Asmara Bhattacharya is a produced screenwriter/playwright, script reader, and festival screener, with multiple placements at Final Draft, Nicholl, Austin Film Festival, and other competitions. A trusted sounding board and consultant for industry professionals, dedicated fans also caught her in Independence Day: Resurgence and NBC’s The Night Shift – for one glorious half-second each. Website: www.dickflicks.net Twitter: @hotpinkstreak
Battling to scrape together your own independent film? Thousands of others have made the same mistakes before you. Before you whip out your smartphone camera, learn from a tired festival screener who would be thrilled if your feature or short doesn’t fall into similar pitfalls.
First and foremost, have a purpose. This doesn’t mean you must impact society. One fantastic short told a joke in fifty seconds with flawless comedic timing. Its goal: to make us laugh. On the other hand, I’ve sat through films with impeccable performances and production values and come out with no clue as to why I’d watched it.
This should go without saying, but have an actual story. It is stunning how many filmmakers manage to wrestle up a cast, crew by the dozens, even a half-million dollar budget, for a 100-page script with no story.
A millennial drifting through his daily life with no problems and no goals is Act 1 background, but it’s not a story. A fantastical landscape teeming with winged lions, alien mushrooms, and teleporting sharks is a world setting, but it’s not a story. An alcoholic who wakes up in the Prohibition Era is a concept, but it’s not a story.
Without further development, all of the above lack the narrative drive to sustain a five-minute short, much less a ninety-minute feature. Too many filmmakers jump the gun when they come up with one small part of a fantastic story. Story encompasses many disparate elements. The longer the film, the more development each element requires.
On that note, make absolutely certain you lay the groundwork for that story with some form of structure. While the three-act format rules Hollywood-type features, structure is not limited to that one template. Films from any number of countries often utilize a completely different type of narrative than American films. Some experimental movies seem to have no structure at all. Ever caught an Andy Warhol flick?
But most films suffering from structural issues are not aiming for that experimental groove. They simply steamrolled into production without building the foundation of a compelling story.
The most glaring problems in indies? Too much setup, and zero action.
Indie films tend to over-indulge on introducing the world and characters. Tight funding will likely cap runtime to under two hours, even ninety minutes. Yet time and time again, indie features spend half an hour explaining the background.
That’s fully one-third of your screen time. When was the last time you got thirty minutes into a movie before something happened? If I don’t know what the film is about, or at least what the main characters want, by the thirty-minute mark, I’m likely to hit stop right there and move on.
And no budget does not equal no action. No explosions, no car chases, no CGI, no Roman armies, sure. But there must be action (again, unless you’re Andy Warhol). Your action may well be more internal than external. But things must happen, and characters must act and react to those things.
Without seeing your film, I can nearly guarantee that it could be shorter. You’ve probably learned the “festivals like ‘em shorter” mantra. One oft-repeated “truth” is that shorts have a higher rate of acceptance if they are under ten minutes, or seven minutes, or five and a half minutes.
This is not that mantra. 80% of the films I screen could be shorter. Whether it’s repeated beats, rambling dialogue, slow-mo overload, scenes that don’t serve the story, or too much setup (see above), it’s almost certain that your film, too, could be trimmed to be faster, smoother, more efficient, more powerful.
Get someone to line-edit your script (not you). Then get someone to edit your film (also not you). Outside eyes won’t share your emotional attachment to your baby.
Before the camera rolls, you’ll have hopefully heard ad nauseum that sound is everything. THIS IS TRUE. After story, sound is probably the most important aspect to get right. Sets can be a bit askew, costumes DIY, lighting amateur; but bad sound is the most distracting element in terms of production value.
Two of the most common mistakes that obliterate dialogue aren’t related to mics and booms. First, make sure your actors enunciate. Of course, most characters will not speak the Queen’s English flawlessly. But there are ways to pull off accents, low volume, and even mumbling intelligibly.
Second, don’t drown out your carefully crafted words with music or background noise. While balance is tricky in certain shooting situations, such as on a public street or in a crowded room, there is no excuse for mixing in scoring or ambient sound in post production at a higher volume than the dialogue.
While you’re in post, don’t forget to vary the music. A short that explores a single theme or moment can get away with a monochromatic soundtrack. But features, whether narrative or documentary, need variation to prevent aural exhaustion. There is little more torturous than a film blasting the same blandly upbeat music for sixty-three minutes. The mind will zone out.
A film of substantial length should naturally traverse contrasting moods and tension levels. Score the soundtrack to reflect those changes. Engage the audience’s ear by switching keys, shifting tempos, breaking up major with minor, throwing in some three-four or five-four or six-eight. If those terms read like Klingon to you, recruit a musician to score your film. And show them this paragraph.
Side note: If your main character is supposed to be a brilliant musician, you’d better darn well get a brilliant composer, or your credibility as “The Authority” over your film will be shot to pieces.
Gentlemen (and occasionally ladies): Quit already with the stylin’ shots of men urinating, masturbating, and doing other things with their privates. Whether you’re going for comedy, seediness, ambivalence, despair, irony, or shock value, you’re not as edgy as you think.
Easily a third of the movies I screen try it. I’ve watched onscreen guys pee inside, outside, at urinals, in stalls, on things, in things, over things, on someone, at someone, with someone, in patterns, in writing, on camera, off camera, at the camera, slowly, quickly, and not at all. I’m not even going to touch the self-love trope.
We all know you have them, you like them, you love to play with them. Just as the male form is, shall we say, obvious, these types of scenes, too, are obvious. It’s been done. Repeatedly. In some films, this is the basis of the whole plot.
Please, please, don’t make an entire film about it.
Find something new, something original and creative and not so lazy, to push your story and let your voice shine. A two-year-old can wave his penis around. It doesn’t require thought, craft, art, meaning, or intent. Don’t be a two-year-old. Be an artist.
Animators: Pay attention to your palette, both color and gender. I’ve seen films where all the light pink pigs are good guys and all the dark pink pigs are bad guys, where the innocents are white as snow and the criminals are black apes, where all fifty sketched characters were male.
Show your storyboards to a diverse set of friends first to see if they catch a message you didn’t intend. I’m not advocating diversity for diversity’s sake (although there’s nothing wrong with that, and animators are potentially less constrained in that realm than live-action filmmakers). But you are literally coloring in the inhabitants of the world you’re presenting. Step back and check if your personal worldview is shaping it more than you realize.
Shorts filmmakers: Don’t allot half of your running time to credits. Or laurels. A four-minute short is perfectly acceptable. Don’t add two minutes on either end for credits.
Last but definitely not least, if you have designs to write, direct, and star in your own feature, don’t. Just…
Most reputable screenplay competitions anonymize submissions because you never know what might prejudice a reader – for or against a script. It’s harder to anonymize film. Nevertheless, I diligently avoid opening credits in order to minimize my unconscious bias.
Yet in probably 80% of features showcasing a single person as writer, director, and star, I can tell within twenty minutes. These movies usually project a sense of self-aggrandizement, self-indulgence, and other characteristics beginning with “self.” There is even a recent example of a major, generally acclaimed motion picture, beautifully executed on many fronts, that still embodies some of these traits.
Film is collaborative for good reason. Sometimes we need someone to tell us no when we are not brave enough, or objective enough, to say it ourselves. If you do decide to play writer/director/star anyway – and some of you will – at least collect unflinching feedback from a minimum of six industry folks who are not family, friends, or people who already want to be involved in your production. And be ready to listen to their no’s.
Oh, and please don’t center your film on a struggling, misunderstood screenwriter or filmmaker. No amount of camouflage will cloak the fact that it’s you. It happens every third or fourth film, and no matter how unique you think your particular story is, they all pretty much come out the same. Write what you know, but, pretty please, write something else you know.