5. A Tether
On my own first film as a director, The World Is Full of Secrets, I functioned as my own producer. I thought, having produced films for several other directors, it would be easier to handle producing myself than to outsource. I was gravely mistaken, and left wandering in the wilderness, at the mercy of whatever wild animals might cross my path due to this decision. Organizationally, I was forced to hold the contradictory goals of the director and producer outlined above in my head at all times. In post-production, I was agonized over how to complete the project. A director without a producer is more alone than necessary, more estranged from reality. If you foolishly choose to produce your own film alone, as I did, know that you’ll be constantly required to split your brain into two.
6. A Guardian
There is one principle thing in cinema which must outweigh everything else: the idea. If you do not have an idea, then all of the rest—the cast, the crew, the equipment, the financing, the distribution, the critical reception—doesn’t matter at all. Treat the idea like a small child; keep it clothed, warm and fed, regardless of the circumstances.
A good script can overcome a weak production or lack of financing, but all of the resources in the world cannot elevate a bad concept. A good script is surprisingly malleable; if you keep focused on the core elements, the particulars can be quite elastic. On a high-budget film, it is possible to form the production around the script: locations can be obtained or constructed, complex camera movements or special effects can be executed. That’s why you have all that money. For a low-budget production, with a good script, the opposite is necessary: take the amount of money you have (this amount can be anything: $250, $2,500, $25,000, etc.) and seek out how to shape the script to correspond to the available resources. Perhaps you can drop locations; perhaps you can imply what you used to show; perhaps you can condense and compress characters and events. The independent producer must be aesthetically minded, and creativity comes into play here: the ability to look at a scene and understand both what it should cost and what it could cost… and then to contemplate how to make it cost even less. If the original idea is not preserved (or meaningfully transformed) in this process, the results will be disastrous. But, if you can find a way to do with $25 what you should do with $2,500, it can be sublime.
7. A Naysayer
Your script won’t get better during production. If the script isn’t working yet, you are not ready to shoot. Unless you are in the enviable position of having money that must be spent by a certain date, consider where you are at in the writing process before jumping into the production process. A good producer won’t be afraid to tell a writer/director that the script isn’t ready yet, or that a particular casting decision is problematic, or that it’s a horrific mistake to try to use music you can- not afford to license. You’ll sometimes find those you are working with are overeager and optimistic; that’s their privilege, but not yours. You’ve got to be pessimistic and never forget that Murphy’s Law is true.
Also read: Never Rarely Sometimes Always Director Eliza Hittman and First Cow Director Kelly Reichardt in Conversation
That being said: This is not a commercial endeavor. If you are thinking of it as one, I would urge you to stop. Your picture will almost definitely lose money, so presumably you are doing it for other reasons. Those reasons can, and should, dictate how you proceed (with or without a script, or in any other way imaginable). Resist the temptation to imitate commercial productions—most books you’ll read or interviews you’ll watch will be about that kind of filmmaking. If you have less than seven figures in your budget, you are probably not doing that kind of filmmaking.
8. An Accountant
What should be learned from commercial filmmaking: pay extremely close attention to every dollar spent. If they are your dollars, this is usually quite easy; if they are someone else’s dollars, just pretend that every time you swipe the card, it is coming straight out of your bank account. Some things will cost what feels like a monstrous amount of money but are unavoidable. But there are lots of little places you can save money, and if you pay attention to them, you can cover those unavoidable costs. Don’t give up control over the finances, because you’ll find yourself bleeding valuable capital—I’ve had P.A.s buy packs of bottled water for $8.99 at a bodega when they could have been bought for $3.99 at a supermarket. That may seem like a silly thing to worry about, but if you don’t keep track of the small expenditures, you’ll end up empty when you really need the extra dough for a day of re-shoots or an extra hour of color grading. Every dollar you don’t spend on this production can be spent on the next one, and if you go too deep into debt, this is probably your last production.
9. A Balancer
The cinematographer almost definitely doesn’t need all the gear they are requesting, but if you don’t put your foot down about it they’ll take as much as they can get. If you cannot afford $800 to buy a potted tree for one shot, you have to be very explicit with your production designer on this issue. No (sane) person particularly likes keeping track of money, and you’ll be amazed how quickly others “forget” how much they have budgeted to spend. That being said, you’ll have to find balance. Don’t penny-pinch where it matters. If your cinematographer tells you he or she really, truly, desperately needs a second A.C. for one day—believe it. If the production designer is telling you that this lamp is going to be worth $50—believe it. If you don’t have the money and your team can make a good case, it’s your job to rearrange the budget and schedule to make what they need possible. Trust begets trust: If the crew can tell you are paying attention, they are much more likely to ask for what they need, not just what would be nice. A side note: Never, ever, ever cheap out on sound. The streets are littered with the corpses of well-meaning films with terrible audio.
Continue reading for more of Graham Swon answering to the question, “What does a movie producer do?” and his advice for movie producers.