make it rock. Two: make it for no money. It's important to make it for no money, because it will prepare you for what you eventually must do: a self-financed feature. But do make it rock. That's your #1 job. If you can't do that, you'll never be a worthwhile director. And you can make a rocking short that's as short as 15 seconds. Here's one I saw that rocked, and was only 15 seconds long: a car drives up to an entrance and stops in front of the barrier arm; you have to put a 25 cent coin in for the barrier arm to rise and allow you to drive in. The driver (whom we never see) puts out his arm and is about to put the 25 cent coin in, then hesitates briefly and changes his mind - instead, he gently strokes the coin slot a few times; the barrier arm rises, and he drives in. Make shorts like this - cheap and rocking. It'll teach you about making films. Make at least 10 shorts. You'll learn about equipment, lighting, camera blocking, actors, art production, production management, WRITING, and all of it for no money.

Step two. Write your own feature screenplay to film and finance by yourself. Here's the good news and the bad news. Good news: it costs nothing to write, and it is your ticket to success. Even if you don't finance it yourself, it might get financing (even - gasp! - from Hollywood) and you'll be attached as director. Bad news: you'll have to be extremely talented, or extremely lucky. But don't sit around - Hollywood will not come calling. Set a hard limit for your feature - $10K - and shoot it. Paranormal Activities was shot for $11K. Today, you should be able to shoot a feature for $10K. You've gained experience and know how to make zero budget shorts - put that to work and stretch it further. Write it in such a way that you can shot it for $10K. But that's only the beginning. There's tens of thousands of scripts and projects made every year, going nowhere. So what can you do? Make it stand out. Make it stand out. Make it stand out. Make it stand out. Make it stand out. Make it stand out.

Make it stand out. If you do, you'll have success as a director. Do you have it in you? No way to know, unless you do it. Start with the shorts I recommended. See what you're made of. You'll learn a lot about the craft. More importantly, you'll also learn a lot about yourself - and that may spare you decades of failure and broken dreams and wasted time "paying your dues".
posted by VikingSword at 1:34 PM on November 28, 2011 [14 favorites]

Favoriting VikingSword so hard. Voice of wisdom right there.
posted by 3491again at 2:18 PM on November 28, 2011

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