Earlier this year (February, to be exact), I filed a feature story for a men’s magazine (a major one, though I’ll leave it anonymous) that promptly fell under the guillotine of staff changes and budget slashes, which, together, equaled a massive overhaul within the mag’s infrastructure. Disheartening on my end, to put it lightly; essentially, it was the beginning of dark times—–a month later, KING shut down and I was jobless and mentally-brow-beaten. But I’ll spare the downer-dude speech. Instead, I’ll use this here site (which, soon enough, should be rid of that pesky, trivializing “wordpress” in the URL) to provide four walls to pieces of mine that have fallen victim to these ever-changing, unstable times for writers.
In the same approach as that “Between Rap & A Hard Place” essay I posted last week, today brings forth “How To Make Your Own Movie,” a step-by-step tutorial for those with empty pockets and crowded cinematic dreams. As a film-obsessor who’s without film school to his name, I had to do tons of research and general surface-poking, and I used the thoughts of two indie filmmakers (Greg Bishop and Rick Anderson, specifically) to fill in the gaps. Who better than experienced gentleman to assist in this?
My editor seemed to really enjoy the piece, and suggested that I pitch it around to other outlets, which I did, minus any success. This is the kind of story that only works for themed issues, sadly, and the solely-movie-covering venues do this sort of thing somewhat often. At this point, I just want the work I put into the story to pay off, in a small way, even.
After the jump, my raw “How To Make Your Own Movie” story.
How To Make Your Own Movie
By Matt Barone
1) How to Fund Your Film: So you want to make a film, but you’re strung up for cash? To boot, the recession is forcing people to toss pennies around like manhole covers. Before you buy a ski mask or plot an Ocean’s 11-caliber heist, know that even the poorest of hopeful directors can patch together a quality movie. The first step is writing a realistic script, one that’s shoot-able on a shoestring budget. You’re not Michael Bay, or even Brett Ratner, so save the pyrotechnics for the big studio-commissioned screenwriters. Keep your story lo-fi, therefore the amount of money needed is feasible.
There’s no “right” way on how to acquire funds, either. The “maxing out several new credit cards” approach (used by filmmakers such as Observe & Report’s Jody Hill, who opened five new cards to fund his cult-beloved debut, The Foot Fist Way) is dangerous ground, since it’ll have creditors on your ass if your movie barely even recoups its catering costs and you’re unable to reimburse. Finding second or third jobs to earn additional paychecks is one recommended hustle. You can test your pay-it-back reputation with friends and family, as well, by collecting donations. The best option, however, is one that’ll allow your talent to speak. Shoot whatever you can on any Best Buy-sold handheld camera; this way, you’ll have physical evidence that you’re even capable enough to make a movie. Potential investors are more likely to support somebody who doesn’t just blow footage-less steam up their backsides.
2) The Tech Gear You Must Have: Don’t be intimidated by the four-figure price tags of most camera equipment. Making a good film depends more on ability than machinery; give Martin Scorcese a $50 bill and your dad’s home video camera, and you’d get back Mean Streets 2. For less-godly inspiration, look no further than the team behind 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, the most successful independent film ever that was shot on measly a High-8 camera.
As far as the best cameras to use, there’s really no “best” choice. The smartest bet is to purchase a “prosumer” camera. Manufactured by all the familiar companies (examples being Canon’s EOS 10D/300D or Nikon’s D70/100), prosumers are priced reasonably enough for general buyers while packing the high quality features necessary for the David Finchers of the game. Hence, the amalgamated name (“professional” meets “consumer”).
The one thing that a no-budget, independent filmmaker must get right, however, is sound, so make sure the microphones you purchase work like charms. A frequently used, and trusted, choice is the $500-or-less priced Oktava MK012 mic. “A fellow filmmaker once told me something so important,” recalls Gregg Bishop, director of last year’s festival circuit hit horror-comedy Dance of the Dead. “He said, ‘If something is out of focus in your film, you can call it ‘art,’ but if you have bad sound, it’s always ‘crap.’ Treat that advice as your Bible.”
3) Managing the Actual Production: Despite what some arthouse types may say, “filmmaking” and “free-spirited” go together like beer before liquor. What could result from mixing the two is a film production from Hell. Prior to stepping foot on your makeshift set, overplan every single aspect, from what scenes you’ll shoot on each specific day to how you’ll transport the equipment to and from every location. Multiple backup plans are encouraged. Then, make sure you’ve brought on aspiring cinematographers, producers, assistants, and even key grips that all share a similar passion. In the very likely chance that people call out due to actual day-jobs or abandon ship altogether, it’s also important to be wear several hats yourself. Know how to handle everything from lights to microphones, not just your trusty camera.
Next comes the issue of location permits. Assuming you’re shooting guerrilla-style with only one, maybe two cameras and a limited crew, Bishop offers an inconspicuous, hassle-repellent approach: “Say you’re filming on a public street—if you wear orange vests and just put orange cones around where you’re working, people will generally leave you alone. You can shoot whatever you want.”
4) Handling a Film’s Lighting: While an out-of-focus movie could ideally be seen as avant-garde, or even “arthouse,” one with poor lighting won’t even have the chance to fool viewers into such faulty compliments. If the audience can’t see what’s going on, no amounts of great acting or snappy editing could polish your fecal-colored mess. The good news is that successfully lighting a film is as basic as having 20/20 vision. Repositioning the lights and then repeatedly checking how their effects look through the camera’s lens is all that’s needed. A do-it-yourself approach, basically.
Acquiring the required lighting items is even easier. Visit any local photography store and simply grab some basic flood-lights and worklights that you can clamp onto walls. If you’re really slacking financially, though, go back to your script and adjust the story so that everything remains outdoors and in the day-time. Sunlight is always free, while lighting shots manually means paying for generators, man power, and parking permits for that man power.
5) Legally Protecting Your Film: You’d think that the realization of “Damn, my film really does suck,” after unanimously negative feedback, would be a filmmaker’s worst nightmare. Imagine, though, if, after weeks of hours worked and money spent, your film is legally rendered unwatchable and you’re on Johnny Law’s bad side. That’s exactly what could happen if an unsolicited Coca-Cola logo is seen, or a historical figure’s likeness isn’t cleared with his/her estate. To avoid such cinematic red tape, make sure that your film is legally airtight before even attempting to sell. Early into production, bring a lawyer—whether your own or a friend’s—on set to comb through every detail and ask the suit-and-tie any question that comes to mind. Books such as entertainment attorney Michael Donaldson’s Clearance & Copyrighting [$29.95, www.michaelcdonaldson.com] are also recommended.
Penny-pinchers unable to even drop a couple of Andrew Jacksons on such literature can save themselves during post-production. If you’re unsure of whether that McDonald’s arch off in the distance of a shot is allowed or not, a few clicks of your comp’s mouse can paint such images out courtesy of technological advances. However, all post alterations can be prevented entirely by simply framing questionable brand names and products within shots while shooting.
6) Finding the Best Music/Score: Choosing a score is the filmmaking equivalent to picking a location for a first date—even the world’s most charming, well-groomed guy can is susceptible to blue balls when taking a woman to Taco Bell. The same goes for a scene undercut by music that’s distracting and unfitting. There’s a reason why the Academy Awards honor two musical categories. Unfortunately, Danny Elfman comes with a hefty fee (and a long waiting list), and you want an actual score. A hypnotic sonic-bed that sounds like something made in an expensive Tinseltown recording studio, not inaudible noise pollution courtesy of your little brother’s shitty garage band.
The trick here is to find a struggling wannabe composer who’s as hungry as yourself. Place ads in classifieds or search online. Don’t worry about paying your top choice little, if any, money, either. If he or she is level-headed, they’ll see the opportunity itself as the real compensation. On the other hand, if a grittier, homemade feel is more your soundtrack taste, still don’t settle for your younger sibling’s lame Metallica cover band. Hit the local bar circuit and find a talented, looking-for-even-a-small-break band that’s eager to pad its resume by any means necessary.
7) Editing the Completed Film: The post-production stage of filmmaking is an auteur’s best friend. Even if you shot your project on a crappy hand-me-down camera you found in your parents’ attic, you can manipulate cheap-looking footage into pristine imagery using computer programs such as Apple’s Final Cut (which even comes included on some Apple machines). Final Cut allows you to handle every aspect of post-production from the comfort of your living room sofa, everything from color control and compositing to visual effects and 5.1 sound mixing.
Back in the prehistoric days of filmmaking (i.e., 20 years ago), editing was a grueling, joyless, never-ending nightmare. Scenes were cut on actual film-reel by hand, and then delivered to negative cutters before you’d enter a laboratory and perform Frankenstein surgery on film strips. Thanks to modern technology, all it takes now is affordable software such as Adobe After Effects, Avid Express, the 3D-focused Maya, or the aforementioned Final Cut. “There’s no better time to be a young independent filmmaker than today,” says nearly-20-year independent veteran Rick Jacobson, whose Grindhouse-meets-WWE’s Divas division Bitch Slap recently ignited a distribution bidding war. “Just owning a computer these days means you can edit a film and make it look like a Hollywood production.”
8) Infiltrating Film Festivals or Simply Getting Word Out: Congratulations, you’ve finished your cherry-popping feature film and some cinephile friends have actually enjoyed the thing! Upgrading your humble living room masterpiece into a nationally-distributed major studio acquisition takes endless legwork and ego-less persistence, though, so prepare to hustle.
At first, skip the small-time junior college film festivals and search online for the submission guidelines for the big shows such as Sundance, Tribeca, Slamdance, and Telluride. All major distributors attend these, and they generally frown upon films that have been already seen at dozens of mom-and-pop festivals. Register an account on Withoutabox (www.withoutabox.com), an IMDB/Amazon partnership that’ll help monitor the submission processes of all major fests. Before sending your DVD-packaged film out, though, make sure the cover and overall presentation stands out. A programmer could have upwards of 50 films on his/her desk, so eye-catching is key.
Another increasingly-effective method is to pimp the hell out of the various Internet capabilities. Create a flashy, innovative website for your film or a word-of-mouth spreading blog that you namedrop on the message boards of film sites. Once your site is active, email the URL to as many critics as possible (online writers are the easiest) and request quotes from those who’ve given the thumbs up. Believe it or not, Youtube has also become a talent pool visited by executives. Slap your film on the ‘Tube—especially if it’s a comedy—and spread the word. If your video generates enough hits, you could become an overnight viral sensation turned Paramount Pictures’ golden goose.