20 Steps to Making an Independent Film

20 Steps to Making an Independent Film & There’s No Such Thing as ‘No Budget’ Filmmaking

I know that I usually write about what can be made with no money, but this time I thought I would try a different tack.

Since so much of our worth and value is tied up in monetary costs and fees and budgeting, it’s hardly surprising that we overlook what we have already and forget to place a real value on it.

In the business world value is placed on assets all the time, whether they are equipment or expertise, people or places.

So let’s not forget to value ourselves and our years of experience as well as our cameras, lights, props, locations and everything else that we discount when we say to the world, “oh I only make no budget films,” or “I just make short films, I don’t have any money” which I have actually said myself from time to time.

But if we repeat that to ourselves, let alone to the world, then what we are actually saying is that what we do, the endless hours of preparation, work, effort and imagination that goes into every single frame is worthless, which of course it isn’t.

Our films, both large and small, are full of financial investment and in this crazy world of “how much did it cost then” let’s not forget that we have actually invested quite a lot of cash in every single one. So if you are forced to put a valuation on your investment, include every camera, lens, light, plastic box from Target and roll of duck tape. Because that’s exactly what studios do and accountants do and financial investors do and tax attornies do…

On another note entirely…here’s a very useful list of things that are important in our wonderful world of very, very independent filmmaking that I just created for a filmmaking workshop I taught.

. 1 Count your resources
What you have right now, at your fingertips so to speak, can help you decide what kind of film you can make next, as well as assuage your fears that you can’t make anything at all.

. 2 Find your story
Sounds easy. But even if you have an idea for a film, you might not actually have a story. An idea is very different to a why, which is what a story is really – a why. Why are they here, why do they love/hate each other, why do they say this or are doing that? I’s all in the story and the story is the why.

. 3 Assemble your team
A film quite often is only as strong as the team that brings it to life. Having the right people around you from early development to final edit can make it happen and the wrong people can make it fail.

. 4 Develop your screenplay
Write it, then work at it, then rewrite it. Then start all over again.

. 5 Select team members – producer, director, cinematographer
Bringing in the department heads at a critical time can help you along enormously. Listen to them, include them in the creative process, let them in!!!

. 6 Find amazing locations
The smaller the budget the more important the location I think. A film can turn on its production value, so be adventurous and very, very creative.

. 7 Always be thinking about the edit
Every shot you take must be thought of as a piece of the puzzle. It’s crucial to keep track of where you are and what you need, considering what you need when you film can help keep you honest and organized. It’s always tempting to rush around with your cool camera and ‘wing it’ but an editor’s mind can stop you from forgetting the obvious and save your film.

. 8 Always be thinking about the music
I like to have some music in my mind as I work. Not when I write because I always just end up singing along and forget about writing altogether. But as I create the film, as I imbue it with life, music creates the mood, the tone, the landscape of the film. It can also help an actor find the ‘who’ of a character you have created, giving them a real sense of who you need them to be.

. 9 Actors must be truthful
Speaking of actors, make them forget about acting if you can. Cast characters. Keep it simple, keep it fresh and love, love, love them. They will make your film amazing if you let them.

. 10 Organise, organise, organise
Never too much organization. Have someone wonderful help you with that if you can.

. 11 Don’t overlook the value of being prepared – have a backup everything
Stuff happens, things go wrong, people get sick, forget, are late and very, very occasionally even the weather in LA lets you down. It’s actually raining as I write this!! Just assume something might not be perfect and have a plan for when it isn’t, even if you never use it, you will be a hero when you have to.

. 12 Make sure there is food, water and a loo
Very important. Food. Water. Loo. Write in on your arm in permanent marker.

. 13 Keep it all as simple as possible when on location
Don’t unload every single piece of equipment you own. The chances are you are shooting wild and loose, guerilla style, so minimize the probability of disaster, annoying others or a cop showing up. Keep it simple, light and focused. This is where number 10 can help. A lot.

. 14 Don’t rush it. Take your time to make the best choice
Having someone breathing down your neck rushing you is never helpful. it’s your film, your vision so take your time to find it.

. 15 But don’t take too long!!
For lord’s sake please have someone breathing down your neck rushing you…seriously…you need to keep one eye on the clock and one eye on the prize. It’s a balance, hopefully someday I will get it right myself and then I’ll have something magical to tell you, but in the meantime just be aware.

. 16 Logistics are important!!
Some people adore logistics. Find one of them and promise them the moon. It’s so helpful when everyone knows where they are supposed to be and when, and so unhelpful when they don’t. More of number 10 I think!

. 17 Take advice but don’t feel you have to act on it
I like input from people I have solicited it from but not at all from those whom I didn’t. But it’s vital to remember that just because someone has taken twenty minutes to tell you how they’d do it, you don’t have to do it their way simply out of politeness. It’s your film, but occasionally someone might have something really useful to say…

. 18 Coverage is your friend – but don’t obsess about it
Oh my goodness how coverage has saved me! You can know instinctively when you don’t need it, or much of it at least, but always try to get something you can cutaway to in the event, which always, always happens, that you need to cut away to something. Boom in the shot, some kind of continuity mishap, a car alarm goes off in your best shot and no one noticed etc. I could go on.

. 19 Fixing your sound is not as difficult as you think, don’t be afraid of ADR, music can cover a multitude of sins
And speaking of sound, I have ADR’d on my iPhone more times than I care to mention. Or in my car on the camera, or used emailed clips from actors who moved to NY just after you wrapped. I love ADR, I have no fear of it, ADR has saved me over and over again. Embrace it!

. 20 The edit is the final rewrite
Of course, it is. In fact, the edit is the moment when everyone else falls away, no DP, no MUA, no actors, no producers, no one to distract you from what is ultimately yours. This is why I always edit myself, even if I am very lazy about it at first. The edit is where the film is really made, where the magic happens and where you struggle with why on earth you are a filmmaker in the first place. It can and really should take forever. It’s where you fall in love all over again.

Hope some of this helps! Get your camera and go out and shoot something.


Samantha Simmonds-Ronceros
Author: Samantha Simmonds-Ronceros

Samantha Simmonds-Ronceros is a British writer and filmmaker living In Los Angeles.