HE SHOOTS FEATURES, DON’T HE: a few tips on making independent feature films


By: David Smith


A lot of West Virginia filmmakers know me as the guy who’s made features. While this is flattering whenever anyone points it out, it almost always makes me internally review my filmography and think, “Wait, those count?” But it’s true. I have completed three projects that most dictionaries would define as “feature films.” If you press play on them, you’ll see an hour and a half of content with a beginning, a middle, and an end. You’ll also hear a lot of boom pole creaks and background noises from businesses that let us film in their building but not during hours they were closed. You won’t always see images that are clearly illuminated or in focus. But you will technically see a feature film!


I don’t point this out only because I’m apprehensive about giving advice about a subject on which I still have so much to learn myself. That’s a big part of why I’m pointing it out, but it’s not the only reason! The other is that in my opinion, the best way to learn to make a movie is to make one. It might suck, but if you’re passionate enough, you’ll make another that sucks less because of what you learned on the first one. Then you’ll make another that sucks even less--so much that one of your friends asks you to write an article giving other people advice!

With that said, here are some things I’ve learned that are helpful in regards to making feature-length independent films:


FIGURE YOURSELF OUT

One of my favorite books is Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. It’s a bunch of short profiles of artists, scientists and other creative types. The profiles describe the routines they engage in each day to produce their work. The biggest takeaway is that there is no one answer to what it takes to be prolific or brilliant--other than figuring out what works for you.


I like waking up early and carrying a checklist of shots around set to make sure we get everything we need. If you’re a night owl who likes to fly by the seat of your pants, don’t set your alarm for 5:30 AM or tie yourself down with unnecessary paperwork just because some guy who made some movies and wrote a blog about it said that’s what he does! I used to think I had to do things a certain way because it’s what the people I admired did. You have to figure out what works for you. Think about when you felt most inspired and productive. What time was it? Who were you with? What were you eating? Do more of that! Read about what other creative people do and see what resonates. Figure out what you can try. The most you can figure out about what makes you work best, the most well-equipped you’ll be to take on a big project like making a feature film.


PICK A SUSTAINABLE STORY

In Rebel Without a Crew Robert Rodriguez told young independent filmmakers to work with what they have. Legend has it, Mr. Spy Kids 3D knew he had access to a turtle and a Mexican restaurant so he made Desperado which heavily incorporates those things. I don’t know. I’ve never seen it.


I enjoyed Rebel Without a Crew, but in regards to that particular advice, I’m gonna say “Fuck. That.” If you have access to a turtle and a Mexican restaurant but can’t use those to come up with a story that motivates you to do whatever it takes to finish a movie, you’re much better off coming up with an idea you care so much about that it drives you to get whatever the stuff is that you don’t have. That said--if you can come up with a story you’re passionate about that incorporates only what you have, that’s even better!


The biggest reason to pick a story you’re passionate about is that making a movie is hard, even if you’re fashioning a story out of the turtle and Mexican restaurant you have access to. People will reschedule. Locations will fall through. The turtle might die or refuse to come out of its shell. You better have a story that you care about telling and that you’ll still care about telling two or three years from now if it takes that long. With my features I always try to think, “What’s the one movie I would make if I never got to make another one?”


FIND PEOPLE WHO ARE TALENTED, RELIABLE AND ENTHUSIASTIC

It might seem like common sense, but in independent filmmaking, not everyone seems to understand that reliability and enthusiasm are as important if not more so than talent. Maybe you’ll see an actor who brings you to tears in their audition, but if that actor won’t respond to texts, good luck scheduling your shoot! Similarly, if you’ve got someone who shows up on time but is a drag to be around, I hope you don’t have a bunch of other people who have to interact with them.


You want to find people you can trust and count on and who are excited about hanging out with your cast and crew and helping everyone make a movie! Do that, and you can probably rehearse enough to pull a good performance out of them. Remember how we said your next movie will probably be better than your last once? As you’ve becoming a better filmmaker, chances are your actors and crew will be learning to improve their performances and technical skills.


BE PREPARED

I love rehearsal. A lot of filmmakers don’t, and I get it. There’s an argument to be made that doing a scene over and over causes the performers to lose spontaneity. In my experience, however, especially with inexperienced actors, rehearsing always makes everyone feel more comfortable. It allows you to figure out things before the day you’re shooting when you’re likely going to have to figure out a bunch of other technical and logistical stuff. It’s also just fun to watch a scene come to life and discover things about it, especially if you wrote it!

Whether you rehearse or not, you should at least have a plan. Unless you’re just insanely gifted at “winging it.” Again, find what works for you. I don’t have the patience to storyboard. I hate drawing. I do love writing, typing and list-making, so I essentially write out a storyboard. I write out every shot and every cut of my movies so that I know what shots I need to get. This preparation gives me the confidence and freedom to “wing it” and get more artistic shots if we have the time to get them. But knowing what you need beforehand will allow you to direct confidently and make it through to the end.


DON’T BE A DICK

This seems like it should be the most common sense piece of advice, but I’ve seen a lot of filmmakers not do it. I think I know why--at least most of the time. It’s because it’s so easy to “be a dick” without realizing it.


Be nice to people. Be nice to your cast and crew. Be nice to the people letting you shoot in their space! These people are giving up their time and energy to help you make a craft! Get them some food! Little Caesar’s sells large pizzas for five damn dollars! One of my best friends had a hellacious film shoot one summer night in an un air conditioned library that lasted until 4 AM. I don’t remember the sweaty misery of that night though. I do remember how delicious the fruit tray with the cream cheese dip was.


Keep people informed about what’s going on. Not everyone spent their childhoods listening to director’s commentaries. Chances are not everyone knows that you have to shoot each scene multiple times from multiple angles and move the lights and sound equipment every time. You don’t have to explain every little thing to them--and you shouldn’t, or that might annoy them and confuse them more--but a little bit of explanation can go a long way when you have helpful volunteers who are just waiting.


Directing a movie is like hosting a party. And yeah, I get it, if you’re like me, one of the reasons you like directing movies is because the thought of hosting a party scares the bejeesus out of you. But don’t worry--you don’t have to have long conversations with everyone. Just make sure they’re having a good time.


And that’s it! Do all that and you can make a movie! Just kidding. But honestly, I wish I would have known some of those things when I started. Hopefully reading them will help you make some kick-ass features even sooner and more often than I’ve been able to. Happy filming!


David Smith has written/directed numerous shorts, including some on this site! He is currently working on a new feature film.



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