From SNL to Other People: 10 Things I Learned Directing My First Film

Chris Kelly, writer-director of Other People and longtime Saturday Night Live staffer, shares the wisdom he gained behind the camera.

For the past eight years, I’ve worked primarily as a comedy writer, at places like The Onion, Broad City and Saturday Night Live, so when I wrote my first movie, Other People, I never expected I would also get the chance to direct it. Sure, I had directed some comedy shorts throughout the years, but this was going to be a real live movie. And a drama, too! Didn’t they need to hire someone with a beard to direct it? I mean, I tried to grow one once, but I just looked very, very sick. Suffice it to say, the opportunity was daunting, and while I knew I had a clear, specific vision for the film, I was still worried I would let people down, and perhaps even end civilization. But a year later, I can honestly say that directing Other People was the best professional experience of my life, and that I learned over one trillion things in the process. So if you’re reading this, and you’re about to direct your first film, or want to, or are worried about doing so, let me humbly offer you just 10 of the things I learned while directing mine:

1. It’s OK to Ask If You Don’t Know Something
I didn’t go to film school. I never took that course where you learn the name of every light. I was too busy being a Drama major and laying on my back while pretending to be a rock, or whatever it is we did. And because of that, during prep for my movie, I had constant internal freak-outs: “There’s so much I don’t know!” “Am I a fraud?” “When they find out that I was a Drama major with a Creative Writing minor, is the whole crew going to kick me into the moon??” But I soon learned that it’s OK to not know everything, as long as you know that you don’t know everything. And frankly, no one makes a movie alone. (Well, except for this one guy I met at a festival in Hawaii, but I still think it’s pretty rare.) And one of my favorite things about making my movie was how much I learned from other people, from my director of photography (Brian Burgoyne), to my editor (Patrick Colman), to all of my incredible actors (can’t remember any of their names). So yes, it’s truly OK, even if you’re “the director,” to not know every single thing. Because at the same time, you should keep in mind that…

2. You Know Way More Than You Think
Like I said, I didn’t come up the “typical way” as a director, and because of that, it made me insecure. But it was important for me to learn that there is no one way to become a director, just like there is no one way to become anything, really. I wasn’t formally trained as a director, but I was trained as an actor, and that helped me learn how to talk to actors and think like an actor on set. I didn’t spend my post-collegiate years making experimental films with my friends, but I did study improv and sketch at the UCB in New York and L.A. and that taught me how to collaborate and “yes and” and think and write and heighten and explore the unusual. And I didn’t work as a camera operator or director of photography first, learning the ins-and-outs of how to tell a story visually, but when I first became a writer at the Onion News Network, it was such a scrappy, all-hands-on-deck operation, that I was also their Script Supervisor, Locations Manager, and 1st AD. The whole job was like one big production boot camp.

All of this isn’t to say, “Wow, look at all the things I’ve done on my way to directing a film! Hooray for me!!!” I just mean to illustrate that there is no “right path” or “one way” to do anything. And that your experiences and your past are valuable to you as a director, even if (and sometimes especially if) they are different from the norm. There was a lot I didn’t know when directing my film, but there was also a lot of surprising things I did know, that others may not have. And it was cool (and important!) for me to learn that.

3. It Will Never Not Be Weird to Direct an Actor Who Is Playing You
In my movie, Jesse Plemons plays me. And it was incredibly bizarre. In real life, we are very different people. For example, he’s a man, and I’m just technically male. But he really did want to base his performance on me, so I saw him start to move like me, walk like me, even think like me. It was trippy. In the film, his character (me) bites his nails a lot. And while directing the movie, I would get stressed and also bite my nails a lot. So there would be moments where I would be biting my nails – while watching him biting his nails as me. In one scene, another character tells him to “stop biting your nails,” and when she did, we both stopped at the same time. Like I said: weird.

4. Having the Right Producer is Crucial (Especially if It’s Naomi Scott)
I was lucky to work with many great producers on my movie, but Naomi Scott was truly by my side every minute of every day beginning on day one. She was collaborative, funny, opinionated, fearless, and I think literally never slept. This movie would not have been made without her. So please, heed this advice: if you can get Naomi Scott to produce your movie, do it.

5. It’s Important to Collaborate and Know When to Stick to Your Guns
Too often, people think that having a vision means you can’t collaborate or listen to other people’s ideas. That if you ask the opinions of others, you’re not following your own “artistic impulses.” And I think that’s bullshit. I think you can and should do both. It’s absolutely crucial to have strong opinions and to follow your own gut, but also have the ability to change or tweak or alter based on input from others. You’re hiring the best D.P. and editor and actors and costume designers and make-up artists you can, why would you not listen to them if they have a concern or an idea that is potentially different than yours? Some of the best moments in my movie came from an actor saying, “I don’t think I would say this line that way” and then improvising something much better. When we got to the edit, the final scene of my movie was not working, but I had been married to it verbatim, shot-for-shot, in my mind, for years. So when my assistant editor, Spencer Campbell, recommended a fairly drastic change, I almost killed myself, and him. But then I looked at that change, and I sat with that change, and we kept that change. Because it worked. It was different than I had imagined, and it was scary to me at first, but it was the right call. And it made the movie better.

6. Your Editor is Basically Your Co-Writer
In theory, I’ve always known this, but I learned it again and again on this movie. So make sure, like I did, to hire an editor who is smart and who cares about the story. Because this person is going to be literally writing it with you. My editor found comedy in scenes I didn’t know where funny, and made scenes that were moderately sad just fucking devastating. He solidified the timing and the tone and found so many beautiful little moments between actors that seemed insignificant on their own, but when put together, one by one, for 90 minutes, made the movie what it was.

7. Despite the Long Hours of Shooting a Movie, You Can Still Find Time to Watch All of Season 17 of Big Brother If You’re a Big Enough Piece of Trash
During production, I didn’t see my boyfriend for months, and was terrible about calling or emailing even my closest friends and family, but I still managed to watch every single episode of the CBS reality hit. Which, mind you, is on three nights a week.

8. Less is More
For some scenes, I shot a lot of takes. Like, a lot. But in the final movie, all my favorite moments are the long, uninterrupted ones. There’s a five-minute scene between Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons toward the end of my movie, and I’d say about 90 percent of it is one take. It’s so powerful because you rarely get to watch two people truly talking to each other on screen, uninterrupted like that. Like, really talking and listening and crying and reacting in real-time. So I learned, why add a bunch of edits if you don’t need to?

9. You Will Never Please Everyone
The response to my movie has been so wonderful and I couldn’t be more thrilled with how it all turned out. Like, it still seems sort of fakey. That being said, not everyone in the world is going to like every part of every thing I make. (I learned that at SNL too – when I watched my very first sketch on YouTube the next day, the first comment under it was that the writer should kill himself.) And I’ve got to admit, it has been weird to move into this phase of moviemaking where people are now seeing it and talking about it and reviewing it. I’ve definitely lucked out with the response so far, but it’s still important for me to mentally tune a lot of that out. A good review doesn’t mean I’m KING OF CINEMA, and the opposite doesn’t mean I’m YESTERDAY’S TRASH! I’ve truly learned that all you can do is focus on the work, try to make stuff that you’re proud of, and, if you can watch something that you made and think, “Yes, that is exactly what I wanted to make!”, then you’re fucking golden.

10. “Drops of Jupiter” by Train Really is the Best Song That Has Ever Been Written or Composed. If you don’t believe me, please see my movie when it comes out in select cities September 9th. (Look, I learned to always include the release date at the end of an article! I guess that’s #11.)

Chris Kelly is the writer-director of Other People, starring Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon, which is released theatrically September 9. He is currently about to start his sixth season at Saturday Night Live, where he serves as writing supervisor, a role in which he has been nominated for five Emmy Awards. He is also a writer and consulting producer on Comedy Central’s Broad City. Previously, he was a staff writer and director at Funny or Die and won a Peabody Award for his work as a writer-director for The Onion News Network.