How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms
“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
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.
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.
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.
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”