As I’m working on the content of our upcoming workshops, I find myself reflecting on why so many small indie films fail – and by fail, I mean “aren’t very good at all”. Obviously no one has ever set out to make a bad film, not ever, and yet many, many people do. You see them all the time.
I’m not talking about matters of taste here, where some people think a movie is brilliant and others think it’s a waste of time. I’m talking about a large category of indie movies that are just “meh”. Might even be borderline unwatchable. These films are often made by first time directors, and I think a lot of their problems arise from a few simple errors that they made in the development and pre-production phase.
So, here’s a short list of a few mistakes I see made over and over, mistakes that will without doubt sink your film before you even start shooting:
1)The script isn’t very good – you have no chance of making a good film unless your script is good, it’s that simple. Now of course, good can be a very subjective thing, but here’s a few questions that you might ask yourself: 1) is the story moving? Is it going to affect people emotionally? Is it going to make them feel something? 2) Is it meaningful? Is it going to make people think? 3) Is it original? Or (and be honest) is it a copy of some movie or movies you love? 4) Is it well crafted? Is your dialogue nuanced, authentic, rich? Are you showing your story instead of telling? Film is a visual medium! Think in images, not just words. And finally, give it to others to read, not to stroke your ego but to get honest feedback. Pay attention to what they say. If everyone is coming back with the same criticism, it’s really worth considering.
2)The budget/schedule are over-ambitious – be honest about your resources and smart with how you will use them. I’ve seen more than one indie film that had a terrific script sink because they tried to do it on a budget that didn’t fit. The thing about filmmaking: it takes time. Now that we’re all trying to make features in 18 days (or sometimes less), we have to be honest about what is possible in that time. Two company moves in a day?! Nuts, don’t even think about it. You won’t have time to do justice your script. Don’t start shooting thinking “if we’re lucky we’ll get it.” Give yourself the best chance of success and make sure it’s easily doable.
3)The director decides to take on every job – yes, I know you have no money (welcome to indie filmmaking!) but that doesn’t mean you have to (or should) do everything. Yes, you will probably be producing. You might even be writing, if writing is your passion. But only do other jobs if you really could do the other jobs on other people’s films legitimately. Are you really good enough to be a cinematographer? An editor? An actor? Indeed, a writer? And if the answer is yes, that other ambitious filmmakers would hire you for that skill, then go for it, but for heaven’s sake, don’t try to teach yourself in a month how to use the latest digital camera and shoot your own film – there are brilliant DP’s out there who have dedicated YEARS of their lives to mastering their craft. Find one of them, inspire them with your brilliant script and vision, and your film will be a thousand times better for it. Trust me.
4)The casting is cynical – instead of hiring the best actor for the job, you hire the one who you think will bring the most attention/validation to the project. The absurdity of this is that this actor is not only not right, he or she is often not even meaningfully adding value in a true way. Sure, they had a part in some TV show ten years ago or a bit part in a big blockbuster, but trust me, no audience member is seeking out movies because of this minorly lauded actor (no offense to those actors!). There are some stars who truly do bring value to a film, but reality is you are probably not going to get them for your first feature (unless you have a very decent budget, renowned producers, or your script won a bunch of top awards, etc). So focus instead on finding talented actors who are truly right for the parts, and totally committed to boot. The right cast will help your movie sing, the wrong cast will doom it from the start.
5)You don’t tech scout – or if you do, you do it at the wrong time (ie not the time/day you’re going to shoot) or you do tech scout but decided not to listen to your sound guy and other crew about their concerns. Here’s the deal, a location might seem perfect, but if you’ve got a dialogue heavy scene and you’re next to a busy bus route, it’s not perfect! You either have to find a different location or rethink the scene you are going to shoot there. Take the time before the shoot to visit, revisit and really get to know the locations that you are going to use. Learn the sound rhythms of the place, learn how the light falls and changes. Not only will this save you masses of time, it might well save your movie.
6)Great camera package, but no budget for production design – it doesn’t matter what fancy camera you use, if what you put in front the camera is ugly, it will look ugly. Get a cheaper camera and spend money on the interiors that you are going to shoot in, and I swear your film will benefit from it. Take time to really think about the color palette of your film. Too often low budget indies are shot in friends’ homes with little thought or care about the palettes of the interiors and they suffer for it.
There’s no doubt that with rigorous and thoughtful planning, you give yourself the best chance of making a good film. Of course, things can still go wrong in the shoot, or in post, or with your distribution plans (or lack thereof) – but unless you plan well and plan smart, your film could be doomed before you even get there. I’m curious if you have made any mistakes mentioned here, or made other ones? Or noticed any other common ones? Please add in the comments, and help other filmmakers make better films!