Things They Don’t Tell You About Directing Your First Film …

Writer-director David Raymond shares some of the key lessons he learned making his debut feature, the star-studded thriller Night Hunter.

I’d come close to directing my first feature a few times in the past, but things fell apart, often for the most random reasons. Perhaps I wasn’t as close as I thought, perhaps I could have done things differently. A mentor figure of mine – Richard Taylor, who founded Weta Workshop – once told me L.A. was “death by positivity.” He’s right, only I’d rather be surrounded by endless yeses, however hollow, than a bounty of cynical no’s based purely on one’s lack of credits. For all you aspiring writers, that’s the beauty of the written word as, for the most part, no cares who’s written it. A great script is a great script. Directing, though, is different.

I never studied filmmaking, and I’m half grateful for the subsequent life experiences that university and a degree in politics gave me and half jealous of the film kids who got to learn their craft from the get-go. During my first few years in Hollywood, I managed to get by with some degree of credibility by saying I went to Haileybury College in England, the same school Christopher Nolan attended, which, although true, is completely misleading as there was no film class. In fact, the closest I came to being creative in school was finding made-up reasons to talk to girls or slating the opposition cricket team to stop them from concentrating.

I undoubtedly caught the film bug early in life, along with my three brothers. The oldest is now also a director, and a talented one at that. Whereas he went straight for it, dropping out of school to be a runner at Pinewood, it took me some time to listen to my inner voice telling me to stop following the crowd and pursue my passion.

My film school was watching movies, endlessly, and then graduating to numerous behind-the-scenes extras, documentaries and, more recently, podcasts.

I’d written a bunch of scripts and to my own detriment, my taste gravitates toward cinematic scale. I like big popcorn movies with intimate character stories at their heart … not useful when you’re trying to direct what you’ve written and the budgets are way too high for a debut feature.

I made fmy first film, Night Hunter, at 38. It felt like 58, given how long I’d been trying, waiting and hoping to get behind a camera on a story I’d written. It was emotionally, physically and mentally harder than I ever thought it would be; I’d often heard that from filmmakers, but had naively dismissed it as hyperbole. I’ll tell you this, though, the highs dwarf any of the lows. I sleep more peacefully now knowing that what I thought was my calling in life … turned out to be real. That’s not to say Night Hunter is a masterpiece; it’s not. I wanted it to be, I believe it could have been, it should have been even, but the reasons why it’s not I take with me as a filmmaker. I’m truly proud of it. There’s so much there I’m happy with, most notably the performances from my incredible cast.

David Raymond (left) watches a scene between Henry Cavill and Ben Kingsley on the set of Night Hunter

Knowing what I know now, here’s how would I advise my younger self, or any first-time filmmaker reading this …

Time Is Not Your Friend
Every moment of lost time hurts you. Pre-production was nonexistent due to the financing falling apart on several occasions; such is the nature of independent financing, or so I’m told. We were also forced to switch locations from Louisiana to Manitoba, Canada, due to a late filing of my visa, which meant reimagining the geography and the narrative atheistic of the film, not to mention its finale.

Every second with your actors is precious, because if you’re not able to shoot what you need when you have them, you’re always playing catch-up. When they’re gone, there’s no body-double trick that’ll work adequately. Trust me! I’ve secretly doubled body parts of the man-mountain Henry Cavill (poorly, as his arms are the size of my legs), as well as Ben Kingsley’s shoulders and hands, Alexandra Daddario’s delicate feet, Brendan Fletcher’s less delicate feet and Eliana Jones’ youthful elbows and hands. Not all of it made it into the final cut of the film … but some did.

Though time is not your friend, it is not your enemy. When you need to slow things down, use time wisely because that’s when magic can happen. It did on this film. Giving actors like Henry room to breathe, room to sit in his character on screen, was invaluable. He’s playing a role of a broken man who hates expressing himself, he’s closed himself off … or at least tried to. Watching his emotional glacier melt due to the stubborn warmth of his daughter (wonderfully played by Emma Tremblay) was beautiful to watch and proved to me that Henry’s so much more than a great-looking guy with huge muscles. There’s a genuine depth and intelligence to Henry the actor, and I think we as an audience have barely scratched the surface in terms of seeing what he’s capable of.

As for time with Brendan and Alexandra (who play the serial killer and rookie criminal profiler, respectively), giving them space to psychologically dance and battle was incredibly rewarding. He was the key to seeing if Night Hunter would work. Brendan and I rehearsed a lot privately, just the two of us, and found a connection and a shorthand that I doubt I’ll have again in my career. I felt like I could give him an essay of notes with a look, a nod, a sniff of the air that meant something to the both of us, and yet no one else in the room knew what the hell we were talking about. Which, for the most part, was deliberate. I didn’t want Alex to know what he was going to do.

There’s a long key scene which, after a while, I could tell had drained both of them … but that’s when they gave me their best performances. Both exhausted and completely stripped raw. Alexandra stepped up in a way that makes me so proud of her. Yes, she’s gorgeous, yes, she’s funny, but there’s a professionalism and deep determination in her to be so much more than that. To push herself, to challenge what people think she’s capable of. That’s why I cast her; it’s not a role she normally plays, but I could tell she was hungry for it. Which mirrors her character, as Rachel is out to prove something to herself, no one else.

Alexandra Daddario and Brendan Fletcher in Night Hunter

If You Don’t Ask, You Don’t Get
As silly as this sounds, I landed this insanely gifted cast of many of my favorite actors – not only Henry, Brendan, Ben and Alex, but also Stanley Tucci, Minka Kelly and Nathan Fillion – by just asking. Lots of people said, “They’ll never do this,” but I just asked, sometimes more than once, and eventually, once they’d read the script and we’d chatted, they joined the party.

I think that’s a great lesson for any of you out there wanting to be something, or someone. The biggest thing standing in your way is often your own doubts and insecurities. Fortunately, my dad drilled into me from a young age that you just need to go for it. If someone else can do it, so can you.

Eliana Jones is a testament to this. I found her tape in the rejected pile of auditions. She’s a natural talent, with a light that comes from her that’s infectious. Ben Kingsley nodded at me after their first scene together, validation that she’s got it. It meant the world to me.

Henry Cavill and Alexandra Daddario in Night Hunter

Passion Inspires
There are horror stories in Hollywood about directors and producers treating people like crap. I’ve never understood that. During our pre-production (or lack of it), I found a young kid called Myron in the production offices. I remembered him as he picked me up from the airport and lifted my bags as if they were crisp packets whilst I was shivering and slipping over the icy floor in my posh shoes I never wore again in Canada. Myron wouldn’t shut up about movies. I think he was more excited than I was. We listened to film scores in his car as I looked around Winnipeg and thought, “I wonder if my testicles will ever leave my rib cage, where they’ve retreated to for warmth.” (Spoiler alert: They did.) Anyway, I saw Myron hovering around production meetings like a leper, unwelcome by some who – for whatever reason – felt power by putting him down. So I sat him right next to me and said, “Learn.” He never left my side. That is until Henry saw how reliable he was and stole him from me, albeit briefly.

When things were at their hardest, having someone around you who reminds you how goddamned lucky you are to be directing a film of any kind is worth more than any decent night’s sleep.

You have to love film so much it seeps out of every pore, because it will challenge you, your patience, your trust of others and their illustrious IMDb credits and your own sense of self worth, more than you could possibly imagine.

Having said all that, don’t listen to any director who tells you how hard it is – they’ve clearly had too many almond chai, gluten-free lattes and need to suck it up.

It’s a blessed life to do what you love. Some doors will open willingly, some you have to bang down, some won’t budge and will bruise your hand for a bit. But that’s why you’ve got two of them.

David Raymond is a director, screenwriter and founder of production company Arise Pictures. His feature directorial debut, the psychological thriller Night Hunter, starring Henry Cavill, Alexandra Daddario, Brendan Fletcher and Sir Ben Kingsley, for which he also penned the screenplay, is released by Saban Films on September 6. In collaboration with the United Nations, marking the U.N.’s first formal partnership with an entertainment platform, Raymond is actively writing the humanitarian-focused anthology series In Harm’s Way, which will dramatize true stories of U.N. staff. He previously directed the short film The Other Man, starring Burn Gorman and Mircea Monroe, which premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival and screened at the Foyle Film Festival, Raindance Film Festival and LA Shorts Fest. Raymond currently resides in Los Angeles.