The 7-Step Film Directing Formula
by Peter D. Marshall
I’ve been working professionally in the film and TV business
for 37 years. During that time, I’ve had the opportunity to
work on industrial films, educational films, documentaries,
commercials, music videos, episodic TV shows, TV movies, Indie
films and Hollywood features.
I’ve worked with dozens of good, mediocre and bad directors -
as well as hundred’s of good, mediocre and bad actors.
I’ve read 100′s of film scripts before they were produced:
some which were so terrible I couldn’t get past the first 10
pages, to scripts which went on to win Academy Awards.
I’ve also had the opportunity to spend months at a time
teaching and mentoring film students as they write, prep and
shoot their own short films.
I believe my years in the “film production trenches” has
given me a unique insight into finding the answer to the
question: “Is there a formula, or guide, that film directors
(anywhere in the world) can follow, that will help them make
successful and compelling films?”
Well, I believe the answer is Yes!
And by the way, my definition of a good film (a documentary or
drama) is “the art of visually telling a compelling story with
In my opinion, most inexperienced (or experienced, but lazy)
film directors spend the majority of their time figuring out
how to shoot the film first (cool shots and creative camera
angles) before understanding what the story is about and
knowing what the characters really want.
I’m going to be bold here and state publicly that this is the
wrong way to direct a good film!
Because I strongly believe that to successfully direct a
“visually compelling story with believable characters”,
you need to follow this 7-step formula:
STEP 1: THE STUDY OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR
What do I mean by the study of human behavior?
“Human nature is the concept that there is a set of inherent
distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinking,
feeling and acting, that humans tend to have.”
In other words, the study of human behavior is about:
a. What makes us tick?
b. Why do we do things?
Once you know the answers to these questions, you will have a
better idea of how the characters in your script should
interact with each other, as well as having the proper
“psychological tools” to direct actors on the set.
The good thing about human behavior is that it is observable,
and as storytellers, we must first observe the way people
react to different situations and circumstances in order to
understand How and Why their behavior changes.
As a film director, you must be a “witness” to human behavior.
You need to get into the habit of observing people going about
their daily lives, so you can find out what motivates them to
Once you know what motivates a person to achieve their daily
needs, you will have the knowledge to better understand the
story you are telling, and you will feel more confident
helping your actors achieve believable performances.
STEP 2: STORY
There are many facets of a Director’s prep on any film or TV
show, but the first, and most important part of your job, is
to understand every detail about the story: where it takes
place; who the characters are; and what happens to them.
When you first read a script, here are just some of the many
questions you will need to answer to help identify and solve
potential script problems:
a. What is the story about?
b. Does the story make sense?
c. What problem is to be resolved?
d. What event hooks the audience?
e. What is the plot? (the action)
f. What is the subplot? (the theme)
Understanding the story requires a lot of work on your part
because you then need to take dig deeper into the story and
it’s structure by analyzing each individual scene in the
script to find out what it is about, what works and what
doesn’t by asking questions like:
a. What is the intention of the scene?
b. What are the story points?
c. Where are the scene beats?
d. Where is the climax?
e. What is the resolution?
f. What are the important lines of dialogue?
Your script breakdown will be a never-ending process. Each
time you read the script, you will find something else you
didn’t know about the story or the characters.
And the script will also constantly evolve. It will change
because of your creative notes, writer changes, actor changes,
producer changes, studio changes and location availability.
But as long as you know what the story is about, and where the
story is going, you will be able to adjust to all the changes.
STEP 3: PERFORMANCE
I believe that almost everything you need to know about
directing actors is explained in these three words:
MOTIVE DETERMINES BEHAVIOR
When we break these words down, we see that:
MOTIVE (our inner world)
BEHAVIOR (our outer world)
And if we break them down even further, we see that:
What our needs are (MOTIVE)
Will decide (DETERMINES)
What actions we will take (BEHAVIOR)
One of the main responsibilities of a Director is to help
actors achieve a realistic performance, and a good director
does this by “listening for the truth” and by always asking:
a. Do I believe them?
b. Do the words make sense?
c. Are the characters believable?
And the key to getting a realistic performance from an actor,
is by first understanding a character’s objectives.
a. There should be one main objective per character per scene:
What do they want in the scene?
b. Objectives should be clear, concise and stated in one
simple sentence: “To discover where the gun is hidden.”
How to choose objectives:
a. Ask yourself “What does the character want in this
b. A character’s objective should create obstacles for the
c. Look at what the character does (his behavior) rather than
what he says.
d. Look at what happens in the scene, and how it ends.
e. Look at what people want out of life: what are the things
we will sacrifice everything for?
On the set, actors want to work with directors who understand
their vulnerability, so it’s incredibly important to create a
good relationship with every actor on your film.
And what do actors want more than anything from this
relationship with the director? TRUST!
If actors feel they cannot trust the director to know a good
performance from a bad performance, they will begin to monitor
their own performances and begin to direct themselves: they
will become “Director Proof!”
Remember, to find the character they are playing, actors must
surrender completely to feelings and impulses, and a good
director understands an actor’s vulnerability and creates a
safe place for them to perform.
STEP 4: THE PRINCIPLES OF MONTAGE
One of the key elements of being a good director, is to
understand the “principles of montage” – the juxtaposition of
images to tell a story.
In 1918, a Russian filmmaker called Lev Kuleshov conducted an
experiment where he shot and edited a short film in which the
face of a famous Russian matinee idol was intercut with three
other shots: a plate of soup; a girl playing ball; an old
woman in a coffin.
And Kuleshov made sure that the shot of the actor was
identical (and expressionless) every time he cut back to him.
The film was then shown to audiences who totally believed that
the expression on the actor’s face was different each time he
appeared – depending on whether he was “looking at” the plate
of soup, the little girl, or the old woman’s coffin; showing
an expression of hunger, happiness or grief respectively.
So what does this experiment tell us?
By carefully using the juxtaposition of images, filmmakers
were able to produce certain emotions from the audience by
manipulating an actor’s performance.
As a film director, understanding the principles of montage
will help you to: create a more visual script; to decide your
camera placement; to block your scenes; and to get layered
performances from actors.
STEP 5: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE CAMERA
What I mean by the Psychology of the Camera are the visual
meanings of shots and angles. In other words, where you put
the camera can either enhance or detract the audience’s
understanding of what the scene is really about, and what the
characters are feeling. For example:
There are three angles of view for the camera:
a. Objective: The audience point of view. (The camera is
placed outside the action.)
b. Subjective: The camera acts as the viewer’s eyes. (The
camera is placed inside the action.)
c. Point of View: What the character is seeing. (The camera is
Audiences will assume that every shot or word of dialogue in a
film is there to further the central idea, therefore, each
shot you use should contribute to the story or the idea you
are trying to convey.
Since viewer emotion is the ultimate goal of each scene, where
you place the camera involves knowing what emotion you want
the audience to experience, at any given moment in the scene.
STEP 6: BASIC BLOCKING AND STAGING TECHNIQUES
Very simply, blocking is the relationship of the actors to the
camera. Blocking is not about getting the dialogue correct or
discussing an actor’s motivation – unless it directly involves
the movement of an actor.
I suggest you start thinking of blocking as the choreography
of a dance or ballet: all the elements on the set (actors,
extras, vehicles, crew, equipment) should move in perfect
harmony with each other.
Before you start to figure out your blocking plan, you must
know these five things:
a. When, and where, were the characters last seen?
b. What is the last shot of the previous scene?
c. What is the first shot of the scene you are working on?
d. What is the last shot of the scene you are working on?
e. What is the first shot of the next scene?
Your blocking plan will also be determined by:
a. Whose POV is being expressed at the time? (Is it the
writer’s, the character or the director?)
b. What distance are you from the subject? (What is the size
of shot: close or far?)
c. What is your relationship to the subject? (What is the
angle of view – your choice of lenses?)
When you first start directing, blocking a scene can be one of
the hardest parts of your job. But like anything else in life,
blocking takes practice, and the more times you do it, the
more comfortable you will become.
STEP 7: TECHNICAL
By technical, I mean everything else it takes to make a movie!
(Locations, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Costumes, Stunts…)
Yes, I know I’m putting the majority of the filmmaking process
into one category, but without understanding the first 6 steps
of this formula, you are setting yourself up for “filmmaker
mediocrity” – which is writing unimaginative scripts with
unbelievable characters that create boring and dull films.
Which leads into my favorite filmmaking quote from the
legendary director Frank Capra: “There are no rules in
filmmaking. Only sins! And the cardinal sin is dullness.”
From what I have witnessed over the past 37 years, I believe
that if you follow this 7-step film directing formula, you
will see how any director, even someone with very little
experience, can create a visually, compelling movie with
And if you have a story that has Universal themes, and the
passion to tell this story, you can make a movie, in your own
language, and audiences around the world will watch it.
It’s your choice!