ALTERNATE ROUTES: Building an Army

Marty Lang is a screenwriter, filmmaker, journalist and educator. His feature writing/directing debut, RISING STAR, won Best Premiere at the 2012 Seattle True Independent Film Festival, and was acquired for worldwide distribution by Content Film in 2013. His producing credits include the 2016 Independent Spirit Award-nominated OUT OF MY HAND, and BEING MICHAEL MADSEN, starring Michael Madsen, Virginia Madsen and Daryl Hannah. Twitter: @marty_lang.

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alternate routes

Hello Scriptmag.com readers! My name’s Marty Lang, and I’ve worked in independent film since 2000. I have experience as a writer, director, producer, actor, location manager, production manager, teacher – I’ve done a lot. And one thing I’ve prided myself on is the ability to create opportunities by doing things that seem completely out of left field. I think I can offer some good advice to folks who want to work in film (as a writer or anything else), but who don’t have access to the industry’s traditional power centers. Or to folks that are in the business, and are struggling to take that next step in their careers. Hence the title of this new column I’m debuting today, ALTERNATE ROUTES.

So let’s get started. If you’re a fan of independent film, you have definitely heard the name Mark Duplass. The writer/director/producer/actor gave a keynote speech last year at South by Southwest, where he talked about how to break into the business:

It’s an hour long, so I don’t expect you to watch it all (though it’s definitely worth it). But one of the major ideas in his speech is the idea that “the calvary is coming.” Duplass said his agents were always telling him that the calvary was coming (meaning the studios), to hire him onto a major project, but for some reason, it wasn’t happening. He realized, however, that through the process of making his own independent projects, he didn’t need the calvary – he had created his own. The friends he made while making his films were enough to sustain his career.

That’s an important lesson to learn, that you can build a collective of collaborators, where you can help them create work, and they in turn can help you. Now you might say, “But Mark Duplass is that one-in-a-million case.” And it’s true – it takes more than a little good fortune to get where he and his brother Jay currently are. But the principle of building your own army works at any level, even micro-budget filmmaking. I know because I did it.

I worked in the northeast U.S. independent film scene for about 12 years. During some of that time, I was also a film professor at Quinnipac University. At that time, the state of Connecticut wanted to promote its film, television and digital media industry, so they hired me in 2007 to create a summer workforce training program for the film industry. This program would bring in professional film workers as instructors, to teach Connecticut residents how to be crew members. It was called the Connecticut Film Industry Training Program (FITP).

When we started the program, I realized that if I wanted to, I could literally train a cast and crew that I could hire to work on a film of mine. So I started working hard to ensure our talented graduates found work on local independent films. I established internship pipelines for our grads with state-based production companies and equipment rental houses. When I heard about paid jobs in the NYC film scene, I forwarded them to our grads.

I also worked closely with the actors that starred in the films the FITP made. Each summer, we would make a short film in the program as a “final project,” with the trainees working as the crew for the film. We created a small company of Connecticut-based actors, and they all worked together on all our films. I tried to set them up with other opportunities outside the FITP during the year, and helped many of them find acting jobs, both on outside films and on projects they produced themselves.

So after three years of the FITP, we had 350 Connecticut residents that were graduates! They were trained to be assistant directors, script supervisors, location scouts, prop masters, sound mixers, camera assistants, and more.

And most importantly, I had helped them all in some way.

While the program was running, I was also preparing my feature film writing/directing debut, RISING STAR. I wrote the script in 2009, and started prep in early 2010. It was then I made the ask. I contacted our most promising graduates, the ones that had worked on multiple projects in film and television, and asked them if they could help me make my first feature film.

Every one of them said yes.

In fall 2010, we filmed RISING STAR in Hartford, Connecticut, with a crew that included 38 FITP graduates. And they kicked ass. For many of them, it was their first job on a feature film, and they worked their hearts out. We finished principal photography on time, and even filmed two days of pickups months later, days that everyone volunteered for. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

And the best part is that since then, the people behind RISING STAR have gone on to do great things in the industry. Our script supervisor is now the script supervisor for the Marvel shows DAREDEVIL and JESSICA JONES. Our production designer is now a graphic designer on the shows ELEMENTARY and THE BLACKLIST. And our actors have gone on to work in films like THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and BRIDGE OF SPIES.

And we actually got a distribution deal for the movie! Content Film acquired RISING STAR in 2013, and it’s played all over the world. And if you have Amazon Prime, you can watch it in the US for free! (Just click here.) All the hard work of these young filmmakers paid off in a project they can put on their resume as being put out in the world by a legitimate distributor.

But the beginning of this story came when I realized I could build an army of filmmakers through this program I created. You may not be in a position to actually train your own crew, but who do you know in your area who wants to be a filmmaker? Maybe you can find local, likeminded folks on Stage32.com. Maybe there’s a 48-Hour Film Project near you that you could meet people at, and volunteer with. Maybe there’s a filmmaking class you can take at your local community college to meet others who want to make films.

There’s always a way to build an army, and when you’re the general, it’s much easier to go into the battle of filmmaking with kindred spirits along with you.

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