Balls of Steel: Lessons on a Set

The printer spits out your finished script. As you hold the hot pages in your hand, you get the brilliant idea to shoot the film yourself, convinced you’ll finally have total control over your words *insert the evil laughter of world domination*.

Image courtesy of david-proctor.com

Even in the indie world, there’s no such thing as control.

This past weekend, I played Executive Producer on the set of gone Elvis, an independent short film written and directed by my friend, David Newhoff. David knew that despite my having zero experience producing, I am a learning junkie, so he asked if I’d lend him a hand fundraising. In exchange for my crowdfunding prowess, I’d get the learning opportunity of being behind the scenes.

He didn’t even have the script done when I said, “Hell, yes!”

After 45 days, we successfully reached our Kickstarter goal and set the date to shoot. Twenty-six pages of script, 19 actors, 10 crew members, approximately 15 locations, and four days to get it in the can.

Did I mention David has a bedazzled Batman cape in his trunk? I think I saw a crack pipe there, too. Oh wait, that was just a hallucination after spinning on the stripper pole day four of the shoot. But that’s a story for another day … maybe.

Superhero or not, David was right. I learned a hell of a lot about filmmaking in a four-day crash course. But being a writer, my mind always comes back to the script.

David wrote, directed, and operated the camera, but only was the DP because of unexpected, last-minute circumstances beyond his control. With all of that involvement, you’d think every word he wrote would make it on film, right? Wrong.

Sometimes a hungry crew, a rainstorm, or a detail left out of an earlier scene required that sequences be reshot on a different day, changing the entire game plan. Expect the unexpected, and expect scenes to be cut.

As David shared on set, “Writers shouldn’t fall in love with every word; directors shouldn’t fall in love with every shot.”

In guerrilla filmmaking, decisions have to be made on the fly, and when it’s all said and done, hopefully you’ll be able to find an even better story in the editing room.

But there are indeed things you can do to help your odds. In my opinion, it all starts with the script.

Write what you love, then analyze it for locations, wardrobe changes, props, number of actors, and any variables you can control before the shoot. Do that while still in the writing stage, prior to pre-production or crowdfunding.

In writing your script, you’re building a foundation for your film on more levels than just story. It’s the blueprint for your project.

I’m no expert, but Roberta Munroe is. For five years she was the short films programmer at The Sundance Film Festival and wrote an incredible best-selling book, How Not to Make a Short Film: Secrets From a Sundance Programmer.

Roberta has been a past guest of Scriptchat and is producing one of our co-founders shorts, Vivienne Again. Writer and director, Kim Garland, is graciously allowing me to tag along to keep learning. While Roberta’s book is invaluable, the best way for me to learn is to experience the process and see her lessons applied.

Even if you never want to write a short film, being on set and helping a friend make theirs will forever change your writing. Short or feature-length, budget matters, location matters, cast matters … and those variables start with your words on the page.

Above all, when you write a great script, the cast and crew will give you their best work because you have set the bar high. When your film succeeds, they succeed. Give them a script that makes them want to bring their A game, and once they do, let them help you bring yours to the table too. After all, filmmaking is a collaboration.

I urge you to find a friend who’s making a short and watch the process from script to screen firsthand. It’s magic and a continuation of the honing of our craft. Our number-one job as writers is to write well. When we do, we’ll attract the producers and talent we need to get our words on screen.

Step away from your laptop and take learning into your own hands. After all, this is your career. Get guerrilla if you need to.

Please share your filmmaking experiences and lessons in the comments below. It’s the best way for all of us to learn.

19 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: Lessons on a Set

  1. David Newhoff

    And re. generators, that’s part of the beauty of the process. Bad news is the generator was being a bitch; good news is the scene looks better lit by flashlights. Serendipity is part of the process, and THAT’s the thing the writer should know, in my opinion. Writing is playing God. Making a film is tempting the Gods to fuck your shit up.

    DN

  2. David Newhoff

    Pete, I certainly meant no disrespect to your profession and was really making a comparison to engineering v. design much more than bureaucratic codes — that often vision will collide with physics, and one must adapt accordingly. At best, it’s a loose metaphor and not meant to be taken as a serious comment about architecture.

    DN

  3. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Pete, I feel your pain. God bless architects and all they put up with.

    Mark, I’m laughing because on set that happened to us. The generator was being a bitch, and we ended up lighting the scene with flashlights pulled from everyone’s cars. It actually looked pretty cool, but we got lucky. Damn “EXT. FIELD – NIGHT” 🙂

  4. Mark E. McCann

    I agree that writers should have a hand in the production part, because it will give them a totally new outlook on how they write. The words “EXT. FIELD – NIGHT” looked so harmless on the page when I wrote them, but when it came time to actually film it, only then did we realize what that required: Big lights, and a place to plug them in (there are no electrical outlets in a field, after all!). We got a generator, but then learned they don’t cycle evenly, and caused the lighting to ebb. We then had to get a crystal-synch generator — and the closest one was two hours away. A whole night was wasted because some idiot had to write “EXT. FIELD – NIGHT”!!!

  5. Pete

    “A script is a blueprint for a film, but it’s an architect’s blueprint, which means it’s probably full of details an engineer has to fix. And just to keep the metaphor going, making a film is like building a house that moves around while you work”
    David Newhoff
    I am an architect and can see the metaphorical concept between film and constructing a building. The only difference is when a building is being built you have a building inspector on site telling you about some unimportant building code that has no real purpose other than to give a building inspector his job, thus paycheck.
    Imagine you are about to shoot a scene and some guy comes up to you as the director telling you:
    “You can’t shoot this scene because the angle of your camera is too steep. According to the MBC (MOVIE BUILDING CODE) chapter 24.1.3.2 table 3A when shooting a Documentary after 9:00 pm on a Tuesday your camera angle must be no steeper than 15 degrees above finish floor.
    Sad but true.

  6. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman

    Why thank you, Princess. I’ve always been that kind of learner too. It’s probably why I didn’t like classrooms. I much preferred working than learning about the theory of working. Maybe it was growing up on a farm. Never a better way to learn than by getting your hands dirty.

  7. Princess Scribe

    “Step away from your laptop and take learning into your own hands.”

    Like you, I am a tactile learner. I can read about it… or I can roll up my sleeves and do it.

    I prefer the latter.

    *clang*

    Oops. Dang steel.

  8. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman

    Great added thoughts, David. Thanks for not posting the pics of me on that pole… oh wait… damn Facebook 🙂

    As always, Jan, you add great insight to the creative process. I’ve learned the most by listening to other people’s experiences – the good, the bad, and the ugly. I also must say, I have learned far more from observing “what not to do” than by having everything run smoothly. Mistakes are what makes us grow.

  9. Jan Militello

    In my experience, a finished short film has three incarnations – first on the page, second during production and third in the editing room.

    If, as a writer, you are wed to the idea that the second and third births are going to result in an exact replica of the first, my advice would be to stay away from the process rather than make everyone involved (yourself included) batty.

    Flexibility is key.

    At the same time, so is standing up for the story. When decisions are made on the fly during production it is important to take “the whole picture” into consideration. If that one scene, that one line, that one shot, heck, sometimes that one word is cut or changed – how is it going to affect the *integrity* of the story as a whole? The answer dictates what needs to happen. No matter the budget, have someone monitoring the shot list and the script at all times. If something isn’t filmed, the question, “Is this crucial?” must be asked. If so, does it have to be handled now or can it be picked up later? Develop a back-up plan. And that plan can’t always be, “It’ll get fixed in post.”

    Strive for improvements over the previous incarnation. – Even when you have to search high and low for the positives in what may seem to be set backs. – Oftentimes, some of the best aspects of a film may occur through insights and spontaneity. Be open to them. They might be golden.

    I’ve had four terrific experiences with short films produced from my writing.

    And, one horrific step-by-step guide in, “What not to do.” Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn’t the first project. It was the third. Wish I’d read Roberta’s book first. (Writer’s Store here I come). It may have saved bucket loads of disappointment. Then again, I learned more from the missteps of the failed project than from the four films that progressed smoothly. Most importantly, I had to learn to say no. Always listen to your intuition… and act on it.

  10. David Newhoff

    Jeanne makes some excellent observations (and she saved my butt a couple of times during the shoot), but I would qualify some of these early lessons with a big “depends.” No two film projects are quite alike with regard to writers’ interactions with the production itself. The more intrinsically involved a writer is with a project (i.e. a low-budget indie), then yes, production knowledge will help him/her collaborate effectively with the director and the production team. On the other hand, if you write a multimillion dollar epic, you’re more likely to sell it and have exactly zip to say about how it gets made, what gets cut, edited, etc. So, write what you believe works without concern for how it will get done. No two directors will approach it the same way, and all are likely to disappoint the writer a little.

    Creative control should not be confused with loyalty to the words on the page. Film is a director’s medium; and every director knows that a lot of what happens on set is serendipity — good and bad. For gone Elvis, we worked at about four times the pace of a well-funded feature and almost double the pace I would have preferred, but even in a more stately environment, decisions always get made on the fly. A writer can learn a lot from being on sets, but it’s not necessarily that you should write something differently because you think you know how hard it might be to shoot.

    A script is a blueprint for a film, but it’s an architect’s blueprint, which means it’s probably full of details an engineer has to fix. And just to keep the metaphor going, making a film is like building a house that moves around while you work. I think the most important lesson is to step out of the single-minded solitude of writing and embrace the collaborative madness of production. Ideas borne of a little turmoil are often the scenes that make film history.

  11. Lyse Beck

    Fantastic article Jeanne, and I couldn’t agree more!! Knowing what happens after the writing stage is huge for a writer! I’ve been on small and large sets in a VFX capacity, and it’s always mad, and the smaller the budget/shoot/schedule, it seems the madder it gets, but the more practical a learning experience it is too. Big productions/sets get very departmentalized, but small productions often provide a great opportunity to step into different roles. And it’s fun! Otherwise, if you stay in a writing bubble, never knowing what happens next, you’re kind of like a watchmaker who’s never learned to tell the time. BTW, stripper pole?? ha! Can’t wait to see “Gone Elvis”!! And all the best with the Lovely Kim’s film too!

  12. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman

    Geraint, Chera, Jaclyn – great comments! Yes, whenever we had a dialogue-heavy scene, I got to see just how long those take to shoot. A zillion angles, closeups, etc. I may have to duct tape my characters mouths and save the producers some scratch 🙂

  13. Jaclyn Abergas

    I used to love dialogue-heavy films, until we shot these films and edited them, on a no-to-low budget set. It was hell keeping up with continuity and maintaining the interest of the audience. I learned the hard way, less really is more.

  14. Chera Federle

    I love love love being on set. There is a certain thrill to it all (esp. if it’s your own words being brought to life). I have taken on the roles of script supervisor, wardrobe coordinator, extras coordinator, PA, transportation, boom operator, make-up artist, UPM, Associate Producer…you name it (and sometimes all on the same production). I have sat through auditions, script consulting sessions, scouted locations, reviewed rough cuts for editing input … there is so much a writer can do to lend a helping hand with the production process. Has it helped me grow as a writer, most definitely. So, yes, writers, get on set, any set, and learn.

    Enjoy your time on Kim’s set, Jeanne. Much luck!

  15. Geraint Thomas

    I couldn’t agree more with the above article, I’d suggest revisiting ‘Reservoir Dogs’ to see an excellent film shot mostly in one location or… go and see how they handle it in the theatre!

    Happy writing to one and all!

  16. Lee

    Working on fiilm sets is a great way of knowing the pain your writing causes!

    I worked on an EXT. CAR CRASH – NIGHT shoot and the amount of lighting required, including a BFL (which stands for a Big F*cking Light, because it takes about 3 people to move the f*cker!) is an eye opener.

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