This post was written by Anthony Natoli.

Not too long ago, shooting a feature-length film felt somewhat unattainable for the common person. It wasn’t really until the ’90s when people like Ed Burns showed us what could be done with a minimum budget and a lot of heart, creating movies like The Brothers McMullen. Nowadays the technology to make your dreams come to life on the big screen is sitting in your pocket.

My name is Anthony Natoli, and I recently finished my first film Sunday Sunday Sunday, shot on an iPhone. The movie is about two brothers who inherit a junky, old ‘67 Dodge Dart and take it drag racing.

After five years of shooting, I have some takeaways that I learned along the way.

Write what you can shoot

We all have aspirations to make the next Star Wars, Jaws, Kill Bill, etc., but is it truly attainable when you’ve never even picked up a camera before? Maybe.

I grew up drag racing since I was a little kid, and I was raised in the pits of a drag strip, so I knew the culture. I knew how the air smelled when you got to the track, the sounds of different car engines, and how the sport worked—I chose that as my backdrop. When you have something in your life that you know that well, it may be the right avenue to venture down. In my film, we had many challenges—like having no cars after 1974 featured—but I knew what would work to give my film the vintage feel I was going for.

That being said, I think the most important first step in writing your movie is choosing something attainable. If you reach too far into unknown territory you could get easily lost, so having an anchor that helps you stay on course is a great first step. Find something unique to you that you can easily write 90 pages of dialogue for because that’s where authenticity lives. No matter the subject, that’s what your audience will ultimately recognize.

Sss_-_s'Sunday Sunday Sunday'Credit: Anthony Natoli

Start small

I wrote the script for my film after waking up from a dream. In the dream, I walked into a theater and there was one person sitting in the seats—it was me. As I sat down, the other version of me said, “You made this movie we’re going to watch… so write this down when you wake up.”

I really liked the movie, and when I woke up I grabbed a pen and paper and stayed up all night writing down everything I could remember. I never had real aspirations to make a movie until that moment, but it also felt sort of unattainable.

At that time, I had never even really picked up a camera before, but that changed when the iPhone 5 came out. I was so impressed by its power that I was inspired to make the movie myself. I had little experience in film, so instead of just diving right into making a 90-minute feature, I started small.

I made four music videos in 2015, one for each season of the year, that really taught me how to edit, color, and how far I could push this device. If you have a grand idea but don’t know where to start I suggest you aim high.

Ask a friend who’s a musician if they need a music video. It’s an incredible way to help another artist while also giving you the experience needed to tackle a feature-length film down the road. 

Montauk_drive'Sunday Sunday Sunday'Credit: Anthony Natoli

Download FiLMiC Pro

FiLMiC Pro is an app that was introduced to me about a year after shooting the music videos and it changed the game for me. The app essentially turns your phone into a weapon that can shoot at 24 fps and more, giving you a wide range of options and possibilities. It gave my movie the film look I wanted, and it only cost a few bucks. I was blown away immediately after using it and we shot almost the entire film using the app. You can control shutter speed and all kinds of advanced settings, letting you really dial in what you’re looking to get out of a scene.

The best part is even if you don’t know what ISO or aperture is, there are so many tutorials and videos on YouTube that will show you how to expand on the vision. Even if you don’t get too technical with it and just hit record I can almost guarantee you will be impressed by the quality of the native software on your smartphone. Not to say that the newer models aren’t pushing those boundaries today but when I started this was the most advanced you could get with a smartphone. 

Sss_-_s'Sunday Sunday Sunday'Credit: Anthony Natoli

Grab a gimbal

I always loved that scene in Goodfellas where the camera walks into the Copacabana and never cuts. Back in the day, you needed a Steadicam that probably cost an arm and a leg, but today you can slap your phone onto a gimbal that runs about $50 to truly get some impressive shots. I purchased a DJI Osmo mobile before we started filming and it made the footage feel so smooth and professional while not breaking the bank.

My biggest mistake is I used it too much! The lesson learned here was to use your tools wisely. Looking back there were moments where I should have been on a tripod but because I had the gimbal that’s what I went with. I paid the price in post-production. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail, so make sure to use the right tool for the right job

Sss_-_master_timeline'Sunday Sunday Sunday'Credit: Anthony Natoli

Take chances on casting

I never had a casting call or anything like that for my film. When I was writing my script I had a lot of friends and family in mind for parts. Even though I didn’t even ask them if they wanted to be a part of my film yet I took a chance because I felt they would be perfect for that role. 

It worked out pretty well! I have never really acted before, but casting myself in the film did a lot for me. First, I was always on set so if something went wrong, like an actor not showing up, I could jump in and quickly re-write the scene. It also gave me a lot of empathy toward the other actors knowing what it felt like to be on the other side of the camera allowing me to give better direction.

This is definitely an area that I think is more important than any technical advice I could give, because a movie is all about capturing performance. You can be shooting on a RED and have the best lighting rig and audio engineers, etc., but if you’re not capturing the right performance, it means nothing. 

If you get an incredible performance out of your actors it doesn’t matter what you shoot on, even if it’s your cellphone.

S'Sunday Sunday Sunday'Credit: Anthony Natoli

Don't get overwhelmed by locations

This is always a tough one for a lot of filmmakers, because sometimes we want what we can’t have.

This is why I started off by saying "write what you can shoot." Maybe your friend's family owns a bowling alley, or someone you know can get you a few hours in a diner. Whatever you have access to should be where you’re focusing, especially in the beginning.

If you bite off more than you can chew early on, you may get overwhelmed and disheartened. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get what you want.

When I started scouting for my film I went around to my favorite pizza places and burger joints. I spoke with the manager or owner and explained to them what I was doing. Most of the time it worked out, and sometimes I could just feel that this wasn’t the right place even if they agreed. You should feel comfortable knowing you have the time and space to grab what you need and get out of there.

In one scene in particular the owner told me he could give me 45 minutes and that was it, but I really wanted to shoot in that location. Before we even set foot in the building I spent about a day talking to my crew about exactly what we needed to come home with and how fast we needed to get it. I remember sitting in the car setting up lights and all the gear about an hour before shooting so we could be in and out. We wound up leaving with 10 minutes to spare.

Chase_scene'Sunday Sunday Sunday'Credit: Anthony Natoli

Spend time on pre-production

I cannot stress how important it is to over-prepare. A friend of mine used to say, “You make plans, and God laughs,” and boy, is that true.

The more homework you do, the easier it will be when it’s time to call "action."

As a musician and a music producer, oftentimes I will work with an artist on the song first. Getting the arrangement, the words, melodies, and any other important details down before we hit record gives the artist an opportunity to have a map to where we are going. It also gives us the confidence of knowing we have a good song, which is the most important part.

The same goes with filming. If you write a great scene and do a little rehearsal before you step on set, it gives the actors an idea of where we are going.

I also love jazz and the idea of free thought and improvisation, so I think another important element that comes with preparation is the ability to let go and let this scene get a little wild. Take an extra beat, don’t actually say that next line, just use your eyes. There are things that sometimes just happen in the moment and you wouldn’t have planned it, but it’s great to have in the editing room. Actors would make “mistakes” that wound up in the film because there was something real or refreshing about it.

Happy accidents are my favorite. 

Sss_-_s'Sunday Sunday Sunday'Credit: Anthony Natoli

The power of knowledge 

I always loved watching “the making of” anything, even movies I don’t love. Since I was a kid I enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together.

The thing about making a movie is you can’t take it apart until after you’ve made it, so watching other people disassemble their film can be revelatory. During quarantine, my friend gave me a free pass to the Masterclass series online and I loved every second of it. Pros like Martin Scorcese, Danny Elfman, and Hans Zimmer breaking down how they approach their craft is something that is accessible to us now. Why not take advantage of these tools?

You don’t need to go to film school to make a movie these days, you just need the drive and willpower to seek out the information you need. Do your homework and listen; we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

Sss_-_s'Sunday Sunday Sunday'Credit: Anthony Natoli

Surround yourself with people you trust

Choosing collaborators is almost inevitable unless you plan on doing everything by yourself. I met so many talented and incredible people along this journey who not only helped me bring my vision to life, but taught me a whole new way of approaching the process. Directing and acting in my film was difficult because I often needed people on the other side of the camera who saw the vision and could help me realize it.

Finding the right collaborators is important. When I started shooting, I was the main DP, but it was getting really difficult to keep doing that as I was so new to the process. One day I needed a drone operator for a shot and out of the blue, this guy messaged me on Facebook and offered to drive four hours to help me out. I never met this person before, but after a day of shooting, I realized how talented and incredible he was at everything, from sound to using the camera.

We wound up working on the rest of the film together. His name is James Morano and to this day we work on all kinds of projects as a team. Him coming into my life has brought my craft to a new level.

When you are walking into this game it can be really intimidating, but if you connect and surround yourself with the right people you can really grow and flourish together.

Have no fear

When we recognize fear, it’s a good thing. It means that’s probably where we need to go next. Fear is an indicator that you are onto something, and that is where adventure lies.

I’ll never forget the first table read of my film and how nervous I was. When it was over, everyone clapped, which I did not expect, but it was a moment where all my hard work culminated into a belief in me. My cast and crew saw what I was going for. I was on cloud nine for about five seconds.

Then, a new fear crept in—how am I going to do this? For five years I felt fear from every corner imaginable. In my sleep, while at work, while shooting… it was everywhere. I kept thinking to myself, these people believe in me and what I’m doing. That was what kept me going.

When it pops up for you, don’t be afraid, don’t run, go after it. Figure out how to get around it, over it, under it, through it, whatever it takes. You can do it. Believe in your dream, or no one else will.

Anthony Natoli grew up in Valley Stream, New York, only a few houses down from director Ed Burns. He started at the age of four driving go-karts and playing guitar. Racing led to him winning the high school championship at Raceway Park, New Jersey, and the guitar led to form a band. By the time he graduated high school, he had come to a crossroads: go pro drag racing, or sign to Capitol Records. He chose music, but he carried the lessons learned on the track with him throughout his career. Natoli had never picked up a camera before he got his first iPhone, but once that device was in his hands, he realized it was a powerful tool for storytelling.

Social Media: @ObiWanNatoli and @SundaySundaySundayFilm