5 First Steps To Take Before Making Your Film

Here I am, eleven years ago, with no idea what I have gotten myself into.
Here I am, eleven years ago, with no idea what I have gotten myself into.

A question came up during yesterday’s (wonderful) Live Chat for The Videoblogs, that I thought I would re-address in a bit more detail here.

The gist of it — how to get started making your first film?

There are plenty of good ways to answer this question. There are many great resources out there outlining the basics of any one facet of this noble, unwieldy endeavor.

Knowing this, and also knowing that it matters more to me to tell a good story than craft a perfect picture, I focused my answer on an attempt to pre-hack the biggest challenges that are likely to come up in pursuing the coveted first film.

As such, my recommendations tend towards sustainability and focus, rather than process or technique.

Process and technique can be filled in beforehand with research and experimentation. Or you’ll learn by failing and re-starting at certain points in your journey.

But these are the top five pieces of advice I might have, at present, for anyone starting their first film today.

1. Understand the situation you’re getting yourself into

PA Puppy can't get a Grip.
PA Puppy can’t get a Grip.

The planning and execution of a film is a very large undertaking. Even if you’re starting small — issues or challenges or requirements are going to come up that you never expected. You will be tested.

I don’t think that filmmaking is for everyone. There are a lot of people out there working to write and/or direct their own films…who don’t seem happy. There could be several reasons for this, but chief among them could be that the idea of filmmaking is a lot more glamorous that its reality.

I’ll have more to say about this in a moment, but the reason I bring this fact up first is because I really do think that the best way to handle the difficulties of the task is to first acknowledge and accept that it’s going to be difficult. If we’re fighting ourselves at the same time that we’re fighting to get the film made…both self and film will suffer.

There are other ways to engage your sadistic side than deciding to commit years of your life to the foolish endeavor of bottling and reshaping a slice of space-time using magical machines.

If you still can’t help yourself…

2. Have a system of self-care in place

Once or twice a year, I go to the woods.
Once or twice a year, I go to the woods and find a big stick.

I have written much about this already. I will keep writing about it. Again — making a film is very hard work. Often, when we’re starting, we’re working within constraints of time, money and all the rest that comes with the responsibility of everyday living.

I’m still working on this part.

The fact is, you could sacrifice everything for your film and emerge very pleased with the end product.

Doing this, however, might leave you at the same time irrevocably embittered by the process you just went through — or dealing with an poisonous buildup of entitlement.

Because you poured it all into the work and then had nothing left to sustain your actual life, your relationships, your next project.

It’s the live to work or work to live dilemma.

Because it’s so beautiful and fulfilling, art-making can muddy up our perspective of the pursuit — but the fact remains that making a film or writing a book or whatever…it’s still work.

We’re not built to labor around the clock. Inevitably, when we try, breakdowns commence.

It will be hard.

Those who find their way towards filmmaking tend to overwhelmingly be high-functioning perfectionists, often with reserves of (not unhelpful) arrogance to call upon for that extra juice (“I can bottle space-time!”).

But knowing or learning or carefully exploring our limits, with an eye on longterm personal and career health, will make the journey and the film that much better for you and everyone else involved.

3. Have a reason

For The Videoblogs, our reason was getting out and talking about mental health in America.
For The Videoblogs, our reason was getting out and talking about mental health in America.

This piece of advice is only third because I’m supposing that most people reading this, and/or taking my words seriously, already have a compelling reason for pursuing filmmaking (or any one film).

But, if you don’t, think long and hard about whether you can find a reason, or whether the one you think you have is strong enough to sustain you when chaos or despair descends on your production and your life, despite all of the warnings and precautions outlined above and below.

In my experience, you need this reason. On some days, it will prove the only thing capable of keeping you going when you want to quit. Why this film, and now?

4. Have a plan

I held at least six separate positions during production of The Videoblogs. Why? Because it had to be done to keep things moving.
There’s a reason this image serves at the backdrop for the Coffee with Creatives logo.

Hang with me here, for a second.

Obviously, if you’re intending to make a film — you’ll need a plan. There’s no way it comes off without one. Even if your plan is to keep things loose, there’s a lot of preparation that you need to do to allow that possibility on set.

Still, I’m not really talking about the how. That’s all up to you. It’s just hard work.

What’s just as important, however, is that you have a plan for: 1) Fitting the giant disruption that is the making of a film into your daily life, and 2) Ensuring that the giant disruption leads to worthy results.

To address the first, I’d recommend doing some serious, honest work to prioritize what needs prioritization, with an eye on what’s realistic. Assume everything will take twice as long, and be twice as difficult, than you might expect.

Ensuring worthy results, to be clearer, means having a distribution plan. Ideally, a few of them.

At minimum, know how to get the film to your core audience, no matter how small or local. These are your first champions.

You will need them. Respect this relationship enough to put the work into it. Think about how your film can serve your core audience, and how to make it convenient for them to participate in its distribution when the time comes to push your project out into the world.

5. Be willing to be patient

It will take years -- but the hard work and the waiting are usually worth it.
It will take years — but the hard work and the waiting are usually worth it.

This last suggestion is as much for me as anyone else. The reality of filmmaking is that it takes an enormous amount of time. If we do our job well, this enormity ends up hidden to general audiences.

The way most people experience entertainment is to consume it, quickly and ruthlessly.

Behind all that quickness and ruthlessness, on the side of the consumption of content, there’s slowness and a methodical attention to detail that is required on the part of the content creator.

If and when we cheat, to get things done faster or to “just get them done”, we endanger the sanctity of this relationship between creator and audience, as manifested by the creation.

If we are lazy at any point, or give in to bitterness or despair and shortchange any one part of the completion of a film, we risk dooming the entire endeavor.

On the flip side, we can obsess too much, and risk burning out in the vocation, or on any one project. It’s a delicate balance, that really only begins to make sense over time.

Conclusion

Filmmaking is a beautiful, noble, privileged pursuit. It’s brought great purpose, joy, and meaning to my life. Pain and disappointment have also entered the equation at points.

If and when we can find a real reason to move forward truthfully with a project, and so proceed with it while taking care of ourselves and respecting our audience — then we can enjoy and thrive under the vocation.

Best of luck to anyone mad enough to give it a try.


profpic_squareMy name is Michael. I am a Writer and Filmmaker
of hopeful stories for complex people. Lately, I have been sharing some reflections and stories every morning. Once per month, I send a special note to those on my email list. They get exclusive stories and advanced (sometimes free) access to my work. You can join this exclusive group here. Thanks for reading.

3 Simple Steps Towards A Successful Indie Film

A production still from Multiverse, our current short film.
A production still from Multiverse, our current short film.

It’s been a bit of a struggle, lately, getting ready to make my new film. The jump to a feature from shorter content is a big one. Not that the small films have felt small. Things have a tendency to feel big to me no matter what size they actually are — this is a default reaction I have to sometimes work to temper — but with something as potentially overwhelming as the planning and implementation of a complete feature film, there’s no arguing the facts.

This is big.

That being said, I know that I can’t allow the size and weight of such an endeavor (or any endeavor) to overwhelm me. I know, as I have mentioned before, that I can only put one foot in front of the other.

I also know that a story is a living, breathing thing that can’t only be built, brick by brick, like a house.

What I mean to say is that I do not believe the successful execution of a film rests completely in doing a little bit of work, day by day, until it’s done.

I would think there are very few forms of artistic expression that work in this way only. A screenplay, yes — but a screenplay is not an end format. A novel, perhaps. But in the prevailing terms of success, the work of novel is not finished just by its completion. There must be readers, and, by this measure, more novels and then more readers.

The same can be said of almost any artistic endeavor, any product-consumer relationship (the artist/patron relationship is a product-consumer relationship), the end result of which is a desirable level of distribution or sales. The painter paints each day until he or she is done, and may keep painting for as long as the desire is there. But, invariably, there must be an audience. The alternative is obscurity and to me, in the long term, however unfair the presumption may be under certain rare circumstances — obscurity represents failure. A failure not just to “sell” but to truly connect, which is almost always the reason we start making art and telling stories in the first place.

So I have spent the last several years learning. I have written script after script until I got to this place, where I feel like the measure of the success or failure of any one film of mine is going to be owned more by the appropriateness and accessibility of its themes — and my own exploits to find people who wish to consider and discuss such themes — than the execution of its story. I’ve similarly spent enough time behind the camera, by now, to be able to say the same about technical execution and world building on set with select cast and crew.

I know I can do this. Still, obviously, there are doubts. Just this morning, I woke up, got out of bed, and the first coherent thought that passed through my mind was:

“Fuck. There’s no way I can do this.”

I learned over time not to listen to that voice. Actually, that’s not entirely true.

You would think ignoring the voice of doubt would be the way to go, but the best approach (in my experience) is actually to nod and listen and then refute. The fear behind the doubt is real. But so is the determination and the confidence that does return if and when the opposite is reasonably voiced — with compassion.

“I can do this.”

What this has to do with the majority of the above is simple: I am finding that, as with most things — there is (must be) a middle.

I do have to take small steps, every day. But I also have to respect the film’s need for overall guidance. This is especially true for ground-level independents like me. I’m not entering into this project with any goal other than to do my best and share it with you.

You, specifically. The kindred of The Furious Romantic. You are the people I truly care about — whoever you are, wherever you’re from, however we know each other or whether or not we do. That is another truth I have to constantly remember, and could do a better job of remembering. It gets hard sometimes, with all the noise we are constantly surrounded by (or that we surround ourselves with). There’s a loneliness that comes with sourcing out, alone, what a story needs. There can be a further loneliness in shepherding a film through development and preproduction until everything crests beautifully with collaborative energy on set — and then ebbs and flows with diminishing energy as distribution runs its course and the first and most vibrant (perhaps only) lifetime of the endeavor fades away.

So, last weekend, I was thinking about all of this and wondering what to do. As you may know, I’ve determined to pursue a balanced life in parallel with this project. And perhaps it’s a testament to just how far I’ve come in my own personal and artistic development, but I was able after a few days to temper most of the aforementioned fear (there will always be some, and it will always come and go, ballooning and shrinking and ballooning again) by jotting down the following three steps.

They didn’t come from nowhere, and they aren’t original, but I’m sharing them because I believe they can be universally helpful in their simplicity:

  1. Have a plan.
  2. Keep working.
  3. Adjust as you go.

Is this list overly simple? Not really. I could easily slot in a few more steps (test, measure, analyze were candidates) but the point isn’t to form a prescription so much as an ultimate guide that begins with the presumption that — this is important — the film is going to and must happen regardless. The planning and adjustment are the protective flanks to the work, which is not usually a problem if you’re making films for more than a few years. It’s always going to require a lot of work.

The script for my film — which I’ll name for you, soon enough — has been done for about two weeks (until I dive into it again for another quick draft). I’ve spent the time since steeling myself for what is sure to be a hell of a ride, but also steeling myself to remember these three simple steps.

I believe that implementing the wisdom contained within these guidelines, from many different standpoints but one base, will take me (and my eventual team) a long way towards the successful completion of our goal — to not only make something great but get it to you, and as many more additional kindred that may be out there as is possible.

Exemplary quality (in no specific terms) and an eager audience. These are the twin challenges for today’s independent artist — or even today’s artists in general. They aren’t unique to our slice of history, and perhaps it’s time we stop pretending that they are.  We must make good art, and we must get it “out there” if we are to do it all again. The process must be arranged smartly, to the benefit of all, within the constraints of reality but with an eye on a better tomorrow in all terms. For this to all go well, again, work must be done. But just as it must be done in one direction, with one guiding voice, in order for the film itself to flourish — so too must this be done from the standpoint of career sustainability. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the filmmaker who holds this responsibility but it should be somebody who cares about him or her and the vision he or she serves from project to project.

Translation: It’s not enough to just have a film anymore. And perhaps it shouldn’t be. There must be a plan, for any filmmaker or artist who wishes to keep working and to perhaps become increasingly empowered, and it must wrap around the entire life of the project and, in a way, across projects. As long as we keeping working and adjust as we go — and do this in almost any way but a blind way — progress will be made. Step by step, yes. But in a unified direction with ultimate touchstone goals that do not contradict the artistic process but, rather, ideally, help it flourish.

It’s a strange — but exciting — time to be creating. I have said this before. Much has been observed, much more needs to be tested. It can be done. I’m going to try to do it.

There is, as they say, only one way to find out whether what I have planned is going to work.

So, soon — we ride.

via www.cracked.com

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