Why I Had to First Become A Writer Before A Director

Behind-the-scenes on 'You Are My Person'
Sage advice to help get your film off the ground. 

I’ll start off by saying this. For my film, You Are My Person, I wore a lot of hats for this project. I wrote, directed, produced, co-DP’d, edited, and self-funded the project. It’s a practice many independent creators, like yourself, take on when jumping into filmmaking.

As a filmmaker in 2020, I think you need to be a ninja.

Filmmaking is an art. It’s a voice. And if you can do the majority of the heavy lifting yourself, why not?

My background is in commercial directing, so I knew my way around the block for pitching ads, selling products, creating good content. But when it came to making my own film, I had to flex a muscle that seemed to have disappeared throughout the years. That muscle was narrative storytelling.

After two-plus years of sitting with the idea of You Are My Person, I decided I needed to stop updating drafts and just go for it.

As a person that responds more to visuals than words on paper, I felt the story was missing something. I decided to do an audio recording of the entire script of all the parts using my own voice, drop it onto a Premiere timeline, and see how it felt.

It was then I completely transitioned from a traditional writing process to adjusting dialog by re-recording it and editing the story on a physical timeline. This felt off-base from everything I’ve known, but it felt right. It allowed me to hear the tone, pace, and more as an actual real thing and time it out.

I added sound effects, music, atmosphere, then eventually, replaced my recording with voice actors, essentially tracing over my original voiceover. 

It wasn’t until I had all these parts together that I was confident that the story was there. And I did it without shooting a single scene. At this point, I pretty much had the film turned into a podcast, which was super beneficial because I was able to experience the film auditorily without shooting a frame or spending a dollar.

I then took stock footage and scenes from movies that I drew inspiration from and put them over the audio to a viewable pre-vis. For other scenes that I couldn’t find a reference for, I simply drew in some lo-fi storyboards and dropped them in.

All of this really helped because it allowed me (and my team) to understand the shots that we needed to get. So often, I have a crew on set that doesn’t know what we’re doing, so having this was great to have everyone on the same page.

Chelsea (Michele Nordin) and Brent (David Sullivan)

How did I fund the film?

I went around town Hollywood to pitch the idea and tried to find money.

I will tell you this. It’s a lot easier to get someone to listen to something as opposed to getting them to read your script. I found one party that was willing to finance the project, but it came at a price. I would be at the mercy of someone having the ability to change the story and have the final edit.

I was at a crossroads. Do I take the funding and give up creative control or refuse it to have full control?

My career has been based on client work, so I’m used to a client having the final say. Did I want to go back to that? Did I want to have to run everything by an executive producer? My bank account might have disagreed with me at the time, but I ultimately didn’t take the money.

Instead, I cashed in on a few favors, asked friends to help, and at the end of the day, the entire project cost me roughly $20K. My co-producer, audio engineer, and composer donated their time for free, which I cannot thank enough. Bless their hearts.

On set with director Dan Dobi

How long did it take to make?

I put myself into a time crunch and produced everything alongside my producer Bradley Rettele in less than a week. Everything was shot in two days, which should have actually been closer to five or six.

We shot in Los Angeles and did the lighthouse and aquarium scene in Long Beach. We played by the rules, got insurance and permits, which paid off. At one point shooting the lighthouse scene, someone called the cops, but luckily, we simply handed over our permit, and we were fine.

What about the opening scene in Charlie’s apartment and the ending house scenes? All those locations were given to us for free, so about half of the film’s locations didn’t cost us anything.

We shot with the Alexa Mini and Zeiss Supreme Primes, and it’s the “golden setup,” in my opinion. I was very specific with the cinematography and wanted the film to look as beautiful as possible, but didn’t want to over-light things. I wanted it to feel real and intimate, yet not over-polished.

I did one round of rehearsals with the cast and supplied them with my previs. This was extremely critical as this eliminated any question of how I wanted the lines performed, as the actors were able to answer any questions about their performance, pace, mood by listening to the pre-vis.

Chelsea (Michele Nordin) and Brent (David Sullivan)

Trust your gut

As a creative, it’s easy to make someone else’s project come to life, but when it’s yours, sometimes you get in your head and begin to second-guess yourself.

I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned is to trust your gut. It’s important to run your script and ideas by people, but at the end of the day, if it’s a story you want to tell, do it.

Stop waiting, just get out there and do it.

Force yourself to write

I never considered myself a writer. I still dont do this day.

But no one is going to write the story you want to tell.

Before I made You Are My Person, I read over 100+ scripts. Nothing connected, nothing fit. It wasnt until I forced myself to write that I figured out that the hardest part of creating a good story is just opening up a blank document and forcing yourself to start.

Biggest takeaway

Making a movie isnt the hard part. Its the story. The story is the hard part.

Visually, this could have been shot on an iPhone. It wasnt, but if it were, the story would have been the same. Take pride in how the story makes you feel. Thats how the audience will connect, and not how many lines of resolution are on the screen.

The song remains the same” is a classic expression in music, meaning the mark of a good song is when you strip it to its bare essence, a single instrument or vocal, it moves you the same.

Production, effects, etc., are all great, but if the song itself isn't emotionally moving on its own, it means nothing.     

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