Independent means your on your own…

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When your an independent filmmaker you are your on your own. Hopefully you have developed a team, or know individuals who can help you lighten the load from producing your film. I say YOUR film because YOU were the one who started down this road. If you are a director slash producer you’ll need to get down in the trenches and start assembling your team. Films are not made by committee. Making films is an autocratic way of life. Having a team is great, and helpful, but you are the General of this army. Go forth and get ready to take command.

Now that being said having a small producing staff helps. Everyone has maybe a speciality and that helps. I have come to the conclusion that GOOD films are made by a dedicated cast and crew. I’ve actually looked at movie production history, and the films that are superior to all the rest are because the production team had enthusiasm and believed in the project. A lot of these films were from first time artists who had something to prove and who had a vested interest in making a film that would stand out.

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In future posts I’ll try and go through those films histories. But I’ll leave that for some other time. What I’m trying to say here is that when you’re making an indie film you may need to rely on outside individuals who have skills that you need to compensate.

I used professional actors. I held auditions after looking at many headshots of actors. I did not ask anyone for money. I find it appalling when I hear of productions NOT offering compensation, or even not paying for the actors transportation. I know I’ve been labeled a nice guy, and you know what they say about “nice guys”? But I’m not a nice guy. I’m trying to get other people involved in my project. Its that simple. If the people I get become my friends all the better. But I first I need to figure out a budget, and before you shoot make sure you have enough to get the film in the can.

A film production unit is more then just a bunch of artist working to create content. They become a family. Yes! I said it. The F word, and that F word is “family”. I know that’s crazy. But it’s true, and no truer in independent filmmaking then in any profession I can name. It’s what makes filmmaking that special vocation. I can’t state it strong enough. Like any family there can be dysfunction in the family, but you as a good producer & director know how to head off problems before it becomes a problem. You need to be part therapist, and part artist.

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We worked seriously hard on “Deadly Obsessions”, but as you can see by the picture above there was time to clown around as well. It’s the key to esprit de corps, and trust me you’ll need that when doing an a film no matter if it’s a independent or a studio based film. Treating filmmaking like a straight business proposition is not what gets your film made. Roget Corman’s film’s had hungry artists working for him. They pushed themselves to make the best film they could. Just by recognizing talent Corman’s films may have not been cinematic marvels, but they were entertaining and cheap. It’s how Corman survived for so long. Recognizing talent is the key, and developing relationships is a key to making a good film. I’ve been involved where people don’t really care and only want to make their film footage quota for the day. Needless to say those films go into the dustbin of cinema never to be seen or heard from again. There is a whole lot more that goes into a successful film, but your first hurtle is getting it made, and a lot of films just fall apart and are never made. I’ve seen it, and I’ve been a party to it. It hurts when your film fails to grow wings and get off the ground. There is more talk in this industry then there is action. It is what seriously makes me cringe and has prevented me from making more films.

Alone my film stock budget was about over 5K, and I managed to get a discount. In order to process the film, and transfer the sound to mag track it was another 6K. I knew all this and kept the spending to a minimum, yet still I paid people. I had a few days to shoot, and then the money would dry up. I had to work a day job to get more money for post, and it was me who was working on post production. How else could I save money. I resurrected an old 6 plate flat-bed and finished on film. It was the cheapest way to go at the time. Posting on video would have costed me a fortune, so film was the only alternative. You see why I despise others who keep talking the talk and never pony up. The above picture is me at the end of shooting. That smile is releif for making it through the slog of production.

I really, really admired Kevin Smith, and Robert Rodriguez for making their low budget films. Now days you don’t need film stock. But memory cards to fill up, and hard drives to back the footage. I really think you can still get a feature done nowadays for little money, and that you can do it in stages to keep the costs low. Keeping it simple helps. Limited actors, limited locations, and keep the crew small. From the picture above you can see I had limited lighting equipment to light a scene, yet my crew and I made it work. I really think you ca as well. No matter the budget. It’s more possible now then it ever was. So go out there and be the next Coppola, or Spielberg. Don’t think because you don’t have the money you won’t be able to produce your film. Make your resources work for you. Take some time off. Coordinate your talent and crew. Spend on the things that matter, and you may attract people who BELIEVE in your project. It is time consuming, maddening and throughly invigorating, yet you’ll enjoy ever moment of it.

The beginning of a feature ….

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After several attempts to make a movie with others I finally went it alone.  Not my most favorite thing to do.  I had always seen myself with a group of renegades making a film that we all thought would be groundbreaking, but alas it was not to be.  So when I decided to make a film I took stock of the resources I had and did my best to come up with a film I’d be proud of.  I had always been a big fan of Joel & Ethan Coen’sBlood Simple“, and I loved the author Jim Thompson who had a bit of notoriety in Hollywood when they decided to make some of his novels such as “After Dark my Sweet” , and “The Grifters” just to name a few.  I had few resources to boot too, so the film had to have limited characters and a bit of a different take on the film noir genre.

I wrote a film that I thought would be interesting, and something unique.  A take on the film “Double Indemnity” starring Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.  It was a 1944 movie about greed and lust.  It was a favorite of mine, and something I felt I could do.  I would just modernize it for today’s audience.  What I eventually wrote was something I could shoot, and do now.  I had limited funds, and I would be shooting this on 16mm.  It was way before digital video, and the video cameras that existed back in the late 90’s were in no way good enough for the visuals I wanted.  I broke down the script and created a shooting schedule with Movie Magic scheduler.  I had written my script in a program called movie magic screenwriter.  It was an old program that I used way back in the late 80’s.  If I had to give advice go with Final Draft.  I have used Final Draft for a lot of my projects and the program is quite good, but I have also used a program called Celtx.   When I used Celtex it was a stand alone screenwriting program.  The program now is a web based script writing, scheduler, budgeting, and call sheet program.  I highly recommend that you take a look at Celtx if you have multiple collaborators.  The program is quite easy to learn, and has a short learning curve, but whatever you use make sure you have a program that can breakdown the script.  It will save you time, and a lot of headaches.  Remember if you’re limited on funds and who doesn’t these days go with something simple.  Word has a template for scripts and it’s an easy download.  It may not be sleek and intergraded with other software, but it gets the job done.  After all films were made without fancy screenwriting software in the past, so whatever you use don’t apologize for not having the latest and greatest.  In my opinion use something you can all collaborate on . Celtx is subscription based so pay for what you need, but whatever you use remember the key to writing is re-writing, so make sure you get comfortable with whatever program you do use because you’ll be going back to it often.

I can say that making the film went down without a hitch, but I’d be lying.  Finding time to do all this was difficult.  It’s the main reason why the film took so long.  I didn’t have all the money to finish it, but I had enough to start it, and get it to post, so I did.
A mistake?  Maybe, but in filmmaking rules are meant to be broken, and so the only thing I can really say with any certainty is get ready for a wild ride.  If it’s your film be damn sure that you can finish it, and once you start don’t stop.  Stopping is the kiss of death for most projects.  If it isn’t the way you wrote it or envisioned it tough!  Roll with it, and it’ll all work out in the end.  Sometimes there are happy accidents that make the film better.  It’s the magic of filmmaking ladies and gentlemen, and when it happens know that you are experiencing a moment and keep moving because you have a schedule to keep.

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When I started this film I first lived in New York.  It wasn’t until I was in Philadelphia that I started to really to hunker down and get the wheels of production moving.  This brings me to keeping it local.  I did not, so I had to find hotels for my actors and some of the crew.  I used two people from my alma mater of Brooklyn College.  I needed a lighting tech / gaffer and then a camera assistant.  I lucked out with the people I got.  Both were hard working and hungry, and they really saved me when things got way too much.  Then there were the actors.  I used SAG/AFTRA actors.  Let me tell you if you really want to make a difference in your production hire union.  They were professional, and high spirited.  I know what you’re thinking I’m a low budget film I can’t afford professionals.    They’ll bust my budget.  SAG/AFTRA has low budget and ultra low budget contracts.  I got a low budget agreement and paid a small stipend to the actors.  If you can’t I understand, but getting and working with professional actors will really make a difference to you and your production.  Not once did the actors NOT know their lines.  Right out of the gate they knew their lines, and blocking the actors for the camera was easy.  Having said this I would have looked around for more local actors around Philadelphia.  It would have been cheaper, but maybe not by much.  So my tip to the fledgling filmmaker is keep it local, and if you need outside talent schedule them in blocks so you don’t pay a fortune in hotel and food disbursements.  It’s mostly common sense, but it was a first for me, and the film became my graduate studies program by default.

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Also if you can DO NOT use your apartment or house as a location.  That being said I did, and I saved on location fee’s, but for 11 days my wife and I along with our kitties lived in a communal environment.  The bed the actors are on in the picture above became the make-up area, and the rest area for cast and crew.   Though I look at it now with nostalgia I have to say that it was 10 to 11 days of chaos.  My wife and I would get up very early in the AM, and she would go to work while the crew and cast assembled.  We shot for three or four days in the apartment.  Moving from room to room. We had a small continental breakfast or we would do a Dunkin’ Donuts run getting fresh bagels in the AM.  We would get assorted cheeses and jams the evening before and we would have liters of coffee or tea. So by this example I have to say that if you shoot in your house or apartment a big tip is to have you’re significant other onboard while shooting.  It’s great when someone has your back, and my wife Phyllis had mine.  She got executive producing credit also.

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Another thing or tip to the wise.  Get permission for everything.  I did, or I thought I did.  My landlady was cool about me filming, and she was pretty enthused about it.  But it only takes one person to really throw a wrench into your production and in this case it was a neighbor who knew a judge.  Seems some people were upset at seeing beautiful actors running around, and wondered what type of movie I was making.  I had the permits, I had the permissions and release papers, so why the problem?  Here is where the first lesson in of the moral minority comes in.  Not everyone is as open minded as they would have lead you to believe they are.  I got a visit from the police, and then a call from the local film commission here in Philadelphia.  Needless to say I believe my film made them draft a policy of “Code of Conduct” when filming in a Philadelphia neighborhood.   I had done this previously and thought all was copacetic, but it seems one person had a problem, and that’s all it took.  What eventually happened was that I changed locations for the ending of the film.  With the help of crew and cast we worked it all out, and even got a police officer to help us make the neighbors comfortable.  The advantages of being a small production is that we could make the change easier then being a bigger production.   We even got my father-in-law involved who has a brief part in the movie.  He came down from New York and stayed with us and being he was a retired federal police officer, and he acted like a liaison between the local police.  When we did this there were no more problems.  So a BIG tip here boys and girls is to have a police official on set.  He or she is like the muscle of the production.  It shows you’re legit, and everything is kosher.   We had two officers throughout the production and they were the best.  If you can involve the local constabularies into your production do so.  It will save you much grief.   The agita I got was not worth it and it was a distraction that I didn’t need, so remember talk to you’re local officials about your filming plans.  All it takes is one unsatisfied patron to ruin you’re shoot and in a low budget film time away from the production is wasted time.

What I learned most of all is that doing a film isn’t like it was when you were young and naive back in film school.   There are a lot to things to consider and a lot of the production budget gets eaten up by the must have.  Insurance, transportation, housing, and meals can eat at your budget before you even have shoot a frame of your movie. If you shop around and do your homework while at the same time take stock of your resources you may just save money and time, which will help you actually make your movie.

Another approach to low budget filmmaking that I’ve been thinking about would be to consider filming as a collective.  Rick Schmidt the author of: Feature Filmmaking at Used car Prices” once told a group of us that when limited in funds everyone in the film should bring something to the table, and thereby they become an investor in the film.   If the material is exceptionally good people will want to be a part of it, but you still need to sell it.  Bringing talent, locations, equipment, and even food is an investment, and when all players have skin in the game they are incentivized to do their best.  It is your job to make it appealing and something that has a quick turnaround, so as to have everyone not lose time away from paying gigs.

Everyone makes money when the film makes money.  In a way you create an LLC with your production crew and cast.  Thereby creating a collective of artists.  The sole purpose would be to produce this one film.  Just another avenue you may want to explore when you’re doing your guerrilla shot.

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