Guest Article: A Filmmaker’s Odyssey, Part I
BECOMING A FILMMAKER
Where does your filmmaking Odyssey begin, and what’s the next move you should make in order to jumpstart your career? Well, the answer to this question is that there’s no one universal solution on how to make it as a filmmaker – but rather a multitude of routes you can take in order to reach your goals.
Essentially you should learn from others who you find successful, while creating your own individual odyssey based on what you’ve learned. I’ll share with you my current path, which will hopefully serve as insight as to the possible routes one can take in order to pursue filmmaking as a future career.
My name is David, and I’m from Missouri… but no, I was not raised on a farm. My mom was the person who got me into film. One day, she explained to me that directors were the “authors”. From that point onward, these magicians behind the camera, called directors, became my idols, and I declared that I wanted to be a director. I was eight.
On my ninth birthday my parents gave me a handheld video camera. I went on to make such notable classics as Superdog, with my dog superimposed flying around the house in a cape and my first psychological thriller The Scare, starring yours truly. When I was eleven, my mom recommended that I go back to some of the real classics of cinema. I saw such films as Battleship Potemkin, Psycho, and Alien. Back then I simply thought making films was fun. I had much to learn of how much effort it requires to make a career out of it.
A FILMMAKER’S ODYSSEY
As a senior in high school, I made a feature yo-yo documentary with a couple friends, which I directed and edited. Eventually word got out after it made headlines on two local news stations. Over summer, it premiered at a local St. Louis theatre in front of nearly two hundred people. From that point forward, my parents knew filmmaking wasn’t some pipe dream of mine but a serious full time career choice.
Bound Teaser Trailer:
Attending college in Redlands, California, I drove out to Los Angeles as much as possible for film events. I made short films and documentaries, studied films in my spare time, but somehow it was not enough. I was so close to being in the filmmaking capital of the world without truly being there. Around summertime, a USC friend of mine said:
“If you want your career in film to soar you have to be in The City of Angels.”
Truer words had never been spoken. Thus, I made a radical decision…
RISKS AND REWARDS
I dropped out of my current school. I bought my plane ticket and searched for an apartment with my mom a week before the Fall semester at Santa Monica College (SMC) had begun. I then crashed all of my courses. My USC friend was able to help me out with getting an internship at Phoenix Pictures, the Hollywood studio who produced Black Swan and Shutter Island.
I was able to work on many sets, read scripts of yet to be produced blockbusters, intern at an on-the-rise indie studio, and learn invaluable advice from those in the industry. I got to attend a few film premieres, a camera release at Paramount and even the SAG awards.
Turns out that moving to Los Angeles paid off. As a filmmaker, you always stick to your gut feeling. You’ll seldomly find yourself mistaken.
FILMMAKING IS ALL ABOUT RISKS AND REWARDS…
From my experience: make many short films that don’t cost a lot of money yet are worth the risk of showing them to friends and family who will judge them. Your dear ones will still be around even if your early films are the most atrocious thing on the planet. Then you can eventually take a bigger risk on one of your films by showing it to your professor or someone you don’t know on a personal level – they will judge it more harshly and give you valuable feedback if they have time for it.
Eventually, you’ll be able to make a film with professional equipment and a legitimate cast and crew. The more you expose yourself to the risks of filmmaking, the more you’ll be able to handle the problems and calamities that can occur when you take massive risks.
The key is to take small risks first and then work your way up to big risks. You’re likely to be greeted by rewards.
When I reached the end of my internship at the indie film company I sat down with the C.E.O., and picked his brain about my next move. I asked him the best way to build my film network for the future, and his response was unexpected yet answered my initial question about what I should do next. He said,
“Networking doesn’t matter if you have nothing to show to people. You can meet as many executives and famous people as you want but if you don’t have any material for them to see then having them as a contact is worthless.”
Then he told me, “Focus on yourself as a filmmaker – then worry about contacts. Work on your skills, not networking – and your network will build out of your skill set.” His words stuck to heart, and I decided I would take my biggest risk yet.
ESTABLISHING YOURSELF AS A FILMMAKER
This part of the article describes my experience of making my first “official” short film “Atonia.” Here you will find out what it takes to make a short film with an actual budget, professional equipment, actors, and legitimate crew size.
The Making of Atonia:
FROM IDEA TO SCRIPT
A few years ago, I woke up in my bed but could not move. I soon felt my feet burning. I realized I was on fire. I could feel myself burning alive, utterly helpless without use of my limbs. The fire rose to my face, and I thought I was dead. Then I woke up; it was just a dream. Yet I had felt acutely awake. It was like nothing I had ever experienced.
About a year later my sister told me about a similar experience. She was paralyzed in her bed. She thought her boyfriend was lying next to her. He moved in closer then she saw her boyfriend walk across the doorway in the adjacent room. Whoever was next to her wasn’t her boyfriend. She woke up.
That is where the idea for Atonia came from. I wanted to create that same feeling I had when my sister told me her nightmare along with how I had felt during mine. That’s what you want when creating a film:
Films are emotional experiences and if you want people to feel something when watching your film it should mean something to you.
In fact, one of the most historically famous short films of all time “Un Chien Andalou” was based on a dream Luis Buñuel had about a cloud that sliced the moon like a razor to the eye and a dream Dali had about a hand being carried by ants. That was where their concept originated from, and they took these bizarre meld of ideas to make their film (I’m currently reading “My Last Sigh” by Buñuel – which I highly recommend, along with watching his films).
I think that’s also what David Lynch is touching upon in this video below. But then again, no one really ever knows what David Lynch really means. I do highly encourage watching all of his films (including his two-season show “Twin Peaks“) and reading his book “Catching the Big Fish.” He’s a true artist when it comes to filmmaking.
After I had my idea (or “caught my big fish”), I spent about three weeks writing the first draft. From there, I continuously received feedback from friends, family, filmmakers, film buffs, film professors, and film critics, while redrafting for four months. I really never stopped making revisions – even throughout principal photography.
GARNERING A CREW AND SELF-PROMOTION
I made a pitch at one of the first SMC film club meetings. Later in the week I saw the best cinematography reel I had seen from anyone in my age group posted on an SMC film page. This was Toby’s reel. I pitched my project to him, and when he told me he’d be interested it became a lot easier to reel in other crew members.
For casting, I went through an array of websites (such as Actors Access, LA Casting and Backstage), along with being recommended actors. For the first auditions, it rained and very few actors showed up. I was not happy with the turnout, so after reflecting, I decided to recast and invite as many actors as possible in order to find the ones I would be able to trust blindly. My final cast came entirely from the second round of auditions.
BUDGETING AND RAISING MONEY…
If you’re going to have a budget then you’ll obviously need money. First, there are some cautionary things to look out for with the budget. For one, never spend more on a short film than what you’re okay with never getting back. It’s rare to almost unheard of (with the exception of a few Oscar nominated or by then or later famous filmmakers) that short films make money. They’re promotional pieces, or things done for the satisfaction of the artists and filmmakers involved. Thus, only spend what you’re comfortable with spending.
Second, plan post production as a part of the budget. That way, when the film is done you are not scrambling to get more money to hire an editor, sound designer, etc., if need be. Also, don’t forget about festival costs if you’re planning to submitting to those. Sit down and think about all of the costs and potential costs of your film and add it up. Then, add 10% to your budget to account for contingency, in case of reshoots, pickups etc. (you can even add a little more to be safe) … and viola, you have budgeted your film. If the budget feels too high for what you’re looking to spend, then look into alternative ways to shoot it, or rewrite it. Or, write a short that’s cheaper to film and go back to the drawing board.
So, where is the money coming from? There are a few ways. Your own bank account being one; this is the riskiest and least desirable, but I spent a lot of my hard earned money making Atonia because I did not want to have to rely on other people too heavily. However, I did raise some additional money through crowdfinding which helped quite a bit.
Indiegogo and Kickstarter are two, among multiple online platforms which are used to raise (“crowdsource“) money for usually non-profit lower budget projects. There are even some specifically geared for filmmakers such as Film Courage and Crowd Fund Films. I recommend you stick with the first two because they are the most widely used. Thus, the chances of someone stumbling upon your film, liking the idea, and donating are higher. What I did was research all of the people who I knew had attempted to raise money on Indiegogo and Kickstarter and looked at who reached their goal and who didn’t. I also looked at non-film related projects, to see how the projects who succeeded in raising their goal approached it. I emulated my crowdfunding campaign to look similar to all of the top ones I had seen.
Incentives are huge. For instance, on mine I put that if you contribute $100 or more you can get an Executive Producer credit in the film and on IMDB. I literally had people I had never met in my life before donate $100 to my project for the credit. Although I ended up with a lot of Executive Producers (you have to be careful and make sure you’re giving due credit to the people who actually worked on the film), at the same time, you have to sometimes make the incentives in a way that will make people not only willing to donate but excited to donate.
Now on the topic of IMDB, I recommend getting a paid account when you’re ready to make your first decently budgeted film, especially if you’re using crowdsourcing sites, or find someone who already has an account to get on board and be a producer. This way you can give the credit you offered in a timely manner. I also recommend getting an account, so you can begin to establish yourself as a filmmaker and get your name out there.
The more people who know who you are and what experience you have the more likely people on average will want to work with you.
If you want some more knowledge going into preproduction, then The Guerrilla Film Maker’s Handbook is a good toolkit of information from a plethora of sources. Although helpful, the best modus operandi is to simply go out there and figure it out for yourself, make your own mistakes, and learn from them.
It took me about a week of working with artists to complete the storyboards (one session with an artist lasted 8 hours straight). I went on Craigslist, Mandy, and various other websites to look for a sound mixer, production designer, and gaffer. Tip: Make friends with good sound mixers. They are an essential commodity and nearly impossible to get for cheap.
MENTAL AND PHYSICAL EXHAUSTION…
Film is probably one of the most exciting careers anyone could choose, but making a film is a lot of work, mentally and physically. Whether I was redrafting the script, casting, location scouting, storyboarding, dealing with insurance, getting crew members on board, finding the best deals on equipment packages, or simply losing my mind over thinking about all of the things I had yet to do for the film, I was always busy with something related to the project.
ALWAYS BE CONSCIOUS OF EVERY DETAIL YOU PLAN ON SHOOTING…
Preparing beforehand will help your make faster and clearer decisions on the day of the actual filming. When going into a shoot, always make sure you have done your homework. Know exactly how you want to shoot, where you want to shoot, and ideas about how you want the actors to move and play out the scenes (“actor blocking“). I had gone through the storyboards with Toby shot by shot before we even stepped on any of the locations together – a necessary step for the Director-Cinematographer collaboration. We went to the house we were shooting at and blocked out the scenes with actors and discussed exactly where the camera would go and how it would move at what point (“camera blocking“) in order to discern the key components of our frame, (“mise en scène“).
David Fincher discusses the importance of being conscious of every decision you make on set and exactly what you’re showing the audience when.
WHILE PLANNING IS ESSENTIAL, MAKING A FILM IS ALL ABOUT BEING FLEXIBLE…
When it comes down to it, there are going to be circumstances on set that are out of your hands. Prepare as much as possible but keep an open mind when filming and be prepared to make changes to your original plan. For Atonia, we were supposed to shoot the office scenes the first weekend and the house scenes the second. It came down to the last 48 hours, and I sent in to get a permit after paying for all the different types of insurance. I found out I had submitted simply a fraction too late and we would not have the permit in time to shoot that weekend.
What was the solution?
I canceled the insurance, and had the broker insure me for the next weekend instead. We called the house owners of the film location and asked to shoot a weekend early, and…
They were okay with it. I wasn’t as prepared for the scenes at the house, but I made due with the time I had, as did the cast and crew. The second day of shooting, there was a camera malfunction which put artifacts on some of the footage, ruining some of the images. Thus, I had to search for a different camera package for the next weekend. Always be willing to be malleable and find the best possible solutions.
EXPENSES AND LOGISTICS…
On a film shoot there’s a lot of things the average viewer does not think about in terms of what makes up a production. The office scenes – which we shot in one day – was the most expensive day on the whole shoot. Some costs included buying insurance for the camera, renting out the camera (along with external components such as lenses, follow focus, etc.), the insurance and rental costs for the Grip and Electric equipment, food for the cast and crew, paying the managers of the building for the office space, getting four different types of insurance in order to pay an additional cost for a permit to Film LA. Our UHaul truck had to be driven to Burbank at around 5:30am to pick up the equipment and get to the location in Downtown Los Angeles around 7:30am. That is why it helps to meticulously plan out who is doing what and when, so one person does not have to take on all the responsibilities themselves (particularly the people directly involved with the creative aspects).
I will not go into further details, but if shooting a small short film in Los Angeles, I would highly discourage anyone from dealing with Film LA. It is a very expensive, quasi-monopolistic company which many other companies require that those acquiring a permit work through them as a third party in order to get their permit for shooting at a location. It should be avoided at all costs, unless you’re able to get insurance provided by your school, due to shooting a project that is specifically for a film class.
NEVER GIVE UP DESPITE THE DIFFICULTIES…
The first day we shot a scene guerilla style where we had to emulate a bagged body of a man being thrown over a pier. Our solution was to buy a man-sized blow up doll (yes, that kind of doll) and pack it with sand to have the weight, shape, and drag of an actual body.
We somehow managed to drag what looked to be a dead person down Venice pier without getting arrested. The actress Sina was a trooper and stuck it through despite the doll’s considerable weight. When she went to lift it over the pier wall we were worried it was going to be too heavy but she managed to get it over the rail and it realistically plopped down into the ocean.
A few days later we had a laptop go missing on set. We never found it. Thus, we had to reshoot the pier scene along with several others. The emotional vigor of the crew had fallen after the realization that footage was lost forever. A part of me had wanted to give up right then and there, but I knew I had to persist and finish what I began.
FILM IS FUN … OR SHOULD BE!
In a way, I had been right all along when I was younger and thought filmmaking was all about having fun.
During a reshoot I had added some scenes that were not in the initial script, and I kept changing the dialogue up until that day on set. I had the actor Jimmy McFinn play around with different ways of saying his lines, and eventually, he began coming up with his own variations of them, as did Sina and the second AD. It was fun having the freedom to mix things up and not necessarily go verbatim from the script while having multiple people play an interactive role on set. Sometimes, the best moments can be the most fortuitous.
Atonia is now in the editing process.
Atonia Official Trailer:
MORE LINKS TO MAKE YOU THINK
Here’s some food for thought in the meantime from auteur filmmaker Richard Linklater on becoming a filmmaker:
Also, here is “Un Chien Andalou” if you would like to see the short film that was inspired by Bunuel and Dali’s dreams:
STAY TUNED FOR PART II where I will provide an EASY REFERENCE GUIDE of the key important take-aways of what I’ve learned, along with some ADDITIONAL ADVICE I have yet to mention. I’ll also go over all of the standard clichés of short film concepts to watch out for when writing and making a film.
David M. Leidy is a 22 year old writer and director who is currently finishing his undergraduate degree in English Literature at New York University. He is founder of the film production company Eidetic Pictures.