Category Archives: independent film

Ten Realistic Zero-Budget Filmmaking Tips

Recently saw a list of ten zero-budget filmmaking tips on the Raindance Film Festival website.  And while I thought most of the tips were solid, I felt they needed tweaking, and a few were off base.  Here is my reworking of the list taking into account that zero budget filmmaking is what do.

1. The Story is Everything — If your script sucks your film will most likely suck.  If you don’t have some idea of the story you’re trying to tell as you begin shooting your documentary, your film will suck. And most importantly, if you don’t know how to tell a story in the editing room, if you don’t understand basic filmmaking principals like the three act structure, you film will ABSOLUTELY suck.

2. Location Location Location — you can find amazing locations for free or for very little money.  It’s why I so often shoot at the Hotel Duncan in New Haven.  Even the bare walls have character.  But a plain white wall in your dorm room is not a location for a film, any film.  Not even a film about a person stuck in a dorm room.  It will only make yours look like the product of a high school hobby.

3. Capture as Much Footage as Possible — video is free.  You can shoot for hours.  Get the extra take, then the one after that.  Get coverage.  Give your editor something to work with.  You’ve already put in so much time into this film, and you’ve only just started.  Shoot more, then shoot more after that.  (And as an addendum to that, learn how to use your lights.  You can light a scene beautifully with one light.  I’ve done it hundreds of times.  Play with shadows.  What’s unlit is just as beautiful as what you can see clearly.  Study old photographs.  Watch old films.  Do your fucking homework.

4. Sound is King — it’s more important than your image.  And no, you won’t be able to fix it in post.  ADR is really expensive.  Most unprofessional actors suck at it.  And if you’re doing a doc, well then you’re completely fucked without good sound.  Try to never shoot outside.  If the mic has to be in the frame in a doc, no one cares.  We care about what the subject is saying.

5. Great Music Can Save a Scene — there are so many cool bands out there in the same situation as you are.  Find the music that’s appropriate for your film from a great unknown, approach them nicely, and ask for permission to use it.  You might be surprised at the answer.  And you will definitely be shocked at how the right music can make a good scene great.

Matthew Ryan wrote this haunting theme song for my film BROKEN SIDE OF TIME in exchange for me creating a music video for a song from his next album.  A win-win situation no matter how you look at it.

6. Get Organized — I’ve argued that making a feature film is the single most difficult thing to do in the world.  And I do believe that.  There are a thousand things that can go wrong, and if you aren’t organized.  If you aren’t ready, well, then you’re pretty much up the proverbial creek.  You have seconds to make a decision.  And this decision making happens a hundred times per day when filming.  If you don’t have everything else under control, if you are not organized, then give it up now.  Go back to talking about making a film at the coffee shop, because that’s all you’ll ever do.  Know every shot, visualize the edit in your head, know when the street outside will be noisiest, when the sun is setting, etc. and so on.  Be an all-knowing God, because after 30 minutes on set, you’ll realize you’re not.  But you’ll at least be glad you tried.

7. Your Friends Can Not Act — Neither can your mom, your girlfriend, or your high-school play director.  Hire real actors.  Do a proper casting.  And I’m not talking union here, but people who’ve done it before.  There are tens of thousands of them out there.  Otherwise you’ll have one bad line delivery after another, and we’re back to high school project.

8. Build a Following — social media is free.  Work it.  Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.  Find like-minded people.  Tell them about what you’re doing.  Compliment what they’re doing.  Share their links.  It works both ways and takes a long time, but if you show respect, you’ll earn respect, and a retweet from someone with 100K followers can help a lot.  (And please, if you’re using KickStarter, absolutely back a bunch of projects before your ask for funds.)

9. You are a Filmmaker, a C.E.O., an Accountant, a Publicist, a Salesman — Unless you can afford to pay people to take these positions, it’s up to you.  And trust me, you can’t afford to pay anyone.  You are the only one who can guarantee the job gets done correctly.  Filmmaking doesn’t stop at the wrap party.  A film will become a two, three, maybe even four year commitment during which you wear all those hats and more.  Like I said before, the hardest job in the world.

10. There’s No Such Thing as Luck — It’s work.  A lot of hard work.  But if you truly feel there’s nothing else you were put on this earth for, and you’re willing to put in 10 to 12 hours a day, every day, for years on end (not an exaggeration, kids), then it’s also the most rewarding job in the world.  Just don’t expect to finish your film, get into Sundance, and be entertaining four-picture deal offers from the majors.  You’re more likely to win the lottery.

You’ll find more related thoughts and observations HERE and HERE.

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Filed under film producing, film school, filmmaking, independent film, low budget films, low budget movies, Uncategorized

How I know when the editing is done…

It’s sound mix time on my newest feature, EVERY EVERYTHING: THE MUSIC, LIFE & TIMES OF GRANT HART.  This is my fifth truly independent film in 9 years.  My sixth, BROKEN SIDE OF TIME, is also complete and will be mixed next month.  All at DuArt in NYC.  All with Matt Gundy at the boards.

One realization came to me as I was completing these films over the past few months.  The moment when you know the film is ready to unleash upon the world.  When the tweaking is over.  And there is not one frame that you’d change.

This is how I knew for certain with EVERY EVERYTHING.  The first cut, the assembly of every scene ran over two and a half hours.  So I was already cutting as I was assembling, as the goal was between 90 and 95 minutes.  That was what I knew was perfect for the format I chose.

I got the film down to a respectable 99 minutes, then down to 97, and that’s when the real work began.  Removing pauses.  A frame here or there.  And remember, one frame is 1/24th of a second.  Doesn’t seem like much, but it can make all the difference in the world.  And then, last week, the film was down to 93 minutes even  And I sat down in my living room, and once again watched it from beginning to end.  And that’s when I knew I was close.  Because instead of having to trim just a little more, I knew I needed to put a little back in.  Not a lot, but a pause here or there.  A breath.  A break.  And heading back into the editing room, I ended up adding 17 seconds to the film.  Again, not a lot, but just enough.  And that’s when I knew it was done.  That moment when I stop trimming, and put something back at the very end.  That’s when the film is complete.

It happened a month earlier with BROKEN SIDE OF TIME, which I had down to 119 minutes.  The locked and final running time is now 126 minutes. It happened with COLOR ME OBSESSED, YOU ARE ALONE and FRIENDS (WITH BENEFITS).  Hell, it even happened with my Archers of Loaf Concert film WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? when I realized I had trimmed the band interviews too far down.

That’s the point for me.  And it’s always a little sad.  The people who had kept me company for weeks if not months in a darkened room, in this case Grant Hart and only Grant Hart, were moving on.  When I hear people talk about having kids, I secretly relate, because what they’re describing is what I feel.  I look at these films and see a part of myself, but also know they have unique personalities.  And I love them, unconditionally.  And even if they annoy the piss out of me at times, I always will.  They are my creations, from the heart, from the soul.

And now I begin the mix and get ready to send EE out into the world.  What fortunes with await it?  What will it become?  With others bully it?  Or adore it?  Or ignore it?  Will it live and long and happy life?  Only time will tell.

In the mean time, I begin anew.  A DOG NAMED GUCCI.  This child I know will break my heart.  But will make me proud in the end…

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Archers of Loaf & Internet Modeling (or World Premiers & a KickStarter campaign)

The World Premiere plus upcoming screenings of my new feature-length concert documentary WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? THE ARCHERS OF LOAF LIVE AT CAT’S CRADLE:

June 15th – NXNE Festival, Toronto, Canada (World Premiere)

June 18th – Sled Island Festival, Calgary, Canada

July 5th – CBGB Fest, NYC (US Premiere)

July 7th – Cat’s Cradle, Chapel Hill, NC

July 18th – The Brattle, Cambridge, MA

August 15th – Trylon, Minneapolis, MN

October 5th thru 11th – Northwest Film Forum, Seattle, WA

And my first narrative feature since FRIENDS (WITH BENEFITS). A very dark, sensual drama that takes place in the world of internet modeling (y’know places like Model Mayhem and One Model Place with their one million members)…

Please pre-order the DVD to BROKEN SIDE OF TIME

Or at least watch the trailer:

Then visit the KickStarter page.

Thanks!

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The Black & White Rules of Indie Filmmaking – part 7

7. Be organized.

Before the first minute of filmmaking, you should have the entire shoot laid out in your head, every detail planned, every “i” dotted, every “t” crossed. You should have run this through a hundred times in your mind, looking for anything and everything that could go wrong. Because, and I promise you this, no matter how organized you are, within the first hour of the first day, there will be major fuck-up.

Fuck-ups are inevitable. But if everything else is under control, you can handle a problem or two or three. But if you have nothing really planned out, and the problems start. You’re screwed. Time for the job at Starbucks.

Christine Vachon in her brilliant book SHOOTING TO KILL (a must-read for anyone thinking about making a film) put it best when she said “An independent film is a disaster waiting to happen.” And you will have that disaster on an almost daily basis. But that’s okay. After a while they’ll roll off your shoulders. Freaking out solves nothing. You are the commander in chief. You need to show calm through the stormiest seas. Take a deep breath, and solve the problem. As a director that’s your most important job.

I’ve lost locations seconds before we were supposed to shoot because the person with the key who was letting us into the location overslept. What do you do? You figure out if you can live without the scene, and put the information contained in the scene somewhere else. Or you find a backup location pronto. Remember you have at least 8 or so people waiting around for you. Look brilliant by solving the problem. This is one of the things I know I do best. But you MUST stay calm. If you freak out, you in turn freak out everyone around you. Not a good way to start the day.

But back to planning. Think EVERYTHING through. As an example. On a film a few years back, I knew two of the leads had great sexual chemistry. But I also knew that it wouldn’t last, that soon their personalities would clash. So how did I handle that to make sure it looked as if they were madly in love on screen. I shot all of their love/sex scenes first. Day one they were making out, slamming each other against a wall, rolling around on a bed. It worked in every sense of the word. And good thing, because by the end of the shoot they were barely speaking to one another.

As director you need to think ALL of these things through. Your line producer/production manager/first AD/second AD/UPM/script supervisor person might tell you it makes more sense to shoot the script in this order, but you’ve been there since the start, you know these actors (through all those rehearsals), you know the script (you probably wrote it) and what you want from it. It’s your movie, you make the rules. If people don’t want to follow them, there’s the door.

That’s another point: if you want something done one way, and a certain crew member refuses, or keeps doing it their way instead. Show them the door. They obviously want to direct. Let them go direct their own film, instead of fucking up yours. I still to this day regret not firing my DP (or perhaps doing something worse) and most of his crew on YOU ARE ALONE. Thankfully we had a B-camera running most of the time, and B-cam operators who were listening to what I wanted, otherwise we would have been screwed. But I learned my lesson. Never again.

I also want to point out that there are times you need to loose it on set. One example: on one particular film the production design team kept fucking up some of the details. So, we were five minutes from lunch this last time it happened. And knew we’d still be shooting the scene after lunch. So…I…just…fucking…lost…it. Literally went off he deep end, stormed off the set, and went to my office. My co-producer and my DP came running in after me not understanding what just went on. They found me laughing. I explained I did it strictly to put certain crew members in their place, even told all of the actors so during lunch. (Most of them already knew.) But it worked. Suddenly the details were right. We went on filming. All was well.

But also make sure to listen to your cast and crew. I now work with great people now who all bring amazing talent and ideas to the table. But it took a while to assemble this crew. And there are certainly times when they see things in a way I don’t or can’t. And when they’re right, I’m the first to admit it, and give them credit for a great idea. And when I prefer to keep on track with what I had planned, they show no attitude, or go sulking in a corner. (Read my Billy Zane post from years back on how someone working on a film should never behave.) They understand I am the film’s director, and ultimately their job is to make my vision a reality.

Finding crew members you trust is a great feeling. After the crew debacle that was YOU ARE ALONE (you can hear the details on my director’s commentary, but in short how that film turned out so well is a testament to a very few great crew people and two very talented actors), I found a great DP in Adrian Correia. He knows film. He speaks film. A few amazing co-producers, Jan Radder and Dean Falcone, whom both go back years in my life, Jan to PSYCHOS IN LOVE and Dean to when our bands played together in 1980. Sarah Hajtol, who was my right arm during the making of COLOR ME OBSESSED, and who’s camera work on WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? is mind-blowingly perfect for the film, and whose posters and websites so rock. Taryn Welker who is quickly learning every aspect of what to do behind the scenes, from sound to running B-cam to script supervision. Plus there’s Jodi Baldwin, who’s done costumes for me twice and will again. Frank Loftus, who always has my back (and stopped me at least twice from killing someone on the You Are Alone set). Katie Dickey who is so great at research, and pretty much any job I toss her way. Cory Maffucci and Andrew Ross who are great PAs, ready to take on any job I hand them, and never complain. And of course, actress Lynn Mancinelli, who seemingly can read my mind, and make my thoughts better than they originally were. These are people I trust not only with my back, but with my film, which is akin to my life.

Find these people in your life. They will keep you sane AND organized. Work together for that common goal: getting your vision up on the screen.

Next up: The gear you need…and don’t need.

My filmography.

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A short teaser for my next narrative feature: BROKEN SIDE OF TIME

A dark road trip into the world of internet modeling…

The KickStarter campaign is here.

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The Black & White Rules of Indie Filmmaking – part 6

6. Your Audience

When people ask me who I make my films for, my answer is “me.” I make my films for myself. I know people who find this answer obnoxious, or flat out rude, or who don’t believe me. But you CANNOT create a work of art to make someone else happy. You will fail. Which is why so many Hollywood films suck.

You are your own audience of one. Does your film make you laugh, or cry? Does it move you in the way you intended it to? Are you completely proud of it? Is it what you forever want to be known for? Are you happy to sign your name to it? Would you defend it to the death as you would your child? If you can answer yes to most, if not all, of these questions, then you don’t have to worry about making your film for an audience, because the audience will find you.

Great and passionate art always rises to the top of the heap. Will everyone like your film? Absolutely not. You don’t want everyone to like your film. Because if everyone does, it’s most likely commercial crap. In fact you want some people to love it unconditionally, and some to detest it more than any film they’ve ever seen. Then you know you’ve got something special. What you certainly don’t want is people saying, “it was okay.” You want an audience to be as passionate about your film (either love or hate) as you were about making it.

In my first documentary, COLOR ME OBSESSED, A FILM ABOUT THE REPLACEMENTS, there’s an interviewee named Robert Voedisch who really polarizes many of the men in the audience. Not the women. The women seem to adore him. But he makes some men angry. Especially the more macho types. And I finally realized why. He so painfully reminds them of the geeky kid they were at fourteen, their ego now puts up a wall. He makes them uncomfortable. He makes them squirm. In Voedisch, who so blissfully lays himself emotionally naked in the film, they see who they once were, and they never want to return there. Voedisch unleashes their deep hidden secret that their macho self was once a geeky kid who hid in his room and played rock and roll records because he was too scared to talk to girls.

Another moment that I truly love in COLOR ME OBSESSED is Bil Mac’s pause. I ask the simple question: “What’s your favorite Replacements song?” He answers “Go,” and then says nothing else. I hold on his look of absolute conviction for six seconds in the film. This pause so bothered everyone who worked on the film: my closest friends, the people whose opinions I trusted and valued most. The pause had to go. Well, so I wouldn’t have to hear about it endlessly as we all discussed the various cuts of the film — what worked, what was repetitive, what was out-of-sync — I cut away at the pause until it barely existed. By the last time we all watched the film in preparation for the sound mix, looking for typos, weird cuts, anything wrong, it was down to about 24 frames. One second. But that was because I knew, the day before the sound mix, when even my assistant editor Sarah Hajtol was finally given a day off, I’d be putting the pause back in all its six second glory. In my gut it worked. It belonged. After the rapid fire pace of the first twenty minutes of the film, it was a breather. And it stands as one of my favorite moments of the film. The pause bring an air of importance to Bil’s response. It’s as if I were asking the Pope if he believed in God. That’s what the pause does. How can we not believe in The Replacements after that pause?

What I’m saying is: Find the Voedisch in your film. Find the big pause, and all the little ones. Find the elements that drives your film forward. And don’t worry if they pisses the hell out of some people. If you know in your gut they’re right, that they fit, then follow your gut. YOU, as director, are signing your name to this film. NO ONE ELSE.

Some audience members will fall in love, other will squirm uncomfortably, and you will have done your job as an artist.

Next up: Be Organized!

My filmography.

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The Black & White Rules of Indie Filmmaking – part 2

2. Keep your crew small.

No micro-budget film needs a crew of more than 5 or 6 people, and that includes the director. If you hire a line producer/production manager who wants to hire a first AD, second AD, UPM, and script supervisor. Either explain to him that he is wearing all of those hats, or fire him and find someone who actually wants to work. There’s no reason for a crew of 20 people on an indie film. There’s no reason for a crew of ten. None. Most of them stand around with their arms folded looking bored, then complain come meal time that you don’t have yogurt for breakfast. You might not be paying them, but you still have to feed them. (And crew members seriously, if there’s something you absolutely need to eat on set, buy it for yourself, and bring it to set. As I said in one of my director’s commentaries, “Get your own fucking yogurt!”) And if you’re daily food budget is say $200. Ten people (say 6 crew members and 4 cast members) can eat a lot better on $200 than thirty can. A well-fed crew is a happy crew. Last summer when six of us headed down to Chapel Hill to shoot my Archers of Loaf concert film, WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?, I treated us all to a five-star meal. Honestly the most expensive meal I’ve ever paid for on a set. (That includes a set of thirty when doing FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS, and people ate well on that set.) But it set a perfect mood. Everyone was happy. And still to this day talk about that meal at Lantern.

The same rules apply for all the departments. On a micro budget film your DP should light and do all camera work. If he knows what he/she is doing, it’ll still look like a million dollars. If he/she doesn’t, all the extra crew members in the world won’t make your film look any better. (I’m working on a film called BROKEN SIDE OF TIME where as the only…the ONLY…crew member on a certain scene I lit it with a Zippo lighter. It looks freaking awesome! Mind-blowingly awesome!). Design team = one person. Makeup and hair should and could be done by the actors. They can probably do it better on themselves than anyone you can afford, unless of course we’re talking horror, then you’ll need someone good with the gore and blood. Sound = one person. Throw in you, the director, and perhaps one good PA (who has some knowledge of lights, but also doesn’t mind going on a lunch run, wrangling cables, sitting in a van watching equipment, grunt work . . . and let me set something straight right now, on my sets I will wrangle cables, haul equipment, set up gear, do whatever it takes . . . there’s no room for divas in micro budget), and there’s your crew. Anyone else is wasted money and space. (Note: if you’re doing a documentary, you probably want two cameras going at all times, in which case, the design person is replaced by a second DP.)

This is the new model for making indie films. The smart model. And if people tell you it can’t be done this way, they’re either lazy and don’t really want to work, or they have no clue as to what they’re doing and don’t belong on a film set. (About 75% of the people you’ll meet making and/or working on films will fall into one of those two categories. If you’re in Connecticut make that 90%. They’ll hopefully find other career paths in short time.)

NOTE: do not hire your friends to be crew, unless your friends were crew members first, i.e. you became friends after working together on a project. Otherwise, they will either no longer be your friends, your film will suffer, or most likely both.

ALSO: just because someone went to film school, doesn’t mean they know what to do on a film set. I usually find just the opposite to be the case. Look for people who’ve worked on sets, a lot of sets. Experiences trumps school a million times over. Look for people who love movies and want to learn how a film is made. Look for a DP who wants to be a DP. A production manager who loves to manage. Stay away from people who say ultimately they want to direct, because ultimately they will want to direct YOUR film.

And note to crew members. NEVER EVER give an opinion out loud as to how an actor should deliver a line. That is SO NOT your place. (Besides undermining the director, you are now shaking the confidence of the actor.) If you have an idea about that or anything (shot, sound, lighting), and if there is time, pull the director aside and tell him/her. Also if the director gives you certain rules about behavior on his set, follow them. Make believe you’re in the army, and the director is your general. No, really. (See, this is why you don’t hire friends.) If you don’t follow the rules you’ll be court marshalled, or at least thrown through a plate glass window.

A lot more on that when we get to organization, but honestly if you have five great crew members, all there to work, none of that will be an issue.

Next up: Casting

My filmography.

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