Posts Tagged ‘Independent’

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The Passive Participant

February 23, 2010

If you’re trying to get a project off the ground, you are going to encounter a great deal of rejection. Rejection hurts, but it’s a gift. Rejection frees the rejectee from wasting the most precious resource in film: Time. That said, there is nothing more dangerous to any film, or entrepreneurial endeavor, than the passive participant.

Whether you’re laboring to get your production rolling, or rolled out, you’ll find that most people you talk to in the movie business, aren’t in the movie business at all, they just want to be, or want to think they are. Streams of friendly people will tell you they are interested in your work, that they will get actively involved in moving it forward, and that they can have a positive impact on your progress. Unfortunately, more often than not, they aren’t interested, won’t get involved, and/or can’t help you – even if they wanted to.

The truth is, most conversations, meetings, and hoops we jump through to get a movie of any size made, seen, or sold, are dead ends. These time-consuming labyrinths are manned by seemingly well-meaning folks who enjoy meeting interesting, creative people, and sending them on wheel-spinning goosechases such as rewrites, recuts, and hunting expeditions for often unattainable people/organizations/resources, they themselves have no access to, or relationship with.

Why would they do this to us? I’m sure the logic is subjective, but usually it’s because they see themselves as above action, and live vicariously through the radical action of others.

‘Give Me Your Opinion’ versus ‘Give Me This Thing’
It’s a logical impulse to seek the advice of people you see as “further along” in the field to which you aspire. Asking an opinion is a natural icebreaker in any social situation because all people love to be heard. This approach makes sense if you actually want someone’s opinion, but it makes no sense if you simply want something from them. Simply put, “Give me your opinion of this script” is not “How can I get you to invest in this project”. The former puts the ball in their court to read a long document or listen to a pitch, and hopefully come to the conclusion you are fantasizing about. The latter puts the onus on you to own the conversation, and have your investment plan queued up and ready.

While it may seem obnoxious, business people appreciate forthrightness. It’s a common misconception that people of consequence want their asses kissed. They don’t – it’s a waste of time. It’s people of no consequence that want their asses kissed. Those people have all the time in the world to string you along with long, lazy meetings and (un)creative jam sessions that will wear you out and usually decimate any forward motion you once had. Avoid these people, they can only bog you down.

People who have power, on the other hand, do not want to play games. They may or may not opine on your work, but what they really want is for you to come to the point and quickly. Tell them what you have for them, what you want from them, and let them say yes or no. It’s not obnoxious, it’s honest, and it gets you where you’re going quicker (whether that’s further down the road with them, or onto the next pitch).

Asking opinions is usually a waste of time anyway. Most people’s opinions are based on nonsense, irrelevant ideas or logic, or a complete misconception of your work. It’s just plain wrong to think that any amount of experience makes someone an expert on your work. Your work is your work, good or bad. Obviously try to make it good, but some low-level production manager at a middling DTV production company isn’t going to help you make it better. He will tell you what he thinks your work should be, and will usually be wrong.

In the words of Joe Eszterhas, “Whether you’re talking about the studio executive or the actor or the cabdriver, you know, or the gofer or the gaffer …. they all think they’re writers, and they all want to change and rewrite what you’ve done.”

It’s one thing if you’re in a work for hire situation, but for God’s sake, don’t chase your tail on the orders of some stranger you think you need to impress. Particularly someone who isn’t bringing you money, or something else of immediate and quantifiable value. It costs a passive participant nothing to spin your wheels, but it can cost you all your formative years.

Conclusion
You have all the power and resources you need to do exactly what you want to do. Don’t waste time dancing for people that won’t get their hands dirty.

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Making a Plan and Throwing it in the Trash

February 5, 2010

In a formal film production, roles and job expectations are defined according to tradition (ie, line producer, production manager, assistant director, etc). This traditional approach to production is the best way to maintain a proper division of labor, keep morale up, and get the job done fast and right. This approach also requires a crew that is fully staffed and experienced – or at least knowledgeable.

In the independent world, we are generally under-resourced, so we invent all sorts of creative ways to cut corners while (hopefully) maintaining our artistic integrity and vision. When getting into indie territory, it can be a wild west situation where you just have to make the most of what you’ve got. Personnel-wise and everything else-wise.

The one thing you don’t have to skimp on in an indie is preparation. Some would say the resource bottleneck all indies suffer is exactly why you should over-prepare.

Preproduction

Note: Every filmmaker has a different process, and indies require the invention of process, so all I’m doing here is detailing how I’ve done it. There are definitely lots of other, better ways to get this job done.

The more notice I have in planning a shoot, the more time I have to explore every possible opportunity, anticipate any problems, and devise solutions for every element of the production.

When I’m prepping a specific scene, I usually go to the location weeks ahead of time, take pictures and notes, and do scratch blocking with whoever is there. I’ll make return visits with all my key players (camera, stunt, etc), discuss options, and codify a plan, then go home and make shotlists and overheads, and draw storyboards of the action.

This long-lead workflow is fairly idealistic. Once production starts, we don’t always have the luxury of long exploratory discussions, or contemplative afternoons alone. Working on an indie, everything is subject to change at a moment’s notice. Flexibility and real-time imagination are key. It takes the focus and creative energy of everyone involved to turn obstructions into opportunities for strong creative choices.

Even if our location is changed at the last minute, the stunt dog dies, or it starts raining blood, the planning we did, informs and strengthens the choices we improvise.

The martial artist practices form and sequence to seek or impose order to the chaos of violence. Planning a shoot is no different. Like martial arts, creativity under pressure gets easier with experience, but it all stems from preparation.

Even if my plan goes down the tubes, I’m more prepared to get the scene done because I’ve thought through every detail.

Location
For me, the creative parameters start with the physical location itself. This is where I may well reinvent a sequence in total. When it comes to locations, I welcome the opportunity to reinvent a scene or sequence and make the most out of what’s there.

What I find least productive, is trying to squeeze whatever preconceptions I had on the script level, out of an environment that just isn’t the same. If a location is great, but different, I want to make it work – provided, of course, it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the overall story.

Once I’ve thoroughly checked out a location, I’ll bring my DP, producer, stunt coordinator (if applicable), go over everything I’m thinking, get their input, and then document everything.

Shotlists and Overheads
On the functional side of my process, the shotlist and overheads are much more important than any storyboard.

Armed with a shotlist, we go in knowing exactly what shots we need for the edit, as well as any C.Y.A. coverage I can think of (inserts, whips, b-roll). The shotlist details all the coverage, the angle of view and any other notes or special instructions. We use the overhead to map the geography of the set, as well as establishing camera positions for coverage, which correspond to the shots on the list.

If everything goes as planned, we show up and shoot the list, checking it off as we go. If we discover interesting ideas a long the way (and we always do!), we shoot that too.

Storyboards
I meet many aspiring filmmakers who seem to think storyboards are really important, but there are plenty of great films that get made without them (see all Soderbergh films, Spielberg films that don’t involve spaceships or dinosaurs).

That’s not to say storyboards aren’t useful – they absolutely are. They’re just not crucial. In my opinion, if you’re a relatively articulate director, and you have a good dialogue with your DP, you should be fine with an overhead and shotlist.

Many directors would prefer to work with the actors and leave the visual element entirely to the DP. There is no shame in this at all. Personally, I prefer to do most of the work with the actors before shooting, and be more hands-on with the photography on set. It’s really a matter of style and preference.

In my case, I used to board every single shot I could, for the simple reason that I was a control freak. In production I’ve realized that – at least for me – you have to shoot what’s there, not what you think should be there.

I think of my storyboards as a guide to the overall visual style of the film, to show what key shots I think need to be there, or anything I’m specifically looking for. Otherwise, I’m fine trashing them and rolling on what looks good.

Tossing It For The Win

My film, The Local, had over 150 scenes, spanning many locations all over New York, inside of 27 shoot days, on a very modest budget (don’t ask). There were also numerous fights and stunts and countless challenges that can never be fully revealed.

Our plans were constantly snarled by the same logistical problems that plague all films (weather, cops, flakes, illness, bad wiring, etc). It’s a testament to the talent and ingenuity of my team, that we were repeatedly able to repel, outsmart, and ultimately out-create any obstacles the universe threw at us (and have fun doing it).

The film would never have been finished – let alone be any good – had we not prepared every shoot day to the best of our abilities, and from time to time, been willing to toss all our meticulous plans into the garbage and seize the creative opportunities around us.