Saturday, December 15, 2012

Making your film.

So, you have a script (or a treatment or a scriptment), you have friends who are encouraging you to go out and do it, and you have a passionate belief that your movie needs to be made.  There are countless numbers of budding and well-established filmmakers who have arrived at this same conclusion and they, like you, need money, equipment, crew, cast and copious luck.  It is a very difficult thing to be patient and wait for your turn--any preschooler will tell you that.  But you can make use of that time waiting, so that once you reach the front, you are truly ready.

Something I heard a lot during the seven years I spent putting together my film THE OFF HOURS was this: Why do you have to make this movie?  What is it about this story that is important?  Why are you the best person to tell it?  In my case, I felt like I had something to say about overcoming inertia that I hadn't seen handled in other films.  I had watched a lot of friends give up on their dreams and pursue paths that promised more security.  I personally struggled with the choice of going after a more traditional measure of success--home ownership, medical insurance, a savings account.  It occurred to me that all people make these kind of choices at some point.  Some decide in high school that these are their priorities and they go after degrees that lead to stable careers.  Then there are those who cling to their artistic hopes through college and on into graduate school, who leave school with bills to pay and must retreat into "real" jobs to cover these debts and who never return to their true passion.  And then there are those who never allow themselves to have any dreams at all.  I felt like I had an understanding of this cultural issue that I wanted to talk about with my film.  The film was about something bigger than the characters within, something that touched me personally, and that I suspected had impacted many more.  That was why I had to make THE OFF HOURS.  Knowing the answer to this question for your film will keep you motivated to persevere in the face of countless obstacles, and it will also give others a reason to help you make it happen.

Once you have determined that your film is worth making, one of the first things you must do is sit with your producer and make a plan.  This is when you figure out in the cold light of day what exactly you need to make your film a reality.  And you will want the world--large crew, large budget, A-list stars, the works.  Maybe you have that kind of money at your disposal, and maybe you would even make excellent use of those dollars.  But a step that is often overlooked is to really think about your film's prospects in the marketplace.  This may mean facing the fact that your slow-burn movie about night-shift diner workers might not be the next LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.  Is that a reason not to make it?  No.  But it definitely warrants a recalibration of your expectations.  The market for indies these days is not good.  Sure there are still the occasional multi-million dollar sales, but much more frequently films are sold in the 5-6 figure zone (or not at all).  And in this brave new world, where so much of our entertainment can be found for free, earning revenue on your film once it's out there is getting more and more challenging.  You have to be aware of these realities when you set out to make your movie.  Be honest with yourself about what its chances are and then try to work within those limitations.

Chances are very good that you won't have the budget you want when you make your film.  There are very few examples in history of filmmakers saying "we just had too much money!"  There are so many elements involved in making a film that it's very easy to spend more, and very hard to spend less.  But hopefully money isn't the only resource you have.  Maybe you have skilled friends, or access to equipment, or maybe you know a restaurant owner who wants to help you cater, or people who own the perfect apartment for your primary location.  Because there are so many different things that go into a film, it stands to reason that you have some connections that can help in one way or another.  The important thing to remember when you go to utilize these other resources is that it can't be a one-sided deal.  If it's not mutually beneficial, you can burn out generosity quickly.  Try to work with people to figure out a win-win scenario, so you both come out of this project feeling like you want to do it again.

I think this one is pretty well-covered territory, but it bears repeating.  A script is really never finished, only abandoned (to paraphrase DaVinci.)  It is a work in progress up until the moment you are shooting, and then it continues to evolve in the editing room.  Make sure to read your own work with a critical eye.  Give it to others and encourage them to do the same.  I have a rule with my scripts.  If anyone asks to read one of them, I send it their way with a single request--they have to tell me honestly what they think.  While it's nice to hear "It's great!", it's really not that helpful.  Push people to be critical, ask them if they ever lost interest (and if so, where), ask if they responded to the characters, if there was anything that confused them or made them check out.  Sometimes people don't know how to provide constructive feedback, so asking questions (and truly welcoming the answers) helps.  Take that feedback and go back and try to resolve those lingering issues.  Once you go into production you'll be surrounded by people who are trying to translate your script into shots, set dressing and performance--you'll want it to be something you can stand proudly behind.

I think one of the most important things you can do at the beginning of your career is to assemble a good team.  This is where it's helpful to get to know your community through working on other people's films, but you can also find people through posting the job and interviewing the applicants.  (For example, it was only through answering a Craigslist ad for a cinematographer on the micro-budget film SHAG CARPET SUNSET in 2001 that I began to find my way into the Seattle community.)  Obviously it is important to find people who know their job, but it's equally important to find those who share your filmmaking philosophy.  The set environment is a delicate ecosystem, so you want to populate it with people who have an awareness of their impact and a sincere respect for the other departments and the cast.  This respect starts at the top--you have to find the people you trust, and then respect them enough to give them space to do their job.  Treat people as collaborators, not employees, and your crew will be more invested in creating something great.

Confidence is key when you are directing a film.  No one respects a director who hems and haws over every choice, or one who isn't clear and direct about what they want.  You need to be able to make strong, fast, good decisions and make it apparent that you are the right person to be leading this effort.  If you are naturally confident, awesome for you.  But if you struggle with shyness or don't love being in the public eye, you have to work to overcome these obstacles as quickly as you can.  Fake it if you have to--eventually that commanding personality that you've been assuming will become a natural part of you.

A responsibility that the director shares with his/her producers is the task of creating a productive on-set environment.  For your crew, this means having open lines of communication and talented, positive people who understand what it takes to move the production forward efficiently.  For your cast, this means keeping the off-screen drama to a minimum and making the set feel safe and comfortable.  Actors deliver better performances when they allow themselves to get truly vulnerable.  There's nothing worse for an actor than to walk onto a clearly hostile set and then try to perform.  This is true of the crew as well.  No one does their best work if they are distracted by petty issues and tension.  Every set has stress--it's the nature of working with limited time and resources.  But dealing with it as quietly and efficiently as possible will protect your actors and allow for everyone to be at the top of their game.

I've heard many a filmmaker talk about how someone ruined their movie--the props guy was texting the whole time, or the gaffer was drinking on the truck.  Sometimes you will find yourself with destructive elements on your set.  It happens.  But you can't necessarily rely on others to carry you to victory.  You can't ask others to work hard unless you're willing to work harder.  You have to care about your movie more than anyone else.  This starts when you're trying to get the film off the ground and it doesn't end ever.  You will have sales agents who put you at the bottom of the pile and distributors who are putting out fifty other movies along with yours.  You have to be prepared to keep caring and working to get your film out into the world until the job is done.  If that seems like too big a commitment, independent film may be the wrong business for you.

Some might say that "action" and "cut" need to be the two most oft-employed words for a director, but don't underestimate the power of "thank" and "you".  Be sure to express your gratitude to those around you.  They could be anywhere right now, but they are here on set with you making this film happen.  Thank people sincerely and often.  It's the least you can do and it goes a long way.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Breaking into the film business.

So, recently I've been gaining a little modest traction in this oh-so-fickle business.  And as I try to figure out what the next phase of my career will hold, I've been finding myself reflecting on the long and strange path that has led me here.

My time in the film industry hasn't been a straight line or a overnight phenomenon.  I received my MFA in film production over a decade ago.  A quick glance at my IMDb page will illustrate that it took me a while to find myself solidly in the director's chair.  I've held a lot of different roles on a lot of different productions, almost entirely within the burgeoning independent film scene in Seattle.

During this period I learned.  And learned and learned.  From my own mistakes, from other people's mistakes, from our occasional successes.  Did I want to be making my own films?  Hell yes.  Desperately.  The whole time.  But looking back now, I am incredibly grateful for the years I spent working on other people's films.  I am a better filmmaker because of the time I spent waiting, watching and learning.

People occasionally ask me my advice on breaking into this business, and rather than repeating myself ad nauseum, I thought maybe I should just write down my thoughts somewhere.  Here, actually.  So here you go...some tried and true, hard-earned lessons, from this cinechick to you:

This is a good rule in any business and, frankly, in life in general.  Be an observer.  If you want to direct (or write, or act), observation of human behavior is a super important skill.  But whatever you want to do, it never hurts to understand people.  And you will always learn more by listening to others than you will by listening to yourself.  

There are very few people who work in film who did not start off working for free.  I personally spent about five years working a day job and volunteering my nights and weekends on small indies before I was able to get paid to be on a set.  Five years is a long time.  Granted I was starting off at a time when there were fewer films being shot in Seattle and most had much lower budgets.  I also think my case is a bit unique because I was focused from the outset on key positions on set.  I had the opportunity to pursue paid PA work much earlier, but I chose to act as a DP (and eventually AD) on smaller films instead because I knew that would be more creatively fulfilling to me.  The point is, you don't just decide to work in film and then automatically get paid to do it.  Working for free in those early years was a huge part of my development as a filmmaker.  You have to pay your dues--it humbles you, it teaches you, and it makes you very grateful when your time finally comes.  So unless you've got a trust fund laying around somewhere, it helps to learn to live frugally.  I never grew accustomed to a high standard of living--I kept my expenses as low as possible so I could retain the freedom to stay focused on independent film.  To be honest I'm still trying to figure out how to make a sustainable living in this business.  But I chose this path and I love what I do.  I regret nothing.  

As someone who has been on the hiring end of several films, I can tell you without question that skill is only one of many factors that I consider.  When presented with two people of equal talent, I will always, every time, go with the person who has the better attitude.  Actually, sometimes I'll hire the person with less experience just because I think they have the right disposition for the work.  You can train people out of inexperience, but you can't train them out of perpetual grumpiness.  People who show up to set on time, ready to work and with a smile on their face, whether they are an intern or a union professional, will always get hired again.  Positivity and enthusiasm are two of what I consider the most important traits in a crew member.  The third is focus.  This goes along with that thing I already said about listening more than you speak.  If you are focused and paying attention on set, you will always know what's happening now, what's happening next, and how you can be a part of making it all happen more quickly.  For a shining example of someone who exemplifies all of the above, see Garrett Cantrell, who I will have on every set forever if I have my way.  I met Garrett when he was an unpaid art intern. First chance I got, I hired him as a key PA.  Next thing you know, he's one of the most sought-after key grips in the region.  Yes, he's excellent at his job, but he honed his skills by getting on a lot of sets, and he got on those sets because he has a kickass attitude.  Watch and learn, everyone.

When I started AD'ing, I immediately encountered the resentment of crews who had been too often burned by "production" and the frustration of producers who felt crews expected more from them than the budget allowed.  This disconnect is far from uncommon in the film industry, but it's something I think we have made great strides to overcome here in Seattle.  Over the past decade, I've seen what was once a random assortment of fairly embittered individuals evolve into a strong and mutually-respectful community.  That didn't happen all by itself--those of us making our living in this industry manifested that change.  And as a more coalesced unit, Seattle has yielded fantastic films.  When people ask me why I want to make my films in Seattle, I always tell them it's because of the amazing, hilarious, passionate, and highly skilled crews.  I'm proud of what we created here, and I want to see it continue to grow.  But listen, I realize that it's not a candy-covered wonderland all the time.  While we're all striving for crewtopia (I made that word up), it is still a rare gift to find yourself on a set that is completely devoid of difficulties.  You may still have bad experiences.  The worst thing you can do about this is get angry.  The best thing you can do is learn and help others learn by communicating what your issues are.  Don't yell and insult.  Don't sulk or grumble or be passive aggressive.  Reason with and educate those who you believe are causing your problem and try to help create the community you want to work in.  Give others the benefit of the doubt--chances are they (like you) are only trying to make the best film possible.

Common courtesy is incredibly underrated in this business.  Because of time constraints, budget constraints, and general stress levels, people tend to develop bad attitudes.  Fight this urge.  Just like they say in ROADHOUSE, be nice.  (Also, when in doubt, trust Swayze.)  Relationships are literally everything in this business, so nurture them.  Rebuilding burnt up bridges is hard work, especially when you didn't have to set fire to them in the first place.

Yes, I am thrilled that I was a part of so many crews over the past decade.  But I would have gone insane if I wasn't also working on my own projects on the side.  The whole reason I began writing my film THE OFF HOURS is that I realized how necessary it was to me to have a creative outlet.  The film is about people who don't have that--who get stuck in routine and stasis and boredom.  It's also about breaking those cycles and living the life you really want.  Find something that stimulates you and then do it every chance you get.  And yes, I realize that last sentence sounds dirty.

As you go through life, you will face choices every day.  Factors such as money, time and obligation might influence those decisions.  But don't forget to listen to your instincts.  Your brain will tell you what you "should" do, your gut will tell you what will make you happiest.  I have faced decisions in my life where my brain said one thing and my gut said the other, and I have never regretted going with my gut.

Okay, stepping off my little soapbox for now.  I hope there might be some little nuggets of usefulness for others within these ramblings.  Please feel free to comment and disagree or back me up and keep the conversation going.