It has been said of Fred Astaire's dance partner, Ginger Rogers, that she had to do everything Astaire did, but "backwards, and in high heels." The same could be said for the difference between indie and commercial filmmaking.
An indie film has to possess the same story and cinematic magic of its big-budget counterpart, but has to do so in a fraction of the time, for a tiny percent of the cost, without any guarantees along the way. A novelist or painter can begin and abandon a work in private, without anyone being the wiser. Not so with an indie film, which is, for 90% of its existence, an industrial enterprise, a company, a small business that makes art. No wonder then, that whenever indie filmmakers gather, the question of how to make the impossible a reality is the only one that matters. On Sunday afternoon, during the first day of this year's IFP Independent Feature Project Week, we listened as story writer and producer Elisabeth Holm and writer/director Gillian Robespierre discussed how they turned their low-budget short, Obvious Child, into an indie feature success story. If you'd rather see the film before finding out how they made it, Obvious Child launches on iTunes at midnight tonight.
"A Small Story"
The two filmmakers met at a networking event in Brooklyn; both had some industry experience, with full-time jobs at Kickstarter and the DGA. They came up with the idea for what became 'Obvious Child,' a 20-minute short, the story of a young woman, played by comedian and erstwhile SNL cast-member Jenny Slate, whose character goes through a breakup, an unplanned pregnancy, and its aftermath. Though the film featured frank discussion of abortion, a controversial subject, to say the least, it wasn't a film about abortion, and it didn't have the political undertones common to so many films on the subject. To be sure, this is one advantage of being an indie filmmaker, this freedom of expression.
To websites like Jezebel and Bitch Magazine, the film was refreshing, and the short garnered positive attention, doing well on Vimeo. This experience, taking their "small story and putting it in front of eyeballs," would prove valuable when it came time to raise money for the feature, which was developed partly in conjunction with the IFP.
Since screenwriting is the cheapest phase of movie making (depending on who's writing your movie) it makes sense to take as much time as necessary to develop your idea.
"Don't Go to BBQ's"
Since both Holm and Robespierre had full-time jobs, the film was developed on nights and weekends, with the script taking shape slowly. This, they stressed, was an important element of development. Since "people only read your script once," they made sure they had the strongest story possible. And since screenwriting is the cheapest phase of movie making (depending on who's writing your movie) it makes sense to take as much time as necessary to develop your idea.
Explaining how they found the time, Holm said, jokingly, that they didn't "go to BBQs," spending every spare minute working with an almost obsessive focus on their film; this sort of drive is a quality mandatory for any filmmaker, and especially an indie one. As far as their working relationship, it thrived because "neither wanted the other's job" and they weren't "afraid to disagree, or push each other," as well as the fact that they had similar sensibilities. This was not something they could have predicted, and drives home another key point: to make a successful indie film, you have to be lucky, and not just once, but over and over and over again, and not just with the big things.
Stars aligned for the film when comedian Jenny Slate, the lead in their short, was cast on Saturday Night Live; this raised the project's profile, but the film wouldn't have been anywhere, they stressed, without a good script. And since so much of the film centers around Donna, Slate's character, her performance would be critical to the film's success. The filmmakers decided to use Slate's career as a standup comedian and incorporate it into her character's role; there are standup segments in the film, and they incorporate some of Slate's own material. In this way, they used a resource they had to their advantage, adding humor as well as verisimilitude to the film, since Slate was believable as a comedian (because she was one). Also crucial was the idea of simplicity, of making "a simple story." The more the narrative was filtered to its essence, the better the script became, and in late 2012, when the script was "ready, but not perfect," because nothing ever is, they sent it out.
The move from years of slow work to the "fast" process of production happened very quickly; after sending out the film in November 2012, they were shooting by Spring 2013, with funding coming from private equity, grants, and, later, a Kickstarter campaign. Preproduction and interviews were done at night, at a bar, and they stressed that without supportive partners (Robespierre's boyfriend wrote the score, and Holm's let them shoot in his apartment) it would have been an impossible process. Once again, for the indie filmmaker, every resource is valuable, and every relationship is important. Holm stressed the importance of being active in the film world: attending mixers, film panels, and meeting people, because these are the people who will, down the line, help get your movie made. The filmmakers also reached out to Planned Parenthood, who let them shoot in their offices (in the short, a podiatrist's office stood in for the organization's.)
"You Do What You Can"
After the quick, run and gun indie shoot, which wrapped in April 2013, both returned to their day jobs. They brought on an editor and within two weeks had a 2 1/2 hour rough cut, which was, again, on nights and weekends, turned into the finished film. The filmmakers stressed that while they wanted to apply to Sundance with a "perfect" film, by the deadline for submission to the festival, and even after a series of screenings in May, June, July and August, they were still left with without a finished sound track or color correction, though they brought on a consulting editor for a fresh pair of eyes, and sent out a movie they thought was "good, to better than good." Another point that was stressed was not to put your eggs in one festival basket, i.e., it's should never be a case of Sundance or bust, because if they say no (and mathematically, the odds against a film being accepted into Sundance are not the best) you have no recourse. By applying as many places as possible, you hedge your bets.
While the film was a success, in this new indie era, festivals like Sundance are not the be all and end all that they once were, and one thing that kept Holm and Robespierre going through the long process was their tenet of "simplicity" and "low expectations." They were prepared for any outcome, from the film's sale, to self-distribution through VOD or any other channel, and everything in between. Flexibility is a key to success for any indie film, since so much in movie making is hit or miss and, for lack of a better term, fate, or, less poetically, dumb luck.
While Obvious Child had a lot of elements working in its favor (including the inclusion of Paul Simon's music), and the filmmakers had experience in the indie world, making a feature was no easier for them than it is for any filmmaker. Access doesn't equal success, and just because someone will take your call, there's no guarantee they'll help you make your film. In the end, for an indie filmmaker, it all comes down to story, dedication, relationships, and that dumb luck. Anyone attempting to create a feature film on an indie budget has to learn to use every cut corner to their advantage, and turn each liability into an asset. In the case of Elisabeth Holm and Gillian Robespierre, their hard work paid off, and Slate is getting great notices for her performance.
The systematic study of any film, from the first germ of an idea to the last review, is always instructive, and this is especially true for an indie filmmaker and an indie film. Listening to Holm and Robespierre, it became apparent just how much there exist near universal takeaways that any filmmaker can use to their advantage:
- Don't overthink; use all the resources you have.
- Your film will never be perfect, but it will be good enough, and knowing the difference between the two can be the difference between success and failure. Know when you're done.
- Don't be afraid to bring fresh eyes to the project, and listen to audience feedback.
- Build relationships, use your connections, but know that in the end, your story is what will make your movie.
- Simplicity is a virtue, and so is realism (as a state of mind). But the biggest virtue of them all is a lack of perfectionism, and an ability to be flexible. Nothing will ever turn out the way you think it will, but you can find something better than you thought you'd get if you keep an open mind.