5 Things They Don’t Tell You About Being a First-Time Director
The way that independent films are generally put together is that an investor sells off foreign territories before you even shoot the film, and just off of the actors' names, they actually sell the movie to various distributors around the world before anyone has even seen a frame of the movie. To be honest, when we first cast Daniel Radcliffe, I thought, We're good to go into production, he'll help me reach my foreign sales number. Game over. And I was told, "Not so fast. Daniel Radcliffe cannot open a movie without a wand in his hand." My response to that was, "He's playing Allen Ginsberg, so there will definitely be some sort of wand in his hand … "
We still weren't sure if we were going to be financed or not until The Woman in Black, starring Dan Radcliffe, opened the same day asChronicle, starring Dane DeHaan. Those two movies opened at No. 1 and No. 2 at the box office and overperformed, which was one of those lucky moments I needed after four years of struggling to get the movie financed. We got the money we needed after that because Daniel Radcliffe had now proven that he could open a movie outside of the Harry Potter series, which finally balanced out my deadly attachment.
When you cast background actors, you have no idea whether or not they can actually perform — the casting agent will e-mail you head shots for Cop No. 1 and Student No. 3, and it's your job to cast them based only on those head shots while you're busy doing eight other things. Usually, I'd pick the most interesting faces, but it's like online dating: They'll show up on set, and seven times out of ten, they won't look anything like their pictures. I didn't talk to the extras as much as I should have because I was more concerned with directing my lead actors, but when you hear about someone like James Cameron, who went up to every single background extra on Titanic to give them a name and a backstory and an objective … well, what first seemed like maniacal director behavior now seems completely logical, and something I'll do on every movie going forward.
Knowing that now, my advice to other first-time filmmakers is to always schedule "tissue scenes" for the end of the day. Those are the connective scenes in between the greater dramatic moments — an arrival, or a walk-and-talk — and often, they're the parts that end up on the cutting-room floor. Another option is to save shorter scenes for the end of the day, or shoot scenes that aren't as emotionally difficult for actors to perform. It's hard for actors to get to a dark emotional place if they know that you're wrapping in 45 minutes.
For me, the hardest darling to kill was cutting down Elizabeth Olsen's performance as Edie Parker, Jack Kerouac's girlfriend, in order to excise that extra half of the movie that needed to go. She had an amazing arc and her performance was nuanced and beautiful, but that arc had to be sacrificed for the good of the movie. And the thing that sucked is that I knew I would get reviews saying that Elizabeth Olsen was underused, and I did, and it hurt. What hurt even more than that, though, was knowing that I would have to call Elizabeth to tell her that several of the scenes that we had worked on together were not, ultimately, going to make it into the theatrical cut. And God bless Elizabeth Olsen: She not only took the news like a champ, she said, "John, I'm not the kind of actor who puts her own performance above the whole film. I understand that this is part of the process."