20 Life-Saving Tips for Indie Filmmaking from the Co-Founder of Slamdance
These tips may seem minor, but they're completely essential.
Back in 1995, after interviewing me, The New York Times described the ragtag team of filmmakers who founded the Slamdance Film Festival as "cheerful subversives." Ever since, that two-word description has pretty much encapsulated my modus operandi as a filmmaker. Yes, I've always been something of a renegade filmmaker on the fringes of Hollywood, but I've also done it with a smile on my face and a wink in my eye.
On August 23, my book, The Cheerful Subversive's Guide to Independent Filmmaking, is coming out from Focal Press. It's a comprehensive guide to the craft and culture of making indie films, and also serves as something of an oral history of the last 22 years as co-founder of Slamdance and lessons I've learned personally from our alumni (everyone from Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas, to the Russo Brothers, Rian Johnson and Lynn Shelton) and mentors (Robert Altman, Steven Soderbergh, Harold Ramis, and John Carpenter).
Aimed at both film students and working practitioners, the book covers everything you need to make an indie film, from financing and casting, to directing, post-production and festivals, to distribution, piracy, and how to have behave in a Hollywood meeting—all from my particularly skewed perspective.
Below are a few practical tips culled (mostly) from the book.
1. Always prepare a Chain of Title agreement
Use the WGA's free collaboration agreement on their website. You don't even have to be a member of the WGA.
Even if you don't have a contentious relationship with your co-writer, at some point you might. (Think of the Stairway to Heaven lawsuit: your co-writer might die in 30 years and her kids might sue you.)
But more practically, you'll need a proper Chain of Title if you ever hope to sell the film, since all distributors require Errors and Omissions (E&O) insurance, and all E&O insurance requires a proper Chain of Title.
2. Lawyer up!
Whether you need one in preproduction, production or distribution, at some point you will need an entertainment lawyer (or at the very least, free advice from one.) The simplest way? Go to Jonathan Gray's nightly house parties in Park City and cozy up to his young (slightly drunk) associates for free legal advice.
3. Make your pitch as good as your movie
Whether you're doing a crowdfunding campaign or not, spend time on a good pitch video that will show you're an excellent filmmaker. But don't just make it another scrawny-filmmaker-staring-at-the-camera-asking-for-money. This is your first chance to prove that you can direct a movie, so make your pitch as cinematic as possible, and preferably in the same style as your eventual film. It'll be useful for any kind of financing, but also for casting, finding crew, vendors, product placement, etc.
4. Register with The Man
If you've got any kind of LLC or other corporate entity, make sure you register with your state—and, if you're selling any kind of shares, with the Securities and Exchange Commission. SEC registration is surprisingly easier and cheaper than you think ($10) and will prove to investors that you're responsible and know business.
5. Make sure your interns are in school
With new lawsuits and labor crackdowns, it's much harder to get free labor to work on your film without getting sued or fined. But you can still get free labor to work on your film! You just need to make sure your interns are officially enrolled in a school program.
6. Make a musical or female-driven drama
The surest way to cast famous actors is to either make a musical with live singing (actors love to sing and rarely get a chance to), a serious drama with long monologues (actors will think they can win awards, and if nothing else, they'll have something good for their reels), and have great parts for women (there are far more famous working actresses than there are actors, and they all crave great roles).
7. When auditioning, don't read
Here's a trick I learned from veteran casting director Lynn Stalmaster: Any actor can do a decent line reading. So make sure you have a third person reading lines against the actors in auditions. That way you can look at the actor and see if they're really acting between their lines.
8. Use name tags on set
On the first day—or even first week—of production, use "Hello, My Name Is" name tags for everyone on the crew. Color code them for different departments. If everyone knows each other's names, it'll make for a more respectful, and safer, set. For added benefit, put an extra tag on everyone's backs, so they can be identified from behind.
9. Use your scripty as your assistant editor
A good script supervisor is much more than just a stenographer. They're also the only one aside from the director who's paying any attention to coverage and whether a scene will cut together well. So pick a scripty who really knows editing and isn't afraid to tell you when you're missing something.
Take it one step further and turn your script super into your assistant editor once you wrap; they know where all the footage is buried and can read their own handwriting.
10. Use a higher res to shoot than you will need for finishing
If you know you're going to finish on 2k, then shooting 4k will allow you to zoom in and reframe in post to your heart's content. In essence, this doubles your coverage. At the very least, you'll spend fewer takes on set trying to get the perfect framing if you know you can change it in post, thus saving precious time on set.
11. Find the goat
Find the most annoying person on your crew...and don't fire that person. You want the crew to hate/cringe/eye-roll them rather than you.
12. Dress like a director
Dress appropriately for your film's subjects and themes. Whether that's a suit and tie or biker chic, a Pharrell Williams 20-gallon hat or a bandana, make sure it's appropriate to the film you're making, and make sure you're the only one dressed that way.
13. Make sure "action!" is always your last direction
Veteran director Donald Petrie said that the manner and tone of how you say "action" is the last piece of direction you'll give to your actor, so make it count. If it's a funny scene, say "ACTION!" loudly and boisterously. If it's a serious, dramatic scene, whisper it quietly.
14. Think two shots ahead
As soon as you call "cut," immediately announce the next set-up. Then, while you're shooting that shot, start planning the one after that. Never hesitate for a moment.
15. Arrive early, bring donuts, and wear tape
On an indie shoot, be sure to be the first one on set in the morning and last to leave. From time to time, bring donuts (or more efficiently, donut holes) even before craft service gets set up. Wear a role of tape on your belt to say to the crew that you're willing to work with them, not above them. (Even if you never use it.)
16. Use the EPK crew to flatter and distract your producer
In general, use your EPK crew strategically on set to butter-up or appease cast and crew. Specifically, use your EPK crew to do long, fawning interviews with your producers. The producers will feel artistic and important. While they're distracted, use that time to shoot your most expensive scenes that your producers didn't approve.
17. Make product placement work for you
You likely won't make money on product placement, but you can get cases and cases of food and alcohol that can be used not only to feed the crew, but also as barter for other vendors. Be sure to save one case of beer to bring to the Slamdance office when you submit your film.
18. Plan on having more than one editor
When you sign your contract with your editor, make sure you don't agree to an exclusive front credit. More than likely, your editors will work for so many months that someone (quite likely, you) will suggest that you need "a fresh set of eyes." Or your editor will simply quit because you can't pay them, and they can't afford food. Either way, plan ahead for a second (or third) editor.
19. Do a full foley session
Make sure to do a full foley session for your entire movie, including all the footsteps. You may not need it for your native-language soundtrack, but if you hope to sell the film on the international market, you're going to need a full Music & Effects (M&E) mix, and you can only do that if your footsteps are separated from your dialogue. Foley doesn't have to be expensive; you can do it yourself if you have to.
20. Send out K-1s on time, especially to farmers and fishers
If you have any kind of investors, be sure to get your K-1 forms out to them on time. Investors usually need them a month before they do their taxes, so that means you have to prep your taxes by early February.
But the IRS requires farmers and fisherfolk to turn in their taxes 6 weeks earlier than the rest of us. So if any of your investors smell like dirt or seaweed, then you might need to prep your taxes on January 1. Investors won't necessarily mind not making money, but they will mind getting a late K-1.