Golden Rules of Moviemaking from Jarmusch, Buscemi, Van Sant, Smith, Payne

Jim Jarmusch

Rule #1:

There are no rules. There are as many ways to make a film as there are potential filmmakers. It’s an open form. Anyway, I would personally never presume to tell anyone else what to do or how to do anything. To me that’s like telling someone else what their religious beliefs should be. Fuck that. That’s against my personal philosophy—more of a code than a set of “rules.” Therefore, disregard the “rules” you are presently reading, and instead consider them to be merely notes to myself. One should make one’s own “notes” because there is no one way to do anything. If anyone tells you there is only one way, their way, get as far away from them as possible, both physically and philosophically.

Rule #2:

Don’t let the fuckers get ya. They can either help you, or not help you, but they can’t stop you. People who finance films, distribute films, promote films and exhibit films are not filmmakers. They are not interested in letting filmmakers define and dictate the way they do their business, so filmmakers should have no interest in allowing them to dictate the way a film is made. Carry a gun if necessary.

Also, avoid sycophants at all costs. There are always people around who only want to be involved in filmmaking to get rich, get famous, or get laid. Generally, they know as much about filmmaking as George W. Bush knows about hand-to-hand combat.

Rule #3:

The production is there to serve the film. The film is not there to serve the production. Unfortunately, in the world of filmmaking this is almost universally backwards. The film is not being made to serve the budget, the schedule, or the resumes of those involved. Filmmakers who don’t understand this should be hung from their ankles and asked why the sky appears to be upside down.

Rule #4:

Filmmaking is a collaborative process. You get the chance to work with others whose minds and ideas may be stronger than your own. Make sure they remain focused on their own function and not someone else’s job, or you’ll have a big mess. But treat all collaborators as equals and with respect. A production assistant who is holding back traffic so the crew can get a shot is no less important than the actors in the scene, the director of photography, the production designer or the director. Hierarchy is for those whose egos are inflated or out of control, or for people in the military. Those with whom you choose to collaborate, if you make good choices, can elevate the quality and content of your film to a much higher plane than any one mind could imagine on its own. If you don’t want to work with other people, go paint a painting or write a book. (And if you want to be a fucking dictator, I guess these days you just have to go into politics…).

Rule #5:

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean- Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”

Steve Buscemi’s (Lucky) 13 Golden Rules of Moviemaking

Note: The following “rules” are from the unbalanced mind of a relatively novice moviemaker.

1. Ask yourself, “Am I sure I want to make this movie?” Then ask yourself, “Why?” A good follow up question is, “Am I insane?”

2. The script is everything—a living thing that needs to breathe, to be fed and to grow. Take care of your script; don’t let anybody mess with it.

3. As Abel Ferrara once said, “A script ain’t a movie.” Okay, so maybe the script isn’t everything. But it’s a good start.

4. It’s not a bad idea to make a short film before you attempt a feature. But don’t think of it as your “calling card film.” It can of course become that, but it should be your first film, first. Make the film you want to make—not the film you think financiers will be impressed with.

5. Be aware: Finding financing for your feature can be a potentially soul-crushing endeavor. You may find yourself in a sterile room, pitching your film to a humorless executive and desperately blurting out stupid things like, “Well, you know, it’s kinda like Leaving Las Vegas meets Barfly.”

6. No two movies should ever meet each other.

7. Okay, no shit, as I am writing this, I get a call from my agent saying there is a “situation” brewing that could possibly undo the financing of the current film I am slated to direct—a remake of the Theo van Gogh film, Interview. We already lost the original Dutch financing a few weeks ago and I’m scheduled to start shooting in a couple of weeks. This also happened two years ago with my previous film, Lonesome Jim. We lost our studio deal in the eleventh hour. Luckily, InDigEnt, a New York-based, Mini-DV movie company, came to our rescue. The budget dropped from $3 million to $500,000 and our shooting schedule of 30 days was reduced to 17, but we were able to make the film we wanted to make. Financing never comes easy. Trees Lounge took a good five years to find its way and my second film, Animal Factory, based on the great Eddie Bunker book, took three years. What? You never heard of the film Animal Factory?

8. Try to get a good distribution deal.

9. Number 9 makes me think of John Lennon. If there’s one business that’s perhaps more challenging and insane than the movies, it’s the music industry. And yet there’s all this inspiring work from artists like Lennon, Joe Strummer, Nina Simone, Thelonious Monk and countless others. It’s true in film, as well. I know John Cassavetes didn’t have it easy. Buster Keaton? It’s the love for his work that kept him going, not the opening weekend box office receipts. Whenever I get down, I think of the great ones and their struggles against all odds, fighting an uphill battle against commerce and mediocrity, and it gives me strength.

10. Find the back issue of MovieMaker that lists the rules (or non-rules) of Jim Jarmusch. He rules. He’s never made a film he didn’t put his complete heart and soul into—and he’s able to make his living at making movies! I admire any director who makes his living solely from directing. I’m fortunate enough to earn a decent wage by occasionally playing psychopaths in other people’s movies, allowing me the luxury of not having to depend on the movies I direct to put food on the table. I especially admire independent directors like Tom DiCillo and Alexandre Rockwell, who never stop trying to create their own way.

11. Let people do their jobs. Phil Parmet, my friend and cinematographer, told me that once. If you give your crew the responsibility and opportunity to do their best, and you appreciate their efforts, your film will only benefit from their collaboration. Hire the best people to fulfill your film’s needs, then trust them to do their jobs.

12. If the scene you are about to shoot is troublesome, take the time you need to figure it out. This may mean clearing the set of the crew and producers so that it’s just you and the actors. Sometimes the organic instincts of the actors can solve a problem in blocking or problematic writing. But not always. In any case, allow yourself to be surprised by your actors

13. Actually, I have no rule number 13; it’s just my lucky number. I guess if I had to come up with a rule number 13 it would be: Break a leg. And don’t be superstitious.

Gus Van Sant’s Six Golden Rules of Moviemaking


Be strong. Confident. Get enough sleep. And relax. You should feel comfortable, even when you don’t know what you’re doing. (And that might be most of the time.) Don’t be a wimp! Don’t let the bean counters push you around. Don’t worry if people are talking behind your back and rolling their eyes—they won’t understand until the film is finished.


Be direct, as in being a director. One of the reasons directors can lose a debate over an issue is because they’re not clear about their ideas, or they may, out of frustration, invite aggressiveness by digging in when they don’t need to. Take it easy, but don’t let them tell you how to make your movie.


You can control the budget, too. Everybody’s doing it, so why not you? Go through the budget line by line, and decide if the items in there are things that you really need—or need more of. The heads of all the departments will try and steal as much as they can from the line items in the budget, even when it’s not their line item. That is their job, to fight for their department. It’s initiative, but they should be stopped by someone like you, because the producer doesn’t necessarily care, or may be in cahoots with them. Don’t let the art department steal the special effects line item to build a set that you don’t need.


The actors in your film are helpless and they know it. They will perhaps act out because of this. You are in a perfect position to help them as the true authority on the set. Don’t be a self-important asshole. You have the control in this particular area, whether you want it or not. The actor crying on your set is perhaps doing so out of an intense desire to make you happy. Help them to make you happy by being as clear as you can. Make the directions simple. Pretend that you know what they are talking about when you don’t actually know, then tell them what you want them to do.


The script is an idea, not a finished reality. Take liberties with it. Take advantage of stuff that is coming to you that is not written on the page. You can’t make a movie that is alive if it’s pre- planned. You will ruin it if you try. You have to loosen up and see why the things happening in front of you are good for the project, not bad. If bad things are happening in front of you, shake things up. Write some new lines—or improvise.


Don’t get cuckoo with the lights; you don’t really need them anymore. Film stocks today can handle wildly different color temperatures and low light levels. Keep the pace lively. Don’t waste too much time making the shot look perfect, moving objects on surfaces, playing with the blocking—just shoot it. Don’t over-think. Get a really good director of photography, but don’t fight with him. He has the same control over you that you have over the actors, so he can make you cry.

Kevin Smith’s Seven Golden Rules of Moviemaking

1. Edit while you’re still shooting. On every flick since Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, I’ve been editing while still in the midst of production. I’m not talking about some hired editor piecing together an assembly while I’m on set, either. I mean that whenever I’m not shooting, I’m in the editing room with my footage. While the crew is taking 15 minutes to an hour to set up the next shot, I’m behind the Avid, putting the flick together.

2. Chop while rolling. It’s all upside when you’re editing while you’re shooting, as you’ll know right away if there are any shots missing. More than twice over the course of Clerks II, I was able to grab cutaways or re-shoot coverage a mere 48 hours after wrapping on a particular scene, thanks to chopping while rolling. Two days after wrap, I had a fine cut of the flick because I’d spent the entire shoot editing whenever I wasn’t on set (during production I average three hours of sleep a night).

3. Show your edited footage as often as possible. Another benefit to cutting while you’re still in production is that it affords you the opportunity to share the scenes with the cast. Until they see cut scenes, the film is solely theoretical to them. Give the actors actual scenes to watch and suddenly they can see the film taking shape, too. If you’re lucky, the cast will get pumped seeing how well all their stuff is turning out and you’ll enjoy the trickle-down benefits: A freshly-inspired troop of performers who’ll come in every day and give you even better performances.

4. Include the cast (and crew) in on the editing process, too. I’m not saying they should all ride shotgun at the Avid, but once you’ve got scenes cut, roll ‘em for the cast and crew. In some cases, they might provide insight you hadn’t thought of yourself. At the very least, it will convey how collaborative you can be and foster good will amongst the people who are already eager to help you realize your vision.

5. If you’re shooting a talky picture, spare no expense on the sound recorder. Without special effects or stars, your dialogue is the selling point of your flick. Therefore, it behooves you to hire the best sound recordist/mixer you can afford. Same goes for your boom guy/girl: Don’t cheap out.

6. Never fish off the director’s pier. Don’t shag the help. Better to tug one out in your trailer than create an environment of weirdness by dipping your pen, or having your pen dipped, in company ink. After the flick has wrapped, hold a circle jerk/daisy-chain/gang-bang with the entire crew if you like. But while you’re in production, keep it all business.

7. Don’t make Jersey Girl. Trust me on this one.

Alexander Payne’s Golden Rules of Moviemaking


1. Read the last chapter of John Huston’s An Open Book, and Kazan on Kazan by Michel Ciment: They contain the whole diatribe of “Travel, live, fall in love, get your heart broken,” and say it better than I can.

2. There’s no prescription—everyone’s path is different. D.W. Griffith did not go to school. What’s important is to make film.

3. Utilize the availability of digital cameras, and the huge amount of filmmaking knowledge available in books and on DVD extras. It used to be that if you liked Casablanca in 1943, you never saw it again. You just had to remember it for the rest of your life. Now you can watch it over and over again. It’s miraculous!

4. Study the great films and consider why they’re great. Memorize your favorite film shot by shot: when the music comes in, when it goes away, how long a look it held before cutting away to create emotion, and the dialogue. You won’t then go make that film yourself, but you’ll develop a mental spice rack over time.

5. The last thing you want is a brilliant DP who’s an asshole—that’s asking for trouble.

6. The beauty of collaboration is the quality and questions that you ask each other. I don’t bark out orders to be executed. The different department heads of a film deduce the film from me, and I from them.

7. Within the type of two-hour narrative cinema we generally talk about, all components are important (a bad score can sink a movie, for example). But of primary importance are screenplay and casting. Those are also the two elements that generate the most problems in the editing room. You don’t have problems because you used a 50mm lens over a 35mm lens for a shot. You have problems because your screenplay is unsound or your casting is wrong.

8. I arrive at a set before the actor and sometimes before the DP, and I act out the scene for myself on location. That way I have some idea of what the actors are going through, and can guide them more thoughtfully.

9. One of the oldest, best pieces of advice is, “Always get your entrances and exits.” When shooting a close-up, make sure the actor can enter and leave the shot.

10. You get more with honey than with vinegar. Because I have more fun making films than doing anything else in life, I’ve found that the fun I have is infectious.

11. It’s hard to say what comedy is. I have no idea—I know it when I see it.

12. They try and try to change your mind, and in the moment you change your mind, they lose respect for you.

13. You have more power than you think.


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