All Crewed Up: Tips on Assembling Your Best Indie Crew

Assembling a ragtag group of brilliant, fired-up comrades and convincing them to work wonders for embarrassingly low pay—that’s kind of what independent moviemaking is all about, isn’t it?

At its heart, your job as an indie director-producer is about constantly persuading someone to do something. Here’s how you build an indie crew.

Finding Professional Candidates

First, look carefully at what kind of project you are doing. Is it a genre film (horror, noir, comedy, etc.)? Or is it an art film that falls between the genre cracks?

Second, look at similar projects made in your city, and see what crew members worked on them, especially in areas of each film in which you really liked the work done (photography, lighting, design, wardrobe, music, etc.) Make a list of all the crew members and department heads who did that work that you really loved. It is not always necessary that their work be in the same genre as yours, despite “genre typecasting” being so prevalent in the Hollywood system.

Track these crew people down through any means necessary: IMDb, social media, what have you. This is very easy to do these days—it used to not be so easy 20 years ago, but we live in a golden age of connectivity.

Finally, meet with each of the department heads you have been able to find from your master list. If possible, discuss the script before giving it to the potential crew member. Check out his or her creative ideas and personality. See if they have any references you can follow up on (and then do so). You should be very up-front about how much money you have, and the kind of time commitment you expect. If you feel there is a real possibility of a good fit, then give the candidate your script.

If he or she responds to the script, have a second meeting, going into more detail about the script and your vision for the project. Listen carefully again to the candidate’s ideas for the project, both before you have described your vision and after you have described your vision. (The before part is important, because if what he or she says is exactly what you had in mind, bingo.) It is important for you to ask very specific questions and see how they are answered. Ask lots of questions that you already know the answer to. A good department head will ask you specific questions as well, so be prepared to answer.

However, it is also important to encourage creativity in your team members from the get-go—they are not your robot slaves, they are moviemakers as well, so you have to be really sensitive to this aspect of the relationship. No one wants to work with a dictator (unless there is lots of money being exchanged, which, let’s face it, there probably isn’t).

Exploiting Film Students

If you are in a city with a university or a college that has a film school, that is also a great resource for finding crew. You can call and speak with the head of the film school and describe your project and what you are looking for in terms of personnel. It is also good to meet with specific professors. When I was teaching at USC’s graduate film school, Mark Harris, the dean, would frequently call me about a producer or director who was looking for a good DP, editor, etc. He would ask me which of my students I thought was ready.

The pros of working with students, besides the fact that they’re looking for experience over pay, is that they will have lots of time. This is very important, especially when it comes to prep. Personally, I like to shoot hours and hours of test footage with my camera team—we test cameras, lenses, lights, recording equipment, etc. On my two recent films I spent hundreds of hours on tests, including editing tests. My DP was a working DP, so we’d have to schedule all this around his work, but the weekends and nights we put in were always well worth it. Students will likely be able to give you this kind of time.

When I was teaching at USC, I would ask each student, “What exactly do you want to do?” Without fail, 100 percent of them would say, “Direct.” (It was my goal to, by the end of the year, radically change that. I wanted some of them to discover that they loved specific areas like photography, design or editing.) So, if you do go after students, try and find a student who has decided to specialize in a department, rather than someone who just wants to direct.

Picking Up Randoms on the Internet

Can hiring strangers off the Internet go wrong? Definitely. But by taking common-sense precautions, and a bit of a leap of faith, it can often go very right. On my latest film, The Key, I needed an aging effect on David Arquette. We didn’t have the means to do this. I found a visual example of what I wanted on the Internet, but that artist, who was in Europe, had disappeared. My editor and visual effects supervisor, Scott Roon, suggested we post on Craigslist to see if we could find someone who specialized in doing just this—aging a person’s face.

Within days, we found someone to do the effect, worked out a deal (I think we paid him $250 for all rights), and it was done. We never even had to meet—we looked at samples of his work that were applicable to what we wanted, worked out a deal, sent him the footage via Dropbox or Google Drive, and received the finished footage back.

I also wanted to use time-lapse photography of star showers. We Googled and Googled until we zeroed in on an Australia guy whose stuff we liked. We cut a deal with him for some of his footage and it worked out really well.

BUILDING INDIE CREW The Key 20

Bai Ling stars in Jefery Levy’s The Key

The Balancing Act

When you are first looking for the ideal mix of collaborators, you need balance in three major factors. These are:

  1. Talent: Do you think this person is a genius, extremely talented, moderately talented, or a beginner with lots of potential?
  2. Passion: Is this person not just passionate about film in general, but about your project in particular, and also about working with you?
  3. Personality: Is this a person you want to spend huge amounts of time with, and, more importantly, is this a person you want to be with in situations of extreme pressure and duress?

Ideally, of course, a person will have talent, passion, and a great personality—you cannot beat that. But sometimes it is worth settling for extreme passion, even if the talent department still needs development. Same goes for personality: There are certain departments in which a great personality is really important, and vice versa. For example, I don’t really care about an editor’s personality as much as I do the assistant director, because editing is a much less social job.

Sometimes, you can identify a candidate as a “frustrated director.” This is a person who really wants to direct, and is not purely interested in being a DP or a production designer or an editor. My advice? Stay away from working with people like this. When I taught a master directing class at the AFI Conservatory, the directors would be forced to work with a producer from the producers’ class. More often than not, this would not work out, simply because the producer really wanted to be the director—there was tremendous fighting, set and editing room lockouts included.

So, depending on the department and the dynamics of the other crew members, massage the equation to get the right balance of talent and experience, passion and personality in your crew.

Convincing Someone to Collaborate With You

You’ve fallen in love with a candidate. What do you say to a potential department head to convince him or her to take on your project? Well, it depends; you’ve got to learn to read people. What will this particular person respond to? Passion? Talent? Organization? Preparation? An insanely creative and original vision? A combination of all of these things? Some people only care about one thing: money. And you may find you want to fork that money out to have an amazing director of photography.

When I was really young, my writing partner and I landed a deal to write, direct and produce a low-budget horror comedy, Ghoulies. He would direct and I produce. We agreed to make the film for zero salary—instead we would just receive “points.” Because this was the director’s first film, the studio hired a well-known director of photography and paid him $10,000 a week. (The budget of the entire film was only $500,000—but this was in 1983). That was money well spent by the company—they knew that even if the director didn’t know what he was doing, at least there was a very experienced DP who would take control.

Once you find that ideal collaborator—which can take years—stick with him or her. This goes for both behind and in front of the camera. Welles, Bergman, Scorsese, Cassavetes, the great original indie filmmaker Joseph Lewis, even big-budget people like Spielberg, Bay, Fincher, etc—they’ve all worked with the same team, time and time again. You should, too. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2016.

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