Inform me... How to write an independent film

I have an idea for an independent film. I pretty much have a layout for the scenes, I have some basic ideas for the camera angles (drawn out sketches for each of the few scenes I have a rough layout for and such) and the format for how the film will be produced…

Its just that I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m interested in cinematography but I have no experience in it. I could probably get the help of students at my college who major in mass media and who have access to equipment, but overall… I’m green at this. I’m more than green, I have not the slightest clue on what to do about cast, costume, or editing.

anyone who would have a few hints to throw my way, I’d be very appreciative.

Right, okay, here’s some of what I found from my last big project (hour long, few thousand budget, cast/crew around 40 ).

Basically, there’s two ways of going about - the sensible oh so boring one (keep it short, dont go beyond your means, start small blah blah blah); and the fun way - just make the film you want to make. Pretty much everyone in the universe will reccommend the former and in my experience tell you you’re a fool if you do otherwise, but if you’re serious and are prepared to put in the time I still reckon just do what you want to do. If its worth doing, its worth doing right.

By doing what you want to do, I mean write the script you want to write. Worry about where you’re gonna find all these locations, all these actors, how you’re gonna do a stunt, where the money’s gonna come from and so on later. Just write the best script possible, and keep honing it. All the usual rules follow for the script - keep it tight, make sure every scene moves the plot forward somehow, make sure (this is the one I forgot to do) you give your audience a chance to fall in love with your hero(ine). Get a few people’s comments on it, but above all remember - its your script, not theirs. Your the one who’s got to be in love with the project. Doing storyboards for pivotal moments, and to make sure you get some cool shots in there is a good idea, but be flexible enough to play around on the day.

Another good thing to have early on is a title, obviously, and perhaps a one line pitch which makes it sound the best thing, just so when people ask you “So whats it about?” you’re not left mumbling vaguely (another definite fault of mine).

Technical equipment wise, you can probably get away with using a DV camera, as long as its a good one (has 3 CCDs, cost a fortune to buy but you’ll probably only want to hire it etc.) - you can get surprisingly pretty stuff with it, and it’ll give you more freedom in the amount of footage you take. Its also very easy to upload your footage after to a PC, and use some editing software to construct your masterpiece - you can also then in post production enhance the colours to make it look still more pretty. Sound… Sound’s a nightmare. Personally I’m not even sure I’m gonna bother recording sound with booms in my next project - I might just dub it all afterwards. In any case, you’re almost certainly gonna need to dub a lot anyway and fake all the sound effects (foley). Lighting, you’ll probably need indoors and you can probably hire out a few lights from a local company, but in my experience they weren’t really worth the effort to use in outdoor scenes.

Cast and perhaps more importantly crew are your most important asset. You’ll need the best actors you can find, especially for a low budget film, but on the other hand you really only want to work with people with a good personality or else it rapidly becomes a nightmare. Actors (and anything else come to think of it) you can find on the internet, and as long as you do some basic auditions you should be able to get some some good ones… But you’ll have to put them up, feed them and so on at the very least, and the less likely to be so willing to lend a hand as friends. Its very, very tempting to use friends as actors, especially in small roles - and, well… Its definitely a balancing act, over how certain you are to get on and ask anything of them, and how good their talents are. If at all possible I’d advise going for local actors and getting the best of both worlds. Crew, on the other hand, I used all friends for the last film, and it worked out fine - I’d reccommend it - but you might want to make sure that every one has a specific job, knows what their own responsibilites are (though of course they should be prepared to help beyond that with whatevers needed) and that if you tell them to do something, they’ll do it.

Scheduling’s a big thing. Probably best to set out some dates which are best for you and find people who are free then, rather than try to fit the dates to meet your cast. It just doesn’t work that well. Make sure to put some spare dates in for when you (inevitably) fall behind, weather cover - and some time off for you all to sleep in, too. If you’re gonna be doing a lot of night shoots, beware that if you do a full day after too it’ll be hell.

Okay, that’s just a few things I learnt. Goes without saying really, but make sure, whatever you do, you’re having fun :slight_smile:

Thank you, Lucius, your post will be very valuable to me while I’m working on setting this up.

i think it was mentioned above, but probably the most important thing to making ANY film is a GOOD script. You can have the best cinematography in the world (and all the best CGI graphics money can buy), but if you have a script written by stoned monkies, it’s still gonna suck. Hollywood proves this daily.

I think I’ll move this from IMHO to Cafe Society.

I have not made my own independent feature film yet, but I’ve worked on a few. (I’m getting ready to shoot my first 16mm short, and there’s a thread about it in this forum.)

Are you planning to make the film yourself? Or are you going to shop the script? If you’re going to shop the script, go all-out. If you’re going to make it yourself, take your resources into account.

Read Rebel Without A Crew by Robert El Mariachi Rodriguez. It’s very inspiring. Rodriguez planned to go to Mexico and shoot a film for Mexican television distribution. He figured that he would make three films in Mexico, so that if they didn’t turn out well nobody would notice. He looked at his resources: Access to an Arriflex 16s camera (borrowed), a friend in Mexico who had a house and who knew people who had ranches, and ten years of experience making super-8 and VHS ‘home movies with plots’. He’d also shot Bedhead. I don’t remember, but I think he showed Bedhead to a professor iin order to get into the film programme at the University of Texas at Austin.

With his resources in mind, he wrote a script. He would use friends and friends of friends for the cast. He’d hoped to get a Mexican soap star for the female lead (he’d noticed that Mexican action pics always had a soap star), but he couldn’t get her. He got a local girl instead. He would work without a crew so that he wouldn’t have as many mouths to feed. He didn’t have access to a synch camera, so he knew he would have many cuts when the dialog (which he recorded after the fact – a sound take) went out of synch. His experience editing VHS movies allowed him to be very economical with the film stock. In effect, he ‘edited in the camera’. El Mariachi only took 25 rolls of film.

My best *fiend was inspired by El Mariachi, shot for only $7,000, and decided to make his own film. It cost a bit under $40,000.

Format: Digital video is certainly a viable option. A friend of mine uses JVC GV500 cameras and edits on a Mac. You’d never know it was shot on video. But you need to know how to use Final Cut Pro to get a film look. Most of the direct-to-video films I’ve seen that were shot on DV looked like video.

16mm film gives you a better look, I think. If, by some miracle (as happened with Rodriguez), a studio picks it up, they will do the 35mm blow-up. The problem with 16mm is that it’s much more expensive than DV. If you don’t know how to use a film camera, you may not get what you want. Get a light meter (I use a Minolta IV-F) and break out the old 35mm SLR. Practice your exposures!

Try to get good location sound. My friend’s film, Cut Up, was about 90% ADR because the sound recordist didn’t know his job and was using poor equipment. My friend said it was an expensive pain in the arse.

Lighting is very important. Yes, a good script is essential; but you must have good lighting. Good lighting makes all the difference in the world. My friend was lucky enough to get a guy who did some lighting on Sex, Lies and Video Tape.

Making a film is a royal pain in the arse. The hours are long. Everyone gets tired. Much of the equipment is heavy and needs to be carried to difficult locations. People need to be fed. Crew may not have much experience. Actors may have personality issues. Scheduling is a hassle. Weather may stop you from using a location on the planned day. (Be sure to have a Plan B!) Everything seems to take two or three times longer than planned. Money is always an issue. Making a film is mentally exhausting as well as physically exhausting.

But I keep getting involved in them. At the end of the day, it’s very rewarding. In an hour I’ll be out the door to be a cameraman on a short film. It’s cold outside. We’re going to shoot into the night. I’ll be tired. But, dammit! I love it! :slight_smile:

Okay, about the camera angles. A director or DP will probably have his own ideas. Personally, I wouldn’t write the angle into the script unless it’s necessary. For my short film, I have not included camera directions. I’m directing it myself, and I know how I want it to look. I don’t need to give myself directions. If someone else were directing, I’d leave the set-ups to his own ‘vision’.

Storyboards can be very handy for getting everyone on the same page as far as how a scene should look. I’m no artist. Still, I’ve made this storyboard for the first scene of Somebody. I don’t have the time to draw the rest of the film. I may have access to an artist who will do it, but I’ll probably do without.

Right. I’d better get ready for today’s shoot…

Need a soundtrack?

This might help, clayton_e.

Thanks everyone, your posts are really helpful.

I also had a question about the soundtrack. I’d assume there is some sort of issue with royalties or at least permission from artists. any ideas?

Today’s shoot was a fiasco. I got to the studio on time, and we headed out to the location. After we got there, we found out that the actress could not be there until 3. We had beautiful sunshine and, though we were inconvenienced by the lack to the actress, we set up the dolly, jib and camera. The actress didn’t show up until nearly 4. The fog had rolled in. We couldn’t even do the night shots because the fog was condensing on the lens. At least we got some B-roll.

An independent film is going to cost at least $30,000. Forget about El Mariachi being made for $7,000. That was only because Rodriguez was given the use of a camera and editing equipment for free and had some other savings because he was shooting in Mexico. It’s going to cost at least $30,000, and that assumes that a lot of people associated with the film will work for deferred payment. That means that (assuming that you are honest with them) they know that probably, like most small-budget independent films, the finished film won’t even find a distributor and will make nothing, which means that they will make nothing for the work they did over a period that will range from several days to several months, depending on how deep their participation was. There is a reasonable chance, but not a very large one, that you will get some limited distribution, which means that these people will be paid something for their work, although it won’t be much. If you tell the people who will work on the film that there’s a good chance that this film will be an indie hit and will make them a lot of money, you will be lying to them and to yourself. There’s only a tiny chance that it will be an indie hit (and an indie hit doesn’t make nearly as much money as a big Hollywood blockbuster).

$30,000 will only get you a rough cut. You could try selling this to a producer who will be willing to spend the money to clean up and finish the film and go the indie route of film festivals and such for the publicity it needs to get a reasonable distribution. Or you could instead by yourself spend about an additional $35,000 to clean up and finish the film and prepare the prints and videotapes (for a total of $65,000) that you need to submit it to film festivals and producers. If you’re thinking of just writing the script and submitting it to producers, etc., that may be even more difficult than making the film yourself. Not many people are willing to read a script by an unknown.

Do you really have this much money to play around with?

Johnny_L.A. - that sounds very irritating. I was lucky enough that we shot in one straight period, and our actors practically lived with the crew so they couldn’t really escape :slight_smile:

clayton_e Do you want to do this for fun or to make money? If you want to turn a profit then you’ll probably need a larger budget (though, with all respect ** Wendell Wagner ** I still think $30,000 is being rather pessimistic) - if you want to do this for fun, then in my experience you can definitely do it for a lot less. A lot of people will help you out for free, just to be part of the project.

As for soundtrack - yeah, if you want to use established artists it’ll cost you an absolute fortune. If you’re prepared to go for something new, I’m sure you could find small bands who would be more than happy to have the publicity. If you want a more traditional Hollywood type score, there are people who can do an amazing job on that for you too, almost certainly for free.

Money? Ha, I didn’t come in here looking for a get rich quick, make a big hit movie. I highly doubt this would ever be a big hit, I’m not writing it with the goal in my mind to somehow eventually get box office revenue from it. I know this will cost me money (lots of it that I don’t have, but I figure I’ll worry about that later… if not I’ll be tossing the whole thing in the garbage right now) and I know that in all probability I won’t me making any money off of it. I really want to do this because I think I have a good idea, I have the rough idea for a movie in my head that I’d love to see and hopefully with a bit of work someday I can. I don’t care who else buys or watches it, I just have (what I think) is a good idea of something I’d love to put together and eventually be able to sit back and watch.

and thanks for the info on the soundtrack, I know a bunch of local bands and could probably get ahold of some others from other genres through friends and friends of their friends.

From a former film student who decided to give up the whole movie thing because it was a pain in the ass:

Get the script done first. No one who you’d want to work for you will work unless you have a script.

While it’s cool to figure out if its feasible and all, trying to get the idea of whether or not it will all work in the long run, getting a sense of exactly what you’ll have to go through, it’s easy to get sidetracked and before you know it, it’s five years later and you’re still planning.

So, my advice: learn to write a good script and get the script in a decent shape before you start looking into the particulars of production. When you have your script ready, you’ll be able to talk to sound guys, lighting guys, set designes, etc. and they’ll all be able to help you with working on the technical aspects and where to go from there.

Then, you’ll need the cash.

Then, you’ll need to get everything in order and start shooting.

But first, you’ll need the script.

Assuming you know how the 3 act structure works and applies to movies, I recommend Mamet’s book On Directing Film. I read this long ago and dismissed it as something that some know-nothing wrote, but reading it again last week, I realied that while it’s over-written and too expensive (not to mention quite naive), it does have a lot of worth if you take the basic premise of the book (which is reiterated in nearly every screenwriting book/seminar I’ve ever seen/been to):

Your story is about someone who wants something and has trouble getting it.

Mamet’s interesting addition is the film-student reality check that you should concentrate only on the action, whether your acting, writing or directing. The meanings and metaphors all flow from the action.

It’s interesting and probably simplistic, but very useful to keep in mind.

That, and avoid exposition like the plague.

The guys from the studio are coming over, so I only have a minute to post this.

Why not try shooting a few shorts first? It’s good practice. You can just use a camcorder, and you can get a taste of production if you structure your shoot like a ‘real’ shoot. And it’s cheap. You can pick up super-8 cameras for a song, and a decent Krasnogorsk-3 or Bolex H16 camera is pretty cheap if you want to try actual film. (Film stock isn’t cheap, but it will teach you to plan your shots carefully.)

By using a wind-up (spring motor) 16mm camera, you will learn to get what you need into a 20-second take. Since you will not be able to record dialog, you can focus on the images. It’s said that a good film should be watchable with the sound off.

Try this: Get ahold of an H16 and two rolls of B&W film. (Total should be about $200.) You will have five minutes of film, and you will have about 25 seconds for each winding of the motor. Come up with a three-minute story. Plan your shots so that you don’t waste film. (Remember that you only have a total of five minutes!) Get a light meter. You can probably get an old Sekonic for $100, or you can borrow one. Shoot your film and send it off for processing, and have it transferred to tape. (Probably $100 for that.) Transfer it onto your computer and edit it. You can also add music. Output onto tape or DVD.

Now you have gotten experience using a film camera, you’ve learned (hopefully) to plan your shots so that you get the most out of your limited supply of film, you’ve learned a bit about planning and executing a shoot, and you’ve learned some editing. All for a few hundred dollars. Your first films will likely be bad. It doesn’t matter, because no one will ever see them and you’re learning how to make a film.

It would be cheaper still if you practiced on video. The advantage of film here is that the cost forces you to think ahead. You’re less likely to waste footage if it’s going to cost you $50 for a processed roll than if you’re shooting onto a $3 sixty-minute tape.

Gotta run! Good luck.

I don’t think I’m being pessimistic at all in saying that the film will cost $30,000 to shoot and another $35,000 to clean up and get in shape to show at film festivals. Read The Unkindest Cut: How a Hatchet-man Critic Made His Own $7,000 Movie and Put It All on His Credit Card by Joe Queenan for the story of someone making his own film. The title is a joke based on the amount that Rodriguez supposedly spent. Queenan spent $65,000 getting a film from a script he wrote to the point that it was ready to show at film festivals (and only two festivals accepted his film, one of which was just thrown together purely for showing his film). Queenan, a well-known humorous article writer, many of those articles being about film, was only able to do this because he wanted to write the book about the experience. The money he made from the book may or may not have equalled what he spent. Certainly he made almost nothing from the showings of the film. And this was despite the fact that it was actually a fairly clever script (which he includes in the book). Only a couple of the technical people insisted on being paid, and he had to pay for the camera, editing, and post-production work. Please think carefully about whether you want to do this.

I just made an independant film for $4,100 and have already won a film festival. It can be done with time, patience, a little luck, and good planning.


Give us details. How long is it? What was the budget? Who got paid, and who deferred their payment? How much time did the various people involved put in?

Really good idea, Johnny L.A. I should definitely get some experience before doing this as a project. I guess I’ll continue to write and get some practice before I do this as a project.

No matter what I do I won’t be jumping into this right off, like renting cameras next week. I’m sure writing a good fully edited script would take a very long time.

Vibrotronica, I’m interested in hearing about your experiences with film.

Have you studied proper screenplay format?