Two virgins stand at the edge of a fiery volcano and say, “I think we can do this!” That’s the best way to describe making our first feature, Dust of War (DoW). Now, we should preface by saying we actually finished the film and nabbed U.S. and international distribution deals. Despite the cynical time-machine waxing about to ensue, we still went out and made a damn movie. And so should you.
Now let’s shake down a few Morlocks…
Write More, Better. The better your script, the better your film. Thus, the more likely you’ll succeed. With DoW, we cared less about theme and structure and more about paying homage, ranging from the overt (the Lando twist in Empire) to the obscure (character names from Alien: Resurrection). In the end, we were paying tribute to B-grade movies and that mentality drove us to undervalue the script. May we burn in the fire of a thousand suns.
Ambition Blinds. For a sub-$200K budget, DoW was a monster undertaking. Instead of jamming five actors into a warehouse with boarded windows, we wrote a movie with scope that employed five leads, seven supporting players, and 300 extras. On a micro-budget, that is tantamount to quality-control murder-suicide. The same story could have been told on a smaller, more financially manageable scale.
It’s a Business. Making movies is easy – that’s what your uncle Bob does with the camcorder. Making a sellable product that festivals and distributors will want to put in front of millions is a business. Run it like one. Remember, it takes one to two years to get a film to distribution. That’s 365 to 730 days. If your shoot lasts 30 days, that means production is only four to eight percent of the entire cycle time.
Making a film isn’t just production; it’s everything before and after as well.
Budget Like a Business. A business requires accounting, marketing, operations, human resources, legal, sales and more. Only budgeting for the actual “filmmaking” process means we were only budgeting for operations. Do you like analogies? We were a car maker and we made one car. But we couldn’t market it, sell it, or deliver it to customers.
Don’t Waste Time. If you don’t have money, you probably have time. Leverage it to reduce as many variables as possible. Are your cast and crew nailed down? Great! Now find backups! Perfect location? Awesome! Now find two more for when the first one floods/burns down/is stolen. Have your producers and department heads established good relationships? Have your director, DP and AD talked? Really talked? Do they know the script (roughly) like the back of their hands?
Pre-production is far too late to begin working on these things. We are indie. We pay with blood, sweat, and tears.
Don’t Chase Rabbits. There comes a point where filmmakers become obsessed with the wrong thing, especially in pre-production. Instead of meticulous planning, we were so driven to pay homage to a Friedkin-style car chase that we contacted Owen Roizman (the DP of The French Connection) to consult on the shoot. Roizman astutely responded: “Instead of trying to get me as a trophy figure on set, watch car chases, and prep.’ The obvious seemed less obvious at the time.
Many Hands Make the Work Terrible. The larger your crew, the more likely that 20 percent of your people will do 80 percent of the work. Every person you add to the crew means an extra mouth to feed, a hotel room, transportation, and added chaos. Keep your list lean by filling only absolutely necessary positions with solid performers after plenty of references and a great interview.
“Free” Isn’t Free. When you let people work on your film for nothing, they’ll (generally) earn every penny they’re paid. We won’t make people millionaires, but if someone’s worth having on our set, we’ll at least pay them for their transportation, hotel, food and a little extra for slaving it out over our film. Also note: PAs generally eat a lot of food and have poor motivation. #harshtruths
Respect the Craft(s). We took a very “fix-it-in-post” mentality to visual effects, which we still greatly regret. Knowing how to properly utilize a VFX supervisor on set could have opened up countless storytelling opportunities. Luckily, we found a wunderkind CG artist who did impeccable work. Ultimately, every indie filmmaker should experience the technical filmmaking process, top to bottom, because it’ll make him/her a stronger filmmaker.
Keep Going and Going. Good filmmaking means attention to detail. Attention to detail requires good energy. Energy is easy on Day 1. It sucks on Day 370 when your friends are asking you: “Weren’t you making that dusty war movie?” Keep that attention to detail all the way to the end and never compromise your vision for the comfort of being “done.”
Workflow waterfalls. Despite technology, the post-production workflow is still a labyrinthine process. Plan for a “Post Workflow Manager/Supervisor” and empower that person to oversee the physical film through all stages of edit, color, sound design, ADR, lab, and delivery. Losing track of footage or even entire cuts is the sort of amateur mistake that keeps you from being the filmmaker you should be.
Reshoot. Leave money for reshoots. During editing, we scraped together crumbs to retool some key inserts and totally changed the ending. We went from “lobster alien costume” to “badass spaceship.” Reshoots are friendly. Do them if you need it and can afford it.
Patience is a… Bitch. You made a film. You have a product. There are people who sell these products. They need your film. Remember, even during the long road to distribution, there is someone waiting on the other end to work with you to get it to the right audience. We found a distributor for Dust of War that worked out great. Even during the slowest, most doubtful moments of your film, realize that there is a distributor at the end of the tunnel.
Deliver Us From Evil. The deliverable process reaches beyond clicking export on Adobe Premiere. If you find a sales rep and break out territories, they will sell your film. To anyone. In nearly any format. The cuts you have on your hard drive and the Blu-rays you sent to festivals are useless. Somehow, they aren’t the format or ratio that a country will want them in, and you need to find a way to get them there. Try to get it in your contract that you will deliver a single master and it’s someone else’s responsibility to transfer to another medium.
We’ve made these mistakes so you don’t have to. Two virgins vaulting into the volcanic maw can be an indispensable experience certain film schools can’t provide. But it is also soul-sucking and financially rib-crushing work. Bottom line: Learn from your mistakes and make another film. With these mistakes made on DoW, we segue into our second feature, a coming-of-age drama called American Creatures set on the South Dakota plains. And I promise you, we won’t suck again. MM
Dust of War is currently available on major VOD platforms, including iTunes and Amazon. Look for it on DVD/BD/Netflix in 2015. Released by Freestyle Digital and VMI International.