Notes from Movieland: How Not To Make a Movie in 17 Steps


1. Don’t start shooting until you have SOME money in the bank. But if you do, make sure nobody in your cast or crew seriously expects to be paid. And beg your mom to cater for free.

2. Don’t believe the first investor who swoons over your script and says he wants to fund it. Don’t believe the second investor who swoons over your script…. or the third one who swoons… or the fourth…. or the fifth… But if you do get to the point where you’ve drawn up an actual bona fide contract, don’t spend the money until the said investor has signed the said contract and the said money is in the said bank. And even then, wait 10 days in case the check bounces.

Note: Technically, I didn’t have investors until post-production. Production was fueled by family and friends and me and my picayune credit cards… I do not recommend this approach.

3. Don’t choose a location that is situated 15 feet from an industrial size air-conditioner. But if you do, make sure it doesn’t kick on and off at unpredictable intervals 24 hours a day. And if it happens to be an artist’s loft, make sure it’s not surrounded by furniture designers and sculptors who use heavy machinery such as buzz saws and metal hammers. And if it is, verify that you have expensive imported beer to offer the “artists” if they won’t accept the $50 bribes you tried to stuff down their throats to get them to shut the fuck up while you get your last friggin’ shot in.

Note: We shot in an isolated downtown loft beside a produce packing factory. Even with our sound buffers, the air-conditioning unit 15 feet away from us made an immense gurgling sound. We had to cut every time it rumbled. Sometimes, due to time limitations, we just plowed right through. Our misguided mantra became “we’ll fix it in post.”

4. Don’t skimp on sound production. And just because you don’t have money for sound (because you don’t have money for anything), don’t hire mixers who don’t get the difference between PAL and NTSC. But if you do, make sure you “fix it in post.”

5. Don’t ever assume you can fix it in post.

6. Don’t tap into a building’s electrical system illegally to run your lights. And if you do and the entire building’s power is mysteriously cut off, make sure your ex-husband is an electrician and can zip over to rescue you (and your production).

7. Don’t cast your friends. But if you do, make sure they are more talented than ANY stranger you could cast. And if you have to cast your inexperienced friends due to the fact that you have no money and there aren’t any other actors within a 60 mile radius, then make sure you have lots of rehearsal time with them. LOTS.

Note: I was lucky. Two of my close friends, Irina Björklund and Peter Franzén, happened to be renowned, award-winning actors in Finland. They live in L.A. and I’m half Finnish, thus the connection. I gave them the lead roles. I cast two more actors from my network of uber-talented thespians: Carey DiPietro and Terry Tocantins. The only role I couldn’t cast from my circle was the third lead.

8. Don’t wait until a week before your shoot date to cast a main role. But if you do, make sure that the actor you finally cast is so exceptional that your co-producers forgive you for the excruciating bouts of high anxiety your seeming indecision had cost them.

INT. PRODUCTION OFFICE – DAY

One week before shoot date and Anne had not chosen her third lead, “Julie Belle.” Her team’s yelling at her:

TEAM
Just fucking pick one, would you?!

They seemed to believe that any one of the handful of relatively talented young actresses they’d found would do a fine job. Anne knew better:

ANNE
I will not stop until I find THE “Julie Belle” so help me
Cinema Goddess!

Anne knew that despite the month of auditions and oodles of actresses vying to play Julie, she hadn’t found THE ONE. Yet. How did she know? INTUITION. And she had pretty damned good intuition (except for the time she chose that evil boyfriend who temporarily fucked up her life. But nobody’s perfect…)

Eliza Pryor Nagel walked in the audition room door and spoke the first line of dialogue and:

ANNE
That’s HER! That’s Julie! We’re done!

All’s well that ends well. Her production team forgave her. Eliza Pryor Nagel turned out to be well worth the wait. And production began on time.

THE END

9. Don’t shoot a 2 ½ hour movie if you plan on making a 1 ½ hour movie. But if you do, make sure you have a kick-ass editor! Better yet, trim the script BEFORE you shoot.

Note: In my humble opinion, most modern films (that aren’t historical epics populated by 28 main characters and spanning three decades) should not be much more than 1 ½ hours long. If you’re lucky, as I was, your editor will ruthlessly hack the superfluous hour off without regard to your attachment to every word, scene, moment therein.

10. Don’t write any on-screen blood extraction with hypodermic needles. But if you do, make sure your co-producer’s mom is a phlebotomist.

Note: My co-producer, Jodi Macaulay’s mom happened to be a phlebotomist and supervised the blood extraction scene. The main character’s arm and stream of blood you see in the scene actually belong to Irina Björklund. After about three takes (what a trooper!), Irina had too many puncture marks on her arm. We needed a stand-in. I volunteered, but due to my overwhelming nausea at the sight of the needle, Jodi sacrificed her arm instead. All in the name of art.

11. Don’t wait two years to do your re-shoots. Unless you have no choice. And if you do, make sure your actors haven’t gained weight, lost weight, cut their hair, grown their hair, changed their hair color, been impregnated or aged two years.

Note: I wrote and shot six new scenes two years after our first production period. And, yes, our actors had all transformed, changed shape, hair styles and one was pregnant, etc. We used cheap wigs, strategic camouflage clothing and clever angles to deceive the viewer. And, luckily, they are deceived. Every time.

12. Don’t wait until post to raise the $50,000 you need to pay for post. Unless you have to.

13. Don’t hire an editor with no experience to cut your first born, even if you can’t afford a better one. And if you do, don’t hesitate to fire him if he can’t deliver. And when “hiring” the next one, make sure they don’t have even less experience than the first one. But if you do, and they aren’t fulfilling your vision, go ahead and fire him/her too. And keep going until you get it right, even if it does make you look like an idiot for a while.

Note: After whizzing through three editors, I landed on magic number four—Craig Nisker, editor extraordinaire—and was vaulted to a brilliant final cut (heads and tails beyond any other cut I’d been offered.) During my collaboration with Craig, I fell in love with my movie and gained the confidence to make the long, long trek toward distribution.

14. Don’t get too attached to temp music. You’ll drive your composer crazy. And your editor. And your distributor.

15. Don’t ask a composer to write music for your movie before it’s shot. And if you do and you don’t like the music and you end up using another composer, try to stay friends.

Note: I asked my final composer and dear friend, Peter Fox, to collaborate with our lead actress, Irina, whom I knew to be a talented singer/songwriter. Their soundtrack is phenomenal. Subsequently, they formed a band—Vintage Espresso—and have produced two CDs and play regularly at the Hotel Café as well as touring through Finland.

16. Don’t stop with your editing process until you’re really and truly done and have the absolute best cut you could possibly have. But if you do, don’t send that rough cut to ANY festivals no matter how “important” that deadline seems to you.

Note: I sent out a rough to a few big festivals. Bad choice. I stopped and waited till we were done. Craig and I had four test screenings (my production assistant, Tom Etlinger, let us use the screening room in his Oakwood apartment complex—THANKS TOM!!!) We culled every ounce of value from the audience questionnaires and tweaked the film until it came out smelling like a rose. Our final audience loved every aspect of it and wasn’t confused or annoyed by any character or storyline. Mostly, we wanted to make sure they weren’t distracted from the story by any unclear motivations or story points.

17. Don’t wait until you go to film school to make a movie.

Note: I didn’t go to film school. I had a burning desire to make films. And a willingness to learn from doing. Volunteering on others’ film sets—student films, indie films, commercials, etc.—gave me the basic training I needed. Reading about moviemaking, watching films and making shorts taught me the rest. Writing numerous scripts—and getting feedback and organizing endless readings to hear my own words—was probably the most valuable phase of my education. There are many roads to take. And they all lead to different places, different visions, different films. Thank the universe. ‘Cause life would be dull indeed if we all made Citizen Kane over and over and over.

Regardless of the bumps along the road, Red is the Color Of, my debut feature film, was picked up by a distributor at the La Femme Film Festival where it won the Best Feature Film award and is now available on Netflix and Amazon.com!

Peace,

Anne Norda is an award-winning artist, writer, director and producer with one feature, Red Is the Color Of (Best Feature Film, 2007 LA Femme Film Festival), under her belt. She was born in North Hollywood, schooled at the Parsons School of Design and was a Fulbright Scholar in photography. She’s a Finnish and U.S. citizen and has lived in Paris, Helsinki, LA, NY and Bangkok. Her dream is to run a major movie studio. Or be a Pulitzer prize-winning poet and dedicate her life to art and the transformation of humanity. Whichever may come first.

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