7 Indie Filmmaking Lessons I Learned The Hard Way (Because There Is No Easy Way)
7 Indie Filmmaking Lessons I Learned The Hard Way (Because There Is No Easy Way)
“No, no, no, no, no … stop talking. Give me the shot. Tell me your film in one sentence,” the producer interrupted. “Like, this meets that …”.
Up until that moment, I was roughly thirty seconds into an elaborate exegesis of the multiple reflecting layers of subtle psychological resonance and sociological importance inherent in my first feature film script, YOU’RE THE ONE. Fifteen seconds prior to that, I was standing behind the producer and holding a pretend conversation with the side of another pathetic screenwriter’s head in order to not seem like I was very creepily stalking the producer, which I was.
The scene was a “Producer’s Cocktail Party” at a mid-aughts screenwriting event in Los Angeles and was thrown by the organization in order to give starry-eyed dreamers like myself the opportunity to pay $100 to be crushed and humiliated by actual, real-life Hollywood big-shots. YOU’RE THE ONE had actually placed in the top 1% of entries in the event’s script competition that year, so they offered to pay my admission to the three-day event. All I had to do was find a way to remove myself for a few days from cold and depressing Minnesota for my long overdue moment in the sun.
On the flight in, I quaffed several cold pilsners and tried to map out how I was going to tell my family that it was now obvious that my destiny was not to crunch numbers all day the rest of my life in a beige-ish gray cubicle in St. Paul, but rather to create movie magic in Southern California with really good looking people.
However, by the third day of the screenwriting event, after attending many eye-opening seminars on the business of Hollywood, as well as paying for and taking part in several “Pitch Sessions” along with over a thousand other aspiring screenwriters (invariably attended on the buy side by whichever beautiful and coolly detached 20-something intern at William Morris Agency drew the short straw that day), it started to dawn on me that it was possible there might not be a high-stakes bidding war over production rights to my 125-page meditation on the interior life of a depressed accountant.
Behind the Scenes of "TWIN CITIES"
But … we’ll give it one last shot, I thought as I forked over a Benjamin for access to the event-ending cocktail party, guaranteeing me nothing more than that in an over-crowded room of several hundred other awkward and introverted screenwriters there would be buried a handful of in-the-flesh Hollywood Producers (fortunately, their capacity for self-confidence made them stick out like a sore thumb).
However, while wading in circles in the middle of this Darwinian cesspool, gripping my $15 Jack and Coke like a life raft (this was before we could pretend to look at our smart phones in self-conscious moments), the cognitive dissonance I had progressively experienced during my three-day Hollywood sojourn moved from my head to a much more real, gut level feeling—you don’t belong here.
Unfortunately, the part of my psyche that had long harbored the make-it-in-Hollywood dream wasn’t quite ready to give up that easily. So, like an incredibly insecure shark circling a tan and shiny piece of meat, I slowly elbowed my way through the screenwriting detritus to the aforementioned Big Shot Producer. After patiently waiting my turn for the latest gushing moron to be dismissed, I moved in and began the tight ten-minute pitch I had been rehearsing in my head all week.
I don’t know if it was the bored and dismissive way she abruptly stopped me on my second deep breath, or the profound stupidity of the whole scene in general, or just the accumulated effect of spending three days on the factory floor seeing how the sausage is made—the joyless, unrelenting, methodical, grinding of art into perfect casings of commerce—but in that moment something gave and I just couldn’t do it anymore.
“It’s THE PASSION OF CHRIST meets RIVERDANCE,” I said without missing a beat.
When I saw the disgusted look on her face, I knew it was time to leave Los Angeles.
On the overnight flight home, I realized that I had two options going forward: 1) continue to write and mail screenplays to Hollywood producers so they can use them to make paper mâché donkey piñatas for their children’s birthday parties, or 2) learn how to make my own films. I chose the latter.
So, for the next six months, I took every night class on filmmaking available at FilmNorth (a Minneapolis-based filmmaking center) so I would never again have to be at the mercy of Hollywood development people that are primarily interested in investing in films that are sequels, or prequels, or a re-make, or based on a popular book, TV show, or comic book, or a re-make of a sequel to a video game TV show based on a comic book.
Behind the Scenes of "Incompleteness"
After learning more about all aspects of filmmaking, I wrote and directed seven short films, three feature films, and, most recently, the first season of the sci-fi dramedy series, INCOMPLETENESS (hopefully coming to a streaming service near you!).
The financial windfall from these endeavors has been underwhelming, but I’ve had a blast making these films (and a series) so far, and have been paid back enormously by the relationships I’ve developed with many insanely talented and generous actors, crew, and producers in the very fertile and collaborative artistic community here in the Twin Cities.
With each project, I’ve learned more about the art and science of filmmaking, as well as the indie movie and TV business, that I did not learn initially in all of the film classes and all of the books I had read on these subjects. Filmmaking is a very subjective process, so it’s the ultimate must-learn-by-doing discipline. So, each filmmaker has their own way of making films, and, correspondingly, their own set of lessons they’ve learned along the way.
In addition to sharing my story, the good peoples at Stage 32 have also asked me to share a few of my own hard-earned lessons on screenwriting and indie filmmaking, so here goes:
Lesson #1: If you want to advance your career as a screenwriter you’ve got to send people something more compelling than a document containing a lot of words you typed.
Most folks these days get an itchy mouse click finger 2.5 seconds into an 8 second Tik Tok video, so unless they birthed you or married you (and, seriously, even then) do you think they’re excited about the opportunity to lose three hours of their weekend to reading your 120-page screenplay? MRI’s now reveal that being asked to read a feature-length script and being asked by your wife to pick up dog poop in your yard elicit the same activity in the human brain.
You’ve got to provide something else. Something that shows your profound yet undiscovered talent as a storyteller but takes a few minutes to consume, not a few hours. What is this something? It’s a short film. Could be either a short film you wrote or just a scene from your aforementioned 120-page masterwork.
Behind the Scenes of "Incompleteness"
Don’t have the money to make a film?? Do you have a phone that also somehow has a video camera in it? Make a film with your phone and edit it on your phone. Total Budget = $0.00. After my Hollywood misadventure, I started making short films in order to learn how to make short films and the average all-in cost of each was just $50 (although, honestly, they look like $60 films). Just make something. If for no other reason than my next tender nugget of wisdom:
Lesson #2: Directing your writing makes you a much better Screenwriter and editing your directing makes you a much better Director.
You think your good friend who graduated with honors from NYU Film School and is now rewriting cinematic history as the Assistant Gaffer for Real Housewives of Newark is your toughest but most effective critic of your writing? No, that’s Director You as you realize on set that the 27-page coffee shop conversation scene that you thought was so deeply compelling when you were writing it is not coming across as anything other than a cure for insomnia.
And you think your other good friend that writes an up-and-coming movie review blog from his parent’s basement and obsesses about the multi-layered minutia of Marvel movies but has yet to feel the touch of a woman would be the most insightful critic of your directing? No, that’s Editor You as you try to cut away from the increasingly bored performance of the lead actor in said coffee shop scene and more frequently cut to the somewhat less bored performance of the lead actress but realize that Director You spent so much time shooting takes of an uninspired static master shot that Editor You only has one kinda lame take of an over-the-shoulder shot on the actress to work with.
This all leads to a tense meeting at a safe location in your head where Editor You admonishes Director You to do better and Director You pushes Writer You to do better and ultimately everyone vastly improves.
Micheaux Best Drama Award for "Incompleteness"
Not doing this is the most common mistake I see among filmmakers and why the majority of DIY independent feature films are never completed. We grow up watching studio films and this is our vocabulary, so it’s hard for new filmmakers to write a script that doesn’t include wicked special effects, gratuitous violence, and petroleum cargo driving off a cliff and then exploding on impact, killing the bad guy really good.
The problem, of course, comes when you’ve spent a year writing a story that climaxes with an interstellar spaceship battle and a nuclear detonation in downtown New York City and then you can’t fund the production on the $3,500 you scraped together on Kickstarter. For my first film, LOVE: A DOCUMENTARY, I knew we wouldn’t have much of any funding for production or location fees, so I wrote a script that could be shot quickly and entirely at one multi-use location that we could access for free. So, we were able to make a feature length film that has screened at several festivals for a total production budget of about a thousand dollars.
Further cost savings here, without sacrificing quality (often improving it). You can run a lot of auditions with expensive unionized professional actresses, or hold out for months/years for an even more expensive semi-big name actress willing to slum and “go indie” for some street cred by playing your rough and raw foul-mouthed dyslexic hooker with a heart of gold. Or, you can just hire a hooker.
In my experience, I’ve invariably been more satisfied with performances when I’ve hired less-experienced, less recognizable actors that already look and sound the part, rather than asking more polished (and expensive) actors to act outside of their natural character. Also, am I the only one that feels that well-known stars actually distract from your involvement in a film’s story? A filmmaker spends a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money getting the set, lighting, and dialogue just right in order to draw the audience in through the gritty real-life verisimilitude of a scene and then you watch it and it’s, “Hey – that cop is Matt Damon!!”.
Behind the Scenes of "TWIN CITIES"
Film selections at the top handful of festivals are more rigged than a North Korean election. This fact is now widely accepted in the indie film community. According to a friend that has worked on selection committees for many of these festivals for over ten years, the “A-tier” festivals have selected exactly zero, none, nada, (0), cold submissions in the last several years. So, unless Leo DiCaprio is in your movie or you have compromising photos of the lead programmer, hold off on the flight reservations for Park City, UT, or Cannes, France.
Although you may imagine your submission at these fests being fervently debated by a Vienna Circle of cineastes, as a cold submission your life’s work will be judged by a 20 year-old film school intern that is pursuing the cinematic arts because he thought the SAW movies were “beast” and who will spark a fatty before viewing your film and disdainfully click it off after eight minutes if he hasn’t yet seen a boob, sword fight, burning plane chase, marauding aliens, or some combination therein. And if he likes it? Doesn’t matter.
Lesson #6: You will need to incessantly bug the sh*t out of people to get anywhere with your completed film.
Unlike other industries where people rely on “resumés” and “quality of work” when considering working with you, the film industry operates primarily within what I would call a “name-ocracy”. Everyone in the film industry keeps a mental list of the people they know of in the industry and, starting with like Steven Spielberg on down, and is continually re-ranking these names based on their perceived power and influence. Thus, they will give you exactly the time and attention warranted by their perceived position of themselves on this list of relative to you.
If the person you’re contacting is way below you on this list, they will move mountains to work on or promote your project, even if they know it sucks. However, if the roles are reversed you could mail them the best script ever written and they will use it to clean up coffee spills.
It’s a metric that never fails, and explains a lot about what happens in the film world, such as the perpetual release of shitty new Adam Sandler movies. So, your only hope when trying to advance the cause of your film by contacting the bigger players in the industry is to annoy them to the point where it becomes easier for them to just deal with you directly than to have to continue to read and then delete your pathetic emails.
Or, if you happen on a big shot that still has a heart left, your other hope is that they will eventually respond to you out of basic human pity (assuming they do not issue a restraining order). Either way you win. Welcome to the jungle.
Lesson #7: It’s potentially possible that you will not make millions of dollars as an indie filmmaker.
The odds are better that you will be struck by lightning while driving to pick up a check for winning the Powerball made out to you and your new wife, Miss Universe. In fact, a less reliable business model for turning expenses into revenue has likely never been created.
So, if making fat stacks of cash is in your top ten reasons for getting into indie filmmaking you've been misinformed. However, there are few endeavors that will allow you to scratch as many different kinds of creative itches while working with and being inspired by as many similarly diverse types of creative professionals -- all of whom invariably are doing what they do for the love of it rather than just spending their lives trying to make as much money as possible. Which is something you won't often find in other fields of work that are more lucrative, such as investment banking, or hedge fund management, or your average paper route.
About the Author
David Ash is the Writer, Director, Producer, and Editor of the new series, INCOMPLETENESS, which has become the most awarded show on the fest circuit – winning the Best Series award at 45 international film festivals. Prior INCOMPLETENESS, Ash wrote and directed seven short films and three critic...