As an independent filmmaker, I've often found myself on set in a zombified state, running on Mt. Dew fumes, freezing cold, and directing... myself... with a script that I wrote... at a location that I booked... and then rebooked... for free.
Now if you've ever been in this situation, you are certainly familiar with that curious twinge in the back of your exhausted, creative mind (and you also know that "free" means "paying for pizza and gas out of your own pocket to get people to agree to be there"). We ask ourselves,"Why the hell are we doing this?" Yes, we are talking to ourselves, but we are not crazy. It's a valid question. Tonight's freezing, caffeine-induced coma of a shoot probably shaved two years off of your life, and for what? Countless hours of staring at render bars? Fourteen likes on Facebook? There's no Oscar for Most Pieces of Hawaiian Pizza Consumed By A Guy You Whom Just Taught How To Adjust The Light Stand. The answer, we soon realize as we barely stay on our feet, is that we love to do it. And then we're on to the next take.
It is way easier to just tell your friends about a movie idea and then go on with your life than it is to give that idea a life of its own. Last year, my producing partner Craig Inzana, whom I am currently producing our first feature length film Blood On The Leaves with, and I embarked on a 4-month production of a 70 minute web series. It is titled Blue Card - a crime drama in 7 parts about a hitman. You can watch it here. In the end, our series premiered to a packed audience and went on to be picked up for online distribution; but as they say, it's all about the journey.
Here are the top ten things that I learned from the trenches of true independent filmmaking. This will be helpful if you plan to deal with volunteers with limited experience and working with little to no budget at all.
10. Maintaining The Ship
For some reason, I am drifting toward a ship/sea metaphor for film production in this countdown - not sure why. It's just where the current is taking me I guess (not all references will be that forced).
When it comes to zero budget set management, you deal with a lot of unforeseen problems. From the start, the web series or film that you are attempting to create already exists, but it exists the way India existed on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean to Christopher Columbus. You are convinced it is there, you've seen it in your mind over and over, you just need to get there.
But then there's that giant-ass deadly ocean in your way, and all you've got is a rickety ship that you acquired for next to nothing and a crew of unpaid volunteers who at any time can jump ship with no real consequences. It is your job to expect to encounter any and all obstacles on your way to India, including but not limited to: locations cancelling (hurricanes), cast and crew texting you that they can't make it five minutes before their call time (sea monsters), and unwanted audio noise (the black plague). These things WILL happen. I learned to accept that reality, prepare for the worst, and do my best. When take one starts, no- when you type "FADE IN:" on the first draft, you need to understand that although you're shooting for India, you may arrive somewhere different, and that's not always a bad thing. Directing a web series is maintenance - you do a little bit of everything, problem solve, stay calm, and get that damn ship and everyone on it to the final episode cuts in one piece. Murphy's Law is a bitch.
9. Over Organize
Time is precious on zero budget sets; therefore, thirty-seven minutes of waiting around for the runner to go grab the prop handgun that the actor forgot at a friend's house is bullshit. When the sea monster attacks, you better have that harpoon locked and loaded and ready to go, and also a backup. This goes for all crew positions and all actors: if you don't have time to do it right the first time, you must have time to do it over. Organization saves time and produces tighter, better results. Continuity breakdown lists of props, wardrobe, locations, effects, and cast should be kept in a binder along with a couple copies of the script at all times.
Pro tip: lineproducing.com is immensely helpful in learning how to organize your production.
8. Don't Apologize
This one was especially hard for me because I say sorry for asking for a couple more lines of mustard at Subway. Early on in the Blue Card shoot, I was apologizing for inconveniencing the volunteer crew members with another late night shoot every five minutes until finally one of them told me "Dude! We all want to be here! You're fine, we trust you." As production neared its end, I asked the non-film people who donated their time and effort to help us why they stayed. I learned that my passion for the project poured out of me when I spoke and because of that, my goal became their goal. It is the directorâ€™s job to convince the crew, especially when they are unpaid, that India is up ahead, no matter how choppy the seas get.
Uttering "Sorry" after every blunder dilutes that confidence and weakens morale. Nobody is perfect, mistakes are normal. And I don't mean that directors should go all Hitchcock on people; just try not to say sorry when... this paragraph is too long, damn... sorry, for real, I didn't know it was going to be this long, I promise I'll make it up to you and- see? Lame.
7. Cast Comfortability
Now that you've accepted the fact that mistakes are guaranteed to be made and the word "sorry" is a negative waste of time, you should carry this attitude over to the cast. I'm guessing that since you're working with a super micro budget, Edward Norton will not be acting in your web series or film. But what exactly does Edward Norton have that your actors or nonactors don't? Legendary talent? OK Ed wins that one. A trailer, assistant, first class plane tickets, top dollar hotel suites? Those are just THINGS - granted, things that a multi million dollar worthy actor requires to be comfortable in his position and deliver the best performance without distraction - but still, it's all about eliminating tension.
We low budgeters can still make our cast comfortable without all of those expensive things. I met the lead actress for Blue Card whom my character had to be in love with for the exact same day that we shot the most emotional scene of the series. It was 19 degrees and we were all essentially strangers to her. Luckily, she was amazing and still gave a great performance, but the lesson that I learned that the only thing an actor should be worried about is their character.
Take care of your actors and devote time into providing them with the means to genuinely feel comfortable. Find a place for them to relax and prepare quietly, show them where the bathrooms, food, and beverages are, and absolutely do not make them wait for an hour while your crew sets up the lights for the next shot. Actors create the moments we remember and their set comfortability translates into their performance, so make it amazing. But don't be too smothering. Show them where the refreshments are, don't ask them if they're sure they don't want a water a million times and don't just talk about the freaking weather. Be cool.
6. Backup Plans
Back to the ship references. The sea monster attacks. Lupe grabs the harpoon gun, but the monster slugs him with its thirty-foot tentacle and the gun snaps in half. Now what, captain? Your crew and cast are prepared and in place for the wedding scene atop a beautiful hilltop. It starts to sprinkle, five minutes later, your lights and cast are getting soaked in a storm. Now what, director?
Plan B's are a must. Again, organize organize, organize. You need to be ready for sudden audibles and adjust accordingly and quickly.
As the monster winds up to strike the vulnerable ship for one final, sinking blow, Lupe snatches a spare spear and launches it into the creature's eye, killing it and saving the crew and their vessel. As the rain pours, you guide your crew inside the house nearby that you've booked for today and tomorrow. Although you planned to shoot the outdoor day scenes today and indoor night scenes tomorrow, the rain has you flipping to Plan B. You have your crew quickly block out the windows and lay blue gels over the lights and shoot day for night inside. Always bring a spare spear and always keep your schedule flexible.
5. Unpaid = Different Priorities
The thing with hiring Edward Norton for all of that money, the trailer, assistant, etc. is that he will show up... except as the Hulk again, but anyways... He is a paid "Hollywood" employee hired to act, and if ya ain't got Hollywood numbers in your bank account, ya ain't gonna get Hollywood actors. You get your cousin who can only remember the line "Oh we were filming that TODAY?" When directing a zero budget project, it is imperative to come to terms with the fact that you are asking people to help, not hiring them; therefore, it's no skin off their back if they don't happen to clock in the day of the big climax shoot out that you stayed up all night thinking about. It's not always easy to surround yourself with people who care about the film as much as you when you are just starting out, but again, always have a plan B and don't apologize. Oh, and holding grudges causes cancer, so accept it and tape the boom mic to the wall if you have to.
4. Local Music Is A No-Brainer
Again, with little amounts of money comes little amounts of options, especially in the music department. Now you could search endlessly for the least sounding cliched piece of cliched music in the free music archives online, click on few, realize that they actually cost like $8.25, click the back button, and keep searching. OR! OK imagine this, a fresh, no-name crew is working tirelessly on a project that they scrounged together whatever they had to make and is desperately trying to get it in front of audiences. It sounds a lot like us filmmakers, but bands and independent music artists are doing the exact same thing we are, except with tunes. Now imagine if these two groups - filmmakers who need free music and musicians who need free exposure - somehow worked together.
For Blue Card, we utilized the band The Daily Grind's music in two episodes. The bassist is from the same small town as me, the director, and they are based out of Pittsburgh. Finding local bands and artists is a no brainer for your film or web series and totally worth it. Mutual interests for the win!
Check out this list of local bands we featured in Blue Card.
3. Location Control
I can't stress this one enough. If you need to book a location, let's say a restaurant, you need to make sure that you can have access to the whole shooting area for enough time - and by enough time I mean the shooting schedule plus 2 hours. Without compensation, restaurants will not close just so you can film your web series the same way patrons won't just stop talking because of it, so there's the first couple hurdles of securing locations. The key is, get in a place where your web series being filmed is the primary thing that is happening and all other things have to wait. If you find yourselves cutting because people are talking and you simply don't have the power to tell them to stop, then you're wasting time and should've found a better time or place.
Air conditioners and freezers running on set make me want to jump off of a cliff into a shark's mouth. Never never never allow your shoot to be controlled by the periodic buzzings of these evil machines. Be hot and let ice cream melt instead. Whether it's getting in on Sunday because the restaurant is closed or staging your own diner elsewhere, both things that I have found success with, you must steer the ship and be in control of the location, not the other way around.
2. Clear Audio For The Love Of God
Two things will make an audience member declare your web series a piece of shit shortly after pressing play: bad audio and bad acting. We've all seen bad acting and it doesn't take much to recognize it. We've also seen great acting make a crappy story tolerable, but it may take some viewing time to fully realize the quality, or lack there of, of the acting.
With audio, it takes a quick three seconds to determine whether or not the audio, and film for that matter, is sucky. Clear audio is irrefutable. What is the point of dialog if you canâ€™t hear it. Boom mics, external recorders, lav mics, iphone audio recording apps, etc. they are all better than your cameraâ€™s mic. Use them wisely and with care. You may not get to look at a cool little screen like if you were lining up a shot, but it truly is the second most important facet of filmmaking. This includes recording clean on set dialog and filling your scene with accurate foley effects. It will elevate you above that "I can't hear what's going on, this sucks" initial reaction.
So what is the number one most important facet of filmmaking then? Well, it just so happens to be the number 1 thing that I learned while making a web series:
1. Acting Less Is More
Let's back to the two things that will make people immediately write off your web series. They load up episode one and press play. The audio sounds nice, the dialog is clean and the environment sounds full. Oh waitâ€¦ wow. Yeah OK why is this guy like speaking like he's reading? Um yeah she's smiling too much - this is weird. This movie kinda sucks, bro.
Actors perform the moments that we all remember. They are the ones who bridge the gap between filmmaker and audience and nothing with destroy that bridge quicker than an amateurish performance - you may be using amateurs but the performances that they deliver should be of professional caliber.
Filmmakers should always challenge themselves because pressure and hard to reach goals promote creativity, but if you know that you will only be able to use your relatives and friends in the cast who do not have any acting experience, then writing Wolf Of Wall Street-esque speeches is probably not a smart move.
So how can you get workable performances from non-actors or those with little film experience? It's simple, really. A lot of bad indie films are overacted and unless it's on the Disney Channel, no one likes overacting. So eliminate it. In fact, direct your actors to UNDERact.
Right now as you're reading this blog post, your eyes are moving slowly down the screen, not darting back and forth. Itâ€™s not realistic to overact - unless the character absolutely calls for it. Give your actors the freedom to make the lines their own and sound as natural as possible. Let them take their time. Silence and pauses are so effective in the right situations itâ€™s almost too easy! Pick the right moments for the loud explosions of anger and energy, the rest should be toned back. Less lines is more. Less accents is more. Less interaction with props is more. Less is just more.
That's all I got for ya. Again, you can watch Blue Card right here on Sideline Pictures and see a lot of these things on this list both applied and both not applied. The best way to learn is by making mistakes, right? The important thing is that you're brave enough to set sail in the first place (I'm not sorry for drowning you in sea references in this post).