Very Independent Filmmaking >> Blog 2

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Where there’s a film there’s a way, and where there’s a story there’s a writer.

As long as there is a story of course…

I am completely sure that you and most people on the planet have seen many a film, particularly big budget hollywood, that has little to no story. And while I am also equally sure there is some faction of the filmmaking world who deliberately engineer their films this way, for some artistic reason, most films with no story just have …no…story.

I don’t know about you but I find this to be rather an obviously large problem, although I’m not certain that all Hollywood executives would agree.

I suppose this can happen on big budget films because most of them go through many, many, many rewrites, rebirths and reboots. The story can get lost when actors are given more screen time, fired, or cut out completely in the edit….or when too many people have too much control. When you look at the writers credits on some films, the list is alarmingly long. Although it has become a bit of a habit lately for the final writer of the final version of the final script to be the only one credited, and many a lawsuit has ensued because of it.

With very independent film, there isn’t much danger of lawsuits, but there is a very real danger of trying to write a script while worrying too much about the limits of your budget. I think that is a big mistake that many low budget filmmakers make. It can immediately limit the scope of the story before it really gets a chance to truly become anything. Making a film is such a difficult enterprise, so why waste your energy on anything less than the most important story that burns within you that you just have to make into a film. When you have little money to spend, getting the story right is almost more important than ever. With no money for slick tricks, camera moves, CGI or probably even reshoots, the story is your 3D. Actually I’m not a huge fan of 3D, but you get the idea.

Of course I’m not suggesting that while you write your story, and considering you probably have a budget of whatever’s in your coin jar, you still insist on sweeping airborne camera shots across the Masai Mara. But on the other hand, don’t make a list of everything you and friends and family own and try and build a story around that. It’s tempting, and it might seem like a good idea, but it’s a dead end. Unless you or your friends and family happen to own Warner Bros that is. But even then…

Write what you want to see, don’t worry about the logistics until you have your producers hat on. Don’t try and predict as a writer what is possible to achieve as a producer, it will make you nuts and the story will suffer.

When you are producing the script, then you can worry about trying to find a Ferrari, and replace it with your cousin’s Sebring. Or transform your best friend’s living room into a brothel, your dog into an elephant and switching the scene in a grocery store into a scene exiting a grocery store, standing in the parking lot out of sight of the security guard early in the morning before anyone’s around to walk through the shot. By the way passers by can be unpaid extras you know!

The writer shouldn’t have to worry about any of that, the producer will, even if the producer is your alter ego, one of many. Multiple personality disorder may actually be an asset to you as a very independent filmmaker. There are certainly plenty of ‘nutters’ gainfully employed in the entertainment business, it can be a job requirement in some particular areas….have you ever been to a film festival?

If you want to make a film, the chances are you have many stories in your back pocket, and just figuring out which one to make first may be your biggest challenge. So make them all!!

Seriously, I mean that. Just decide to start with your first one first. I have to say that a surprising number of very independent films are made with hardly anything written down, and with just an idea or a scenario in the head of the director. Much too frightening a concept for me I am afraid. And while this might make a compelling reality TV programming, as the crew follows around the hapless director while his personality shatters into a million pieces before our very eyes under the strain of his underpreparedness (not sure if that’s a word, but it is now). Eagerly covering the disaster as it unfolds. The panic of the actors trying to remember their spontaneous dialogue from take 13 or, heaven forbid, trying to improvise a scene. The delightful shot of the makeup lady and sound guy walking off into the sunset at hour ten of the shoot with no sign of a meal or even crafty. This may not be the initial goal of your film. Although maybe it would make an excellent idea for a reality show…now where is that card from that guy I met from that reality production company….

All joking aside, every film begins with a story.

Write a script!

Read it aloud!

Several times, to actual people.

You’d be surprised how helpful this can be at averting disaster.

There are writing groups, although I would try and get a referral if I were you, from someone you  know fairly well who has actually been to one. There are a lot of ‘oddbods out there and sometimes they all get together and host writing groups at Sherman Oaks adjacent addresses.

But writing and rewriting is the best way to learn. Don’t worry about having expensive script writing programs either, I use pages script writing on my mac, I love it. Just write it down! A story really does have a beginning a middle and an end. The basic three act premise is still the best concept to follow. It just works…although you don’t have to keep the three acts all the same length of course, but even in our three minute films last year, the most successful were the mini features, three acts in three minutes works just as  effectively.

Being prepared is the biggest challenge and yet the most important part of filmmaking. The more work you do before the shoot the easier it will be on everyone when you do. You cannot be too prepared, or have too many production meetings, although your future crew may not agree with me. But you, as the filmmaker, the writer, the director, the producer have many jobs and therefore many more chances to mess up, hence the multitude of emails, production paperwork rewrites, call sheet updates and google map links sent. And thats just behind the scenes and before you even film anything.

If you can rehearse, then rehearse. The chances are if you are shooting something cheap, then it’s probably not very long. So getting in at least one read through or rehearsal with at least some if not all of the actors shouldn’t be too hard. I have rehearsed in diners, parking lots, parks, apartments, cars or even on the morning of the shoot at a push. But it’s so important to run through the story, scenes and characters. If you can’t get your actors to do that, then they probably aren’t very invested in the project anyway. Experienced, serious, actors or any actor who really wants to work will thank you repeatedly for the opportunity to rehearse. They want to make you happy and to have every chance to do the very best they can in whatever role they play. They are investing their time and talent, and they want good reel. So make time for this, it will pay off tenfold on the day of the shoot.

The rest of the preparation is the other one million things you will need to make the film. Crew, wardrobe, props, makeup, lights, camera, crew, locations, shot lists, contracts, releases and lots and lots of duct tape, or grip tape as it’s called on this side of the pond.

But that’s a subject for another day.

Just keep this one very important thing in mind, donuts…lots and lots of donuts.