Tools of the trade is a series we did that covered the mental habits and tools of the best filmmakers. We may resurrect it at some point. Until then, enjoy one of our favorites.
Meet Jen McGowan
Jen McGowan is a director based in Los Angeles. Her first feature, KELLY & CAL, starring Juliette Lewis, Cybill Shepherd, and Jonny Weston premiered at SXSW where she won the Gamechanger Award. The film was released by IFC Films to rave reviews.
She got her start with award-winning short films CONFESSIONS OF A LATE BLOOMER and TOUCH which played at over a hundred film festivals worldwide, winning a majority. They have been distributed by PBS, NBC Universal, Shorts International and Canal Plus. TOUCH became eligible for the short film Oscar when it won the Florida Film Festival.
McGowan studied directing in the MFA program at USC where she was honored with a scholarship from Women in Film and a grant from The Caucus Foundation. She received her BFA in Acting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, studying under David Mamet, Bill Macy & Sam Shepard at the Atlantic Theatre.
She created Film Powered, the online skill-sharing site for women in film & tv. The site was named Best in LA of 2016 by LA Weekly, featured in Indiewire and included in the Sundance Women’s Initiative Resource List.She is a Film Independent Fellow, was a finalist for the Clint Eastwood Filmmakers Award, recipient of the Alliance of Women Directors Breakout Award for Excellence in Directing and was included on Vulture’s list of Women Directors Hollywood Should Be Hiring.
McGowan’s second feature film is the elevated thriller, RUST CREEK.
What habits and routines help you do your best work?
Since there is absolutely nothing normal about this life or any single day of it I try to create some consistency for myself. Of course you have to always be flexible and willing to accommodate change but I tend to aim for this type of schedule…
I get up every day around 6:30 or 7am. I walk my dogs, make them breakfast and then make myself breakfast and then I go to my office. If I have a script to read I like to do that first thing in the morning and I prefer to clear a solid two hours to two and half hour to read and write notes.
Unless I’m in production on a specific show the rest of my day is usually filled with reading, research, networking, emails and work for my organization, Film Powered (www.filmpowered.com).
I try to do no more than two meetings or social events per day. Meetings during the day. Social events and more general networking over dinner or drinks. Three a day are my max. Three wipes me out.
Add to that every day I either box in the evening or cycle in the morning. The only time I let myself out of that is when I’m shooting.
That way I feel like I’ve taken care of my creative, my social, my body and my networking. All necessary to push my goals forward. Otherwise, I start feeling anxious.
That is how a weekday looks if I’m not greenlit on a specific project.
I tend to make my way to bed around 10pm and read to news until I fall asleep around 11pm. I need my sleep. Because I go hard all day. Weekends, I try to take one full day off.
What’s your ideal work environment?
Either on set, in an edit suite, in a sound studio or in my home office. Pretty much anywhere I’m actively making a movie. I can work or sleep anywhere.
What is the most common creative problem that you face in your field? How do you approach solving it?
I think the most common creative problem is conflicting agendas. The hardest to overcome is when the people involved are unaware that their agendas are conflicting. And the solution to all creative problems is good communication. That’s what I love about making movies. You really cannot do it by yourself. At least not the kind of movies I like making. And to me, that’s not a downside, that’s a benefit. Making movies is a group experience and when it works it’s absolutely magical. It kind of captures the best of humanity. It shouldn’t work. So many moving parts. All the possibilities for failure. It’s completely magic.
What is the most common technical problem that you face in your field? How do you approach solving it?
Technical problems are constant. The solution is communication, communication, communication. Ask questions, do research, discuss, test. Repeat until you’re happy.
What tools and services do you find most essential to your craft?
I love my director’s viewfinder. I have an Alan Gordon Mark Vb that my husband got me about a decade ago for my birthday.
I never go anywhere without a cheapo mechanical pencil and moleskin notebook. Usually a pink one because I noticed pink things are easy to find on set & far less likely to get stolen! 🙂 Pretty much every picture of me on set there’s a pencil or many in my hair. I’m pretty basic.
Also I love spreadsheets. I know that sounds not very creative but I like to track elements of change and spreadsheets help me to do that very simply. I use Google sheets so I can share with my HoDs. This may not sound like a tool but it is, a social one.
Every shoot I start with a welcome picnic or drinks. And we invite every cast & crew member along with their families. I far prefer that over wrap parties. Before the crazy, it’s important for everyone to say hello.
Storyboards and previz are super essential when you get into more complicated things like effects and combat but movies have been made for a very long time with some pretty simple tools. Lawerence of Arabia did not have a playback monitor. Tech is just a tool. It’s the ideas and the people that are important.
What five tools would you recommend someone new to your field have in their toolbox?
- Director’s viewfinder
- Pencil & paper
- Good shoes (I stand on set)
What tools and services are on your “if I had an unlimited budget” wish list?
My job doesn’t really change that much with budget. It’s more that I would get to spread it around through all of my departments. So I would spend more across the board.
What emerging technologies in your field are you most excited about?
I’m pretty excited about the cameras that have unlimited focus and allow you to choose the specific focus in post. I get that kind of horrifies DPs because they think we’re going to use it to do dumb shit (are certainly some filmmakers will) but if you use it selectively it could be an incredibly powerful tool. For example, perhaps you’re doing a very complicated shot and maybe you only get one or two takes and everyone knows the first take was best but at one point it was slightly soft but you have to move on. It would be really wonderful to be able to fix that in post. You can do that a little bit now but not perfectly.
And this is super dorky but every time processing speeds increase my life gets better. Things get cheaper and can do more with less so that’s always good.
What tool or service doesn’t exist yet but you can’t wait for the day it does?
Something that will allow scripts to be uploaded to my brain rather than read. I spend so much of my time reading!
Which resources (books/classes.etc.) would you recommend to someone in your field?
I like Bruce Block’s The Visual Story, Christine Vachon’s Shooting to Kill, Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye