Written by Clarke Scott
Plus, three reasons why you should shoot your own indie feature.
If you’re anything like me, and you work in the commercial world shooting stills and motion for clients and brands, but what you really aspire for is something bigger, then keep reading. I will show you a couple of lessons I learned from writing, directing, and shooting a no-budget feature film.
Like many, my first step into narrative filmmaking was a short film. But I wanted my short to be different in some way. So I chose to make it a hybrid doc/fiction narrative. I shot the short below over the course of about six hours over one day. I leveraged a friend’s apartment and my local area, and because we were running so light, we did not need permits. It was a great experience.
But nothing really came from this short. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t know beforehand. No business or more commercial work. No new projects or even ideas. But I knew I wanted more, and something bigger.
So over the next few years, as I continued to shoot corporate work, I wrote a feature script and shopped it around. I got it to a mid-level LA-based producer who read it and gave me some notes. I rewrote the entire screenplay based on the notes, and sent it back—but got crickets!
By this stage, 12 months had gone by, and I was no further along the path to a feature than when I completed the short film two years prior.
But then, I came across the work of Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Ceylan inspired me like no other filmmaker because he stood outside the so-called “industry” and bootstrapped his own career by starting with a no-budget short film, then a micro-budget feature, while working as a commercial photographer shooting for small businesses in Istanbul.
From his first three self-funded features to a Palme d'Or in 17 years, I found his journey utterly inspiring. But I was getting itchy! And I was sick of waiting for someone to give me permission to do it, and as we all know time is not something you can get back. So in the end, I said, "To hell with it! I’m going to write, direct, edit, shoot, and produce something myself just as Ceylan and the mavericks of the past did!" And I did.
Here are three lessons I learned from the experience.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=yN7pw9yP8Lk
1. Write the screenplay as a visual story
Ceylan’s first films were low in dialogue, but the quality of the slow-burn narrative I found utterly compelling. Like Tarkovsky before him, Ceylan used his skill as a visual storyteller to hold your attention. To take you into the lives of others and have you observe them as if you were a silent witness standing in the corner of the room. He did this with camera placement and smart camera movement.
This is an important lesson I took into my feature, as I knew it would help me guide the narrative without having to rely too heavily on the actors. Letting me control the story with camera movement helped a lot.
2. Hire actors that are committed to the project
You will want to get the very best actors you can find, of course. But one thing you must take into consideration when auditioning people for the roles is their commitment to the project.
I’m not saying bad acting will suffice. I’m saying test people’s commitment when you meet them. If they bail halfway, you’re screwed! So better you find that out beforehand.
3. Find ways to showcase your skills across multiple domains
Make certain there are different skills showcased through your film. Writing, directing, editing, and shooting can all be showcased in smart ways that will show people you know what you’re doing. But sometimes this becomes apparent only after the film is completed.
Here is an email I got from one of the actors after they watched the film for the first time.
“First, you are quite utterly talented, Clarke. What a beautiful work of art you've made. From the composition, play on light, and choice of black and white with the primary colors between, to the music, to your eye for beauty, loved the playing with exposure and the emotional and real feeling that came of it. Love the opening. The way the closing door of the taxi door at the beginning thrust us into the next scene. Your words/message in the voice-over. Really really overwhelmingly impressed.”
I didn’t add this to toot my own horn. I did this to point out and make real with an example this truth: no matter how well you express it, people on set cannot see your vision. There is simply no way they see what you see. Therefore, you as the filmmaker have to engender trust from those around you in other ways.
It's hard work, but here are three reasons why you should shoot your own indie feature.
1. You will be taken seriously as a filmmaker
One of the best things to come from shooting an indie feature is that it opens doors. You will be noticed because it takes a great deal of effort, perseverance, determination, confidence, and skill to get a feature-length project to completion. This quality alone will have producers sit up and at least listen. I was also able to level up my commercial work as a result.
2. You will learn to be your own producer
You learn very quickly that no one cares more about the project than you do, and the only person that will make it happen is you!
And self-reliance is a very attractive quality to producers and brands because it showcases your passion and says a lot about you as a person when added to a CV.
3. You will gain a unique experience like no other
Anyone can shoot a short film. It’s not that difficult. Not anyone can shoot a feature. It takes next-level resilience, determination, and perseverance. From pre-pro, through production, and into post, getting a feature to the finishing line is an experience like no other. And there are things you learn along the way that you cannot on any other kind of project.
Suffice it to say, deciding to not wait for the cavalry as Mark Duplass once said, was the best decision I ever made for my career. I still have a long way to go, and while you’ve probably never heard of me, I can say hand-over-heart the benefits that come from the experience are amazing!
Bonus: Why You Should Shoot A Feature Film
Video is no longer available: youtu.be/RjnbougTPxE
I'm closing with a bonus video for you that expands on the idea of why you should shoot a feature film in more detail.
Have any tips about shooting a feature film? Share them with the community below.