Making an independent feature film is hard. Making an independent feature film with no money is especially hard. Making an independent feature film with no money, no actors, and a first-time director and crew is almost impossible. It is also the greatest, most liberating thing and you can and should totally do it.
Here’s some advice on surviving that paradox – 10 tips I learned while producing my first feature film, James Sizemore’s The Demon’s Rook.
1. Quit your job.
It seems impossible, but it’s not. You probably hate your job anyway, so just go ahead and kill the vampire. If this is what you want to do, you’ll find a way to make it work.
I was working a cushy, but ultimately dead-end, job at a law firm. I was comfortable. I convinced myself that I could maintain my job and shoot the movie on weekends—the best of both worlds. I ended up half-assing two things instead of whole-assing one thing for longer than I should have. After some soul searching and a near-death experience in Africa (another story altogether), I came to the same realization that you probably have, too: If your passion and your vocation are not compatible, one has to go.
There’s something admirable about someone who fits their passion in on the weekends (we shot almost two-thirds of Demon’s Rook like this, with a crew of 9-to-5ers), but if you really want to make movies, go full-time and watch your projects take off. Freelance to make ends meet. Move back home if that’s a possibility. Whatever it takes. If you’re not ready to quit your day job, you probably aren’t ready to make a movie. That said, if quitting your job is not a possibility (I understand that there are extenuating circumstances, and not everyone has the option to adjust their income in such a dramatic way), you can still shoot a movie on the weekends. But it’s not going to be good as if you’d gone full time. I don’t think there are any exceptions to this.
2. Don’t let your ambition become too big for your reality.
This is one that we struggled with, especially as first-time filmmakers. A certain amount of naïveté can be charming, but it can be easy to find yourself in over your head if you’re trying to make a practical space epic for $25k. When we shot Demon’s Rook, the script called for a ton of exterior nighttime scenes with back-lit fog, gore gags that could only be shot from certain angles, and entire armies of the undead stomping through the forest. Going into pre-production, we never reconsidered the screenplay in light of the locked (and particularly modest) budget. We charged ahead as written.
While there’s something to be admired in this approach, it’s better to have the basics nailed down and build a story to fit within that framework. In some aspects, our uncompromised script worked to our benefit. It lends a particular manic charm to what I believe would have come off as flat if we had toned down the script. On the other hand, our refusal to compromise the screenplay meant sometimes skimping on fundamentals. Some of those epic outdoor lighting scenarios and abandoned house locations came at the cost of production sound as we had to run loud consumer generators in order to power the lights and foggers. In some instances, this was unavoidable—even justified—but looking back, I wish we’d placed more of an emphasis on location sound, because we ended up having to do automated dialogue replacement (ADR) for the entire film, which cost a ton of time and effort in post-production. Don’t let your ambitious vision come at the cost of the basics.
3. Love the doing.
The magic of the process is wasted on people who have tunnel vision for a finished product. Be present in every aspect of filmmaking and observe the way all of these wildly varying elements come together to form a complete motion picture. Once you stop trying to control a movie and instead try to ride it, your work will become more authentic. It’s an organic process, after all; no need to put it in a cage.
It’s remarkable how much of the filmmaking process has nothing to do with filmmaking itself. To me, making a movie is putting on layers of winter clothing on a sweltering July night so you can defeat the army of hornets that have set up camp in your Hellportal set. Moviemaking is your entire crew getting sick for a week after cleaning up an abandoned house covered in garbage, homemade sex toys and used needles so you don’t have to pay for a location. Moviemaking is going insane over an Excel spreadsheet because weather pushed a shoot back and now you have to somehow figure out a way to make your week.
On a low-budget set, you will have to wear a million hats. If you didn’t go to film school (I didn’t), this is it. This is your chance to learn every aspect of the process of making a feature film, because you have to do it yourself. We had a five-man crew on Demon’s Rook. We didn’t have the luxury of labor distribution. James was the director, producer, co-writer, star, make-up artist, and effects supervisor, while I was the producer, AD, DP, editor, and scenic artist among other things. We were both grips, gaffers, builders, painters, coordinators, line producers, PAs, and everything in between. It’s a tremendous undertaking, but learning the intricacies of each position will help you know how to govern them properly as you move up the ladder and can afford to pay people to fill these roles.
4. Put your work out there, early and often.
The only way the right people can see it is if it’s out there for them to see. Especially in genre film, there’s a tremendous community and network of online and print publications who are thirsty for content. That’s where you come in. Don’t think of these people as royal tastemakers picking from an abundance of content; they’re regular dudes looking for constant content. Cut a trailer with your production footage and get it online. Get in touch with these people (every website has a “contact” link) and send them your shit. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship and the worst they can do is ignore you, so there’s no reason to sit on your footage. Because we had a trailer premiere on Fangoria and Bloody Disgusting early on in the process, we were able to hook up with our executive producers, and that’s when our film found its legs. Even if it’s just a proof of concept, shoot it, upload it, promote it, and watch doors open for you.
5. Be technical.
I’m not quite there yet and perhaps never will be, but it seems clear that in order to be an effective filmmaker you should be technically savvy, as well as creative. You should understand how cameras work; know the relationship between shutter speed/angle and how aperture and ISO/ASA affect the image. Learn how different kinds of light work and how to cut it and shape them. Have a basic working knowledge of audio production and the equipment involved. And know that you will never stop learning because the industry and technology are constantly evolving and progressing. It’s your responsibility as a filmmaker to keep up and absorb as much as you can.
6. But don’t get too hung up on technology.
This may seem at odds with the previous tip, but they’re two completely different things. A ton of people on the indie scene get caught up in camera gear and tech specs and pixels and codecs. While this can be important information, it can also be a never-ending suck-hole. Keep in mind the old axiom “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” because it’s the truth. If you keep waiting for that next great camera to come out, your production will never get off the ground. Tech-fetishization will corrupt your work output and stifle your creativity. Find a camera that works, invest in decent lights and start shooting. You don’t need toys to tell your story. You need basic equipment, a working technical knowledge, and work ethic that borders on obsessive.
7. Back it up.
If you got one, you got none. This goes for cameras, shot lists, schedules, footage… even actors. Expect everything to go wrong and plan for it as much as you can. Create contingencies and backup plans for your shooting schedule so that a rainstorm or a sick actor doesn’t make you miss your day. If you’re shooting a no-budget indie feature, chances are it isn’t on an ALEXA, but rather a prosumer DSLR or something comparable. Factor in the cost for at least two—stuff will break, but don’t let it ruin a shoot day. Not to mention the fact that an extra camera can really help speed up a day (being able to cover a mid- and a close-up in the same take can be a godsend). We shot The Demon’s Rook on hacked Panasonic GH2s, and because of the low cost of acquisition, were able to afford three for our production (an A cam, a B cam, and a backup). The backup also came in handy for one-off special effect gags that required multiple angles in the edit, and when one of the cameras required service midway through production, we didn’t miss a beat because we had two others ready to go.
8. Feed your crew.
Very few microbudgets allow first-time filmmakers to pay their crew. You’re probably calling in a ton of favors and putting your friends through situations that you wouldn’t put your worst enemy through (sorry, Max). This is normal. However, you must feed your crew. Want to know how to suck all the motivation out of someone? Don’t pay them and starve them. Watch the work ethic wither up and die, and try to convince yourself that your film won’t suffer as a result.
9. Go a little crazy.
I think James and I were both legally insane for most of the production of The Demon’s Rook and there are definitely some lingering effects (we start filming our next feature, Bad Blood, in October). 20-plus-hour days and 100-plus-hour weeks will wear on you, and reality can become slippery during production. Embrace it. Allow yourself to go a little crazy. After all, you’re fucking nuts for trying to make a feature film in the first place. James probably took years off his life inhaling all types of toxic fumes in his effects studio, but somewhere along the line he became a machine, and machines don’t worry about that stuff. The insanity of film production is one of its greatest gifts and if you can channel the manic, obsessive, creative, anxious energy that comes with it, you can make yourself unstoppable.
10. Learning never stops.
Even after you have a first feature under your belt, each project after will present a unique set of challenges and situations. All we can do is absorb it, grow, and carry these lessons with us into the next project. MM
The Demon’s Rook is available on VOD on September 30, 2014. Stills courtesy of Tribeca Film.
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