First Time Director: Top 5 Things I’ve Learned So Far

By DaJuan Johnson

I’ve always been the actor that showed up to set, did an amazing job and then went home. Of course, I’m leaving out a lot of the good middle stuff, but when we bottom line it — that’s what I did. I never really paid too much attention to what lenses the DP was using or why the gaffer put the light in a specific place. I was an actor and all the way back from theater school I learned everyone has their specific job. So, stay in your lane.

And it’s worked really well for me thus far. Or so I thought…

An amazing thing started happening. I started working a lot on sets. Specifically film and television sets. I got to be around actors who are at the top of their game. Consistently working. You know, where you and I want to be. I got to watch them create — which was a Masterclass within itself. But, I also got to start seeing how their minds worked. Their mindset. And I’ll tell you a secret that newer actors….hustling actors…I don’t think UNDERSTAND in the beginning. Actors on that level aren’t waiting by the phone for their agents to send them another appointment…

…they are out there creating their next opportunity.

Directing, Producing, Acting in their friends indie projects, Singing — whatever it is. They are not just waiting. Like so many of us do…have done…are still doing.

Possibly because we are waiting for dreams to unravel the specific way we see them in our minds. Maybe we are waiting because we are all trying to follow the rules set up by — well, I don’t know who. The Actor rule fairy that says…we can only do certain things a certain way.

The system is rigged. And if you want to rig it in your favor, it’s time to start thinking differently. Thinking Bigger. Asking yourself better questions.

This career might not unfold the exact way you have planned in your head. And that’s a good thing. Because it can unfold better than you ever imagined.

You just have to be willing to leap.

I asked myself the simple question…that’s lead me to so many other amazing opportunities and possibilities in my life and career. “What else is possible, DaJuan?” and “What would you do if you felt limitless?”

Direct.

So, I set out to raise the bar on my career. I set a personal goal to direct an episode of TV.

I started thinking of all the awesome actors who were currently on TV shows, like myself, that are now directing episodes of their series…and I thought, why couldn’t I do that too?

I will.

I set it all in motion. Here’s what I did.

The first thing I did was tell my team what I wanted to do. Yes, my team does include my reps (manager and agents), but it also included my close friends. During an end of the year wrap up with my manager, I expressed my goal. To direct an episode of episodic television. She met it with open arms and gave me some SAGE advice. If I wanted to direct an episode of TV, I need to direct something beforehand. A short. A web-series. Something. Then submit it to festivals. So that I would have some work to show executive producers. Conception to Completion.

I set out to direct my own short film.

I have to tell you this has been one of the highlights of my career. For the first time, I’m not waiting or PREPARING for the phone to ring. I’m actually out there making it happen for myself. And it feels great. I keep thinking, what a GREAT way to spend the hiatus of my show.

Here are 5 Things I’ve learned along the way.

Vision

Have a vision, but don’t have an expectation. I know where I want my short film to go when it’s all said and done. I’ve sat and envisioned it’s success and I can’t wait to see it come to fruition. But, I have released my self from expectation. What that means for me is, if none of it comes to pass, I’ll move on and create another awesome project. Hold on to expectation can keep you locked into the past or what hasn’t happened and block you from moving forward in ways you never dreamed possible.

Put A Team In Place

This has been the number one thing that has helped me and saved my butt over and over again. Having a SOLID TRUSTED team in place. It started with a great friend that asked me to produce it with me. A friend that is on the same wavelength as me. It’s worth pointing out that during this process, this friend was also a Series Regular on a major show. He too had started to realize, working actors work more because they create more opportunities for them themselves. Ask for help. Do it often. Don’t be afraid to put a team of people around you that know more than you. This will allow you to focus on what you set out to do.

Mind Dump

Mind Dump. And do it often. Your bandwidth will be stretched during this time. Life doesn’t stop just because you decided to create your own material. I still have an active acting career goal, complete with weekly auditions, red carpet events and more. I also have a business I’m running and two sons who love to play baseball. The only way I keep things moving at a working pace is writing stuff down. You cannot trust your mind to remember it all. The key is to get it out of your head as soon as possible. Here is a HACK. Carry around pen and paper with you all the time — a small notepad that fits right into your pocket will do. And use it!

Power Vacuum

There’s an interesting thing that happens called a Power Vacuum if you are not solid on your vision coming in. A Power Vacuum is just what it sounds like. There are a lot of strong personalities on sets and if there is no apparent leader, others will jump in and take the Power. Not even on purpose or in a malicious way. It’s just a Power Vacuum. I know this sounds a little dramatic. How do you avoid this? Be malleable and collaborate, but don’t be afraid to stand your ground.

Take Care of Yourself

This is usually the first thing to go when you’re in the thick of it all. And you will be in the thick of it often. But, THIS NEEDS to be the one thing that actually stays in place for you. It will keep your sanity. It might look a little different during this period, but make sure you keep your routines and commitments to yourself. As a director, you’re the answer man. People are coming to you asking for answers all. the. time.

This process, creating your own film, can be overwhelming. But, remember overwhelm is a choice. Use the steps above to take some of the inside and outside pressure off. And remember, you’re making a movie!

These are only the top 5 lessons I’ve learned so far. I’d love to keep you updated on the whole process throughout production, post and beyond. Click here to join my list and be in the know as it happens. You might also enjoy the Think Bigger Tribe Facebook. Where like-minded actors support, share and elevate each other!

DaJuan Johnson is a working actor on Amazon’s hit show BOSCH. The show is in its 4th season and has been renewed for a 5th. He’s been recurring on the show since the pilot episode. DaJuan is also a TAC Mentor + certified life coach who is on a mission to help actors #uplevel their career with confidence. His mindset strategies are grounded in his real-life experience as a veteran working actor. Check out all things DaJuan at www.thinkbiggercoaching.com & join the Think Bigger Tribe on Facebook.

Comments

  1. Great insight DaJuan.

    I made my first short film back in 2010 and it was the best thing I have ever done— this was way before the short film web series craze. I did all of those things because I hit a wall with being the good/prepared patient actor.
    I wrote, produced and starred in it- at the time I wasn’t ready to direct, but hired an excellent director who shared my vision and was able to expand on it – MAKING it even better. We went to 7 festivals and won at a few.
    Assembling the team to tell my story- was incredible and I was interviewed by Fractured Atlas to tell how it all came together. You can see it the film co. Website:
    http://www.nickoftimefilms.com
    I learned I had so many other skills that ultimately made me feel more empowered as an actor. It took a lot out of me and I am slowly stepping back up to the plate to create another film.
    I can’t stress enough how important it is to expand ourselves as artists!
    Thanks for sharing your experience!

  2. Thanks for a great article Dajuan,
    yes I made a short film, wrote, produced and acted, collaborating with a great team and won a number of awards on the festival circuit. It was empowering and such a great learning curve as an actress and has inspired me to continue to create, this also keeps me sane! Not waiting for the phone to ring or obsess about the call back etc .

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