How I Make an Independent Film, Start to Finish: Part One

I was standing up in front of the audience for Q&A at the Gasparilla International Film Festival. 1426 Chelsea Street had just screened among four other short films.

A viewer raised her hand and asked us filmmakers collectively, what was the biggest challenge we faced along the way?

The microphone came to me. So I began with a laugh and said, “For me, one of the biggest challenges was not having a clue what the heck I was doing, aside from reading some books and asking friends for advice. It was my first short film, so—”

At this exact point, I heard another audience member mutter loudly to herself her surprise that this had only been my first short film. Her remark was loud enough for me, and the rest of the audience, to hear.

I laughed again, a flattered thank you “—yep, it was my first one.”

The road to getting to that moment—from having a story on paper and a vision inside my mind to screening the result at festivals—was both challenging and rewarding. It was long, stressful, exciting, nerve-wracking, and jam-packed with a thousand things to do.

And as they say, every journey begins with one step….

Beginnings

I had written my short film script. I knew I wanted to see it on the silver screen. And I knew I wanted to direct it myself.

But how???

How did people take words on paper and make them come to life? I didn’t have much money. And I’d never been to film school. I knew virtually NOTHING. So I scheduled a meeting with a friend in my acting class. She’d just produced and acted in her own short film, and I figured she could give me some advice on how to get started.

Preparing to Make an Independent Film: Producing

My friend Natalie met me for coffee, I picked her brain and took notes….

I told her I would produce and direct my project. So she shared her process with me, which went approximately as follows:

  • You’ll need to figure out your budget by first doing a script breakdown
  • You’ll need to figure out where you’re going to get the money to make the film (I fundraised about $750 during post production, to help pay for festival submissions. But the making of the film came straight out my own pocket…for a total of about $5,700)
  • Ken, from my acting class, played a homeless man in my movie. He was awesome.

    Ken, from my acting class, played a homeless man in my movie. He was awesome.

    You’re going to need a crew, which should  include at least the following:

    • Cinematographer
    • 1st AD
    • 2nd AD
    • Sound Mixer
    • Script Supervisor
    • 1st AC
    • 2nd AC
    • Gaffer
    • Key Grip
    • Best Boy Electric
    • Best Boy Grip
    • Set Designer
    • Boom Operator
    • I also needed a dog actor, so I borrowed a friend's twin pugs.

      I also needed a dog actor, so I borrowed a friend’s twin pugs.

      Production Assistant

    • Hair/Makeup
    • On-set photographer and videographer

    Post-production:

    • Editor
    • Sound Editor
    • Color Corrector
    • Sound Designer
    • Music/Score
  • You’ve got to find/audition actors (I was fortunate enough to know some talented actors through my acting class and through friends. But if you don’t, Actors Access and CAZT are excellent free resources for starting from square one.)
  • You’re going to need equipment (I used LAGrip and Wooden Nickel. LAGrip offers packages that include EVERYTHING you’ll need for a small indie shoot, from tape, gels, and sandbags to an array of lights, stands, scrims, clamps, appleboxes, and even dollies.)
  • You’ll need to scout locations for your shoot (and take lighting into consideration while doing so)
  • If it’s going to be a SAG short, you need to file the SAG signatory paperwork
  • You’ll need insurance for the equipment and the locations. (I was insured for $1 million general liability and $25,000 for rented equipment through Frankel & Associates, which cost me $725, with a deductible of $250 if anything had gone wrong.)
  • You may need permits for certain locations (or you can shoot guerilla style, which most indies do. Also, some cities allow filming in public without a permit based on certain requirements. For example, if it’s a student film or if the camera is under a certain weight…)
  • You’ll need to figure out how you’re going to feed your cast and crew and provide craft service
  • You’ll need a plan of action for film festivals

Preparing to Make an Independent Film: Directing

And for the directorial what-to-do, I scheduled another meeting with a co-founder of the acting class I was in. He’s a USC cinematic arts professor and a director himself. So Miles met me for coffee, I picked his brain and took notes…

  • I would need to create a shot list
  • Depending on the shots I wanted, I would need certain camera lenses
  • I would need a map of each setup for camera blocking purposes
  • I would need a character list and breakdowns of each character
  • I’d need a really good 1st AD

And What I Learned On My Own…

  • I would need to have on-location rehearsals for camera blocking
  • I would need to prepare a shooting schedule
  • I would need to send out call sheets to all cast and crew before each day of shooting
  • I would need a line script
  • I would need a prop list
  • I would need to have an external hard drive on set, maybe two, for dumping the memory cards
  • I would need to know the basic process of: “Roll sound! Rolling! Roll camera! Speed! Slate! ‘Scene 1A Take 2’!Action!” (Yes, it’s true…I didn’t even know when to call Action.)
  • I would need to create a press kit (which you should be thinking about and making as you go, with outtakes, on-set interviews, behind the scenes photos, etc.)
  • I would need to create a WithoutABox account for festival submissions
  • It would take MONTHS to have a final cut with color correction, sound design, and music…

I know this is a loooooong list. But it’s pretty detailed, so don’t let it discourage you. Take it in baby steps. One day at a time. And if I missed anything or you have another great resource, please feel free to share it in the comments below!

Next week I’ll share Part Two of how I make an independent film… THE SHOOT! So stay tuned, folks.

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