How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms
“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
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 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.
I ended up with an incredible cast, considering the $5 I had to pay everyone. How did I do it?
- I made the investment into a great Casting Director
- I empowered my Casting Director
- I did all the other things mentioned above
- 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?
- 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.
- She loved my crazy ass script.
- 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.
- 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.”
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.
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