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Climbing the Creative Mountain on a Shoe-String Budget Part I
How to Get Started as a First-Time Filmmaker
No one wants to read your script. There, I said it because no one else would. It’s not that you suck. Quite the contrary. You may have an award-winning screenplay, but that doesn’t matter because no one’s gonna read your script. And that makes sense because really, screenplays are the blueprint designs for films, which is the actual content that people want to see. I mean, would you rather study the blueprints for the Taj Mahal or go there and experience it, first-hand? That’s basically what we’re talking about.
Sure, you can find readers to evaluate your work. That’s not a problem. But getting a bunch of strangers to soak it up like it's their favorite movie? Fat chance.
Even getting a producer or an agent, whose job it is to read scripts, is very challenging because they’re inundated with stories, so you have to figure out how to convince them that yours is worth reading. Cold queries can work, but what works better is turning your stories into consumable content that people can enjoy.
Yes, it’s an extra layer of challenges, but if you can make great content, then you’ll be in a significantly better position than the person who hasn’t made any content at all and only has a bunch of scripts. The good news is, there are tons of different avenues you can take, like fictional podcast writing, graphic novels, short stories, novels, and so on.
The bad news? The most effective form of content that has the greatest chance of enticing an audience is also the hardest to do and is the most expensive. I’m talking, of course, about filmmaking. This medium has a lot of moving parts, a lot of specializations, and a lot of things to learn about. So no wonder many of you reading this are thinking, “Hell no. I’ll never make a film.”
Well, I’m gonna try to convince you that it’s not as impossible as it seems, and if you know what you’re doing, you can actually make a high-quality short with minimal technical knowledge and money. I know this because I’ve helped first-time directors pull it off, and I’ve even done it with my brother when both of us hardly knew what we were doing.
By all means, it’s not easy. Now with more knowledge and money, you can do a lot better than we did the first time. But if you’re a good writer and you have a good story that isn’t too complicated to shoot, then you should turn it into a film because at the end of the day, most people watch films, they don’t read scripts. Sorry, but that’s just how it is.
So this is, more or less, how you make a film with minimal technical knowledge and money. Hopefully by the end of this, you’ll feel a little less squeamish about it because we need you to do your part and make better films for an indie world that’s oversaturated with bad ones!
Befriend the Filmmakers
I’ve said this already, but I’ll say it again because it’s super important. Join a local filmmaking group. The Internet is great for distributing content and even learning, but it’s not great for making films, at least not now, but that’s a different story.
So to the writers holed up in their rooms, go out and meet other filmmakers. If you live in a decent-sized city, chances are somebody has already formed a filmmaking group. Google it, search Facebook, Meetup, etc. Go find one and if you can’t then make one of your own and invite filmmakers to come.
The reason is pretty simple. Filmmakers make films! So they have gear, expertise, connections, and opportunities for you to learn and grow because chances are they’re making films that you can easily help out on. And that’s great because you can quickly learn the overall structure and operations of a film set, which will prepare you for directing your own stuff later down the road.
Now, you might be thinking that it’s great to meet filmmakers and all, but you don’t have the time or the money to pay for a film. It takes years to master the craft and cinematographers are very expensive, not to mention the rest of the crew. Well, here’s the thing. Yes, you need many years to master the craft. But you don’t need a lot of time to learn the basics, and if you have a great story then a conventionally shot film with three simple angles is perfectly fine for grabbing people’s attention.
And regarding crew? They can be very pricey, but there’s a way to obtain a team affordably if you understand this one thing about the film world. Everyone needs to get paid, so filmmakers take real gigs. That’s their living, and for most people, it’s not some glamorous thing like you see with the greats. It’s commercial work, in-house videography for companies, and yeah sure, even creative narrative work, but usually, it’s on projects they’re not deeply in love with.
That’s why there are a lot of professional filmmakers who use their skills to make their own films with their friends on the weekends. Some of them are looking for an opportunity to get noticed while many do it because it’s more enjoyable than their day job. So people in these communities are constantly making films. And no, they’re not making Wonder Woman. They’re making no-budget shorts with minimal cast and crew. You know, something that can be done over a weekend and edited quickly.
They need help from cool people like you to not only come up with awesome stories they can help you film, but they also need you to help them with their films. So if you go into these spaces, you’ll quickly learn that it’s a very, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back.” environment.
That's why getting a crew for your one or two-day shoot is pretty doable because all you have to do is help them shoot their personal projects and just be a good friend who can provide value to their lives. Sure, you won’t be able to gaff or set the camera up, but you can certainly help with load-ins and setting up C-stands, which can significantly help with production time.
If you build up enough social currency over time and learn enough about how a production operates, you can probably put yourself into a position where it’s not that awkward to ask some of these filmmakers to help you shoot your film for a day or two. There are, however, stipulations that come with this privilege.
First, respect what they need. If they need certain gear, rent it for them. If they need specific positions filled in order to pull off the production, make sure you have them filled. If they want a certain food or drink for catering, provide it on the day. They’re sacrificing their time to shoot your film for free or at least for a fraction of what they normally charge. The least you can do is give them what they need.
Second, food. It’s ridiculous to even say this, but feed your crew! The hours will be long, and people with hungry stomachs will get irritated fast. So provide at least one big meal and a whole bunch of snacks. If you go over 8 hours, then add another meal. And please, don’t do pizza. Do something nice and different like Indian or Greek. Maybe even give your friend, who loves to cook, $150 or so to whip up a big home-cooked meal. People will appreciate the extra mile and feel much better about being there if you feed them well. And always make sure you check people’s dietary restrictions!! Can’t emphasize that, enough.
This brings me to the third stipulation. Have an extremely well-thought-out plan, be prepared for everything, and make a decision even when you don’t know what to do. There is nothing worse than helping someone who planned poorly and can’t make decisions. If everyone is sitting there for 30 minutes trying to figure out how to shoot this scene in your film, and you’re off in the corner going, “I don’t know?”, then you’re wasting everyone’s time. That can be frustrating for people who gave up their whole weekend to help you.
Of course, there’s gonna be some moments where the plan falls apart and you need to make some quick adjustments, but those moments should be resolved fairly quickly. That can’t be done if you don’t come in with a solid plan.
So befriend the filmmakers, help them with their personal films, learn the ropes, and when you’re ready, ask them to help you out for a day or two. And of course, if you can afford to, pay them! Chances are they’ll give you a really nice discount, anyway, and that’s if they even ask for payment since, ideally, you helped them out a lot. That’s a sacred thing, so don’t destroy that by screwing things up or being a jerk and taking advantage of their kindness. Just…Be cool.
Make the Script Right
Now, how do you know when you’re ready to shoot? When your script is ready, of course. But how do you know if your script is ready? I mean, you’re always going to love your work, and most of your film and writing friends are gonna give you watered-down critiques. This is because, first, they want to push you to make the film since they really want to shoot things, and second, they don’t want to hurt your feelings because they’re your friends.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t share your work with your peers for feedback because they’ll give great notes. But they’ll always do it in a way that will make you feel like you have lightning in a bottle as long as you do x,y, and z. They don’t have the heart to tell you it’s a poor story that needs fundamental revisions.
But you know who does have the heart to tell you? People online! They have no attachment to you, your feelings, or your film. They love to find faults in everything and burn it down if they find any. So you can rest assured that praise from a total stranger is more than likely genuine. That’s really what you want to look for to know if your story is good. It doesn’t even have to be a lot of people, either.
You just need 5 or 10. If all of them love it and have real discussions about your story, that’s a great sign. If some of them are direct messaging you for advice, then that’s even better. But if no one is reading it, or if there are only a few and all of them are telling you it’s poor, then you probably want to stop right there and seriously re-evaluate your work.
This can be hard if you’ve already started the production process and if so, just stop. I mean, sure, go on if you want, but take it from me. It’ll be a very expensive lesson, and perhaps you should make the mistake so that it forever remains ingrained in your head. I’m talking about spending the time, money, and energy to produce a film with a poor story.
It’s a real swift kick in the ass when, at the end of the road, your film goes nowhere, and all you get is the awkward praise from friends and family who cheer you on if only to ensure that you don’t go off and have a mental breakdown.
That’s taxing, both mentally and financially. But what isn’t is re-writing. Well…Okay, so it’s mentally taxing, but still. You can do millions of rewrites and never lose a penny.
Now, if you keep reworking a script only to never get it off the ground, then do yourself a favor. Let it go. Work on something else. Start fresh and come back to it later on if it feels right. A lot of times it can just be the story, itself, that’s holding you back. I don’t know why that happens, but it does.
So bottom line. Make sure your story is good before you go off and shoot it. Otherwise, it’ll just be an expensive lesson.
Write With a Budget
Before you shoot your film, you also want to make sure it’s budget-friendly! This is much easier to do when you’ve made enough films, but here are some things to keep in mind.
The more actors and locations you have, the more money you have to fork out. The crazier the action is? Yup. That’s more money, too. Even the length of the script can make a huge difference. A ten-page script is much cheaper than a thirty-page script because a ten-page script can be shot in a day whereas a 30-page script could take three or four days, maybe even longer if it’s complicated.
This isn’t to say that you should limit yourself to less than ten-page scripts with only one actor and one location. You just need to be aware of these things so that you can find a healthy balance. 13 or 15 pages is pretty doable in a day or two. 3 or 4 locations is tight, but again, doable. 4 or 5 actors? Not too bad.
But it’s not just about quantity. Quality also has a price. Better actors cost more money. Private mom-and-pop establishments are way more accessible and cheaper than big private companies that are popular. And anything government-owned will most certainly cost a pretty penny because they all require production insurance.
The kind of action you have in your story can also make a difference. A chase scene on foot is much cheaper than a chase scene in a car. Showing someone’s head get chopped off is way more expensive than shooting them in the head or stabbing them to death. Then there’s the difference between shooting during the day versus night. At night, you need more lights and more expertise to make the lighting look natural, and all of that, of course, can add up.
There’s a whole grocery list of things you can do to make your script cheaper, but instead of reading about it, the best thing to do is to help out on sets so you can see, for yourself, the kinds of choices one can make to bring the cost of production down. Having a good understanding of these things can literally mean the difference between paying a thousand dollars versus ten thousand dollars for your short film. So don’t screw yourself over. Expose yourself to movie sets, first, before making your film.
Okay, so that’s basically how you produce your short film. No, just kidding! These are just the very first steps. There’s a whole slew of other things you have to do as well, but I know everyone hates reading 20-page blogs, so I’ll end it here for now. Next time, I’ll dive into the nuts and bolts of pre-production and then get into production and post.
I know, I know. All of this sounds pretty intimidating, and it certainly is a lot of work. But if you can write a great story, then learning how to make a film can really make a difference in your career and take you far. So if you’re interested in making a film start doing these things. Then come back and read part II! Best of luck, everyone!
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