October 26, 2009
The most important thing for any Multi-hyphenate (Writer/Director/Producer) to know before embarking on an independent film project is this: No One Knows Anything.
First and foremost, you must always remember: This rule does not apply to You.
You are right and everyone else is wrong.
You are the only person who knows How It Should Be Done.
Chapter One: Pre-Production
As you already know –You who can direct circles around Bergman, Fellini and Lubitsch (hacks!)– the first step of any film is Pre-Production; the period of time before the cameras start rolling, when the crew is hired, the actors are cast and people begin to pepper you incessantly with ridiculous questions that they should have immediately intuited from reading your Oscar®-caliber Magnum opus, but that inherently don’t matter because it is your prerogative to change everything once on set, thus tripling the budget…
… but more about that in A Multi-Hyphenate’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking: Chapter 2, Production.
Getting the money to fund a film is the single hardest thing about being a Multi-hyphenate. The average film school graduate walks off campus saddled with thousands of dollars of debt and pays it off by working as a disgruntled barista for the next ten-to-twenty years.
As any good Multi-hyphenate – such as Yourself – knows, film school is pointless. All you need is $199.00 for screenwriting software, an additional $24.99 for the copy of Robert McKee’s Story (or you could just NetFlix Adaptation) and a copy of The Film Production Handbook (or any equivalent ‘How-To’ tome) and you’re golden.
Side note: be sure to display any combination of the above prominently on your desk so that those who are working under you are reminded that You, irrefutably, Know What You Are Doing.
So just ask your banking/golfing/squash-playing/piloting/skydiving buddies to each pitch in $250K, collectively form an ad hoc LLC, and voilà! You’ve got the cool million to fund your cinematic masterpiece and you are well on your way to getting some serious red carpet pussy.
It is commonplace for the preparation of a film to take the same number of weeks as the shooting schedule demands. If the film is estimated to take six weeks to shoot, it should take roughly the same amount of time to prepare for it. But who wants to be “common”? This is independent film. You are a renegade, working outside The System. Save money in unnecessary places. Cut that time frame in half. Crew members work on a daily rate. Why pay for 30, 8-hour days when you can get the same amount of work done in 15, 16-hour days?
Never, ever pay for assistants. Get unpaid interns. Treat it like any good TV teaching hospital; Chicago’s County General (er) or Seattle Grace (Gray’s Anatomy) or Sacred Heart (Scrubs). Those kids learned a lot! There’s plenty of time in those 16-hour days to train while you work.Character building and whatnot. Everybody wants a part of ‘the biz’ – especially on a script as epically genre-bending as yours – so don’t worry. They’ll be honored to work for free.
Generally speaking, films have a six-member “Below the Line” (BTL) production team during prep: Line Producer, Unit Production Manager, 1st Assistant Director, Production Office Coordinator, Assistant Production Office Coordinator and Production Secretary. Again, this is independent film. Cut spending to the bare minimum – pick any 4 of the above combination and You Will Be Fine. The crew LIKES to be busy.
Don’t worry. They can always hire more interns.
Don’t make any changes until the last possible minute. It’s fun to keep the crew on their toes! Don’t forget! There are 16 hours in every day!
When you do make changes, make lots of them.Preferably in large swaths. 40–50 page chunks are good. You can’t be expected to keep all that genius inside. Besides, with all the colors of Xerox paper available today – the standard revision color progression being: White, Blue, Pink, Yellow, Green, Goldenrod, Buff, Salmon, Cherry, Tan, Gray, Ivory and then back to White2 – you want to get your script as colorful as possible. ‘Cherry’ is a reasonable slowing-down point so as to really impress that darling nymphet in her pivotal and not-at-all-cliché Madonna/whore breakout role you have penned for her. Try not to have ANY ‘White’ pages left by the final day of pre-pro.
You are a Writer, after all. Volume equals even MORE genius.
Vocalize loudly and frequently to the crew about your budgetary constraints. Remind people that this is Your Own/Friends’ Money-and is not to be spent frivolously. Act extremely empathetic when the crew begins to bandy about meaningless phrases like: “Minimum Wage” and “Overtime” or “Meal Penalties” and “Turnaround Infringement”. You are working just as hard, if not harder. Union-schmoonion. Occasionally spring for a box of Munchkins to prove you’re not only magnanimous but also One Of Them. They will respect you for this.
Then, take a hired car service everywhere and use Petty Cash to pay for your working dinners at Nobu with the nubile starlet.
Before You Start Shooting:
Make sure to have at least one housing/car/personal crisis that you cannot possibly fix by yourself. This will remind the crew that You are Very Busy and Important. Try to have it happen on the equipment check-out day, if at all possible. The crew will be very occupied with technical and logistical trivialities on that day and they will have forgotten about you for a few hours.
Remind them Who You Are.
Looking ahead to A Multi-Hyphenate’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking: Chapter 2, Production:
– How to assert your authority on set.
– Impressing the local businessmen.
– Keeping actors from ruining your film.
– Tricking the Cinematographer into doing all your work for you.
– Changing everything once the camera starts rolling, thus tripling the budget.
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Any and all characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Especially if I have worked with them in the past, and doubly-so if I plan on working with them in the future.
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 William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade.