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

Waking up at 5:00am for the first day of shooting your independent film initiates a sort of gag reflex. Not in the disgusted way, but in the sh**-your-pants nervous way.

The butterflies in my stomach felt more like rapid bats flapping their furious wings and bashing their heads into the walls. The walls of my stomach, in case I wasn’t clear about that.

I had set everything in place…prepared everything off that loooong production list I shared with you last week. I’d done all my directorial duties. But somehow, it seemed like the whole thing was a ticking time bomb that would blow up at any moment. Or that it was a cruel joke. That I would arrive at the location and be the only one to show up all day while everyone else stayed home, laughing at my expense.

My inner gremlins reared their ugly heads for a while as I brushed my teeth, anxiety ridden, asking myself…

Would all these people I’d hired actually come? Would the nice people whose house I was using wake up to answer the door? Would the equipment truck show up?  Would my actors be there?

I loaded up my car with stuff, headed over to Location 1, and, before long, it all started to come together.

Sure enough, the crew arrived and started setting up lights and stands and scrims.  The equipment truck driver came and was asking me where he should park. Makeup was wondering around, looking for where she should set up her chair. People were moving through the breakfast line, filling their plates with eggs and bacon.

It was like a symphony in crescendo. While it all worked out pretty smoothly, there were still plenty of bumps in the road.

Five Tips for the Independent Film Shoot

If you’ve done all your homework and pre-produced the crap out of your film, you’ve already made your life much easier. My advice to you is basically summed up in the following five tips:

  1. Be organized
  2. Find your voice
  3. Make sure you have a PA
  4. Eat lunch! (and drink water…along with lots of coffee, since you won’t have slept much the night before)
  5. Watch the actors, sure. But WATCH THE MONITOR, too

1. Be Organized

Have all your paperwork with you. I would suggest preparing a binder, with nice, neat little tabs to denote where everything is. Some of the following are production-based and some are directorial. Sort out what you need and what your producer needs. If you’re the director/producer, you’ll need all of it.

independent film - script

You never know who might need an extra copy of the script.

  • Names/phones numbers of all cast and crew
  • Your script and extra scripts
  • Shooting Schedule
  • Shot list
  • Character breakdowns/directorial notes
  • Line script
  • Prop list
  • Wardrobe and set changes
  • Call sheets (which should always include info on the nearest hospital)
  • Contracts
  • Permits
  • Proof of insurance
  • A map of the area

If someone comes to you asking for a copy of the ABC, or to see your copy of the XYZ, you should be able to locate and present it quickly.

2. Find Your Voice

I’ve mentioned before that I’d never made a movie before this experience. I’d never been to film school, and I’d only been on a set as an actress. Thus, I wasn’t familiar with asserting myself to a cast and crew and didn’t even know exactly when to yell Action.

The first day of shooting, I had no voice. All my nervousness and insecurities were glaringly apparent. When I wanted the crew to do something or had notes on a scene, it came out like more of a squeak. And no one was really listening or responding to my squeak. It didn’t feel like the crew was there for my movie—more like they were there as drones fulfilling a pre-programmed duty. They were nice to me, but they were unresponsive.

I fortunately had a great 1st AD who had lots of experience and could see the dear-in-headlights glaze over my eyes.

The morning of the second day, he pulled me aside and told me I needed to make a speech. WHAT? A Speech??? Noooooo... I hate making speeches. I was really nervous to do it. But he made me. He said every director does this on the first day of shooting. He or she gathers the entire production and thanks them for being there, gets them pumped about the film, makes everyone feel like a unified team, while also saying in a really nice way, Hey, I’m the director. Respect.

After I did this, I found my voice. I felt really strong whenever I addressed the crew, had no problem yelling out commands (respectfully), and developed a rather confident Action! Most importantly, I was listened to and acknowledged as the director.

3. Make Sure You Have a PA

It seems like such an idiot mistake to not only produce it myself, but to also not have a PA on set. But, for some reason, I just didn’t think I would need one.

Well, you need one. To take out the trash, to tape protective paper to the hardwood floor, to make a run for more dry-erase markers… There are so many teensy tinsy things that slip through the cracks in pre-pro, or that arise all of a sudden. I had two pugs on set as actors for the first day of shooting, but did it ever occur to me who would be dogsitting? No, it didn’t.

So, while I should have been working with my actors, or checking out the next camera setup, I was being pulled around by two yappy, extremely strong pugs.

4. Eat Lunch!

I know you’re busy, but if you don’t eat, you might pass out. Plus the low blood sugar will make you moody and emotional. So eat breakfast and lunch. Drinking water is also essential to making sure your body and mind can function in tip-top shape throughout your shoot days. Especially since you won’t be sleeping much.

5. Watch the Monitor

independent film - watch monitor

The monitor can reveal technical issues with a shot.

There’s a bit of an argument here. From a directing standpoint, many say you should watch the actors. This is more of an artsy approach to directing—watching the actors live in each moment is more organic and will better inform your direction. True.

Many others say to watch the monitor. Who cares what the actors look like live? The audience will be seeing what you see on the monitor. You can watch the framing of the scene and notice any technical flaws this way.

I say watch both. Yes, the experience of watching the actual actors in the room with you has more life, more energy. And it can definitely inform what you direct your actors to do next.

But watching the monitor informs your final product.

On our last day of shooting, the location was a dimly lit bar. I didn’t watch the monitor closely enough to notice that the lighting in this bar scene was actually way too dim. It was so dark, the footage was useless. We ended up having to reshoot that entire day and it cost me another $1,000.

Welp, that’s it for now. Another long one I know, but informative, yes? Come back next week for Part Three – Post-production!

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