20 Screenwriting and Directing Tips from Steven Spielberg
Art and Experience:
When Steven Spielberg talks, we listen.
It’s hard to distill just how much of an impact Steven Spielberg has had on the culture during his time as a director. He’s one of the most influential personalities in the history of cinema. His films include Jaws, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and the latest, West Side Story.
Spielberg has always been generous with his advice and conversation. Check out this video from Outstanding Screenplays, and let’s go over his advice after the jump.
20 Screenwriting and Directing Tips from Steven Spielberg
1. Dream for a living.
This one is easier said than done, but I think it’s important to never let yourself stop dreaming. Dreams are the sparks from which we can build a fiery career. Let yourself dream, and dream as big as you need. It can help you plan for the future and find new ideas.
2. The goal is to bring together people of different ideologies under one roof and make them walk out of the theater feeling the same emotions.
Know what your movie is trying to say. You want to talk about something that everyone can understand. It doesn’t matter if they’re like you or don’t agree with you, have a clear and concise mission. That way, you can edit toward it and create an emotional flow that takes people on a journey they want to talk about later.
3. Learn how to be a storyteller first.
The hardest part of filmmaking is telling a story that connects. The more you hone your storytelling skills, the more you’ll understand the editing and camera moves that will support that.
4. Life is one long string of character-defining moments. Listen to your intuition when facing them.
When working in film, you’re going to be faced with hard choices. There will be ups and downs. If you can go with your gut, do it. I also think it matters to try to find some mentors who have seen it before and can give you advice as you go.
5. If you’re making a historical movie, it needs to be told as truthfully as possible.
Historical films often get knocked for losing the thread on—well, history. Research as much as you can, because the truth is often stranger than fiction. Also, facts can make your characters and their goals feel more palpable and human.
6. Think back to your previous film or an idea you had and look at it from another angle and ask yourself, “What if this happened?”
So much of ideation is finding the core of an idea and then tackling it from many different sides. You can really unlock a lot of storytelling by just taking your idea and shifting the perspective to a different character or point of view.
7. Almost every story is a reimagining of an older classical story, told from a contemporary perspective.
We focus so much on working on the original ideas here, but there’s a liberation in adaptation or just homage (or pastiche). If you ever get stuck, think about what work you can copy or steal from that could provide the basic beats you need to begin your story.
8. Ask the actor to give you too much at first, then bring them down to life-level.
Directing is a tough job. So much of it is working on the nuance of how you say and do things. If you ask them to go big, it can loosen someone up, so that they can find a balance afterward. If they go too subtle, it’s hard to rev them up and find a perfect line.
9. Bend the rules to learn about filmmaking.
I think the “rules” here refer more to expectations than to things set in stone. If you can subvert audience expectations, you can tell a story that feels fresh and unexpected.
10. Make your film a conversation with the younger generation to inspire change and to inspire the way they make films.
This one is a little tricky to dissect. I think it all comes back to artistry and mastery.
You want to work in a way that makes people curious. Think about the times you say something like, “How did they get that shot?” Or just the times a story amps you up to write your own things. Focus on making things so good they inspire others. And be okay taking inspiration from other places as well.
11. Musical sequences, even more so than action scenes, require a lot of mathematics and equations so you need to find good collaborators that can help you solve it.
Every good filmmaker knows the amount of prep is crucial to making your days and setting expectations. Storyboard, and chat with the cinematographer, set designer, choreographer, and everyone involved. The more you can collaborate with others, the more you’ll find it’s easier to share a vision and to execute.
12. Stay devoted to your original idea.
Sometimes you work on a project for so long that you lose what brought you there in the first place.
I like to write a brief sentence on why this story matters to me, and look at it when I feel like I’m losing the thread. That way, you always have a compass to help drive the theme and your scenes.
13. Sometimes your dream whispers, it doesn’t shout. Listen to the whisper.
We’ve covered going with your gut and dreaming for a living, so this advice might be redundant, but you should listen to where your heart guides you. It could be this nagging feeling compelling to take you somewhere or just a creeping feeling that you have to offer the world something else. Above all else, listen.
14. Pay attention to the past. Respect the films that have come before you.
If you’re working in a particular genre or set of ideas, try to devour the other films that have tackled this theme. New or old, these movies are what yours will be compared against, and they also may hold the keys to the things to do, and not to do, when working. You might be able to challenge ideas they set out, steal shots, or just understand structure. Heed the advice of the past.
15. Aim to tell a story, rather than trying to sell a product. You can express yourself with very little.
Storytelling first. Make sure the story connects and takes people places. A lot of Hollywood today feels like a product because the story comes second. That’s a problem. Lead with the story. Sell stuff later.
16. Use everything available to you.
Build a network of people there to give you advice, lend you camera equipment, and help you make things. Foster a community, build a village of people who love and support one another. This circle will carry you through the good and bad times.
Spielberg is good friends with Guillermo del Toro, for example.
17. When you fail, immediately throw yourself back into your next project.
We all fail, even Spielberg. But it’s the courage to get up and keep working that sets the real professionals apart. Keep working. Keep failing. Let yourself learn by picking yourself up.
18. It’s okay to first steal something you like and later on find your voice.
So much of finding your voice is imitation at first. You should read the scripts for movies you love and try out your versions of the scene. Imitate other writers until you have a grip on where the story needs to go and where you can take it, by fostering your voice and not trying to be someone else.
19. Create suspense by not showing the threat for some time.
Spielberg famously did this with Jaws, and you can emulate it by deciding what happens on and off-screen. Whether it’s a glimpse of the danger or just the greater question of it, the audience can be kept in the dark a little longer to build their anticipation.
20. When an idea hits you like a ton of bricks, start writing scenes and put the story together immediately.
If you’re lucky enough to have an inspiration strike, don’t wait, writer! They could be terrible pages or even just a sloppy outline, but the best and most important part about writing is just to put it down on paper. Refine later, jump into what you need now.