Although he has decades of production experience, Jon Stewart came to the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival as a first-time feature director. And while Stewart is the first to admit that his path to filmmaking gave him a unique advantage — “It’s content production and it’s telling stories” — he’s also keenly aware that when it came to filmmaking, he was a rookie.
So, on the morning after his TIFF premiere of Rosewater — moments before he returned to New York for his day job at The Daily Show, which he’s hosted for 16 years — Stewart gave Indiewire his advice for first-time filmmakers.
1. There are many things you don’t know. Know that, and find people who know better.
“I think the smartest thing that I did was recognize my own ignorance. It was a really crucial aspect of being able to rely on the experience and competence of department heads and people that really did know what they were doing and had done it before. And also I think by being aware of it, it kept me vigilant.”
2. Learn to recognize when it’s not going well. This will happen a lot.
“You’re in a scene and it’s not working. So within that, I think what you learn is you can’t walk away until it’s working and whatever that may entail—whether that means rewriting it, whether that means changing the dynamic of the scene, all those types of situations. It’s kind of a constant battle of trying to correct what you did wrong. The entire process is. I remember the early sequence of his family story was pictures kind of appearing and disappearing as we explained it, and that occurred after he had been arrested. So it’s a much different placement, and the scene where he’s walking in the streets of London was much more of a West to East kind of transitional scene. And it just wasn’t working. And I was done shooting.”
3. Learn how to adapt. You will have to do this a lot.
“So, what I ended up doing was looking at the reflective surfaces of the London walk and taking the images and just placing them there and moving them forward in the movie. So it’s a constant process of evolution. I could go back in there right now. It’s not like what’s out there right now, I don’t look at that and go, ‘Yes! Perfection!’ I’m still going, like, ‘Fuck, I could have shot that from the other direction. And the light would have been right and it just would have worked.’”
4. Don’t think about it too much. Sometimes it’s better not to know.
“In some ways, thank goodness I did not know what I was getting myself into because I probably wouldn’t have. Momentum in film is everything. And momentum can be broken at almost every stage of the process. So, unless you are single-mindedly and tenaciously pursuing that momentum, you will lose it. And at any point in that process and you lose it, it’s kind of over.”
5. Don’t expect this to seem like a reasonable thing to do. It’s not.
“In the middle of the script process, you will come up with obstacles that are seemingly unsurpassable and that momentum can easily be broken because something’s on television or you wanna do other shit or enjoy your life. Then once you have that script, it’s got to go out and try and get someone to finance the production of it. So, at each turn your forward momentum toward getting it made can be very easily dissipated. So you have to be a bit singleminded about driving that and there’s a lot of opportunity to not. There’s always going to be those moments.”