Director Donald Petrie’s Q&A at the 2010 Campus Moviefest

Published On June 20, 2010 | By admin | Director, film, film distribution, Film Festival, film production, Filmmaker, filmmaking

Director Donald Petrie, well known for such films as “Grumpy Old Men”, “Miss Congeniality” and “Mystic Pizza” gave a workshop about his craft as part of the 2010 Campus Moviefest held last week at the Wynn in Las Vegas.  Petrie, who started out as an actor, began working in television right after high school on many shows including The Waltons and Eight is Enough. “You can’t make a full living as an actor unless you’re Brad Pitt,” he told the audience, so he decided to support himself with movie related jobs like building sets and working as a still photographer.  In fact, this is what led to his career in directing.

Director Donald Petrie

Petrie studied with Uta Hagen, Laurence Olivier and Lee Strasberg then returned to school eight years after graduating as a theatre major to attend AFI (American Film Institute).  The program took less than two years and upon completion Donald wasn’t an actor anymore.   “Film school is the place to fail.  You want to come out of film school with a calling card if you can, but you want to learn,” he asserted.   He speaks fondly of his time at AFI recalling a short he produced there called “The Expert”, a documentary about the supervision of a death chamber execution.  The piece got him an agent and the attention of Steven Spielberg, who saw the film and hired him to direct an episode of his Amazing Stories series.  Petrie said of the job hunting process, “Part of it’s about the interview.  An actor gets to audition.  You have to be able to communicate a vision in a room.  The main thing they look for is passion.  Passion sells more than anything.  You have to present passion.  You have to present yourself as a professional.”   He went on to say that he avoided making one of the worst mistakes common to newbies: acting like a little Hitler on the set.  Describing filmmaking as a collaborative effort he continued, “As a director you answer a million questions a day, you make decisions every three feet.”  He asserts that directors should make people feel important and part of the creative process, stressing the necessity of keeping that kind of inclusiveness with cast and crew.  

Noting that it’s not unusual to feel overwhelmed when starting out, Petrie related that he found himself in that position early on in his career.   Upon admitting this to his DP, the seasoned veteran helped him out by calling  for a wide shot.  When Donald looked at the scene from a distance, it suddenly made sense to him.  He said, “The people who can help you on your way are the ones who’ve already been there.  Enlist everyone’s help.  Pick talent. I’m kind of a people person.  I like nice people around.  I want everyone to have the same passion for the movie that I have for the movie.” 

Continuing on with his tips, Petrie said one of the first things he looks at on resumes is repeat business.  He finds it a good sign if people have been hired again by the same person.  The job of the director is primarily to be a storyteller he related.  One of Donald’s strong points is working with actors, a skill he believes frequently gets him hired.  If he has a weakness it would be the camera, which is why he tries to hire the best cinematographers for his projects.  Having developed a solid reputation for working with his casts, Petrie explained that British actors are more theatrical, while Americans are more method oriented.  He feels one mistake young directors make is asking for results because by doing so “you’re not helping the actor get to that place. When I’m talking to the actor, I’m talking to the character.  I treat them almost like the character in the piece” he explained.  However, Petrie has also learned to direct actors when they won’t cooperate even if a story is scripted.  “It’s your job to come up with creative solutions to deal with impossibilities,” he said.

Donald also shared some of the ploys he used when starting out in the business.  He explained how he would find connections on television shows that he admired and contact them.  One he approached was Cagney and Lacey.  He set up an interview and pitched himself as an observer.   “Show them you know how to do what you are doing,” he recommended.  After that week’s shoot he would find the director of the following week’s show and ask to follow them through the whole process.  Petrie feels that communication is the key skill that students need to master, along with breaking down and prepping scenes and evaluating their choices for types of shots.  He emphasized finding the answer to the question why when making decisions.  “The answer’s got to be story,” he claimed. 

The director also shared a few networking tricks he learned while acting including asking other actors who their agents were and then phoning the next day and mentioning the actor to establish a connection.  He also recommended that when sending a letter while seeking work, be sure to write in the note that you’ll be following up with a call at a later date.  He stressed that in this industry you always have to keep your ears open and look for opportunities.  

Currently, Petrie has four films in development in Michigan, L.A., Ireland and England and hires on an assistant of his own for each project.  He demands that whomever he brings on board do what he did and he’ll tell them to, “Show me your staging.  Show me your shot list.”  He tends to select a recent film graduate who is a woman or minority and a local in the area where he’s shooting.   

All of this contributes to building success as a director.  “It’s your job to deliver, you deliver however you can,” Donald said. “Directors get typecast faster and more solidly than even actors do.”  It is because of this aspect of the business that he so carefully chose his first feature “Mystic Pizza”.  He’d been offered horror films prior to that, but turned them down preferring to wait. “I knew if I got pigeonholed doing “Mystic Pizza” I’d be fine,” he related because it had comedy and drama.  Another break came for him with “Miss Congeniality” when the director who was originally hired was fired weeks before the shoot.  Donald read various versions of the script and figured out why the other director’s vision hadn’t worked and did a major overhaul changing the feel of the film  explaining that “you can’t do a spoof on a joke.”  .   

Finishing up, Petrie spoke about the changes happening in Hollywood, perhaps one of the most important being that people wanting to work in the film industry don’t necessarily have to be located in L.A. like they used to be.  Citing Tyler Perry, who is based in Atlanta, as an example, Donald noted, “It’s a more diverse world.”

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