Indievelopment: On the Silver-ish Screen – Writers Producing Films

By Jeff Richards

Part of the reality of indie is you don’t wait for permission. In Hollywood, you need to get through a seemingly-Sisyphean series of self-satisfied sentries (as you’d expect when films can cost millions to hundreds of millions.) Indie doesn’t have gate keepers; it’s just concerned with getting it done, so sometimes you’ll want to just get it done. You want to see your words on screen. You’ve written a script. You’ve networked. Things are going… well, they’re going. However, you haven’t yet sat in a theatre (or in front of YouTube or in front of a DVD player) and seen your work come to life. So, you’ve decided to take the plunge and produce your own work! After all, how hard can it be?

Image by sailko

Image by sailko

Very.

But you don’t care; you’re going to do it anyway! After all, being a producer is sexy and glamorous and… okay, whatever you think being a producer is all about, if you want to take the plunge, I’ll share my experience and hopefully you’ll not step on the same rakes I did on your journey. This isn’t a comprehensive guide; it’s a quick overview to see if it’s for you. If it is, then it behooves you to do more reading on the subject before taking the plunge.

So, you’re going to do it. No one can stop you! Awesome. My first advice to you is:

DON’T

Even a simple short film will take weeks to months of your life if you’re doing it right (and if you’re not going to do it right, why do it at all?). A feature is years. In that time, you could be a better writer. You could rewrite existing scripts, write a new feature or three, put the money involved in producing into a course or script notes or books on theory… you get the picture. You have finite resources: time, money, energy. If you want to be a writer, and only a writer, then your energy should be there. Don’t fragment yourself; you’re competing against others who aren’t. Do you think you’d win a gold medal in Olympic sprinting if you were simultaneously trying to be a Formula 1 driver and debut at the Metropolitan Opera? Not likely. Focus breeds success,

Jeff, you’re a writer/director/producer… take your own advice much? Yeah, not usually. But in this case, I always wanted to be a filmmaker rather than purely a writer. In fact, directing came first for me and writing started just so I could have scripts to direct. And because writing a feature is cheaper than shooting one, I’ve ended up doing a lot of the former.

So it’s up to you. And people actually seeing your work is quite a rush. Seriously. The first time I had someone come up to me after seeing one of my films, and they had tears in their eyes… well, that’s a feeling you can’t get many places.

So, you still want to do it? Okay.

DON’T

I said that already? Fine.

Start Small

Don’t start with a feature. (I did; it didn’t get finished.) Don’t start with sci-fi or fantasy or action, unless that’s what you want to be known for as a writer; if that’s the case, you’ll need far more resources and get really clever with your writing unless you have a fair amount of cash to spend.

Do start with a small cast, minimal locations, and a small crew. (My 2nd film was one location, 4 minutes, 2 cast. Learned my lesson after trying the feature, and that two-hander is still one of my favourites.) It’s better to do something simple and do it nearly perfectly than be hugely ambitious as you plant yourself face-first in budget overruns and unfinished films.

Be Realistic

This cuts both ways. If you have $100 to put towards producing, then you’re going to be begging, borrowing, and grovelling to make this happen. However, if your day job pays well and you want to make a splash (or if you’ve landed a big grant/contest win), then you can do a lot! But how does it break down? Well, every script is different, and what you can get in terms of favours can make an enormous difference, but here are some general guidelines.

Less than $1K – you’re going to be spending most of your money on logistics; gas, parking, renting/buying cheap the things you can’t manage to borrow, and feeding your cast and crew. ALWAYS FEED YOUR PEOPLE! FEED THEM WELL! Everything else here is negotiable, but you have to feed them. Not pizza. If it has to be fast food, make it healthy and hearty, like Subway. You must have coffee and tea and water and healthy snacks, and you must take into account allergies and preferences such as vegetarian/vegan. At less than $1K, it’s unlikely you can afford insurance, so you probably can’t shoot at a major business, and don’t break gear you can’t afford to replace. Don’t plan risky stunts or gear setups; your people aren’t insured and so that’s on you. Unless you can borrow it, your lighting will mostly be available lighting; a reflector and some bounce material will probably be the full deal. And even if you can’t afford anything else, get a good mike. People would rather watch VHS with THX sound than watch IMAX with an AM radio delivering the audio. Sound first, picture second. TRUST ME. No, I said TRUST ME. Really. Bad lighting hurts. Bad sound kills.

Between $1K and $5K – Here you can do something a bit more polished. You can afford food, insurance, a good camera and a decent lighting kit. Possibly a few locations. You can afford to feed a slightly bigger cast and crew.

Over $5K – Now you can stretch your wings. Depending on what you want to do and what favours you can pull in, you can get a lot out of this. Spending four figures, I shot a six-figure short film on 35mm on a major studio set with a full professional crew and everything you could ask for. I also was quite lucky and got a lot of favours! Which leads us to…

Ask for Help

Whoever you are, you know someone who can help. Even if you don’t know a single person in the film industry, you know someone who has a DSLR that shoots video. Or someone who owns a cool location you can use. Or even someone who has an SUV you can haul gear in. Or even someone who collects long extension cords. Someone can help you. When I shot aforementioned four-figures-looks-like-six-figures short film, we had help from a film studio, gear providers, caterers, prop houses, video production crews, many many more, and a cast and crew to die for. One of my actors was the star of a network TV show. My production designer was a two-time Emmy award winner. The collected years of experience on-set numbered in the centuries. All because we asked. And as people say yes, more people will say yes. Ask. Be polite. Say thank you. Drop off a thank-you card or a small gift (note: a copy of the finished film is nice, but that’s not a gift). Simple stuff; most people don’t do it. Be the one who does.

And speaking of asking for help…

Don’t Assume You Can Direct

Directing is an entirely different thing from writing. I can’t go into all the details here, but if you’re embarking on producing for the first time, get an experienced director to take the helm. It is not a simple skill; in fact, as a writer/director/producer, I can tell you that directing is the most difficult aspect by far. All the things you can tweak at leisure and decide upon and get other people’s opinions on as a writer, you have to decide on the spot as a director. And twenty people are waiting for you. And they all want different things. And you’re supposed to know all the answers. And it’s starting to rain.

Learning to direct takes years. You’re possibly starting out as a writer. You are starting out as a producer. Don’t have too many neophytes at the helm; an experienced director can make your script take off. And isn’t that the point?

Good luck. And welcome to the madness.

Next week, I was going to talk about crowdfunding. But, as it turns out, I’m going to be launching a crowdfunding campaign soon, so I thought I could use that as a case study and let you know the pitfalls as I go through it. (Hopefully, I’ll be telling you how I avoided them as opposed to yelling from the bottom of the pit.)

So instead, next week, I’m going to talk about screenwriting RULES. You’ve probably heard of them. Don’t use camera directions. Have an action every four to six lines. Don’t use “We see”! Well, next column, I will tell you what you NEED to know about these rules. Once you read that column, you will never be unsure in another debate on screenwriting rules again. I promise.

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