Independent Review: You Have Your Idea – Now What?

In this article, I’ll tackle the various aspects of making a film on your own, and this is going on the assumption that you have a script you’re happy with, and feel you can shoot for a budget you can obtain.  No matter what path you end up taking to becoming an independent film-maker, whether as a film student like those pictured above, or you’ve just been screwing around with a camera as long as you can remember, every filmmaker comes to a certain halt in their film dreams.  For a film student, it’s the day you graduate.   You’ve got your paper saying you know what you should know, but you’re tossed into a very large pond of very similar people with similar knowledge.

If you don’t have “formal” training (being a film school drop-out myself, I don’t think you’re learning any more in a classroom about becoming an independent filmmaker than actually getting out and doing it) the hardest thing to find is peers.

One great advantage (or disadvantage, depending where you attend) of film school is it introduces you to a wide array of people.  During your tenure there, you can hand select the people that are actually good at their jobs, and would benefit a working set.  Ostensibly, these connections will help you build a crew for a small production.   At the same time, if the populace of your film school program is a band of Michael Bay-worshiping anti-story heathens, then maybe it’s best to separate yourself from that crowd, and find a different group that can be of good help.

Because no matter the approach, the success or failure of an independent film hinges on the ability of the director to direct relative amateurs to get the material they need.  This can be tough with first timers, or people that are slow to adapt to new processes.  Most first time directors making an independent feature have to take the help they can get.  There are so many factors at hand: budget, equipment, locations, actors, props, costumes, and if you’re brave and your story calls for it:  special effects.

There are a thousand different approaches to each of these sections, but let’s break down the possibilities:  First, equipment.  The thing that adds the highest production value based on the tools alone.  While a Canon XL-H1 may be easier to get (and much cheaper), DSLR options are still relatively cheap (on a day-rate basis, and on an outright purchase), and depending on your budget, and amount of shooting days, a RED ONE might be in your price range at a few hundred dollars a day.  It all depends on your budget.

Which brings us to the most hated, but by far most important, aspect of making your own film:  Paperwork.  An accurate shooting schedule, with efficient location management, and the most efficient use of cast and crew’s time are essential.  It doesn’t matter if you were able to afford a great camera if your schedule is set up so that it wastes a day hopping from location to location when you could have more efficiently managed the schedule and go what you needed, where you needed it, when you needed it.  Efficiency being key, a great Assistant Director can do a great deal of good here.

As I’ve mentioned, your pool of people to choose from might not be large, and this often results in a director being their own AD, and their own Script Supervisor.   If you have it planned out that way, and know what to expect, then there shouldn’t be any surprises.  But for those that can find a capable AD, sometimes you can have them wear multiple hats, supervising costumes and the script as you shoot.

Also keep in mind there are very many things that affect your paper work, and various stages of doing it.  Your pre-production paperwork is where most of the scheduling should be figured out, but you can’t do that if you don’t know your budget first.  For those unfamiliar with budgets, or filmmakers that can’t find a good Unit Production Manager to help them out, you have to take the “kitchen sink” approach.  Read your script, and then re-read it.  Break it down into sections:  props, dressings, costumes, vehicles, weapons, etc.  Objects.  Make a list of those.  Make sure to be aware of how many you’ll need, if you’ll need two of something at once, and be sure to make a chart where in your script it appears, that will reflect on your schedule.

Break down each character:  How many days pass in their world over the course of the film?  Budget for each character accordingly.  Do the same with locations.   Where does your film take place, how many locations?  Does your script jump around?  Can multiple, disconnected scenes be shot on the same day?  This, of course, lends to your efficiency on set, with your budget in mind.

Do the same with your equipment.  If you have a camera man or director of photography, get their wish lists.  Often, they’ll ask for things that they are comfortable with, but in all honestly, could do without.  Whittle it down with them, with the budget in mind, and again, use the scheduling efficiently.  Does your DP need an expensive light for certain shots, but not others?  Plan accordingly, try to put those days together so you can rent the light cheap as possible.  Find out what lights, camera, jibs, dollies, or anything else your vision requires, and again, do some whittling on your own, find out what is absolutely essential, and what isn’t.   Often a DP will order 10 scrims with the intention of only using 2.  Figure out with him what would be a good safe number in between?  Five?  You don’t want to be stuck in a spot without them, but you don’t want to be paying for extra ones that will serve no purpose on your set.

By now, you should have a pretty good idea of what your budget is looking like, and if it’s something you can raise.  For those with a budget already in place, it’s a matter of getting what you can with the money you have:  a lot of the decisions will be made for you.  You can take what you can get for the price, or what you can creatively produce through favors, peers, and special deals.

Once you have your budget numbers in place:  location costs (with how many days), costumes (how many), props (again, how many, which ones), set dressings (an all-too often forgotten aspect of independent films), vehicles (if any, if you had to pay for any), camera (and associated equipment), lighting (and any associated equipment) and if your film qualifies for it, special effects.  A good f/x artist can give you a break down of each effect you’re looking for, and what it will cost, allowing you to get rid of any you can bear to do away with.

Next, the eternal question:  With little to no money, how do I get actors?  The answer.  Research.  In Los Angeles, the great LA Casting is an invaluable tool.  There are many great actors from different backgrounds and training, and like you, they’re looking for a showcase for their creativity.  Not in Los Angeles?  No matter, there are still plenty of audiences.  My main recommendation is to hit as many local dinner theater shows, college stage productions, and even local acting workshops.  Have a clear vision of the characters that are your “main” characters.  There might be a crotchety old grandpa that only has a few lines, but casting just any one that looks old enough does not necessarily yield the best results.  You’ll be surprised at the raw talent on display, and if you’re a good director, you’ll see certain actors fulfilling certain requirements for your role, even if it’s vastly different from the role you just watched them play.  Many young and college theater actors are aspiring film actors, if you’re outside LA, a role in a well-written independent film can indeed be the big break they’re looking for.

At the same time, all actors are always looking for work.  It’s an inconsistent world.  Think of character actors you admire that may not being working much anymore.  Try to contact them or their agent, some of these stars past (for whatever reason) are willing to work for a few hundred dollars a day.  If that’s in your budget, make a wish list and try to get people you want.  Once you’ve done that and gotten answers, you can fill in the rest of your cast.  If you have some pros, a few theater actors, and you feel they’ll be the good group of main characters you envisioned, use the same process for the smaller roles.  Don’t just throw Grandma in as the pie lady because she’s an old lady.  Anyone in a similar age range with even some training is more than likely going to be better.  While acting seems easy, it surely isn’t, as seen in so many clunky amateurish films.  This is where a good director can save a performance from an amateur, knowing exactly how to coach them into at least appearing professional.  It’s a lot to ask, especially directing every other aspect of the film.

So once you know your locations, props, actors, set dressings, costumes, and equipment, you should be able to calculate the number of shooting days.  From there, your schedule will become a big jigsaw puzzle of fitting all these pieces onto the right shooting days, taking into account which actors you’ll need, which equipment, which costumes, which props, which set dressings, and which location you’ll be at for any given scene.  Microsoft Excel and other comparable programs (there are a few pricey scheduling software on the market) are good for breaking these down.

Just like with every step so far in your film, take it one at a time.  Figure out which location to shoot at first, for how many days.  Then plug in which actors you’ll need during what times, any props they’ll need, what their costumes will be fore the scene, any set dressing needed for the scene.  Last, but certainly not least, which equipment do you need on what days without wasting rental dollars for items you aren’t using.

Once your schedule is set, you have all your needs put down on paper, depending whether or not you have your budget ready, you might be ready to go.  If you have your budget, you have now become team leader of a group of people that most likely haven’t worked together, and often haven’t performed the job they’re about to perform for you.

This is the true test of a director.  Can you keep everyone in line?  Can you keep your camera set ups on schedule?  When you tell an actor they’ll be out by a certain time, can you stick to it?

The team you build, from all walks of life, and yourself are the only ones that can answer these questions.  Often, independent films fall apart because the director just can’t juggle all of these elements.  That’s why a good producer is a must.  Often, people wonder what a producer actually does.   While the Hollywood stories of executive’s wives getting producer credits simply by being the wife are more often true than false, at the same time, the story of the independent producer is much different.

Basically, on an independent production, a producer is money boss.  The director is the creative boss, making decisions concerning the look and production of the film, but at the same time, on an independent level, they must be able to come to a compromise when it comes to execution, it must be in line with the budgeted cost, or something else will be sacrificed.  A good independent producer makes sure the shots are being gotten when they should, that every department is functioning within the parameters set forth by the director, and most importantly, that the budget is being properly managed, including the payment of costs, and salaries.

Another thing often overlooked by independent producers and directors is craft services.  This is the one department of making a film that there is no low budget solution to.  While a creative producer may be able to find someone to make food cheap, or ask a favor of a caterer they know, skimpy meals just don’t cut it.  Even if your budget is minuscule, the  portions and availability of your food should not be hindered by that fact.  Especially for productions that have people working for very cheap or free for 12 hour days, simply giving them cheese sandwiches every few hours is not the best way to get your crew at its most productive.  Also, it breeds negative attitudes, and when you have a majority of volunteers, even the loss of one free crew member can be detrimental.  Remember, these people are giving their all, for your passion, the least you can do is provide them proper meals.  Another thing to do in the casting process, is to familiarize yourself with any special needs actors and crew members may have.  Is your lead a vegetarian?  Does your Key Grip have Celiac’s Disease?  There’s nothing worse on an indy set than people chomping away at lunch while two integral people can only eat side dishes or nothing at all.  All of these things should be taken into account long before shooting.

When it comes to shooting, efficiency is again your goal.  Getting the shots (or as many as you can) from your schedule, without going over the times you gave your cast and crew.   If you schedule an 8 hour workday for your actor, they won’t be happy if you have them stay 14 hours the first day, and can you blame them?  It doesn’t speak well of the production as a whole.  Another aspect often overlooked by independent producers is set up and tear down time.  At each location, there will most likely be at least 30 minutes of set prep, and depending on what your set up entails, it could take hours to take down.  It’s not a great idea to ask a crew that just worked 12 hours if they can stay another 3 to tear down the day’s sets and dressings.  Make sure to factor those times in beforehand, and be generous.  As is the motto in independent film-making, if it can go wrong, it most likely will.

If you do have special f/x, be sure to keep in good contact with them, getting realistic production times.  I’ve found that even supervising tests will do a lot to quell the fears of over-stressed directors.  So when people ask:  What does it take to direct a film?  All of the above.  And these are just the steps to pre-production.  There is no magic, no secret to making a film, it just takes hard work, organization, and dedication.   Without those, that’s where you will see films falling behind schedule, with inferior production value.  And since high production value is arguably the most sought-after aspect of an independent film, this is where all those inferior direct to video movies come from.    Don’t let yours be one.

In future articles, I will be covering the RED EPIC camera with a director of photography who has logged some good experience with it, focus on the physical production of a film, the post-production of an independent film, and the many distribution methods now available to films with no big distribution or large amounts of money behind them.  For those, are there specific elements anyone would like me to touch on?  Any particular technologies people want to know more about?

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