We had the good fortune of connecting with Mikhail Saburov and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Mikhail, what habits do you feel play an important role in your life?
I truly believe every single person has that one special story. Something so personal and true that only they can tell — and they go around for years and years mulling that story in their heads, some even try to write it. And I don’t doubt that special idea would make an amazing film. But what would you do after you’ve told that story? It’s astonishing how many filmmakers make a first feature and how few of them get to their second. I always had one dream – to be a professional writer & director, and that means constantly creating content. And as I see it there’s one key ingredient and it’s not talent — it’s discipline. For me writing & directing is a nine-to-five job, so it’s all about scheduling. I believe planning is one of the most important professional habits there is especially when you approach it in three ways: short-term, mid-term and long-term. While I was at AFI one of our professors told us to treat directing as a business — and each business needs a business plan. I wholeheartedly agree with that idea. So one thing I found useful is to make a five-year plan that would create a definitive strategy. That way I never really feel lost – I know exactly how many projects I need to write, develop and direct. Of course, life intervenes — we get and lose opportunities, and the world isn’t as stable as we think (take COVID for example) — that’s where mid-term and short-term planning comes in. Besides a five-year plan that gives me certain milestones and strategies, mid-term takes care of 6 months to a year. That is much more manageable and I can go in bigger detail and be able to react to the changes. And finally, maybe the most important — short-term. Every Friday I sit down and schedule the week ahead: hour by hour. My rule of thumb is that my week has to have these elements: work (writing or directing), education, networking, self-promotion, financials and personal (exercising, time off etc). Not all weeks are made equal but the secret for me is to make sure to dedicate time to all these 6 elements — even if it’s just a few hours each, because it’s the habit that matters. It’s the habit of working, improving and analyzing material everyday that actually makes you succeed. That brings me to my last habit — analyzing everything and never taking any information for granted. Why a certain shot works, why does a certain film? What is it about the script that made this film stand out? For couple months now, I’ve been breaking down PTA’s “There Will be Blood” frame by frame — and that research alone had given me a text-book worth of insight. There’s a certain aura around filmmaking which makes it mystical and elitist. Something you either have or not. I always thought it’s just a convenient way to protect yourself. No doubt, sometimes there’s pure genius, but for 99% of people working in the industry that’s not the case. Filmmaking can be learned — it just takes a lot of time, dedication and discipline.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
There are people who have profound natural understanding of the medium. I’m not one of them. All the progress I achieved in my writing and directing crafts was not due to instincts, but hard work. I was always there for every class and workshop at AFI while, on my own time, breaking down films frame by frame to analyze how they function both visually and on script level. I would have extensive notes to a point that I started compiling my own textbook both for myself and in hopes to teach filmmaking someday. If I have a natural talent for anything it’s an ability to learn and analyze information. I’m a very quick learner and I’m really good at noticing causal relationships — that’s how I learned filmmaking. That’s why when I work with others I try to give them as much freedom as possible and never say no to anything until I’ve given an idea a thorough consideration. I’m a true believer that professionalism beats talent in the long run and I hope to make myself an example of that.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I’m a big foodie, and, luckily, many of my friends are too! I would definitely give them a solid tour of LA starting with some fresh oysters at Sunday Hollywood market, getting some ramen in Little Tokyo for lunch and finishing off with a nice cocktail at one of the rooftop bars. Not too easy to do during COVID, but, let’s hope, it’s not here to stay forever. I would also definitely recommend driving to the beach. Especially one of those days when LA gets a little too much. Nothing freshens up the mind as much as the ocean does.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My wife Anastasia. She is the most dedicated, courageous and smart person I know. It’s her support, belief and honesty that got me to the next level and keep me constantly improving. Tell you what — I’ve never received harsher notes on my work than from her! There can be a lot of politics and sugarcoating in Hollywood that is very easy to fall into. Luckily, I got someone who can always set me straight. I’m also very grateful to my parents and my sister. When you have your family behind you — everything is possible.