1. Define success. If I was allowed a single piece of advice it would be define success. If you define success on your film as having made the very best film you can make and if nothing more happens, you are successful. If you define success as making a film, getting into Sundance and having the film picked up by Lionsgate, with a wide release, odds are you are going to be very disappointed. Probably so disappointed you’ll leave the business. This industry is littered with the bodies of the wishful, unrealistic autuers, that defined success by some fantasy.
2. Give 110% to your project. Do your best work no matter how large or small the project or job might be. If you don’t want to give 110%, don’t bother accepting the job or starting your project. No one is going to give their all if you don’t and more importantly, you never know who will see or what might come of a seemingly, “throw away” project.
3. Get Liability and Workman’s Comp insurance. It’s not that expensive and I think every filmmaker’s responsibility is to protect their crew and their locations. One of the first things I hear from no or low budget filmmakers are that they can’t afford insurance. If you can’t afford insurance, you have no business making films. Even if you live in your parents basement and have no assets, it unconscionable not to cover the health of people who believe in you and your vision and are working for free or next to nothing. Just because you are making “art” doesn’t give you the right to have little or no regard for those that are helping you. Go into banking if that’s how you feel. If one of your crew slips and breaks their ankle on the set, they may not work again for months. It’s your responsibility to take care of him or her. It’s that’s simple and it’s my number one rule only because it’s the first thing filmmakers’ tend to skip to cut corners.
4. Get an entertainment lawyer. Why is it that some filmmakers think that insurance and legal advice are too expensive to afford? There is this misconception that it will blow up their budget, but not having either one of these things can easily cost you a quality distributable picture. Even if cousin Lenny the real estate attorney is willing to write your contracts and help you out, hire an entertainment attorney to check cousin Lenny’s work. It could well be the most important fees you’ll spend. Missing one little thing can derail your distribution deal. You’ll need to have a proper “rights bible” and this is where it starts.
5. Don’t take any shit from anyone. You will work with people that know a lot more about what they do or even what you’re doing then you do. And that’s good. However, when they say things like, “I’m going to do this and you’ll thank me later,” when your instructions were otherwise, its time to be a DIRECTOR. Be a mountain, be a lion, and lead. They don’t do what you want, and their gone. You’ll never have a problem again.
6. Be completely open to suggestions and ideas. Sounds simple, but it isn’t. This applies to before, during and after the principle photography has been done, right up though to the very end. If you get input early, they’ll be less needed later. Ultimately, it’s your call on any suggestion, and if it’s a great idea, you’ll get all the credit anyway. Really.
7. Feed your crew well and throw them a bone. Cold pizza or McDonald’s doesn’t work. One of the greatest signs of respect you can show your hardworking crew is by feeding them well. Do whatever you can to make sure they have good hot food for all meals and decent craft services. Whether it is a low budget or no budget film your crew will break their backs for you if you show this little sign of respect. Crew members will take a pay cut if they get to do a job that is a step or two higher than they usually get. Many are more than qualified, but rarely get the chance, so, for the opportunity and credit many crew members will take a pay cut for this privilege.
8. Finish it. Nothing makes for harder feelings from your cast, crew, or financiers as a filmmaker that doesn’t finish his film. Don’t start it what you can’t finish. And by that I mean on your own. If you’re waiting for the distributor to help you finish your film, you’ll wait forever. Budget properly and don’t start if you don’t have all the money. Good people won’t sign or bail after you’ve started as soon as they figure out you don’t have enough money to get the job done.
9. Know where you’re going script wise and have something to say. Sounds ridiculously simple, but you wouldn’t believe how many filmmakers attempt to make a film about nothing. What separates you from all of the noise out there as a new filmmaker is having something to say in a broader sense, a voice that should be heard. More importantly, great actors and crew will come on board for a project that is special, low budget or not.
10. Pre-block for action. Pre-block for camera. Now that you’ve got your script, pre block for action (actors movement) and pre block for camera (where the camera stands and moves). Pre-blocking for camera and action and making a shot list is one of the most important things you can do to make sure you have a successful shoot. Whether it’s a no budget, low budget or larger budget shoot, blocking and shot lists are essential for good communication between the director and his department heads, efficient shooting, and maybe more importantly, staving off potential disasters that could derail or kill your shoot. Pre-blocking and floor plans are one of the simplest, most misunderstood, and disregarded of the preproduction process.
11. Get the best actors your money can buy. And rehearse them. Just because your buddy Leonard is a really funny guy and has done some community theater doesn’t mean he should be in your film. Why is that new filmmakers think that hiring actors is one area you can cut back on? Acting is a profession! It is a craft! There’s a union that will work with you. There are myriad of great actors that will work for very little and be a part of your film because they think it should be made. On several pictures I’ve made, cast and crew took HUGE pay cuts to work on the film. They believed in me and the project. I also, rehearsed the main actors of both of my scripted films. For The Second Room, Richard and I rehearsed the whole film a week in advance as if it were a play because it’s largely a monologue. That way we just set up and shot to save time. Very little direction for him on the set. For Along for the Ride, I was using extremely in demand actors and knew rehearsal would be difficult, so what I did was rehearse the first few scenes at the costume fitting that we were going to be shot first. I knew after that we would all be on the same page.
12. Get the best DP your money can buy. The Director of Photography or Cinematographer is one of the most important pieces to making your film successful. It’s critical that your film look as good as possible. The guy who shot some cable access commercials should probably not be your first choice. A lot of people can run a camera, but what you need is someone that can light your film properly and help you visualize it. Crappy out of focus footage can not be fixed in post production, plain and simple. If your DP is an amateur, your film will be as well.
13. Get the best sound crew your money can buy. Good sound is critical. I SAID GOOD SOUND IS CRITICAL. Bad sound can be the death nell of a picture, just like out of focus shots. If some of your sound isn’t perfect, new post production sound software can help, but it goes only so far. You can’t repair bad sound except to record it again and that is expensive, something you can not afford.
14. Toss in a few oners. I love the oner. A oner is when the camera sits in one stationary spot and the blocking of the actors covers various shots such as wide, medium, CU without the camera moving from it’s set position. It is one setup for the whole scene or sequence. Oners are old school, but can be very effective and dramatic. They were widely utilized by B movie and film noir directors. The reason I like them so much is that if you are on a short schedule, and you will be, a oner is a great way to film the action in an elegant way and still save valuable time for more intricate set ups. You can even pick up the pace of shooting by using oners. Two takes and you’re done. I built in two oners on ALONG FOR THE RIDE and they worked great. Here’s two scenes, number 31 and 25 from ALONG FOR THE RIDE.
15. Have a back up plan for the crew. If you have an experienced and professional crew, which you will, and they are working for very little, one or two of them may leave for a better paying job. And rightfully so. My dolly grip left Along for the Ride halfway through filming to work on a big budget studio picture starring Jim Carrey. Discuss this with your department heads in advance so that you will know who can move up into their place or who to call to fill in the gap quickly.