Young film director James Kicklighter before he started making movies.
Young film director James Kicklighter
before he started making movies.

If you want to be a film director, be one. 

It is that simple.

Directing is one of those fields where you rarely work your way up. Certainly, there are examples of folks who did.

For example, you can start as an assistant director, screenwriter, editor, actor or producer who segues into something different.

But in today's digital world, when you can create a movie on your iPhone, anybody can be a director. However, not everyone can tell a story. Not everyone can make a living directing. 

I have always felt this way, going all the way back to my very first awkward interviews as a 21-year-old.

21-year-old director James Kicklighter hits the red carpet
at the National Film Festival for Talented Youth.

It is highly competitive and if you choose to direct, be ready to compete.

Here are three thoughts on how to get going:

1) Master the film pitch

I can't tell you how many pitches I hear on a weekly basis that come from a place of desperation. Ava DuVernay, the visionary director of Selma, once spoke of creatively wearing a cloak of desperation. 

Often, creatives find themselves downtrodden when a project isn't coming together in the timeline they see fit, comparing themselves to friends and colleagues who seem to have it all together.

Watch her 2013 Film Independent Keynote and rip that cloak off.

Pitching isn't only about selling yourself or the story you want to tell, it's about building relationships.

Though I always hope to make the sale, more often than not, I am much more interested in getting to know the person I am pitching to.

What are their interests?

What are their tastes?

Who are they as a human being?

Focusing on relationships will always help you reach your long term goals. 

If you enter a meeting wearing that cloak of desperation, everyone will take note and no one will take you seriously. You'll lack the maturity and sophistication to earn the respect and trust of the person on the other end of your pitch.

It's never about what they can do for you, but about how we can row in the boat together.  After all, that is the process of directing; collaboration, not dictatorship.

2) Take risks

Film director James Kicklighter on the set of Desires of the Heart in Rajasthan, India.
Film director James Kicklighter on the set of
Desires of the Heart in Rajasthan, India.

Though inevitably our projects will come to define us, it takes time for a singular project to define a director.

Before Steven Spielberg directed Jaws, he spent time directing television episodes and television movies, creating The Sugarland Express before he made his seminal classic.

Though Jaws made his career, Spielberg's film and television work preceding it gave him the tools to navigate the complicated waters of that production. 

When a growth opportunity presents itself, take it. 

If you play safe, working with the same people in the same settings doing the same things, you'll never learn anything new. 

That's a big reason why I agreed to direct the international film Desires of the Heart, and also the same reason why I chose to work with Hillary Clinton's campaign

Working in Savannah, Georgia and Rajasthan, India, I learned how to navigate culturally different filmmaking processes, collaborating with crew and actors that I would have never worked with otherwise.

Similarly, for Secretary Clinton's campaign, I get to apply my deep arsenal of knowledge working with politicians and members of the public in the past and execute it for a national election. 

Neither of these projects define my career, just as Spielberg's Jaws isn't the totality of his work. But with each risk and leap you make, if you're committed to learning from your triumphs and failures, your depth of knowledge should expand and your capabilities increase. 

Film director James Kicklighter with Maggie Q, Lilly Lee at The 2010 CW Upfront Presentation in New York.
Film director James Kicklighter, Maggie Q & Lilly Lee
at The 2010 CW Upfront Presentation in New York.

3) Find a way to make money as a director

Starting out, people are not going to pay you to direct.  

Did you shoot a short film in college? Great! But for most people, that won't be enough to convince them you have what it takes to make a career.

Driving for Uber or working for Starbucks isn't going to get you there either.

Of course, you have to pay the bills. I didn't grow up in a wealthy family, I've had to work quite hard to earn everything. 

So how did I do it at first?

Weddings, graduation videos, and collecting local clients for corporate videos.

Over time, as you begin to work with people in these sorts of capacities, you gain both the entrepreneurial and people skills needed to direct bigger productions.

You learn how to work with someone and fight for creative needs versus the commercial mandate. 

You learn to be responsible for people other than yourself, especially when you start spending other people's money.

You'll spend the rest of your life doing that as a professional.

If you can handle the small stuff, slowly, you'll work your way up to the big stuff.

Film Director James Kicklighter in Ethiopia shooting a documentary
Film Director James Kicklighter
in Ethiopia shooting a documentary

In summation:

  • 1) Master the film pitch
  • 2) Take risks
  • 3) Find a way to make money as a director

What tips do you have?