First-Time Directors on 'Honey Boy,' 'Queen & Slim' and More Reveal Lessons Learned

10:00 AM 1/25/2020

by Katie Campione

Ahead of Saturday's DGA Awards, nominees in the first-time feature film helmers category open up about trusting their vision and day by day becoming "a little sharper."

Diop, Har'el and Matsoukas
Diop, Har'el and Matsoukas
Courtesy of Netflix; Andre Wagner/Universal Pictures
  • Joe Talbot

    'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'

    Courtesy of A24

    Talbot learned all about the spirit of collaboration working on his debut feature. "When we were developing [the film], an ever-changing cast of collaborators would join our core team for a couple of days at a time and pump fresh blood into whatever scene we were working on," he says. "Ideas would grow so quickly, ping-ponging between people in the room — some of whom weren’t even filmmakers, just smart friends — that it almost felt like a unified consciousness." He may have started the shoot unsure of himself, but, the director adds, "Each day, you get a little sharper, a bit more battle-tested and kinder to yourself."

  • Alma Har'el

    'Honey Boy'

    Courtesy of Amazon Studios

    Har’el teamed up with Shia LaBeouf to bring his autobiographical drama to life. She learned that to ensure actors were comfortable, "run the scene with your actors with no one around at least a few times before you start blocking or shooting," she says. "Blocking with crew on set can put pressure on actors to accommodate the lighting or the camera. It should be the opposite way around." Har’el, who has multiple documentary features under her belt, also says her narrative feature debut taught her to not let others try to limit her freedom: "You don’t want to be tied into other people’s fear of failure."

  • Melina Matsoukas

    'Queen & Slim'

    Andre Wagner/Universal Pictures

    Transitioning from music videos to a feature presented a unique challenge to Matsoukas. "I was always forwarding someone else’s story, [so] it was challenging to listen to my own voice of influence, perspective and language," she says, adding that she had to learn to be nimble. "It felt like the universe threw an unexpected curveball at us daily, and I would have to abandon my preparation and find a new approach to the day constantly."

  • Mati Diop

    'Atlantics'

    Courtesy of Netflix

    "I was so resistant to preparing for shooting. I still felt I needed to approach it more viscerally and intuitively, which in the end worked, but I took way too many risks," says Diop, who adds that she still thinks no filmmaker can ever truly be ready for their first feature. "It’s like thinking you can get prepared for your first kid. You can get prepared, but it’s still going to be a huge shock because it’s extremely intense."

  • Tyler Nilson and Michael  Schwartz

    'The  Peanut Butter Falcon'

    Seth Johnson/Roadside Attractions

    The directing pair met Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome, years ago and then created a film for him. "Over the years, we’ve had the feeling that if ‘just this one thing happens,’ the rest will be easy," the directors tell THR via email. "'If we get a talented cast, getting into festivals will be easy!' 'If we win a festival, getting distribution will be easy!' 'If we get distribution, getting people to watch our film will be easy!' We now respect the challenges every step along the way and understand that nothing is ever easy."

    This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.