Takeaways from Producing an Indie Sensation: Six Lessons One Krisha Producer Learned

We’ve heard case after case of hungry independent filmmakers who shoot their first films on a shoestring budget, using their friends and family as resources for locations and, occasionally, for performances, wrapping production in a blip of an eye.

Here’s where Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha differs: The brilliantly executed family drama premiered at last year’s South by Southwest, where it took home both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards, played at Cannes, scored 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, won the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards, was picked up by A24 and landed Shults both a two-picture deal with the label and representation from WME. Not your average first-time indie feature.

So what’s the big deal? The film tells the story of a day in the life of Krisha, (Shults’ own aunt, Krisha Fairchild) who has been estranged from her family for years. She arrives at her sister’s house for Thanksgiving, trying to make up for lost time with a bevy of relatives who are as cautious of her as they are happy to see her again. Suffice it to say, this does not go very well for her. Most of the relatives are also played by Shults’ kin, including his mother, Robyn Fairchild, who plays the matriarch trying to keep the holiday together. Shults himself plays a key supporting role as Krisha’s nephew, named (you guessed it) Trey. Raw and emotional, the slight feature—just over 80 min—nevertheless packs a big punch, in no small part due to a startling performance from the magnificent Krisha Fairchild.

I talked with producer Wilson Smith about how the team raised their budget, got their film in the can over the course of just nine days and harnessed the power of the festival circuit. This being his first credit as a producer, Smith shares what he learned.

Trey Edward Shults (as Trey) with Krisha Fairchild (as Krisha) in Krisha

Trey Edward Shults (as Trey) with Krisha Fairchild (as Krisha) in Krisha

1. When raising your budget, showcase your strengths.

“[Raising our budget] was a combination of personal investment from friends and family members, as well as crowdfunding. We had a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of $10,000 and we eventually received around $14,000, so on those terms we were pretty successful. As far as challenges, I think initially it was just a matter of convincing people that we could make the movie we wanted to make with the resources we had available to us. I think sometimes people hear ‘I’m making a movie in my mom’s house with a bunch of friends and family members’ and sort of roll their eyes. But Trey had big ambitions for the film, so it was just a matter of conveying that to those who ended up contributing to the project.”

2. Take what you’ve learned from working smaller jobs on larger sets.

“It’s funny, looking back; it seems sort of crazy that we filmed the movie in nine days. But the actual shoot itself never felt rushed or overextended or anything like that. It was my first time as a feature producer—same for the other producers—and we’d all had experience on much bigger, professional film sets, so we mainly just tried to bring what we’d learned from those jobs about how to manage your time effectively (or how not to) and run a production.”

3. Surround yourself with the right people.

“Almost every day, once we’d gotten what we’d scheduled from the script that day, we would have time left over. So Trey and the actors could make up these short scenes on the spot and capture the spontaneous family interactions that take place throughout the film. The energy on set was so positive and infectious; it never felt like work, more like we were getting away with something. If there’s any ‘secret,’ it’s just finding people you love to be around and work with (who also happen to be insanely talented at what they do).”

Krisha (left) with members of her extended family at Thanksgiving

Krisha (left) with members of her extended family at Thanksgiving

4. Be prepared for post.

“In our case we really could have used a dedicated post-production coordinator. We just didn’t have the money for one. So the process of getting the film from rough cut to final cut, to the sound mixing to the coloring to a festival-ready DCP, was a bit more cumbersome and complicated than it probably could have been. I definitely have a better grasp now on how the entire process works, so even though it was difficult it was also somewhat helpful, I think.”

5. Don’t underestimate the power of the festival circuit.

You know, this film has no stars, isn’t a genre film, and is written and directed by a first-timer. It’s not the easiest sell in the world. Which is why it’s been so humbling and thrilling to see critics and audiences at these festivals showing it love and really sustaining the conversation and energy around the film. It’s really been overwhelming, and it’s because of those fest audiences and their embrace of Krisha that the film is getting an opportunity to find a larger audience.”

6. Try to enjoy it.

“I love movies, both watching and making them, and so it’s important that I derive some measure of satisfaction from my work. For such an intense finished product, the Krisha set was a terrifically fun place to be; we were all so thrilled to be there collaborating on something that we believed in. I think that made the movie better too; the spirit of creativity and collaboration on set was infectious.” MM

Krisha opens in theaters March 18, 2016, courtesy of A24.

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