In the world of independent filmmaking, it’s easy to assume that more money can make any problem go away. But most filmmakers–independent or mainstream—will readily admit that nothing derails a project faster than being unprepared before the production begins.
It’s tempting to think that the $20,000 budget that you’ve scraped together through loans, personal savings and credit cards—and possibly an illegal act here or there—will trump readiness. It’s not true. So many films don’t get made because of poor planning, or just assuming that you can make it up as you go. Granted, it’s much easier to shoot now with digital as opposed to film, but it should be fairly obvious that you can’t just turn on the camera and film until the battery dies. Because the work that you’ve put in during pre-production will help in post, when you’re editing, looping sound, or trying to figure out how the boom ended up in all of those shots.
Who’s Working on Your Film?
Are they dependable? Fellow film students are one thing, but if you’ve got money in a production, you’re going to need to have a reliable crew, a crew schedule, and stick to it. And your shooting script and shot sheet should be accurate and up to date and readily available to those who need it. It’s also wise to have people that you can collaborate with and who will give you an honest opinion. Many independent filmmakers have a singular vision when they’re writing and getting ready to shoot their movie and they may not readily accept different ideas.
Things change, of course, but being as professional as possible will make things go much more smoothly. And if you’re not paying the cast and crew, it’s still a cardinal rule to feed everybody.
One thing that Josh Banville, who completed the documentary “A Life Taken,” found out was to only include the names of people who actually participated on his film. In an effort to make his film seem less like a one man production (which it was), Banville gave his father (who did loan him money for a computer) credit as a producer. The film told the story of how a Boston man was wrongfully convicted of murder and sent to prison, and eventually the city subpoenaed Banville’s rough cut and hard drives because Shawn Drumgold, the subject of the documentary, filed a lawsuit. They also served a subpoena to his father.
“I had to explain to them that he was in fact not a producer,” Banville said.
A lot of independent films suffer because they look like independent films. They use limited locations, and the ones they use always somehow end up being familiar looking apartments or abandoned industrial sites. Guerilla filmmaking can be fun and interesting– provided that’s the look you’re going for. But you might not want to put that cop that happens to be chasing you in your movie, just because he wound up in the frame.
Rocky Yost, a longtime independent filmmaker, has gotten the most out of limited funds while using multiple locations.
“So many low budget films, are 80%, 90% three rooms,” he said. “If you go out every once in a while and get an exterior…Everybody asked me, ‘how in the hell did you do all that (have multiple locations, and a courthouse for the climactic scene of his film, “Lilly’s Thorn,”) and what did it cost you?’ I made a $200 donation to the courthouse.” The key is, if you have a serious production, many cities or towns will work with you. Contact your state’s film office to get pointed in the right direction.
A key to not wearing out your welcome while on location, Yost says, is to “not run into their house forty times with the crew; do not wear them out with bathroom trips.” He says to always bring your own Porta-John.
When you’ve finished your script, try and get all the principles together for a read through. Michael Matzdorff, who has worked as an editor in film and television for a decade plus, recently directed his first feature, “Feed the Fish.” And while Matzdorff spent more than a year on his script, when he and the crew were ready to shoot, he felt like more work could still be done on it.
When asked what he would have changed about the process of writing and directing his first independent film, he said, “The main thing is to spend more time with the script, because there were a few things that were a little too cute, gags that worked on paper but did not work on the screen. And have at least three read-throughs of the script with professional actors.”
Storyboarding and Rehearsing
Domenica Scorsese has three short films to her credit, and is looking to eventually direct features. Scorsese has studied the business almost her entire life, both from in front of and behind the camera. In the course of making short films, on tight budgets and with compressed shooting schedules, it is important for her to know as much beforehand as possible.
Even though her first film, “A Little God,” was seven minutes long and had no dialogue, she said, “I storyboarded. I wrote down beats and location scouted. I went through and shot listed so I took all the prep time I could so that we could move and shoot at a better ratio, but also cover the ground that needed to be covered.”
For her latest short, “Roots in Water,” production designer David Stein set up a model of the house Scorsese used in Maine so she could “literally take photo storyboards so I could show the cast what we were dealing with.” This enabled the cast to rehearse at night and be prepared for the next day, as they had only three days on that particular location.
Don’t Assume You Can Fix it in Post
“If you don’t put the time in during prep or you cut corners around the necessary equipment, you’re going to put the time and money in during post and hope that you come out with maybe a silk purse that may be a really jazzed up sow’s ear,” Scorsese said. “Seeing just how much can be done with Final Cut Pro and then see what happens in (Adobe) After Effects and then to go to have an hour of color correct on the Da Vinci Suite and say, ‘okay, while you can isolate out that particular shade of green in the tree…’ but at the same time, if the raw footage is really not there you can’t build on it.”
It Will Be More Expensive Than You Thought
It’s not rocket science. Filmmaking—even independent filmmaking—is expensive. And as an independent filmmaker, those costs are direct. You can end up eating a big part of the budget if an investor doesn’t come through, or if a piece of equipment breaks, or you try and do something overly ambitious.
Says Scorsese, “One of the things that I’ve experienced as an actor, and also I’ve seen my friends go through, for preproduction and through production, is that we have enough for post and then there’ll be two or three other things in post where you’ll go, ‘Oh okay, got to go in and fix that,’ and I’ve now learned to basically go it’s probably going to be a third more expensive than I thought it was going to be on the end of post. There is what something looks like on paper and then there are the variables.”