After completing the short film Six Bullets and the feature film 355 for $20,000 and $35,000, respectively, I thought it was time for me to share some of the advice and lessons I’ve learned to help others. Here’s a list of dos and don’ts for making your own indie movie.
1. Write a realistic budget. Keep expenses under control from the start. Understand that you probably can’t pay anyone, and make sure that the people you’re working with understand that. Don’t trust anyone, especially your department heads, with a blank check. Offer them reimbursements on planned expenses with a receipt. Don’t forget to plan for the whole project, including advertising and DVD duplication costs as well as film festival submission fees, well ahead of time.
2. Beg, borrow and steal everything you can. If you’re working on your first film, pay attention to what you buy and what you rent. You are probably going to make mistakes and need to rent gear again. Don’t fall in love with the newest, flashiest gear—remember, a film is the story, not the technology. Network with other moviemakers in your area; you never know when your equipment might fail on a shooting day and your new acquaintance with a similar camera might be able to help you out.
3. Make commitments. Let the rest of the crew and cast see that you’re serious about finishing the project, even when it seems impossible. Know your limits but continue to push them. Taking on a challenge is a great way to build teamwork and find out who on your crew is capable of seeing things through to the end.
4. Get it done quickly. Take time to plan, but implement your plan quickly. The bulk of your free help will disappear after two or three months. Front-load your shooting schedule with any large-manpower shoots, because by the end your crew will be lean and mean. Once you’ve finished shooting, assemble the footage and then screen it for a group. Fix the problems and finish it. Editing is important, but will never turn lead into gold. Accept that.
5. Enjoy yourself. This is something you’re doing for the love of it. Let it show. Find out why other people are involved in your project and make it more enjoyable for them. Document your work with journals and photographs. The finished product could never possibly represent all the things that were left, lost, forgotten or edited out along the way.
1. Make promises. Notice, these are different than commitments. At the outset, it’s easy to promise free DVDs, T-shirts, craft service and various other stuff, but remember, that stuff all comes out of the same budget. Giving away 100 DVDs might not be an expense you can afford after finishing your project. Don’t make too many promises on the nature of the finished product, either. You’re going to miss that flexibility in the editing room.
2. Mortgage the house. Taking risks is inherent in indie moviemaking and financial failure isn’t just possible, it’s likely. Sure, you might be working on the next Blair Witch Project, but realistically, you’ll be lucky to get into a single major festival. Even if you do, only a small number of the films screened there will get offers. Spend less than you can afford to lose, and if you’re spending someone else’s money, continue to reassure them that they will probably never see it again.
3. Do it yourself. The benefits of help are immeasurable. You don’t have to do all the crummy work yourself, you can learn from the talents of others and nobody cares about the movie you made by yourself in your basement anyway. Your most valuable asset is your network. Get them to hold mics or work as extras and suddenly it’s their movie, too.
4. Overhype everything. Most actors will know when you’re full of it. Three lines does not a lead make. You know it. They know it. Just be honest about what they can expect, and be sure to let them know if this is your first film. If your cast starts getting starry-eyed, it’s time to knock them down a notch and get back to work. If they quit because they didn’t get a huge part, they weren’t right for your movie anyway. I promise.
5. Please everybody. You’re going to be accountable if the movie sucks. Give everyone half of what they want and you’ll make a movie nobody wants to watch. But if you keep it your own, at least one person will like it. And remember, if the people working on your project really knew what they were doing, they would be the ones directing you.
Jon Kline is an independent moviemaker and cinematographer from Wisconsin. His ultra-low budget film credits include producer-cinematographer for Six Bullets and “355”, visual effects supervisor for The City is Mine, and digital color grader for The Tailor. Six Bullets inspired this article and went on to win Best Horror Film from the Trail Dance Film Festival and Best Action/Adventure Film from the Dusk ‘Till Dawn Film Festival.