Everything I Learned as a First-time Filmmaker

Production on my first film wrapped nearly 3 months ago, and it’s taken me this long to sit down and reflect and put into words how it all felt. Not a necessary ritual of course, but it’s how I process things. The swirl of emotion isn’t as raw all these weeks later, but strange things stand out about that day. Like the vibrant colors of the autumn leaves and the rain that waited until the exact moment we packed up to leave our final location. My husband stuffing my pockets with heat packs to then give to our freezing actors. Uttering the words “that’s a wrap,” something my crew had to prompt me to do because the rookie director forgot.

I’m writing this from my favorite cafe in Topanga Canyon. The last time I came here to write, I was knees deep in pre-production, sifting through dozens of emails from prospective assistant directors and lighting techs. I wish I could go back in time for one minute to assure myself that everything would work out better than we ever dreamed it would. But that’s all part of the journey, isn’t it? Venturing into the unknown and all of the anxiety and self-soothing by way of chardonnay that comes with it.

I didn’t go to film school. I studied business and have maneuvered my way around an endless list of corporations over the past two decades. I didn’t know the first thing about producing or directing, but I do know what hard works looks like. I know how to listen and collaborate with people and be completely open to failing. I know what it’s like to work long hours, manage large-scale projects and stay within budget. So I suppose my day job prepared me for the hustle that’s required in indie filmmaking. But I never could have prepared for what the experience would actually feel like. Film school or not, you kind of have to jump in and absorb all the learnings you can. Sink or swim, as they say.

Whether you’re a first-timer like me, or you’ve been at it for a while, here’s my list of personal anecdotes I hope are helpful to someone out there, just as all the hundreds of film blogs and articles I devoured were for me.

Do it yourself. To quote writer/director/producer Paul Haggis, “Please don’t ask me to read your script; what’s important is that YOU believe in it.” I wrote, produced, directed, self-funded and co-casted my film (on top of maintaining my day job) and while I’ve never worked so fucking hard in all my existence, I’m proud to say I made it happen. You don’t need to wait until someone else believes in your project. Get out there and get it done.

Invest in a talented crew. If you’re indie, your budget is undoubtedly tight. I feel you. But, as our brilliant cinematographer reinforced, the only way to successfully make your days is to invest in your team. If you have friends and family who work in film who are open to joining your crew, all the better! That was the case for me and I am forever grateful.

Leverage your personal network. Per above, I was fortunate to fill some of the spots on my crew with friends and family. But remember, not all roles require a background in film. My husband and dad were exceptional PAs/pedestrian traffic facilitators. My mom catered craft services. All of our background actors were friends and family. A friend designed our storyboards while another — who has a background in entertainment — helped me hold auditions and source our cast. More friends helped set up and tear down our set. It takes a god damn village, so don’t be afraid to ask for some help.

Ask questions and be vulnerable. Again, leaning on my personal network, I set up informational meetings with friends of friends who worked in film and production and made no secret of my lack of experience. Don’t be afraid to ask what may seem like basic questions. Be prepared and be mindful of people’s time. And say thank you!

Communicate your vision clearly. I can’t stress the value of over-preparing enough. Create your shot lists well in advance and get feedback from your DP and your editor. Speak simply and succinctly when rehearsing a scene. Provide crystal clear feedback to your actors and balance your feedback with praise, pointing out everything that worked. Film sets are no place for the longwinded, and thankfully, that is not a verbal ailment I suffer from.

Be open to feedback and pivoting. The one thing you can count on in filmmaking is last minute changes. Things will shift to accommodate timing or logistics or a million other constraints you may be facing. We shot in a tiny 16×20 storefront for 2 full days, so I know what I’m talking about. Be fluid and be open, as sometimes an unexpected pivot can lead to a better outcome.

Theater actors make great film actors. This life-changing advice came from a few different sources. One, writer/director Sean Baker, who suggested tapping in to the theater community to source your cast during a Film Independent panel discussion. A few months later, an actor and friend of a friend (thank you personal network!) suggested the same thing, specifically a theater program in Vancouver where I sourced three of our actors.

Most of all, be present. Those 14-hour days go by quickly so try and take a moment to really absorb what’s happening. I’ll quote one more director, Greta Gerwig, who I saw speak while we were in pre-production and these words permeated my subconscious throughout production.

“You only get to not know what you’re doing once. Don’t miss it, because it’s incredibly powerful.”

img_3051img_3183img_3195img_3199img_3202img_3208img_3207

Follow along @thelasessions

Advertisements

Taking Direction from Great Directors

A little over a year ago, I was sitting in my usual perch leading up to the Academy Awards — the wine bar in my favorite LA theater – taking in all the nominated films, as any film geek does. As I was settling my bill a familiar face floated by, en route to a photo op before ducking into a closed event for directors (working and aspiring). It was Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild, Big Little Lies), my bartender confirmed, mispronouncing his name as only an American can.

I watched as film folks flooded the entrance to the theater, a steady stream of political graphic tees, unintentional fashion statements and tote bags with the quotes of great writers. A crass generalization but befitting of future storytellers. I admired them but never in a million years did I see myself among them. I’m much more comfortable lurking in the back of a dark bar or café awash in the glow of my laptop, trying to make sense of the stories that swirl in my head. Screenwriter, maybe. Director, no fucking way.

Then I wrote something that started out as a gift to a friend and morphed into a sweet little short that won some awards and suddenly hiding behind my laptop wasn’t enough. I’ve been to numerous live reads, lectures and film festivals and interviewed enough screenwriters to know that the chances of having your material made into a film are microscopic. If you want to get it made, in most cases, you have to figure out how to do it yourself.

This year, I registered for those director events. I met people who are just as terrified as I am to direct their first film. I mopped up as much creative energy, advice and inspiration as I could manage. I was reminded that every director was a first-time director at some point, as Greta Gerwig so aptly put it “you only get to not know what you’re doing once. Don’t miss it. Because it’s incredibly powerful.”

Some other helpful tips I picked up at Film Independent’s 2018 Directors Close-Up series:

  • Consider casting theater actors, particularly if you’re on an indie budget
  • When directing, have the actors envision something that will help strike the right emotion or reaction
  • If you’re shooting on location and intend to work with local talent (as I do), set up auditions via Skype or Google Hangout
  • Sometimes, for smaller parts particularly with children, consider casting amateurs
  • SoundCloud is an excellent resource for scoring your film, as it has a wealth of unsigned artists with original content
  • “Work with what the actors have. Find what they have in them and exploit it.” – Ava DuVernay

Without sounding too corny or rom-com (which is, ironically, the genre of my short) I always find the most bizarre signs present themselves when you need a little bit of cosmic encouragement to keep going.

Josh and Ben Safdie (Good Time) were panelists during one of the director events, and they were talking about sound mixing and used “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” by the Beatles as an example of isolating vocals. Lucy in the Sky is the working title of the feature I’m currently writing. The fuck.

Then one night after work, I ducked into this little Russian floral shop, not because I was in the market for flowers but because it was freezing and my Uber was taking forever. I’ve never seen so many red roses in my life (is that a Russian thing?), literally the only thing these crusty old guys were selling was roses. Save one single bucket full of white hydrangea, which is a reoccurring prop in my film. Okay, universe, I hear you.

IMG_7413.JPG

Follow along @thelasessions