Author

MR. VIX

MR. VIX has 5 articles published.

I: How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms

Part I  

“Creative Ideas and Genesis”


This is the first article of a multi-part series dedicated to the genesis and creation of the independent feature sci-fi film Mad Genius. It is both a personal expose as well as educational article series with the intention of sharing creative business lessons through the transparent obstacles and successes of the project.

 

Circa 2012.

“Digitally Mapping the Human Brain.” Now that was the concept I had been searching for.

“Reality is stranger than fiction,” I thought to myself, looking down at the Scientific American Magazine cover article about mapping a human mind. I immediately started thinking, “Imagine if you could rewrite the human brain like computer code, and fix all the problems happening around the world… Then, being a storyteller, I thought… what if that power was in the hands of a mad man?”

As I wrote down more ideas, the more excited I became. This was the story I had been searching for. A story that combined all of the interest points I had discovered in my quarter century on earth; Existentialism, Futurism, Psychology, Independent Filmmaking. I also knew it was a story I could tell on a small scale, on my own terms, simultaneously capturing the entrepreneurial spirit I had witnessed in my generation. A byzantine generation who can change the world from their bedrooms. I was a lover of cyberpunk, big ideas, and filled with questions. (Still am).  Cyberpunk had disappeared from mainstream film for several years and I felt this type of story was missing from the marketplace. For all these reasons, I knew this was the story I had to bring to life. I wrote a first draft script, and of course, thought it was brilliant.

I was 25 years-old at the time.

Then life happened.That’s what happens to us creatives isn’t it? I started getting better gigs as a commercial filmmaker. Bigger brands, bigger jobs, to the point I got to do a 7 part commercial series on Olympic Athletes. That was a life highlight for me. Then came Intel, Virgin America, Reebok, etc…

But like all creative industries things ebb and flow in the movie business. Two years later I found myself having hit a glass ceiling. I went from my best year to my worst, financially speaking. And it wasn’t based on any catastrophic event or action. More of a series of business miscalculations. It was just “one of those moments in life.” I fell into a bit of a depressed state. And any fellow creative person knows what I mean, when I say your self-worth comes from the things you are creating. And I wasn’t creating. So I felt like nothing.

Now I was 28. And I had a choice to make.

I looked back at my life trajectory, the plans I had made, the vision I had for my life. According to my younger self’s vision of the future, I should have been making a feature film by now. I dug in more. I remembered, that I never got into filmmaking to be a “commercial” filmmaker. To sell stuff. That was always a means to an end. A stepping stone, in which I was trying to recreate the career paths of Ridley Scott and David Fincher.

So, my choice was to spend my time and savings on creating a few new “commercial short films” to renovate my commercial reel appeal… or I could just make my damn movie.

I chose to make my damn movie.

Not only did I choose to make my damn movie, I chose to live my damn movie. From my years as a commercial filmmaker, one pivotal shoot location in the underworld of downtown Los Angeles changed my life.

It was called Dear Raymer Studio. And it was created and owned by the visionary production designer Jared Tate Johnson. Jared’s world, was where my film about hacking the human mind had to take place. I first encountered Jared’s studio on a location scout for a make-up company. We get to the location. The streets looked abandoned. Apocalyptic more like. Through the cage door to the elevator that looked like a tomb. Up the rickety shaft. Through the hall of flickering fluorescent lights, past the holes in the wall and the graffiti to a large black door with a massive thumb print painted over it. Through the door we went and stepped into a world I had only seen in fiction. A massive open warehouse space of brick and metal and wood. Floating platforms on the walls. Invisible stair cases. Secret passages. An underground world of real-life hackers, artists, and culture jammers. It was mind-blowing.

I wanted to “live in the world” of the film, and Jared’s world, was it.

I called Jared up, and he serendipitously had an open room. I moved in and started re-writing “The Mad Genius Project.” The first draft was set to page in July 2012. I began rewriting in January 2015. Forty one revisions later, we achieved enough financing to shoot it. And by “enough” I mean SAG ULB. Ultra-Low-Budget.

The film’s concept took many many versions to get right. I put myself through my own “development hell.” Sometimes what I wanted to do was too expensive. Sometimes, to confusing. I had so many ideas I was playing with. My manager Matthew Shictman at The Gotham Group was pivotal in helping men shape a story that would connect with broader audiences.

Ultimately, I wanted MAD GENIUS to be like a secret graphic novel, hidden on the shelves of the comic book store that unlocks the viewer’s imagination, thrills them, entertains them, and possibly opens their mind to new and interesting concepts that get them to think about the world in a different way. I wanted to create a fun, comic book-esque world, which also featured a real world concept that is happening this very moment. All those hopes, were now wrapped into a little script known as MAD GENIUS.

The story we finalized is about a young mad genius attempting to hack the human mind, in order to save humanity from it’s own catastrophic flaws. The only problem is, our protagonist is a mad man with more than one personality… He is a mad genius.

I am obsessed with disrupters, innovators, entrepreneurs, and technology. I find it fascinating how these “makers” make the “things” that radically change the world and our human potential, but simultaneously, human beings remain what they always have been… To put it bluntly… flawed.

Because there are many sides to the mind aren’t there? Some call it the Id, Ego and Super Ego. Some call it God and the Devil. Some call it the Cerebrum, the Cerebellum, and the Stem.

Ultimately these “sides” add up to a creature known as humankind, with the power to shape the world with it’s mind.

I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to make a story about a guy with an altruistic goal, yet has all the differing sides of his psyche competing against him?  A story that also represented a generation who is trying to change the world on their own terms, that speaks to the subconscious and conscious challenges they face. That was cool enough to make!

So that was the plot. But what was the theme?

To me, MAD GENIUS had to be a story about the inner conflicts of being a creator. It was about the creation process. The goods, the bads, the uglies. The voices in our heads pushing us, confusing us, mixing signals, and the mistaken evils which might come from actually accomplishing the goal. Add in peer pressure and love and sex and it’s a wonder we ever get anything done. I think this film represents those ideas. To me, the message really is, when ever someone tries to create something they will inevitably face all kinds of outer obstacles, but in the end, it is all about overcoming the obstacles within one’s self. And the solution to all of these problems is to turn one’s efforts into selfless acts. Beyond yourself. Otherwise, seriously, why bother? So in the end for MR. VIX’s journey is really about reconciling himself in order to do this great thing. He has to literally face himself in every way. And ultimately forgive himself and be willing to self-sacrifice to achieve something great.

Sounds good right?

All we had to do next, was make it.

 


How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms

Part II “Things You Must Do Before Making Your Creative Project

II: Things You Must Do Before Making Your Creative Project

How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms

Part II 

“Things You Must Do Before Making Your Creative Project”


This is the second article of a multi-part series dedicated to the genesis and creation of the independent feature sci-fi film Mad Genius. It is both a personal expose as well as educational article series with the intention of sharing creative business lessons through the transparent obstacles and successes of the project.

 

First, let me start by saying this is not a quick article to read “on the shitter.” This a worksheet post. Prepare to learn!!

Yes, I know. The first article in this series left us on the cliff hanger of “All we had to do now, was make the movie.” But in the spirit of non-linear storytelling, let’s do a flashback, and review some lessons learned and my resulting suggestions for you to review before making your own creative projects. Though this article is geared towards the movie business, I believe its lessons will inform all creative projects.

First, we are going to quickly go over some “mental anchors” and “philosophical mindsets” in order to focus on the right path. Ironically, in this “new” democratized-distribution world of ours, creative people must now become much more than just the “Artist.” Yes, you, creative person, must now be an Entrepreneur through and through.

Far too often creative people (including myself) work off of pure “Intuition” alone. But we need to take things a step further, and think like the Entrepreneur. As artists, we feel deeply, and might fall victim to the societal anecdote that some artists are “genius” and don’t have to follow the rules of the world to succeed. We all want to be that “genius” right? In the news or media, we might have also seen romanticized stories about an “genius inspiration” which changed the world. The story is told in sound bites, or a two hour movie and it’s done. Easy right? And even if they include the great obstacles of the story, they will likely lack the element of Perseverance required to do all great things. The story will unlikely tell you the small, boring, endless details required to make a genius inspiration into reality. So, while we certainly should keep and nurture the strength of our “Creative Intuition,” this article is also about using the tools of today to enhance that Intuition. Specifically, Data.

Artists generally avoid data and numbers, but I am telling you, mastery of numbers will make you all the more Powerful in the “new” world of creative works and distribution. As artists and creatives, we can no longer work under old assumptions – that we’ll make something the big media businesses will notice and pay us for. That model is OUT. Most big media businesses are only working with “pre-sold products” or “Intellectual Property.” It is now YOUR job to create that next piece of Intellectual Property as it’s own business that they can buy from you. Then the deal is on your terms.

As you read this article you might say to yourself, “F*ck me, it’s impossible.” But the truth is, people do this every day. I did it very successfully. I’m not saying it was easy by any stretch of the imagination, but I did it. The intention of this article is NOT to dissuade you, but rather EMPOWER you to make the best decisions you can make. Of course, incredible things have been done by people who have “taken the leap” without regard to the outcome. But my intention is to give you a parachute for a better landing.

So, speaking from experience, these are the things you need to do before you make your creative project. Though this list may seem lengthy, I guarantee you, it will be worth it. Here is a quick summary of this article’s topics:

– Creative Project Statement
– Observation
– Data Collection
– Establish a “basic trend” for your intended Creative Genre
– Change your Hypothesis based on this Information
– Create your Estimated Budget
– Estimate Distribution Conversion Rates
– Compare your DCR to your Budget = “Greenlight?”
– Add in your Secondary Benefits to the Equation
– Ask yourself if you are financially, mentally, and emotionally prepared for the time and obstacles it will take to succeed in your creative project?

For a more in-depth review, let’s set our “Definition of a Successful Creative Project”

As creative people, we have a plethora of motivations behind our work, as complex and varrying as the human creators themselves. But I would argue, ultimately, the foundational motivation for all creative people and their works is the desire to connect with, or “touch” other human beings in some way.

That “some way” can be as varied as there are human emotions. You might want to inspire someone, or inspire them to take action, you might want to inform someone, you might want to make someone laugh, dazzle them, you might want to relate your personal experiences to be shared by others, you might want… to “touch” someone.

And I would further argue that the tertiary or “surface” desires of fame, fortune, credibility, accolades, awards, portfolio expansion etc. etc. are all requisite upon this foundational desire to “touch” someone.

So how do we do that in today’s complicated and “noisy” world?

More than ever, we must prepare ourselves and our works for the potential to “break through.” And this includes everyone. Even big companies, big Hollywood studios.

 

INITIAL CREATIVE PROJECT STATEMENT

First, in our scientific and data driven creative exploration, we must make what we’ll call our “hypothesis.”

You hypothesis is your initial Creative Project Statement. First, write down the summary of your creative project. Then, below that, write down your hypothesis statement. The key is, to make the statement “testable.” If, Then statements are great. For example:

Mad Genius is a grounded sci-fi film about hacking the human mind, intended for an audience of young creatives and rebels.

If we make the film for low six figures, we will have a large and enthusiastic enough audience to recoup the costs.

What are these statements based off of? These are two statements based off of our Intuition and Creative Desires. Many creatives stop here and just go for it. But, as Creative Entrepreneurs, we must now verify the statements for a more successful outcome.

 

OBSERVATION

The first thing we must do is collect and archive audience behaviors we see involving our creative fields. Most of us do this by osmosis. But I suggest writing this observed information down into an Archive, or a Journal. Make it scientific. Ask questions like a scientist.

What do you see? What are the trends happening? How are people interacting with your industry or genre? What is their behavior? How is technology disrupting your genre or your audience’s behavior? Will your genre or industry be dramatically altered by the time it takes to complete and distribute your project?

And don’t just focus on the outliers. The “Get Out” or “Blair Witch Project” ’s of the world.  Instead of taking an Average, which accounts for all projects in a genre, take a Mean, which focuses on the mid range, ignoring the outliers. Plan for the Mean, not the outlier.

Here’s an example of recording behaviors in your personal life:

Observe your friends and family on a few consecutive week nights trying to decide what show or movie to watch on any of the given cable or streaming platform. This exercise alone will tell you the great odds you have against you and the great opportunity that lies before you. You’ll quickly find people saying that “There’s nothing on” despite the endless streams of content available. You’ll see them skip over the new Hollywood sequel, you’ll see them skip over the self-indulgent festival film, and you’ll see them skip over the foreign financed star driven drivel that wishes it were a Hollywood film. And then you’ll see them select… “Friends.” (Nothing against Friends. I love that show.)

What is a creative person to do?

In order to break through, the contemporary creative person must make the right thing, for the right audience, and then get it to them in the way they want to consume those types of things.

How do we do that? We must collect more Data.

 

DATA COLLECTION

After you have created your own “field study” based on personal observations, now is the time to compare that to the actual data trends of your industry. Never before has there been so much data available, and in many cases for FREE. We must use it to our advantage. Find out the data sources for your industry, and read ALL OF IT. Record it in your Archive.

Specifically focus on your audience and demographic. Is there a specific audience out there large enough to reach? Are they buying?

How does the industry data compare to your personal observations?

For film makers three great resources are:

FILM TAKE

STEPHEN FOLLOWS

GRUVI MARKETING

Use their Audience Calculator

 

ESTABLISH A TREND

Based off of the Personal Observations you have archived, and the Industry Data you have reviewed, now is the time to use that powerful creative tool you love; Intuition!

In your Archive, make two columns, or use two pages. On one side, bullet point all the trends you see in your creative field and genre as of today. On the other side, do the same, using Intuition to predict how these trends will be shaped by the time your creative project is FINISHED. Essentially, you are future forecasting.

Include all of the specifics of your industry or project. For filmmakers a list might be;

Writing, Casting, Crew, Equipment, Locations, Edit, VFX, Sound, Music, Distribution Platforms and Methods, Return on Investment, etc. etc.

Now, on a new page, summarize what you have predicted in a “Trend Statement.”

Have you learned anything that might influence or inform your creative project? Undoubtedly.

 

JOIN THE MOVEMENT WITH SOME DOPE MAD GENIUS MERCH!

 

ALTER YOUR HYPOTHESIS FOR SUCCESS

Now that you have Personal Observations, Industry Data and a Trend Statement, it is time to take your original Creative Project Statement and alter it’s contents to create a new “Working Hypothesis.”

A hypothesis is simply a testable prediction of the outcome of your project.  Has the new data changed your outlook on what you intended to make? Has it changed the “why” you wanted to make it?

If your “why” is still as strong as it was in the beginning, you should continue full steam ahead, but you should also make adjustments based on the data you have collected to help ensure success.

 

CREATE YOUR ESTIMATED BUDGET

You have your data. You have your creative hypothesis that you believe can achieve success. Now you need to get a budget made. If you aren’t thoroughly experienced in making a budget for your specific project, spend the money to get one professionally estimated. This is a MUST.

Also, in this “new” world of ours, I highly recommend factoring in Marketing and Distribution costs into your budget. If you don’t they will come back to bite you in the ass.

(And, in the movie business, gone are the days when someone will waltz up to you at Sundance and buy your film. Weinstein is out. Netflix and Amazon are out. It is now up to you to be the Creative Entrepreneur and figure out the ways of the Distribution Force. If you are a filmmaker, it’s tough out there.

Historic Box Office DeclineOutflow of Foreign funds. Broken financing modelsMega-consolidation.  Sexual harassment. Increasing supply, lowering demand.)

So, how do you estimate the numbers for Marketing and Distribution? Read on.

 

ESTIMATE DISTRIBUTION CONVERSION RATES

Estimated Distribution Conversion Rates are simply about taking the amount of money the project costs, ie, The Budget, versus the amount of people who must buy your project/product in order to make your money back, ie, The Audience.

These formulas need to be specific to each project. They can be complex or simple depending. Artists generally avoid numbers, but I am telling you, mastery of numbers makes you all the more powerful in the “new” world of creative works.

Conversely, some Creative Projects are not intended to make their money back. Or if it is a desire, it still might be preempted by the original intention, which is simply to “connect with people” in some way. Regardless, these principals still apply for generating the greatest audience connection.

Now we must Estimate our Distribution Conversion Rate. (DCR)

One way to do this is to connect with an established Producer, or Sales Agent, or Distributor who you 100% absolutely trust to give you this data. Then do the same with a second opinion, and possibly a third. Ironically, you might find these “established” folks don’t know or have this information.

Personally, I like to have as much knowledge and control over my endeavors as possible, and thus like to do my own conversions. So the second option is to run these numbers yourself.

A simplified example DCR might look like this:

Total Project Cost (from genesis to delivery): $100,000

Product Sales Price: $10

Total Distribution Fees: $5

Net Profit Per Sale: $5

$100,000 / $5 = 20,000 units must be bought to break even

But that’s not all is it? How do you reach the 20,000 buyers needed to break even?

This is where you must factor in Marketing Conversion Rates (MCR). A typical MCR equals 1-3% of people you reach via marketing will actually buy.

At a 2% MCR, that would mean you would need to reach 1,000,000 people to achieve 20,000 buyers.

But what is the cost to market to that many people? Well, there are a whole ton of options and skill sets required to answer this question aren’t there?

That is the CREATIVE part of the MCR equation. And I cannot stress enough, you want to know this answer on the FRONT END of your creative endeavor, before you start making the thing.

Many creatives put this off and say, “That’s what the Distribution company will do.” But are you willing to bet “the farm” on this “what if” scenario? And if you get a Distributor, the truth is, they will try to do some marketing and public relations, but it won’t be perfect because they have 10 other films they are marketing and distributing. And this is your baby isn’t it?

This is obviously complex. So sign up for our newsletter to receive the upcoming article on CREATIVE GROWTH HACKER MARKETING

 

Continuing this article, our example Distribution and Marketing Conversion Rates equation now looks like this:

Total Project Cost: $100,000

Product Sales Price: $10

Marketing Cost Per Buyer: $1

Total Distribution Fees: $5

Net Profit Per Sale: $4

$100,000 / $4 = 25,000 units must be sold to break even

1,250,000 people need to be reached at a 2% CR for your project to break even.

 

COMPARE YOUR D/MCR TO YOUR BUDGET

Comparing these two elements is implicit to the D/MCR calculation. And now is the time to squarely ask yourself, “Do the numbers make sense?”

Do you feel you can reach 1,250,000 people to make back your $100,000 investment?

How do you know? Now is the time to refer back to your Observations and Industry Data. Is there an audience out there large enough to reach? Are they buying? How will you reach them?

And don’t despair, because remember, the original intention of your Creative Project is to connect with people! By connecting with 1,250,000 people, you might ironically say this whole D/MCR equation is paramount to  your original intention!

 

ADD IN YOUR SECONDARY BENEFITS

Okay, you’ve got the numbers. Do they add up? Maybe not yet. But maybe your Secondary Benefits may outweigh the Return On Investment.

Is the project about a greater social or environmental cause? Is the project connecting or growing a movement? How much are these worth?

Is the project a “calling card” or “portfolio builder” that will elevate you into the next level of creative and financial works? How much is that benefit worth? Try to come up with a future forecasting number. Be realistic. Then cut that number in half for this calculation.

 

ARE YOU READY?

If you believe the numbers make sense.  And the Secondary Benefits connect. And if you believe you have a good plan. Now you must ask yourself, “Am I ready to do the damn thing?” Am I ready to be a Creative Entrepreneur?

I will tell you now, it will take you twice as much time, and twice as much effort as you think it will take. Are you prepared? You must ask yourself, are you financially, mentally, and emotionally prepared for the immense effort and sacrifice it will take to make your creative project a success?

Do you have the personal, financial, support system necessary to bring your great creative vision to life? You will count on your support system constantly.

I was able to create MAD GENIUS because I had an undying belief in myself and the project. This is truly the only reason it is available for audiences today. I worked with countless incredible collaborators who put their own mark on the project, but I was the undying force that drug the rock up the mountain. Collectively, we made something greater than the sum of it’s parts. It would have been impossible without them. But I was the ox who pulled the cart, as all CEO’s, Entrepreneurs and Leaders must do.

This is the ultimate question you must ask yourself.

And in effort to help you answer that question, I leave you with this quote by the great writer Charles Bukowski…

“If you’re going to try, go all the way.
Otherwise, don’t even start.
This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind.
It could mean not eating for three or four days.
It could mean freezing on a park bench.
It could mean jail. It could mean derision.
It could mean mockery–isolation.
Isolation is the gift.
All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it.
And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds.
And it will be better than anything else you can imagine.
If you’re going to try, go all the way.
There is no other feeling like that.
You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire.
You will ride life straight to perfect laughter.
It’s the only good fight there is.”
-C.Bukowski

How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms

Part III “How I Financed My Independent Feature Film”

III: How I Financed My Independent Feature Film

How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms

Part III 

“The Financing of the Thing”


This is the third article of a multi-part series dedicated to the genesis and creation of the independent feature sci-fi film Mad Genius. It is both a personal expose as well as educational article series with the intention of sharing creative business lessons through the transparent obstacles and successes of the project.

“All we had to do, was make the thing.”

But wait. We’re not quite there yet are we? No, we needed the money to make the thing. So, how did I get the scrill?

First, let me say there are a million ways to finance a creative project. What I chronicle below is the unorthodox way I financed MAD GENIUS. The only way I was able to accomplish this was after some incredible lessons I learned early on in life about business and finance. As a creative, you don’t need to be an expert business or finance person to use these fields to your advantage, but I highly recommend you attain the basics of these fields to empower yourself as a creative force.

My goal with these articles is to help you on your creative entrepreneurial journey, and the number one way I think you can empower yourself as a creative is to learn the basics of business and finance. The more knowledge you have, the more powerful you are. And you don’t need an MBA to do so. I highly recommend checking out Finance For Creative People for an incredible set of simple lessons about increasing your financial intelligence for an amazing creative career on your own terms.

SPECIAL NOTE:

Before we dig into the details, you might first ask, why didn’t you look for financing from Hollywood or smaller financing company? Why go about these crazy shenanigans to do this thing? Here’s the truth. The movie business (and other creative industries) by no intentional fault of its own can suck the soul from a creative project. Also, for the movie business to give you the budget needed to make a film, they need to feel very confident you can deliver. They want to be “safe” and rightly so. I had to prove myself. That’s what this film was. And I can happily report that I’ve since met with major movie producers who’ve seen and loved Mad Genius. We’ve screened at Cannes, in London, Austin and San Francisco. I’ve been in talks for three other movies. My new script is about to be shopped as we speak.  And I am no longer just a “guy with a script” – I’m a proven feature filmmaker who’s done some real sh*t. I’ve proven myself as someone they can trust with their money.

Another benefit of my zaney fundraising methodology is it allowed me to contract every funding deal so that my company still fully retained the movie and its rights. I am going to make residuals for the rest of my life from this film, because my company owns it. This is unheard of if you are working with movie business money. Again, my approach with MAD GENIUS is more as a creative entrepreneur, than as a creative gun for hire.

Okay! So how did I financeMAD GENIUS? Let’s break it down.

 

I INVESTED IN MYSELF

Quick backstory on me. After college, I worked as an assistant editor for director Yarrow Kraner. Then I went out as an independent director and made my first documentary film for the Wounded Warriors Foundation. That film kicked off a span of years where I produced and branded content for major brands like Intel, Virgin America, the Olympic Games, etc.

So I made some money. I had $75,000 cash in my bank account at the start of 2014. I put $10k down on a new car. So I was at $65k. Then, I took $50k and bought an investment property outside of California. I got tenants, and their rent check paid the mortgage costs of the investment.

Then 2014 turned out to be the worst year of my career ever. I signed with a big commercial company… and literally hit a glass ceiling.

I lived cheap, so my remaining nest egg was still there. And I did have some jobs so I wasn’t completely dying. But 2014 ended and I had a decision to make. As you’ve heard in previous articles, I chose to move into a warehouse artist collective in downtown Los Angeles to make my damn movie.

So, after a few months of rewriting the script and bringing on my team members and producers what was the second investment I made?

SPECIAL NOTE: As a creative, when you talk to people about coming onto the project but you say, “I am thinking about doing XYZ…” It means nothing. Instead, the way I approached people was by saying “I am going to do this thing, no matter what, and I’d love to have you join me.” Everyone said yes.

 

I INVESTED IN WHAT WOULD GAIN MORE INVESTMENT

Okay, so my money is draining. I certainly don’t have enough to make the movie with. What did I do?

I invested my own money into an amazing casting director, Tineka Becker. Tineka had just worked on the X-Men Apocalypse movie. How in the hell did I get her to work on my non-existent movie at that point?

  1. I had a decent reel as a commercial director. This made her feel good about reaching out to talent and agents, that I could get the job done.
  2. She loved my crazy ass script.
  3. I spent two weeks creating a 3 minute pitch video from stock footage. I wish I could show it here, but I don’t own the rights to the footage. But essentially it was a pitch of the film and the style.
  4. I had enough money of my own to guarantee paying the actors according to the SAG ULB contract, even if it meant I had to shoot the movie on my cell phone.

In the movie business, cast is everything. The reason you hear about these massive salaries for actors is that they often are the reason a film gets the “green light.” So, I knew my business well enough to know I needed a great cast to get more money. It all started with the investment in Tineka and the pitch materials.

We started getting all these amazing people attached, Spencer Locke, Scott Mechlowicz, Faran Tahir, Brandon Scott, Tehmina Sunny, and soon to be star Chris Mason.

I asked Tineka, “How are we getting these incredible people, for almost no money?” She laughed and replied, “It’s because of your reel, pitch video, and mostly the script. Most actors have to read bad scripts. Mad Genius is something cool and unique.”

So after about 6 weeks of casting, we booked our final cast. This allowed me to raise private money to shoot the thing. But it wasn’t exactly easy.

 

SCORE THAT DOPE MAD GENIUS MERCH!

 

I OFFERED AN INNOVATIVE FINANCING IDEA

I approached a wealthy private individual who I knew owned a variety of real estate property. I had been talking with them for awhile about what I was doing. I had planted the seed long ago. I developed the relationship. Now I had something to show them with this stellar cast we had secured. Finally I said, “Look, I’m doing this crazy movie. I need $125,000 to shoot it.”

Let’s stop for a second. Asking someone, even a multi-millionaire, for $125k in cash is insane. Movies are terribly risky. And this would be like me coming to you and saying, hey, you’ve got $10,000 in your bank account, can you give me $1,250? You’d be like, “F*ck off! That’s 12% of my hard earned money!”

So what did I do? I said to the wealthy individual, “What if we take out a bank loan on my investment property, would you co-sign?” Now, instead of asking them for $100k, worst case, they would only be responsible for a $500/mo payment. They would also get my property. I essentially gave them a “no brainer” offer.

They said “Deal” and I had my $125k. Essentially, I turned my $50k initial investment into $125k of cash to redeploy. I also kept my investment property, instead of having to sell it to finance the film with the cash. Essentially, I was doubling up my investments. See how that worked?

Of course, there was risk to me, as I was settling myself with a loan/lien on my investment property. The loan payment would be about $500/mo for 20 years if the movie didn’t generate money. Or I would lose my $50k investment in the house. But I believed in the film, and I was going to make this thing no matter what.

Is this particular strategy advisable to the average Jane? No. But what it shows is that having Financial Intelligence can greatly empower you to be creative, and allow you to get your projects done.

 

I SHOWED THE MERITS OF THE PROJECT

Whew. After a year of development and prep, we shot the movie. You can get those gritty details in our next article Part IV “The Making of the Thing: Prep”

But now what? I had a movie, but only about $5,000 remaining to finish the film. Of course I knew I would need more. About $100k to be exact. This would be for music, VFX, SFX, color. I was operating on some risky business here. After exhausting my network of potential investors initially, I knew I needed a full cut of the film to show them.

I also learned one of my biggest lessons here. I thought my cast, having been in Iron Man, Tarzan, Emmy winning TV shows, etc. + my high end production value from the shoot would be enough to get the rest financed on just a teaser. I was wrong. I met with a big sales company executive and she said, unfortunately, movie stars have to be HUGE now in order to get money these days. Instead of getting this data ahead of time, I had used faulty knowledge or intuition. That is why I recommend getting as much data and future forecasting as possible in Things You Must Do Before Making Your Creative Project.

So I had to get a cut of the film done. This would then hopefully inspire an investor to deliver the rest of the financing needed. I ended up having to cut most the film on my own. This was terribly difficult, but in the end, empowered me again to control the destiny of the film. Because of this, I was able to tweak the edit all the way until delivery. But, that first cut got us our finishing funds.

Over the course of prep and production, I had some interest from mentors, who I had been sharing the film and my doings with along the way. One of these folks introduced me to big private tech money. They saw the cut, which, let me remind you was without VFX, SFX, music, color… It was over two hours long… But they invested, and the money had no strings attached and my company still owned everything.

In my financing pitch, I made the case that this type of story was missing from the marketplace and that it captured the spirit of a generation who could change the world from their bedrooms. My hypothesis was confirmed when Mr. Robot became a hit TV show right as our film went into production. Instead of trying to sell some “old folks” on my crazy ass story, I sold the bigger societal movement, the “trend” behind the film.

Why did they invest? Mostly, they invested in me. I’ve since heard this a million times about entrepreneurs and start-up founders. The same thing applies. Private money invests in you. Institutional money, invests in your business or your assets.

Another big lesson I learned in this process was that, despite some ill advised actions on my part, it was my continual perseverance and aim for excellence that saved the project and made it what it is today. My persistence and belief are the things that were necessary. I think, no matter how gracefully you plan and finance your creative endeavors, you will need these qualities to succeed.

 

HOW I WILL DO IT NEXT TIME

At the moment (7/11/18) we’ve made most of the film’s budget back in foreign sales and cable deals. The icing on the cake, (my portion), will come from the digital VOD sales and merchandising. But the main ROI I will gain is the countless doors that have opened for my creative career. And not just in the movie industry either. From the new business acumen and connections I’ve gained along the way, I’ve encountered several other creative business opportunities which I would not have gained otherwise. People know what I’ve done, and they have confidence in me.

My next film project will be financed more traditionally. I want the support, I want the baked in distribution. But what has this process given me? I now have a huge advantage over other filmmakers who simply are creative “guns for hire.” Why? Because the money people can’t push me around because I probably know their game as well as they do. I’ve been in the nitty gritty of film finance. I know both tricks of the trade, and tricks of the maverick. I have the knowledge, the acumen to be a major player in the entire process. I offer so much more. This experience has empowered me to do just that.


How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms

Part IV “The Making of the Thing: Prep”

IV: 4 Massive Preproduction Lessons

How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms

Part IV 

“The Making of the Thing: Preproduction”


This is the fourth article of a multi-part series dedicated to the genesis and creation of the independent feature sci-fi film Mad Genius. It is both a personal expose as well as educational article series with the intention of sharing creative business lessons through the transparent obstacles and successes of the project.

 

“Now that we had the money, all we had to do was make the thing.”

But wait. There’s a lot of prep before you press the shutter right? Correct! This article is an anecdotal highlight of the preproduction process for MAD GENIUS. I hope it both entertains and informs you for your own creative endeavors. So, what is this article specifically covering you ask?

-Lessons on Concept Development
-Lessons on Team Building
-Lessons on Casting
-Lessons on Stylistic Choices

 

CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT

To give you a full retrospective, I’ve published the very first draft of the Mad Genius script and the final shooting draft for free. You can then compare those screenplays to the final movie if you desire. You’ll see some insanely big changes between the three. I think there’s tons of lessons in that exercise for the dedicated readers. So, what was the most important lesson I learned between the first, the last, and the picture lock versions of this story?

Filmmaking is STRUCTURE. All creative works are STRUCTURE.

The first draft is your most creative. But you need to have the artistic structure nailed BEFORE you jump into it.

Did I just say that? Me, the effusive cheerleader of all mavericks and rebels? I did. Let me tell you why.

As artists, we chose our respective creative fields to buck structure didn’t we? We didn’t want the 9-5. We didn’t want the cubicle. We didn’t want anyone telling us what to do. Put us in a box? No way!

But, as a creative entrepreneur, who’s job it is to connect our artistic creations with audiences out in the real world, we must relate our creative ideas in forms that are FRESH… BUT FAMILIAR.

What is Structure exactly? It sounds like a box. Or a negative to us creatives. But really, Structure, is a metaphor for the overall experience of a creative work. Filmmaking is inherently structure. Because without structure, it is simply a scattering of images and sound combined together. The over arching story structure is what gives a film it’s purpose. It’s emotional connection and relationship to the viewer. The structure of sounds and images, is the story.

The first draft of a screenplay can be like throwing paint at a canvas. And though brilliant, aspiring, intuitive and inventive, it’s easy to write oneself into corners and lose the thematic arch that gives the film meaning to begin with. Especially if it’s one of your first screenplays, your craft is often aspirational, yet often sloppy. Fabled “Story” author Robert McKee suggests one must learn the archetypical structures first, to then know how to defy or break them properly. I whole heatedly agree.

So, I repeat, create the most incredible CREATIVE STRUCTURE you can, in concept, mind map, note card, or outline format first. Then write or create that first draft boiling with fresh creative juices and see your creative endeavor soar.

Here are the best guides to storytelling and screenwriting structure out there:

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by the fabeled Joseph Campbell

Story by the legendary Robert McKee

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

The Mad Genius Example:

My first draft of Mad Genius was insanely creative. But it lacked the story structure required to hold its readers. It lacked the structural oomph that made people say, “Wow…”

I rewrote the screenplay 36 times. Each time honing and re-conforming the structure. Creativity was what I had, structure was what I needed. I ended coming up with the novel idea of giving the two main characters opposing arcs. As they are two sides of the same person, I realized I could create a structure where their arcs actually CROSS in the center of the film, and for which, I give myself a pat on the back.

After achieving a structure I felt was novel, yet archetypal (fresh but familiar) we had a film to make. Though you will see the final version of MAD GENIUS utilizes several experimental story structures, the over arching structure mimics the classic Hero’s Journey from Joseph Campbell’s Hero with 1000 Faces almost exactly.

 

TEAM BUILDING

Team building might seem like an obvious endeavor… But here are the elements I utilized to build an insanely mad genius team of mad geniuses, from cast, to crew, to accounting, many of who worked on MAD GENIUS at 25% (or less) of their usual rates. The team was entirely built from people I had previously worked with, or recommendations by my closest collaborators.

I started small

I began my career on my own merits, gaining the necessary experience to lead others. I worked as a production assistant. Assistant camera. Assistant editor. My first award winning professional film was made with three crew people.

I built my portfolio

I spent years honing my craft and building my portfolio. Both for my own knowledge, but more importantly to give others confidence in me.

I always do what I say I am going to do

I can’t stress how important this is for a creative entrepreneur. There are countless brilliant, creative, talented people out there. But a trait that separates the pros from the wannabe’s are these simple traits; Persistence and Delivery. I always do what I say I am going to do. Whether it’s be on time to every meeting, getting the team a coffee, or delivering a $100,000 commercial. From day one, I began with the ethos of always doing what I say I am going to do. I always do. The few times I come up short, I apologize and transparently reconcile with any other parties involved.

Because I made the choice to make this movie no matter what, when I talked to potential creative collaborators I came on strong. Instead of saying, “I want to do XYZ…” It means nothing. Instead, the way I approached people was by saying “I am going to do this thing, no matter what, and I’d love to have you join me.” Everyone said yes.

I not only share the vision, I try to find some “extra credit” thing I can do, or offer

If you read the previous article about how I financed the movie, you’ll have seen that I spent two weeks creating an insanely cool pitch video. For me, it wasn’t enough to have a cool script and my commercial reel to entice people to Mad Genius. I wanted a pitch video that people couldn’t say no to.

I transparently tell people what the financial situation is

When you have very little money, this is particularly important. But I continue this trait even when I’m contracting for the million dollar production companies that I work with. Most people want fairness. That’s all. When people know what the financial situation is, transparently, and they see they are getting a fair deal in comparison to others, they will lift mountains with you. If they think you are hiding something or trying to cut their pay to the lowest common denominator, they will give you just what you asked for.

All of this builds trust and powerful working relationships

By performing all of these elements, I have become someone that people are happy to recommend. Happy to connect. Happy to put their reputation on the line, because they are confident that I, will in turn, increase their reputation by my work. Trust is the most valuable element you can have in any relationship. Build trust with everyone, starting with day one, and you will find yourself working amongst amazing people.

 

GET SOME DOPE MAD GENIUS MERCH!

 

CASTING

I ended up with an incredible cast, considering the $5 I had to pay everyone. How did I do it?

  1. I made the investment into a great Casting Director
  2. I empowered my Casting Director
  3. I did all the other things mentioned above
  4. I wrote a unique script

The first, and best initial investment I made with the movie’s funds was to hire amazing casting director, Tineka Becker. Tineka had just worked on the X-Men Apocalypse movie. How in the hell did I get her to work on my non-existent movie at that point?

  1. I had a decent reel as a commercial director. This made her feel good about reaching out to talent and agents, that I could get the job done.
  2. She loved my crazy ass script.
  3. I spent two weeks creating a 3 minute pitch video from stock footage. I wish I could show it here, but I don’t own the rights to the footage. But essentially it was a pitch of the film and the style.
  4. I had enough money of my own to guarantee paying the actors according to the SAG ULB contract, even if it meant I had to shoot the movie on my cell phone.

In the movie business, cast is everything. The reason you hear about these massive salaries for actors is that they often are the reason a film gets the “green light.” So, I knew my business well enough to know I needed a great cast to get more money. It all started with the investment in Tineka and the pitch materials. We started getting all these amazing people attached, Spencer Locke, Scott Mechlowicz, Faran Tahir, Brandon Scott, Tehmina Sunny, and soon to be star Chris Mason.

I asked Tineka, “How are we getting these incredible people, for almost no money?” She laughed and replied, “It’s because of your reel, pitch video, and mostly the script. Most actors have to read bad scripts. Mad Genius is something cool and unique.”

 

STYLE CHOICES

MAKE SUPER F*CKING UNIQUE BUT MOTIVATED STYLISTIC CHOICES.

There. That’s it. Do that.

Why? Because you have to stand out in today’s world. There’s no more being “sort of good” or “good but it’s been done before.” I struggle with this constantly with my commercial reel. It’s good, but it’s not incredible. There are 50 other people out there with the same stuff. MAD GENIUS on the other hand is totally unique to me. It is a true “calling card.” As modern creatives, we have to break out of the noise! We’ve got to be that special thing that is fresh but familiar. You will live and die by your unique vision.

So, what conscious choices did I implement to make MAD GENIUS stylistically special?

If you are making a film, ask yourself one question; “How can our stylistic choices be motivated from the essence of the story or character themselves?” As a director, I try to give my mad genius collaborators the vision, the motivation, and then let them create. Then we shape, shape, shape. For me, the stylistic aesthetic of the film came down to one word; “Tactile.”

“The Protagonist’s Window”

The first thing you might notice is our super wide aspect ratio. Why is that there? It is because the main character of the film sees the world broadly (wide) but also selfishly (narrow). The defining visual element of the film, it’s “window” is motivated directly from the main character. We achieved the look by shooting vintage Japanese anamorphic lenses on a 16:9 Arriflex Alexa classic digital sensor. This stretched the image to a 3.1 ratio, which is insanely wide. The final film ratio is 2047 x 742 which is a 2.7 ratio or that of the classic spaghetti westerns.

“The uberGritty Locations”

I first ventured to the warehouse district of downtown LA for a commercial location scout. It was incredible to me. I had never seen a place like it. Even having traveled in the slums of South America did not compare to Skid Row Los Angeles. It was horrifically beautifully ugly. Apocalyptic. I knew this was the place to tell the story of MAD GENIUS because there was an irony there. Apocalyptic conditions, yet infused with some the most compelling artists and makers in LA. I was lucky enough to connect with Jared Tate Johnson, an infamous production and interior designer who lived in the warehouse scene. I actually moved into his artist commune to make the film. Of course we shot there, but Jared was also instrumental in showing me other secret spaces available in downtown LA.

“The Colored Lights”

I always envisioned MAD GENIUS to be like a secret graphic novel, hidden on the bottom shelves of the comic book store that aimed to unlock the viewer’s imagination, thrill them, entertain them, and possibly open their to think about the world in a different way. I wanted to make a hyper-real world, that seemed like modern day reality with a twist. With my tiny budget, I had one way to do this. Colored lights. Not only did we use as many practical lights in every shot that we could, we light the scenes themselves with colors. Lars Lindstrom our DP and Ian Holiday our gaffer, were incredibly instrumental in creating this world. We lit the main location with seven different color schemes throughout the film. The location was able to take on its own life through the lighting design.

“The Cyber Tech”

MAD GENIUS is inherently cyberpunk, and that was my motivation for the tech. Many stories have influencedMad Genius, but none more so than William Gibson’s incredible novel, Neuromancer. Like his world, I wanted our world to feel real, gritty, hand made and hand welded together. Every bit of future-tech needed to feel like it was made yesterday. Production Designer, Jared Tate Johnson was our mad genius in residence who often hand created each piece.

Many people mention their astonishment at the level of VFX we were able to accomplish for such a small budget. And though we could have followed the current fades of high gloss UI, I chose to make the screens filled with code, not graphic interfaces. Again, this came from highly pre-planned sequencing, as well as original thought. I had a vision in my head of how the two main characters would begin “ripping apart” later in the film. In my search for source material, I came across photographer/coders who were doing just that through a technique known as “pixel sorting.” The VFX team and I began concepting an original effect based off this idea. Chris Ervin and Dustin Montierth were the mad geniuses behind our incredible VFX.

“The Retro-Future Wardrobe”

Again, the film is an image to the cyberpunk genre, which often combines elements of both retro and ultra-futuristic hybrids. I wanted things tactile, not too far out, but extremely unique and fun. The characters are almost comic book characters, or caricatures, and I wanted to reflect that in the wardrobe. I was able to bring on amazing LA designer Matthew Mathiasen to do just that.

“The Sounds”

David Fincher’s collaboration with Trent Reznor was our inspiration. Through and through. The sounds they’ve made for their collaborations are tactile. Like you can feel the sound waves as if they were metal. That’s what I wanted. It fit our visual aesthetics perfectly. Larry Granite and his team at Think Up Anger were the instrumental madmen behind the music composition. Studio Unknown led by Matt Davies made the SFX sounds that felt more real than real!


How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms

Part V “The Making of the Thing: Production”

V: 5 Lessons for Production

How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms

Part V 

“The Making of the Thing: Production”


This is the fourth article of a multi-part series dedicated to the genesis and creation of the independent feature sci-fi film Mad Genius. It is both a personal expose as well as educational article series with the intention of sharing creative business lessons through the transparent obstacles and successes of the project.

 

The making of MAD GENIUS has been a journey much like the plot of the film itself, which is about a bio-hacking misfit who is trying to save the world from his garage… It is something hand made and hacked together to create a piece far greater than the sum of its parts…. Jared Tate Johnson, Roxy Shih our producers, and I brought together an incredible team of makers, artists and film nerds who were down to test out my ambitious vision. The team was incredible. We shot for 15 days total, a three week sprint capturing 112 pages of script. Along the way, we encountered real life bio-hackers, homeless instigators, police, firemen, and a gang of roaming saxophone players.

Like most ambitious “ultra low budget” independent films, the “making of,” was a journey of massive obstacles overcome by the sheer willpower of all the creators involved, as well as their loved ones who self-lessly provided emotional therapy and a few high fives. Blood, sweat, tears, hot glue, duct tape, and spray paint went into making of this film which was literally lived by those who made it. True hackers, artists, and culture jammers. Through their efforts this little movie has had a very powerful journey to reach you… and on behalf of its creators, we are so incredibly excited to share it with you and the world on July 3rd, 2018. Below is a series lessons that helped bring it to fruition.

Here is a breakdown of some practical production lessons you can apply to your own creative projects;

– Creative Leadership
– Getting the Best from Collaborators
– Getting the Best from Talent
– Set Process
– Production Planning

Creative Leadership

For those of you who do not know, independent film production is a highly intensive, perfectionist sprint for a short duration of time, 10-40 days, to pull off an incredible amount of content that must be captured at the highest potential of what it can be. There aren’t second chances. Especially on a film like MAD GENIUS where there was literally zero budget to do any re-shooting or have any safety of margin. Now you can say from a business perspective that is very foolish to not have contingency. But based off of my dedication to this project I knew if I had to end up doing a re-shoot in some capacity somewhere somehow I would do it.

So how does one overcome these overwhelming odds? It’s all about preparation, and showing your team that you will be the leader who both leads with a firm hand, yet a just heart. Why do I say this? Because any creative project, becomes a family of sorts, and you are its father and mother. When your team feels this from you, they will be caught up in the creative current, and move mountains. When you hear of crews becoming “jaded,” this comes from the producers and directors leading these people with a firm hand only. Putting your crew through hell, without understanding or praise develops resentment and will wear away at your ultimate vision. Know the name of every crew member. Make them feel apart of a team, not a machine. As the visionary, it is your primary job to bring your team into the vision and have them take over your vision and run with it. Then when the inevitable time comes later to ask favors of people because you’re out of money, out of time, they’re more willing to help you. My teams go to the end of the earth for me, because I show them a vision worth attaining, and then guide with a just and fair heart. Because without them, I know I am nothing.

Getting the Best from Collaborators

Let your creative magicians do their magic. But always be close by, as the shepherd.

I let every single collaborator of MAD GENIUS take my vision and make it better. Micromanagement kills creativity. Often times young, novice, or bad directors give too much direction to people who know far more about their specific discipline than the director will ever know. If you’re having to micromanage, you hired the wrong people, and it’s time to look at making an adjustment to the team.

Conversely, hands-off management shows your team that you are not there to support them, and you do not care enough about creating something fantastic. As the leader you are the visionary, but equally important you are the support system. You are there to help guide them towards your ultimate vision, but give them the room to creatively explore and surprise you in amazing ways.

Yes, it can be true that when you give creative people a vision, they might run with it in the wrong direction. That’s why you need to check in early and often, to see what’s going down, as they may have taken the wrong steps and you need to curtail it. What I do, is put check-in times with every creative department into my calendar.  I assure them that I don’t expect anything to be perfect, because I know that they are creative, and they don’t like to show things early. But I want to see it early, because I want to help guide things.

A specific example of this on MAD GENIUS was Jared Tate Johnson‘s hand made weapon that he created for the character Eden. In the script this device was more like a gun, but Jared had a different vision. As he is a renowned body jewelry artist, I decided to let him run with his vision. What he came up with was a melted down, hacked together version of a robot hand phaser, yet its functionality for the actor was paramount. It became like an appendage, of this evil man, versus a tool. It was nothing like I imagined in the script.

Yet another example was working with Scott Mechlowicz, the renowned actor from Mean Creek and other great films. Scott is more of a fluid actor would would bring improvisation to his scenes. Sometimes I needed him to just deliver the expositional lines, but in the moments where I was able to let him run with things I would, because occasionally he would come up with brilliance. Sometimes these would hit, others not so much. But it was this process which led us to one of the best moments in the film, Scott’s improvised “this is God” speech, which ended up intercutting brilliantly with a montage of action.

MAD SWAG!

 

GETTING THE BEST FROM TALENT

One of the big areas that first time directors stress over is working with actors. Especially if it’s a big name actor. I always harken back to an early acting coach when she said, “Actors want to act.” Remember this anecdote, as both a symbol of cutting through the bullshit, that actors love to do their job, and the other side of the same coin is some actors like to act (out) in real life as well.

Also, remember that, as applies to every other employee you’ll hire, 80% of directing his casting. Despite what your film school told you, or the books you’ve read, or the stories you’ve heard, you will largely be unable to control what your actor does on set. When it comes to the day of the shoot, the actor brings what they bring.  Of course, you’ve heard of masterful directors manipulating actors into moments of truth, but the real truth is, you’re very very unlikely to bring out anything from an actor that they are not already bringing themselves. You’ll be able to tweak performance and guide your actor. But do not think that they are simply a paintbrush in your pallet that you will be able to control and manipulate of your own accord. If you’ve done your prep work and your casting correctly you actually won’t need to do much on set to get them to cinema truth.

During your  prep, I suggest that you interrogate the actors as if they are the character. Don’t talk to them about the character, talk to them as if they were the character and interview them. Try to get under their skin. Get them to feel rather than think as if they are the character.

The key thing to know is that every actor is different. You must be the chameleon who works with all of them in their own unique ways. You’ll be friends, father figure, mother figure, police man, and a variety of other archetypes as you deal with each individual and their personal style. Ultimately, treat your actors as fellow collaborators just as you would a crew member. Actors need interaction. That’s WHY they do this. Ultimately, the act to connect. To feel. Sometimes visually or “camera” inclined directors keep an arm’s-length relationship with actors. They forget their actors. You can see the results on screen. More than any “special” direction you can give an actor on set, get intimate with your actors, and know them deeply so that they learn to trust you as a person. Build a rapport with them and then create together.

During my time in Hollywood, I’ve learned first hand that even the biggest “name” actors, who appear all-powerful on screen, can in turn be the most fragile people I’ve ever met. I’m talking about a few mega mega movie stars I’ve met or befriended. The bottom line is every actor is different and you will need to work with them based on their unique personality, skill sets, and what they bring to the table.

I found that simple succinct questions or comments to the actors take them there. I was at a recent panel with the show runners of a massively popular and well made family drama TV series – and the show runners got asked, “What makes a bad director?” And their comment was “Directors who try to force the actors with too much information suggestion and demand.” I can speak to this truth from experience.

I’ll never forget the chance I had to shadow the incredible director Jon Amiel.  He was shooting this very dramatic scene, and he said the most elegant direction I’ve ever heard. One actor was playing well, but subtly, reserved. Jon didn’t say “Bring out the emotion! Make it bigger!” No, Jon traipsed over and whispered to the actor, “…Make this one about the pain. You’ve taken shit from these people all your life. Make it about the pain…” The next take gave me chills down my spine.

SET PROCESS

Make it simple. 

As a first time director you’ll be experiencing a very common moment of fear when you step that first step on set. You’ll look around. People will be buzzing about. You won’t have a thing to do. You’ll have done all this prep. You’ll have had 1000 prep conversations. You’ll have talked to everyone already. Everyone will know the vision etc. etc. But then you’ll be standing there and saying to yourself “What the hell am I doing here?” When you work with an amazing team you actually don’t have much to do in between scenes. Your primary task will be to answer questions. Your job, for once in life, is to actually be “in the moment.” Be present. Watch the action, the shot, and continually ask yourself, is it right?

Follow this simple set procedure: Rehearse. Block. Light. Shoot. Repeat.

In the rehearsal process, the actors will run their lines and then begin to play. To bring life to the scene, don’t pretend to have every detailed planned for them. Let them find their own marks, and let it come together organically. When you do offer an idea, make them feel like it was their idea, motivated by what they were doing. Because that will be what feels most natural and organic to your actors and therefore you will have that magic we called “cinema truth.” As you’re working the rehearsal, see if there are any lines you need to add or reduce to give the scene more life. And think ahead how can you create space, action, and story with your blocking. But again let the actors find it and give it life.

Also, be careful to leave rehearsal as a muted example of what’s to come. Don’t give any direction here other than blocking. Because I’ve seen actors unload an incredible performance that they’ve been thinking about for weeks, they’ve been building in their heads, they been building in their emotions, and they explode during a rehearsal… and then they never reach that peak again during the actual filming.

After the rehearsal, show the blocking to the crew. Then after the scene, discuss the shots based off of the final blocking. Often times, myself included, first time directors come with a very detailed shot list. And though that is pleasant for producers and can give them a feeling of “safety” it can become a bit of a laundry list for your team. And then you’re no longer working off of inspiration in the moment, from the energy of the actors, but instead a checklist, which can reduce levels of creativity. Of course it all depends on the film, and the scene, but you get the idea. So, have an idea of how you want to shoot an open ended scene when you get there, but don’t come in with fully preconceived notions because then you might lose some magic that comes during the rehearsal. Don’t force your actors into things let them find it, take it there, and they will deliver in spades. Then once you’ve covered your scene, save the special shot for last.

If you’re doing your job well as a director,  you’ll feel a bit unnecessary. But that is because you’ve unlocked the incredible creative power of your team.

PRODUCTION PLANNING

A thought that I would offer to all creators is make sure to give yourself more time than you think you need. Everything will take twice as long and potentially be twice as hard as you anticipated. Somethings will be easier, but some unexpected little thing will become a big challenge. A simple line in the script could turn into a massive set up. For example, our first scene was a simplistic bit of action. “Zip falls out of the shopping cart in a garbage bag.” That was the single script line that took us a whole roll of garbage bags, a stunt coordinator, multiple rehearsals, and tons of time. Plan accordingly.

A ridiculous example comes from our final day of shooting. Essentially we were finishing out the shoot on the 15th day. The morning went smoothly and our final location was on a Saturday at Elysian Park set above downtown Los Angeles and we were shooting in the afternoon till dusk we were ahead of schedule things were going well the team was in good spirits and we’re headed up to the mountain side as we get there I get out of the car and I noticed a limousine I look down the road towards our set and I see a group of about eight saxophone players my first assistant director approached me and said the city has double booked the location there are a series of Live music events all around the city as part of the LA orchestra and they are doing live events this location is scheduled to have people come and the saxophone players play every 15 minutes. Of course it’s a Saturday in the city is closed and we cannot get anyone on the phone and essentially when we do they tell us to just work together. Now what was once a simple shoot with plenty of time became a race against time as we were forced to stop every 15 minutes for a five-minute interlude of saxophone players in the middle of our set. I am not kidding.


How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms

Part VI “Lessons for Post Production”

Coming Soon

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