My experience and advice as a first time director…
It’s hard to really put into words the true experience of making a film from start to finish. I’ve been involved in MANY Indie Film projects…either in acting, writing or producing roles. But, I’ve never experienced the role of Director. What I wanted to do was pass along some of the many lessons I learned during the experience of a becoming first time director and maybe help get you in the starting position for directing your first film.
First things first…DON’T DO IT. Seriously! Don’t make a film!!! Walk away. It’s not worth it. You chances of succeeding are few to none. You will hit many roadblocks and have to overcome many obstacles. Your relationships with your friends and family will be tested as you will have many commitments with them that you will have to break in order to see your film through to completion. And since chances are that your film will most likely never see the light of day, you will also be a disappointment to the MANY actors, crew and producers you worked with during the process when you just end up walking away from the project. So, I say this with all sincerity….don’t make a film.
Ok….now that that’s out of the way…if there are any of you who ignored that warning, the rest of this is for you.
First, a bit if background on me so you can see where I am coming from. I am, by trade, not a filmmaker. I have a normal day job. I have been working in banking and finance for the past 20 years. I have a wife, two kids, a dog and a mortgage. I have no formal or professional training or schooling in acting or filmmaking of any kind. About 6 years ago, I had a silly idea to just start auditioning for acting gigs around the area. I had no idea where to start…so like most in my shoes, it was a slow and bumpy process. Being very new to the local Indie Film scene, I made my way onto all sorts of different types of sets. Some sets had very experienced filmmakers and some sets had filmmakers with very little experience. But I have learned that, for me, being on those sets that were shakier than the others proved more valuable than any training or schooling could offer. You learn….really learn…what NOT to do. Seeing what doesn’t work on other sets has been one of the greatest learning tools I have been given.
So…how do you get that invaluable tool of learning what not to do? For starters, get involved in as many projects as you can behind the scenes. Look for local films that need PA’s, or offer to be an extra set of hands in any way you can. Take on the grunt work. It really doesn’t matter at first what kind of project it is. Every Indie Film set needs help. Cheap (free) help is preferred. But you can’t look at it as free help. Like I said, the experience of on the job training is completely worth your time if you are serious about growing as a filmmaker. The other HUGE benefit for offering help on sets is the NETWORKING. Networking, in the Indie Film scene, is the greatest commodity you have. And it offers you valuable insight on who you may want to work with when you make the leap from acting/crew work, to directing your first film.
So, you have put in the grunt work. You have paid your dues. You have seen some gnarly stuff on other sets and learned what you WON’T be doing on your own set. Hopefully you have a decent idea of just how you’d like to helm your own film. I am also gonna assume you have a script. Personally, I felt more comfortable directing a film from a script I had written myself. But if you have made the proper networking connections, and are not ready to write your own script, you most likely have come across a script or two that has sparked your interest. I’m not gonna really get into what kind of story is right or wrong for you to tell. That’s a subjective issue and one for another discussion. So let’s look at from a logistical standpoint. What can you really get away with in the script? Are the locations in the script accessible? Will you need props, costumes or sets built? Will you need FX makeup or prosthetics? Is it a large cast? These are things that really matter. And if the answer to any of those is YES, then you can expect the cost of your project to increase.
Watch Jacob's Paradox - Official Trailer
Speaking of COST…that is a whole other world that I won’t really get into too deeply. It’s possible to make a film with low funds and still have it come out looking great. The one thing that will always ring true, regardless the scope of your film, your calculated budget will ALWAYS be multiple times more than what you expect. So, when you get to the point when you are preparing a budget…when you are all said and done….triple it (at least). Even if your main cost is food…which it will probably will be…you’re still spending money one way or another. Speaking of food, you must…I repeat MUST…feed your cast and crew. That is rule #1 of an Indie Film production. FEED YOUR SET. You wanna keep people motivated during long days on set? Feed them. You wanna work with these people again down the road? Feed them. You can find creative and inexpensive ways to feed people, but feed them you must. Chances are they are working with you for little to no pay. Copy, credit, and meals are the most common promises given on an Indie Film set to cast and crew. It’s in your best interest, as a director, to make sure you live up to the MEAL promise above all else.
When it comes to the budget part, there is no real answer on how to get that done right. Like I said, until you are a seasoned pro, you will most likely not estimate your budget correctly. Regardless, you need to have some sort of idea up front before you start wasting other people’s valuable time. There are numerous ways to fund a project. As a filmmaker, you have access to several crowdfunding sites that offer mainstream ways to raise funds. But whether you use those tools or not, you’ll still need to count on your own personal funds. This doesn’t have to be a monumental amount, but if you think you’ll go through the process from start to finish without personal monetary contributions, see my original warning and GET OUT!
Now you have a script you feel comfortable with. You have a real vision for your film. You are ready to share that vision. You need a team. This is where your valuable time spent networking on previous sets comes into play. Working with friends is great and all, but it may not be the right thing to do. Your friends may not feel comfortable challenging you…pushing you. When we assembled the team Jacob’s Paradox, I knew that it would only work if I surrounded myself with a group of people who are BETTER than me. And thankfully I did just that. But that only happened because I had put in the grunt work on several other sets. They saw that I had a strong work ethic and was determined to see this thing through. In short, they trusted me. And trust is something you can’t ask for. You have to earn it. The group I was blessed to work with felt comfortable with each other. Many had already worked together on different sets, so the trust factor was something that came easier than I had hoped for. When you are assembling your team, don’t just look for a bunch of people you think you can have fun with. You’ll have tons of fun regardless. What you want are people around you who can help you keep the film going when the times aren’t so fun. Trust me, those rough days will happen. You will want true pros around you who can think fast and react to a problem constructively, rather than flake out at the first sign of trouble. I’m not gonna tell you how big your crew needs to be. That’s dependent on the project itself. I can tell you this, if you can’t do it yourself, you need a crew member for that role. As a director, you’ll already be pulled in a thousand different directions. If you can avoid rigging lights and operating camera…etc., and focus on the story being told, you will be far better off. Some directors can do all those things and do them well…and I am jealous of those people. I have learned that humility is a necessity when it comes to directing. Know what you can and can’t do. And if you can’t do it, get someone who you trust that can, and can do it better than you. Most everyone on my set has vast knowledge and experience in filmmaking…way beyond my own. I treated the set of Jacob’s Paradox like I have many others. I treated it as an on the job training opportunity. I really did everything I could to soak up all the knowledge and experience from the people around me. I had a co-director, David James, who has several other projects he directed under his belt. I had a DP, Michael C. Potter, who also has several projects he directed under his belt. I had a co-producer, Chenney Chen, with years of producing experience who has also worked on MAJOR Hollywood studio films. In fact, most of the crew from Jacob’s Paradox has written, produced and directed their own films. I’m not saying you have to surround yourself with that kind of crew, but by God, if you can, do it!
PRE-PRO, PRE-PRO, PRE-PRO!!! You have a rock star crew and you and your fellow producers are ready to lay out the roadmap to a successful film production. Pre-production is an extremely powerful tool. If you step onto a set with your cast and crew, and you haven’t properly laid the pre-production groundwork, trust me, they will know it. And they will remember it. You will waste time. You will look foolish. You will most likely FAIL. You need to have a solid game plan BEFORE you step onto the set. You need to have a working shot list, story boards you can reference back to, and you need to be familiar with the location. Now….having said all that…when you get on set, you’ll see that the game plan oftentimes gets thrown out the window. But that’s not an excuse to not prepare properly. You’ll find that you will go in with a plan, and the plan will evolve as the shoot goes on. It will get better (hopefully). But if you don’t have a plan, you will spend your day figuring out what to do, rather than how to make your plan better. Spend the time finding the right locations. Don’t compromise. If the location doesn’t work, don’t force it. And use the time you have before you step on set to get familiar with your location. Attempt to get a working schedule. It will change…trust me, it will change…but you still need to get a schedule put together. You need to give your cast a crew something to start with. Then be ready for that schedule to, like the budget, triple in length…at least.
You have assembled your crew and you have laid your pre-pro groundwork. Now you need a cast. Again, what you think might be the easy route is to cast your friends and family. And again, that’s not always the wrong thing to do. But I think you’ll find that working with actors who are right for the role, rather than friends who are fun, is the right call. If you’ve networked properly, like you did to get your crew, you most likely also worked with actors you know and trust. These were the first people I went to when casting my film. I actually didn’t have a casting call. I had specific actors in mind for each part. Luckily, I landed the actors I wanted for each role. The only role I had to cast through auditions was the co-lead. And that was because the actor I had originally cast ended up being our DP (which was a HUGE blessing in the end). But, that’s not always the way to go. And often times, a rigorous audition process is worth the time and effort. Even though there was only one role we had to open for auditions, it was a tough process. We had MANY very good actors come into our audition room. We could have gone with several of them. Best advice I can give is to go with your gut. We actually cast a female actor in the co-lead role, even though it was written for a male actor. It completely changed the film….in a great way! But this was the result of being open minded and willing to change things for the betterment of the film.
You’ve made it this far, you have a strong script, you have a rock star crew, you have put in the work during an extensive pre-production process, and you have set your stellar cast. You are ready to film! The rest I’ll leave to you….cause making a film has no set rules. That’s all I really wanted to do here. Give you some insight from the perspective of someone who just went through the process of directing his first film. If you have the fortitude to start and finish something as ambitious as making a film, you have my respect. You’ll be tested. You’ll fail at times. And hopefully that won’t stop you. If you love this….really love this…there will be NOTHING that stops you from finishing your film. And when you do, I hope I get an invite to your premier. Good luck and God bless!
Written by Michael Peake, Director of Jacob's Paradox.
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Jacob's Paradox is Top Shorts Special Screening, and will be available to watch online on May 2nd, 2016.